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Saturday, April 12, 2008

Did Paul Challenge Peter’s Authority? (Series LXXXIV)

“When [Peter] came to Antioch,” St. Paul told the Galatians, “I opposed him to his face because he clearly was wrong” (Gal 2:11). He explained that he had rebuked St. Peter in person when the latter lapsed into practices contrary to the truth of the gospel (see 2:12-14).

Some non-Catholic Christians cite this event as evidence that Paul challenged Peter’s position as chief of the apostles. The implication, they insist, is that Christ’s choice of Peter as the “rock” of the Church did not bestow on the apostle any special authority in matters of doctrine or discipline, and that Peter’s successors (the popes) also lack such authority.

We must note, however, that Peter’s doctrinal and disciplinary authority was not challenged by Paul. Rather, Peter was rebuked for his hypocrisy. So Paul’s criticism had no bearing on Peter’s office, or on Paul’s position relative to it.

Consider this biblical parallel. In ancient Israel, the prophet Nathan rebuked King David for serious sin (see 2 Sm 12:1-14). But that rebuke was not a rejection of David’s office as king. In a similar way, Paul’s rebuke was not a rejection of Peter’s office as leader of the Church.

The truth is that Catholics have a long history of rebuking decadent clerics — popes included — while not denying their authority in the Church. (St. Bernard, St. Thomas Becket, St. Catherine of Siena, and St. Dominic come to mind immediately.) In fact, St. Paul’s rebuke, far from implying a denial of St. Peter’s supremacy, implies just the opposite.

Paul stated that Peter’s bad example would “compel the Gentiles to live like Jews” (Gal 2:14, emphasis added). Peter’s behavior was imprudent and could do much harm precisely because of his authority as the leader of the Church.

The authority of St. Peter as the first pope was exercised on several occasions, as recorded in the Bible. He presided over and opened the first council of Christianity, in Jerusalem (see Acts 15:7-11). He was the first to recognize and refute heresy, in Simon Magus (see Acts 8:14-24). His proclamation at Pentecost concerning the “hose of Israel” (Acts 2:36) contains a fully authoritative interpretation of Scripture, a doctrinal decision, and a disciplinary decree (see Acts 2:14-41) - an example of “binding and loosing” (see Mt 16:17-19). He had the authority to judge the first recorded case of Church discipline (see Acts 5:1-11).

RELATED SCRIPTURE — Texts cited: 2 Sm 12:1-14; Mt 16:17-19; Acts 2:14-41; 5:1-11; 8:14-24; 15:7-11; Gal 2:11-14. General: Is 22:22; Lk 22:31-32; Jn 21:15-17; Acts 3:6-12. CATECHISM OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH — 552-553, 641-642; 765; 881-882.

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