The Church’s One Foundation

Does the inflated view of the papacy that prevails in some quarters today have roots in a prior inflation that requires correction?

Detail from "Christ Handing the Keys to St. Peter" (1481-82) by Pietro Perugino []

Author’s Note to the reader: This essay belongs to a conversation that includes Roberto de Mattei’s Tu es Petrus: True Devotion to the Chair of Peter, my own The Conversion of the Papacy and the Present Church Crisis, and Professor de Mattei’s generous response, Defending ‘True Devotion to the Chair of Peter’, for which I thank him and his translator. I will offer some rejoinders here, pari passu, while pursuing matters germane to the wider conversation in which we are both interested. – Feast of the Chair of St. Peter the Apostle, AD 2019


“Are they not doing the Holy See a grave disservice who will not let a zealous man defend it in his own way, but insist on his doing it in their way or not at all – or rather only at the price of being considered heterodox or disaffected if his opinions do not run in a groove?” — (St.) John Henry Newman

Of the Church we must always say with St. Paul that her one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord. Moreover, we must recall and acknowledge that her Lord promised to build his Church on the petra of Peter confessing Christ. Yet today we must also say, as the nineteenth-century Anglican hymnist, Samuel John Stone, said, that we “see her sore oppressed, by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed.” Indeed, we must confess that once again, in the words of the fourth-century saint, Basil the Great, her “distresses are notorious,” that “their sound has gone out into all the world,” that “the apostolic traditions are set at naught [and] the devices of innovators are in vogue” (Ep. 90). Doctrinally, liturgically, and morally much of the Catholic Church – to say nothing of the Orthodox churches or of Anglicanism and the ecclesial communities of the Protestant world – seems to be in the hands of innovators. The Bishop of Rome himself gives every appearance of belonging to their number; which forces us to ask difficult questions about the nature of his office, not merely his performance in it.

One such question, the one before us at the moment, is: Does the inflated view of the papacy that prevails in some quarters today have roots in a prior inflation that requires correction? In criticizing what I called the idolatry of the person evident among some admirers and supporters of the Francis revolution, I also criticized the apparent idolatry of the office among some traditionalists and called for a more modest view of the papacy, a call that Roberto de Mattei rightly intuited as a turn away from papal monarchism (in the political rather than the numerical sense). Professor de Mattei insists that the Church is a monarchy and holds that the pope, as vicar of the unseen Lord and King, Jesus Christ, is himself a monarch who “reigns and governs,” and that this belongs not merely to the historical form but to “the divine essence of the Papacy.” He does not think the office has suffered from any long-term inflation. He sees rather a recent deflation of the office, through a capitulation to modernism that has been going on since John XXIII. By way of remedy, he appeals to a tradition that runs from Unam sanctam through to Mystici corporis, a tradition about which – having pressed it back a little further into the Dictatus Papae program of the Gregorian era – I expressed concerns.

That tradition, I maintain, lacks historical consistency and theological integrity. It has had and continues to have deleterious effects on the Church and its witness to Jesus Christ. It has of course received some correction, not least in Mystici corporis and more fully in Lumen gentium – a document that builds on Mystici and received but five non placet votes, albeit at a council of which De Mattei is deeply suspicious. Further correction is required, however. Not the false correction supplied by modernism, which at bottom (and sometimes explicitly) rejects the kingship even of our Lord Jesus Christ, but rather the kind of correction that arises from careful consideration of Jesus as the Church’s one foundation. We need a further christological correction that builds in turn on Lumen gentium. Searching, as De Mattei proposes, for “a point of equilibrium between papolatry and Gallicanism” will not do. It is procedurally unsound just because it is not christological but rather takes two different forms of error as its frame of reference.

This christological correction will also be an eschatological correction. Only as such can it eliminate that false inflation of the papal office that helped produce the problems we are presently facing. For runaway inflation always leads to a crippling deflation, whether the kind of deflation Professor Pertici alleges is actually intended by the architects of the Francis revolution or the kind that happens quite unintentionally. At the same time it will require a new moral seriousness that properly distinguishes the city of God from the city of man through humility of life, a note Francis has tried to sound but, for reasons we cannot explore here, has produced badly off pitch. That our immediate difficulties are as much moral as doctrinal and liturgical, and moral even before they are doctrinal or liturgical, is a claim I stand by, despite De Mattei’s unspecified objection; but my present interest is in the christological and eschatological dimensions of the problem, not in trying to demonstrate how lust for power has led round to the power of lust, and to a Vatican riddled with homosexuality.


Permit me to clear away certain distracting, though not unimportant, matters arising from Professor de Mattei’s response. First, I am not seeking a “third way” (as if there were such a thing) between orthodoxy and heterodoxy, as I look for safe passage between the Scylla of idolatry of the person and the Charybdis of idolatry of the office. I am tempted here to turn this charge back against its author, since it is no more bold of me to challenge the adequacy or even correctness of particular papal or conciliar claims from long ago than it is for him to challenge claims made in the twentieth or twenty-first century. It is not as if what he calls modernism, which on my view is a complex alliance between gnosticism, Arianism, skepticism, and Erastianism, puts us in an altogether unprecedented situation that permits the kind of criticism of recent popes and the last council that must never be leveled against earlier popes and councils. There is no difference in principle between questioning some element of Vatican II and questioning some element of Vatican I or of any other council. There is no difference in principle between criticizing Francis and criticizing Boniface (as I shall here). Nor is it possible, with intellectual honesty and fidelity of faith, to maintain that everything we find in the deliverances of popes or councils, up to this or that point in time or after this or that point in time, is consistent with the faith. The doctrine of infallibility does not extend so far as that, nor does the promise of Jesus that the Spirit will guide the Church into all truth.

Moreover, when it comes to talking about the papacy it should be admitted that there is very little that qualifies as infallible dogma. There are many claims about the papacy, not all of them consistent, and many habits and even laws regarding the papacy, but little dogma. Canon 749 §1, for example, points to and contains such dogma, but there is not very much that meets the standard (itself vague) of §3. Which on the whole is a very good thing, since the Church is not here to witness to its own internal structures and in via arrangements – canon law itself, which governs those arrangements, is not an object of faith and neither are the papal traditions that, to a limited extent, it codifies – but rather to its Lord and Saviour, and to itself only as a work of the Holy Spirit, who moves in mysterious ways, for the sake of those who seek salvation. For their salvation the papacy is a means not an end, and a secondary means at that, serving the primary means of word and sacrament. Scripture lays a foundation for it but does not discuss it. It merits no mention in the creed that one confesses in joining the communion of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. Vast volumes such as the City of God, containing extended treatments of both central and peripheral Church teaching and theological speculation, can be written with barely a glance at it. Large tracts of the episcopate and of the faithful, even in the Church’s most formative years, were little affected by what went on in Rome and viewed the papacy in a much more modest light than it is often viewed today. Eastern rite churches view it differently than Roman rite churches.

These facts do not prove the papacy unimportant; if they did, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Note well, however, that no appeal to development of doctrine can justify attempts to make of the papacy anything that it was not already from the beginning, except in a prudential rather than a de fide fashion. Which is to say, the Petrine office can be better understood, and its function adjusted accordingly or to meet changing needs, but it cannot be declared to be more or less or other than it always was, and manifestly was. Either Simon Peter had this or that power and responsibility ex officio, or no pope has it ex officio but only by way of some custom or argument ex convenientia. And whether that custom or argument has been codified, or at all events regularly rehearsed, has little bearing on the question of its permanent justification or its perpetual utility. The Church is a human as well as divine institution. It is no surprise to find popes, often in competition with other bishops, building incrementally on the practices of their predecessors and seeking to consolidate their own power base. Witness already Boniface I, who in Manes beatum demands humility from all other prelates and clergy, insisting that “one reaches God with the support of Peter, on whom … it is certain that the Church was founded.” Was this inspired insight or political posturing? Of the latter there are, at all events, many subsequent examples.

What popes do or declare in trying to extend their power is not necessarily de fide or even a fit topic for de fide consideration. The successor of Peter can have a wider reach than Peter had, can have many advantages and instruments and ambitions and responsibilities that Peter did not have, and many more elaborate laws, rules, and customs than Peter would have desired or deemed fruitful. He can, accordingly, experience new forms of living martyrdom and, conversely, far greater temptations to forget that our Lord’s command in Matthew 20, “It shall not be so among you,” includes him and him especially! But he cannot have, ecclesiologically speaking – canon law is another matter – any fundamental, unalterable, and indisputable rights, responsibilities, or powers that were not already Peter’s. Nor will it do simply to say that Peter did have them, unbeknownst to himself or to the Church. A doctrine of development that permits that, will permit anything; for it is, in the nature of the case, an incestuous doctrine certain to produce deformed offspring. What pope could not say, as Pius IX is reported to have said, “I am the tradition”? And is that not also to say in effect, “Whatever powers I say I have are, ipso facto, powers Peter always had”? Those who worried, in his day, that to formulate a dogma about the formation or status of dogma (that is, about papal authority and infallibility) was to run the risk of infinite regress and of infinite expansion of power, worried about something not about nothing.

