Faith of Our Fathers, Chapter 09 – The Primacy of Peter

photograph of Cardinal James Gibbons taken no later than 1915, location and photographer unknown; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsThe Catholic Church teaches also, that our Lord conferred on Saint Peter the first place of honor and jurisdiction in the government of His whole Church, and that the same spiritual supremacy has always resided in the Popes, or Bishops of Rome, as being the successors of Saint Peter. Consequently, to be true followers of Christ all Christians, both among the clergy and the laity, must be in communion with the See of Rome, where Peter rules in the person of his successor.

Before coming to any direct proofs on this subject I may state that, in the Old Law, the High Priest appointed by Almighty God filled an office analogous to that of Pope in the New Law. In the Jewish Church there were Priests and Levites ordained to minister at the altar; and there was, also, a supreme ecclesiastical tribunal, with the High Priest at its head. All matters of religious controversy were referred to this tribunal and in the last resort to the High Priest, whose decision was enforced under pain of death. “If there be a hard matter in judgment between blood and blood, cause and cause, leprosy and leprosy, … thou shalt come to the Priests of the Levitical race and to the judge, … and they shall show thee true judgment. And thou shalt do whatever they say who preside in the place which the Lord shall choose, and thou shalt follow their sentence. And thou shalt not decline to the right hand, or to the left…. But he that … will refuse to obey the commandment of the Priest, who ministereth at the time, … that man shall die, and thou shalt take away the evil from Israel.”

From this passage it is evident that in the Hebrew Church the High Priest had the highest jurisdiction in religious matters. By this means unity of faith and worship was preserved among the people of God.

Now the Jewish synagogue, as Saint Paul testifies, was the type and figure of the Christian Church; for “all these things happened to them (the Jews) in figure.” We must, therefore, find in the Church of Christ a spiritual judge, exercising the same supreme authority as the High Priest wielded in the Old Law. For if a supreme Pontiff was necessary, in the Mosaic dispensation, to maintain purity and uniformity of worship, the same dignitary is equally necessary now to preserve unity of faith.

Every well-regulated civil government has an acknowledged head. The President is the head of the United States Government. Queen Victoria is the ruler of Great Britain. The Sultan sways the Turkish Empire. If these nations had no authorized leader to govern them they would be reduced to the condition of a mere mob, and anarchy, confusion and civil war would inevitably follow, as recently happened to France after the fall of Napoleon III.

Even in every well-ordered family, domestic peace requires that someone preside.

Now, the Church of Christ is a visible society – that is, a society composed of human beings. She has, it is true, a spiritual end in view; but having to deal with men, she must have a government as well as every other organized society. This government, at least in its essential elements, our Lord must have established for His Church. For was He not as wise as human legislators? And shall we suppose that, of all lawgivers, the Wisdom Incarnate alone left His Kingdom on earth to be governed without a head?

But someone will tell me: “We do not deny that the Church has a head. God himself is its Ruler.” This is evading the real question. Is not God the Ruler of all governments? “By Me,” He says, “kings reign, and lawgivers decree just things.” He is the recognized Head of our Republic, and of every Christian family in the land; but, nevertheless, there is always presiding over the country a visible chief, who represents God on earth.

In like manner the Church, besides an invisible Head in heaven, must have a visible head on earth. The body and members of the Church are visible; why not also the Head? The Church without a supreme Ruler would be like an army without a general, a navy without an admiral, a sheep-fold without a shepherd, or like a human body without a head.

The Christian communities separated from the Catholic Church deny that Peter received any authority over the other Apostles, and hence they reject the supremacy of the Pope.

The absence from the Protestant communions of a Divinely appointed, visible Head is to them an endless source of weakness and dissension. It is an insuperable barrier against any hope of a permanent reunion among themselves, because they are left without a common rallying centre or basis of union and are placed in an unhappy state of schism.

The existence, on the contrary, of a supreme judge of controversy in the Catholic Church is the secret of her admirable unity. This is the keystone that binds together and strengthens the imperishable arch of faith.

From the very fact, then, of the existence of a supreme Head in the Jewish Church; from the fact that a Head is always necessary for civil government, for families and corporations; from the fact, especially, that a visible Head is essential to the maintenance of unity in the Church, while the absence of a Head necessarily leads to anarchy, we are forced to conclude, even though positive evidence were wanting, that, in the establishment of His Church, it must have entered into the mind of the Divine Lawgiver to place over it a primate invested with superior judicial powers.

