One of the perennial dividing issues between Roman Catholics and other Christians is the issue of Petrine Primacy. The Roman Catholic Church claims that our Lord gave his apostle Peter universal jurisdiction over Christians everywhere, and that the popes are Peter’s successors in this role. Unsurprisingly, other Christians have taken a dimmer view of papal claims to universal jurisdiction. (Papal claims are not, however, unique: some have suggested that the title “Ecumenical Patriarch” for the Patriarch of Constantinople implies a claim to universal jurisdiction, and a few scribes in the Church of the East title their patriarch the “Catholicos-Patriarch of the East and of all the inhabited world.” Indeed, a scribe in Mosul in northern Iraq even gave the so-called “Nestorian” Catholicos the title “Vicar of Christ” [syr. natar duktheh da-mshiha]!)
A few years back, as I was re-reading Boniface VIII’s encyclical Unam Sanctam (as one does), I observed that his interpretation of John 21:17 flips the imperative: Jesus commanded Peter to “Feed my sheep,” but Boniface interpreted the text as a command to Christ’s sheep to be fed by Peter. This got me thinking.
Many critics of the papacy throughout the centuries (perhaps beginning with Origen?) suggested that when Christ said to Peter, “You are Peter, and on this rock I shall build my Church” (Matt 16:18), the rock in question is not Peter but something else, perhaps Peter’s confession, or perhaps Christ himself. (Paul tells us that Christ is the cornerstone, but we may not require the architectural metaphors for the spiritual community to be fully consistent.) I think this idea is nonsense: if, as is most likely, Jesus was speaking Aramaic, then what he said is, “You are Peter [Aramaic kefa, “the rock”], and on this kefa I shall build my Church.” We know from other NT texts that the Aramaic name of Peter is Kefa.
(I shall not consider in this post whether the Roman popes are the heirs of Peter or not. I actually have little at stake in the question, the reasons for which will become clear later, I suspect. If they wish to claim to be Peter’s heirs, let them live according to Peter’s call.)
So, having established that Christ singled out Peter in this passage, the question is what did he single out Peter for. What did Petrine primacy consist of?
In the context of Matt 16, there are two things mentioned, neither of which is fully clear. “The keys of the kingdom” would suggest that Peter can open God’s kingdom for others. The very curious grammar of the “binding” and “releasing” (something close to “what you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven”; future perfect periphrastic constructions are rare!) is surprising, but whatever the authority consisted of, it was then given by the Lord to the disciples more generally at Matt 18:18, sandwiched between instructions for confronting a fellow believer regarding sin (confronting as a peer, one might note) and references to any two or three Christians gathered together in Christ’s name for prayer. Neither of these phrases are very clear regarding the content of Petrine primacy, which is no doubt why Boniface only cited Matt 16 to declare that papal authority has a divine origin, not to define the content of that papal authority.
Fortunately, other passages are clearer about what is required of Peter. Luke 22:31-32 again singles out Peter, and indicates that once he has repented of denying his Lord, he should “strengthen [his] brothers.” In John 21:15-17, Jesus three times commanded Peter to feed Christ’s sheep. The command is not to the sheep, but to Peter, to provide food for the sheep. Peter’s role in the early Church was to encourage, to feed, and to serve.
And this should not surprise us. Christ himself “did not come to be served, but to serve” (Mark 10:45). In that same context, Christ made clear what Christian primacy had to look like: “You know that those who intend to rule over the gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It will not be this way among you, but whoever wants to become great among you will be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you will be the slave of all” (Mark 10:42-44). Christian leadership does not consist in exercising authority and lordship, but in serving. If Peter was singled out for primacy of Christian leadership, after Christ, then he was called to serve more than all others. If Peter was called to universal Christian leadership, this means that he was obliged to serve all Christians everywhere.
And Peter understood this! His instructions to Christian leaders forbid “lording it over those entrusted to you” (1 Pet 5:3) and admonish these leaders to be “eager to serve” (1 Pet 5:2). That is why, in spite of all his faults and failures, Peter is a great saint and a model for us all.
But think how different the history of Christianity would be if the popes had understood Petrine primacy as a call to serve rather than an opportunity to be served. Patriarch Michael Keroularios of Constantinople was by reputation suitably pugnacious, but it was the papal envoy Cardinal Humbert who stormed into the Hagia Sophia Cathedral in Constantinople and inaugurated the schism of 1054 by excommunicating the Greek patriarch in the pope’s name. Who was served by this? One of the most severe spiritual crises under papal jurisdiction was the papal schism of 1378-1415, when for over a generation multiple different people claimed to be pope and were recognized by different countries. It’s easy to see that as politics, and easy to miss the degree to which, on medieval understandings of salvation’s dependence upon allegiance to the (correct) pope, the salvation of large segments of the population was brazenly endangered by papal grasping. That was the crisis which gave rise to the Conciliar movement in Western Europe, the notion that when popes were sufficiently refractory, they themselves were subject to ecumenical councils. The Conciliar movement itself was outflanked by Pope Eugenius IV at Florence, and then banned by Pope Pius II in his bull Execrabilis of 1460, which then hampered the papacy’s ability to respond positively to criticism from friend and foe alike. Pope Leo X was not the innocent Daniel in the lion’s den of the Roman Curia, as Luther portrayed him in his dedicatory letter to his treatise The Freedom of the Christian, though Luther himself was hardly docile.
The irony is that by the time of these medieval popes, a papal title invented centuries earlier had become a fixed part of papal self-designation. In the late 6th C, Patriarch John IV of Constantinople assumed the title “Ecumenical Patriarch.” This might be taken to imply jurisdiction over the entire inhabited world (the “oikoumene,” from which the title “ecumenical” is derived). Pope Pelagius II protested the title as a usurpation of papal prerogative, but his successor Pope Gregory I had a different response: he disliked John IV, but he did not dispute the title. Instead, Pope Gregory adopted the title servus servorum Christi (“the servant of Christ’s servants”). If John of Constantinople claimed preeminent status, Gregory claimed preeminent service, and in so doing he captured perfectly the Lord’s calling for Peter. According to the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia, the title was used by some popes after Gregory and not others, and occasionally by bishops or others, but by the tenth century the title was claimed by all subsequent popes, and after 1200 or so was used exclusively by popes, even the very popes whose arrogance and lordliness contradicted Christ’s teachings on the nature of Christian leadership.
I suspect that the more that popes take this title and Peter’s calling as their agenda, the more Christians will wish to be fed by the Roman pontiff.