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Christ to Catholicism


I. The Gospel of the Kingdom

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

The historical work of Christ during His visible stay on earth has a variety of aspects that range through the whole gamut of God’s revelation of His own nature and perfections, of His infinite love for us even to the death of the cross, and of our duty towards Him in order to return to God. Yet the master idea of Christ’s message is epitomized in the single word that was most frequently on His lips, the Basileia of the evangelists, or the kingdom. All that He taught was somehow identified with the kingdom, from the opening of His public life when He began to preach repentance, “for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” to His dying profession before Pilate that “my kingdom is not of this world, my kingdom is not from here.” Christ used that word “Church” only twice to describe the society He was founding. He spoke of His ‘kingdom’ in almost every chapter of the Gospels, so that whatever concept they give us of the Church must be looked for in this notion of the kingdom.

The Kingdom of Heaven and Earth

The first impression we gather from even a superficial reading of the Gospels is that Christ spoke of two kinds of kingdom, an earthly and a heavenly one. When He compared it to a large tree, He was clearly referring to an earthly kingdom that grows and develops in membership and influence. Or again, when He says the kingdom of heaven is like a net cast into the sea and gathering in fish of every kind, the good and the bad, which are later sorted out and the bad thrown away, this cannot mean the kingdom after death. For the parable illustrates what will happen at the end of the world when the angels are sent to separate the wicked from the just and will cast the former into hell. On the other hand, Jesus also speaks of a kingdom that is not of this world, of a joy that awaits those who are poor in spirit, of the reward He will give on the last day to those who during life had fed the hungry and clothed the naked that believed in His name.

There is an intimate connection between these two kingdoms on which it is unnecessary for the present to elaborate, except to point out their mutual dependence. The heavenly kingdom is the goal and terminus of the earthly society, and the latter is the means and condition for attaining the heavenly. Moreover it would be stressing the obvious to show that Christ preached the doctrine of a celestial kingdom that will never end and that God has in store for those who love Him. No one with a shred of faith in Christianity has ever called this into question. Even Mohammed, who denied the divinity of Christ and recognized Him only as a messenger of Allah, spoke of the “rich rewards for those who believed (in Jesus) and performed the works of virtue:” They are promised after death a paradise “that is watered by rivers, and whose food and shade are perpetual.” [1]

What is less obvious, however, or at least what a large segment of non-Catholic Christianity does not believe is that Christ established an earthly society that would carry on His mission until the end of time. “Jesus’ sole aim,” says one historian, “was to guide his own people into a deeper appreciation of their religion. He had no vision of a world-wide new religion, only of a reformed Judaism, even if it is impossible to say how far he sensed the gulf his teaching opened.” [2] And more explicitly, according to the Anglican bishop of Barnes, “it is a clumsy anticipation of later developments to make Jesus speak of ‘my church.’ The theme of his preaching was the kingdom of God. His mission, as he conceived it, was to call men to join this kingdom; he had not set out to found a church.” [3] Yet the whole structure of Catholicism rests on the contrary affirmation, that Jesus Christ was not only a great leader or ethical reformer; He was primarily the founder of a religious society whose basic elements He determined while still on earth and whose future development never departed from His essential principles. What these elements and principles were, is of more than passing interest to those who believe that by the will of God Christianity is an organization with the Vicar of Christ as its visible head.

Fulfillment of the Messianic Prophecies

The great hope of the Jewish people nurtured by the prophets for more than a thousand years was the advent of a great Leader whom they called “The Anointed,” in Hebrew “The Messias,” whose kingdom would succeed the theocratic government of Israel and extend to all nations, races and classes of people. Membership in its kingdom carried the promise of order and peace in this world and of final beatitude in the next. Otherwise than the Jewish nations, the Messianic kingdom would be served by priests and teachers from all nations, dispensing an abundance of divine knowledge and a relish for things of the spirit; there would be one sacrifice, offering a clean oblation to the one true God throughout the world. Those who belonged to it were assured the remission of their sins, sanctity of life, justice among people and nations, and an outpouring of the Spirit of God.

According to the prophets, this kingdom would be established by the Messias who was simultaneously priest, lawgiver and king, who would sacrifice Himself for the redemption of His people and institute a new order of society, beginning with the Jews and finally to be diffused to the ends of the earth. What the prophets foretold in the Scriptures found reflection in the extra-canonical writings of the Hebrews, like the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs in a beautiful passage that was written two centuries before the coming of Christ.

