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The Papacy and Infallibility: "Keys of the Kingdom"

Introduction, Definitions, and Explanation

The ecumenical First Vatican Council, in 1870, defined once and for all the dogma of papal infallibility as follows:

    We teach and define that it is a dogma divinely revealed: that the Roman Pontiff, when he speaks ex cathedra, that is, when, in discharge of the office of pastor and teacher of all Christians, by virtue of his supreme Apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine regarding faith or morals to be held by the universal Church, is, by the divine assistance promised to him in Blessed Peter, possessed of that infallibility with which the divine Redeemer willed that His Church should be endowed in defining doctrine regarding faith or morals; and that, therefore, such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are of themselves, and not from the consent of the Church, irreformable. (1)

The charge is often made that the Catholic Church "invents" dogmas late in the game, which were not present in earlier centuries. The papacy, and papal infallibility, have indeed been in existence from the very earliest days of the Church, starting with the Apostle Peter, and what he and other Christians believed about his leadership and jurisdiction. (2) As is to be expected, however, both the office of the pope, and the notion of papal infallibility did undergo much development through the centuries.

In order to illustrate how the definition of 1870 drew on centuries of reflection and practice, we will cite St. Francis de Sales' teaching from around 1596:

    When he teaches the whole Church as shepherd, in general matters of faith and morals, then there is nothing but doctrine and truth. And in fact everything a king says is not a law or an edict, but that only which a king says as king and as a legislator. So everything the Pope says is not canon law or of legal obligation; he must mean to define and to lay down the law for the sheep, and he must keep the due order and form .

    We must not think that in everything and everywhere his judgment is infallible, but then only when he gives judgment on a matter of faith in questions necessary to the whole Church; for in particular cases which depend on human fact he can err, there is no doubt, though it is not for us to control him in these cases save with all reverence, submission, and discretion. Theologians have said, in a word, that he can err in questions of fact, not in questions of right; that he can err extra cathedram, outside the chair of Peter. that is, as a private individual, by writings and bad example.

    But he cannot err when he is in cathedra, that is, when he intends to make an instruction and decree for the guidance of the whole Church, when he means to confirm his brethren as supreme pastor, and to conduct them into the pastures of the faith. For then it is not so much man who determines, resolves, and defines as it is the Blessed Holy Spirit by man, which Spirit, according to the promise made by Our Lord to the Apostles, teaches all truth to the Church. (3)

Robert Hugh Benson (1871-1914), a convert to Catholicism, whose father, Edward W. Benson (1829-1896), had been the Archbishop of Canterbury, the highest office in Anglicanism, wrote concerning the development of the papacy:

    It was not, then, until the head had been fully established as supreme over the body that men had eyes to see how it had been so ordained and indicated from the beginning. After it had come to pass it was seen to have been inevitable. All this is paralleled, of course, by the ordinary course of affairs. Laws of nature, as well as laws of grace, act quite apart from man's perception or appreciation of them; and it is not until the law is recognized that its significance and inevitability, its illustrations and effects, are intelligibly recognized either. (4)

Likewise, John Henry Cardinal Newman, in his masterpiece Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845), offers similar analysis:

    Whether communion with the Pope was necessary for Catholicity would not and could not be debated till a suspension of that communion had actually occurred. It is not a greater difficulty that St. Ignatius does not write to the Asian Greeks about Popes, than that St. Paul does not write to the Corinthians about Bishops. And it is a less difficulty that the Papal supremacy was not formally acknowledged in the second century, than that there was no formal acknowledgment on the part of the Church of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity till the fourth. No doctrine is defined till it is violated . . . .

    Moreover, an international bond and a common authority could not be consolidated . . . while persecutions lasted. If the Imperial Power checked the development of Councils, it availed also for keeping back the power of the Papacy. The Creed, the Canon, in like manner, both remained undefined . . . All began to form, as soon as the Empire relaxed its tyrannous oppression of the Church . . .

    Supposing there be otherwise good reason for saying that the Papal Supremacy is part of Christianity, there is nothing in the early history of the Church to contradict it. . .

    Doctrine cannot but develop as time proceeds and need arises, and . . . therefore it is lawful, or rather necessary, to interpret the words and deeds of the earlier Church by the determinate teaching of the later. (5)

James Cardinal Gibbons, in his best-selling book of Catholic apologetics, The Faith of Our Fathers (1917), eloquently defended papal infallibility against many of the common objections of Protestants and other non-Catholics:

    You will tell me that infallibility is too great a prerogative to be conferred on man. I answer: Has not God, in former times, clothed His Apostles with powers far more exalted? They were endowed with the gifts of working miracles, of prophecy and inspiration; they were the mouthpiece communicating God's revelation, of which the Popes are merely the custodians. If God could make man the organ of His revealed Word, is it impossible for Him to make man its infallible guardian and interpreter? For, surely, greater is the Apostle who gives us the inspired Word than the Pope who preserves it from error . . .

    Let us see, sir, whether an infallible Bible is sufficient for you. Either you are infallibly certain that your interpretation of the Bible is correct or you are not.

    If you are infallibly certain, then you assert for yourself, and of course for every reader of the Scripture, a personal infallibility which you deny to the Pope, and which we claim only for him. You make every man his own Pope.

