When I was a little boy my father taught me a lesson I will never forget. Whenever my parents used to go out and leave us with a babysitter my father gave us the same speech: “she represents me! You listen to her as if you were listening to me!” Usually my brother and I were not much difficulty for babysitters, but there was one time where I was being a real buster and I made that babysitter earn every dollar my father paid her! I guess she gave my father a bad report about my behavior, because the next morning I heard about it from my father. Only instead of yelling at me he asked me something. He said to me, “Andrew, do you love me?” “Yes dad,” I responded, “of course I love you!” My father said, “No you don’t! If you loved me you would have listened to that babysitter. I told you that she represented me, that she had my authority, so by disobeying her you disobeyed me!” I never forgot that lesson. Anytime we disobey any authority over us we disobey the person who gave that authority to the person in command over us. The Church is no exception.
Jesus gave his authority to St. Peter in the famous passage from Matthew’s Gospel account where he says to him “you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the power of the netherworld will not prevail against it. And I will give to you the keys to the kingdom of heaven; whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven.” (Matt. 16:13-20) Jesus wasn’t just plucking this out of the air he; was following a classic formula from the Old Testament. Whenever God entered a covenant with someone, he blessed him and changed his name. Giving a name to someone was extremely important. Even our Jewish friends today who observe the traditional rites know that there are rules that govern how to name someone. The meaning of the name is paramount, as it tells something about the new identity of the individual and the covenant God is entering into with him. So at Caesarea Philippi, Jesus follows this same pattern, and any good Jew would recognize what was happening. They had just come back from a tremendous trip where everybody was praising Jesus and was excited about him, and he asks them whom the people say that he is. When they responded by some saying “some say John the Baptist, others say Jeremiah one of the other prophets” He asks them “but who do you say that I am?” You can almost hear the silence in the group! It’s very easy for them to say what other people think but to say what they themselves think, that’s harder! Finally Simon speaks up and says “You are the Messiah,” the Christ – the word Messiah in Hebrew and Christ in Greek both mean “the anointed one.” Jesus accepts that and says to him, “Blessed are you Simon, son of Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you but my father in heaven. And so I declare you are Peter” – he changes his name, and the meaning of the name, “rock” is significant – and on this rock I will build my church and the power of the netherworld will not prevail against it.” There’s the covenant. “And I will give to you the keys to the kingdom of heaven; whatever you loose on earth shall be let loose in heaven, and what you hold bound on earth shall be held bound in heaven.” There’s the commission. There is no doubt what Jesus was doing here with Peter: he was entering a covenant with him and giving him a commission and promising that he would be with him forever. Let’s look more closely at what Jesus promised Peter:
First of all, he declares Peter blessed and changes his name from “Simon” to “Peter”. Peter means bedrock in Greek, the type of rock foundation you look for to set a building on a solid foundation. “And on this [solid rock foundation] I will build my church and the power of the netherworld will not prevail against it.” That means two different things. First, it means that the Church will never come to an end, so when we hear people saying “Ah, this will be the end of the Catholic Church” we know better. Jesus promised the Church would never come to an end and in fact it can’t because the Church is the body of Christ. So to say that the Church would come to an end would mean that Christ will come to an end. Christ is reigning in glory in heaven so there’s no way he can come to an end; therefore, there’s no way the Church can come to an end. Secondly, what was ‘the power of the netherworld,” “the jaws of death,” “the power of hell” – there are many different ways we could translate that line? It is a lie. A lie led Adam and Eve to sin. Satan tempted them with a lie, and Jesus promised that that power would not prevail against the Church; in other words, he promised Peter that he would never allow the Church to sustain a lie or an erroneous teaching. That doesn’t mean that everything the Pope says is automatically true just because he said it. He never promised Peter he would be impeccable – that he could never possibly make a mistake – but rather that under certain circumstances he is infallible – he cannot be wrong. There are several conditions that must be met:
- When he is speaking on a matter of faith and morals
- When he is speaking ex cathedra, as the recognized head of the Catholic Church
- When he’s speaking to all Catholics universally (he can’t be talking just to Catholics in the United States or just in France or just in Italy)
- When he intends to make an infallible decision.