The magisterial labour of the Church, in this matter as in others, must constantly be measured anew by the holy scriptures and examined afresh by way of the analogia fidei. For “we follow the lead of scripture, which is what makes us Christians” (Civ. 9.19). As Catholic Christians, we do this “according to the whole” and not apart from the whole. That means, among other things, that we do it in unity with Peter, no scripture being of private interpretation and no deliverance of the magisterium either. But it does not follow from that, and is not presupposed by that, that Peter is always right or even that Peter-in-council is always right in every respect. It is decidedly not the case that magisterial deliverances always come, as Peter’s original confession came, not from flesh and blood but directly from the Father in heaven, or that they should be received in whole and in part, like the word of the apostles themselves, not merely as the word of man but also as the word of God. To tear apart scripture and tradition is one thing; to confuse between the two quite another. Any honest examination of the records reveals things belonging to tradition that subsequently have been heavily qualified or even reversed, as Fr Thomas Guarino has recently reminded us in The Disputed Teachings of Vatican II. (That is true of scripture also, of course, but in a quite different sense; all scripture, but not all tradition, as Jesus himself makes plain, falls under the rubric of infallibility.) To admit this, and traditionalists cannot be critical of Vatican II without admitting it, is not to concede anything to the modernists, whose problem, at once moral and doctrinal, is rebellion against the regula fidei; that is, against the creed and against the word of God itself.

But here a word to those who would toss both Roberto de Mattei and myself (and who knows how many others) into the dustbin marked “heretics and schismatics” for the simple reason that we dare to question papal deliverances of this or that era, particularly our own. We know that public criticism has, for good reasons or bad, been discouraged and even forbidden from time to time by those in authority; as, for example, at the Fifth Lateran Council, which (to put it kindly) proved highly inadequate to its time. Neither past history nor the present moment, however, permits the luxury of refusing all such criticism. Criticism is required, for the sake of the Church and of the gospel. That has not changed since Paul confronted Peter. The question is rather how it is done and in what spirit (canon 212.3), which certainly does not mean that it is to be done only by way of private grumbling rather than publicly and, if possible, face to face. It is precisely the latter and not the former that Paul modeled for us. We must prefer the truth to the man, as Augustine observes in Civ. 10, except where the Man in question is himself “the way, the truth, and the life.” De Mattei echoes this when he says that we ought not to be overly concerned about what either of us think, but only about our common search for the truth. Let those who would brand either or both of us as schismatics ask themselves whether they even care about the truth. Or do they suppose, like that mystical modernist Teilhard de Chardin, that “There is only one Evil = disunity”? This is but pagan pragmatism, in the last analysis; which is to say, it has compromise written all over it. The truth sets free, and there is no such thing as genuine unity that is not unity in the truth.

Now, no pope is or can be the way, the truth, and the life. That role is taken. What is more, no pope, whether in his own person or ex officio, is an oracle of him who is the way, the truth, and the life. Only those we may call the papacolae would say that trusting in Christ and the Spirit means trusting in Peter. Rather, the pope by virtue of his Petrine office is the chief – not the sole – steward of what scripture and tradition has to say about the One who is the way and the truth and the life, and of what it says about God and man in that light. To this stewardship he may or may not be faithful. The papacolae suppose that when Pastor aeternus says that “this see of St. Peter always remains unblemished by any error” its meaning is very broad and disallows any real criticism of the pope or his see. What nonsense! How then was it that the papal office was bought and sold on several occasions, or that simony and debauchery were so often tolerated? No, we are dealing here with a much narrower meaning, which permits honest recognition of unfaithfulness on every level, dogmatizing heresy excepted.

But is tradition itself always faithful? In the broader sense of the word, we must answer in the negative; for tradition includes many things that are inconsistent and eventually found wanting, perhaps mistaken or even reprehensible. (Certain attitudes towards and decisions about the Jews come to mind, as if Mark 7:13 applied only to the people of the old covenant and in no way to those of the new; and here we may be reminded that “eventually” sometimes means only after a very long time.) In the narrower sense, however, we must answer in the affirmative, for tradition does supply a solid and authoritative body of prayer and dogma and morals from which we cannot depart without departing the faith itself. Development of doctrine does not mean turning the faith back against itself, or finding heterodoxy within orthodoxy and orthodoxy within heterodoxy. We may leave that to those (some of them still wearing red hats) who have plotted to “modernize” the Catholic Church from within, but who, despite their very considerable gains, will in the providence of God find that they have failed.

These things said, we turn again to the question before us, the question about the inflation of the papal office, a question we must discuss – since our concern at the moment is primarily theological rather than historical – under the rubric of Christ’s threefold office as it bears on the papacy, and in connection with the ascension of Christ, apart from which no papacy would have been necessary. We must discuss it also, then, as an eschatological problem, the problem of the already and the not yet, not merely as a problem of visible and invisible governance. For thinking about the ascension requires us to think eschatologically, as I have argued elsewhere regarding the Eucharist.

Jesus: Princeps, Pontifex, et Testis Fidelis

Is the Church a monarchy? Of course it is, for it has a king. Is the Church a priesthood? Of course it is, for it has a high priest, and is itself a royal priesthood. Is the Church a company of prophets? Of course it is, for it has, as its king and priest, the “prophet like Moses” and the spirit of that prophet has been given it with the Holy Spirit himself. Its one foundation is Jesus Christ, “who is the faithful witness, the first begotten of the dead and the prince of the kings of the earth, who hath loved us and washed us from our sins in his own blood and hath made us a kingdom, and priests to God and his Father” (qui est testis fidelis, primogenitus mortuorum, et princeps regum terrae qui dilexit nos et lavit nos a peccatis nostris in sanguine suo et fecit nostrum regnum sacerdotes Deo et Patri, Rev. 1:5f.). Therefore it is all these things.

But the pope, ex officio, is none of these things. He is neither monarch, nor high priest, nor prophet like Moses. He is the foundation of no kingdom, no priesthood, and no company of prophets. To suppose that he is, is quite fundamentally to misunderstand his role and his office, to which belongs rather the stewardship of the Church’s faithful confession that Jesus, and Jesus alone, is all these things, and the safeguarding of the sacramental life by which the Church shares in the benefits promised it by Jesus, and hence also the jurisdiction necessary to this stewardship and this safeguarding: these three.

“Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession” (Heb. 4:14). This we do not do by way of an analogous confession about Peter, as if we had a ruler and great high priest on earth to whom we can turn precisely because he has not passed through the heavens. Absurd! We would have to excise from the canon Hebrews, and much more than Hebrews, to think like that, and find new things, much later things, to put in their place. In my previous essay I warned against careless use of the title “Holy Father.” Let me warn here against careless use of another papal honorific. Whatever Emperor Gratian intended by transferring his pagan imperial title, Pontifex Maximus, to Pope Damasus (if indeed he did do that) he transferred nothing of substance with it except a recognition that in matters religious the Church carried its own authority and did not derive it from the State. To say more than that would be to say less than that; nay, to contradict it. It would be to say that the emperor mandated the pope to be a kind of emperor, and a pagan kind of emperor at that. It would have been better, however, had the recognition been acknowledged without the title being taken up, even in the informal fashion it was taken up. For though that title (which had already been applied to the pope satirically by Tertullian) never quite became de iure a papal title, it did eventually become one of the foremost de facto titles. And it tempted its new holders to think of themselves as priest-kings in an ex officio and quasi-imperial way, to forget not only our Lord’s words but those of Peter as well, who did not style himself by such honorifics but rather as “fellow elder.” It is to popes and prelates, not merely to the humble presbyter, that Peter himself says, “Tend the flock of God that is your charge, not by constraint but willingly, not for shameful gain but eagerly, not as domineering over those in your charge but being examples to the flock” (1 Pet. 5:1–3).

We will come shortly to an example of that contrary, domineering spirit, but how should we think of popes, if we are thinking properly? They are said to be, and they are, vicars of Christ, though they are not, despite having sometimes claimed to be, vicars of God. (Those dull-witted folk who think that because of the homoousion there is no important distinction here have not grasped the significance of Chalcedon.) Which means that they have some part to play in the exercise of Christ’s authority and in the distribution of his gifts and graces. But what part?

Even today one hears from traditionalists of a certain stripe such dangerously inflated claims as these: “Clearly Our Lord intended Peter to be the very foundation of his Church… Peter, the rock, is the rock of salvation itself… Popes alone, like Peter, have the plenitudo potestatis – the fullness of power represented by the keys. Each pope is therefore not only a passive foundation, but an active constructor of the Church by virtue of his grace-giving power, assurance of faith and binding jurisdiction.” Did I say “dangerously inflated”? Actually that is a dangerously deflated estimation. To make Peter the very foundation of his Church is to contradict Paul, who insists that “no other foundation can any one lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 11:3). To speak of Peter as the very rock of salvation and of his grace-giving power borders on blasphemy, whatever qualifications are afterwards added. Let us try, at least, to make better sense of scripture and of the Catholic faith than that, steering well clear of the romanticism that blissfully ignores every impediment, whether theological or historical, in its rush to papal fundamentalism. Professor de Mattei, I hasten to add, is not of that stripe. He quotes approvingly the German bishops’ Collective Declaration of 1875, which affirms the pope’s supreme authority in the Church while marking it out as distinct in kind from that of civil authority and as subject to the divine laws established by Christ himself; thus did those bishops (how things have changed!) defend Pastor aeternus from those who were already exaggerating its claims. That is an exercise in which I also mean to engage, conscious of no violation of its definitive declarations and of no transgression of its canons, yet not without criticism of its reasoning and its non-definitive claims, which sometimes lend themselves to exaggeration and are in any event exegetically or factually contestable. As for its definitive claims and canons, I think (with the soon-to-be-sainted Newman) a minimalist rather than a maximalist reading advisable.

