Human Limitations and the Need for a Papacy
21st Sunday in Ordinary Time

Doug McManaman
Reproduced with Permission

The first reading is really the Old Testament parallel of the gospel reading. In the Old Testament, the King of Israel, a descendent of David, selected what we in the British Commonwealth would call today a cabinet of ministers, and out of that cabinet he would select a first or prime minister. This person would be given the key to the House of David, and he would be a “father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah”.

In this gospel, Jesus, who is the true son of David, the King of Kings, also forms a “cabinet of ministers”, the twelve Apostles, and out of that cabinet he selects a first minister, Peter, and gives him the keys to the Kingdom of heaven. Like the Old Testament first minister of the House of David, the one who holds the keys has authority and is a father to the inhabitants of the New Jerusalem, the Church. The word “Pope” is derived from the Italian papa, which means “father”.

In this gospel reading, Jesus establishes the Church and the papacy.

He asks the disciples: “Who do people say that I am?” The answers are revealing. “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” This tells us a great deal about how people saw Jesus. He must have sounded very much like an Old Testament prophet; he probably wasn’t all that sensitive, much less worried about turning others off. After all, John the Baptist was imprisoned and beheaded for speaking out against a King’s marriage. In fact, all the prophets were bold, vocal, and somewhat confrontational, and they suffered for it, because people generally do not like to be told that they are living contrary to the will of God.

But Jesus then asks them: Who do you say that I am? Simon Peter speaks up: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God”. Jesus indicates that it was not flesh and blood that revealed this to Peter, but “my Father in heaven.”

The people got it wrong; Jesus is not Elijah, John the Baptist, or one of the prophets. In other words, the Church is not a democracy. The word “democracy” is derived from demo, Greek for “the people”. Democracy is government by the people. The Father did not reveal the truth of Christ’s identity to the majority of the people, but to the twelve, and that understanding was formulated by one person among the twelve, Peter. And so Christ builds his Church on the rock of Peter.

Many people today believe that Church teaching, especially in the area of morality, ought to be established on the basis of a democratic process. But the people always get it wrong, as they did in this gospel. The Church is a monarchy; Christ is the King, the son of David and Son of God. He has his cabinet of ministers, and he has established an office of “father” and gave him the keys of authority to make laws and formulate doctrine.

The papacy is a real gift to Catholics. I saw this very early on in my university years. I shared a place with many students (studying math, engineering, chemistry, etc.), some of whom were very devoted Protestants. We had great discussions, but we all had conflicting views. Moreover, the history of the Church is full of heresies. A heresy is a denial, by a baptised and professed Christian, of an essential truth of the faith. There were many—more than I can articulate. Some said Jesus was only a man, but one in whom God dwelt in an extraordinary way. Others held that Jesus was not really human at all, only divine. Others taught that the body is evil, others that God is not really a Trinity of Persons, but that He simply manifests himself in three different ways, others held that Mary is not to be called “Mother of God”, another that one does not need divine grace in order to get to heaven, another that as long as we have faith, we’re saved, one does not need to do good works, etc. It goes on and on.

How is the truth of the faith to be preserved? How are we to find the truth within such a jungle of conflicting theological opinions?

The answer is that Christ established a Church on a rock, not on shifting sand. Peter means “rock”, and Peter occupies an office. That means he will be succeeded, as Shebna was succeeded by Eliakim in the first reading. The twelve Apostles are the official teachers of the Church. I am not an official teacher of the Church, nor is any priest an official teacher of the Church. The Apostles as a whole, in union with Peter, are the official teachers of the Church.

Despite all the corruption that we’ve witnessed over the past two thousand years in the Church hierarchy, what is astounding is that the deposit of faith has remained preserved. It was always Rome that settled matters of dispute. The heresies throughout the history of the Church helped define and formulate the faith of the Church.

