The Papacy


1. Why do Catholics believe Peter was the first pope?

Because the Bible teaches it and the historical record confirms it. But let's just use the Bible for now -- in Matthew 16:18-19 Jesus said to Peter, "I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." Four things in this passage prove that Peter was the first pope and leader of the Church: one, he is given the name "Peter," which means Rock, a foundation-word; that shows that he is the principal Apostle in the Church and the foundation of it. Second, Jesus explicitly states, "upon this rock I will build my Church," which proves the same thing. Third, he is given "the keys of the kingdom of heaven" which equals "the authority over the Church." Keys are an ancient symbol for authority and every good commentator knows that (see Isaiah 22:22, Rev. 9:1, Rev. 20:1, Rev. 3:7). Fourth, Jesus tells him, "Whatsoever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatsoever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven," which is obvious proof that Peter was infallible in matters of faith and morals, with universal authority "bound in heaven" over those "on earth" -- that's nothing short of the papacy.

2. Matt. 16:18 has Petros, a pebble, for Peter's name, and petra, a massive rock, to build the Church on.

First, Petros does not mean a pebble, it means the same thing as petra. Attic Greek had a different meaning for the two words, but the Bible wasn't written in Attic Greek, it was written in Koine Greek, where there is no difference between them in any of the other literature from this period. Second, a difference in name does not imply a disconnect between the two things being spoken of. Exodus 2:10 says, "And she called his name Moses [Mosheh in Hebrew]: and she said, Because I drew him out of the water [mashah in Hebrew]." Does anybody say, "Aha, look, Mosheh is different from mashah, so therefore it wasn't Moses who was drawn out of the water, it was someone else!" Of course not. A difference in name doesn't imply a disconnect between the two things being spoken of. On the contrary, the fact that two very similar words are used shows that a connection is being made. In Matthew 16:18, if Jesus had wanted to make a disconnect between a pebble and the true foundation of the Church, He could have chosen different words than Petros and petra. He could have used lithos or psephos, which were the real Greek words for small stones (see Matthew 4:3, Luke 22:41, Rev. 2:17). But He chose to use words which are so similar in sound as to imply a connection; and this is in keeping with the constant Jewish tradition on names, which in Scripture are followed by a play on words in Hebrew or Greek that tells us something about the person being named (Genesis 3:20, Gen. 4:25, Gen. 5:29, Gen. 11:9, etc. etc. etc.).

3. St. Paul said, "The rock was Christ." (1 Cor. 10:4)

Yes, but St. Paul wasn't speaking about that incident at all! He said that the Jews after the Exodus ate Manna from heaven and drank water from a rock -- "and the rock was Christ" (1 Cor. 10:4). To take that and say "therefore Peter couldn't be the foundation of the Church," is absolutely ridiculous, since it isn't even talking about who the foundation of the Church was, or any such thing. In fact, St. Paul knew that Peter was the rock of the Church, for in many places he calls him by that name: "James, Cephas, and John, who seemed to be pillars...gave to me and Barnabas the right hands of fellowship." (Galatians 2:9) Cephas is the Hebrew form of Peter and it means rock (John 1:42; see also 1 Cor. 1:12, 1 Cor. 3:22, 1 Cor. 9:5, and 1 Cor. 15:5). Here St. Paul uses that term because he is talking about Peter's foundational position in the Church; James, Peter, and John were especially foundational (Galatians 2:9), and among them especially Peter, as we know from other Scriptures -- for all the Apostles were foundational (Ephesians 2:20), but Peter most of all.

4. Jesus wouldn't entrust His Church to a fallible man.

He entrusted the Church to all the Apostles in Matthew 28:19-20, and they certainly weren't better than Peter. But you're assuming that they were fallible -- in reality, Christ gave them the gift of infallibility for those times when they needed it as leaders of the early Church, and it was given especially to St. Peter, from whom all the popes descend. In Matthew 18:18 all the Apostles were given infallibility in their capacity as leaders of the Church, and in Matthew 16:19 Peter was promised it in particular, because he was to be over the whole Church as one. So you're partly right -- Jesus wouldn't entrust His Church to a fallible man, not without ensuring that he was infallible when he needed to be, in order to keep the Church united in truth and good morals.

