The Primacy of Peter

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The Primacy of Peter

I. The Papacy: a factor of division or unity?

For a long time now certain theological currents and Church personalities, in the name of a heterodox interpretation of episcopal collegiality, have been proposing a change in the monarchical constitution of the Church so as to reduce the Pope’s authority to that of a mere constitutional monarch, a symbolic figurehead like the Queen of England.

As a rule, these “collegialists” seek to present the Primacy of Saint Peter as a kind of delegated power bestowed on him by the other Apostles. This would amount to introducing into the Church the egalitarian principles of the French Revolution. According to those principles, the supreme ruler of the State is nothing but a representative or delegate of the people, from whom he receives a mandate to govern in their name.

Stemming from this false premise, they draw this parallel: Just as the members of the Apostolic College would have delegated the government of the Church to Peter, their chief – a delegation that Our Lord would have ratified – so also the College of Bishops would delegate to the Pope, as head of that College, the task of governing the Church.

Indeed, the churches that sank into the Great Schism of the Orient or that were born as a result of theological dissent in the first few centuries (Monophysitism, Nestorianism, and others) reject papal Primacy and regard the Pope, at best, as a primus inter pares (“first among equals”) that is, as someone who deserves to be treated with special honors but who has no effective authority over the bishops, his peers, nor any greater decision-making power in Church government than do they.

As a result of the abandonment of the principle of unity – that is, the common submission to the Pope – those churches first fell under the dominion of the Greek Emperors, then, in part, of the Tsar of Russia and, later, the Soviet Communist Party. And, as various countries gained independence, they finally fragmented into myriads of national autocephalous churches.

Accordingly, due to the lack of a supreme point of reference – the Papacy – these churches become increasingly torn apart by all kinds of theological differences and disagreements over liturgical and disciplinary matters. Although some of their dignitaries carry imposing titles – Patriarch, Katholikos, Metropolitan, and others – their authority over other hierarchs and members of these churches is almost nonexistent.

The same occurred with the religious communities arising from the Protestant revolt against the Papacy and their metastases over centuries. The autonomy of each congregation within the same denomination is such as to leave no room for a central power to impose rules on the whole or to speak in the name of all members.

History has shown that if the Papacy is a rock of scandal and a factor of division for all dissidents, it is also the principle of unity for the faithful of the true Church of Christ, built upon the rock of Peter.

Today’s collegialist current seeks the basis for its doctrine in the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium, of Vatican Council II. Now then, the doctrine on episcopal collegiality contained in that document must be understood according to the “Prefatory Note of Explanation” published by order of the Pope as a norm for interpreting that document.1 The note reads:

College is not understood in a strictly juridical sense, namely, of a group of equals who entrust their power to their president, but of a stable group whose structure and authority is to be deduced from revelation.…
“The parallel between Peter and the other apostles on the one hand, and the Supreme Pontiff and the bishops on the other, does not imply any transmission of the extraordinary power of the apostles to their successors, nor, as is clear, any equality between the head and the members of the College….”2

This clearly states the legitimate meaning of the term collegiality, in that the Pope is not the mere president of a college of equals. He is the chief and head of a college from which he stands out by the power and authority he exerts upon all its other members and upon the whole Church. It also makes clear that the bishops, successors of the Apostles, did not receive from the latter the extraordinary powers that they enjoyed.

II. The Apostolic College and the College of Bishops

As a group, the Apostles are considered founders of the Church, though not in the same way as Saint Peter. They all were given the power to bind and to loosen and were entrusted with the mandate of preaching to all peoples:

“All power is given to Me in heaven and in earth. Going therefore, teach ye all nations; baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost; teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world” (Matt. 28:18-20).

Our Lord makes them, as a group, His continuators, grants them His own power to govern and sanctify the faithful, and promises to remain with them until the end of time. This is tantamount to saying that through preaching and the Sacraments they were to found a religious society that would live on after their deaths in the persons of their successors.

This religious society they founded is the Church, governed by Peter and his successors (Matt. 16:18-19; 18:18-19).

