“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 (Matthew 16: 17-18).
The question that, reading and contemplating such an important subject, we should ask is: “What is the Truth that God Himself conveys to us?” rather than “Who is right?”
Before, however, discussing the interpretation of the above verses, I would like to invite all Catholics who will read this article, regardless of the camp they belong to, to accept a premise that, for me, is essential. It goes like this: the discussion and debate in question should not be a battle where someone can shout triumphantly, “See, I am right!” Certainly, someone is right, and someone is wrong. However, even as we acknowledge this, if we end up in a fight whose purpose is – consciously or unconsciously – to prove our superiority and the foolishness of the opponent, the only one who wins is usually the devil, not us Catholics. What I propose is a different state of mind and approach. Not one of adversity and violent confrontation, but one that must be appropriate for the lovers of Truth (2 Thessalonians 2:10). I say this assuming that most of us want to know and follow the Truth and only the Truth in a matter of great importance. The question that, reading and contemplating such an important subject, we should ask is: “What is the Truth that God Himself conveys to us?” rather than “Who is right?”
Today, nothing suffers more than the attribute of the unity of the Church mentioned in the Credo. Looking from the outside, those who are not Christians have the impression that the Church is not (anymore) united. Divisions and disagreements have reached alarming levels. Personally, I believe that the sectarian spirit is one of the greatest adversaries of Christianity in the last millennium. And today, more than ever, this spirit attacks everything, including Traditional Catholicism. Therefore, before resuming the discussion on the verses from the Gospel of Matthew, I will recapitulate a few very simple teachings that should be firm convictions of all Christians regarding the structure of the Church.
The Christian faith professed by Catholics throughout the ages presents several fundamental traits regarding the visible community of the baptized – the Church Militant (Lat. Ecclesia militans). The first element pertains to hierarchy: we believe in the existence of a visible hierarchy, comprised of members of the Apostolic College, the bishops, as well as the lower hierarchical ranks, the priests and deacons. Concerning the Apostolic College, it consists of all bishops, among whom the role of visible head, with specific duties and privileges, belongs to the successor of Saint Apostle Peter, the Pope. This acknowledgment of the special function of the Bishop of Rome is implied by the famous formula Primus inter pares (i.e., “First among equals”).
We owe God always and unconditionally absolute obedience, while to the Pope (and any other hierarchical superior, bishop, or priest), we owe only relative obedience – which is conditioned by the submission of the hierarchs to God.
In any case, the hierarchical structure is clear, involving what we could call the visible “monarchy” of the Pope in relation to the other bishops. His primacy is the concrete manifestation of this monarchical character of the Church hierarchy, placing him above any authority structure, including the conciliar one. Practically, pontifical authority is the highest among all types of authority known in the world of men. Now, I would only affirm the “relative” nature of this prerogative: it belongs to the Pope only derivatively, while it belongs to God absolutely. Consequently, we owe God always and unconditionally absolute obedience, while to the Pope (and any other hierarchical superior, bishop, or priest), we owe only relative obedience – which is conditioned by the submission of the hierarchs to God.[iii] I emphasize this extremely important point, which is usually overlooked or ignored by those who have a mistaken understanding of authority.
As we can learn from authors like Saint Dionysius the Areopagite, the hierarchical and monarchical structure of the Church Militant certainly reflects the structure of the entire creation in which God, the absolute monarch, is the King and Master of all that exists. This analogy with symbolic, real value is also illustrated by the famous prerogative of Vicarius Christi (i.e., “Vicar of Christ”) exclusively attributed to the Holy Father. Also, he enjoys the supernatural prerogative of infallibility presented in the Catholic Encyclopedia as follows:
“The Roman Pontiff, when he speaks ex cathedra–that is, when in the exercise of his office as pastor and teacher of all Christians he defines, by virtue of his supreme Apostolic authority, a doctrine of faith or morals to be held by the whole Church–is, by reason of the Divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, possessed of that infallibility with which the Divine Redeemer wished His Church to be endowed in defining doctrines of faith and morals.”[iv]
At the moment when the Apostle Peter confesses to Jesus, expressing his conviction, saying “Thou art Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16), he becomes, through this statement, similar to Him who is the unique “cornerstone” of the Church – Jesus Christ Himself.
Any authentic Catholic believes without hesitation in all these teachings. They are implicitly contained in the Credo in that statement affirming our faith in the Church founded by Jesus Christ as “unam, sanctam, catholicam et apostolicam.” That being said, let’s return to the issue of the “rock.”
The entire discussion regarding the interpretation of verses 17 and 18 from the 16th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew is reflected in one of the late texts of Saint Augustine. Known as Retractationes and written before his death, it contains revisions and corrections to positions held by the author throughout his life. If I have chosen this text to formulate my argument, it is due to a reality that no one can contest: most likely, we are dealing with the most influential Saint in the millennia-long history of the Christian Church. Not even Saint Thomas can compete with the disciple of Saint Ambrose of Milan. Moreover, the Angelic Doctor follows in many doctrines the opinions and teachings of Saint Augustine. And if we think about the doctrinal struggles that took place after the appearance of Protestantism and Jansenism, all had their origin in his texts.
In Retractationes, we find a commentary where the discussion revolves around who the “rock” mentioned by Jesus Christ in Matthew 16:18 is. Initially, in a writing (now lost) titled Contra Epistolam Donati Haeretici Liber Unus, Augustine had stated about the Apostle Peter, “on him, just as on a rock, was the church established.”[v] So, in the writings from his early period, he considered Peter to be the rock. The very name – Peter – attributed by Christ to the apostle seems to indicate this complete identity. However, in Retractationes, Augustine changes his opinion, stating that “what was said was not ‘Thou art a rock,’ but ‘Thou art Peter.’[vi] Now the rock was Christ (1 Corinthians 10:4), and Simon acknowledged it, just as the whole church also acknowledges it, and was called Peter.”
