I don’t like being told what to do. I’ve always had a problem with authority.
I used to think that my problem with authority was just me being “independent.” Truth is, I’m not independent; I’m rebellious. I can look back on my life now and admit that. I honestly believe this is one of the things that kept me from accepting papal authority for a while. Here’s what I’d like to do with this one. I don’t want to argue about, for or against authority on this. I want us to take a look at what Holy Scripture has to say and define some things and leave it at that.
Ok, let’s start with this. Matthew 16 is the primary text for papal authority. That does not mean that it is the only text that supports papal authority. And, Matthew 16 (like almost all Holy Scripture) really needs to be read through the lens and understanding of a 1st century Jew. If we don’t know some things about Judaism and rabbinic tradition, then some things seem quite obscure and their deeper meaning and significance is lost to us.
We read Scripture through our 21st century Western lens. But Scripture was, first and foremost, written for an early Christian context that was almost exclusively Jewish in context, understanding and conversion. Yes, the Gentiles became converts but the vast majority of the earliest converts to Christianity were Jewish in ethnicity and faith practice. This is super important for us to understand.
Ok, back to Matthew 16. This is the famous passage where Peter proclaims Jesus as the Christ. And Jesus says something back to Peter, something that has deep ties to the Jewish Scriptures (what we call the Old Testament) and rabbinic tradition and is prophetic in nature. Jesus says to Peter, “You are Peter and upon this rock I will build My Church. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven and whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth will have been loosed in heaven.”
If you are Protestant reading this, I know that your view of this passage is different than the Catholic one. However, let’s look at this text closely. First off, we need to read this in light of Isaiah 22. So be prepared to flip back and forth. Isaiah 22:15-25 is the primary text that we’ll read together with Matthew 16:13-20.
The Isaiah text seems kind of obscure unless we know some things. The steward that is talked about here serves in a certain capacity. Think of this person like a prime minister if you will. This is someone who is in charge of the king’s house and, in the absence of the king, will act in the interests of the king with the king’s authority. That last part is important. While this “steward” is not the king, he acts with the same authority as the king. I mean, look at the language used, “clothe him with your robe...bind your sash on him…commit your authority to his hand…he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and the house of Judah…” These are all symbols of authority (and fatherhood). But look closely at verse 22-24,
“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. And I will fasten him like a peg in a secure place, and he will become a throne of honor to his father's house. And they will hang on him the whole honor of his father's house, the offspring and issue, every small vessel, from the cups to all the flagons.”
The key to the house of David. I think we can all agree that Jesus was and is the holder of the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven. But what if He went away for awhile? Like, in this case, He was on His way to Jerusalem to be crucified, buried, resurrected and eventually would ascend into heaven. So, knowing He’s going to be gone (in a physical sense), He has to put someone in charge. All kings did this. All “kings” still do this.
Somebody has to be in charge.
But this is more than just someone being in charge. Look again at the Isaiah text. Look at verse 24. What in the world does it mean when it talks about small vessels and flagons and such? Well, I’m glad you asked. Those are priestly things, used in the temple for the offerings and worship. So, we can see pretty plainly that this steward, Eliakim, in Isaiah 22 is more than just a guy in charge but there is a priestly function to his role also.
This is the text and image that Jesus is invoking when delivering this to Peter in the presence of the other apostles. This also has overt spiritual implications in the image of opening and shutting. In other words, what that’s saying is that the same earthly and spiritual authority that the king enjoys, the steward will now participate in.
Let’s talk about the binding and loosing thing. This doesn’t make a lot of sense to us 21st century Western types but it made perfect sense to a 1st century Jew. This comes directly from rabbinic tradition. There were apparently several ways in which this was applicable but it’s especially important for our consideration here that it included both the giving of authoritative teaching and the lifting or imposing the ban of excommunication. In other words, what Jesus was saying (among other things) to Peter was that he was being given the authority to authoritatively teach, as well as lift or impose the ban of excommunication.
It’s important to note that, later in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says something similar to the other apostles (Matthew 18:18). But Jesus did not go into the whole keys of the kingdom thing with them.
Jesus clearly singled out Peter, in the context of and in the company of the other apostles. That’s important and we’ll come back to that but Jesus clearly singled out Peter.
So, I think it’s pretty clear from a plain reading of the Matthew 16 text (and other texts) in light of Isaiah 22 (and many other OT texts involving the High Priest and other authority figures) what Jesus was doing with Peter. It seems clear that Jesus was giving to Peter an authority over the Church and even a sort of “first place” among his fellow apostles. It is also clear that Peter was to exercise that authority within the context of the Church in communion with (in the presence of) his fellow apostles.
This is important because it goes directly to the consideration of what is called papal infallibility. This needs to be defined because it is misunderstood by both Catholic and Protestant Christians. Papal infallibility does not mean that the Pope is without sin. I should think that’s pretty obvious. I mean, almost immediately after Jesus imbues Peter with this authority, Peter says something stupid and Jesus calls him Satan. So, to say that Peter was perfect would be a drastic stretch. And so it has been for Peter’s successors. No one, and I mean, no one, would say that any pope has been perfect. Infallible does not mean perfect. History has shown us that. So let’s just all agree on that one and move on.
I used to think that papal infallibility meant that whatever the Pope said was infallible. Like, he could order his eggs sunny side up and that was considered infallible. As silly as that sounds, I bet some of you reading this thought that also. Papal infallibility is really not even about the Pope. Infallibility is really about the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise that the gates of hell would not prevail against His Church.
Go back and read that again.
I used to think that infallibility meant that the Pope had to be perfect. No, the infallibility of the message is about the Messenger. In other words, we can trust the teaching of the Church delivered by the Pope because Jesus has promised that He would protect His Church…even from false teaching.
It’s not that the Pope can’t be wrong; Jesus can’t be wrong.
When the Pope (or any other bishop) teaches with the authority of the Church, their teaching can be trusted. However, there are things we must know, and their teaching must live up to. The authoritative teaching of the Bishop or Rome, or any other bishop, cannot teach what the Church has never taught. In other words, their teaching must align with the doctrine that the Church has always taught and as it is supported by/not contradicted by Holy Scripture. If the teaching of any bishop, Rome or otherwise, strays outside the bounds of either Holy Scripture or the Great Tradition, you may be sure that it is not authoritative.
Let’s circle back to something that we talked about earlier. Peter’s authority (and that of his successors) is exercised within the bounds of the Church and in company with the other apostles and their successors, the bishops. In other words, outside the bounds of the Church and the communion of the other bishops, the Pope has no authority to deliver authoritative teaching. For example, he can’t offer an opinion on climate change outside those bounds and it be “authoritative.” The opinion of the Pope on things is just that…his opinion. He must be delivering official doctrinal teaching within the context of the Church and in communion with his fellow bishops or it is not authoritative and infallible. He can’t just make it up as he goes, despite some popes attempting to do just that.
This has been long and I hope you’re still with me. If not, it’s okay. I want you to know that I’m not an official spokesperson for the Holy Father. I’m just a guy who loves Jesus and His Church who is Catholic and wants people to know, who don’t know, what the Catholic Church actually teaches.
At the end of the day, I hope this brings you great comfort, as it has me. I hope that comfort comes when you consider that Jesus is still on the throne. Jesus has promised that His Church would go on and on. Jesus has promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against His Church. Jesus will have His spotless Bride and nothing will stop that. Jesus has given us leaders in His Church, earthly and spiritual fathers who, in His absence, will care for us and teach us. You are not alone in your journey to figure things out on your own. What grace He has shown us by giving us fathers to walk with us!