The Continuity of the Catholic Church
So much for the organisation of the Church and its perpetuity. It remains to call attention to the central office, the Papacy, and to the official who fills the office, the Bishop of Rome or the Pope. The facts begin with our Lord and St. Peter; they come up-to-date with the present occupant of St. Peter's Chair.
Concerning this subject the Church teaches that St. Peter was made chief among the Apostles and given superior authority; that he became Bishop of Rome; that the succeeding bishops of Rome, one by one, have had the same authority which was given to him; and that, in brief, the office of the Pope is the continuance of the office created by our Lord.
In as much as each of these facts has been denied by critics of the Church, it is necessary to examine the record. Let it be said at once that either St. Peter was the head of the Church or there was no head. No one has suggested that St. Paul was given primacy, or St. John, or St. James, or any of the others. As it is unreasonable to judge that there was no chief among the Apostles, in as much as every organisation must have a visible head, we come logically to St. Peter and through him to the Pope in Rome.
This conclusion is confirmed by abundant testimony from the Scriptures. I cite a few of the facts. St. Peter is designated as "first," although he was not the first chosen. He alone was given a new name; to his name, Simon, was added that of Peter, or "rock." It was from his boat that Christ preached. It was to him, before the other Apostles, that Christ appeared after His resurrection. It was to him that Christ gave the threefold commission, "feed my lambs," "feed my lambs," "feed my sheep," meaning the primacy over the whole flock of Christians. It was to him that our Lord said: "Simon, Simon, behold, Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat: But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and when thou are converted, strengthen thy brethren" (Luke 22:31-32).
Especially to be noted was the occasion when our Lord asked the Apostles: "But whom do ye say that I am?" As was to be expected, it was St. Peter who replied; he acknowledged Jesus as the Christ and the Son of God. Then came our Lord's momentous reply: "Blessed art thou, Simon Bar Jona; for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, that thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" (Matt. 16:17, 18).
In as much as Peter has been given the name rock, it is only reasonable to conclude that he was the rock upon which our Lord promised to build His Church. This conclusion, however, because it is Catholic, is rejected by the opponents of the Church. Some of them insist that the word rock refers to St. Peter's confession of faith; others, that it refers to the revelation by which he learned the truth.
Such arguments can be disregarded at once because they make not the slightest difference in the present inquiry. In the very next sentence our Lord said to St. Peter: "And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven..." Can it be asserted that these words refer to anything or anyone other than St. Peter? How could the "keys of the kingdom" be given to a confession or a revelation? They were given to a person; the words are, "unto thee."
The expression, "giving the keys," is found in Semitic literature, both biblical and non-biblical. It means to deliver the management of affairs, one person to another. In St. Peter's case, the gift of "the keys of the kingdom of heaven" means that he was appointed our Lord's plenipotentiary, possessed with full powers to govern divine authority to manage the affairs of Christ's kingdom. As evidence of his (St. Peter's) primacy, it should be accepted as final and conclusive.
This guaranty, the one which I have just quoted, is followed by another equally significant statement, one which throws further light on the subject. "Whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth, " our Lord added, "shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven" (Matt. 16:19). As already noted, on a different occasion our Lord addressed the same words to all the Apostles as a group. It appears then, that St. Peter, individually, had the same authority "to bind...to loose" that the other Apostles had collectively.
The history of the early Church, as narrated in "The Acts of the Apostles," contributes still further evidence. As I previously pointed out, it was St. Peter who presided over the meeting of the Apostles and disciples when a successor to Judas was chosen. It was he who preached on Pentecost day and who performed the first miracle. It was he who received a miraculous demonstration that Gentiles were to be accepted in the Church. It was he, rather than the Bishop of Jerusalem, to whom St. Paul presented a problem from the missions among the Gentiles. And it was he who presided over what is called the Council of Jerusalem. Following the debate about the application of the Mosaic law to Gentiles, it was St. Peter who gave the decision, after which "all the multitude kept silence."
So much for the primacy of St. Peter. It is a matter of history that he went to Rome, where he was established as the first Bishop, and where he gave his life for the faith. Contrary to anti-Catholic opinion there is overwhelming historical evidence for Peter's Roman Episcopate. For instance, all the early Church Fathers affirm it, and in 393 A.D. St. Jerome wrote: ..."Simon Peter...the Prince of the Apostles, after his Episcopacy over the Church of Antioch, and after preaching to those dispersed of the circumcision...goes to Rome in the second year of Claudius, to defeat Simon Magus and there he held the Episcopal chair twenty-five years, down to the last year of Nero, that is the fourteenth. Under who he also suffered glorious martyrdom, being crucified with his head downwards...He was buried on the Vatican Hill, near the Triumphal Way, and is honoured with the veneration of the whole city".
His immediate successor was St. Linus; the third successor was St. Clement. The latter deserves special attention because of a very significant episode which occurred during his pontificate.
It seems that a dissension had arisen among the Christians of Corinth, becoming so serious as to call for instruction and correction from higher Church authorities - the highest, in fact. Who was the highest? Was it St. John, the beloved Apostle? He was still living in Ephesus, a Greek city; and Corinth, too, was a Greek city. The ties between the two were closer than those between Corinth and Rome. Moreover, St. John was the last of the original Apostles. Would he not be expected to send a message to the Christians of Corinth? The fact is that he did not do so, but the third successor of St. Peter did. St. Clement, the Bishop of Rome, wrote to Corinth, gave the necessary instruction, whereupon the dissension came to an end. His letter was so highly regarded that it was read publicly in Corinth for nearly a century, and was included in early manuscripts of the Scriptures.
This letter contains the following very significant words:
"If any should disobey the things spoken by Him through us, let them know that they will involve themselves in no light transgression and danger." One Protestant scholar, Lightfoot, has described this as "the first step towards Papal aggression."
From that time on, the evidence for the primacy of the Bishop of Rome is multiplied. In the second century, for instance, a disagreement arose about the correct date for Easter. Similarly, there was a dispute about a doctrine of faith. Both questions were referred to the Bishop of Rome, whose decisions were immediately accepted. To the same end was the testimony of early Christian writers, such as St. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, and St. Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna. Let it be noted, furthermore, that there was no suggestion that anyone other than the Bishop of Rome was the visible head of the Church.
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