    If you are not infallibly certain that you understand the true meaning of the whole Bible . . . then, I ask, of what use to you is the objective infallibility of the Bible without an infallible interpreter? (6)

Although the pope is supreme Head of the Church and preeminent in authority, nevertheless, he acts in concert with both the college of bishops (especially when meeting in an ecumenical Council, such as Trent or Vatican II), (7) and the "sense of the faithful" (or, sensus fidelium). (8) It is this united jurisdiction of bishops and pope (distantly analogous to the U.S. Congress and President, with the Supreme Court similar to Catholic Canon Law), which is the distinctive mark of Catholic ecclesiology, (9) as opposed to Eastern Orthodoxy, which accepts bishops but acknowledges no pope, and Protestantism, which does not formally recognize the papacy, and many denominations of which (perhaps the majority) lack bishops. Catholics claim that this arrangement is mirrored in the biblical relationship of St. Peter and the other original disciples, and that it is required by the demands of apostolic succession, which is itself suggested in the Bible. (10)

Bishop Vincent Gasser, in his famous defense of papal infallibility (the Relatio) at the First Vatican Council, discussed the aspects of collegiality and community:

    We do defend the infallibility of the person of the Roman Pontiff, not as an individual person but as the person of the Roman Pontiff or a public person, that is, as head of the Church in his relation to the Church Universal . . .

    We do not exclude the cooperation of the Church because the infallibility of the Roman Pontiff does not come to him in the manner of inspiration or of revelation but through a divine assistance. Therefore, the Pope, by reason of his office and the gravity of the matter, is held to use the means suitable for properly discerning and aptly enunciating the truth. These means are councils, or the advice of the bishops, cardinals, theologians, etc. Indeed the means are diverse according to the diversity of situations, and we should piously believe that, in the divine assistance promised to Peter and his successors by Christ, there is simultaneously contained a promise about the means which are necessary and suitable to make an infallible pontifical judgment.

    Finally we do not separate the Pope, even minimally, from the consent of the Church, as long as that consent is not laid down as a condition which is either antecedent or consequent. We are not able to separate the Pope from the consent of the Church because this consent is never able to be lacking to him. Indeed, since we believe that the Pope is infallible through the divine assistance, by that very fact we also believe that the assent of the Church will not be lacking to his definitions since it is not able to happen that the body of bishops be separated from its head, and since the Church universal is not able to fail. (11)

Nevertheless, the pope is ultimately supreme, even over ecumenical Councils, which he ratifies in all particulars (a power which might be compared in part to the veto of the American President). The famous English convert and apologist Ronald Knox (1888-1957) explains:

    [It is a] quite unworkable idea that the authority of the Pope depends on the authority of the Council. There is no way of deciding which councils were ecumenical councils except by saying that those councils were ecumenical which had their decisions ratified by the Pope. Now, either that ratification is infallible of itself, or else you will immediately have to summon a fresh ecumenical council to find out whether the Pope's ratification was infallible or not, and so on ad infinitum. You can't keep on going round and round in a vicious circle; in the long run the last word of decision must lie with one man, and that man is obviously the Pope. In the last resort the Pope must be the umpire, must have the casting vote. If therefore there is to be any infallibility in the Church, that infallibility must reside in the Pope, even when he speaks in his own name, without summoning a council to fortify his decision. (12)

Contrary to common assumptions, the doctrine of the papacy is well-grounded in Scripture, and the institution is present in increasingly-developing stages throughout the history of the Church. Moreover, the constant, remarkable primacy of Rome in the history of Christianity is equally undeniable. Because the very existence of this historical institution (in the early Church) is so often denied (for example, many arbitrarily maintain that Pope Leo the Great in the fifth century was the first pope, and others claim the same for Gregory the Great in the sixth), more attention than usual will be paid to the actual history of the papacy and the theological justifications historically put forth in defense of it.

Scriptural Evidence for the Papacy and the Apostolic Primacy of St. Peter

St. Peter as the Rock (Matthew 16:18)

    Matthew 16:18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it.

Catholics contend that the "rock" is Peter himself, not his faith, or Jesus (although arguably his faith is assumed by Christ in naming Peter "rock" in the first place). This interpretation is found in the Church Fathers at least as early as Tertullian (d.c.230). The next verse (16:19) is in the singular, which supports this view, which is in fact the consensus of the majority of biblical commentators today, according to the article on Peter in the Encyclopedia Britannica (1985 edition). (13)

It has often been argued to the contrary that Jesus called Peter petros (literally, "stone"), not petra (the word for "rock" in the passage), so that the "rock" wasn't Peter, but this is simply explained by the necessity for a proper male name in Greek to be in the masculine gender. In Aramaic, however (the language Jesus spoke), the name kepha would have been used for both "rock" and "Peter." Matthew could just as easily have used another Greek word for "stone," lithos, in contrast to "rock," but this would have distorted the unmistakable word-play of the passage, which is the whole point!

Many prominent Protestant scholars and exegetes have agreed that Peter is the "rock" in Matthew 16:18, including Alford, Broadus, Keil, Kittel, Cullmann (14), Albright (15), Robert McAfee Brown (16), and more recently, respected evangelical commentators R.T. France (17) and D.A. Carson. (18) Also, popular one-volume Protestant Bible commentaries such as Peake's Commentary (19), New Bible Commentary (20) and numerous others concur. (21) Both Carson and France surprisingly assert that only Protestant overreaction to Catholic Petrine and papal claims have brought about the denial that Peter himself is the "rock."