The text with which all must deal, Matthew 16:13–20, is a text in which Jesus poses two questions: “Who do men say that I am?“ and “Who do you say that I am?” He does not pose the question, “Who, Simon Peter, are you?” And when Peter confesses Jesus, rightly identifying him as the One he truly is, Jesus does not say, “Right; go ahead and build my Church.” Nor does he say, “I will build my Church on you.” He says rather that he will build his Church upon this rock. In other words, he identifies himself as its architect and builder; and he does not go on to identify Peter as fellow architect, much less as princepsor pontifex, though he does identify him as a faithful witness and promise him the keys. If we forget these things, we are likely to forget 1 Cor. 11:3 also.

That said, as architect Jesus requires a place to build, a plan for building, and materials with which to build. Whatever we make of Matthew 16, shall we not say in this connection, at least, that the Petrine office is in the plan as a foundation? Yes indeed. Again we must be careful, however, not to bring to the text what is not in the text. De Mattei tells us that the Church “has two components, one visible and one invisible.” True enough, but requiring explanation and of doubtful bearing on our text unless expounded in terms of the contrast between “on earth” and “in heaven,” a contrast that cannot be reduced to the faculty of sight. De Mattei adds, by way of both concession and correction: “And if Jesus Christ is the primary foundation of the Church, visible and invisible, the pope is, by Christ’s will, the secondary foundation, the ‘rock,’ on which the visible Church is founded.” Unfortunately, this way of putting the matter takes for granted the very thing in dispute. Does Matthew 16 really invite us to say that Peter is the rock on which the visible Church, the Church on earth, is founded? There cannot be any doubt that Pastor aeternus invites us to say exactly that, though we must not overlook the fact that this claim is ancillary to, rather than constitutive of, the point of the chapter in which it is found. (At bottom, PA 2 is simply saying what Irenaeus says in Haer. 3.3; viz., that all the churches should remain in agreement with the church in Rome.) Both Pius IX and Pius XII, to whom De Mattei also appeals, citing at some length Mystici corporis 40, use “foundation” derivatively of Peter and headship language in the same way. Here is a fuller extract:

But we must not think that He rules only in a hidden or extraordinary manner. On the contrary, our Redeemer also governs His Mystical Body in a visible and normal way through His Vicar on earth. You know, Venerable Brethren, that after He had ruled the “little flock” Himself during His mortal pilgrimage, Christ our Lord, when about to leave this world and return to the Father, entrusted to the Chief of the Apostles the visible government of the entire community He had founded. Since He was all wise He could not leave the body of the Church He had founded as a human society without a visible head. Nor against this may one argue that the primacy of jurisdiction established in the Church gives such a Mystical Body two heads. For Peter in view of his primacy is only Christ’s Vicar; so that there is only one chief Head of this Body, namely Christ, who never ceases Himself to guide the Church invisibly, though at the same time He rules it visibly, through him who is His representative on earth. After His glorious Ascension into Heaven this Church rested not on Him alone, but on Peter, too, its visible foundation stone. That Christ and His Vicar constitute one only Head is the solemn teaching of Our predecessor of immortal memory Boniface VIII in the Apostolic Letter Unam Sanctam; and his successors have never ceased to repeat the same.

To what end, we may ask? To the end of reaffirming the papacy as “a principle of cohesion” (Leo’s expression in Satis cognitum) backed by a quite necessary jurisdictional authority. That is unexceptionable, and I can think of no more persuasive reason to be Catholic; but it is not infrequently misconstrued, even by popes, not to mention professors. As Mystici itself makes clear, it is misconstrued wherever Peter’s headship, his jurisdiction in the Church militant, is not properly subsumed under the headship of Christ. As Mystici fails to make clear, it is misconstrued also where there is either neglect of what Jesus actually says about the rock upon which he will build his Church or a failure to grasp the eschatological conditions under which he is building, the conditions produced by the ascension. We will therefore consider each of these in turn, inserting between them a clarification of the call for modesty and the promised example of papal overreach.

Please note that Pius XII rules out, not any and all argumentation about Petrine headship, but only the kind of argument that protests that Peter cannot be a head, or for that matter a foundation, because that would make two rather than one – an argument I am not in fact making, even if Professor de Mattei supposes me to be making it, except against those who do not properly subsume the Petrine christologically, such that its relative and secondary nature is fully evident. Which is not just a problem for Protestants or fractious Orthodox brethren. It is what all too easily happens among Catholics, too, when we don’t keep straight the things we are about to consider.

Who or what is the ‘rock’?

To the very fine 1998 CDF document, “The Primacy of the Successor of Peter in the Mystery of the Church,” just about the only objection I would raise, after querying its optimistic estimation of the clarity of doctrinal development in this sphere, concerns its identification of Peter as “the rock on which Christ will build his Church” (§3). It is no private interpretation to say that Matt. 16:18 does not make a direct equation between Peter and the rock on which the Church will be built, an equation too readily made in the shorthand of later tradition and sometimes employed in dubious ways by advocates of a particular view of the Petrine office, including advocates occupying that office. The Greek text does not permit a direct equation: κἀγὼ δέ σοι λέγω ὅτι σὺ εἶ Πέτρος, καὶ ἐπὶ ταύτῃ τῇ πέτρᾳ [not Πέτρῳ] οἰκοδομήσω μου τὴν ἐκκλησίαν καὶ πύλαι ᾅδου οὐ κατισχύσουσιν αὐτῆς. Even in Latin it cannot be justified: et ego dico tibi quia tu es Petrus et super hanc petram [not Petrum] aedificabo ecclesiam meam et portae inferi non praevalebunt adversum eam. “I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church” – there is, quite obviously, a play on words here. Peter, having been given that name at the choosing of the Twelve, now discovers why. He is so named precisely as and because he makes and will make the confession that is revealed to him from on high and confirmed by Jesus himself, the confession he and the other disciples are, for the moment, forbidden to make (16:20).

It is entirely fitting that Jesus should employ a play on words when solemnly founding his Church on the solid ledge or rock formation – that is what πέτρα means – of Peter’s act of confession. Not because it leaves his meaning obscure or open to dispute, but because it makes room for a rich understanding while providing a pithy formulation. (That in Aramaic, if he was speaking Aramaic, the formulation would have to be different, has no bearing on the matter, for it is in Greek that we have been given it.) Jesus has already made clear that his own words are the solid rock, the petra, on which any house that hopes to stand must be built (Matt. 7:24ff.). Now he makes clear that the house he himself will build on them will be built by way of Peter’s confession, which will lie at its foundation. Moreover, in preparation for the promise to Peter that he will bear on his shoulder the keys to this house, opening and shutting its doors – there is an allusion here to Isaiah 22 and the stewardship of Eliakim – Jesus’ play on words underscores the fact that Peter’s confession is not an abstract truth, however foundational in itself for the Church’s baptismal confession and for Christian doctrine. Rather, it is a truth that lives among us through a charism that enables the confession to be made and through a permanent pastoral office devoted to it, whose occupants are charged to make it again and again in unity with the first confessor, blessed Simon Bar-Jona, whom God has fastened “like a peg in a sure place” and whom Jesus has made “a throne of honor” in his Father’s house by calling him Πέτρος: a piece of rock; when properly dressed, a building block, the one laid down through the eliciting of his confession when the work of building is commenced.

Church tradition has always acknowledged this and we must acknowledge it too. We do the dominical words an injustice, however, when “on this rock I will build my Church and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it” is so flattened out as to make Peter himself, rather than his confession of Jesus as “Son of the living God,” as “both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36), the petra on which the whole house rests. The Church is built on the words of Jesus, which are spirit and life (John 6:63), and also – yes, also! – on the response of Peter, whose confession of Jesus is joined to Jesus’ own testimony to the Father. We cannot ignore this without violating the text. Yet once we have said that, we must go on to say that Jesus himself is the rock, the cornerstone, the Church’s one foundation; for the words of Jesus are only spirit and life because Jesus himself is spirit and life. This is not the case with Peter. What then is the case? First, he is a living stone in the sense supplied at 1 Pet. 2:4–10 and Eph. 2:19ff., the sense in which every member of the Church is a living stone. Second, he is a stone laid by God alongside the cornerstone. Jesus makes this clear by calling him Petros, by giving him the keys, by making him a shepherd for his sheep (John 21:15–19). So those Protestant or even Orthodox brethren who wish to abstract Peter’s confession from Peter himself are mistaken, as Pius insists at Mystici 41: “They, therefore, walk in the path of dangerous error who believe that they can accept Christ as the Head of the Church, while not adhering loyally to His Vicar on earth. They have taken away the visible head, broken the visible bonds of unity and left the Mystical Body of the Redeemer so obscured and so maimed, that those who are seeking the haven of eternal salvation can neither see it nor find it.” And that holds even if Pastor aeternus had been better not to say of Peter, without careful qualification, et ecclesiae catholicae fundamentum (“and the foundation of the catholic church,” PA 2).