Nevertheless, a clarification and an important distinction should be made here. The Apostles received from the Savior two different powers, albeit inseparable from their persons: a) apostolic power – personal and non-transferable powers and privileges, granted to them as witnesses of the Resurrection and founders of the Church, that were necessary for carrying out their apostolic mission of establishing Christ’s Church; b) episcopal power – necessary powers for their pastoral mission of teaching, governing, and sanctifying the Church. The bishops are the successors and continuators of the Apostles only insofar as the Episcopal power is concerned. They are not such regarding the apostolic power since they are neither witnesses of the Resurrection nor founders of the Church. Hence they did not receive the apostolic, personal, and non-transferable privileges properly speaking, which are:

Confirmation in grace – The Apostles received so abundant an infusion of grace, especially at Pentecost, that they could avoid every mortal fault and every fully deliberate venial sin.
Universality of jurisdiction – The Apostles, having had the mandate of constituting by conquest the kingdom of God in the world, had no territorial limitations. This function of conquest, being directed to the organization of the ecclesiastical society, was of its nature transient (a personal prerogative).
Personal infallibility – The Apostles enjoyed this privilege in matters of faith and morals, but only when they taught and imposed some doctrine as obligatory.
Prophetism – The Apostles were also prophets, that is to say, persons in immediate contact with God and receiving directly from Him the truth they were to transmit to the Church in His Name. Upon the death of the last Apostle, Saint John, the official Revelation of the Church was definitively closed and the apostolic mission ended.3

The Bishops are successors of the Apostles in their Episcopal task of shepherds, teachers, and sanctifiers. They do not, however, enjoy confirmation in grace, universal jurisdiction, personal infallibility, or apostolic prophetism in the sense defined above. The Pope himself, though infallible according to the terms defined by the First Vatican Council (that is, in matters of faith and morals, when he teaches a truth to the whole Church in a definitive manner), does not enjoy the personal prerogative of confirmation in grace nor that of being a source of Revelation. As that Council calls to mind, the Petrine privilege (that is, papal infallibility) was instituted not to teach new doctrines not contained in Revelation but only to define and make explicit the doctrines already contained in the deposit of Revelation.4

III. The Primacy of Saint Peter, a reward for his profession of Faith

To make it easier to understand the traditional doctrine of the Church, it is well to call to mind the texts of Scripture that refer to the institution of the papal Primacy, as well as the commentaries of Church Doctors on this subject.5

There are two Gospel texts directly pertaining to the establishment of the Papacy: Matthew 16:13-19 and John 21:15-17.

Let us start with Saint Matthew:

“And Jesus came into the quarters of Cesarea Philippi: and he asked His disciples, saying: Whom do men say that the Son of man is?
But they said: Some John the Baptist, and others Elias, and others Jeremias, or one of the prophets.
Jesus saith to them: But whom do you say that I am?
Simon Peter answered and said: Thou art Christ, the Son of the living God.
And Jesus answering said to him: Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-Jona: because flesh and blood hath not revealed it to thee, but my Father who is in heaven.
And I say to thee: That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven.” (Matt. 16:13-19).

Commenting on this text, Saint Jerome underlines the direct relationship between Saint Peter’s proclamation of faith and the honor Our Lord gave him for it. The parallel drawn between the affirmation of Peter and the Savior’s response is perfect:

Thou art Christ the Son of the living God,” Saint Peter proclaims.

Thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build My Church,” Our Lord responds.

This comparison makes it very clear that the immediate reason for Saint Peter’s being made Pope was his profession of Faith in the divinity of Christ. The moment Saint Peter recognized Christ as God, Jesus promised him the Papacy.

It is true that Saint Peter spoke as an Apostle, since Our Lord, after asking what the people were saying of Him, directly asked the Apostles as a whole: “But whom do you say that I am?” Taking the lead, Peter spoke in their name but not by their delegation or inspiration, but rather by divine choice and inspiration.

In promising him the Papacy, Our Lord explains why by emphasizing that Peter spoke by divine inspiration: “Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-Jona: because flesh and blood hath not revealed it to thee, but my Father who is in heaven.”

Cornelius a Lapide comments:

“Peter, as about to be constituted after the resurrection the Prince of the Apostles and of the whole Church, being more deeply taught and inspired by God, recognized the Divinity of Christ, and answered concerning it what all the rest would have answered. This is plain because to Peter only, as the reward of this confession, Christ promised the most ample reward and prerogative. For He says to him by name above the rest of the Apostles, ‘Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-Jona.’”6

Therefore the elevation of Saint Peter to the Papacy depended not on a choice or delegation of the Apostolic College but exclusively on the will of God, Who revealed directly to him the divinity of Christ and impelled him to make the proclamation that earned him such an unparalleled promise.

