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The Primacy of Peter

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Apr 14, 2005

The other day my son asked me for some help with a Religion assignment for his 9th grade class. The assignment was to write an essay on papal primacy which showed that the true Church of Christ could be identified by looking for the pope. Not a bad topic at this moment in history!

At age 15, my youngest son has generally concluded that I am pretty ignorant, but this time I had him cold. Of course, I had an unfair advantage: my doctoral dissertation dealt with papal authority. Still, the argument isn't difficult, so let's review it briefly here.

First, we establish from the words of Christ and the beliefs of the early Christian community that Christ gave authority over the Church to Peter. This is most easily done by citing Matthew 16:18-19 where Our Lord tells Peter he is the rock upon which Christ will build His Church, against which the gates of hell shall not prevail; and He promises to give him the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven, including the power to bind and loose. One might also cite Luke 22:31-32 where Our Lord tells Peter that he has prayed for him that his faith might not fail and that, "when he turned", he must confirm his brethren. Then, to those who say that Peter lost this power by his denial of Christ, we can point out that Christ's promises were in the future tense, and were confirmed in fact after the denial, as recounted in John 21:15-17 where Christ gives Peter the threefold injunction to feed His sheep.

There are a variety of ways to go for the second step. I like to use what I call the ecclesiological argument next. In other words, the nature of the Church clearly requires the powers that Peter was given—the keys to the Kingdom, the power to bind and loose, the rectitude to confirm the brethren in Faith, and so on. Moreover, Christ promised to be with his Church until the end of time (Mt 28:18-20). Clearly, if such essential power were to pass out of the Church, it would mean that Christ was no longer with the Church, making his promise a lie. Since this is impossible, and since Our Lord obviously knew that Peter was going to die (and in fact foretold it in John's gospel), it is obvious that Christ intended Peter to have successors who would carry on his power and his role in the Church.

Third, we turn to history and find exactly what we expect from logic: there are immediate successors to Peter in Rome who continue to exercise his power, and they are universally accepted by the early Christian community. Thus Linus succeeded Peter, Anacletus succeeded Linus, and Clement succeeded Anacletus. In the mid 90's, while St. John was still alive, we find Clement exercising power over not only the Roman Church but the Church in Corinth, a clear historical instance of what we have come to call papal authority. Cardinal Newman offers a score of similar historical instances continuing through the fourth century in his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, written shortly before his conversion.

Fourth and finally, because the powers essential to keep the faithful true to Christ are vested in Peter and his successors alone, it is immediately clear that only those who accept the authority of these successors (now called popes) can reasonably claim to be united fully to the true Church of Christ. Therefore, we can identify Christ's Church by looking for the Pope. Of course, all of this can be said infinitely more succinctly in epigrammatic Latin: Ubi Petrus, ibi ecclesia.

Where Peter is, there is the Church.

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