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A Defense of Papal Primacy

Editors note: Where I have disagreed with Mr. Watson I have left brief notes, noting my disagreement quod sit, without defending my position, or expounding upon at length my disagreements. Rather, I have allowed Mr. Watson to speak for himself. -C.B.W.

Introduction

Our Lord, fulfilling the Kingdom of David in His very person, established the Catholic Church. This Church was structured with an hierarchy of leadership, starting with Jesus Christ, the eternal Head and High Priest, who gave His authority to and sent out the apostles. However, even among these apostles, He gave differing roles. For example, the fact that a certain primacy was given to St. Peter is impossible to deny from Sacred Scripture.

St. Peter: Leader of the Apostles

While we are used to reading and arguing about the “rock” verse of Matthew 16, the major part comes before this. Our Lord asks His apostles about how He is known by the people, and each gives his own report. However, when Our Lord asks all the apostles who they believe He is, St. Peter alone answers for all of them, saying:

“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Matt. 16:16

This begins the controversial pericope. If sin deserves punishment (the wages of sin is death), then good deserves reward. This explains why Our Lord switches to a singular second person pronoun (thou/thee) and gives a specific blessing to St. Peter:

“Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Matt. 16:17-19

This leadership role of St. Peter is continued through the Scriptures. For example, when the Jews questioned the apostles on their Gospel, St. Peter responds for all of them, proclaiming the pure Gospel. Likewise, when the apostles need to be addressed, the Acts of the Apostles shows that St. Peter is so often sought. For example, after Simon Magus sees the Holy Ghost descending upon Christians after the Laying on of Hands and seeks to buy the gift of Holy Orders, St. Peter rebukes him (Acts 8). When a woman needs healing, St. Peter is sought for help (Acts 9). Finally, when St. Paul needs his apostolic mission verified, he goes to St. Peter (Galatians 1). Of course, in these instances, it is not that the other apostles are not involved but that St. Peter is leading and first in all these.

While we must be careful to not confuse the person of St. Peter and the office of St. Peter, it is clear that he exercises this leadership authority not due to any personal merit, since---in his person----he is Satan (Matt. 16:23). Instead, he holds an office of leadership among the apostles.

This primacy is continued and assumed through church history. From St. Jerome to the Second Council of Constantinople, it is understood that this unique office has the special concern and obligation of caring for church unity. For example, St. Jerome writes,

“But you say, the Church was founded upon Peter: although elsewhere the same is attributed to all the Apostles, and they all receive the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and the strength of the Church depends upon them all alike, yet one among the twelve is chosen so that when a head has been appointed, there may be no occasion for schism.” Against Jovinianus I:26

Here we see the special position St. Peter holds for leading and maintaining the unity of the Catholic Church.

Likewise, as the papal legates pronounce, with no resistance, in the Council of Ephesus,

“We offer our thanks to the holy and venerable Synod, that when the writings of our holy and blessed pope had been read to you, the holy members by our [or your] holy voices, you joined yourselves to the holy head also by your holy acclamations. For your blessedness is not ignorant that the head of the whole faith, the head of the Apostles, is blessed Peter the Apostle.” Session II

Finally, when the Emperor asks the Fathers of the Second Council of Constantinople to strike the wavering Pope Vigilius from the diptychs, they respond in agreement, because

“what has seemed good to the most pious Emperor is congruous to the labours which he bears for the unity of the churches. Let us preserve unity to the Apostolic See of the most holy Church of ancient Rome, carrying out all things according to the tenor of what has been read.” Session VII

Our Lord promised that

“I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.” John 14:15-17

As I wrote in my article on catholicity, the Catholic Church, when it comes to full agreement, everywhere, by all, from all-time (as St. Vincent of Lerins writes) on a doctrine, that divine promise is manifested, and it serves as an infallible sign that the doctrine is in full conformity with the Sacred Scriptures. In contrast, novelty is the mark of heresy. Therefore, while there are debates about the scope of this primacy, to make St. Peter or his successors mere bishops or of no special prerogatives is fundamentally un-catholic.


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