But have we any positive proof that Christ did appoint a supreme Ruler over His Church? To those, indeed, who read the Scriptures with the single eye of pure intention the most abundant evidence of this fact is furnished. To my mind the New Testament establishes no doctrine, unless it satisfies every candid reader that our Lord gave plenipotentiary powers to Peter to govern the whole Church. In this chapter I shall speak of the Promise, the Institution, and the exercise of Peter’s Primacy, as recorded in the New Testament. The next chapter shall be devoted to its perpetuity in the Popes.

Promise of the Primacy. Our Saviour, on a certain occasion, asked His disciples, saying: “Whom do men say that the Son of Man is? And they said: Some say that Thou art John the Baptist; and others, Elias; and others, Jeremiah, or one of the Prophets. Jesus saith to them: But whom do ye say that I am?” Peter, as usual, is the leader and spokesman. “Simon Peter answering, said: Thou art Christ, the Son of the living God. And Jesus answering said to him: Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-Jona: because flesh and blood hath not revealed it to thee, but My Father who is in heaven. And I say to thee: that thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give to thee the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound also in heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed also heaven.” Here we find Peter confessing the Divinity of Christ, and in reward for that confession he is honored with the promise of the Primacy.

Our Savior, by the words “thou art Peter,” clearly alludes to the new name which He Himself had conferred upon Simon, when He received him into the number of His followers (John i. 42); and He now reveals the reason for the change of name, which was to insinuate the honor He was to confer on him, by appointing him President of the Christian Republic; just as God, in the Old Law, changed Abram’s name to Abraham, when He chose him to be the father of a mighty nation.

The word Peter, in the Syro-Chaldaic tongue, which our Savior spoke, means a rock. The sentence runs thus in that language: “Thou art a rock, and on this rock I will build My Church.” Indeed, all respectable Protestant commentators have now abandoned, and even ridicule, the absurdity of applying the word rock to anyone but to Peter; as the sentence can bear no other construction, unless our Lord’s good grammar and common sense are called in question.

Jesus, our Lord, founded but one Church, which He was pleased to build on Peter. Therefore, any church that does not recognize Peter as its foundation stone is not the Church of Christ, and therefore cannot stand, for it is not the work of God. This is plain. Would to God that all would see it aright and with eyes free from prejudice.

He continues: “And I will give to thee the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven,” etc. In ancient times, and particularly among the Hebrew people, keys were an emblem of jurisdiction. To affirm that a man had received the keys of a city was equivalent to the assertion that he had been appointed its governor. In the Book of Revelation our Savior says that He has “the keys of death and of hell,” which means that He is endowed with power over death and hell. In fact, even to this day does not the presentation of keys convey among ourselves the idea of authority? If the proprietor of a house, on leaving it for the summer, says to any friend: “Here are the keys of my house,” would not this simple declaration, without a word of explanation, convey the idea, “I give you full control of my house; you may admit or exclude whom you please; you represent me in my absence?” Let us now apply this interpretation to our Redeemer’s words. When He says to Peter: “I will give to thee the keys,” etc., He evidently means: I will give the supreme authority over My Church, which is the citadel of faith, My earthly Jerusalem. Thou and thy successors shall be My visible representatives to the end of time. And be it remembered that to Peter alone, and to no other Apostle, were these solemn words addressed.

Fulfillment of the Promise. The promise which our Redeemer made of creating Peter the supreme ruler of His Church is fulfilled in the following passage: “Jesus saith to Simon Peter: Simon, son of John, lovest thou Me more than these? He saith to Him: Yea, Lord, Thou knowest that I love Thee. He saith to him: Feed My lambs. He saith to him again: Simon, son of John, lovest thou Me? He saith to Him: Yea, Lord, Thou knowest that I love Thee. He saith to him: Feed My lambs. He saith to him the third time: Simon, son of John, lovest thou Me? Peter was grieved because He had said to him the third time: Lovest thou Me? And he said to Him: Lord, Thou knowest all things. Thou knowest that I love Thee. He said to him: Feed My sheep.”

