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Defending the Papacy

As Pope Francis travels through the United States during his visit to the World Congress of Families in Pennsylvania, expect Protestant Fundamentalists to be denouncing him both online at in anti-papal tracts distributed at his events. In response to these efforts, let’s examine the top five arguments such critics typically make against the papacy:

1. The papacy is not found in the Bible.

It’s true the word papacy is not in the Bible, but neither are the words Trinity or Bible found there. This argument assumes that all Christian doctrine is explicitly described in the Bible, even though this teaching itself is not found in Scripture. Catholics believe, on the other hand, that divine revelation comes from God’s word given to us in written form (Sacred Scripture) and oral form (Sacred Tradition), both of which testify to the existence of the papacy.

According to Scripture, Christ founded a visible Church that would never go out of existence and had authority to teach and discipline believers (see Matt. 16:18-19, 18:17). St. Paul tells us this Church is “the pillar and foundation of truth” (1 Tim. 3:15) and it was built on “the foundation of the apostles” (Eph. 2:20). Paul also tells us the Church would have a hierarchy composed of deacons (1 Tim. 2:8-13); presbyters, from where we get the English word priest (1 Tim. 5:17); and bishops (1 Tim. 3:1-7).

Paul even instructed one of these bishops, Titus, to appoint priests on the island of Crete (Titus 1:5). In A.D. 110, St. Ignatius of Antioch told his readers, “Follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as you would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop.”

Unlike the apostles, Christ’s Church would exist for all ages, so the apostle’s passed on to their successors the authority to bind and loose doctrine (see Matt. 18:18), forgive sins (see John 20:23), and speak on behalf of Christ (see Luke 10:16). Acts 1:20, for example, records how after Judas’s death Peter proclaimed that Judas’s office (or, in Greek, his bishoporic) would be transferred to a worthy successor. In 1 Timothy 5:22, Paul warned Timothy to “not be hasty in the laying on of hands” when he appointed new leaders in the church.

At the end of the first century, Clement of Rome, who according to ancient tradition was ordained by Peter himself, wrote, “Our apostles knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be strife for the office of bishop . . . [so they made preparations that] . . . if they should die, other approved men should succeed to their ministry” (Letter to the Corinthians 44:1–3).

Just as the apostles’ authority was passed on their successors, Peter’s authority as the leader of the apostles was passed on to his successor. This man inherited the keys to the kingdom of heaven (see Matt. 16:18-19) and Peter’s duty to shepherd Christ’s flock (see John 21:15-17). Peter’s successor was the pastor of Christ’s church and a spiritual father to the Lord’s children (1 Cor. 4:15), thus explaining his offices future title pope, which comes from papa, the Latin word for father.

2. Peter was important, but he had no special authority.

Peter’s role as “chief apostle” is evident in the fact that he is mentioned more than any other apostle, often speaks for the whole group, and is placed first in every list of the apostles. Since Judas is always listed last, we can deduce that these lists were made in order of importance. Moreover, Christ made Peter alone the shepherd over his whole flock (see John 21:15-17), and the book of Acts describes Peter’s unparalleled leadership in the early Church. This includes his authority to make a binding, dogmatic declaration at the council of Jerusalem (Acts 15). As the Anglican scholar J.N.D Kelly puts it, “Peter was the undisputed leader of the youthful church” (Oxford Dictionary of the Popes, 1).

Finally, in Matthew 16:18-19, Jesus changed Simon’s name to Peter, which means rock, and said, “You are Peter [rock], and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

This passage is an allusion to Isaiah 22:22, which tells of how Israel’s wicked chief steward Shebna was replaced with the righteous Eli’akim. Isaiah 22:22 said Eli’akim would have “the key of the house of David; he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open.” Just as King Hezekiah gave Eli’akim authority to oversee the kingdom of Israel, Christ gave Peter authority to oversee his Church (i.e., the “keys to the kingdom”), which included the authority to “bind and loose”—in other words, to determine official doctrine and practice.

In response to these verses, some Protestants claim Peter is not the rock upon whom the Church was built, because 1 Corinthians 10:4 says “the rock was Christ.” Others say the Greek text of Matthew 16:18 shows that while Simon was called petros, the rock the Church will be built on was called petras, thus showing that the Church is not built on Peter. But in first Corinthians, Paul is talking about Christ shepherding ancient Israel, not the Church, and in Matthew 16, petros and petras both refer to Peter.

According to John 1:42, Jesus gave Simon the Aramaic name Kepha, which means simply “rock.” But unlike in Aramaic, in Greek the word rock is a feminine noun, so Matthew used the masculine version of rock, or petros, since calling Peter petras would have been on par with calling him Patricia! As Lutheran theologian Oscar Cullman puts it, “petra=Kepha=petros” (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 98). Even the Protestant Reformer John Calvin said, “There is no difference of meaning, I acknowledge, between the two Greek words petros and petra” (Commentary on Matthew Mark, and Luke, vol. 2).

