With the imminent election of a new pope, the role of the Bishop of Rome has come into focus in popular and religious media. It struck me that the many formalities and traditions that accompany a papal election, as interesting as they might be, have had the effect of putting into the shade the bases of the papacy in Catholic faith. This seems a lost opportunity to provide ‘reasons for our hope’ (1 Pet. 3:15)
In short, little attention has been given to the ‘why’ of the papacy, a ‘why’ which is significant not only for Catholic believers in their own understanding of the Church but also for non-Catholic Christians who are often, and it must be said not always unreasonably, ‘put off’ by an apparent obsession with ceremonial fanfare over and above the simplicity of biblical discipleship.
Indeed, Paul VI lamented in 1967 that ‘the Pope . . . is undoubtedly the most serious obstacle on the path to ecumenism’. His eventual successor, John Paul II, was to take a more positive view in regards to the ecumenical significance of the papacy, asking how the Petrine Office could accomplish a service of love and unity recognised by all. As the Oxford theologian Fergus Kerr notes, the Polish pontiff even appealed to Christians who are not now, and perhaps never likely to be in full communion with Rome, to help in reshaping the papal ministry (see Ut Unum Sint 4). This recognised not only the possibility of papal reform but situated the task of the papacy within an ecumenical context, within a communion of faith that was ‘already but not yet’.
For Catholics, of course, the pope is understood to be the successor of the apostle Peter and so has ‘full, immediate, ordinary and general jurisdiction’ or primacy over the college of bishops and indeed over the whole Church. What does this rather foreboding statement mean? It means he has a distinct, ecclesial responsibility to proclaim and preserve the faith in its purity and plenitude as well as uphold the unity of the communion of faith, with personal, and not merely delegated, authority to intervene in the workings of another bishop and local churches in service of that ecclesial communion.
Contrary to ‘ultramontanists’ who confuse the papacy with the Church, it should be kept in view that the pope is not the only principle of the Church’s unity (lest we forget the Holy Spirit, for one, and the worldwide episcopate to name another). The Petrine Office is firmly embedded within the Church, in service of the Church’s unity and not above it.
Put in terms of an ecclesiology of communion, the pope is for Catholic faith the visible point of communion of the local churches and cannot, and should not, act as an absolute monarch. Why? This is because it is the college of bishops as a whole that is understood to be of divine law (ius divinum), a college that the pope could never abolish or do away with and of which he remains a member. So the Pope is a head of a college of bishops, belonging wholly to this college while never being simply its delegate. ‘Peter’ remains an ‘apostle’ while the ‘apostles’ do have Peter as their head. Indeed, ‘papal infallibility’, that ability of the pope to proclaim what the faith is, cannot be understood apart from the faith of the college of bishops and so is intrinsically linked to the faith of the whole Church (and anything but an autonomous or private opinion).
What do other denominations make of all of this? Many non-Catholic Christians reject the entire notion of the papacy and its theological or biblical foundations. Closer to home, the Orthodox – whose bishops the Catholic Church does recognise as legitimate, sacramental bishops, of genuine apostolic succession – while not strictly or necessarily objecting to a place of honour for the Bishop of Rome among the world’s bishops, do not believe that the Bishop of Rome should have any juridical claim over a local bishop. In other words, they reject the idea that the Bishop of Rome can actually interfere with another bishop in the governance of his own diocese.
So, to return to what I think has been a missed opportunity in recent weeks, what are the bases of the papacy in Catholic faith? The most basic approach is to reflect on the biblical warrant for the Petrine Office and to offer this in conversation to other Christians of goodwill. Specifically, how might we understand Peter’s role among the apostles, a role in the primitive Church that underpins, at least in part, Catholic faith on this subject?
The biblical and theological literature concerning Peter’s role in the early Christian community is vast and includes important contributions by Rudolf Pesch, Martin Hengel, Christian Grappe, Raymond Brown and the Australian theologian Gerald O’Collins.