The great Protestant Greek scholar Marvin Vincent was among those who took the traditional view, in his standard reference work Word Studies in the New Testament (1887):

    The word refers neither to Christ as a rock, distinguished from Simon, a stone, nor to Peter's confession, but to Peter himself, . . . The reference of petra to Christ is forced and unnatural. The obvious reference of the word is to Peter. The emphatic this naturally refers to the nearest antecedent; and besides, the metaphor is thus weakened, since Christ appears here, not as the foundation, but as the architect: "On this rock will I build." Again, Christ is the great foundation, the chief cornerstone, but the New Testament writers recognize no impropriety in applying to the members of Christ's church certain terms which are applied to him. For instance, Peter himself (1 Peter 2:4), calls Christ a living stone, and in ver. 5, addresses the church as living stones . . .

    Equally untenable is the explanation which refers petra to Simon's confession. Both the play upon the words and the natural reading of the passage are against it, and besides, it does not conform to the fact, since the church is built, not on confessions, but on confessors - living men . . . . . .

    The reference to Simon himself is confirmed by the actual relation of Peter to the early church . . . See Acts 1:15; 2:14,37; 3:2; 4:8; 5:15,29; 9:34,40; 10:25-6; Galatians 1:18. (22)

St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622), a leader of the Catholic Reformation, draws out the implications of this passage for the papacy:

    Our Lord then, who is comparing his Church to a building, when he says that he will build it on St. Peter, shows that St. Peter will be its foundation-stone . . . When he makes St. Peter its foundation, he makes him head and superior of this family.

    By these words Our Lord shows the perpetuity and immovableness of this foundation. The stone on which one raises the building is the first, the others rest on it. Other stones may be removed without overthrowing the edifice, but he who takes away the foundation, knocks down the house. If then the gates of hell can in no wise prevail against the Church, they can in no wise prevail against its foundation and head, which they cannot take away and overturn without entirely overturning the whole edifice . . .

    The supreme charge which St. Peter had . . . as chief and governor, is not beside the authority of his Master, but is only a participation in this, so that he is not the foundation of this hierarchy besides Our Lord but rather in Our Lord: as we call him most holy Father in Our Lord, outside whom he would be nothing . . St. Peter is foundation, not founder, of the whole Church; foundation but founded on another foundation, which is Our Lord . . . in fine, administrator and not lord, and in no way the foundation of our faith, hope and charity, nor of the efficacy of the Sacraments . . . So, although he is the Good Shepherd, he gives us shepherds (Ephesians 4:11) under himself, between whom and his Majesty there is so great a difference that he declares himself to be the only shepherd (John 10:11; Ezekiel 34:23). (23)

G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936), the English literary giant, made a marvelously insightful comment concerning Christ's selection of Peter as the "rock":

    When Christ at a symbolic moment was establishing His great society, he chose for its cornerstone neither the brilliant Paul nor the mystic John, but a shuffler, a snob, a coward - in a word, a man. And upon this rock he has built His Church, and the gates of Hell have not prevailed against it. All the empires and the kingdoms have failed, because of this inherent and continual weakness, that they were founded by strong men and upon strong men. But this one thing, the historic Christian Church, was founded on a weak man, and for that reason it is indestructible. For no chain is stronger than its weakest link. (24)

The Keys of the Kingdom (Matthew 16:19)

    Matthew 16:19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven . . .

    Isaiah 22:20-22 In that day I will call my servant Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, . . . and he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. And I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open.

    Revelation 3:7 [Christ describing Himself]:. . . the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one shall shut, who shuts and no one opens.

The power of the "keys," in the Hebrew mind, had to do with administrative authority and ecclesiastical discipline, and, in a broad sense, might be thought to encompass the use of excommunication, penitential decrees, a barring from the sacraments and lesser censures, and legislative and executive functions. Like the name "rock," this privilege was bestowed only upon St. Peter and no other disciple or Apostle. He was to become God's "vice-regent," so to speak. (25) In the Old Testament, a steward was a man over a house (Genesis 43:19, 44:4, 1 Kings 4:6, 16:9, 18:3, 2 Kings 10:5 15:5 18:18, Isaiah 22:15). The steward was also called a "governor" in the Old Testament and has been described by commentators as a type of "prime minister."

In the New Testament, the two words often translated as "steward" are oikonomos (Luke 16:2-3, 1 Corinthians 4:1-2, Titus 1:7, 1 Peter 4:10), and epitropos (Matthew 20:8, Galatians 4:2). Several Protestant commentaries and dictionaries take the position that Christ is clearly hearkening back to Isaiah 22:15-22 when He makes this pronouncement, and that it has something to do with delegated authority in the Church He is establishing (in the same context). (26) He applies the same language to Himself in Revelation 3:7 (cf. Job 12:14), so that his commission to Peter may be interpreted as an assignment of powers to the recipient in His stead, as a sort of authoritative representative or ambassador.

The "opening" and "shutting" (in Isaiah 22:2) appear to refer to a jurisdictional power which no one but the king (in the ancient kingdom of Judah) could override. Literally, it refers to the prime minister's prerogative to deny or allow entry to the palace, and access to the king. In Isaiah's time, this office was over three hundred years old, and is thought to have been derived by Solomon from the Egyptian model of palace functionary, or the Pharaoh's "vizier," who was second in command after the Pharaoh. This was exactly the office granted to Joseph in Egypt (Genesis 41:40-44, 45:8). (27)

The symbol of keys always represented authority in the Middle East. This standpoint comes down to us in our own culture when we observe mayors giving an honored visitor the "key to the city." The reputable Commentary on the Whole Bible (1864), by Jamieson, Fausset and Brown, a Protestant work, expounds Isaiah 22:15,22 as follows:

    [The steward is] the king's friend, or principal officer of the court (1 Kings 4:5; 18:3; 1 Chronicles27:33, the king's counsellor) . . .

