daily biblical sermons

The extent and limits of the authority of the successors of St. Peter
Fr. Steven Scherrer, MM, Th.D.
Homily of Monday, the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter the Apostle, February 22, 2021
1 Peter 5:1-4, Psalm 22, Matthew 16:13-19

Biblical quotations are taken from the Revised Standard Version unless otherwise noted




“He [Jesus] said to them [the apostles], ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter replied, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. 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. 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’” (Matthew 16:15-19).



Peter has just openly confessed that Jesus is the Messiah and Son of God. Jesus had just said to his apostles, “‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter replied, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God’” (Matthew 16:15-16).



Then in return Jesus tells Simon, “You are Peter [Petros], and on this rock [petra] I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18). Peter was not a common personal name for a man. It seems to have been a name that Jesus made up from the word for rock, which is petra, but since the word for rock in Greek is feminine, he puts a masculine singular ending on it to make it suitable as a name for a male human being (Petros), but basically the word means rock, so Jesus is complementing Peter for his profession of faith, calling him a rock, and furthermore he promises that he will build his Church on Peter the rock, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18).



Some Protestants argue that Jesus couldn’t have said that he would build his Church on Peter the rock, because Christ is the foundation of the Church, not Peter. But we see in other places that the New Testament calls the apostles the foundation of the Church. St. Paul says, “You are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone” (Ephesians 2:19-20). So, if St. Paul could call Jesus not the foundation but the cornerstone, and the apostles and prophets the foundation of the Church, then why can’t Jesus himself say that he is going to build his Church on Peter, because of the wonderful confession he made, saying that Jesus is the Messiah and Son of God?



It seems ridiculous to say, as some Protestants do, that Jesus doesn’t mean that Peter, whom he calls rock, is the rock on which he will build his Church, but that Jesus pointed to himself when he said, “On this rock I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18). But there is no indication whatsoever in the text that Jesus pointed to himself as the rock on which he will build his Church. So, the only responsible way we can interpret this inspired text is that Peter (rock) is the rock on which Jesus will build his Church: “And I tell you, you are Peter [rock], and on this rock I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18).



This does not, of course, deny that Christ is also the foundation of the Church, for St. Paul says, “No other foundation can any one lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:11).



Then Jesus tells Peter that he will give him the keys of the kingdom of heaven and that whatever he binds on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever he looses on earth will be loosed in heaven. In other words, he puts Peter in charge of his Church that he will build on him and on his faith in confessing Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God.



If you give the keys of your house to someone, you’re putting him in charge of your house, and if you give someone the power to bind and loose, you are giving him the authority to allow people in or keep them out and also authority to make important decisions.



When St. Peter died, the Church chose a successor, and this has continued throughout the history of the Church to the present day. The successors of Peter are the bishops of Rome, the popes. And everyone knows that the pope has great authority in the Church to make decisions, either collegially with the other bishops, or, if he pleases, by himself concerning what is orthodox doctrine and what is not.



But we must not think that the pope, Peter’s successor, can say anything he wants to about faith and morals and that it will necessarily be true and everyone must believe it, for there are also great limits and restrictions on the pope’s authority and on what he can proclaim about faith and morals.



First of all, God speaks through Peter and his successors. Peter is the Vicar of Christ on earth, and so is the pope, for he takes Christ’s place in making major decisions and in preserving the orthodox doctrinal and moral teaching of the Church. But God also spoke through the Scriptures and continues to speak through the inspired Scriptures, and God does not contradict himself. He does not say one thing through the inspired Scriptures and then contradict it through the mouth of the Vicar of Christ on earth, the reigning pope.



So, this is a great restriction on the pope that protects the Church, lest a pope should start proclaiming his own personal philosophy or his own mistaken personal opinions or try to impose the lifestyle of his own religious order on the whole Church. Christ has given the Church this protection. And this protection is that the pope can only proclaim what is in harmony with divine revelation in the word of God, the Bible, for God does not contradict himself, saying one thing in the Bible and the opposite through the mouth of the reigning pope.



So, if a pope proclaims something about faith and morals that contradicts biblical revelation no one has to pay any attention to it, and, in fact, no one should pay attention to it; and theologians and biblical scholars and others who are able to do so may and even should point out the errors in the pope’s teaching for the good of the Church lest people be deceived by them, thinking that if the pope says so, it must be true, even though it contradicts the Bible.



Those who are able to should point out that the pope has made a human error and that what he is teaching is not magisterial, even if he should claim that it is “authentic magisterium.” It is not magisterium, because the definition of authentic magisterium is that it never contradicts the Scriptures.



So, for example if a pope should teach that people in a valid marriage can divorce and civilly remarry during the lifetime of their valid spouse and live in an active sexual relationship with their new partner, they may be accompanied in a process of discernment with their pastor to see whether God wants them to continue living in this adulterous relationship, and if they decide that they should, then they may live in adultery and still be considered Christians and a Catholics in good standing and may receive the Eucharist as often as they like.



If a pope should teach this and justify it by saying that since God is merciful and sees that it would be too hard for these people in a difficult life situation to live up to his biblically revealed moral, he allows them to live in adultery, but does not consider it a sin in their case, but rather a virtue, since they are doing God’s will, which was revealed to them in their discernment process – if a Pope should teach this and proclaim it to be “authentic magisterium,” it would not be magisterium at all and would bind no one. In fact, Christians should disobey such a papal teaching, because it contradicts God’s teaching in the Scriptures (Mark 10:11-12; 1 Corinthians 11:27).



So, what should we do if a pope should declare something like this? We should certainly not divorce our wife and marry a younger more beautiful woman and get into a discernment process with our pastor, and if he agrees that we are not sinning, then receive the Eucharist regularly. If we were to obey such false teaching of a pope, we would be disobeying the Scriptures. We would be disobeying God.



Furthermore, if we are capable, we should try to alert the pope and the Church that he has made a serious mistake in a matter of faith and morals, lest the Church be deceived by it, thinking that since the pope said it, it must be true, when in fact it is false and if followed would lead a person into living in a constant state of objective mortal sin, thereby threatening his eternal salvation.



Let’s suppose that another occasion might arise where a pope teaches that the natural law, which is simply God’s law as it is written on our hearts, as St. Paul says (Romans 2:14-15), isn’t something that we necessarily have to follow as a set of already established rules that are imposed on us, but rather is only a source of objective inspiration from our tradition that we should dialogue with in making our own decision about what is right and best for us. If a pope should teach this and call it authentic magisterium, what should we do? Should we follow it? If we follow it, we would be disobeying God.



We must remember what the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum) says about the magisterium of the Church: “This teaching office [the magisterium] is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed” (Dei Verbum 10, emphasis added).

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