5. The Pope can't be infallible -- he's a sinner like everyone else.

He can be infallible and still be a sinner. The two aren't incompatible. Infallibility means that on certain occasions the Pope can teach the truth without the possibility of teaching in error; you don't need to be a perfect person for that, all it takes is a special protection from God on certain occasions so that you don't bind people to believe a thing that isn't true. In fact, in their personal life the Popes can commit sins, and they do. They need to repent of them when they do, just like everyone else, and go to confession, just like we do; but infallibility only means that when the Pope teaches the entire Church on a matter of faith and morals, speaking as leader of the Church and intending to make a final, authoritative decision, he is protected by God from speaking in error. That's all infallibility means, and the fact that he is a sinner doesn't change that.

6. The Pope can't be infallible -- only God is infallible.

The Bible says God has made the Pope infallible, as well as the bishops whenever they teach the Church in union with him. And it doesn't say only God is infallible -- being infallible means you are guaranteed to teach the truth, and while that is true of God, it's also true that God is omnipotent, and can share that infallibility with anyone He desires. Well, He has shown that He desires to make the Pope infallible on matters of faith and morals on certain occasions, and it's not beyond God's power to make that happen.

7. Why do Catholics believe Peter was supposed to pass on his leadership?

Because the Bible teaches it and common sense demands it. How is the Church supposed to continue without a leader, if it originally had one? You'd be depriving it of a principal element in its structure. You'd essentially be changing the Church, and a changed Church is a new Church, not the same one. But you will want to know what the Scripture says: Matthew 16:18 says that the Church's foundation is vested in Peter; well, if no one replaces him, and he dies, then the Church is left without a foundation, and it will crumble. That proves that someone has to replace him in that position, because the same verse says the Church will not be overthrown; how much less by something so simple as a lack of a successor for the first Pope! It also says that his authority is like a key: "I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven." (Matt. 16:19) Well, keys are meant to be passed on by the leader to his successor. A key would do no good if no one wielded it; but it was given for use on earth. Therefore there will always be someone to take the keys of the kingdom of heaven and the authority over the Church, and that's nothing short of the papacy.

8. How do you know the current Pope is Peter's successor?

Because we have the historical record to confirm it. Every pope has been followed by a duly appointed successor, on down from the early days to modern times; we are at Pope #266 as of Pope Francis, and he probably won't be the last. Besides, suppose the current Pope isn't Peter's successor; then who is? Name the potential candidates; I can eliminate them using reason alone, and you're left with the current Pope as the only remaining possibility. So logic and history are on our side here, and it follows that the reigning Pope is the authority appointed by God for our time, and those who believe the Bible are duty-bound to follow him as leader of the Church Christ established.

9. Jesus said, "The kings of the gentiles exercise authority over them. It is not to be so among you."

But the Popes aren't like the kings of the gentiles, not in the way that Jesus is talking about. The kings of the Gentiles "exercise authority" for pride and self-praise, and Jesus is saying it is not to be so among the Church; but the leaders of the Church do have authority, or Scripture would never say they can bind, and the matter be bound in heaven, or loose, and the matter be loosed in heaven; and if Church leaders had no authority, St. Paul would never claim "authority, which the Lord hath given us for edification," (2 Cor. 10:8) and Jesus would never say, "For the Son of man is as a man taking a far journey, who left his house, and gave authority to his servants, and to every man his work, and commanded the porter to watch." (Mark 13:34) No, but the Church's leaders do have authority, and especially the Pope as the Church's chief leader; but they are not to exercise it as the Gentiles do, for the sake of selfishness and not for God; and that is what Jesus meant.

10. There have been wicked popes. They weren't even real Christians, let alone the Vicars of Christ.

There have been wicked popes, and they certainly weren't acting like the Vicars of Christ in their personal lives, but only (and unfortunately) held that office over the Church for a time. A person doesn't have to be perfect to be given a special power, though they have a moral obligation to strive for the good all the more; the popes of the middle ages were sometimes wicked, but that only means they failed in their moral obligations as participants in a high responsibility. The papacy isn't something that comes from inside a person; therefore interior holiness or lack thereof can't change whether you are Pope or not. It's something that comes from God's power with the cooperation of the Church's leadership in appointing someone to be Pope, and though in the case of the wicked Popes it is evident that the Church's leaders weren't doing what was best for the whole Church, it's still the case that these men appointed a man into a perpetual office that was given by God -- however wicked the man was -- and therefore he was in the position of the Vicar of Christ externally, though Christ may not have really been in his soul. But let's be clear: in the whole history of the Church, we've had what, something like six or seven bad popes? And I'm sorry, but one sparrow doesn't make a summer. The Church survived despite having had some pretty nasty leaders, and that's proof that God is at work behind this story, however dark it may sometimes appear.