The classic Scriptural texts which have been understood to establish Peter’s primacy among the apostles are well-known and have been well covered in apologetic debates. They are:
- Matthew 16:18-19 (‘And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven) Note to conclave enthusiasts: This passage is traditionally read to the newly-elected Pope and cardinal-electors prior to the pontiff’s first appearance at the balcony of St Peter’s Basilica;
- Luke 22:31-32 (‘Simon, Simon, listen! Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers’)
- John 21:15-18 (detailing Jesus’ repeated command to Peter, ‘feed my sheep’).
However, beyond these familiar texts, there are others which I think disclose Peter’s distinctive role and authority within the first community of disciples. We know, for one, that the Gospel of Mark was written not long after Peter’s martyrdom in Rome (c.60-70) and that it transmits the witness of Peter himself to Jesus’ life and ministry. This testifies to the importance of Peter’s witness for the early Church community.
As Gerald O’Collins avers, Peter stands out as well among the apostles as the first witness to the resurrection, and therefore one whose Easter faith and proclamation of that event is central to the Church’s life. This witness to the Risen Jesus is, as O’Collins points out, a much neglected dimension of the figure of Peter.
I suspect many Catholics would be surprised by this claim and would more likely name ‘Mary Magdalene’ as the first witness to the Risen Jesus and for good reason. After all, in all four Gospels she is present at the empty tomb. However, an empty tomb is not Jesus himself and Mary Magdalene is named as first witness to the Risen Jesus only in Matthew 28:1-10 and John 20:11-18.
The alternate, and likely earlier, tradition names Peter as the first witness to the Resurrection and can be found in St Paul’s writings which, of course, pre-date the four Gospels. In one of Paul’s letters to the community at Corinth we find an ancient formula (perhaps creed) which names Peter as first witness to Jesus risen from the dead. Paul writes,
For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accord with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas (Peter), then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. (1 Cor. 15:3-8) [My emphases]
Paul is clearly transmitting an already-existing tradition. This same Petrine tradition can be detected in Luke’s Gospel, on the road to Emmaus, where the evangelist emphasises that this ‘Emmaus’ encounter with the Risen Jesus is not the primary one. Luke writes of the disciples on the road,
That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon (Peter)!’ Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he has been made known to them in the breaking of the bread. [My emphases]
It becomes apparent from such New Testament texts, in addition to reference to the ‘keys to the Kingdom’, Peter as shepherd of the flock and as the ‘rock’ on which the Church’s life will be supported, that ‘the fisherman from Bethsaida’ assumes a special leadership role among the apostles that was actual, grounded in his primary role as witness and messenger of Easter faith, and subsequently recognised in the writings of the early community of faith, that is, in its Scriptures as such.
It is interesting to note, as a final remark, that Peter’s leadership of the apostolic community is as a repentant sinner (cf. Luke 5:8, ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord’). Peter, of course, would go on to deny Jesus three times, a betrayal foretold. However, this ‘shadow side’ of Peter does not rule out his leadership but grounds his task of leadership in his own conversion and in service and proclamation of God’s love and compassion to others. Again, we hear Jesus’ words in Luke’s Gospel, expressing this exemplary role that Peter is to play in service of the Church’s faith as a whole, ‘I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers’ (Lk 22:32). St Peter emerges, as ever, an unworthy servant, entrusted to proclaim the plenitude and unity of faith in Him who first showed him mercy.
While the papacy has been subject to reform throughout the centuries, shaped not only by internal factors but also by the dramatic circumstances of the world, the continuity between the role of Peter among the apostles and the Pope among the college of bishops and the universal Church is a most positive and biblically-shaped principle of Catholic faith. While the reports on the conclave continue to roll in and as the announcement of a new ‘Peter’ looms, we remember the first Peter as leader, teacher, witness of Easter faith, repentant sinner, evangeliser and, above all, disciple to Christ who alone can ‘make all things’, including his Church, anew (Rev. 21:5).