Before proceeding, permit me parenthetically to make one further exegetical point regarding Matthew 16, lest another bit of ecclesial shorthand somehow misdirect us, obscuring the larger context in which our pericope is placed by the Evangelist: To equate Hades with hell (a common mistake for which there is at least an excuse in the ambiguity of the Latin word inferi, among those who have not bothered themselves with the Greek) is to do violence to the dominical decree or promise that immediately follows in verse 18, the need for which is dramatically underscored in 16:21ff. The promise that the gates of Hades will not prevail against the Church is first of all a promise to the martyrs, to those who witness to Christ with their own blood, as Peter himself eventually did, though in that honour he was not the first. It is not a promise that no doctrinal or liturgical or moral device of the devil will ever shake the Church so long as it remains properly Petrine. Of course it is the forces of Satan, for whom hell has been prepared as a final destiny, that not only engineer such devices but also arrange the temporal fate of the martyrs. So it is perfectly fine to say that the gates of hell – meaning by metonymy those who are already being driven back towards its gates and in due course, when the great apostasy is finished and antichrist is defeated, will be driven through them by the host under St. Michael’s command – shall not prevail against the Church. But once again, that is a secondary sense and a kind of theological shorthand, which must not be allowed to elide the primary sense containing the wonderful assurance that neither life nor death can separate us from the love of God and that the Church will not fail with its martyrs, be they ever so numerous. Rather their blood will be as seed, in Tertullian’s famous expression. This part of the text no more justifies focusing the life of the Church on Peter than does the earlier part.

The Loosening Peg

To recapitulate: Matthew 16 requires us to affirm that Peter’s act of confession is incorporated into that towering ledge of rock on which the glorious edifice of the Church comes down from heaven to rest. Like Mary’s fiat mihi, its incorporation belongs to the wonder of God’s grace, who (as Augustine observes) makes us without us but does not save without us. Read properly, it requires us to affirm that in the city of God – which, as the Apocalypse says, has twelves gates and a wall with “twelve foundations, and on them the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb” – the Petrine gate is the central and foremost one. It does not require us to affirm that Peter himself is that ledge. It does not require us to affirm even that Peter is the first and foremost of the city’s living stones. That surely would be Mary, and there are doubtless others who, in their way, will prove more glorious than he. Yet it does require us to allow that Peter himself occupies a special place and a special office, since he is given the keys that work the gates and make the city accessible or inaccessible while it is being built.

This gift and this assignment are merely temporary and provisional, mind you. When the city is complete it will still rest upon the words and deeds and person of Jesus. It will still rest, mutatis mutandis, on Peter’s act of confession of Jesus, as indeed on every other act of confession. All will be conjoined as lesser “amens” to the great “Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God’s creation” (Rev. 3:14), just as the confessors themselves will be united with him in person in the perfection of his mystical body. When complete, however, the city to which they belong, which they indeed compose, will no longer require the Petrine ministry, for its gates will always be open and never be shut (Rev. 21:25). The keys that belong to the steward of the house of David will not be required. The master key, the key of David, will still be required; for our Lord Jesus Christ will remain forever our princeps and pontifex, our one mediator and monarch, if in such a way that God himself “may be everything to everyone”(cf. Luke 1:33, Rev. 3:7, and 1 Cor. 15:20–28). But not Peter’s keys, which will be redundant.

Peter’s keys are very much required at present, however, first and foremost for the orderly proclamation of salvation in Jesus Christ and for provision or denial of forgiveness of sins. Those tasks are Peter’s first of all, though not Peter’s alone. The entire apostolic college shares in this along with him, per Matt. 18:18 and John 20:23 (cf. Lumen gentium 22). Neither does the juridical task, which is made necessary by the evangelical and the sacramental tasks, belong to Peter alone. Acts 15 provides the model for sharing all three tasks, though there are points where Peter’s particular judgment must be sought and deemed final. What those points are is not our concern here, for Matthew 16 tells us nothing about them. Our concern here is to say what the text requires us to say, viz., that the evangelical must always have priority, the doxological and sacramental following from it and being closely united with it, per Matt. 28:18ff. “Given its episcopal nature, the primacy of the Bishop of Rome is first of all expressed in transmitting the Word of God; thus it includes a specific, particular responsibility for the mission of evangelization, since ecclesial communion is something essentially meant to be expanded” (“Primacy” 9, emphasis added).

To say this is not at all to suggest that his primacy lacks jurisdictional power, or that it reduces to “a primacy of honour and the shadowy right of giving advice and admonition.” For in all three capacities the Petrine ministry provides “a principle of cohesion” backed by a “power of commanding, forbidding, and judging which is properly called jurisdiction” (Satis 12). Yet if Peter is not properly called the Church’s “visible foundation stone” except by synecdoche – that is, in connection with his confession – we cannot put his jurisdictional tasks and powers in the first place. Nor should the latter be treated in terms of a plenitudo potestatis by which the heavenly authority of Christ is transferred wholesale to him, over against his fellow bishops. That is and has been a recipe for disaster, exacerbating rather than removing the threat of schism. What is more, it is and has been disastrous in generating burdens for Peter that he cannot possibly bear, whether like Innocent III or Boniface VIII he fervently wishes to bear them or like Benedict XVI (who as Cardinal Ratzinger was the primary author of “Primacy”) he finds them unbearable. Since we have made much of Jesus’ allusion to Isaiah 22, let us not forget how that passage concludes: “They will hang on him the whole weight of his father’s house, the offspring and issue, every small vessel, from the cups to all the flagons.  In that day, says the Lord of hosts, the peg that was fastened in a sure place will give way; and it will be cut down and fall, and the burden that was upon it will be cut off, for the Lord has spoken.”

In suggesting that the papacy has been dangerously inflated, and in calling for a more modest conception of it, I am not calling, as De Mattei imagines, for abandonment of juridical responsibility. I am, however, expressing a very deep concern that we have hung far more on the papacy than it can or should bear, to the detriment of the juridical dimension not least, and that we are witnessing again – perhaps for the final time, though I do not profess to know – the loosening of the peg. We have for a good while been misreading our own shorthand, from which we have invented a Peter who would hardly recognize himself: a Peter surrounded by bureaucrats, used and abused by bureaucrats; a Peter surrounded indeed by unworthy episcopal colleagues who have engineered a moral and doctrinal and liturgical crisis on a massive scale. In our haste to fill clerical posts at every level, and by reason of our centralized methods for doing so, we have turned Peter’s immediate jurisdiction into anything but “an expression of mutual interiority” (“Primacy” 6). Worse, to borrow words from St. Basil (Ep. 190), we have become accustomed to indifference by long exposure to unsatisfactory men. Just how unsatisfactory we have come much too lately to discover, though at least in that discovery we are less indifferent that we were. Would that “Peter” were not now indifferent.

A Fatal Overreach

Pace Professor De Mattei, it is not just modernism that troubles us – we may save our arguments about what constitutes modernism for another time – but a certain mediaevalism too, the unhappy kind that hangs on the pope “the whole weight of his father’s house, the offspring and issue, every small vessel, from the cups to all the flagons.” This unhappy kind shows itself in Unam sanctam, to which Pius appeals without the explicit qualifications that are needed, though some of them, thankfully, are implicit. It will serve present purposes to say a bit more about Unam sanctam, which violates an important principle articulated in the aforementioned CDF document when it insists that “the exercise of the Petrine ministry must be understood … on the basis of the gospel” (§7) and that it cannot be conceived as a political monarchy, much less as the tyranny that De Mattei himself rejects.

Cardinal Burke, in a very helpful article on Peter’s plenitudo potestatis “in service of the unity of the Church,” goes to some trouble to hedge that notion round with qualifications. There is no hint of a papal monarchy, political or otherwise, as far as I can tell, in his analysis. What immediately strikes the reader of Unam Sanctam, however, is Boniface’s monarchical mien. That, and the fact that qualifications of his potestas are refused a hearing.

There are times when only a simple yes or no will do. “He was, or he was not? What is fitting to say?” Such questions are rightly raised when the Church is confronted by heresies such as the Arian heresy, which can only be addressed by an answer that, though it lead to a thousand qualifications in other matters, itself admits of none. “He was, he always was!” But here, in the matter of the relation between the two swords? Here, where the question is a subtle and complex one, fraught with eschatological tension between arrangements appropriate to the city of God and those appropriate to the city of man? The whole point of Boniface’s stormy bull, from the ominous rain of its opening allusion to Noah’s ark, through the mounting waves of its assault on the monster with two heads, to the thunderclap of its final line – Porro subesse Romano Pontifici omni humanae creaturae declaramus, dicimus, definimus, et pronunciamus omnino esse de necessitate salutis! – is to demand submission of one and all, inside the Church and out, without any qualification whatsoever, under pain of damnation. Just as everything is subject to Christ, whom God has made Lord of all, so every human creature is subject to the Roman pontiff.