Then shall the Lord raise up a new priest…
And he shall execute a righteous judgment upon the earth
For a multitude of days.

And his star shall arise in heaven as of a king,
Lighting up the light of knowledge as the sun of the day,
And he shall shine forth as the sun of the earth,
And he shall remove all darkness from under heaven,
And there shall be peace in all the earth…

And the knowledge of the Lord shall be poured forth upon the earth,
As the water of the seas….
For he shall give his majesty to his sons in truth for evermore;

And there shall none succeed him for all generations forever.
And in his priesthood the Gentiles shall be multiplied in knowledge upon the earth,
And enlightened through the grace of the Lord. [4]

The Messianic expectation was variously described in Jewish tradition and at times took on bizarre notions that were far removed from the voice of authentic prophecy. But there was no disagreement on the earthly character of the promised kingdom or on its external and visible form. In fact, this earthly materiality became so prominent that even the apostles were affected and till the day of Christ’s ascension they were asking, “Lord, wilt thou at this time restore the kingdom of Israel?” The very word “kingdom” was so freighted with tangible and almost pictorial concepts of a visible ruler exercising his authority through external media that Christ could not have chosen a worse term to explain His mission, if this were only internal and post mortal and was not to be instituted in this world.

It is assumed, of course, that Jesus proclaimed Himself the Messias of the prophets, as when, in reply to the woman at the well, “I know that the Messias is coming,” He told her, “I who speak with thee am he.” Or, when beginning His public ministry at Nazareth, He opened the scroll of Isaias and read the Messianic text, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He has anointed me,” and added, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Calling of the Twelve Apostles

Whenever a new society if being formed, the first stage is always a “getting together” to lay plans for the prospective organization. This is true whether the original impulse to unite for a common purpose is something mutual or comes from a single individual who does the organizing. In the origins of Christianity, this impulse came from Jesus of Nazareth. John and Andrew, the disciples of John the Baptist, were first invited by Christ to “come and see” where He lived, to learn more about this man whom the Baptist had pointed out where He lived, to learn more about this man whom the Baptist had pointed out as the Lamb of God. Later on they were called to “Come follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” At once they left their nets and followed Jesus. Meantime, Andrew found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messias.” Jesus invited him by changing his name to Cephas, the Rock. Philip was invited “Follow me,” and passed the word on to his brother Nathaniel, who responded by professing his faith in Christ as “the Son of God and the King of Israel.” Matthew describes his vocation while sitting in the tax-collector’s office. On hearing words, “Follow me,” he arose and immediately followed Christ. In rapid succession six others were called to join the Apostles until the full complement of twelve was filled, in imitation, we may suppose, of the leaders of the twelve tribes of Israel. They were all from Galilee, as suggested by the remark on Pentecost Sunday, “Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans?” Their culture and ancestry were thoroughly Jewish. Even their names were Hebrew and Aramaic derivatives: Nathaniel, “the gift of God”; John, “Jehovah is gracious”’ Thomas, “the twin”; Matthew, “gift of Jehovah,” [5]. In a word, everything about the inner circle of Christ’s original company was Jewish in fulfillment of God’s promise that in the seed of Abraham all nations would be blessed, beginning with the Messias and the first ambassadors of his kingdom.

Throughout the public life of Christ, the Apostles were His constant, chosen companions. Over thirty times in the Gospels, they are simply identified as ‘the Twelve.” When the Master preached to the multitudes, they were with Him, and not just part of the crowd but near Him to receive the message that was intended only for them. When He worked His miracles, it seemed primarily for their benefit, from the first of His signs at Cana where He manifested His glory and they believed in Him to His Resurrection from the dead when He was most solicitous that all the Apostles should be convinced, including the doubting Thomas who was favored with a special visitation. At the Last Supper, the Apostles alone were chosen to share in the Savior’s final testimony before His passion and death and partake for the first time of the blood of the new and eternal covenant. At the Ascension, they received the mandate to go into the whole world and preach the gospel to every creature.

