Sharing the Catholic faith with non-Catholics, even non-Catholic Christians, can seem overwhelming at times. There are just so many doctrines that non-Catholics want answers about: justification, the Eucharist, the Marian doctrines, intercession of the Saints, Purgatory, the priesthood, etc. It’s easy to get bogged down by a series of rapid-fire questions about a variety of unrelated topics. But fortunately, there’s an easy doctrinal debate to turn to that resolves the others, at least for non-Catholic Christians: the papacy.
Put simply, if the Catholic Church is right about the papacy, everyone should be Catholic. And if the Catholic Church is wrong about the papacy, no one should be Catholic.
So it’s vitally important that we Catholics are able to explain why we believe in the papacy. And if we’re ever going to be able to convince non-Catholic listeners on this topic, we should be able to make our case from Sacred Scripture. This is all the more important now: the abdication of Pope Benedict XVI, and the papal election, have made the papacy a topic of everyday conversation for non-Catholics in a way that rarely happens. Fortunately, as we shall see, the Scriptural case for the papacy is very strong.
If the Scriptural case for the papacy is so strong, how do other Christians miss it? I would suggest that there are three reasons.
First, they tend to misunderstand what Scripture means by “the Church.” Martin Luther described the Protestant view of the Church in this way: “Thank God, a seven-year-old child knows what the church is, namely, holy believers and sheep who hear the voice of their Shepherd.” John Calvin adopted a similar view, suggesting that while “the Church” sometimes refers to the visible body containing “a very large mixture of hypocrites, who have nothing of Christ but the name and outward appearance,” it other times refers to “the Church as it really is before God,” an Invisible Church “into which none are admitted but those who by the gift of adoption are sons of God, and by the sanctification of the Spirit true members of Christ.” The visible Church can drift nearer or further from the true, invisible Church, but the two are essentially distinct.
Second, they tend to misunderstand what Catholics believe about the papacy. More specifically, the view of the papacy is often one of an ecclesial dictator in Rome who calls every shot. This straw-man view of the papacy eliminates any roles for Church Councils, Patriarchs, the college of bishops, and essentially any ecclesial structure other than the Holy See. For example, Fr. Viktor Potapov, an Eastern Orthodox priest, has argued that “The history of the Apostolic Council (Acts, Chapter 15) speaks especially clearly against the supremacy of the Apostle Peter. The Antiochian Christians appeal not to the Apostle Peter for the resolution of their perplexity, as should have occurred if we are to believe the Catholic dogma, but to all the apostles and presbyters.” By this logic, the First Vatican Council “speaks especially clearly” against the papacy, because the question of papal infallibility is answered by a Council, rather than by Pope Pius IX.
Finally, most Christians (Protestants, Orthodox, and even Catholics) are simply unaware of the strongest evidence for papal primacy from Scripture. The silver lining here is that this creates a perfect opportunity for Catholic apologetics.
How should we respond to these three errors? To the extent we’re dealing with someone who misunderstands what the Church is, we need to lay out some basic ecclesiology. To the extent we’re dealing with someone who misunderstands what we mean by the papacy, we need to clarify, and not overstate the pope’s role in the life of the Church. There can be a tendency on the part of Catholics to speak as if no issue would ever be resolved without direct papal intervention, and that characterization only feeds a misunderstanding of the papacy. Finally, to the extent we’re dealing with someone who is ignorant of the Scriptural evidence, we should present “the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15).
To understand the papacy, it is necessary to understand at least the basics about the Church. Here are some of the passages that you should familiarize yourself with:
Matthew 16:18. We can get so caught up in the debates about who the “Rock” of Matthew 16:18 is that we can overlook five critical words of Christ: “I will build My Church.”
Matthew 13. This whole chapter is dedicated to Christ’s explanation of the nature of the Church as Kingdom. For example, in Mt. 13:47-50, Christ describes the Kingdom of Heaven as a net containing both good and bad fish, representing “the righteous” and “the evil.” This shows that the Church isn’t simply an invisible collection of the saved.