These words were addressed by our Lord to Peter after His resurrection. The whole sheep-fold of Christ is confided to him, without any exception or limitation. Peter has jurisdiction not only over the lambs – the weak and tender portion of the flock – by which are understood the faithful; but also over the sheep, i.e., the Pastors themselves, who hold the same relations to their congregations that the sheep hold to the lambs, because they bring forth unto Jesus Christ, and nourish the spiritual lambs of the fold. To other Pastors a certain portion of the flock is assigned; to Peter the entire fold; for, never did Jesus say to any other Apostle or Bishop what He said to Peter: Feed My whole flock.

Candid reader, do you not profess to be a member of Christ’s flock? Yes, you answer. Do you take your spiritual food from Peter and his successor, and do you hear the voice of Peter, or have you wandered into the fold of strangers who spurn Peter’s voice? Ponder well this momentous question. For if Peter is authorized to feed the lambs of Christ’s flock, the lambs should hear Peter’s voice.

Exercise of the Primacy. In the Acts of the Apostles, which contain almost the only Scripture narrative that exists of the Apostles subsequent to our Lord’s ascension, Saint Peter appears before us, like Saul among the tribes, standing head and shoulders over his brethren by the prominent part he takes in every ministerial duty.

The first twelve chapters of the Acts are devoted to Peter and to some of the other Apostles, the remaining chapters being chiefly occupied with the labors of the Apostles of the Gentiles. In that brief historical fragment, as well as in the Gospels, the name of Peter is everywhere pre-eminent.

Peter’s name always stands first in the list of the Apostles, while Judas Iscariot is invariably mentioned last. Peter is even called by Saint Matthew the first Apostle. Now Peter was first neither in age nor in priority of election, his elder brother Andrew having been chosen before him. The meaning, therefore, of the expression must be that Peter was first not only in rank and honor, but also in authority.

Peter is the first Apostle who performed a miracle. He is the first to address the Jews in Jerusalem while his Apostolic brethren stand respectfully around him, upon which occasion he converts three thousand souls.

Peter is the first to make converts from the Gentile world in the persons of Cornelius and his friends.

When there is question of electing a successor to Judas Peter alone speaks. He points out to the Apostles and disciples the duty of choosing another to succeed the traitor. The Apostles silently acquiesce in the instructions of their leader.

In the Apostolic Council of Jerusalem Peter is the first whose sentiments are recorded. Before his discourse “there was much disputing.” But when he had ceased to speak “all the multitude held their peace.”

Saint James and the other Apostles concur in the sentiments of Peter without a single dissenting voice.

Saint James is cast into prison by Herod and afterward beheaded. He was one of the three most favored Apostles. He was the cousin of our Lord and brother of Saint John. He was most dear to the faithful. Yet no extraordinary efforts are made by the faithful to rescue him from death.

Peter is imprisoned about the same time. The whole Church is aroused. Prayers for his deliverance ascend to heaven, not only from Jerusalem but also from every Christian family in the land.

The army of the Lord can afford to lose a chieftain in the person of James, but it cannot yet spare the commander-in-chief. The enemies of the Church had hoped that the destruction of the chief shepherd would involve the dispersion of the whole flock; therefore they redoubled their fury against the Prince of the Apostles, just as her modern enemies concentrate their shafts against the Pope, his successor. Does not this incident eloquently proclaim Peter’s superior authority? In fact Peter figures so conspicuously in every page that his Primacy is not only admissible, but is forced on the judgment of the impartial reader.

What are the principal objections advanced against the Primacy of Peter? They are chiefly, I may say exclusively, confined to the three following: First – That our Lord rebuked Peter. Second – That Saint Paul criticised his conduct on a point not affecting doctrine, but discipline. The Apostle of the Gentiles blames Saint Peter because he withdrew for a time from the society of the Gentile converts, for fear of scandalizing the newly-converted Jews. Third – That the supremacy of Peter conflicts with the supreme dominion of Christ.

For my part I cannot see how these objections can invalidate the claims of Peter. Was not Jesus Peter’s superior? May not a superior rebuke his servant without infringing on the servant’s prerogatives?