In the words of the Decretum Gratiani – words in their narrow legal sense true, but in any broader sense untrue – it is the pope’s duty to judge all men, and Boniface clearly means to do his duty. He rejoices at having subjects rather than being a subject (Civ. 14:11). Let us recall a little more of the bull’s final paragraph, where he argues that “it is a law of the divinity that the lowest things reach the highest place by intermediaries,” and that “spiritual power surpasses in dignity and in nobility any temporal power whatever.” It belongs, then, he says, “to spiritual power to establish terrestrial power and to pass judgement” on it. “Thus is accomplished the prophecy of Jeremias concerning the Church and the ecclesiastical power: Behold today I have placed you over nations, and over kingdoms… If the highest power of all err, it can be judged only by God, and not by man, according to the testimony of the Apostle: The spiritual man judgeth of all things and he himself is judged by no man… Therefore whoever resists this power … resists the ordinance of God, unless he invent like Manichaeus two beginnings… We declare, we say, we define and proclaim to every human creature that to be subject to the Roman Pontiff is entirely necessary for salvation.” The translation can be tweaked (as I have here) but the logic is plain. All power has been given to Christ. Christ’s power has been given to Peter. Therefore all who hope for salvation must be subject to Peter, as if to Christ, and all means all.

Plain, and plainly wrong – an innovation that falsifies whatever moment of truth it contains. The invisible Christ is manifest in the visible Pontiff; there is therefore no distinction between subjection to the one and subjection to the other. In the name of Christ, let us happily confess, Peter could bind and loose from sins or cause the lame to walk. Paul could deliver over to Satan, or restore again to light and life. All the apostles could speak and act in his holy name. But no one supposed any such equation as this. Had he heard of it, perhaps Peter himself might have supplied some hint. Perhaps Bishop Irenaeus, that greatest of the early theologians who himself spent much time in Rome, would have managed to say something more of Peter than that Christ “pronounced him blessed, because he acknowledged Him to be the Son of the living God” (Haer. 3.21.8), or of the Roman see that all the churches should be in harmony with it. And let us not try to save the appearances by construing the sorry end of the universal reign of Boniface as a kind of martyrdom, as if he suffered what Peter suffered, or Irenaeus for that matter. That does the very idea of martyrdom a grave injustice. Rather by his fatal overreach he lurched, as it were, towards nothingness (cf. Civ. 14:13). According to Dante, though Dante had his own reasons for saying so, he likely found it. Why, then, do some still follow him, if only at a distance?

God forbid, however, that we should enter the lists on the side of Boniface’s similarly ambitious and arrogant opponent, Philip the Fair, or concede anything at all to those who afterwards presumed with Marsilius and Ockham to justify, against Boniface’s radical papalism, an equally radical royalism cum conciliarism. The latter dared (as the O’Donovans remark in their political sourcebook, From Irenaeus to Grotius, p. 423) to present as an alternative “the novel face of secular political monism, the counterface of the dominant hierocratic monism of the papalists.” We can and must reject both faces of this Janus-like Christendom, for both represent a serious distortion of Christian truth. What unites them is the old Eusebian error. Jesus has gone up to heaven, where he rules invisibly; his visible authority over all things is now vested in an earthly vicar. For the papalists that’s Peter, for the royalists Constantine. Both allow that there must be priestly as well as kingly representation, but the papalists argue that the priestly takes precedence over the kingly and the royalists that the kingly takes precedence over the priestly. Neither are thinking eschatologically and both are inventing earthly powers that have no basis in reality.

We ought to insist with Gelasius that the Church/State distinction is essential and that the spiritual sword is ultimately more significant to human weal than the temporal sword. Boniface was not wrong about that. We ought not, however, to obscure in any way the fact that no one but Jesus – Peter included – is fit to combine the kingly and the priestly offices in his own person or to occupy both. The royalists made their case by assigning the kingly office to Christ’s divinity and the priestly to his humanity, that they might elevate princes over prelates. In his work on the consecration of bishops and kings, the Norman Anonymous offers an early (c. 1100) and already egregious distortion from the royalist side:

Each of them, therefore, is Christ and God in the Spirit; each, in fulfilling his office, has the role and image of Christ and God, the priest Christ’s priestly role and image, the king Christ’s kingly role and image; the priest Christ’s lower, human office and nature, the king Christ’s higher, divine office and nature. For Christ the God-man is truly and supremely king and priest. He is king by virtue of his eternal divinity: not made, not created, not inferior to or separate from the Father, but equal to and one with the Father. He is priest by virtue of his assumption of humanity, made so according to the order of Melchizedek, created, and so subordinate to the Father. As king he created all things, rules all things, governing and preserving men and angels alike. As priest he has redeemed mankind alone, that they may reign with him. There was one all-inclusive reason for his becoming a priest and offering himself in sacrifice: that mankind might be his partner in his kingdom and royal power. The Kingdom of Heaven is promised to believers throughout Scripture, but we are never promised the Priesthood of Heaven. The conclusion is plain: Christ’s royalty is superior and of greater moment than his priestly power, just as his divinity is superior and of greater moment than his humanity (Irenaeus to Grotius, 255).

Not to be outdone, the papalists in effect assigned to the pope both offices. In Unam sanctam we have a retort to the royalists almost as egregious, in that it so unites Peter to Christ as to make submission to his rule necessary for the salvation of every creature.

Boniface, to be sure, is sometimes defended by appeal to Aquinas; specifically to the latter’s brief remark at Contra Errores Graecorum 2.38, which he likely has in view. For Thomas himself says that “to be subject to the Roman Pontiff is necessary for salvation” or that it arises by necessity from our need of salvation (sit de necessitate salutis). Those on the ark, so to say, must heed the orders of its captain so that the ship will remain on an even keel. Thomas appeals here to Cyril’s Thesaurus and to a letter of Maximus. But what does Cyril actually say? “Christ is followed thus: as his own sheep we should hear his voice, abiding in the Church of Peter and not being inflated by the wind of pride,” lest by quarreling we allow the devil to engineer once more our departure from paradise. And what does Maximus say? Nothing, in fact, quite like what Thomas says he says: “The Church united and established upon the rock of Peter’s confession we call according to the decree of the Savior the universal Church, wherein we must remain for the salvation of our souls and wherein loyal to his faith and confession we must obey him” (coadunatam et fundatam super petram confessionis Petri dicimus universalem Ecclesiam secundum definitionem salvatoris, in qua necessario salutis animarum nostrum est manere, et ei est obedire, suam servantes fidem et confessionem). But even in the words Thomas here puts in the mouth of Maximus, we have a Church “united and established upon the rock of Peter’s confession,” not on Peter the rock. This is the Church in which we must remain for salvation and to which we must be obedient, “preserving her faith and confession.” Neither of these patristic authorities, nor Thomas’s use of them, justifies the exaggerations of Unam Sanctam or its categorical imperative.

And what shall we say of Leo X, who at the Fifth Lateran Council rearms Unam sanctam as a weapon against the Pragmatic Sanction? “Since subjection to the Roman pontiff is necessary for salvation for all Christ’s faithful…, for the salvation of the souls of the same faithful … [we] renew and give approval to that constitution” (et cum de necessitate salutis existat omnes Christi fideles Romano Pontifici subesse … pro eorundem fidelium animarum salute … constitutionem ipsam … innovamus et approbamus; see Tanner, DEC 1: 643f). Leo at least speaks of “all the Christian faithful” rather than “every human creature,” though he goes on to name virtually every human creature he can think of, at least in France. Notice, however, how he deploys Matthew 16, which no longer refers to a Church that rests on the rock of Peter’s confession, as Aquinas rightly has it, but rather to the authority of popes over the Church: “Moreover, when he was about to depart from the world to the Father, he established Peter and his successors as his own representatives on the firmness of a rock. It is necessary to obey them…, so that whoever does not obey, incurs death” (DEC 1: 640). While the words in soliditate petrae Petrum eiusque successores vicarios suos insituit do not quite turn Peter or his office into the rock, they do turn our attention from Peter’s confession of Christ to our own confession of Peter, which is the very problem we are trying to address.