Uniformity of Doctrine

In his Vie de Jesus, the infidel Renan makes the incredible assertion that “Jesus founded a religion which excludes nothing and determines nothing, unless it be the spirit. His creeds are not fixed dogmas, but images susceptible of indefinite interpretations. We should seek in vain for a theological proposition in the Gospel. All confessions of faith are travesties of the idea of Jesus.” [6] It would be easier to dismiss these sentiments if they were only those of Renan, who equated Christ with Buddha and before his death questioned the existence of a personal God. Unfortunately this attitude is shared by many who call themselves Christians, and explains their indifference to the Catholic claim that Christ founded only one Church which is the unique road to salvation. Given the premise that the Savior propounded no determined doctrines that must be believed under pain of damnation, there was no need to form an infallible society by whom these doctrines would be proclaimed. But if He preached a set of definite truths, indeed mysteries, to be accepted on the word of God, then common sense (not to say Incarnate Wisdom) would call for an institution to transmit, protect and interpret the truths of revelation.

The gospel evidence is overwhelming to show that Christ not only taught an unqualified body of doctrine but required faith in His teaching as an absolute condition for salvation. He professed His divine filiation and said He was one with the Father. When the Jews who were scandalized at this “blasphemy” picked up stones to kill Him, “He went forth out of their hands,” but without retracting the claim. In much the same way He announced the Real Presence in the Eucharist, telling the people that unless they ate the flesh of the Son of Man and drank His blood they would not have life in them. As a consequence many of His disciples left Him, complaining that “This is a hard saying. Who can listen to it.” Yet instead of correcting a possible false impression or qualifying the mystery of faith, He turned to the Twelve and asked them, “Do you also wish to go away?” On the subject of marriage, He raised marital union to the level of a sacrament and added the duty of perfect monogamy, declaring that remarriage while the first spouse is living is adultery, no matter what concession had been given to the ancient Jews. Again His followers, and this time the Apostles themselves, were scandalized at the severity of doctrine. Better not to marry, they told Him, than to be so bound irrevocably for life. But there was no retraction; only a restatement to the effect that virginity too is possible with the grace of God. He proclaimed Himself the object of divine worship and demanded of His followers complete dedication. “If any one loves father or mother, yes, and his own life also, more than me, he is not worthy of me.” Correspondingly He required that men pray to Him for all their needs, since “without me you can do nothing,” but “whatever you ask in my name, that I will do.”

Implicit in all this teaching of Christ is the fact that He is communicating divine revelation to a chosen group of men and bidding them transmit His message to all nations to the end of time. He is not expounding a purely natural philosophy or a system of ethics founded on human speculation, but giving mankind a body of truths which “he who does not believe shall be condemned.” Having opened the treasury of God’s mysteries, two choices were left to Him, either to remain on earth as their custodian and interpreter or appoint representatives, gifted with His power, to do the work for Him. To have given a revelation and made it mandatory, and then leave it at the mercy of every man’s caprice would betray Christ as a charlatan who was less intelligent than the most primitive organizer of a religious sect. Whenever a variety of men is called upon to subscribe to a set of norms and cooperate in the prosecution of a common end, natural instinct suggests the formation of an institution, under authority, to make sure that the principles are retained, and the cooperation guaranteed. If this is true in the ordinary affairs of business and industry, and is the radical basis of civil society, how much more necessary in the field of religion, where human nature is given to so many vagaries and prone to such independence of thought.

Community of Worship and Ritual

Further evidence of the visible character of Christianity is the uniform system of worship and ritual instituted by Christ, and utterly inconceivable outside the structure of an organized society. Besides faith and the acceptance of His doctrine, Christ required of His followers an external baptism by water in the name of the Holy Trinity. He compared the effect of baptism to a new birth and emphasized in the most graphic language that just as in the natural order there is no life without physical birth, so in Christianity there is no life of grace “unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Spirit.” In His final commission to the Apostles, He bade them “made disciples of all nations, (by) baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” thus equating the initial following of Christ with ritual baptism according to a specified formula. A point to be stressed is the evident consistency of the New with the Old Covenant. Jesus told us He did not come to destroy the law and the prophets but to fulfill them. Consequently, where the Old Law had its ceremony of initiation in the rite of circumcision, membership in the society founded by Christ was effected uniquely through the sacrament of regeneration, which is the door of the Church and the basic external sign of every true Christian.