    Keys are carried sometimes in the East hanging from the kerchief on the shoulder. But the phrase is rather figurative for sustaining the government on one's shoulders. Eliakim, as his name implies, is here plainly a type of the God-man Christ, the son of "David," of whom Isaiah (ch. 9:6) uses the same language as the former clause of this verse [and the government will be upon his shoulder]. (28)

One can confidently conclude, therefore, that when Old Testament usage and the culture of the hearers is closely examined, the phrase keys of the kingdom of heaven must have great significance (for Peter and for the papacy) indeed, all the more so since Christ granted this honor only to St. Peter.

The Power to Bind and Loose (Matthew 16:19)

    Matthew 16:19 . . . Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

Binding and loosing were technical rabbinical terms meaning, respectively, to forbid and permit, with regard to interpretations of Jewish Law. In secondary usage, they also could mean condemn and acquit. This power is also given to the Apostles in Matthew 18:17-18, where it apparently refers particularly to discipline and excommunication in local jurisdictions (whereas Peter's commission seems to apply to the universal Church). In John 20:23 it is also granted to the Apostles (in a different terminology, which suggests the power to impose penance and grant indulgences and absolution). Generally speaking, binding and loosing usually meant the prerogative to formulate Christian doctrine and to require allegiance to it, as well as to condemn heresies which were opposed to the true doctrine (Jude 3). (29) Marvin Vincent writes:

    No other terms were in more constant use in Rabbinic canon-law than those of binding and loosing. They represented the legislative and judicial powers of the Rabbinic office. These powers Christ now transferred, . . . in their reality, to his apostles; the first, here, to Peter, as their representative, the second, after his resurrection, to the church (John 20:23) . . . (30)

St. Peter Commanded to Feed My Sheep (John 21:15-17)

    John 21:15-17 . . . Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord; you know that I love you." He said to him, "Feed my lambs." A second time he said to him, "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord; you know that I love you." He said to him, "Tend my sheep." He said to him the third time, "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, "Do you love me?" And he said to him, "Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Feed my sheep."

    Revelation 7:17 For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water . .

The Greek word for "tend" in 21:16 is poimaino, which is applied to Jesus Christ in Revelation 7:17 above, and also in Matthew 2:6, and Revelation 2:27, 12:5, and 19:15. It is used of bishops in Acts 20:28 and 1 Peter 5:2 (which seems to be a passage perhaps reminiscent in St. Peter's mind of the Lord's charge to him). Clearly, an awesome amount of spiritual authority is being given to Peter, which includes, according to the Protestant Greek scholar W.E. Vine, "discipline, authority, restoration, material assistance of individuals." (31)

The commission of Christ to Peter, then, to tend my sheep, while not exclusive to Peter in the sense that no one else (besides Christ) exercises this function (St. Peter himself says as much in 1 Peter 5:2), nevertheless is supremely unique and important insofar as no other individual disciple is likewise instructed by our Lord - and in such momentous terms (considering all of the biblical data).

Peter's ministry to the Church is always universal; his jurisdiction knows no bounds, and the language that Christ Himself applies to him is strikingly sublime and profound. For to no one else was it granted the keys of the kingdom of heaven. No one else was renamed "Rock," and proclaimed by Jesus to be the foundation upon which He would build His Church. And although the power to bind and loose was given to the disciples as a whole in Matthew 18:18, nevertheless, Peter is the only individual to be given this power by Christ. In other words, St. Peter has extraordinary privileges unique to himself, and in cases where they are not exclusive they are obviously applied to him in a preeminent sense.

We find then, that the scriptural relation between Christ, Peter, and the disciples (by extension, bishops and priests), is precisely that found in the teaching and practice of the Catholic Church, where the pope, more than just the "foremost among equals," as the Orthodox and some Lutherans and Anglicans hold, is the supreme shepherd and leader of the Church, yet not in such a fashion as to exclude Christ as the Head or the Cardinals and bishops (and even laymen) as fellow members of the Body in Christ acting in organic harmony. Always, it is the pope and the Cardinals, the pope and the Council, the pope acting with due consideration of the faithful lay members of the Church, but the pope is supreme.

It is simply not necessary to dichotomize the relationship between the pope and lesser clergy. With regard to the papacy, only Catholicism does justice to both the scriptural data and the course of the early Church in the formative years of its development. One need not fall into the trap of denying the pope's existence (and thereby doing violence to the Petrine texts as well), nor of caricaturing the Catholic Church's doctrine of the papacy as strictly a "top-down," "autocratic," "monarchical" conception of Church government. In any event, the abundant Petrine evidence in the Bible must be dealt with in an open and consistent manner, whatever position one holds.

St. Peter Charged to Strengthen Your Brethren (Luke 22:31-32)

    Luke 22:31-32 Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren.

The Jesuit apologist Nicholas Russo and St. Francis de Sales explain how this charge to St. Peter suggests the need for an ongoing, infallible papacy:

    In this passage there is question of infallibility. For infallibility is nothing else but a supernatural gift by which the recipient is shielded from all error against faith. But - a) this is clearly expressed in the words, that thy faith fail not; b) it is implied in the command to confirm his brethren; c) it is supposed in the very failure of Satan's attempts to destroy the Church, which is personified in the Apostles, and which depends essentially upon faith . . .

