The Papacy and the Primacy of Peter

Author: Pedro Rodriguez

The Church's teaching about the authority and ministry of the Pope within the Church places, also by the express will of Christ, that authority and ministry at the very center of her hierarchical structure. The universal authority of the Roman Pontiff, witnessed to throughout the history of Christianity and proposed as a dogma of faith by the Council of Florence in 1439,[19] was given a detailed dogmatic explanation by Vatican Council I in 1870 in its dogmatic constitution on the Church of Christ (Pastor aeternus). This document, in turn, was taken up and confirmed by Vatican Council II in 1964.

It is interesting to note that, before describing the content of this power and authority, Vatican I wished to underline its purpose and meaning in the Church according to the will of Christ. This authority exists so that 'the episcopate might be one and undivided and that the whole multitude of believers might be preserved in unity of faith and communion by means of a well-organized priesthood.'[20] 'In order that the episcopate itself might be one and undivided he (Christ) put Peter at the head of the other apostles, and in him set up a lasting and visible source and foundation of the unity both of faith and communion.'[21]

Within this basic framework the Church has given her teaching on the primatial authority of the Roman Pontiff in three well defined points: 1. the institution of the primacy in the person of Peter the apostle, 2. the perpetuity of the primacy through the principle of succession, 3. the nature of this primatial power.

We will now study each of these three points in turn.

1. Institution of the primacy in the person of the apostle Peter.

It is a matter of faith that the blessed apostle Peter 'was constituted by Christ the Lord as the prince of all the apostles and the visible head of the whole Church militant' and 'that he received immediately and directly from Jesus Christ our Lord not only a primacy of honor but a true and proper primacy of jurisdiction.'[22] The Church affirms that this is witnessed to by 'the testimony of the gospel'[23] and is the 'very clear teaching of the Holy Scriptures.'[24]

The scriptural texts brought forward by the Council are the two following very well-known passages: a) this first is known as the 'text of the promise': Blessed are you Simon, son of Jonah, because it was not flesh and blood that revealed this to you but my Father who is in heaven. And now I say to you: You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven_ (Matthew 16:16-18); b) the second is known as the 'fulfillment text': Feed my lambs, feed my sheep (John 21:15ff).

An analysis of other numerous texts of the New Testament would show what precisely was the will of Christ regarding the humble fisherman from Galilee, how Peter afterwards exercised his primacy, and how conscious the other apostles and the first Christians were that Simon was at the head of the mission which Christ had entrusted to them all.[25]


[19] Dz. 1307 (694)
[20] Dz. 3051 (1921)
[21] _Decree on the Church_, no.18
[22] Dz. 3055 (1823)
[23] Dz. 3053 (1822)
[24] Dz. 3054 (1822)
[25] Cf. for example L. Bouyer, _L'Eglise de Dieu, Corps de Christ, et Temple de l'Espirit_, Paris, 1970, pp. 460-468. 'The evangelists were convinced that the function of Peter in the early Church was in no way the result of an outstanding personality, but of a formal disposition of Christ and therefore, of a charism corresponding to a particular situation' (p.462)


Reprinted from Catholic Position Papers
September, 1981 -- Japan Edition
Seido Foundation for the
Advancement of Education