If baptism is the means for entering into the kingdom of God on earth, the Eucharist is the normal condition for remaining in that kingdom until the dawn of eternity. “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has life everlasting, and I will raise him up on the last day.” No other mystery of the Catholic faith more clearly identifies Christianity as a perennial, visible society. Its basic requisite is belief in the Real Presence, which occasioned the first schism in the nascent Church when some of the disciples were scandalized and asked themselves, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” Since the time of Christ, faith in the corporeal Presence has been the hallmark of His followers, to distinguish them from those who are Christians only in name, and to unite them in the common reception of their Master under the sacramental species.

In order to make the Eucharist a permanent institution and perpetuate the sacrifice of the Cross, at the Last Supper gave His Apostles the power and the duty to do what He had done, “in commemoration of me.” When He ordained His chosen twelve to the priesthood, He was instituting that body of men through whom, in the designs of providence, the graces of the redemption were to flow from the Redeemer to the whole of mankind. Significantly in pronouncing the words of this first consecration, Jesus spoke of “my blood of the New Covenant,” thus implying a continuity between the Old and New Law and a perfection of the Christian over the Jewish dispensation. The continuity consisted in the perdurance of a sacrificing priesthood, interceding with God for the sins of their people, the priests of the New Covenant no less than the sons of Levi and Aaron; the perfection meant that a substantial change had been introduced by Christ. His priesthood was to be open to all people, and not limited to the descendants of one family; it was to serve the welfare of all nations, and not only the sons of Abraham; it was to end the multiplicity of sacrifices among the Jews in favor of the one oblation of the Lamb of God offering Himself through human instruments to the heavenly Father. This would give the Church of Christ a unity and universality that no religion in the history of mankind ever enjoyed, and provide a source for its sanctity that only the repetition of Calvary could insure.

For the sins committed after baptism, Christ gave the Apostles and their successors an exclusive power of remission that would further consolidate His Church as an organized society with tangible obligations on its members. Appearing to the Twelve the night of His Resurrection, He told them, “As the Father has sent me, I also send you.” And breathing upon them in a gesture symbolic of the transmission of power, He said, “Receive the Holy Spirit; whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained.” It was certainly a judicial power that Jesus placed in the hands of His chosen ministers, since they were given the right not merely to remit or abstain from remitting but positively to retain the sins, according to their judgment of the sinner’s dispositions. Such drastic judgment presupposes sufficient antecedent knowledge, which could only be furnished by the sinner’s own confession. If this is sometimes considered the most difficult burden of the Catholic religion, having to reveal one’s secret failings to another human being, it is perfectly consistent with the communal character of the kingdom which Christ established. Certainly if He had left the remission of sins to be settled privately between the soul and God, He would have deprived the Church of a most salutary instrument for protecting herself against unworthy members, who are the worst enemies of any society.

The Primacy of Peter and His Successors

In liberal Protestant circles, the opposition to Catholicism is the familiar claim that Christianity is not an institution but a way of life, and any attempt to make Christ the founder of a Church is to place an evil barrier between the human spirit and God. The more familiar attitude is to admit that Christ founded some kind of society, but not a hierarchical institution in which the final authority is vested in a sovereign pontiff. It was this concept of a Church, minus the primacy of jurisdiction, that crystallized from the Reformation and by the nineteenth century became such a threat to Catholic interests that the Vatican Council intervened to settle the matter by solemn definition.

Simon Peter as the Leading Apostle. When Christ set about organizing the Church, He had the option of choosing any one of a number of juridical structures for His society. He might have made it a democracy, or an oligarchy, or an aristocracy. But then He would have established a different Church, because the structure that He chose was monarchical. From the beginning of His public life, He singled out one man to become the visible head of the Christian community. At his first meeting with the Master at Capharnaum, Jesus looked upon Peter and told him that his name would be changed from Simon to Cephas, as a foreshadowing of his future primacy. Gradually He accustoms the jealous Apostles to Peter’s singular position among them. Even among the three who were nearest to the Savior, the sequence is always Peter, James and John. Peter is regularly preferred for special instructions and admonition; he is trained above the others in humility, patience and trust in God; his faith is declared essential, in order to strengthen the others; he is recognized as the spokesman for the other Apostles, not for any personal traits or natural gifts but because the Lord had chosen him for leadership from the moment he was called to the apostolate.

Two events in the life of Christ stand out as the guarantee that Peter was intended to carry on the work of his Master with an authority that was shared by no other Apostle. The first event took place in the midst of the public ministry and is recorded by the three synoptics, but especially by St. Matthew; the second occurred after the Resurrection and is described only by St. John.