And why could not Saint Paul censure the conduct of Saint Peter without questioning that superior’s authority? It is not a very uncommon thing for ecclesiastics occupying an inferior position in the Church to admonish even the Pope. Saint Bernard, though only a monk, wrote a work in which, with Apostolic freedom, he administers counsel to Pope Eugenius III., and cautions him against the dangers to which his eminent position exposes him. Yet no man had more reverence for any Pope than Bernard had for this great Pontiff. Cannot our Governor animadvert upon the President’s conduct without impairing the President’s jurisdiction?

Nay, from this very circumstance, I draw a confirming evidence of Peter’s supremacy. Saint Paul mentions it as a fact worthy of record that he actually withstood Peter to his face. Do you think it would be worth recording if Paul had rebuked James or John or Barnabas? By no means. If one brother rebukes another, the matter excites no special attention. But if a son rebukes his father, or if a Priest rebukes his Bishop to his face, we understand why he would consider it a fact worth relating. Hence, when Saint Paul goes to the trouble of telling us that he took exception to Peter’s conduct, he mentions it as an extraordinary exercise of Apostolic freedom, and leaves on our mind the obvious inference that Peter was his superior.

In the very same Epistle to the Galatians Saint Paul plainly insinuates Saint Peter’s superior rank. “I went,” he says, “to Jerusalem to see Peter, and I tarried with him fifteen days.” Saints Chrysostom and Ambrose tell us that this was not an idle visit of ceremony, but that the object of Saint Paul in making the journey was to testify his respect and honor for the chief of the Apostles. Saint Jerome observes in a humorous vein that “Paul went not to behold Peter’s eyes, his cheeks or his countenance, whether he was thin or stout, with nose straight or twisted, covered with hair or bald, not to observe the outward man, but to show honor to the first Apostle.”

There are others who pretend, in spite of our Lord’s declaration to the contrary, that loyalty to Peter is disloyalty to Christ, and that, by acknowledging Peter as the rock on which the Church is built, we set our Savior aside. So far from this being the case, we acknowledge Jesus Christ as the “chief cornerstone,” as well as the Divine Architect of the building.

The true test of loyalty to Jesus is not only to worship Him, but to venerate even the representatives whom He has chosen. Will anyone pretend to say that my obedience to the Governor’s appointee is a mark of disrespect to the Governor himself? I think our State Executive would have little faith in the allegiance of any citizen who would say to him: “Governor, I honor you personally, but your official’s order I shall disregard.”

Saint Peter is called the first Bishop of Rome because he transferred his see from Antioch to Rome, where he suffered martyrdom with Saint Paul.

We are not surprised that modern skepticism, which rejects the Divinity of Christ and denies even the existence of God, should call in question the fact that Saint Peter lived and died in Rome.

The reason commonly alleged for disputing this well-attested event is that the Acts of the Apostles make no mention of Peter’s labors and martyrdom in Rome. For the same reason we might deny that Saint Paul was beheaded in Rome; that Saint John died in Ephesus, and that Saint Andrew was crucified. The Scripture is silent regarding these historical records, and yet they are denied by no one.

The intrinsic evidence of Saint Peter’s first Epistle, the testimony of his immediate successors in the ministry, as well as the avowal of eminent Protestant commentators, all concur in fixing the See of Peter in Rome.

“Babylon,” from which Peter addresses his first Epistle, is understood by learned annotators, Protestant and Catholic, to refer to Rome – the word Babylon being symbolical of the corruption then prevailing in the city of the Caesars.

Clement, the fourth Bishop of Rome, who is mentioned in terms of praise by Saint Paul; Saint Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, who died in 105; Irenaeus, Origen, Saint Jerome, Eusebius, the great historian, and other eminent writers testify to Saint Peter’s residence in Rome, while no ancient ecclesiastical writer has ever contradicted the statement.

John Calvin, a witness above suspicion; Cave, an able Anglican critic; Grotius and other distinguished Protestant writers, do not hesitate to re-echo the unanimous voice of Catholic tradition.

Indeed, no historical fact will escape the shafts of incredulity, if Saint Peter’s residence and glorious martyrdom in Rome are called in question.

– text taken from The Faith of Our Fathers, Being a Plain Exposition and Vindication of the Church Founded by Our Lord Jesus Christ, by Cardinal James Gibbons, Archbishop of Baltimore, 1917