Andre, a Protestant on his way into the Catholic Church, recently had something of an exit interview with his former pastor. His pastor made some last-ditch attempts to scuttle Andre’s belief in the papacy. I’ll present each of the pastor’s arguments against the papacy (as described by Andre), followed by a
(1) I cited Matthew 16:18, but the pastor responded that Christ also says to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan.” On that note, he asked me why I should trust Peter as the Pope?
You might turn the question around: if you can’t trust Peter as pope, why trust him as an Apostle? The answer should be the same: we trust Peter when he’s guided by the Holy Spirit.
It’s a basic prerequisite that for the pope to be infallible, he has to be speaking both as head of the earthly Church, and on behalf of the Church. Vatican I defined papal infallibility as applying when the Roman pontiff “speaks ex cathedra, that is, when he, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, by virtue of his supreme Apostolic authority, decides that a doctrine concerning faith or morals is to be held by the entire Church he possesses.” This is what Catholics believe about the pope. Does Matthew 16 disprove this definition?
To find out, look at both examples. In the first, Jesus asks the Twelve, “Who do you say I am?” (Mt. 16:15). Peter answers on behalf of them all, defining the core Christological dogma: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (Mt. 16:16). Would this meet the criteria to be infallible, according to Vatican I? Yes. And it is. Jesus tells Peter that this answer “was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in Heaven” (Mt. 16:17).
|Annibale Carracci , Domine quo vadis? (1602)|
In the second example, Jesus tells the Apostles that He’s going to have to suffer and die. “Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him. ‘Never, Lord!’ he said. ‘This shall never happen to You!’” (Mt. 16:22). Would this meet the criteria to be infallible, according to Vatican I? No. First, it’s private, not on behalf of the Church; and second, there’s no dogmatic definition involved. So we shouldn’t expect Peter to be infallible here. And he’s not. Jesus says in response, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns” (Mt. 16:23).
To some Protestant ears, it sounds legalistic to say that Peter is protected by the Holy Spirit in some capacities and not others. But this is something that all Christians believe. When Peter declared Jesus was the Christ, he was not only infallible, but inspired (Mt. 16:16-17). When he begged Jesus not to go to Jerusalem, he was speaking as a mere man (Mt. 16:22-23). When he spoke on Pentecost, he was not only infallible, but inspired (Acts 2). When he declared the Gentiles part of the people of God, he was not only infallible, but inspired (Acts 10-11). When he ignored his own public teaching to eat with a Jewish-only group, he was acting as a mere man (Galatians 2). When he wrote, in his capacity as a teacher of the faith, he was not only infallible, but inspired (1 Peter and 2 Peter). So every Christian views some (but not all) of Peter’s actions as specially protected by God. The only difference is that Catholics have a coherent belief as to which are which, and Protestants typically don’t.
(2) He also cited the council of Jerusalem and stated that James spoke with more authority than Peter at that council.
This example always struck me as weird. Yesterday, I said:
A good dad knows which decisions should be left up to his wife and kids: he doesn’t lord over his household like a micromanaging dictator. This is important, because I think that many Protestants expect the papacy to operate this way, since that’s the caricature sometimes presented. The papacy has never operated this way, and will never operate this way.
This strikes me as one of those times that Protestants argue if Peter wasn’t a megalomaniac dictator, he couldn’t be pope. By this test, has there ever been a pope? After all, what we see in the Council of Jerusalem is totally normal behavior for the pope. It’s not as if Popes John XXIII or Paul VI dominated Vatican II. And Pope Sylvester I didn’t even attend the First Council of Nicea, sending papal legates in his place. Does that mean these men weren’t really popes, either?
As it was, the Council of Jerusalem started out with much debate (Acts 15:6). Then Peter spoke, and the dispute promptly ended (Acts 15:7-11). That sounds like he spoke with some authority. In fact, “the whole assembly became silent,” enabling Paul and Barnabas to speak next (Acts 15:12). When St. James finally spoke at the very end, he agreed with what St. Peter said. In fact, in support of his own views, James cited to two sources: Scripture (Acts 15:15-18), and St. Peter (Acts 15:14). So when James spoke with authority, it was by appealing to Peter’s authority. Is there any question that if the reverse had happened, Protestants would point to this to prove that Peter wasn’t really the pope?
(3) He also brought up instances where the Catholic church has declared more than one person pope at the same time.
After the 2000 election, there were credible arguments that either Al Gore or George W. Bush was the true president of the United States. The election was incredibly close, passions were high, and there were serious procedural questions about how a recount should be done, and the deadlines for reporting the results. Ultimately, this was resolved by the Supreme Court in Bush v. Gore, a 5-4 decision that ended the recount, resulting in an electoral victory for George W. Bush in a razor-thin margin. He was ultimately declared president with 271 electoral votes, one above the bare minimum (Gore received 266).
