The Church teaches that Peter was appointed by Christ as the head of the Church. This is clear from scripture and the testimony of the first Christians. Christ made certain promises to Peter necessary for the good of the Church. This office held by Peter was passed on after Peter’s martyrdom in Rome to the Bishop Linus. An unbroken line of Bishops of Rome can be traced through history from Pope Benedict XVI back to Peter.
“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 upon earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven.” – Matthew 16:18-19
“That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church,”
Here Christ explicitly makes known His intention to give authority over His Church to Peter. He associates Peter with himself by calling him the “rock” on which the Church is to be built. (1 Corinthians 10:4)
“…and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it,”
Christ promised that the gates of hell will not prevail against His Church.
“And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven.”
The keys are an ancient symbol of authority, which the Jews would have recognized. In the Davidic Kingdom there were different ministers who oversaw the affairs of the state, but there was one prime minister who was the chief overseer, and he spoke with the King’s authority. The keys were the symbol of this perpetual office. Notice how Christ uses the same phrasing and structure of the perpetual kingship described in Isaiah in Matthew, a point that would be readily apparent to early Jewish understanding:
“And it shall come to pass in that day, that I will call my servant Eliacim the son of Helcias, And I will clothe him with thy robe, and will strengthen him with thy girdle, and will give thy power into his hand: and he shall be as a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to the house of Juda. 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.” – Isaiah 22:20-22
“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.”
Here Christ gave an incredible amount of authority to Peter. What he says authoritatively is binding in Heaven and on earth. Once again this imagery can be seen in Isaiah 22:20-22. Christ gave Peter the role of Prime Minister, to speak authoritatively in His name, thus laying the foundation for papal infallibility. The Church teaches that when the Pope (as successor of Peter) officially declares a doctrine to be binding on Catholics it is infallible. It is infallible because Christ could never allow falsehood to be bound in His name, be it in Heaven or on earth.
Objection to Peter as Rock
Some may argue that when you go to ancient Greek of Matthew’s Gospel it would be clear that Christ was the rock on which the Church is founded, not Peter. They argue that this is clear because two different forms of the Greek word ‘rock’ are used. It would read like this:
“ Thou are PETROS and upon this PETRA I will build my church.”
In other words they think Christ meant to say, “Peter thou art Rock, but on this rock (myself,) I will build my church.”
The reason two different forms of the word rock are used is that in Greek the word “rock” is normally feminine, and it would be inappropriate to give Peter a feminine name. This problem would not arise in the original Aramaic that Christ would have actually spoken, and which Matthew’s Gospel was first written in, because there is only one word for “rock” in Aramaic. Even if this faulty argument were valid, it does not take away from the fact that Christ gave Peter the keys to the kingdom of Heaven, and the authority to bind and loose on earth and in Heaven! The context of the verse as a whole makes it clear that Christ is giving authority and headship to Peter.
When Christ was speaking to the Apostles after the Last Supper he spoke to the apostles about how they were to exercise power or authority.
“And there was also a strife amongst them, which of them should seem to be the greater. And he said to them: The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and they that have power over them, are called beneficent. But you not so: but he that is the greater among you, let him become as the younger; and he that is the leader, as he that serveth. For which is greater, he that sitteth at table, or he that serveth? Is it not he that sitteth at table? But I am in the midst of you, as he that serveth: And you are they who have continued with me in my temptations: And I dispose to you, as my Father hath disposed to me, a kingdom; That you may eat and drink at my table, in my kingdom: and may sit upon thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” – Luke 22:24-30
After explaining how they were not to lord it over others but rather to serve, and that they would “sit upon thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” Christ speaks to Peter:
“31. And the Lord said: Simon, Simon, behold Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat: 32. But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and thou, being once converted, confirm thy brethren.” – Luke 22:31-32
In this verse the original Greek makes clear something not expressed in the English. In verse 31 the “you” is plural. In verse 32 the “you” is singular.
It as if Christ said, “Satan has desired to sift all of you disciples like wheat, but I have prayed for you specifically Peter, that thy faith fail not: and thou, being once converted, confirm they brethren.”
Obviously Christ knew that Peter would deny Him in the coming hours, but this prayer was for after Peter’s deeper conversion to Him. Peter’s vocation was to confirm the faith of His brethren and after the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost Peter would fulfill this role.
To this day the faith of Peter as proclaimed by His successors in Rome, has not failed, and it strengthens the brethren throughout the world. The authority of the Pope, the authority of Peter, is given as a safeguard and guarantee of orthodoxy.
Early Christian History
“Matthew also issued among the Hebrews a written Gospel in their own language, while Peter and Paul were evangelizing in Rome and laying the foundation of the Church.
-Saint Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 189 AD
“Since, however, it would be very tedious, in such a volume as this, to reckon up the successions of all the Churches, we do put to confusion all those who, in whatever manner, whether by an evil self-pleasing, by vainglory, or by blindness and perverse opinion, assemble in unauthorized meetings; [we do this, I say,] by indicating that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its preeminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the Apostolic Tradition has been preserved continuously by those who are everywhere.”