    The temptation is common, but the prayer was offered for Peter alone; not because Our Lord was less solicitous for the rest of the Apostles, says Bossuet, but because by strengthening the head He wished to prevent the rest from staggering. Now this duty of confirming his brethren was to last as long as the Church; and Peter, accordingly, abides always in his successors . . . Strange, indeed, would it be to suppose that the doctrinal infallibility of the Head of the Church should cease just when the need becomes greater and more urgent. Christ would in this supposition have rendered His first vicar infallible . . . and denied this divine assistance to all the rest of His vicars on earth, when in their times the dangers were to be greater . . . If this consequence be absurd, our position is unassailable. (32)

He prays for St. Peter as for the confirmer and support of the others; and what is this but to declare him head of the others? Truly one could not give St. Peter the command to confirm the Apostles without charging him to have care of them . . . Is this not to again call him foundation of the Church? If he supports, secures, strengthens the very foundation-stones, how shall he not confirm all the rest? If he has the charge of supporting the columns of the Church, how shall he not support all the rest of the building? If he has the charge of feeding the pastors, must he not be sovereign pastor himself? . . . Our Lord . . ., having planted this holy assembly of the disciples, prayed for the head and the root, in order that the water of faith might not fail to him who was therewith to supply all the rest, and in order that through the head the faith might always be preserved in the Church. (33)

St. Paul's Rebuke of St. Peter (Galatians 2:9,11-14)

    Galatians 2:9,11-14 And when they perceived the grace that was given to me, James and Cephas [Peter] and John, who were reputed to be pillars, gave to me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship . . . But when Cephas came to Antioch I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he ate with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And with him the rest of the Jews acted insincerely, so that even Barnabas was carried away by their insincerity. But when I saw that they were not straightforward about 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?"

Bertrand Conway, author of the enormously popular The Question Box (second edition, 1929), a classic of Catholic apologetics, puts this incident in the proper perspective:

    St. Paul's rebuke of St. Peter, instead of implying a denial of his supremacy, implies just the opposite. He tells us that the example of St. Peter compelled the Gentiles to live as the Jews. St. Paul's example had not the same compelling power.

    The duty of fraternal correction (Matthew 18:15) may often require an inferior to rebuke a superior in defence of justice and truth. St. Bernard, St. Thomas of Canterbury and St. Catherine of Siena have rebuked Popes, while fully acknowledging their supreme authority . . .

    The rebuke, however, did not refer to the doctrine, but to the conduct of St. Peter . . . St. Peter had not changed the views he had himself set forth at the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15:10). But at Antioch he withdrew from the table of the Gentiles, because he feared giving offence to the Jewish converts. They at once mistook his kindliness for an approval of the false teaching of certain Judaizers, who wished to make the Mosaic law obligatory upon all Christians. His action was most imprudent, and calculated to do harm because of his great influence and authority. St. Paul, therefore, had a perfect right to uphold the Gospel liberty by a direct appeal to St. Peter's own example and teaching. (34)

Leslie Rumble and Charles Carty, who co-wrote the three-volume Radio Replies (1940), another popular and bestselling defense of Catholicism, agree:

    No doctrinal error was involved in this particular case . . . To cease from doing a lawful thing for fear lest others be scandalized is not a matter of doctrine. It is a question of prudence or imprudence. St. Paul did not act as if he were St. Peter's superior. Nor did he boast. To show the urgency of the matter, he practically said, "I had to resist even Peter - to whom chief authority belongs." And his words derive their full significance only from the fact that St. Peter was head of the Apostles. (35)

If St. Peter were guilty in this instance of hypocrisy (which appears to be the case), this is no disproof whatsoever of the Catholic dogma of papal infallibility, since that teaching does not extend to behavior and applies only to decrees on faith and morals which are intended to bind all the faithful to a certain doctinal standpoint. Granted, hypocrisy and bad example are not conducive to the successful propagation of a viewpoint, yet one must critique an idea according to its actual content. Thus, the attempt to undermine papal infallibility by means of this scriptural passage fails due to misunderstanding of the Catholic claims for the pope's divinely-appointed charism (in other words, it is a "straw man" argument). The New Bible Dictionary, an authoritative evangelical reference work, states that the disagreement here had nothing to do with any theological dispute between Paul and Peter, but rather, with the unfortunte inconsistency of belief and behavior on Peter's part, and denies the "old theory" that there was some sort of "rivalry" between these two pillars of the early Church. (36)

St. Peter at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15)

The apostolic supremacy of St. Peter is also often disputed by the counter-assertion that he did not preside over the Council of Jerusalem, the first record we have of a corporate Christian assembly, convened in order to settle doctrinal and practical matters. Conway and Rumble and Carty show how this, too, is an untenable position:

    St. Peter, not St. James, presided at the Council of Jerusalem. The question at issue was whether the Gentiles were bound to obey the Mosaic law. Paul, Barnabas, James and the rest were present as teachers and judges, . . . but Peter was their head, and the supreme arbiter of the controversy . . .

