Years ago, while arguing with a Fundamentalist relative about my decision to become Catholic, I asked, “What are the three top reasons you think Catholicism is a false religion?” He quickly answered: “Because Catholics worship Mary, they worship the pope, and they believe the pope cannot sin.”
I was not surprised by the response, for I once held tightly to the same misconceptions when I was a young Fundamentalist. Catholic beliefs about Mary were most commonly misrepresented, followed closely by beliefs about the papacy.
The pope, of course, is the successor of Peter, filling an office established by Jesus for the sake of the Church and the salvation of mankind. All popes have been sinners; a few have been spectacular sinners, so to speak.
No pope, in other words, is impeccable (that is, perfect and sinless), and no pope has the power or authority to change the teachings of Christ. The authority given to Peter by Jesus has a specific focus and purpose, and it is never contrary to the teachings and mission of the Incarnate Word.
As Lumen Gentium, the Vatican II Constitution on the Church explained, it was Jesus who established the Church and chose the Twelve Apostles, willing that their successors, “namely the bishops, should be shepherds in his Church even to the consummation of the world.” In order that the Church remain one and undivided, Christ “placed Blessed Peter over the other apostles, and instituted in him a permanent and visible source and foundation of unity of faith and communion” (No. 18).
In the Old Testament, King Solomon and his royal successors had 12 deputies or ministers who assisted in governing and ruling (cf. 1 Kgs 4:7). The master of the palace, or prime minister, held a singular position among the 12, as heard in today’s reading from the prophet Isaiah. He had a robe and sash befitting his office, and he was entrusted to wield the king’s authority. And the symbol for that royal authority were “the keys of the House of David,” enabling him to oversee the affairs of the king’s household and the entire kingdom. It’s also noteworthy that this prime minister was described by Isaiah as a “father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah.”
When Jesus asked the disciples who other people thought he was, he received a variety of answers, none of them correct. When Jesus asked who they thought he was, Peter brashly — but correctly — responded, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” In other words, he confessed both the divinity and kingship of Jesus. In response, Jesus renamed him Petros, or “Rock,” declared he would build his Church upon the newly named Rock, and would give Peter “the keys to the kingdom of heaven.”
Jesus, heir of David and King of kings, thus appointed Peter as his prime minister, the head of the Twelve. “The ‘power of the keys,’” explains the catechism, “designates authority to govern the house of God, which is the Church” (No. 553). The binding and loosing includes the responsibility of rendering authoritative teaching and making official pronouncements. And, in the words of Pope Francis, “The Successor of Peter, yesterday, today and tomorrow, is always called to strengthen his brothers and sisters in the priceless treasure of that faith which God has given as a light for humanity’s path” (Lumen Fidei, No. 7).
Carl E. Olson is the editor of Catholic World Report.