The Judas passages. Each of the four Gospels points out that Christ’s betrayer was “one of the Twelve” (Matthew 26:14; Mark 14:10; Mark 14:43; Luke 22:3; Luke 22:47; John 6:71). Judas possessed a share of the Apostolic “ministry and apostleship” (Acts 1:25), and Matthew 10:1-4 describes how Christ gave “authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every infirmity” to all of the Twelve, including Judas. As Jesus said, “Did I not choose you, the twelve, and one of you is a devil?” (John 6:70). This issue of Judas creates an insurmountable problem for Protestant ecclesiology, since the Apostles possessed the highest office possible within the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27-28).
Ephesians 5:25-32. St. Paul’s beautiful description of the Church as the Body of Christ and the Bride of Christ.
Acts 9:1-6 and Luke 10:16. Saul was “violently persecuting the church of God” (Galatians 1:13; cf. Acts 9:1) until he is stopped on the road to Damascus by Christ, who says, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” and reveals Himself by saying: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” This shows that to attack the Church is to attack Christ. Likewise, Jesus sends out the seventy, saying, “Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me” (Luke 10:16). In this way, the Church is a continuation of the Incarnation of Christ.
John 17:20-23. In His Highly Priestly prayer, Jesus specifically prays for future Christians (to my knowledge, the only time that He does this), and His prayer is “that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me” (Jn. 17:21).
What is the role of St. Peter in the Church founded by Christ? I think that the answer to this can be seen through a series of Scriptural passages:
Luke 22:24-32. This is one of the strongest overlooked passages for Petrine primacy. The Apostles argue over who is greatest. Christ says that “the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves” (v. 26). He then confers authority of the Church to the Twelve (v. 29-30), before saying to Peter specifically (v. 31-32): “Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”
The “Great Catches of Fish” passages. Remember that Christ compares the Church to a net filled with fish (Mt. 13:47-50). In the first great catch of fish (Luke 5:1-11), Jesus comes upon Peter, Andrew, James, and John. After the first miraculous catch, He singles Peter out of these four, and says to him, “Do not be afraid; henceforth you will be catching men” (Lk. 5:10). The second miraculous catch of fish is after the Resurrection (John 21:1-14). This time, the Apostles’ net is so full that “they were not able to haul it in, for the quantity of fish” (John 21:6). But at Jesus’ command, Peter is able to single-handedly haul the net in, without tearing it (Jn. 21:10-11). Immediately after this, Jesus commissions Peter as shepherd (John 21:15-19).
John 10:1-21 and John 21:15-19. In John 10, Jesus gives two different shepherding images to describe His relationship with the Church. The second of these (Jn. 10:11-21) is quite famous, in which Jesus calls Himself the Good Shepherd. But often overlooked is the description He gives in John 1:1-10, in which He describes Himself as the gate letting in His Shepherd. This gatekeeping function points to His Old Testament promise in Jeremiah 3:15, to give us shepherds after His own heart. And we see Him fulfill this in John 21:15-19, when He commissions Peter to be His shepherd.
Matthew 16:13-19. This is the most famous “papacy passage,” and one of the best. Be prepared to go through the passage slowly: show how Jesus contrasts the three styles of governance (democratic, aristocratic, monarchical) in v. 13-16. Go through the blessing of v. 17-19 slowly, and compare it to the Old Testament: specifically, Genesis 17:3-8 and Isaiah 22:20-24. Many Protestants will claim that the “Rock” is Peter’s faith, so show the numerous personal references Christ has to Peter. And compare it with the other confessions of faith we see. For example, in John 1:49, it’s Nathanael who first confesses Jesus as the Christ, but it’s Simon that Jesus promises to rename Peter (John 1:42). Likewise, Martha’s confession of faith (John 11:27) is almost identical with Peter’s, yet Jesus never promises to build the Church upon her (or her faith).
Finally, some Protestants will argue that Jesus is calling Peter a “little rock” (Petros) in contrast with the “big rock” (petra) that He will build the Church upon. This distinction doesn’t exist in the Aramaic that Jesus gave the blessing in. Again, see John 1:42: Jesus names Simon “Cephas,” not “Petros” – Petros is a translation (and is translated as “Petros” rather than “Petra,” because “Petra” is feminine). Paul refers to Peter as Cephas several times (1 Cor. 15:5, Gal. 1:18, Gal. 2:11, etc.).
Matthew 17:24-27. The only time that Jesus ever uses first-personal plural to refer to Himself and another human is with Peter. And He does so in a way that intentionally limits this “We” to Peter alone.