-Saint Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 189 AD
“Was anything withheld from the knowledge of Peter, who is called ‘the rock on which the Church would be built’ [Matt. 16:18] with the power of ‘loosing and binding in heaven and on earth’ [Matt. 16:19]?”
-Tertullian, Demurrer Against the Heretics, 200 AD
“[T]he Lord said to Peter, ‘On this rock I will build my Church, I have given you the keys of the kingdom of heaven [and] whatever you shall have bound or loosed on earth will be bound or loosed in heaven’ [Matt. 16:18–19]. . . . What kind of man are you, subverting and changing what was the manifest intent of the Lord when he conferred this personally upon Peter? Upon you, he says, I will build my Church; and I will give to you the keys.”
-Tertullian, Modesty, 220 AD
“[I]f we were to attend carefully to the Gospels, we should also find, in relation to those things which seem to be common to Peter . . . a great difference and a preeminence in the things [Jesus] said to Peter, compared with the second class [of apostles]. For it is no small difference that Peter received the keys not of one heaven but of more, and in order that whatsoever things he binds on earth may be bound not in one heaven but in them all, as compared with the many who bind on earth and loose on earth, so that these things are bound and loosed not in [all] the heavens, as in the case of Peter, but in one only; for they do not reach so high a stage with power as Peter to bind and loose in all the heavens.”
-Origen, Commentary on Matthew, 248 AD
“The Lord says to Peter: ‘I say to you,’ he says, ‘that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church.’ . . . On him [Peter] he builds the Church, and to him he gives the command to feed the sheep [John 21:17], and although he assigns a like power to all the apostles, yet he founded a single chair [cathedra], and he established by his own authority a source and an intrinsic reason for that unity. Indeed, the others were that also which Peter was [i.e., apostles], but a primacy is given to Peter, whereby it is made clear that there is but one Church and one chair. So too, all [the apostles] are shepherds, and the flock is shown to be one, fed by all the apostles in single-minded accord. If someone does not hold fast to this unity of Peter, can he imagine that he still holds the faith? If he [should] desert the chair of Peter upon whom the Church was built, can he still be confident that he is in the Church?”
-Saint Cyprian of Carthage, The Unity of the Catholic Church, 251 AD
“With a false bishop appointed for themselves by heretics, they dare even to set sail and carry letters from schismatics and blasphemers to the chair of Peter and to the principal Church [at Rome], in which sacerdotal unity has its source; nor did they take thought that these are Romans, whose faith was praised by the preaching Apostle, and among whom it is not possible for perfidy to have entrance.”
-Saint Cyprian of Carthage, Letter to Cornelius, 252 AD
“There is one God and one Christ, and one Church, and one chair founded on Peter by the word of the Lord. It is not possible to set up another altar or for there to be another priesthood besides that one altar and that one priesthood. Whoever has gathered elsewhere is scattering.”
-Saint Cyprian of Carthage, Letters, 253 AD
“[Simon Magus] so deceived the city of Rome that Claudius erected a statue of him. . . . While the error was extending itself, Peter and Paul arrived, a noble pair and the rulers of the Church, and they set the error aright. . . . [T]hey launched the weapon of their like-mindedness in prayer against the Magus, and struck him down to earth. It was marvelous enough, and yet no marvel at all, for Peter was there—he that carries about the keys of heaven. [Matt. 16:19]”
-Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, 350 AD
“[Jesus said:] Simon, my follower, I have made you the foundation of the holy Church. I betimes called you Peter, because you will support all its buildings. You are the inspector of those who will build on Earth a Church for me. If they should wish to build what is false, you, the foundation, will condemn them. You are the head of the fountain from which my teaching flows; you are the chief of my disciples. Through you I will give drink to all peoples. Yours is that life-giving sweetness which I dispense. I have chosen you to be, as it were, the firstborn in my institution so that, as the heir, you may be executor of my treasures. I have given you the keys of my kingdom. Behold, I have given you authority over all my treasures.”
-Saint Ephraim the Syrian, Homilies, 351 AD
“You cannot deny that you are aware that in the city of Rome the episcopal chair was given first to Peter; the chair in which Peter sat, the same who was head—that is why he is also called Cephas [‘Rock’]—of all the apostles; the one chair in which unity is maintained by all.”
-Saint Opatus, The Schism of the Donatists, 367 AD
“As I follow no leader save Christ, so I communicate with none but your blessedness, that is, with the chair of Peter. For this, I know, is the rock on which the Church is built! [Matt. 16:18]. This is the house where alone the Paschal Lamb can be rightly eaten [Ex. 12:22]. This is the Ark of Noah, and he who is not found in it shall perish when the flood prevails.”
-Saint Jerome, Letters, 376 AD
“[Christ] made answer: ‘You are Peter, and upon this rock will I build my Church. . . .’ Could he not, then, strengthen the faith of the man to whom, acting on his own authority, he gave the kingdom, whom he called the rock, thereby declaring him to be the foundation of the Church [Matt. 16:18]?”