Now, no Catholic can in good faith deny that the Petrine office is essential (hence fundamental) to the Church militant or that Peter is head of the apostolic college and as such head of the Church. No Christian or would-be Christian can safely ignore the fact that there are keys to the kingdom and that these keys belong first to Peter (δώσω σοι τὰς κλεῖδας, not δώσω ὑμῖν) and then also to the rest of the college; that where respect for them is lacking, the presence or integrity of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church is also in some degree lacking. No bishop should fail to acknowledge that without communion with Peter his episcopacy is compromised; or fail to recognize in Peter one who is authorized to pass judgment on matters of faith and morals in and with and for the college, and to pass judgment as necessary on particular people in any diocese. No person of any description can safely ignore the gospel that Peter is obligated and enabled to confess. No secular ruler can rightly overlook matters of fundamental justice that Peter brings to his attention, including the matter of first importance when it comes to justice, which is the obligation to give thanks to God. All of this, however, can and should be maintained without making Peter into Boniface’s universal monarch or anything remotely like it, thus compromising the truth that Jesus Christ, who has passed through the heavens, is the Church’s one foundation and mankind’s only Supreme Pontiff. The true head of the Church is not Christus et Petrus, as Boniface has it. That is not how we avoid the monstrosity of two heads. We avoid the monstrosity of two heads by confessing one true head, as Pius does. Petrus is a foundation and a head only in another, and very much secondary, sense.

But it is time now to say more about the problem of visibility and invisibility, through which this matter becomes confused, and about the eschatological frame of reference we need to liberate us from the twin errors of royalism and papalism, Gallicanism and papolatry, secularism and social kingship theory, modernism and fundamentalism, etc. Before doing so I want only to underscore a point already made among the prolegomena. The answer I am giving to the question, Who or what is Peter?, is an answer that disturbs some for the same reason Vatican II disturbs them. Roberto de Mattei is explicit about his own discomfort with the notion “of a ‘dynamic mission’ of Peter, interconnected with the concept of the Apostolic College,” a notion that is “the daughter of the Second Vatican Council more than of the Catholic Tradition.” The council in question, he thinks, has daughters that do not belong to the Catholic tradition in any legitimate sense. That surely is true, but De Mattei appears to imply that these daughters are legitimate children of the council, which itself is somehow illegitimate because of its dalliance with modernism. I do not agree, and I repeat that one who takes that view cannot refuse to others the right to find weaknesses and unsolved problems elsewhere in tradition. As for those who pretend that there are no such weaknesses, even in Vatican II, they can have nothing to say at all. For they cannot deny that the Francis revolution is a deliberate attack on the putative weaknesses that its architects find in past tradition – those architects have made that perfectly clear – and they cannot deny either that the present pope is party to the revolution. So there would appear to be a weakness somewhere.

Thinking Eschatologically

Lest I be misunderstood: I do not propose that our failure to think eschatologically is the only or even the main weakness on which we might put a finger. I do think it a weakness that must be rectified. It is present even in Mystici, where the visibility/invisibility category still dominates. What is said there, and said well enough – “that there is only one chief Head of this Body, namely Christ, who never ceases Himself to guide the Church invisibly, though at the same time He rules it visibly, through him who is His representative on earth” – is contextualized, as it must be, by reference to our Lord’s “glorious Ascension into Heaven,” at which he leaves behind in Peter this vicar or representative. But Jesus’ ascension does not exactly invite us to think in terms of the visible and the invisible, at least not as our primary category. It invites us to think in terms of the biblical narrative of ascent and descent, including especially the ascent and descent of Moses during the exodus. Let us turn again to Hebrews in illustration.

At first glance Hebrews might seem to employ the very categories we are questioning: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.  For by it the men of old received divine approval.  By faith we understand that the world was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was made out of things which do not appear” (11:1–3). But Hebrews is not speaking in a Hellenist or Platonic mode, as some imagine. It is speaking in Hebraic mode – in the Magnificat mode, we might say – the mode in which something is made from nothing, and what is thought to be something is brought to naught by what is thought to be nothing. In this mode the visible and the invisible have to do with what appears to man to be the case and with what, because of God, actually is the case; or with what is now and what is not yet, but will surely come to pass. So, for example, we also read: “Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. But we see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death” (Heb. 2:8f.; cf. 2 Cor. 4:16ff.). In other words, we see things as they really are and as they will be, while unbelief sees only what is deceptively familiar.

Used thus, the visible/invisible contrast is indispensable, but the frame of reference is eschatological. The dualism of an invisible and eternal heaven and a visible earth, where the things of heaven are imitated or manifested by creaturely signs, is not on offer here. The whole account moves towards the new Sinai and the new Zion of chapter 12. Who could imagine the author of Hebrews turning from this account, or from his argument that what was once foreshadowed on earth in the priestly cultus of Israel is now being fulfilled by Jesus in the heavenly sanctuary (8:1ff.) and is eucharistically anticipated by those who wait for their Lord at the foot of the mountain (12:18ff.), to say what Boniface says? Who can imagine him saying, “Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control; so every creature that hopes to be saved must be subject to Peter”? Who can imagine him saying, ”Truth be told, we don’t actually see Jesus now, but it’s okay because we do see Peter”? The very thought is fabulous.

The eschatological and eucharistic horizon within which the author of Hebrews is working – the same horizon controls the entire New Testament – is wiped away when the visible and the invisible are arranged vertically, so that what happens in heaven is triumphantly mirrored on earth rather than seen by the eyes of faith as still approaching earth. It is no denial of Peter as chief among the apostles to insist that there is no parallel to be drawn between an invisible princeps et pontifex and a visible one. Boniface’s whole argument is stitched together from inapposite texts in a fashion more worthy of the innovators criticized by Irenaeus and Basil than of a pope. By means of this stitching he promotes an image of Peter, not as one called to feed Christ’s sheep and to strengthen his brothers on the via crucis, which is the image both Matthew and John present, but rather as one who rules on earth with a plenitudo potestatis that makes of Psalm 110 a Petrine prophecy, and of Peter a kind of pro tempore messiah. “Christ sits there, at God’s right hand. Him you cannot see, but me you can see. Do you wish to obey him that you might be saved? Then obey me!”

Now perhaps I am being too harsh on Boniface. In any case, that is neither the message nor the tone of popes like Pius XII. Yet papalism of that sort, which requires at a minimum the correction it receives in Lumen gentium, is still operative in some minds today. Not only in the minds of traditionalists but also in the minds of modernists, who have taken advantage of it to effect the Francis revolution. It belongs to the kind of thinking that always has to say Christus et before it has even said Christus. Christus et Petrus, Christus et Maria, Christus et Ecclesia are good things to say, but they must be said in such a way that the wonder of this gracious et – of our Lord’s sharing the womb of Mary, of giving Mary permanently and Peter provisionally a special role in his own dominium, of making the Church his very own body and a royal priesthood to his God and Father – does not allow our gaze to be directed away from him and back somehow to ourselves, to our pet pieties or politics that we suppose the only really authentic ones. Those who long not so much for sight of the glory of the Lord returning like Moses from the mountain of God, as for sight of the sedia gestatoria, high and lifted up, and of a papal train that fills the temple, know only the false et. Likewise those who make of the pope the very font from which flows every clerical grace and power, as he wills and where he wills and when he wills; who attribute to him the visible crown of the triplex munus rather than the three stewardly responsibilities belonging to him, and to the whole college after him and with him, not through him.

A very able Catholic theologian once said to me, not altogether in jest, that he wished the papacy would revert to being the office of an old Italian man who spoke no foreign languages and whose primary task was to run his own diocese well. I am not proposing anything quite so modest as that, just as I am not accusing traditionalists such as my present interlocutor of anything like the papalism caricatured in the previous paragraph. I am, however, by means of this caricature, pointing out the danger of fighting fire with fire; that is, of trying to meet the present crisis, which threatens the dissolution of doctrinal and moral and liturgical authority in the Church, by fanning the very flames the innovators are fanning. In short, by pitting Vatican I against Vatican II rather than seeking in both councils, imperfectly refracted in each, the light of our one Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. He, we know, is coming to sit in judgment on us all, beginning perhaps with Peter as Moses began with Aaron (though Peter is not Aaron), yet certainly not ending there. Therefore we pray, and this Lent let us pray the more urgently:

Attende Domine, et miserere, quia peccavimus tibi.

To Thee, highest King,
Redeemer of all,
do we lift up our eyes
in weeping:
Hear, O Christ, the prayers
of your servants.

Attende Domine, et miserere, quia peccavimus tibi.

Right hand of the Father,
way of salvation,
gate of heaven,
wash away our
stains of sin.

Attende Domine, et miserere, quia peccavimus tibi.

(Editor’s Note: The views and opinions expressed in the piece are Dr. Farrow’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the editors or of Ignatius Press.)

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About Dr. Douglas Farrow 27 Articles
Douglas Farrow is Professor of Theology and Ethics at McGill University, and the author of several books including Theological Negotiations: Proposals in Soteriology and Anthropology (Baker Academic, 2018) and a new commentary on Thessalonians (Brazos, 2020).


  1. What a great service is being done by the Catholic argument between Professor Farrow and Professor De Mattei. I am going to make a booklet of the whole series and pay it due attention.

    God bless them both, and God bless the Catholic World Report for publishing this vital discussion.

  2. Lumen Gentium defines collegiality within the Church. On this point it completes the unfinished work of Vatican I. The bishops share in infallibility when they teach infallibly, that is “TOGETHER with its head, the Roman Pontiff, AND NEVER without this head…” (Ch. 3, n. 22, caps added, and especially the added “Explanatory Note”). “Thus Vatican II on the point (collegiality) resumes where Vatican I left off, but makes great advances which would scarcely have been possible a century ago.” Vatican I was never adjourned, but was only “suspended” until a more opportune time. (The national revolution in Italy disrupted to agenda, not unlike the disruptions to the multi-session Council of Trent, 1545-63).