IV. As He changed Saint Peter’s name, Jesus bestowed on him his mission as Head of the Church

The fact that Our Lord changed the name Simon to Peter emphasizes the personal character of His choice.

“Jesus imposed on Simon the name Peter (Matt. 10:2; Mark 3:16; Luke 6:14; John 1:42). According to biblical custom, a change of name had great significance: When God wished to establish the patriarchate, He chose Abram to be head and center of that institution and changed his name to Abraham; when He instituted the Synagogue He chose as its head another great patriarch, Jacob, and changed his name to Israel. The mysterious meaning of the new name [Simon] was revealed by the Master in the memorable scene that took place at the foot of Mount Hermon: ‘…thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my church.’”7

The first change of Simon’s name took place when his brother, Saint Andrew, took him to meet the Messias: “And Jesus looking upon him, said: Thou art Simon the son of Jona. Thou shalt be called Cephas, which is interpreted Peter” (John 1:42).

Later, the Savior used roughly the same words to promise him the Primacy: “Simon Bar-Jona…thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church” (Matt 16:17-18).

V. The Church, the new Sion, founded upon the rock of Peter

The words of Our Lord in relation to Peter call to mind the prophecy of Isaias: “Therefore thus saith the Lord God: Behold I will lay a stone in the foundation of Sion, a tried stone, a corner stone, a precious stone, founded in the foundation.” (Is. 28:16).

The new Sion is the Church, the house of God, whose cornerstone is Christ (Matt. 21:42; 7:24-25; 1Pet. 2:7; 1Cor. 3:9,11; 1Tim. 3:15; Ps. 118:22).

If Christ, the cornerstone of the Church, designates Saint Peter as the stone upon which his Church is built, this means that the Head of the Apostles is almost another Christ and is His Vicar, the one acting for and in the place of Christ. Our Lord gives Saint Peter his own powers so that he may be able to govern the Church:

“And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven.”

Again the Savior refers to a prophecy of Isaias related to Eliacim, a minister of Ezechias, whom the Fathers of the Church consider a prefigure of the Messias: “And I will lay the key of the house of David upon his shoulder: and he shall open, and none shall shut: and he shall shut and none shall open” (Is 22:22).

To give Saint Peter the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven and the power to bind and loosen on earth and in Heaven is to grant him the undivided government of the Church, a society at the same time supernatural (the life of grace) and natural (the human element), the two elements being represented by Heaven and earth.

VI. Our Lord bestows the Primacy on Saint Peter

The Primacy of Peter, which was indirectly suggested with the name change of the Apostle in the beginning of his apostolate and later promised in the dialogue at Cesarea, was officially bestowed upon him by Our Lord after the Resurrection and shortly before the Ascension.

Saint John describes the scene:

When therefore they had dined, Jesus saith to Simon Peter: Simon, son of John, lovest thou me more than these? He saith to him: Yea, Lord, thou knowest that I love thee. He saith to him: Feed my lambs.
He saith to him again: Simon, son of John, lovest thou me? He saith to him: Yea, Lord, thou knowest that I love thee. He saith to him: Feed my lambs.
He said to him the third time: Simon, son of John, lovest thou me? Peter was grieved, because he had said to him the third time: Lovest thou me? And he said to him: Lord, thou knowest all things: thou knowest that I love thee. He said to him: Feed my sheep (John 21:15-17).

Again Our Lord grants Saint Peter His own attributes, since He is the Supreme Shepherd, the Good Shepherd who gives His life for His sheep (John 10:11), feeds and protects them from danger and goes after those who have strayed (Luke 1:7). By entrusting Peter with the task of governing and feeding his sheep, Our Lord makes him His substitute or vicar with the fold.