This is a great gift to the Church. Without this, there would be no such thing as Christianity. There would just be a myriad of conflicting opinions, as there is in the world of Protestantism. There is so much that is good in the Protestant Churches, especially the Evangelical Churches. I’ve been listening to Protestant Christian radio more and more, the music is cleaner, the messages are healthier; it is what media should be. They are so well rooted in the word of God, more so than most Catholics. But there is a real deficiency. All protestant theology is founded on the principle of sola scriptura, which is that the Scriptures alone are the sole rule of faith. For Catholics, as you know, there are three sources: Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium (Pope and bishops).

The reason there is so much good coming out of Protestant circles is that they are rooted in Scripture, which is the word of God. But the reason there is so much conflict and deficient theology is that these Churches are founded upon particular individuals who have made themselves their own authority—although they would claim that Scripture is their authority. The problem with such a claim, however, is that when Scripture is read by one hundred different individuals, it is interpreted in one hundred different ways. When there is conflict, whose interpretation is correct?

The founders of these churches do not enjoy the charism of office anymore than I do. As a result, Protestant churches have lost a great deal, i.e., the Eucharist, an understanding of ordination, the sacraments, such as Confession, sacramentals, devotion to the saints, the theology of Mary, and so much more. Some of them do not even baptise in the name of the Trinity anymore, but with a more politically correct formula, rendering the baptism invalid.

No individual person is infallible. No saint, no doctor of the Church, not even an individual bishop, except the bishop of Rome when he speaks ex cathedra on matters of faith and morals. It is the Church as a whole that is infallible in doctrinal matters. Christ said it: “But when he comes, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth” (Jn 16, 13).

The problem with human beings, however, is that for most of our lives we fail to see our own limitations. In fact, it takes years to appreciate our own limitations. We have this tendency to assume that the way we see things is the way things really are. That’s the arrogance of youth. And this arrogance does not end with adolescence; it becomes less intense, hopefully, but it is something we need to contend with for the rest of our lives. When all is said and done, there is very little that we know. If we’ve lived long enough, we begin to realize that most of what we thought we knew turned out to be wrong in the end, or only partially true. The establishment of a Church that is guided by the Holy Spirit to preserve the deposit of faith makes so much sense in the light of human limitations. What arrogance it would be for me to walk into a classroom of students and teach them something contrary to the teachings of the universal Church. The Church has had 2000 years to study God, Christ, man, spirituality, morality, and She has the promise of Christ that She will be led to the complete truth, by the power of the Holy Spirit. I’ve only been studying theology for a little over 30 years. That’s nothing. I don’t think I’ve said one thing that is original in those 30 years. It’s all borrowed from others, the great doctors of the church, the great saints, wise friends, and all of them have made it clear that the final judgement of the veracity of their words belongs to the Church.

But we continue to have dissenters, individual people who trust more in their own way of seeing things than in the formulated teachings of the universal Church. Arrogance. A lack of sense of one’s own limitations. And such arrogance is a real disservice to students, especially. The problem with sowing seeds of dissent and teaching kids to listen to me over the universal Church is that I’m not going to be around forever. When my students are adults, busy with their lives, I’ll be long gone. But the Church will never be long gone. She will be around until the end of time. Christ said it. So it makes perfect sense that the Church as a whole would enjoy a special charism that preserves the deposit of faith from error.

All I can say is that when it comes to serious truths that have a bearing on our eternal salvation, it’s better to cultivate a healthy mistrust of ourselves rooted in a realistic awareness of our own limitations, and a healthy trust in the Church that Christ established. That does not mean trusting in any one individual, but in the Church as a whole. It is the whole Church that enjoys the charism of infallibility, but it is the magisterium that is the specific organ of that charism. If we come to a humble awareness of our own limitations as a result of a thoughtful glance back at our lives, the very idea of a Church without such a charism that protects the deposit of faith from confusion and corruption makes no sense at all. The magisterium is a genuine gift, and that’s how we’ll see it if we love truth more than we love ourselves.