    Relative to the earlier draft language in Lumen Gentium on collegiality among the papacy and the bishops (Chapter 3), from Fr. Ralph Wiltgen (The Rhine Flows into the Tiber, 1985) we have this: “The extreme liberals made the mistake of referring, in writing [likely Schillebeeckx] , to . . . ambiguous passages, and indicating how they would be interpreted after the Council” [and notified of this betrayal Pope Paul VI], “realizing that he had been deceived, broke down and wept” and instructed the International Commission to prepare what became the appended Preliminary Explanatory Note.

    (Wiltgen’s Council News Service, in six languages, went out daily to 108 countries.)

    As later published in the Council documents, this clarifying Note appears, curiously and only incidentally (?), as a several-page footnote or appendix at the end of Chapter 3, rather than appearing as intended at the front as the framing Prefatory Note. The Note was on the table when the council fathers voted to approve the total package.

    The agenda of the extreme liberals of today, in effect, is to delete altogether the clarifying Prefatory Note, and to exploit the earlier ambiguity.

    Such is my non-specialist take on things…

  3. A well researched commentary intended to answer all the questions. As such the multitude of query proposed premises and response leaves us with 3x trouble 3x worry. When lost in the woods look for simple signs such as what side of trees grow moss indicating N. Did you ever wonder why men name their ships merchant and fishing after women? Mary noted here by author Farrow is the preeminent human person in Church spiritual Hierarchy. Said to deflate Peter. Theologically their preeminent roles differ Peter’s of course is authority. Women bring life as does Christ as does the Church. The Chair brings the canonical dimension of regulated proper exercise of the faith revealed by Christ commissioned to the Apostles with Peter’s Office Defender. Monarchical structure of the Church doesn’t equate the Vicar of Christ is Monarch. Unlike the claim of Observatore Romano or some Vatican journal the Pope is not “The Successor of Christ”. The simple response is we distinguish the man from the Office. Papolatry a heresy inflates the ex officio dimension of the Pontiff as Dr Farrow notes. Pope Francis has implemented an agenda to revise the Gospels and the Church outside of the binding Official Magisterium in that area in which non definitive statements that nonetheless express his mind such as interchange of letters Malta and Pontiff incorporated in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis. As canon lawyer Ed Peters holds whatever is implied is not binding. Officially in its definitive character nowhere throughout history has any Pontiff including Francis taught error. There is error propagated by stealth, i.e. suggestion, maneuver, appointment, change in structure, tacit complicity all responsible to the man not the sacred Office of the Chair of Peter. If we are intent on correction it has zero to do with restructure of the Office rather with the man holding the office.

  4. It would have been better not to mention the Orthodox in this piece and to have limited it to an intra-Latin discussion of the papacy. A separate piece regarding Orthodox ecclesiologies and the place of the bishop of Rome (with which some Eastern Catholics may actually agree) would be welcome, if Dr. Farrow could find an Orthodox interlocutor willing to discuss the issue.

  5. Dr Farrow goes thru lengths [I counted “Rock” 27 times] to prove Jesus did not establish Peter as the Rock, rather that his Confession that Jesus is the Rock [that Jesus is the true Rock is irrefutable]. Although this is basically the Protestant argument that Jesus is the Rock [correct] and that Peter was not commissioned with infallible authority protected by Our Lord, the meaning of Rock within the Church [wrong]. The Rock that is Peter is traditionally understood as the Office established by Christ to preserve doctrinal integrity and thereby Ecclesial unity. That truth is evidenced as my previous comment indicates. This is the weakness in an otherwise excellent assessment. As an aside I agree with Peter Beaulieu that the antagonism over Vat II Lumen Gentium et al is purposeful misinterpretation of vague wording seized upon by Liberals and needing correction. Mistake follows in attributing actual error to the documents rather than the devious. We can no more correct the current crisis by a universal revisionist critique than by ignoring the reality of a wayward Pontificate that has exceeded its legitimate bounds by illegitimacy. At least Dr Farrow should reserve me credit for not referring to the Pontiff as His Holiness.

  6. Prof. Farrow is obviously an intelligent and gifted scholar, and he makes some valid points. His limitation of the “rock” in Matthew 16:18 to Peter’s confession of faith, however, fails to note the incongruity of naming a man by the feminine noun, petra. He also fails to note that Abraham is referred to as “rock” in Isa 51: 1–2, and Abraham (who like Peter had his name changed) can be understood as a foreshadowing of Peter. Personally, I think it’s wrong to have an either/or reading of Mt 16:18. The rock, in one sense, refers to Peter’s confession of faith, but it also refers to his person as Lumen Gentium, 22 teaches when it says that “our Lord placed Simon alone as the rock (ut petram) and bearer of the keys of the Church.”

    Prof. Farrow is correct that Christ is the first and foremost foundation of the Church, but “the second and secondary foundation of the Church is Peter” as Innocent III makes clear in his 1199 letter to the Patriarch of Constantinople (Denz.-H 774). I don’t quite understand Farrow’s criticism of the last line of Boniface VIII’s 1302 Bull, Unam Sanctam. Only the last sentence (Denz.-H 875) should be understood as dogmatic; and, understood properly, it’s really saying nothing more than Lumen Gentium, 14 and the CCC 846, viz., that belonging to the Church under the Roman Pontiff is necessary for salvation.

    Finally, Prof. Farrow tries to dismiss a sentence I quoted in an article published in La Stampa’s Vatican Insider: “We are all invited to trust in the Holy Spirit, to trust in Christ, by trusting in Peter.” This sentence is from the CDF’s 1998 document on the Petrine Ministry, which was signed by Cardinal Ratzinger. If Prof. Farrow doesn’t like what is communicated by this sentence, let him take it up with the Pope Emeritus. Better yet, let him take it up with the Holy Spirit who was promised to the successors of Peter that “they might reverently guard and faithfully explain the revelation or deposit of faith that was handed down through the apostles” (Vatican I; Denz.-H 3070).

    • ” His limitation of the “rock” in Matthew 16:18 to Peter’s confession of faith, however, fails to note the incongruity of naming a man by the feminine noun, petra.”

      Since He didn’t call Peter “Petra” (they were speaking Aramaic, and He called him Cephas from Ancient Greek Κηφᾶς (Kēphâs), from Aramaic כֵּיפָא (kēp̄ā, “stone, rock”)), how is the fact that “petra” is feminine relevant to anything?

      • Yes, Jesus was speaking Aramaic, but the Gospel of Matthew that we have is written in Greek. Perhaps there was an earlier Aramaic version, but the canonical text is in Greek. Dr. Farrow claims that there is a clear difference in meaning between the name, Petros, given to Simon bar Jona by Jesus and the rock, petra, upon which our Lord will build his Church. A number of exegetes, however, believe that there really is no differencee in meaning between “Petros” and “petra.” The Petros was chosen precisely because it is a masculine form of petra and it was considered unsuitable as the proper name for a male. See the footnote to Mt 16:17 in the 1961 Benzinger Brothers edition of the New American Catholic Bible and the footnote to Mt 16:18 in the 1986 edition of the New American Bible. Richard France, in his commentary on Matthew (Eerdmans, 1985), notes that “Petros” as a personal name was not known before its use in Mt. 16:18. The bestowal of this name is because it is masculine and because it serves as a basis for the word-play between “Petros” and “petra.” We could see this simply as a debate among exegetes, but there are magisterial documents that identify Peter as the rock upon which Christ will build his Church. The CCC 881 tells us that “the Lord made Simon alone, whom he named Peter, the ‘rock’ of his Church.” Professor Farrow is entitled to his opinion, but I think it’s better to follow the understanding of the Church.

        • I know the Gospel accordng to St. Matthew was written in Greek, but since the original conversation was in Aramaic, it doesn’t matter whether we have an Aramaic version of the Gospel; the fact that it is in Greek merely means that St. Matthew translated from Aramaic into Greek.

          “Professor Farrow is entitled to his opinion, but I think it’s better to follow the understanding of the Church.”

          I agree with the Church and with you; and it’s just weird to have somebody build a big argument on “but petra is feminine!” when petra is a translation of kepha. It’s as if I tranlated “stand in line” to the German “Schlange stehen,” which literally means “stand snake,” and then said that the clear intent of the original English statement was to symbolize the reptilian character of something or other.

          “Dr. Farrow claims that there is a clear difference in meaning between the name, Petros, given to Simon bar Jona by Jesus and the rock, petra, upon which our Lord will build his Church. A number of exegetes, however, believe that there really is no differencee in meaning between “Petros” and “petra.” ”

          I agree with the exegetes, and I think Dr. Farrow very clearly wrong. I don’t have any academic credentials, but I do have common sense.

