The Papacy: Answering Common Objections (#2)

Answering the second of the Reymond Questions on the papacy today. His questions are available here, and you can find all of my answers by using the Reymond Question tag at the bottom of the post. Enjoy!

I. What Catholics Believe – And Don’t.

His “question” today is particularly long, so I’m answering it in separate parts. It’s also very confusing, in that Reymond keeps trying to prove that Peter sinned (which Catholics believe), and that this somehow disproves papal infalliblity (which it doesn’t). So let’s make a few things clear at the outset. Popes are human, and every pope has sinned. If you look at the list of popes, you’ll see that a number of them don’t have Saint in front of their names. If Catholics believed that all popes were sinless, or even that all popes were saints, they all would.So what do Catholics believe on papal infallibility? Look to the source which originally defined it. Vatican I says that the pope, when:

  1. in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians,
  2. in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority,
  3. he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church,

he possesses “that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed His Church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals. ” From this, we can set up an easy three-part test. Are Peter’s actions in question:

(A) On behalf of the whole Church?
(B) About doctrines concerning faith and morals?
(C) Defining something? That is, that they’re not an action, but a teaching to be held.

Here’s an example of something which would meet. In Matthew 16:13, Jesus asks what the popular view is of who He is, and in v. 15, He asks what the Disciples’ view is. Peter answers in Matthew 16:16, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Peter is A, answering on behalf of the Apostles, the visible Church; B, dealing with an issue of faith and morals (the most critical issue of faith and morals, even); and C, is defining something, in this case, who Jesus is. This meets all three, and so we understand it to be infallible. And in fact, it is. Jesus responds that “flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.” Another good example would be the Acts 2 proclaimation, where Peter preaches Pentecost to the world. In fact, go through the Gospel, and find every time that Peter meets these three conditions – you’ll find numerous examples throughout Acts. What this test tries to determine is, “is Peter preaching?” but keeping the definition that simple opens it to abuses (like people claiming that his actions are “a form of preaching”), so the Church has defined it carefully. In each and every case Peter meets all three prongs, he’s divinely inspired – if you don’t believe me, find an alternative. Or look at Reymond’s attempts to provide alternatives, and see how they fare under the test.

II. What About Peter’s Sins?

Question 2. Why does the New Testament record more of Peter’s errors after the Caesarea Philippi confession than of any of the other apostles?

Because Peter is the most important. Why does the New Testament repeatedly tell us of the Apostles’ failings, and rarely of the failings of the other Christian followers? Look at how the Old Testament portrays David, a “man after [God’s] own heart” (cf. 1 Samuel 13:14). It gets to the point that when Shimei curses David and pelts him with rocks, David accepts it as punishment from God (2 Samuel 16:5-14). For example, in 1 Samuel 25:21-22, David rashly swears to God that he’ll kill of Nabal’s men, but then is calmed down by Nabal’s wife. 2 Samuel 11-12 tells us of David’s adultery with Bathsheba, which “displeased the Lord.” (2 Samuel 11:27), and cost David the life of his son (2 Samuel 12:13-14). 1 Chronicles 13 describes David’s attempt to move the Ark of the Covenant without permission, a move which gets Uzzah killed when he accidentally touches the Ark (1 Chronicles 13:10). In 2 Samuel 24, David’s sins lead to a deadly plague until David takes personal responsibility. David routinely sins, and his sins are well recorded – and all this despite being arguably the greatest Old Testament figure. David is the primary author of the Psalms, the largest book of the Bible. He wrote more Scripture than St. Paul. His written words were often inspired and perfect. His actions and his lifestyle were not. [A similar list of sins could be recorded for Moses as well, but in David’s case, we actually have the Lord’s assurance of personal favor from 1 Samuel 13:14.]

The thing which separates the Bible from other Holy Books is that the Bible contains actual history, and in real life, even the saints can sin. And often, their sins are public and embarassing, and can damage their ability to evangelize. The Bible arguably spends more time on the sins of those called by God then on the sins of everyone else. So the fact that Peter is called to lead the Apostles is all the more reason why his sins should be well documented. If even the chief apostle is a notorious sinner, how much more at home can sinners like you and I feel in the Church of Christ?

III. Are There Examples Which Disprove Ex Cathedra Teaching in the Bible?
Reymond goes on to list a series of sins (or “errors”), real and imagined, which Peter is said to have committed. His arguments are in red. I respond in blue and black – blue is the quick application of the test, and black goes into more detail.