Promise and Conferral of the Primacy. Shortly after the second miraculous feeding of the multitude, Jesus took His disciples to the neighborhood of Caesarea Philippi, on the extreme borders of the land of Israel. Secluded from the crowds of followers, in a territory that was now pagan, He put His Apostles to the test, in order to clarify once for all His position in their regard and determine their role in the work that He had in store for them. He asked them, “Who do men say the Son of Man is?” They answered, “Some say, John the Baptist; and others Elias; and others, Jeremias, or one of the prophets.” When He asked again, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus then declared:

Blessed are thou, Simon Bar-Jona, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to thee, but my Father in heaven. And I say to thee, thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever thou shalt bind on earth, shall be bound in heaven and whatever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. [7]

Set in paraphrase, the essential words of Christ, “Thou are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church,” would read: “I shall make you the foundation of the spiritual edifice I intend to build. Consequently, what the foundation is to a building, namely, its source of unity, strength and stability, you are going to be that in the Church which I am about to found. And since the unified strength and stability of any society is derived from authority, I shall give you and your successors all the authority you will need to preserve my Church from harm even to the end of time, confirming your judgments on earth with a divine ratification in heaven.”

This promise of the primacy should be taken in conjunction with its actual conferral after the Resurrection. In spite of the fact that Peter had denied his Master and humanly speaking was anything but the rock on which to build an institution that could resist the powers of hell, Christ was faithful to what He had said a year before. Calling Peter aside on the shores of the Sea of Tiberias, Jesus asked him, “Simon, son of John, dost thou love me more than these?” When Peter answered in the affirmative, Christ told him, “Feed my lambs.” Then a second time, “Dost thou love me,” and the same answer with the same commission, “Feed my lambs,” Finally a third time, to which Peter protested, “Lord, thou knowest all things, thou knowest that I love thee,” and the closing injunction, “Feed my sheep.” [8]

Four principal issues have been raised in the interpretation of these classic Petrine texts, by those who deny the Roman primacy. They contend that Christ did not endow Peter with any privileges in preference to the other Apostles; or even if He did, it was only a matter of honor and dignity and not of real authority; or if it was a primacy of authority, Christ conferred it directly on the Church and through the Church on Peter as its agent; and, in any case, the authority was given only to Peter with no intention of passing it on to his successors.

Only Peter Receives the Primacy. The Gospel evidence is overwhelming that Christ conferred the primacy on Peter alone, and not on all the Apostles singly or collectively. Whatever doubt is suggested because the power of binding and losing was also given to the other apostles, is dissipated by the historical fact that after the Resurrection Christ solemnly enjoined on Peter, and no one else, to feed His lambs and sheep. Some exegetes are embarrassed by the Joannine text which describes the conferral of the primacy and impugn the authenticity of the whole last chapter of the Gospel. They argue that because there is a logical conclusion at the end of the previous chapter, what follows is an after-thought and consequently spurious. Apart from its universal acceptance by the earliest Christian Fathers, the final chapter of St. John’s Gospel is found in all the ancient manuscripts, uncial and miniscule, without a single exception.

Primacy of Authority. More serious is the claim that whatever Christ promised or gave to Peter was only a primacy of honor as a mark of special predilection. It was not a question of authority or legal jurisdiction. “One thing is clear,” we are told, “that not in all the New Testament is there a vestige of any authority either claimed or exercised by Peter, or conceded to him, above the rest of the apostles---a thing conclusive against the Romish claims in behalf of that apostle.” [9] The exercise of supreme authority by Peter and his successors is a matter of history and will be examined in a later context; but the juridical foundation for that authority received from Christ is unequivocally found in the Gospels. After Peter’s profession of faith in Christ’s divinity, the Savior addressed him under a double metaphor that concretely described the unique power which the first Apostle was soon to receive. He would be the rock or basis for the society that Christ was instituting, which could not exist without supreme authority than a material building can stand without a foundation. What is significant, therefore, is not the need for such an authority. That was obvious. The crucial fact is that Christ designated its possessor as Simon, the son of John, and specified him to the extent of identifying his name, Kepha (Peter), with the bedrock, Kepha, on which the Church was going to be built. Peter was also promised the keys of the kingdom of heaven. In oriental language, this was symbolic for absolute control. Isaias described the Messias as having the key to the house of David, as “he who opens and no one shuts, and who shuts and no one opens.” [10] According to the Talmud, the keys of birth, of rain, and of the resurrection of the dead are said to be in the hands of God. [11] In the same way, the kingdom of heaven can be likened to a citadel with barred gates. Whoever holds the keys has power within it, power to admit and power to exclude. This transcendent power was delegated to Simon Peter as the vicegerent of the Christ.

