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The Pope Chickened Out

Someone had to rebuke the pope when his strength faltered. But that doesn't mean there's no such thing as papal infallibility.

Suan Sonna

Surely, if you accept the supremacy and infallibility of the pope, you wouldn’t rebuke him! Right?

Any Catholic who pays attention to the news knows that this is false, but this is what many Protestants believe should appear in the New Testament if the papacy is true. This is evidenced by how often Galatians 2:11 is cited against Catholicism.

Paul writes in these verses, “But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction.” The objection is that Paul’s direct confrontation of Peter shows that Paul denied any notion of the papacy.

There are two fundamental problems here. The first is that Paul’s rebuke is compatible with everything that Catholics believe about the papacy. The second is that it is dwarfed by the rest of the scriptural evidence for Petrine primacy and the papacy. It therefore cannot succeed as a “silver bullet” against Catholicism.

Let’s begin with papal infallibility. Does Paul’s rebuke show that Peter had no gift of infallibility? Surely not! Protestants accept that Peter was infallible when he wrote 1 and 2 Peter, as God divinely protected him to write an inerrant text. Peter’s infallibility, however, extended only over his official teachings and not to his personal moral conduct. After all, it is not contradictory to say that Peter was infallible when he wrote his epistles but personally erred when he “chickened out” before the circumcision faction.

The Catholic belief of papal infallibility is remarkably similar. The pope is infallible only in his definitive, irreformable teachings. He may morally err, but that does not make him any less infallible in the properly understood sense.

Similarly, Galatians 2 gives no indication that Paul denies papal supremacy. After all, even Catholics who accept papal supremacy and infallibility rebuke the pope—sometimes in strong terms much like Paul’s. For example, Cardinal Burke characterized Pope Francis’s Motu Proprio (which placed restrictions on the Latin Mass) as a “severe and revolutionary action” and held that this and other related documents caused “distress and even [a] sense of confusion and abandonment.”

Nonetheless, Cardinal Burke emphasized in the beginning of his statements that he, Cardinal Burke, “is a bishop of the Church and as a cardinal, in communion with the Roman pontiff and with a particular responsibility to assist him in his pastoral care and governance of the universal Church, I offer the following observations.” In other words, Cardinal Burke’s criticism is in the spirit of a fellow laborer in God’s Church—just like Paul’s, I would argue. His words are nuanced with a recognition of the papacy’s importance.

Paul likewise stresses in the preceding verses Peter’s formative influence on him (Gal. 1:18), notes Peter’s divinely instituted ministry to the Jews (2:7-8), and continually refers to Peter as Cephas—the Aramaic name that Christ gave to Peter (Matt. 16:18).

Paul also provides a great deal of context for his rebuke, meaning that context is key here. He mentions, for instance, how influential Peter’s actions were on the surrounding Christians, including Barnabas: “And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, ‘If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?’” (Gal. 2:13-14).

Barnabas was Paul’s right-hand man in evangelizing the Gentiles (Gal. 2:9) and even spoke alongside him at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:12). He is also an apostle (Acts 14:14)!

Many scholars hold that the events of Galatians 2:11-14 occurred after the Acts 15 Jerusalem Council (see Gal. 2:1-10). Thus, Peter’s mere actions swayed not only the other Jewish Christians, but even Barnabas over a Church Council.

Paul therefore had to rebuke Peter, and, in doing so, he rebuked everyone else who followed his actions (see Matt. 23:2-3). Paul identifies Peter’s cowardice as the leading cause of the scandal. Rather than directly opposing his partner Barnabas, Paul pinpoints the leader: Peter.

Regardless, New Testament scholar Craig S. Keener notes that “Paul is silent about any enduring schism and continues to recognize that God uses Peter’s ministry (1 Cor 3:22; 9:5; 15:5; Gal 2:7-8).” The issue is eventually resolved. Paul does not further the scandal by calling into question Peter’s authority.

It should be obvious now that accepting advice from a rebuke does not violate papal supremacy. That would be crazy! The pope’s superior authority over the bishops and his jurisdiction over the entire Church do not mean he cannot be assisted by a brother bishop or that his non-definitive teachings (much less his personal actions) are flawless. Thus, Paul’s rebuke in Galatians 2 is compatible with everything that Catholics believe about the papacy.

We are at a point now in the argument where Paul neither explicitly denies nor affirms the papacy. It seems to be asking too much of Galatians 2:11 to refute the entire doctrine. How then do we adjudicate what Paul believed? Well, if Paul held to the faith handed down from Jesus, and that faith contains the papacy, then Paul held to the papacy. We don’t need Paul to explicitly claim that he held the papacy, just as Paul never explicitly claims that 1 and 2 Peter are Scripture, but we accept them as such. What we need is strong evidence that the faith handed down from Jesus contains the papacy, meaning that any alleged “Pauline silence” on the matter must be sifted along with all of the evidence.

This is where I think the case for Catholicism shines—the primacy of Peter, Peter’s status as the rock of the Church, his status as prime minister, etc. Even if someone disputes these other points, I think it is clear that Galatians 2:11 on its own is not enough to derail the claims of the Catholic Church. Paul’s rebuke can be made sense of with Catholic teaching.

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