Under these conditions the promise that Jesus gave to Peter is fulfilled and the Pope speaks infallibly on his own authority. That’s what we call the Extraordinary Magisterium. In the course of history popes have exercised that right precisely twice: Pope Pius IX in 1854 to infallibly define the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and Pope Pius XII in 1952 to infallibly define the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. So all of this hullabaloo about the infallibility of the pope is about something that happened precisely twice in history!
But that doesn’t mean that’s the only time that the church exercises her infallibility. The authority that Jesus gave to Peter is exercised in the Ordinary Magisterium, the teaching power that comes with the clear and consistent teaching of the church. Part of the Church’s infallibility that Jesus gave to Peter is exercised whenever the church clearly and consistently teaches something over the course of time. When that happens, we know that it must be true or Jesus lied to Peter. So for example, pick any one of the hot topics today that people want the church to change. If the church should all of a sudden decide “Well alright, I know for the last 2000 years we said that was sinful but now are going to allow it” what would we be saying? We’d be saying that for 2000 years the Lord has allowed the church to sustain a lie! We’d have to say that either he couldn’t stop it – which is inconceivable; he’s God – or he chose not to, which is also inconceivable. It is not consistent with the promise he gave to Peter. So when the church clearly and consistently teaches something we know that it is the truth because of the promise Jesus made to Peter. The only other possibility would be for people to say that something which used to be wrong is now okay. But that too is impossible, for that would imply a change in God himself. Morality is our conforming our lives with the nature of God, so to try to declare that something that used to be moral is now immoral or vice versa would imply a change in God and that’s a metaphysical impossibility. That doesn’t mean that everything the Pope says is automatically true. For example in the 18th century when the waltz first came out, the Pope at the time condemned it as a sinful dance because it required the gentleman to put his hand on the lady’s waist as they danced, which was a rather risqué thing to do in their time. But it was never followed up by any other pope, and today there was nothing wrong with dancing the waltz. It was merely the opinion of one pope at the time. Popes could also sometimes make a mistake and say things that later they might retract. For example Pope Paul VI once talking to priests in Rome was encouraging them to go into the schools and teach the children their catechism, and he told to them this is the most important thing they do as a priest. Of course that’s not the most important thing they do as a priest; the most important thing they do as a priest is celebrate the sacraments, most especially the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, and when questioned about it later I’m sure he said “yeah, I misspoke!” He was speaking off-the-cuff; he wasn’t intending an infallible decision. But when the Church teaches something clearly and consistently we know that that teaching is a clear teaching of God and is infallible because that’s what Jesus promised Peter.
And I will give to you the keys to the kingdom of heaven; what you declare bound on earth shall be bound in heaven what you let loose on earth shall be let loose in heaven.” In other words Jesus is saying, “Peter, you speak for me! You have my authority to decide what leads people to heaven and what doesn’t, what is sinful and what is licit.” He promised Peter that he would speak through him, so when the Pope speaks, it is Christ who speaks. Again, it’s not arbitrary. It’s not that God automatically gives the Pope the perfect ability to never make a mistake but that Jesus promised the Holy Spirit would guide him in making those decisions so he would not err. It is God at work and not the individual person of the pope. That’s how we can notice that even some of the popes in history who were quite sinful were able to make good faith-filled decisions in spite of their own sinfulness.
That brings up what a lot of people would ask us about some of those sinful popes, especially in the Middle Ages. They would say, “how can you talk about following the Pope after all those popes who sinned so much?” Yes, is certainly true there were some popes who were quite an embarrassment and who did sin grievously. I like to think of it this way: suppose were talking about the President of the United States, and let’s imagine some president somewhere commits a serious crime that is embarrassment to the entire nation, and both political parties – even the president’s own party – decide he has to be removed from office. He is impeached, removed from office and sent to prison. What do we do now? The vice president becomes president and he’ll probably have to do a lot of work to build up and restore the credibility of the office of the president in the eyes of the rest of the world as well as our own nation, but would anyone claim that the Constitution of the United States is now null and void simply because the president committed a crime? Of course not! The sin of the man in office says nothing about the power of the office itself. The same thing can be said about the papacy. Just because one pope commits a sin does not mean that Jesus’ promise to Peter is now null and void. If we’re looking for a perfect pope who has never sinner, there has never been any! Even Peter on the night Jesus was arrested denied three times that he even knew who Jesus was. What did Jesus do later? He reinstated Peter, as we hear in John when he asked him “Simon son of John, do you love me?… feed my sheep… tend to my flock!” He was reinstating what he had promised at Caesarea Philippi. It’s as if he was telling him “your weakness at that moment does not stand in the way of what I promised you; it still continues.”