-Saint Ambrose of Milan, The Faith, 379 AD
“Likewise it is decreed . . . that it ought to be announced that . . . the holy Roman Church has been placed at the forefront not by the conciliar decisions of other churches, but has received the primacy by the evangelic voice of our Lord and Savior, who says: ‘You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it; and I will give to you the keys of the kingdom of heaven . . . ’ [Matt. 16:18–19]. The first see, therefore, is that of Peter the apostle, that of the Roman Church, which has neither stain nor blemish nor anything like it.”
-Saint Pope Damasus I, Decree of Damasus, 382 AD
“But you say, the Church was founded upon Peter, although elsewhere in the same is attributed to all the Apostles, and they all receive the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and the strength of the Church depends upon them all alike, yet one among the twelve is chosen so that as a head has been appointed, there may be no occasion for schism.”
–St. Jerome, Against Jovinian, 393 AD
“Simon Peter, the son of John, from the village of Bethsaida in the province of Galilee, brother of Andrew the apostle, and himself chief of the apostles, after having been bishop of the church of Antioch and having preached to the Dispersion . . . pushed on to Rome in the second year of Claudius to overthrow Simon Magus, and held the sacerdotal chair there for twenty-five years until the last, that is the fourteenth, year of Nero. At his hands he received the crown of martyrdom being nailed to the cross with his head towards the ground and his feet raised on high, asserting that he was unworthy to be crucified in the same manner as his Lord.”
-Saint Jerome, Lives of Illustrious Men, 396 AD
“In seeking the things of God . . . you have acknowledged that judgment is to be referred to us [the pope], and have shown that you know that is owed to the Apostolic See [Rome], if all of us placed in this position are to desire to follow the apostle himself [Peter] from whom the episcopate itself and the total authority of this name have emerged.” (Letters 29:1 [A.D. 408]).
-Pope Saint Innocent I, Letters, 408 AD
“If the very order of episcopal succession is to be considered, how much more surely, truly, and safely do we number them [the bishops of Rome] from Peter himself, to whom, as to one representing the whole Church, the Lord said, ‘Upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not conquer it.’ Peter was succeeded by Linus, Linus by Clement. … In this order of succession a Donatist bishop is not to be found.”
-Saint Augustine, Letters, 412 AD
“Philip, presbyter and legate of [Pope Celestine I] said: ‘We offer our thanks to the holy and venerable synod, that when the writings of our holy and blessed pope had been read to you . . . you joined yourselves to the holy head also by your holy acclamations. For your blessednesses is not ignorant that the head of the whole faith, the head of the apostles, is blessed Peter the apostle.’”
-Council of Ephesus, Acts of the Council, session 2, 431 AD
“Philip, the presbyter and legate of the Apostolic See [Rome] said: ‘There is no doubt, and in fact it has been known in all ages, that the holy and most blessed Peter, prince and head of the apostles, pillar of the 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 that to him was given the power of loosing and binding sins: who down even to today and forever both lives and judges in his successors.’”
-Council of Ephesus, Acts of the Council, session 3, 431 AD
“Our Lord Jesus Christ . . . has placed the principal charge on the blessed Peter, chief of all the apostles, and from him as from the head wishes his gifts to flow to all the body, so that anyone who dares to secede from Peter’s solid rock may understand that he has no part or lot in the divine mystery. He wished him who had been received into partnership in his undivided unity to be named what he himself was, when he said: ‘You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church’ [Matt. 16:18], that the building of the eternal temple might rest on Peter’s solid rock, strengthening his Church so surely that neither could human rashness assail it nor the gates of hell prevail against it”
-Pope St. Leo I, Letters , 445 AD
“Our Lord Jesus Christ . . . established the worship belonging to the divine [Christian] religion. . . . But the Lord desired that the sacrament of this gift should pertain to all the apostles in such a way that it might be found principally in the most blessed Peter, the highest of all the apostles. And he wanted his gifts to flow into the entire body from Peter himself, as if from the head, in such a way that anyone who had dared to separate himself from the solidarity of Peter would realize that he was himself no longer a sharer in the divine mystery.”
-Pope St. Leo I, Letters , 445 AD
“Although bishops have a common dignity, they are not all of the same rank. Even among the most blessed apostles, though they were alike in honor, there was a certain distinction of power. All were equal in being chosen, but it was given to one to be preeminent over the others. . . . [So today through the bishops] the care of the universal Church would converge in the one See of Peter, and nothing should ever be at odds with this head.”
-Pope St. Leo I, Letters , 445 AD
“Wherefore the most holy and blessed Leo, archbishop of the great and elder Rome, through us, and through this present most holy synod, together with the thrice blessed and all-glorious Peter the apostle, who is the rock and foundation of the Catholic Church, and the foundation of the orthodox faith, has stripped him [Dioscorus] of the episcopate”
-Council of Chalcedon, Acts of the Council, session 3, 451 AD