Finally, if Peter is not the rock upon whom the Church is built, then why did Jesus bother to change Simon’s name in the first place? As Protestant scholar Craig Keener writes in his commentary on Matthew, “[Jesus] plays on Simon’s nickname, ‘Peter,’ which is roughly the English ‘Rocky’: Peter is ‘rocky,’ and on this rock Jesus would build his Church” (426).

But didn’t Peter refer to himself as a “fellow elder” and not as “pope” in 1 Peter 5:1? Yes, but in this passage Peter is demonstrating humility that he is encouraging other priests to practice. He wrote, “Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another” (5:5), so exalting his status would have contradicted his message. Besides, St. Paul often referred to himself as a mere deacon (see 1 Cor. 3:5, 2 Cor. 11:23) and even said he was “the very least of all the saints” (Eph. 3:8)—but that did not take away from his authority as an apostle. Likewise, Peter’s description of himself as an elder does not take away from his authority as being “first” among the apostles (Matt 10:2).

3. The Bishop of Rome had no special authority in the early Church. Peter was never even in Rome!

Both the New Testament and the early Church Fathers testify to Peter being in Rome. At the end of his first letter, Peter says he is writing from “Babylon” (5:13), which was a common code word for Rome, because both empires were lavish persecutors of God’s people (see Rev. 17-18; Oxford Dictionary of the Popes, 6).

In the words of Protestant scholar D.A. Carson, Peter was “in Rome about 63 (the probable date of 1 Peter). Eusebius implies that Peter was in Rome during the reign of Claudius, who died in 54 (H.E. 2.14.6)” (An Introduction to the New Testament, 180). Peter may not have always been present in Rome (which would explain why Paul does not address him in his epistle to the Romans), but there is a solid tradition that Peter founded the Church in Rome and later died there.

For example, Paul says the Roman Church was founded by “another man” (Rom. 15:21), and St. Ignatius of Antioch told the Christians in Rome he would not command them in the same way Peter had previously commanded them. At the end of the second century, St. Irenaeus wrote, “The blessed apostles [Peter and Paul], having founded and built up the church [of Rome], they handed over the office of the episcopate to Linus” (Against Heresies 3:3:3).

A priest named Gaius who lived during Irenaeus’s time even told a heretic named Proclus that “the trophies of the apostles” (i.e., their remains) were buried at Vatican Hill (Eusebius, Church History 2:25:5). Indeed, archaeological evidence unearthed in the twentieth century revealed a tomb attributed to Peter underneath St. Peter’s basilica in Rome. According to the Oxford Dictionary of Saints, “it is probable that the tomb is authentic. It is also significant that Rome is the only city that ever claimed to be Peter’s place of death” (353).

In regard to the authority of the Bishop of Rome as Peter’s successor, in the first century Clement of Rome (the fourth pope) intervened in a dispute in the Church of Corinth. He warned those who disobeyed him that they would “involve themselves in transgression and in no small danger,” thus demonstrating his authority over non-Roman Christians. St. Ignatius of Antioch referred to the Roman Church as the one that teaches other churches and “presides in love” over them. In fact, the writings of Pope Clement (A.D. 92-99) and Pope Soter (A.D. 167-174) were so popular that they were read in the Church alongside Scripture (Eusebius, Church History 4:23:9).

In A.D. 190, Pope St. Victor I excommunicated an entire region of churches for refusing to celebrate Easter on its proper date. While St. Irenaeus thought this was not prudent, neither he nor anyone else denied that Victor had the authority to do this. Indeed, Irenaeus said, “it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church [Rome] on account of its preeminent authority” (Against Heresies, 3.3.2). Keep in mind that all of this evidence dates a hundred to two hundred years before Christianity was legalized in the Roman Empire, thus deflating the Fundamentalist theory that the papacy was created by the Roman emperor in the fourth century.

Some people object that if Peter and his successors had special authority, why didn’t Christ say so when the apostles argued about “who was the greatest” (Luke 22:24)? The reason is that Christ did not want to contribute to their misunderstanding that one of them would be a privileged king. Jesus did say, however, that among the apostles there would be a “greatest” who would rule as a humble servant (Luke 22:26). That’s why since the sixth century popes have called themselves servus servorum Dei, or “servant of the servants of God.”

Pope Gregory I used the title in his dispute with the Patriarch of Constantinople John the Faster, who called himself the “Universal Bishop.” Gregory didn’t deny that one bishop had primacy over all the others,  since in his twelfth epistle Gregory explcitly says Constaninople was subject to the authority of the pope. Instead, he denied that the pope was the bishop of every individual territory, since this would rob his brother bishops of their legitimate authority, even though they were still subject to him as Peter’s successor.

4. The Bible never says Peter was infallible, and history proves that Peter and many other alleged popes were very fallible.

The doctrine of papal infallibility teaches that the pope has a special grace from Christ that protects him from leading the Church into error. That grace won’t keep him from sinning (even gravely), nor will it give him the right answer to every issue facing the Church. Instead, it will protect the pope from officially leading the Church into heresy. As a private theologian, the pope might speculate, even incorrectly, about the Faith, but he will never issue a false teaching related to faith or morality that claims to be binding and infallible (or an erroneous ex cathedra teaching).