    St. Peter spoke first and decided the matter unhesitatingly [Acts 15:7-11], declaring that the Gentile converts were not bound by the Mosaic law. He claimed to exercise authority in the name of his special election by God to receive the Gentiles (Acts 15:7), and he severely rebuked those who held the opposite view (Acts 15:10). After he had spoken all the multitude held their peace (Acts 15:12) [immediately before Peter spoke, there had been much debate - 15:7]. Those who spoke after him merely confirmed his decision . . . James gave no special decision on the question . . . Moreover the decree is attributed to the Council of Apostles and Presbyters . . . (Acts 16:4), and not to James personally. (37)

    St. James, as local Bishop of Jerusalem, would naturally have a prominent position at the meeting, since it took place in Jerusalem. But there can be no doubt about his deference to the ecumenical position of St. Peter as chief of the Apostles [for example, he starts by saying Symeon {Peter} has related. . .]. (38)

Petrine Panoply: 50 New Testament Proofs for the Preeminence of St. Peter

The papacy is biblically-based, and is derived from the evident primacy of St. Peter among the Apostles. Like all Christian doctrines, it has undergone development through the centuries, but it hasn't departed from the essential components already existing in the leadership and prerogatives of St. Peter. These were given to him by our Lord Jesus Christ, acknowledged by his contemporaries, and accepted by the early Church. The biblical Petrine data is quite strong, and is inescapably compelling by virtue of its cumulative weight. This is especially made clear with the assistance of biblical commentaries. The evidence of Holy Scripture follows:

  • 1. Peter alone is the Rock upon which Jesus builds His Church (Matthew 16:18). Christ appears here not as the foundation, but as the architect who "builds." Moreover, Rock embodies a metaphor applied to him by Christ in a sense analogous to the suffering and despised Messiah (1 Peter 2:4-8; cf. Matthew 21:42).Without a solid foundation a house falls. The Good Shepherd (John 10:11) gives us other shepherds (pastors) as well (Ephesians 4:11).

  • 2. Peter alone is given the keys of the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 16:19).

  • 3. Peter is individually given the power to bind and loose (Matthew 16:19).

  • 4. Peter's name occurs first in all lists of Apostles (Matthew 10:2, Mark 3:16, Luke 6:14 Acts 1:13). Matthew even calls him the first (10:2). Judas Iscariot is invariably mentioned last.

  • 5. Peter is almost without exception named first whenever he appears with anyone else. In one (only?) example to the contrary, Galatians 2:9, where he (Cephas) is listed after James and before John, he is clearly preeminent in the entire context (for example, 1:18-19, 2:7-8).

  • 6. Peter alone among the Apostles receives a new name, Rock, solemnly conferred (John 1:42, Matthew 16:18).

  • 7. Likewise, Peter is regarded by Jesus as the Chief Shepherd after Himself (John 21:15-17), singularly by name, and over the universal Church, even though others have a similar but subordinate role (Acts 20:28, 1 Peter 5:2).

  • 8. Peter alone among the Apostles is mentioned by name as having been prayed for by Jesus Christ in order that his faith may not fail (Luke 22:32).

  • 9. Peter alone among the Apostles is exhorted by Jesus to strengthen your brethren (Luke 22:32).

  • 10. Peter first confesses Christ's Messiahship and divinity (Matthew 16:16).

  • 11. Peter alone is told that he has received divine knowledge by a special revelation (Matthew 16:17).

  • 12. Peter is regarded by the Jews (Acts 4:1-13) as the leader and spokesman of Christianity.

  • 13. Peter is regarded by the common people in the same way (Acts 2:37-41, 5:15).

  • 14. Jesus Christ uniquely associates Himself and Peter in the miracle of the tribute-money (Matthew 17:24-27).

  • 15. Christ teaches from Peter's boat, and the miraculous catch of fish follows (Luke 5:1-11): perhaps a metaphor for the pope as a fisher of men (cf. Matthew 4:19).

  • 16. Peter was the first Apostle to set out for, and enter the empty tomb (Luke 24:12, John 20:6).

  • 17. Peter is specified by an angel as the leader and representative of the Apostles (Mark 16:7).

  • 18. Peter leads the Apostles in fishing (John 21:2-3,11). The "bark" (boat) of Peter has been regarded by Catholics as a figure of the Church, with Peter at the helm.

  • 19. Peter alone casts himself into the sea to come to Jesus (John 21:7).

  • 20. Peter's words are the first recorded and most important in the upper room before Pentecost (Acts 1:15-22).

  • 21. Peter takes the lead in calling for a replacement for Judas (Acts 1:22).

  • 22. Peter is the first person to speak (and only one recorded) after Pentecost, so he was the first Christian to "preach the gospel" in the Church era (Acts 2:14-36).

  • 23. Peter works the first miracle of the Church Age, healing a lame man (Acts 3:6-12).

  • 24. Peter utters the first anathema (Ananias and Sapphira) emphatically affirmed by God (Acts 5:2-11)!

  • 25. Peter's shadow works miracles (Acts 5:15).

  • 26. Peter is the first person after Christ to raise the dead (Acts 9:40).

  • 27. Cornelius is told by an angel to seek out Peter for instruction in Christianity (Acts 10:1-6).

  • 28. Peter is the first to receive the Gentiles, after a revelation from God (Acts 10:9-48).

  • 29. Peter instructs the other Apostles on the catholicity (universality) of the Church (Acts 11:5-17).

  • 30. Peter is the object of the first divine interposition on behalf of an individual in the Church Age (an angel delivers him from prison - Acts 12:1-17).

  • 31. The whole Church (strongly implied) offers earnest prayer for Peter when he is imprisoned (Acts 12:5).