The Apostolic Lists. Matthew 10:2-4, Mark 3:16-19, Luke 6:13-16, and Acts 1:13 each provide lists of the Twelve. The Synoptic lists each end with Judas (by Acts 1:13, Judas is dead). Judas’ position at the bottom is a place of dishonor. In contrast, all four lists put Peter at the top. These are the only two constants: the ordering of the Ten between Peter and Judas varies by list.
The “Peter and the others” Passages. There are several of these passages, in which the Twelve Apostles are listed as, for example, “Peter and the others” (Acts 5:29) and “the other Apostles and the Lord’s Brothers and Cephas” (1 Cor. 9:5). Acts 2:14 says that Peter stood up “with the Eleven.” This is significant, because there are Twelve Apostles at this point (Acts 1:26), so Luke appears to be distinguishing Peter even from the other Eleven. On Easter morning, the angel at the empty Tomb did the same thing, sending the women to proclaim Jesus’ Resurrection to “His Disciples and Peter” (Mark 16:6-7). And when Peter and John arrive at the Tomb, John waits for Peter to arrive, before entering (John 20:4-6). Finally, the first half of the Book of Acts (prior to Luke departing to accompany Paul, in Acts 16:10) clearly establishes Peter’s leadership in the Church.
Occasionally, non-Catholics will concede that Peter was the leader of the Apostles, but claim that this doesn’t prove the papacy. For example, the Protestant apologist Keith Mathison has argued:
[Catholic apologist Stephen] Ray also observes that Peter was the leader of the twelve. However, since this is not disputed no response is necessary. What neither Ray nor any Roman Catholic has demonstrated is that this text which involves a specific prayer for one specific man in one specific historical circumstance has anything to do with the modern Roman Catholic papacy.Mathison’s response strains credulity. If the original structure of the Church was one man (besides Christ) leading and supporting the Twelve, who lead and support the rest of the Church, that looks very much like the modern papacy.
For example, Pope Clement I, intervened in a dispute within the Corinthian church. Bear in mind that St. Clement is the fourth pope, and that this epistle dates to about the year 96. Clement begins the letter by making it clear that the Corinthians turned to him to resolve their dispute: “Owing, dear brethren, to the sudden and successive calamitous events which have happened to ourselves, we feel that we have been somewhat tardy in turning our attention to the points respecting which you consulted us…”
A few years later, St. Ignatius of Antioch, a disciple of the Apostle John, describes the Roman Church as “presiding in love.” He pens these words on the way to his martyrdom sometime before 110.
The Apostle John’s other famous student is St. Polycarp. Polycarp’s own student was St. Irenaeus of Lyons, who proclaimed Roman and Petrine supremacy, in no uncertain terms, in his Against Heresies, written about 180 A.D.:
Since, however, it would be very tedious, in such a volume as this, to reckon up the successions of all the Churches, we do put to confusion all those who, in whatever manner, whether by an evil self-pleasing, by vainglory, or by blindness and perverse opinion, assemble in unauthorized meetings; [we do this, I say,] by indicating that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its preeminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the apostolical tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere.
So we have proved that the Catholic Church is the Church which is spread throughout the world. […] You cannot then deny that you do know that upon Peter first in the City of Rome was bestowed the Episcopal Cathedra, on which sat Peter, the Head of all the Apostles (for which reason he was called Cephas), that, in this one Cathedra, unity should be preserved by all, lest the other Apostles might claim----each for himself----separate Cathedras, so that he who should set up a second Cathedra against the unique Cathedra would already be a schismatic and a sinner.
If the Catholic case for the papacy stands, several truths follow. First, we should interpret other disputed doctrines (Mary, Purgatory, the filioque, etc.) through the lens of Magisterial teaching. Second, we have a moral obligation to be a part of the Catholic Church. St. Paul appeals to the Corinthians “that all of you agree and that there be no dissensions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment” (1 Corinthians 1:10). If the papacy is the visible head of the true Church, founded by Jesus Christ, we have an obligation to strive for unity with this head. Finally, we are forbidden from schism, from breaking away from the pope. In Galatians 5:20-21, St. Paul lists “selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy” amongst sins of the flesh and warns that “those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.”