The metaphor of the rock and keys in St. Matthew becomes the figure of feeding Christ’s lambs and sheep in St. John, which patently indicates the right of jurisdiction over a community. Two verbs are used in the original Greek for the English word “feed.” Twice the verb boskein and once the term poimainein. Both are regularly used in Scripture and elsewhere as synonyms for juridical authority. Thus in the Greek Septuagint of the Old Testament, the Lord is quoted as referring to David, the newly anointed king, “Thou shalt feed (poimainein) my people Israel, and thou shalt be prince over Israel.” [12] And in Herodotus, King Miltiades is said to have supported (boskein) an army of mercenary troops over whom he had absolute control. [13] Moreover, in context, Jesus is too evidently fulfilling the promise He had previously made, to leave any doubt that by commissioning Peter to feed His lambs and sheep He was giving him the keys of the kingdom of heaven. The two figures are only two aspects of the same concept; this delegated mastery over the destiny of men should not be exercised despotically but kindly and mercifully, in imitation of the Good Shepherd and motivated by His love.

Authority Given to Peter’s Successors. The most weighty objection to the primacy in modern times is the practical admission that Christ made Peter the visible head of the nascent Church and conferred on him the power of government, but the authority died with Peter in the sense of being absorbed by the universal Church. If anything was bequeathed by the first Apostle to his successors, it was only the model of a good example, not the right of jurisdiction given to him by Christ. As expressed by Oscar Cullmann, “There must be leadership in the Church, even after the apostolic period when the foundation is laid and down to the present day. In this respect the leadership of the first head of the Church may be example and pattern, but nothing more than this. The leader or leaders of the future Church are given an example in the leadership that is committed to Peter. But Peter himself cannot so to speak arise in every new generation.” [14] Anticipated by the Vatican Council, this opinion was condemned as a heresy which denies that “according to the institution of Christ our Lord Himself, that is, by divine law, St. Peter has perpetual successors in the primacy over the whole Church.” [15]

While the complete vindication of the primacy as a permanent institution needs the evidence of primitive tradition, even the Gospel testimony alone is enough to show that Christ intended the authority vested in Peter to pass on to his successors, who are historically known as the Roman Pontiffs. When Christ gave Peter the authority to govern the infant Church, His action was evidently determined by the character of the society He was founding. Did He wish to found a permanent institution? Did He entrust to this society a body of religious truths to be kept unchanged as the instrument of salvation? Did He want the members of His Church to be united by the profession of a common faith and the practice of a mutual love? If the answers to these questions is affirmative, there is no escaping the conclusion that what Christ conferred upon Peter, He meant to be transmitted to other Peters until the day of eternity.

Church as a Permanent Institution. That Christ wished to found a permanent society is testified by all the prophets, for whom the Messianic kingdom was the final stage in human history. It was foretold by the angel Gabriel, who identified the Son of Mary as the Messianic king who would reign in the house of Jacob forever. It was declared by Christ who spoke of His Church as withstanding the gates of hell and of Himself as remaining with her even to the consummation of the world. In fact all that He taught by word and example implied nothing more certainly than the perdurance of His society until the final coming of the Son of Man. But would the Church continue to exist, let us not say for centuries, but after the death of Peter, if the authority which Christ entrusted to him either disappeared or was somehow dissipated among a variety of Christian “leaders”? If Christ wanted a monarchical society, with a single person as visible head, could we still speak of the Church of Christ from which this monarchy had been removed or in which it was substantially changed?