Cornelius a Lapide comments:

“When Christ was about to go away into heaven, He here appoints Peter His vicar upon earth, and creates him Chief Pontiff, that the one Church might be ruled by one shepherd. Christ had promised the same thing to Peter (Matt. 16:18), but in this place He confers the gift, and constitutes him prince and ruler of the whole Church, lest any one, on account of Peter’s threefold denial, should say that Christ had changed His decrees concerning him.”8

The scholarly Jesuit explains:

“[T]o feed in Scripture signifies to rule, and kings are called shepherds, because if they would rightly rule their subjects, they ought to do what shepherds do when they feed their sheep. …Thus Cyrus is called a shepherd, i.e., a prince and king appointed by God” (Is. 44:28).9

But, Saint John Chrysostom asks:

“Why does He pass over the others and speak of the sheep to Peter? He was the chosen one of the Apostles, the mouth of the disciples, the head of the choir. For this reason Paul went up to see him rather than the others. And also to show him that he must have confidence now that his denial had been purged away. He entrusts him with the rule over the brethren…. If anyone should say ‘Why then was it James who received the See of Jerusalem?’ I should reply that He made Peter the teacher not of that see but of the whole world.”10

According to some commentators, the triple question of Our Lord – “Peter, lovest thou me?” – was intended to draw from him the threefold profession of love and thus make reparation for his three denials during the Passion.

Since the Church must last “even to the consummation of the world” (Matt. 28:20), Our Lord’s promises to Peter must dwell in his successors, the Popes.

With a solid foundation in Scripture and Tradition, this doctrine was solemnly defined by the extraordinary magisterium of the Church during the First Vatican Council.

VII. The doctrine of the First Vatican Council

In the first chapter of the Dogmatic Constitution Pastor Aeternus, the First Vatican Council (1869-1870) defined in a clear and unassailable manner the effective primacy, not only of honor but also of jurisdiction, that was bestowed upon Peter and his successors, the Popes, over the other Apostles and their successors, the Bishops. Thus reads this infallible document of the extraordinary magisterium:

So we teach and declare that according to the testimonies of the Gospel, the primacy of jurisdiction over the entire Church of God was promised and was conferred immediately and directly upon the blessed apostle Peter by Christ the Lord. For the one Simon, to whom he had before said: “Thou shalt be called Cephas (John 1: 42), after he had given forth his confession with those words: “Thou art Christ, Son of the Living God (Matt 16:16), the Lord spoke with these solemn words: “Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-Jona; because flesh and blood hath not revealed it to thee, but my Father who is in heaven. And I say to thee: That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it: and I shall give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose upon earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven (Matt. 16:17ff).

And upon Simon Peter alone Jesus after His resurrection conferred the jurisdiction of the highest pastor and rector of his entire fold, saying: “Feed my lambs,” “feed my sheep” (John 21:15ff).

To this teaching of Sacred Scriptures, so manifest as it has been always understood by the Catholic Church, are opposed openly the vicious opinions of those who perversely deny that the form of government in His church was established by Christ the Lord; that to Peter alone, before the other apostles, whether individually or all together, was confided the true and proper primacy of jurisdiction by Christ; or, of those who affirm that the same primacy was not immediately and directly bestowed on the blessed Peter himself, but upon the Church, and through this Church upon him as the minister of the Church herself.” (Denzinger, no. 1822).

There follows the anathema11 against those who deny this doctrine:

If anyone then says that the blessed Apostle Peter was not established by the Lord Christ as the chief of all the Apostles, and the visible head of the whole militant Church, or, that the same received great honor but did not receive from the same Our Lord Jesus Christ directly and immediately the primacy in true and proper jurisdiction: let him be anathema.” (Denzinger, no. 1823).

The First Vatican Council, in Chapter II of the same infallible Constitution Pastor Aeternus, insists on the permanence of this Primacy of Peter in the Roman Pontiffs throughout time even to the consummation of the world:

Moreover, what the Chief of pastors and the Great Pastor of sheep, the Lord Jesus, established in the blessed Apostle Peter, for the perpetual salvation and perennial good of the Church, this by the same Author, must endure always in the Church which was founded upon a rock and will endure firm until the end of the ages. Surely, “no one has doubt that all ages have known that the holy and most blessed Peter, chief and head of the apostles and pillar of faith and foundation of the Catholic Church, received the keys of the kingdom from Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Savior and Redeemer of the human race; and he up to this time and always lives and presides and exercises judgment in his successors, the bishops of the holy see of Rome, which was founded by him and consecrated by his blood (cf. Council of Ephesus, no. 112).