In other words, what Saint Augustine is saying is that at the moment when the Apostle Peter confesses to Jesus, expressing his conviction, saying “Thou art Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16), he becomes, through this statement, similar to Him who is the unique “cornerstone” of the Church – Jesus Christ Himself. In this sense, another Doctor of the Church, Saint Jerome, notes that “Simon who believed in Christ the Rock, He bestowed the name of Peter (Rock).”[vii] In support of this interpretation – that the rock is Christ – we can certainly invoke those verses in which He is called the “stone at the head of the corner” (Matthew 21:42; Mark 12:10). Although leaning in the direction of this interpretation, Saint Augustine takes a moderate position, adding at the end that “the reader may choose which of these two notions is the more plausible.”
So, it is not Peter who is the rock, but the faith in Christ accompanied by the confession of this faith. It is, again, about the faith confessed by Peter, a testimony through which he became like the only “rock,” Christ.
Firmer in his stance is Saint John Chrysostom, who explains how the words of the Savior “That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church” should be interpreted:
“That is, on this faith and confession I will build my Church. Herein showing that many should believe what Peter had confessed, and raising his understanding, and making him His shepherd.”
So, it is not Peter who is the rock, but the faith in Christ accompanied by the confession of this faith. In the same vein, Blessed Rabanus Maurus (c. 780–856) asserts that “without that confession and faith none ought to enter the kingdom of heaven.” It is, again, about the faith confessed by Peter, a testimony through which he became like the only “rock,” Christ. Finally, the great Alexandrian teacher Origen (c. 185–c. 253) shows – as a conclusion to the issue discussed by Saint Augustine – that “everyone is a rock who is an imitator of Christ.” Let’s remember this: everyone. Therefore, we can affirm that the position of Saint Augustine in his later years is correct: the “rock” is Christ, and Peter – and every other Christian – becomes a “rock” through the confession of true faith in the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth.
In all this discussion, we can add something significant. If we read not only verses 16-19 of the 16th chapter of the Gospel according to Matthew but also the immediate continuation, that is, verses 21-23, we will probably have a shock:
“From that time Jesus began to show to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the ancients and scribes and chief priests, and be put to death, and the third day rise again. And Peter taking him, began to rebuke him, saying: Lord, be it far from thee, this shall not be unto thee. Who turning, said to Peter: Go behind me, Satan, thou art a scandal unto me: because thou savorest not the things that are of God, but the things that are of men.”
How can we remain unshaken when we witness the apostle Peter, who lived and evangelized alongside Jesus Christ Himself, and who, after being a witness to God, becomes an instrument of the devil? Don’t you think that there is a message intended for us, who find ourselves today in the greatest crisis in the entire history of the Church?
Here, the first Pope in history, after bearing witness to the revealed faith by becoming like Jesus Christ himself, the “rock,” a few minutes later asks Him to renounce the central means of our salvation: the Cross. And thus, the one who was initially under the inspiration of the Heavenly Father falls in a short time under the influence of the terrible deceiver, Satan. It seems to me that the lesson given by God Himself, the author of Holy Scripture, in this 16th chapter is – simultaneously – brilliant and terrible. It is a lesson about the precariousness of our fallen nature. A lesson about how corrupt and corruptible we are. About what any of us can do, including the Pope, when we do not understand that God’s way involves repentance, the pain involved in separating from a sinful life, persecutions for the Truth – in a word, the Cross.
How can we remain unshaken when we witness the apostle Peter, who lived and evangelized alongside Jesus Christ Himself, and who, after being a witness to God, becomes an instrument of the devil? Why are both episodes – Peter, the “rock,” and Peter, under the influence of Satan – placed in the same chapter of the Gospel according to Matthew? Don’t you think that there is a message intended for us, who find ourselves today in the greatest crisis in the entire history of the Church?
Before moving on to the next article, where I will discuss the possibility of a heretical pope, I believe it would be an excellent meditation for any of us to reread the entire 16th chapter of the Gospel according to Matthew. Let’s pray to God to enlighten us and help us fully understand its meanings. If we add to this Peter’s three acts of denial of Jesus and his subsequent repentance, I think the picture will be complete.
Latest from RTV — GOD 2024: Globalism & the Plot to Cancel Christianity
[i] The full text of the Correctio filialis de haeresibus propagatis can be read at the following link: https://www.correctiofilialis.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/Correctio-filialis_English_1.pdf [Accessed: 28 January 2024]
[ii] A significant article for this position was written by Emmett O’Reagan, “The Heretical Pope Fallacy”: https://www.lastampa.it/vatican-insider/en/2017/12/11/news/the-heretical-pope-fallacy-1.34082024/ [Accessed: 29 January 2024]
[iii] I have already used this distinction between the relative authority of the Pope and the absolute authority of God in another article. For details, it can be read here: https://remnantnewspaper.com/web/index.php/fetzen-fliegen/item/6667-absolute-obedience-and-relative-obedience [Accessed: 28 January 2024]
[v] I have extracted all the quotes from the excellent translation by Meredith Freeman Eller for her doctoral thesis at Boston University in 1946, pp. 151-152. The full text can be read here: https://archive.org/details/retractationesof00elle/page/n1/mode/2up [Accessed: 28 January 2024]
[vi] Not “tu es petra (rock),” but “tu es Petrus (Peter).”
[vii] All the quotes from different Fathers and Doctors of the Church mentioned by me can be found in the Catena Aurea of St. Thomas Aquinas: https://www.ecatholic2000.com/catena/untitled-23.shtml [Accessed: 28 January 2024]