The authority of the Pope was never a problem for the church until the time of the Protestant Reformation where the reformers wanted to break away from the power of Rome. Of course they had a serious problem when confronted with Matthew 16:13-20. It’s amply clear what Jesus said and did there, so they tried to get around it and explain away the meaning of that verse. They claimed that Jesus really meant Peter’s faith and not Peter himself was the rock on which the Church would be built, citing nuances of the word petra in Greek. Their argument in effect would say that anybody who has faith in Jesus as Peter did can know the truth and know what’s right and wrong, and would have the authority to speak infallibly in Jesus’ name. Well, just the fact that Christians disagree about that line let alone other things proves that cannot be true. Jesus never intended to say that anyone who believes in him will be infallible! That nullifies the whole call to discipleship, to following his teachings! The ability to decide right from wrong on one’s own authority is precisely what Original Sin was, the very thing Jesus was about to die to reverse! It is ludicrous to hold that Jesus was authorizing the very cause of our downfall! If you follow the reformers’ argument the conclusion you come to is that Jesus didn’t know how to use a metaphor! And if you step back and look at the story you have to ask, “then what the heck was Jesus doing there?” Without the traditional Catholic understanding of this text, it was a pointless dialogue. There is no getting around it: Jesus gave his authority to Peter, and the reformers tried to get around it but they failed.
For us even in our Catholic circles there are some people who try to excuse themselves from their obligation to follow the Pope. This usually comes into play when there is a teaching that we don’t particularly like or agree with. We want it to change but the Church is not changing it, so people will come up with things you’ll hear such as “Oh, that’s just Rome!” or “Well the Pope is an old man in Rome. he doesn’t understand what my life in America is like” or “he doesn’t understand what it’s like being a woman, so we can just take what he says with a grain of salt!” No we can’t. The Holy Father has the authority to speak in the name of Jesus, and we cannot just dismiss away his authority in our lives anymore then we could just dismiss away the authority of the federal government by saying “Oh, that’s just Washington!” Like it or not, we are bound by the laws of the United States and the laws of the state in which we live. Similarly, we are bound by the authority of the Holy Father and there is no way we can ignore the Pope and say were still following Jesus. To deliberately disobey the Holy Father is to deliberately disobey Jesus. There’s no way around it. And that’s the lesson that my father taught me all those many years ago about disobeying the babysitter.
Finally, sometimes people see the papacy and the authority of the Pope as this big authority on top of us crashing us under its power and putting this heavy weight in our shoulders, that somehow Catholics are slaving under this burden of all the things that the Church teaches. I don’t see it that way at all! In fact I see quite the opposite! I see the authority of the Church as quite liberating. Those denominations of Christianity that have rejected the authority of the Pope and decided they can decide right from wrong on their own are caught in a quandary. What happens when they disagree among themselves? If they take a vote and it’s 50-50, who has the ultimate authority to decide which 50% is right and which 50% is wrong? They have no one! But we, thankfully, have the power of the Holy Father that Jesus gave to Peter, that when we disagree among ourselves and bring it to the Holy Father, when he makes his final decision, we know it’s true because Jesus promised the Holy Spirit would guide the Holy Father through all of time. It’s a tremendous freedom for us to know that we can follow this with certitude because we know that this is not just the opinion of a man in white in Rome, that this is the very teaching of God. I pray that all people will come to realize the tremendous gift that God has given the world in the infallibility of the Church and the Holy Father. May we never try to get around that authority, but rather, may we turn and embrace that authority as a wonderful gift from God and ask the Lord to help us to accept the Church’s teachings as the truth leading to salvation in his kingdom.