Therefore, whoever succeeds Peter in this chair, he according to the institution of Christ himself, holds the primacy of Peter over the whole Church. “Therefore, the disposition of truth remains, and blessed Peter persevering in the accepted fortitude of the rock, does not abandon the guidance of the Church which he has received” [Leo I, Sermon 3 (elsewhere 2), C. 3 PL 54, 146]. For this reason, it has always been necessary for mightier preeminence for every church to come to the church of Rome, that is those who are the faithful everywhere” [St. Irenaeus, Adv. haereses I. 3, c. 3, MG 7, 849A] so that in this see, from which the laws of “venerable communion” [St. Ambrose ep. no. 4, ML 16, 946A] emanate over all they as members associated in one head, coalesce into one bodily structure. (Denzinger, no. 1824).

It also finishes with an anathema against the foolhardy who dare disagree with this doctrine:

If anyone then says that it is not from the institution of Christ the Lord Himself, or by divine right that the blessed Peter has perpetual successors in the primacy over the universal Church, or that the Roman pontiff is not the successor of blessed Peter in the same primacy, let him be anathema. (Denzinger, no. 1825).


By divine will the Church is a monarchy12 in which the Pope governs effectively, uniting in his hands, on a universal scale, the supreme legislative, executive, and judiciary powers, in addition to the supreme magisterium.

This truth, taught from the very beginnings of the Church, is infallibly reiterated by the Dogmatic Constitution Pastor Aeternus, of the First Vatican Council, which ends with a threat of anathema, that is, excommunication, for those who deny this doctrine. The same Council defined, in an infallible way, that the primacy of Peter continues in his successors, the Popes.

The papal primacy – not only honorific but also a real, direct, and immediate primacy of the Roman Pontiff upon the whole Church – is so by Divine right. Our Lord Jesus Christ directly instituted it and no power on earth can either abolish or weaken it.


  1. “From a higher authority [footnote: “…‘higher authority’ (presumably Pope Paul himself)…”] there is communicated to the Fathers an explanatory and prefatory note on the modi concerning Chapter III of the schema De Ecclesia [Lumen Gentium]. The doctrine set forth in this same Chapter III ought to be interpreted and understood according to the mind and opinion of this note” Walter M. Abbot, S.J., General Editor, The Documents of Vatican II, (New York: The America Press, 1966), p. 98 and n. 3.
  2. Ibid., pp. 98-99.
  3. Cf. Honoré Coppieters, “Apostles,” The Catholic Encyclopedia (New York: Encyclopedia Press, Inc., 1913), Vol. I; J. Bainvel, “Apôtres,” Dictionnaire de Theologie Catholique (Paris: Librairie Letouzey et Ané, 1931), Vol. I, 2nd part; Pietro Parente, Antonio Piolante, Salvatore Garofalo, “Bishops,” Dictionary of Dogmatic Theology (Milwaukee: Bruce Publishing Co., 1951).
  4. “For, the Holy Spirit was not promised to the successors of Peter that by His revelation they might disclose new doctrine, but that by His help they might guard sacredly the revelation transmitted through the apostles and the deposit of faith, and might faithfully set it forth” (Pastor Aeternus, Chap. IV, Denzinger, no. 1836 [translated by Roy J. Deferrari]).
  5. See Thomas W. Mossman, Transl., The Great Commentary of Cornelius a Lapide (London: John Hodges, 1893).
  6. The Great Commentary of Cornelius a Lapide, St. Matthew’s Gospel, p. 210.
  7. “Primacy of St. Peter,” Dictionary of Dogmatic Theology, pp. 228-229.
  8. The Great Commentary, St. John’s Gospel, p. 295.
  9. Ibid., p. 297.
  10. In G. H. Joyce, “The Pope,” The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. XII, pp. 261-262.
  11. “Anathema, in actual Church discipline, is the term also used for ipso facto excommunication incurred by those denying a solemnly defined truth, as is concluded principally from the dogmatic canons of the Council of Trent and the [First] Vatican Council: ‘If anyone denies [this truth] …let him be anathema’, i.e., excommunicated” (Dictionary of Dogmatic Theology. p. 10).
  12. need not shudder at the mention of monarchy. As applied to the government of the Church, monarchy has none of the pejorative connotations added to it in temporal society during the period of the “enlightened despots” of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

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