  7. So good to see this discussion has begun!
    Perhaps the legacy of Francis will be recognition that absolute power results in absolute corruption.
    The aiding and abetting of the criminal conduct of the clergy is undoubtedly so pervasive due to the idolization of these men.
    The plain language of Christ does not include a succession of “Peters” This fiction was created centuries ago by the same people who wield the authority.
    When you hear “tradition” be prepared for strained, twisted reasoning that defies the common meaning of words, i.e. the admonition in Matthew not to call men on earth Father does not mean what it says according to Tradition.

    • “the admonition in Matthew not to call men on earth Father does not mean what it says according to Tradition.”

      Sez you. And by what authority do you claim to be the judge of what it means?

  8. While it is not my custom to pursue arguments and debates in comment boxes, I will take this opportunity to offer a general ‘thanks’ to those who engage these articles and the conversation they are intended to open up. That includes Prof. Fastiggi, of course, to whose three points or sets of points I will reply briefly:

    1. It is not I who take an ‘either/or’ approach. The petra to which Jesus refers is neither Peter the man nor what we eventually came to call the papal office, considered either in isolation or in simple combination. Its referent, as I think I have made clear, is Peter faithfully and rightly confessing Christ. And there is nothing remarkable about the gender of the words Jesus uses to remark this multi-splendored thing.

    2.  Dr. Fastiggi’s minimalist reading of Unam sanctam’s final line I find unconvincing, and indeed inconsistent with the rest of the document. But even were he right to offer such a reading, he would have proved too much and would have in consequence to retract a great deal of what he has said in rebuke of others in his own article.
    3. Since I included a link to his article, perhaps (despite the inevitable disruption to the flow of my argument) I should have identified “trusting in Peter” as an expression drawn from the CDF “Primacy” document, which document I later treated in its proper place. This I concede. But then, of course, I would have had to go on to explain that what Ratzinger is doing with that expression is very different from what Fastiggi is doing with it. I would also have had to make explicit that, taken out of its Ut unum sint context – the very context in which I began my own argument in “The Conversion of the Papacy” – the expression is indeed quite dangerous, as Fastiggi’s article illustrates. It would be quite a mistake to suppose that I am critical only of the borrowed line. No, it is the underlying supposition (Fastiggi’s not Ratzinger’s) that I reject, the supposition that allows him to criticize both the critics and the very act of criticism as morally defective: as if what popes say and do in the exercise of their office must be presumed to be what the Spirit would have them say and do; and as if some divine guarantee of this has been given to the Church, which it certainly has not. If Fastiggi’s concluding quotation of “Primacy” had begun one line earlier, it would have read, “Human errors and even serious failings can be found in the history of the papacy…”   

    • How anyone can doubt Dr.Farrow’s view (after the Amazon synod) or the call of someone like Aidan Nichols, OP for a canonical provision to better address an errant pontiff is beyond me.

      Thank you, Dr. Farrow.

  9. The distinction between acting as a private person and acting ex officio seems blurred by Dr Farrow and Prof Fastiggi, insofar as fulfillment of Christ’s promise to protect doctrinal integrity thru the Chair of Peter. As private person the Pontiff can err. This latter is the instance Dr Farrow apparently has in mind saying, “Human errors and even serious failings can be found in the history of the papacy…”. An inflated concept of ex officio is not ex officio, that is, it is not sententia definitive tenenda. Whereas Prof Fastiggi seems to extend infallibility to non definitive private remarks made by the Pontiff in Amoris Laetitia or obliquely in correspondence with Maltese Hierarchy. Only definitively held propositions meet the standard of infallibility. There is no instance where a pontiff has definitively pronounced error.

    • Dear Fr. Morello,

      I am grateful to you and Dr. Farrow for your comments. I don’t believe a comments box is the best venue for carrying out a discussion on the reverence owed to the papal magisterium in light of Lumen gentium, 25, the 1989 Professio fidei, and the CDF’s 1990 document, Donum veritatis. It seems that I read these documents differently than you and Dr. Farrow. I should note, however, that I am well aware of the different levels of assent owed to magisterial teaching, and I know which teachings are infallible and which are not. I also do not rule out the possibility of criticizing prudential judgments of popes, and I acknowledge the right of Catholics to communicate difficulties they might have with non-definitive magisterial documents. I said as much in my Vatican Insider article in the following words:

      “There is, of course, room for respectful and responsible criticisms of prudential decisions made by the pope. Difficulties with papal documents, however, should be addressed according to the guidelines of the 1990 instruction, Donum veritatis, of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. This document teaches that communications of difficulties with magisterial documents must be done ‘in an evangelical spirit and with a profound desire to resolve the difficulties’ (n. 30). It also warns against presenting one’s own opinions ‘as though they were non-arguable conclusions’ (n. 27).”

      • Yes I agree with you entirely Dr Fastiggi on decorum. And you have responded to questions sometimes attacks with decorum and charity an example to us all. Although internet comboxes aren’t the preferred venue for discourse they are likely the only means to engage in ongoing needed discussion open to the public as a learning tool in the search for truth on the key issue especially during these trying times. Insofar as the Pontiff’s remarks considered ex officio and in context of Lumen Gentium 25 and the Doctrinal Commentary they are owed the respect desired. Although the Pontiff’s statements are not definitively pronounced [Doctrinal Commentary 12] and as those instructions hold are still deserving of a religious form of assent of mind and will there is current controversy as to what precisely is being taught. An issue evidenced by questions posed to the Pontiff from several hierarchy credentialed in canon law as well as the Maltese Conf of Bishops in their letter of inquiry. The Pontiff’s response is not of itself an instruction on what we are to believe. Rather it’s an affirmation of the interpretation of what the Maltese document contains. That if an instruction must be ex officio. It’s inclusion in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis doesn’t make his response more pointed. Furthermore any such exercise of Ordinary Magisterium if not definitively held in a proposition and in consequence does not comply with infallible teaching must be understood as susceptible to error or at least possibly error. If the faithful find what the Pontiff presumably teaches in Amoris Laetitia ambiguous and seems to conflict with the Deposit of the Faith they are obliged not merely to refuse it but own the right to request clarification. Dear Dr Fastiggi if that rightful expectation by the faithful of clear instruction is not forthcoming from the Pontiff controversy and division will continue.

        • Dear Fr. Morello,

          Thank you for your kind words and explanation. I think you have in mind Pope Francis’s affirmation of what the bishops of the Buenos Aires region taught rather than the Maltese bishops. In any case, the point is the same. I agree that there is nothing wrong with asking for clarification on documents issued or affirmed by the Magisterium. I have done so myself (and in a few cases I actually received a reply). If no clarification is given, then I think we need to interpret the documents in the most benevolent way possible and in harmony with the deposit of faith. This, in any case, is what I try to to do. Let pray for each other and for the Church.

    • I would remind you again, Father, that no such promise of doctrinal integrity was given by Jesus. Not to Peter. Not to his successors. Not to the offices of the Church generally. To think that such a promise was given is to mis-read the “gates of hell” passage, which is about the resurrection of the dead and only about the resurrection of the dead. One of the reasons we have become so tone-deaf to bad teaching is because we assume at the outset that such an event is a metaphysical impossibility. It isn’t.

      • “I would remind you again, Father, that no such promise of doctrinal integrity was given by Jesus. Not to Peter. Not to his successors. Not to the offices of the Church generally. ”

        Says who? You? And what authority do you have that gives you the right to decide?

        • The authority that comes with having a brain and knowing how to use it. The authority of knowing how to assess evidence. I guess you wouldn’t know anything about that. The only thing you ever want to do is memorize and recite spiels. Grow up.

          • In other words, your assessment of the evidence is the only valid one, and nobody who disagrees with you has a brain or knows how to use it. You set yourself up as the infallible judge of doctrinal integrity, arrogating to yourself an authority that was in fact given to St. Peter and his successors and to the Church.

  10. Dr Fastiggi I will happily comply with your prayer request. And I thank you correcting my error. The Argentine Bishops interpretation of AL appears well written and compassionate except for the following paragraph cited by E Pentin NCR Dec 13 2017, “Then, in a crucial paragraph, the bishops stated that in “more complex cases” the option of living in continence ‘may not, in fact, be feasible,’ but a path of discernment is ‘still possible.’ They added: ‘If it comes to be recognized that, in a specific case, there are limitations that mitigate responsibility and culpability [as per Amoris Laetitia, 301-302], especially when a person believes they would incur a subsequent wrong by harming the children of the new union, Amoris Laetitia offers the possibility of access to the sacraments of reconciliation and Eucharist (cf. Amoris Laetitia, Footnotes 336 and 351). These sacraments, in turn, dispose the person to continue maturing and growing with the power of grace’”. This presumes that exceptions that may be discerned are apt to remain exceptions, whereas the conditions noted for such can be assumed by any D&R. For example what criteria exist by which a priest can affirm mitigating conditions as exceptional and more compelling than other D&R? The priest in accordance is obliged to honor their assumption. This “paragraph” was the cause for Cardinal Gerhard Müller’s opposition to the Argentine proposal and the Pontiff’s approval, opposition based solely on their change to Christ’s teaching and Apostolic Tradition on divorce remarriage and adultery

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