  • 32. Peter presides over and opens the first Council of Christianity, and lays down principles afterwards accepted by it (Acts 15:7-11).

  • 33. Paul distinguishes the Lord's post-Resurrection appearances to Peter from those to other Apostles (1 Corinthians 15:4-8). The two disciples on the road to Emmaus make the same distinction (Luke 24:34), in this instance mentioning only Peter (Simon), even though they themselves had just seen the risen Jesus within the previous hour (Luke 24:33).

  • 34. Peter is often spoken of as distinct among Apostles (Mark 1:36, Luke 9:28,32, Acts 2:37, 5:29, 1 Corinthians 9:5).

  • 35. Peter is often spokesman for the other Apostles, especially at climactic moments (Mark 8:29, Matthew 18:21, Luke 9:5, 12:41, John 6:67 ff.).

  • 36. Peter's name is always the first listed of the "inner circle" of the disciples (Peter, James and John - Matthew 17:1, 26:37,40, Mark 5:37, 14:37).

  • 37. Peter is often the central figure relating to Jesus in dramatic gospel scenes such as walking on the water (Matthew 14:28-32, Luke 5:1 ff., Mark 10:28, Matthew 17:24 ff.).

  • 38. Peter is the first to recognize and refute heresy, in Simon Magus (Acts 8:14-24).

  • 39. Peter's name is mentioned more often than all the other disciples put together: 191 times (162 as Peter or Simon Peter, 23 as Simon, and 6 as Cephas). John is next in frequency with only 48 appearances, and Peter is present 50% of the time we find John in the Bible! (39) Archbishop Fulton Sheen reckoned that all the other disciples combined were mentioned 130 times. (40) If this is correct, Peter is named a remarkable 60% of the time any disciple is referred to!

  • 40. Peter's proclamation at Pentecost (Acts 2:14-41) contains a fully authoritative interpretation of Scripture, a doctrinal decision and a disciplinary decree concerning members of the House of Israel (2:36) - an example of binding and loosing.

  • 41. Peter was the first "charismatic", having judged authoritatively the first instance of the gift of tongues as genuine (Acts 2:14-21).

  • 42. Peter is the first to preach Christian repentance and baptism (Acts 2:38).

  • 43. Peter (presumably) leads the first recorded mass baptism (Acts 2:41).

  • 44. Peter commanded the first Gentile Christians to be baptized (Acts 10:44-48).

  • 45. Peter was the first traveling missionary, and first exercised what would now be called "visitation of the churches" (Acts 9:32-38,43). Paul preached at Damascus immediately after his conversion (Acts 9:20), but hadn't traveled there for that purpose (God changed his plans!). His missionary journeys begin in Acts 13:2.

  • 46. Paul went to Jerusalem specifically to see Peter for fifteen days in the beginning of his ministry (Galatians 1:18), and was commissioned by Peter, James and John (Galatians 2:9) to preach to the Gentiles.

  • 47. Peter acts, by strong implication, as the chief bishop/shepherd of the Church (1 Peter 5:1), since he exhorts all the other bishops, or elders.

  • 48. Peter interprets prophecy (2 Peter 1:16-21).

  • 49. Peter corrects those who misuse Paul's writings (2 Peter 3:15-16).

  • 50. Peter wrote his first epistle from Rome, according to most scholars, as its bishop, and as the universal bishop (or, pope) of the early Church. Babylon (1 Peter 5:13) is regarded by many commentators as a code name for Rome.

In conclusion, it strains credulity to hold that God would present St. Peter with such prominence in the Bible, without some meaning and import for later Church government. The papacy is the most plausible interpretation and actual institutional fulfillment of this biblical evidence. For why would God foreordain such a leadership function, only to cease after Peter's death? Clearly, the office of the papacy is paramount, not individual popes, and this was to be perpetual (apostolic succession), just as are the offices of bishop, deacon, teacher, and evangelist.


  • 1. In Dogmatic Canons and Decrees, Rockford, IL: TAN Books, 1977 (orig. NY: 1912), p.256. [Documents of Councils of Trent and Vatican I, plus Decree on the Immaculate Conception and the Syllabus of Errors of Pope Pius IX]. See also Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), Liguori, MO: Liguori Publications, 1994, #891, 2035; Hardon, John A., The Catholic Catechism (CC), Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1975, pp.224-233; Hardon, John A., Pocket Catholic Dictionary (PCD), NY: Doubleday Image, 1980, pp.194-195. For conciliar infallibility, see CCC, #891-892, 2035.

  • 2. CCC, #552-553, 765, 862, 880-882, 936-937, 1444.

  • 3. St. Francis de Sales, The Catholic Controversy, tr. Henry B. Mackey, Rockford, IL: TAN Books, 1989 (orig. 1596), pp.306-307.

  • 4. Benson, Robert Hugh, The Religion of the Plain Man, Long Prairie, MN: Neumann Press, 1906, p.109.

  • 5. Newman, John Henry, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845), Part I, chapter 4, section 3, nos. 4-5,7-8. Newman was received into the Catholic Church the same year this book was completed (essentially arguing himself into the Church).

  • 6. Gibbons, James Cardinal, The Faith of Our Fathers, NY: P. J. Kenedy & Sons, rev. ed., 1917, pp.108-109.

  • 7. CCC, #877, 879, 887.

  • 8. CCC, #889.

  • 9. CCC, #765, 816, 880-881, 883-885, 895, 1444, 2034.

