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Where Is the Pope in the Bible?

Is there any evidence for the papacy in the Bible? Catholic apologist Karlo Broussard gives one argument from the Gospel of John and answers a common objection to it on Catholic Answers Live.


Host: What is the basic biblical blueprint for the papacy as we understand it?

Karlo Broussard: Well, there are several passages that we could appeal to in order to construct or create this blueprint for the papacy, but given that we’re in the season of the Resurrection, there is one event in the post-Resurrection phase where we find Jesus giving Peter a certain leadership role in the Christian community, in the Church of God, and that’s John 21:15-17.

This is a common passage that Catholics throughout the centuries have appealed to to biblically justify the claims of the papacy—the claim of the papacy being that the bishop of Rome, as successor to St. Peter, is the keeper of the keys, the universal shepherd of the Church, the supreme binder and looser, because those were the roles that Jesus gave Peter. And so in justifying Peter as the supreme leader of Jesus’ Church, that visible principle and source of unity for Christ’s flock here on Earth—and by way of extension, that applies to his successor in the bishopric of Rome, because Peter died as the bishop of Rome.

So John 21:15-17, this is post-Resurrection, Jesus is cooking up some fish on the seashore, recall, and John recognizes it’s the Lord when he’s out on the boat with Peter; Peter, you know, jumps in the water, swims to the shore, and we have that whole scene in John 21, and that sets up—and what’s very interesting, is that John tells us that the apostles had all of these fish that were requiring all of those in the boat to pull the net of fish to the shore.

Host: Right. 153 of those.

Karlo Broussard: 153, that is correct. And then John tells us: Peter went and grabbed them himself and pulled them to the shore, as if he was supernaturally empowered to bring the fish in the net to Jesus, which would represent us in the Church. So that’s an interesting nugget there that tees up the conversation between Jesus and St. Peter in John 21:15-17, and that’s when Jesus says “Do you love me?” “Yes, Lord.” “Feed my lambs. Do you love me?” “Yes, Lord, I love you.” “Tend my sheep.” The Greek word there is literally “shepherd my sheep,” and then of course the third time: “Do you love me? Yes, Lord, you know I love you,” and Jesus responds: “Feed my sheep.”

So we have this three-fold command from Jesus to Peter for Peter to engage in these shepherding duties: feeding the lambs, shepherding, and feeding the sheep. And Christians throughout the centuries have seen in that one example among many of Christ investing Peter with this unique role to shepherd the universal flock of God.

Because notice: Jesus singles Peter out, gives him these commands in the presence of others—but does not give such commands to the other apostles who are present there, only to Peter—and also, Jesus entrusts all of his flock to Peter. It’s not as if Peter is simply going to be the shepherd of this local flock over here, or that local flock over there, but the entire flock of Christ, because he says “Feed my lambs.” In Greek there it’s “lamb,” suggesting the young, implying the young; and then “Shepherd” and “Feed my sheep,” implying the old. So both the young and the old, that is, all the flock of Christ, is to be shepherded by this one shepherd, Peter a universal shepherd of the flock of Christ on earth. And so that’s one element of the biblical blueprint for the papacy.

And then of course, as you mentioned, our Protestant friends are going to make some counter-arguments for that—

Host: No, because this is so obvious. Why don’t they just get it?

Karlo Broussard: Yeah, and it’s unfortunate that we as Catholics think that, because it implies as if, you know, “Well, Protestants are just dumb and they don’t get it” or whatever.

Host: Well Jesus doesn’t say “I hereby make you pope.”

Karlo Broussard: That’s right, that’s right, and that would be a false implication or a false assumption on the Catholic’s part, because there are some reasonable counter-arguments. Like, for example, a Protestant could simply respond and say: “Well, all Jesus is doing there is giving Peter the opportunity to make up for his thrice-denial. You have a fire there on the seashore, where this conversation—and then that calls to mind the charcoal fire; or Peter denied our Lord three times.”

And we agree, as Catholics, that is what Jesus is doing; but what we challenge, and what we disagree on, is that’s only what Jesus is doing. And that’s where there are some problems in the Protestant counter-argument. And so notice that if all Jesus were doing here is to give Peter an opportunity to make up for his thrice-denial and abandoning Jesus, well, he should have done it for all of the other apostles present there. Because we’re told at the Last Supper: not only did Jesus prophesy that Peter would fall away, but he also prophesied that all of them would fall away.

In Matthew 26:31, we read: “You will all fall away because of me this night.” And guess what happened? According to Matthew 26:56, Jesus’ prophecy came to fruition: “Then after his arrest all the disciples deserted him and fled.” So if all Jesus is doing here in John 21:15-17 is giving Peter the opportunity to make up for his denial and abandonment of Christ— What happened to everybody else? What about everybody else? That he does not engage in that conversation with everybody else, giving them the opportunity to repent and to come and love him, implies that something unique is going on here with Peter, right?

And then another reason why this restrictive view is problematic is because such restoration doesn’t necessarily involve the duties of a shepherd. Why is Christ associating the restoration with these duties to feed the young ones and to shepherd and feed the old ones? There’s nothing in restoration that would entail these shepherding duties, right? If it were only restoration—and restoration would entail the shepherding duties in a general way— then he would be saying the same thing to all the other apostles and bringing them in on the conversation, but he doesn’t. And so the singling out here, within the context of giving the shepherding role to Peter, the singling out of Peter implies that Christ is investing Peter with this universal shepherding role, that there is a visible principle of unity for the flock of Christ on this Earth; and that’s the essence of what we say, as Catholics, the papacy is, and we see that in and with St. Peter in the first century.

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