Need of Infallible Authority. Something has already been said about the unchangeable revelation that Christ committed to the Church as the legacy from His heavenly Father. Here we may ask whether it is possible to retain this heritage intact without the correlative power of ultimate authority to declare what has been divinely revealed and what this revelation means. Christ did not think so, and therefore confided to Peter the implicit gift of infallibility in matters of faith and morals that concern the universal means of salvation. Would He withdraw this gift after Peter’s demise, when, more than ever, the Church would need the guiding hand of infallible authority to settle matters of discord, to clarify obscurities and, in fact, to recognize the very word of God in the Scriptures on which the critics of a transmitted primacy finally rest their case? It is no coincidence but the indictment of history, that wherever the transmission of authority from Peter is denied there we find, if not doctrinal chaos, at least such aberrations from the original deposit of faith that even if the Gospels were silent on the point, we should have to postulate a juridical succession to St. Peter if the substance of Christianity is not to be changed.

Unity of the Church and Final Authority. Comparable to the stability in doctrine that Christ desired for His Church was the unity of love that he wanted among the members. At the Last Supper he prayed, “that all may be one, even as thou, Father, in me and I in thee; that they also may be one in us, that the world may believe that thou has sent me.” 16 He made this bond of unity the sign of His fellowship. “By this will all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” [17] If we therefore assume that Christ wanted His followers to be united in the most perfect form of charity while living together in a communal society, is this conceivable without the bond of obedience to a common authority? Evidently not, since Christ commissioned to Peter the right of feeding His sheep and thereby implied their obligation to submit to Peter’s nurturing care. And after Peter’s death, when the Church expanded in numbers and complexity, would there be any less reason for keeping the same bond of union among the members by their common submission to a single authority? Those who questioned this need have suffered the consequences, as seen in the history of every sect which denied the Petrine succession. It is a story of discord and disunity on the most fundamental Christian principles, and of disagreement that has generated a variety of churches that baffles the imagination.

Among the extant writings of Martin Luther is a sermon he preached on the feast of St. Peter in Chains, just a year before his formal breach with Rome in 1517. It is unsurpassed as an argument for the primacy and coming on the eve of the Reformation is proof in hand that opposition to the papacy was a Protestant after-thought to rationalize insubordination on other grounds. “If Christ had not entrusted all power to one man,” Luther said, “the Church would not have been perfect because there would have been no order, and each one would have been able to say he was led by the Holy Spirit. This is what the heretics did, each one setting up his own principles. In this way as many churches arose as there were heads. Christ therefore wills, in order that all may be assembled in one unity, that His power be exercised by one man to whom also He has committed it. He has made this power so strong that He looses all the powers of hell (without injury) against it. He says, “The gates of hell shall not prevail against it;” as though He said, “They will fight against it but never overcome it,” so that in this way, it becomes manifest that this power is really from God and not from man. Consequently whoever breaks away from this unity and order of power, let him not boast of great enlightenment and wonderful works, as our Hussites and other heretics do, “for much better is obedience than the victims of fools who know not what evil they do.” 18 When later on, in his outbursts of rage, Luther denounced the papacy as an invention of the devil, he gave his disciples a formula they have been following ever since. But the concept was born of prejudice and not of quiet reflection on the inspired word of God.

Chapter I - References

  1. The Koran, translated by George Sale, London, 1869, pp. 43, 203.

  2. Walter W. Hyde, Paganism to Christianity in the Roman Empire, Philadelphia, 1946, p. 160.

  3. Ernest W. Barnes, The Rise of Christianity, London, 1948, p. 184.

  4. Testament of Levi, chap. 18, vv. 2-5, 8-9. Text in R. H. Charles, The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament, vol. II, Oxford, 1913.

  5. The two apparent exceptions are Andrew and Philip, who probably had Jewish names besides the Greek ones.

  6. Ernest Renan, Vie de Jesus, Paris, n.d., p. 253.

  7. Matthew 16:17-19.

  8. John 21:15-17.

  9. Critical and Experimental Commentary, New York, 1945, Vol. V, p. 89.

  10. Isaias 22:20; also Apocalypse 3:7.

  11. Babylonian Talmud, "Sanhedrin" 113 A.

  12. II Kings 5:2.

  13. History of Herodotus, Book VI, chap. 39.

  14. Oscar Cullmann, Peter, Disciple--Apostle--Martyr, Philadelphia, 1953, pp. 226-227.

  15. Denzinger, Enchiridion 1825.

  16. John 17:21.

  17. John 13:35.

  18. Martin Luther,"Sermo in Vincula S. Petri" (August 1, 1516), Werke, Weimar edition, I (1883), p. 69.

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