  • 10. CCC, #77, 551, 833, 860-862, 869, 875, 886, 888, 890, 892, 894-896, 935, 938.

  • 11. In Gasser, Vincent, The Gift of Infallibility, tr. with commentary, James T. O'Connor, Boston: Daughters of St. Paul, 1986 (Gasser's Relatio from First Vatican Council, 1870), pp.41-44.

  • 12. Knox, Ronald, In Soft Garments, Garden City, NY: Doubleday Image, 1941, p.130.

  • 13. Micropedia, pp.330-333. D. W. O'Connor, the author of the article, is himself Protestant and author of Peter in Rome: The Literary, Liturgical & Archaeological Evidence (1969).

  • 14. Cullmann, Oscar, Peter: Disciple, Apostle, Martyr, 2nd rev. ed., 1962.

  • 15. Anchor Bible, Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1971, vol. 26, pp.195,197-8.

  • 16. In McCord, Peter J., ed., A Pope For All Christians?, NY: Paulist Press, 1976, Introduction, p.7. This book is an ecumenical project offering views on the papacy from many perspectives. Brown is a Presbyterian & very prominent ecumenist.

  • 17. Morris, Leon, Gen. ed., Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press / Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1985, vol. 1: Matthew, R.T. France, pp.254,256.

  • 18. Gaebelein, Frank E., Gen. ed., Expositor's Bible Commentary, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984, vol. 8: Matthew, Mark, Luke (Matthew: D.A. Carson), p.368.

  • 19. 2nd rev. ed., London: Nelson, 1962, p.787.

  • 20. Guthrie, D. & J.A. Motyer, eds., The New Bible Commentary (NBC), Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 3rd ed., 1970 {Reprinted, 1987, as The Eerdmans Bible Commentary}, p.837.

  • 21. According to Brown, Raymond E., Karl P. Donfried & John Reumann, eds., Peter in the New Testament, Minneapolis: Augsburg Pub. House/NY: Paulist Press, 1973, pp.92-93, which also takes the same view. This is probably the most important ecumenical work on Peter, and is thus cited first in a long bibliography in the Encyclopedia Britannica. It is a common statement by a panel of eleven Catholic and Lutheran scholars.

  • 22. Vincent, Marvin R., Word Studies in the New Testament, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1946 (orig. 1887), 4 vols., vol. 1, pp.91-92; emphasis in original.

  • 23. St. Francis de Sales, ibid., pp.242-243,245-247.

  • 24. Chesterton, G.K., Heretics, London: The Bodley Head, 1950 (orig. 1905), pp.60-61. Chesterton was not yet formally Catholic at the time of this quote (1905). He would be received into the Catholic Church 17 years later, in 1922.

  • 25. Douglas, J.D., ed., The New Bible Dictionary (NBD), Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1962, p.1018.

  • 26. Ibid., pp.1018,1216; Guthrie, NBC, pp.603,837; France, ibid., p.256; Cullmann, ibid. (pp.183-184 in 1952 French ed.). Cullmann describes Peter as Jesus' "superintendent." The ecumenical work Peter in the New Testament (ed. Brown), also espouses the same view (pp.96-97).

  • 27. See Jaki, Stanley, The Keys of the Kingdom, Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1986, pp.27-28.

  • 28. Jamieson, Robert, Andrew R. Fausset & David Brown, Commentary on the Whole Bible, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1961 (orig. 1864) [Fausset & Brown were Anglicans, Brown Presbyterian], p.536.

  • 29. See, e.g., Protestant works: Myers, Allen C., ed., Eerdmans Bible Dictionary, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987 {English rev. of Bijbelse Encyclopedie, ed. W.H. Gispen, Kampen, Netherlands: J.H. Kok, rev. ed., 1975}, tr. Raymond C. Togtman & Ralph W. Vunderink, p.158; Guthrie, NBC, p.837; France, ibid., p.256.

  • 30. Vincent, ibid., vol. 1, p.96.

  • 31. Vine, W.E., An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell, 1940, four-volumes-in-one ed., vol. 2, p.88.

  • 32. Russo, Nicholas, The True Religion, NY: P.J. Kenedy & Sons, 1886, pp.124-126.

  • 33. St. Francis de Sales, ibid., pp.258-259.

  • 34. Conway, Bertrand L., The Question Box, NY: Paulist Press, 1929, pp.152-153; emphasis added.

  • 35. Rumble, Leslie & Charles M. Carty, Radio Replies, 3 volumes, St. Paul, MN: Radio Replies Press, 1940, [4374 questions about Catholicism answered], vol. 1, pp.82-83, question #357.

  • 36. Douglas, NBD, p.973.

  • 37. Conway, ibid., p.152.

  • 38. Rumble and Carty, ibid., vol. 2, p.91, question #344.

  • 39. This number includes thirteen generally-accepted instances of St. John's humble referral to himself as the disciple, or, the disciple whom Jesus loved in John 18-21. We know this from John 21:24, John's style, and deductive logic. Also included are five occurrences in Revelation, assuming the same John is its author (which is questioned by many biblical scholars).

  • 40. Sheen, Fulton J., Life of Christ, Garden City, NY: Doubleday Image, 1958, p.106. Sheen's figures for Peter and John were 195 and 29. I used my own personal tallies from Strong's Concordance.

Copyright 1996 by Dave Armstrong. All rights reserved. Bible verses: RSV.



Copyright 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved