This Sunday: Flawed Fisherman; Infallible Shepherd

In this Sunday’s Gospel (the 21st Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A), Jesus Christ gives Peter an extraordinary authority, saying “I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

It seems disproportionate. Peter is just a man, after all, and a weak one at that. How can Jesus give him this power? This Sunday’s readings explain how this is possible, and why Peter is the right one to receive it.

Exactly 150 years ago this summer, the Church spelled out just how far Peter’s authority stretched.

The First Vatican Council promulgated Pastor aeternus (Eternal Shepherd), the1870 Dogmatic Constitution giving the popes, as St. Peter’s successors “primacy of jurisdiction over the whole Church of God.”

By giving the Pope universal jurisdiction, the Church was making clear that bishops are not beholden to national powers or national churches but to the one Christ via one shepherd, the Pope, as Father Raymond de Souza recently pointed out.

As the Catechism puts it: “The Pope, Bishop of Rome and Peter’s successor, ‘is the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful’” and that he “as pastor of the entire Church has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered” (No. 882).

The Church’s reason for spelling out his power this way is primarily defensive — to keep the Church free from outside interference. What Pastor aeternus teaches about papal infallibility is also defensive, it says: “so that the whole flock of Christ might be kept away … from the poisonous food of error.”

“When the Roman Pontiff speaks ex cathedra,” (from the chair), in his teaching office “as shepherd and teacher of all Christians,” and “defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church, he possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed.”

This teaching is still in full force. Nearly 100 years later, the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium (No. 25) clarified that “religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra.”

That is a lot of authority in the hands of a weak man — an authority that may be understandable in cases like Gregory the Great or the great St. John Paul II, but is a hard pill to swallow when this same authority is given to some of the weak popes we have seen in the Church’s history — including the fisherman who denied him three times, Peter.

However, Sunday’s first reading, from Isaiah, shows that salvation history has ample precedent for this arrangement.

God makes it very clear who is in charge in the reading from Isaiah. He is. “I will thrust you from your office and pull you down from your station,” says the Lord.  He grants power, and he takes it away. “I will summon my servant Eliakim,” he says. “I will clothe him with your robe … and give over to him your authority.”

He even gives what sounds like papal authority to Eliakim: “I will place the key to the House of David on Eliakim’s shoulder; when he opens, no one shall shut.”

When the Protestant commentator William Barclay writes about Peter’s keys, he cites the case of Eliakim and sees exactly what the Church sees: “What Jesus is saying to Peter is that, in the days to come, he will be the steward of the Kingdom.

Anyone who has watched Return of the King has seen an example of a steward’s authority. Denethor, the Steward of Gondor, has the power to bind people to his service, and to send soldiers to their death. But his authority is limited by the true sovereign’s. He is told in no uncertain terms: “Authority is not given to you to deny the return of the King, steward!

Jesus Christ makes Peter that kind of steward of his kingdom — and protects him from doing harm in his teaching, because what Jesus says at his Ascension remains true, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” and we too will see the return of our king “in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven.”

Peter’s weakness helps us see that he has no authority apart from God. Nor any wisdom.

“How inscrutable are his judgments and how unsearchable his ways!” St. Paul writes in Sunday’s second reading. “For who has known the mind of the Lord or who has been his counselor? Or who has given the Lord anything that he may be repaid? For from him and through him and for him are all things.”

What can Simon Peter add to the perfection of God? Nothing. What can the teachings of Peter add to the teaching of Jesus? Nothing. Is it ever Peter’s place to add or subtract from the truth? Never.

As G.K. Chesterton pointed out, this is why Jesus gives the keys not to the brilliant Paul or the mystic John, but to Peter. So that it will be clear that Jesus is the real power here.

The context of the story makes it clear.

Remember how it begins. Jesus is asking the disciples who people say he is, then who they say he is.

Only Peter answers with confidence: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” It is only when Peter admits that he is himself in no way the answer to the world’s problems — Christ is — that Jesus makes him “the rock.”

Peter’s theological motto is “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” His charism is to be clueless apart from Christ, and he is given power not to lord it over others, but to strengthen them.

“Upon this rock I will build my church,” says Jesus, “and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.” Those are the gates of sin and heresy that enslave us to Satan, say the Fathers. Peter has the power to set us free.

And if what the Church teaches in 1870 seems far removed from the Gospel, consider the words of St. St. Cyprian of Carthage (200-259).

“A primacy is given to Peter, whereby it is made clear that there is but one Church and one chair,” he wrote. “If someone does not hold fast to this unity of Peter, can he imagine that he still holds the faith? If he desert the chair of Peter upon whom the Church was built, can he still be confident that he is in the Church?”

Image: Fatboo Flickr.

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes, author of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II and The Fatima Family Handbook, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas and hosts The Extraordinary Story podcast about the life of Christ. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, he served as press secretary of the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as executive editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in Catholic publications such as Aleteia.org and the Register. He and his wife, April, have nine children and live in Atchison, Kansas.