  • 1. his satanic and man-minding rejection of Jesus’ announcement that he would die, Matthew 16:22-23;

#1 fails A, because Peter is speaking privately to Christ as a friend (with bad advice), not on behalf of the Church. This is one of the best passages to show what is, and is not, covered by papal infallibility. Look at Jesus’ words in Matthew 16:23, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.” Then compare them with the words He’d just said Matthew 16:17-18, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter [Rock], and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” In v. 17-18, Peter’s a rock, and God’s revealing things to him. In v. 23, he’s a stumbling block (skandalon – literally, a stone one trips over), thinking as man does. In v. 17-18, Peter answers on behalf of the Twelve (see Matthew 16:16); in v. 23, he takes Jesus aside and privately “corrects” Him (see Matthew 16:22).

Msgr. Ronald Knox (in Beliefs of Catholics) points to the way that Jesus uses this play on words in Matthew 16(Petros and skandalon) to show the authenticity of Matthew 16:17-19 – that it wasn’t some later papal addition (since why would they also add a really embarassing incident, as well?). As soon as you read in Matthew 16:23 that Peter is taking Jesus aside to have a one-on-One, that’s your cue that whatever comes next isn’t him speaking on behalf of the Church, or preaching anything.

  • 2. his leveling or Arian comparison of Jesus with Moses and Elijah on the Mount of Transfiguration, Matthew 17:4-5;

#2 fails A, because Peter is offering his individual services to Christ, and is not acting on behalf of the Church; it fails C as well. There’s not really any evidence that this was an Arian comparison. In fact, Peter says of Jesus, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If You wish, I will make three tents here, one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” So with Moses, Elijah, and Jesus Christ present, Peter recognizes Jesus as Lord, and offers to make the three tents conditioned upon His wishes – not the wishes of the other two.

Remember that Moses is closely identified with the Law, and Elijah with the prophets, so this was like seeing the entire Old Testament come to life to glorify Christ. Mark 9:6 makes it clear that Peter’s suggestion is simply because “he did not know what to say, they were so frightened,” and Luke 9:33 tells us that Peter “he did not know what he was saying. ” He’s terrified, and nervous-talking, trying to figure out what to do next. And the tents Peter proposed making were for the Feast of Tabernacles (cf John 7:2), so it wasn’t as if Peter was suggesting making temples to the three.

Nevertheless, God the Father then makes a grand display showing Christ’s superiority to the Law and the Prophets – that they point to Him. Peter, James, and John fall to the ground, prostrate, even more afraid. But Jesus tells them (Matthew 17:7), “Rise, and do not be afraid.” He’s not mad at Peter. So I’m not convinced that this is an error, much less a sin. But in any case, Peter’s not speaking on behalf of anyone besides himself (he doesn’t even say “we will make three tents”). And what articulable definition on faith and morals does he advance? He’s just babbling nervously in the presence of the awe-inspiring Transfiguration of Christ.

  • 3. his ignorant and impetuous refusal to let Jesus wash his feet and then his self-willed dictating of the terms according to which Jesus would wash him, John 13:8-9;

#3 fails A, because it’s about Peter’s personal relationship with Christ; it probably fails B and C, because there’s no defining at all, and Peter doesn’t even see the connection to faith and morals. If Peter preaching? Obviously not. Actually, Peter’s actions in John 13:8-9 seem pretty defensible. He doesn’t want Jesus to wash his feet because Jesus is greater than him. When Jesus says, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me,” he asks to be washed all over, because he wants to be with Christ forever. He’s got an admirable zeal for Christ, he just doesn’t know how to express it, like a puppy who knocks you over when you come through the door – out of love. Both extremes in John 13:8-9 are motivated by a fear and love of Jesus Christ, which hardly disproves papal infallibility.

Jesus uses the washing of the feet to demonstrate the necessity of baptism (the full washing) and reconciliation (the washing of the feet), as well as the New Testament priesthood (since the washing of the feet is rabbinical, for those who went in and out of the Holy of Holies), and the need for priests to serve the flock. To be sure, Peter doesn’t get where Jesus is going with all of this, at least at first, but Peter never teaches as a matter of faith and morals that regenerative baptism is unnecessary, or that sacramental confession is unneccesary, or that there’s no priesthood, or that the priesthood shouldn’t be centered around the mandatum of love. So if Peter had said, “Lord, we know that you do not need Baptism to be saved,” we’d have a home-run against papal infallibility. As it is, we have Peter acting like an excited puppy around his Lord and God.

  • 4. his sleepiness while Jesus prayed in Gethsemane, Matthew 26:36-45;

#4 manages to fail A, B, and C. Obviously, Peter wasn’t falling asleep on behalf of the whole Church, or teaching that it’s good to fall asleep when Jesus wants you to stay awake. And the connection between falling asleep and faith and morals is tenuous, at best. If you count this as faith and morals, you’ll count anything.

  • 5. his precipitous use of the sword, Matthew 26:51-54;

#5 fails A and C. Peter’s not declaring, as an issue of faith and morals, that the use of the sword is good. He’s also not acting on behalf of the whole Church.