But why believe the pope is infallible? Matthew 16:18 says the “gates of Hell” will never prevail against the Church, so it makes sense that the pastor of Christ’s Church will never steer it into hell by teaching heresy. Luke 22:31-32 records Jesus telling Peter, “Satan has demanded to sift you all like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren.” The original Greek in the passage shows that Satan demanded to sift “you all,” or all the apostles, but Jesus prayed only for Peter and his faith not to fail.

Now, it’s true that Christ once called Peter “Satan” for trying to stop the crucifixion (Matt. 16:23), and he knew Peter would later deny him at his trial. But God doesn’t call the perfect—he perfects the called. Christ prayed that once Peter had “turned again” from his sins, he would lead and strengthen the apostles. Jesus even appeared to Peter first after his Resurrection (1 Cor. 15:5).

Most Protestants would have to admit that Peter was infallible when he wrote 1 and 2 Peter, or at least that those epistles have no errors. Catholics simply take this reasoning to the logical conclusion that Peter never led the Church into error, nor did any of his successors. Some argue that Peter was fallible because St. Paul opposed him in Antioch and said Peter was wrong or “stood condemned” (Gal. 2:11-14). But in this situation Peter, at most, made an error in behavior, not teaching.

Peter feared antagonism from Christians who thought circumcision was necessary for salvation. So, while he was in their presence, Peter declined to eat with the uncircumcised. Paul criticized Peter for doing this, but Paul himself accommodated this same group when he had his disciple Timothy circumcised. Paul did this to make it easier to preach to the Jews (Acts 16:1-3), but Paul called circumcision a grave sin in Galatians 5:2. Therefore, if prudentially yielding to critics doesn’t invalidate St. Paul’s authority, then neither does it invalidate St. Peter’s.

No one denies that some popes engaged in serous sins, like fornication, but infallibility means only that the pope won’t teach error, not that he will be sinless. Indeed, some Church Fathers, such as St. Cyprian of Carthage, criticized the pope’s decisions; but even Cyprian believed the pope could not lead the Church astray. He writes in A.D. 256 of heretics who dare approach “the throne of Peter . . . to whom faithlessness could have no access” (Epistle 54.14), or, as other translations put it, “from whom no error can flow.”

Ironically, when well-read Protestants claim certain popes taught error, they pass over the tabloid-worthy medieval popes. They agree that even though a few of them engaged in debauchery, none of them took part in heresy. However, the examples they cite typically involve a pope cowardly tolerating heresy and not one officially teaching it. For example, it’s true that the Third Council of Constantinople (680) said Pope Honorius I (625-638) was a heretic, but only in the sense that Honorius failed to curb the Monothelete heresy, not that he endorsed it.

This heresy taught that Christ had only a divine will and not a corresponding human will. But even Jaroslav Pelikan, a renowned non-Catholic scholar of Church history, admits that Honorius’s opposition to the idea that Christ had two wills “was based on the interpretation of ‘two wills’ as ‘two contrary wills.’ He did not mean that Christ was an incomplete human being” (The Christian Tradition, vol. II, 151). Another good resource on this subject is Patrick Madrid’s book Pope Fiction, which contains a good overview of Honorius and other popes who are accused of being heretics.

5. The Pope is the beast from the book of Revelation.

Some of the strangest and most persistent attacks on the papacy are claims that the pope is the antichrist, the beast from the book of Revelation, and the whore of Babylon. But these claims are easily rebutted. 1 John 2:22 says that the antichrist “denies that Jesus is the Christ,” but no pope is recorded as ever having done this. Likewise, Revelation 17 speaks of a beast that sits on seven mountains and persecutes the holy ones of God, but the Catholic Church doesn’t persecute Christians or sit on “seven mountains.” Vatican City rests on Vatican Hill, which lies across the river from the seven hills of Old Rome where Christians were crucified and fed to the lions.

The beast in the book of Revelation does have a name that is numbered 666 (Rev. 13:18), which Seventh-day Adventists say corresponds to the numerical value of the Latin rendering of the Pope’s title, Vicarius Filii Dei (Vicar of the Son of God). The problem with this claim is that this is not one of the pope’s titles; he’s known as the Vicar of Christ. Ironically, the numerical value of the Latin rendering  of the name of Ellen Gould White, founder of the Seventh-day Adventists, is 666! This shows that many names can correspond to this number, though many scholars agree that it probably refers to a Roman emperor like Nero, or the Roman Empire as a whole because of its violent persecution of the Church during the first century.

God’s gift to the Church

While some Fundamentalists might say it is the “spawn of Satan,” the papacy is actually God’s gift to the Church. It ensures the Church will be united in one faith, one baptism, and the worship of one God who entrusted his Church to the successors of the apostles under the leadership of Peter’s successor, whom we call the pope.

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