Did the contentious election cause many people to lose faith in Bush as president? Almost certainly. As the t-shirt design depicted at right shows, the controversy over the election didn’t go away quickly.
But here’s something important to remember: one side claimed Al Gore was the validly-elected President of the United States. The other side claimed George W. Bush was the validly-elected President of the United States. Both sides, in making these claims, were admitting that the United States was headed by a presidency. No reasonable person would point to Bush v. Gore and conclude, “therefore, the United States has no president.” The question wasn’t if there was a U.S. president, but who that U.S. president was.
With that in mind, consider the Papal Schism (depicted above). Long story short:
- The College of Cardinals elects Urban VI in 1378.
- Certain French Cardinals thought Urban VI was a bad choice, and conducted a separate election, declaring Clement VII as the true pope.
- Antipope Clement VII then set up a counter-papacy in Avignon, France. Europe then divides into two factions: Roman and Avignonian.
|This is basically what happened at the “Council” of Pisa.|
- In response, a group of 24 Cardinals (14 Romans and 10 Avignonian) met in Pisa, and tried to elect a third man as pope, Antipope Alexander V. The “Council” of Pisa. As you might expect, instead of solving the problem, this made it worse. Now, instead of Rome and Avignon claiming the papacy, Pisa did, too.
|Pope Martin V|
- Eventually, the Council of Constance met. The crisis had gotten so bad that two of the papal claimants, Gregory (the legitimate pope) and Antipope John XXIII (of Pisa) voluntarily resigned. The Council of Constance then deposed Antipope Benedict XIII of Avignon, who refused to resign. With a clean slate, the Council then conducted a proper election, and the Church was reunited under Pope Martin V, who everyone agreed was the legitimate pope.
|The Three Factions of the Papal Schism|
There’s no question that historically, this shook the faith of Catholics to the core: it’s hard to follow the pope if you can’t figure out who the pope is. And there’s a good argument that if this hadn’t have happened, Luther’s rebellion against the pope would have been unthinkable.
But what this doesn’t do is disprove the papacy, any more than Bush v. Gore disproved the U.S. presidency. After all, each man on the timeline above acknowledged the office of pope, and each claimed to be the valid pope. The question wasn’t if there was a pope, but who that pope was.
(4) He was also concerned that the Pope could overturn Scripture at any time.
This is a common concern Protestants have. To this, I say, have a little faith! Trust that God won’t establish a Church, then put at the head of that Church someone who will lead His obedient flock into Hell. After all, in Scripture, we hear (Hebrews 13:17-18):
Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you. Pray for us. We are sure that we have a clear conscience and desire to live honorably in every way.
Will God ever provide a situation where obedience to Scripture requires someone to sin? No! So this anxiety is nothing we need to worry about. But to address the specific concern, about overturning Scripture, it’s outside the pope’s authority. From Dei Verbum, paragraph 10:
Sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God, committed to the Church. Holding fast to this deposit the entire holy people united with their shepherds remain always steadfast in the teaching of the Apostles, in the common life, in the breaking of the bread and in prayers (see Acts 2, 42, Greek text), so that holding to, practicing and professing the heritage of the faith, it becomes on the part of the bishops and faithful a single common effort. (7)But the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, (8) has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, (9) whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This teaching office 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.It is clear, therefore, that sacred tradition, Sacred Scripture and the teaching authority of the Church, in accord with God’s most wise design, are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others, and that all together and each in its own way under the action of the one Holy Spirit contribute effectively to the salvation of souls.
|Luther Translating the Bible|
We see this in the life of Martin Luther, the founder of the Protestant Reformation, and the man who invented the doctrine of sola Scriptura. Almost immediately upon rejecting the authority of the Church, Luther discovered that he had no coherent reason to trust the Bible that Catholic Church told him was the word of God. So he went through and picked and chose what he’d believe in. He declared that the Catholic Deuterocanon wasn’t Scripture, but also expressed doubts or outright rejection of numerous New Testament Books: James, Revelation, Hebrews, and Jude. There’s a sad irony there. Luther thought he’d somehow liberate Scripture from the Church, but in the end, came to doubt huge chunks of Scripture.
Historically, the risk to Scripture hasn’t been the papacy, but the absence of any Church authority. It’s this rejection that resulted in Luther’s rejection of much of Scripture, and it’s what brings us liberal theologians and various heretical movements today. So a love of Scripture should draw us towards the very Church that gave us the Scriptures. And the Catholic Church really is that Church, both in the sense that Catholic Saints were the human authors of Scripture, and in the sense that the Catholic Church is the only way we know which Books are and are not Scripture.