  • 6. his prideful protestation of unfailing faithfulness and then his three denials of Jesus, recorded in all four Gospels;

#6 fails A and C. I don’t think telling God you’ll be faithful to Him to the end is a “prideful protestation,” particularly; rather, it’s just a declaration of faith (and one which all the believers in Once Saved, Always Saved seem to hold). Still, the denial of Christ is the closest thing that Reymond has to disproving papal infallibility (or at least, the one used most frequently). It certainly relates to faith and morals. But what does Peter say? “I know now the Man.” Not, “Jesus is not the Christ.” And certainly he’s not answering on behalf of the Church that Jesus is not the Christ. He’s speaking individually, and while he’s lying and shamefully denying knowing Christ [an action which left unrepented of, can cost him his own soul (Matthew 10:33)], he’s not making any declarative statement on faith and morals. There is a rumor that Pope St. Marcellinus offerred incense to the Roman gods during the Diocletian persecution. We don’t know if it’s true, but if it were, it wouldn’t render his teachings any more fallible – unless, of course, he taught, “As Christians, this is permissible,” or something similar. If St. Marcellinus did as was claimed (and there’s some legitimate question there), he did it in a moment of cowardice, out of fear of torture, not as part of his proclaimation of the Gospel.

  • 7. his impulsive curiosity about John’s future, expressed no sooner than Jesus had restored him to fellowship, which netted him Christ’s stern That’s none of your business, John 21:21-22;

#7 fails A, B, and C. There was no restoration of Peter, like I mentioned last week – that’s an anti-Catholic myth which caught on in the mainstream, and isn’t supported by the Biblical texts. Impulsive curiosity isn’t a sin, or an error. Peter’s asking a question, not teaching anything. He’s asking on his own behalf, and it’s not related to faith and morals.

  • 8. and even after Christ’s resurrection, the Spirit’s outpouring at Pentecost, and the role he played in the Cornelius incident, his betrayal of the truth of the Gospel of pure grace at Antioch by his compromising actions which called for Paul’s public rebuke, Galatians 2:11-14.

#8 fails A and C. Peter is sinning, and Paul rebukes him for it. In Acts 10, Peter eats with Gentile Christians and gets attacked by the Jewish Christians. In Galatians 2, he avoids eating with Gentile Christians (out of moral cowardice), and gets attacked by Paul. When he’s attacked by the Jewish Christians, he defends his actions – this is Acts 11:4-17. In defending the ability of Jewish Christians to eat with Gentile Christians, he speaks as a prophet and represents the teaching of the Holy Spirit, to be applied to the whole Church. This settles the matter, and the Jewish Christians realize that they were wrong – Acts 11:18. The Jewish Christians were right to confront him in Acts 11:2-3, since he seemed to be sinning. He used it as a teaching moment to explain what God had revealed to Peter alone, that now was the time for the Jews and Gentiles to be one flock, as prophesied in John 10:16.

Fast forward to Galatians 2. Peter’s not living up to his own teachings, like a pope who warns of the dangers of sexual immorality, and then fornicates. But he’s not teaching that God’s changed His mind. Rather, as Paul tells us in Galatians 2:12, Peter was “afraid of the circumcised. ” He’d probably been getting hassled about this whole integration thing for some time: the Cornelius meal in Acts 10 relates to grace v. Mosaic Law as well as Jewish/Gentile issues of all sorts. It was a deep-seated resentment, and Peter was upholding an unpopular truth. So he chickened out. He didn’t teach a false gospel, but he was a moral coward. This article from Commonweal talks about the powerful witness of Archbishop Rummel of New Orleans, who successfully (and peacefully) integrated the Catholic schools in his Archdiocese during the 50s and 60s. The author uses this example to come to some counter-intuitive conclusions on how to handle pro-choice Catholic politicians (would it be Commonweal if he didn’t?), so I’m only suggesting the article for the bits about Abp. Rummel, and even that mostly just to show how integrating congregations can be a scary business. The difference between Peter and Abp. Rummel wasn’t the Deposit of Faith, or their belief in it: both were radically committed Catholics; the difference was the strength of their backbone. Note how St. Paul puts it. Peter is “afraid,” not heretical. His courage faltered, but his teachings didn’t.

Where is the infallibility and the guarantee of the purity and continuity of the Gospel in this man’s actions?

Like Reymond acknowledges, these are Peter’s actions. Presumably, Reymond believes that Peter is divinely inspired when he proclaims the Gospel in 1 Peter and 2 Peter, as well as orally (for example, throughout the first half of Acts). So he (presumably) already accepts that fallible people can infallibly proclaim the Gospel. The prophets throughout the ages sinned. Yet they didn’t preach false doctrine, or they were false prophets. So from a Biblical standpoint, words speak louder than actions.

