Catholic Culture Solidarity
Catholic Culture Solidarity

If Peter is the rock, where is the Pope?

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Feb 22, 2024

Today, on the feast of the Chair of St. Peter, all good Catholics should be praying for Pope Francis.

Let’s be honest: It may not be easy to muster the enthusiasm we would like for a Pontiff who has so often caused confusion, dismay, and even anger—who has shattered hopes and awakened fears. But if we believe that Pope Francis has strayed off course (as I do, obviously), all the more reason to pray the Holy Spirit will guide him back to safe harbor. And if the prayers do not come easily, all the better for our Lenten penitence.

While we celebrate the certainty and unity that the See of Peter has brought to our faith over the centuries, the past decade has forced Catholics to question the nature of papal authority. When does a Pope teach with magisterial authority? When is he speaking for himself, and when does he represent Peter, the rock on whom the Lord built his Church?

These questions are tackled in a new book: Super Hanc Petram: The Pope and the Church at a Dramatic Moment in History, by Father Serafino Lanzetta, a Marian Franciscan who teaches systematic theology at St. Mary’s University Twickenham, London and at the Theological Faculty of Lugano in Switzerland.

Remember that it is Peter’s bold profession of faith—“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”—that prompts Jesus to designate him the rock on which He will build his Church. “Peter’s faith,” Father Lanzetta notes, “is the reason why he was constituted by Christ as the foundation of his Church.”

Moreover, the author reminds us, citing St. Thomas Aquinas, “Christ is a rock in and of Himself, while Peter is a rock insofar as he is a confessor of Christ and his representative.” So it is when he speaks as Peter, the rock, when he faithfully represents the teaching of Jesus Christ, that the Pontiff teaches with authority. As Father Lanzetta puts it, “Peter is the ‘rock,’ but to be this, he must be subject to the Word of God.”

This is not a new insight, of course. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith proclaimed in 1998:

The Roman Pontiff—like all the faithful—is subject to the Word of God, to the Catholic faith, and is the guarantor of the Church’s obedience; in this sense he is the servus servorum Dei. He does not make arbitrary decisions, but is spokesman for the will of the Lord… The Successor of Peter is the rock which guarantees a rigorous fidelity to the Word of God against arbitrariness and conformism: hence the martyrological nature of his primacy.

Helpful though it is, this teaching does not entirely clear up our questions, however. When is the Pope speaking arbitrarily, and when is he the defending the essentials of the faith? Pope Francis himself frequently says that the truths of Catholicism can be found in the sense of the faithful; he also emphasizes the need for a “synodal” approach to Church teaching, in which many different voices are consulted before any definitive judgment is made.

In one way (but only in one way) Pastor Aeternus, the document in which the First Vatican Council proclaimed and defined papal infallibility, supports that approach. The teaching authority of the Pontiff, that document tells us, is rooted in the need to resolve questions and differences among the faithful, to safeguard the unity and integrity of the faith that Jesus (through Peter) handed down to us. Thus Pastor Aeternus recognizes “the essence of this primacy in a twofold unity: so that the episcopate might be one and undivided, and so that the whole multitude of believers might be preserved in the unity of faith and communion.”

That Peter is the focus of Christian unity makes it particularly important to recognize the importance of the incident in which Paul rebuked him for his attitude toward the uncircumcised, Father Lanzetta observes. Peter’s policy was wrong, and Paul corrected him. Without that correction, the early Christian community might have been split into two, Father Lanzetta writes. “Peter would have been the cause of scandal and schism in the Church.”

So it is licit—and at times may be necessary—to correct a Pontiff who promotes error. Still we have not resolved the question of how to determine when he is in error. And that question is particularly difficult to resolve if we acknowledge that the Pontiff is the final arbiter for doctrinal questions.

Pope Benedict XVI provided one way to answer that question, by applying the “hermeneutic of continuity” and insisting that any Church teaching should always be interpreted as in accord with previous authoritative teaching—thus ensuring that it represents what the faithful have “always and everywhere” believed. If a Roman Pontiff (or any other prelate or episcopal conference) issues a statement that flatly contradicts a previous solemn doctrinal teaching, the faithful have good reason to question that statement.

For the Catholic Church in the 21st century, however, the situation is still more complicated, Father Lanzetta tells us, because doctrinal issues are rarely confronted head-on. Our challenge today, he writes, “is the silent apostasy in the Church, completely atypical because it is not the rejection of the Faith sic et simpliciter, a refusal to believe as such, but the transformation of the Faith into something else.”

With Vatican II, the author contends, Church leaders have regularly opted for a “pastoral” approach to questions of faith, setting aside doctrinal formulae in order to formulate what was purported to be a more winsome strategy for evangelization. (The manifest failure of that strategy is a topic for another day.) Father Lanzetta believes that the “pastoral” approach “has, over the long run, made doctrine into praxis. Conversely, praxis has become the only doctrine.”

Here at last we come to the fundamental problem of the current papacy. Pope Francis does not accurately represent the actual teachings of Vatican II, Super Hanc Petram demonstrates. But his policies reflect a “partialness of usage” of the Council’s teaching, “the fruit of a new hermeneutic,” promoted, interestingly enough by “the first pope who did not participate in the Council.” The result, Father Lanzetta tells us, is not a rock that endures but “a rupture and a new beginning.”

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Lucius49 - Feb. 23, 2024 2:43 PM ET USA

    Key phrase:"the transformation of the Faith into something else,” a Faith emptied of content with traditional terms given alien meanings or simply lip-service. It's the whole subjective modernist project. The word pastoral received an alien meaning by John XXIII as the "medicine of mercy" as if doctrinal truth and correcting doctrinal error was not merciful/pastoral. Hence pastoral praxis, morphed into the enemy of doctrinal truth, emblematic of this papacy. The praxis? Kneeling before the world

  • Posted by: padre3536 - Feb. 22, 2024 7:45 PM ET USA

    I believe God the Holy Spirit witness 'that Peter was not Teaching the Truth of the Gospel', not a policy but the fundamental Truth that the old law and its precepts was gone and replaced by The New Law of God and grace....'that Christ doesn't make us sinners; nothat the Law killed but grace freed us to life; . 21 I don't turn my back on God's gift of undeserved grace...If we can be acceptable to God by obeying the Law, it was useless for Christ to die"...this isn't policy, is Gospel essence...

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Feb. 22, 2024 5:08 PM ET USA

    It is comforting to see others who affirm that the merciful Francis is creating a new church, for what else could "a rupture and a new beginning" mean, other than a new church? Most of those who comment in this forum prefer the Church of the Ages, the Church of the Apostles, the Church founded by Christ and guided by the Holy Spirit. The church of Francis is reminiscent of ecclesial bodies we have seen before, many of which still proffer their own brand of religion. But these are not Catholic.