For good reason, too. Imagine if people determine which Church was right by how nice the people are. (In fact, many people do this). But obviously, people can believe things about God which they don’t reflect in their lives. At times, every one of us does this. If the Church is “spotless,” it’s not because Her members live such great lives. It’s because the Holy Spirit teaches us through the Church (John 14:26). Papal infallibility relates to the teaching authority of the pope, not to his person lifestyle. It’s true for Peter, it’s true for Benedict, and it’s true for everyone in between.

It will not do to respond, as Roman apologists do, that Peter was only infallible in what he taught ex cathedra and that these errors on his part only highlight the real oneness of the man with sinful humanity at large.

Actually, it will do. If he’s attacking papal infallibility, as defined by the Catholic Church, he’s attacking the three-pronged definition articulated by Vatican I, mentioned above. To say that it “will not do to respond, as Roman apologists do,” that his examples are irrelevant is to ask Catholic apologists to defend a definition of papal infallibility which we don’t believe in. We say that Peter, every time he spoke on behalf of the Church, and defining a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church, was infallible. If he agrees with that, he should just say so. If he doesn’t, he should provide an example that refutes that definition, rather than an imaginary “popes are perfect” definition of infallibility which we reject.

For actions speak louder than words, and surely in the last cited instance Peter’s action, which more than likely was accompanied by some word of explanation from him to the church at Antioch about his action, betrayed the purity of the Gospel of grace, which action warranted Paul’s public rebuke.

Here, Reymond makes slanderous and unfounded assumptions about Peter. Having found no examples of Peter preaching a false (or even slightly flawed) Gospel anywhere in the New Testament, he proceeds to just imagine that he “more than likely” did here at Antioch. If Reymond is right, then Peter’s own words in 2 Peter 2:1 would render him a false prophet and a false teacher, to be avoided:

But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves.

But of course, if he’s a false prophet and false teacher, introducing destructive heresies and betraying the “purity of the Gospel of grace,” then 2 Peter 2:1 isn’t Scripture.

Reymond also contradicts the Biblical standard, by declaring that actions are more important than words – a standard which is nothing less than ironic from someone who denies the importance of works in the salvific process. As a Church, we’re protected by the Holy Spirit in teaching, not in living our lives perfectly. We have the full deposit of Faith, everything we need. We don’t have any promises we’ll put that to good use: and that’s true for any of us, from the pope on down to me.

David committed adultery, yet if he wrote Psalms about how adultery was okay (rap Psalms, perhaps), those words would render him a false teacher. This is something which both Catholics and Protestants believe. Protestants just are generally less aware that deep down, they hold to this standard as well.

IV. “But if you bite and devour one another, take heed that you are not consumed by one another.”

I find the tone of this lengthy “question” rather irksome. Are we really to believe that under any understanding of papal infallibility (that is, the real definition, or the definition which anti-Catholics like to hold us to), that “sleepiness” (example 4) or “impulsive curiosity” (example 7) are going to violate that? Even if Reymond were right that Catholics think that all popes are perfect and sinless, it’s hard to see how these would contradict even that standard.

I mean, there are beds in the Vatican, and the pope is believed to sleep at night (although many, of course, hold to the theory that Benedict is the masked crusader cleaning up the streets of Rome at night). But he still presents this litany of sins, real and perceived, which serve as an attack on a man who Jesus chose to lead the Apostles. Acknowledging his sins forthrightly is important – Galatians 2 is a great example of that, and the entire Bible does so freely (as I mentioned in part II) – but smearing his name is something different, and uncharitable. Questioning Petrine primacy is one thing; smearing a saint is something different entirely.

But what’s worse is that Reymond has to realize on some level that sleepiness and curiousity are neither sins nor errors in teaching. He even notes the way that Catholic apologists will answer, so he isn’t totally ignorant. He’s just willing to skew the evidence and misrepresent the Catholic position to make his case, as if the Gospel of Christ needs dirty tricks to stand.

Attempting to turn Peter into a false teacher to disprove Catholicism reminds me of a passage from Orthodoxy, by G.K. Chesterton, where he says of those who oppose Christianity that :

I have known people who showed that there could be no divine judgment by showing that there can be no human judgment, even for practical purposes. They burned their own corn to set fire to the church; they smashed their own tools to smash it; any stick was good enough to beat it with, though it were the last stick of their own dismembered furniture.


  1. Okay, from an Orthodox perspective, and focusing on what is critical, that is, Part I:

    You equate the Pope speaking “on behalf of the whole Church” with his speaking, as Vatican I states, “in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians”. Your argument seems to turn on this equation. However, this would imply that Papal infallibility is purely a function of the infallibility of the Church, meaning that, as the Orthodox hold, the ultimate authority is the Church as a whole. However, this conclusion is directly antithetical to the following, from the First Vatican Council: “… such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are of themselves, and not by the consent of the Church, irreformable,” making the Pope, not the Church as a whole, the final and ultimate authority.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *