Patron: Mr. Salza, you responded to an email a while back concerning questions raised by my Protestant friend regarding Peter’s role at the Council at Jerusalem in Acts. I just wanted to thank you and raise a few more questions posed by the same individual.
To me, it seems the heart of my friend’s objection to the Catholic faith is the fact that the standard to which we, i.e. Catholics, hold all things pertaining to virtuous living is not only the Bible, but Tradition (which he does not, admittedly, differentiate with tradition). We both agree that there must be an objective standard for this purpose. However, his problem with Tradition seems to mainly stem from the fact that we had some corrupt popes, bishops, etc. at various points in history who taught different things on the same issue. He understands that Catholics say despite these corrupt leaders, the main, essential doctrines remain consistent throughout. He understands, too, the notion of papal infallibility to be the constant and true teachings of the popes on matters of faith and morals. How can we be guaranteed of this infallibility especially considering the inconsistent papal teachings on particular issues. If they are truly infallible, shouldn’t they speak with one voice on some things such as indulgences? Why do teachings seem to “pop up” at various points in the Church’s history? He also has great difficulty with the seeming inconsistencies and sometimes contradictory teachings found in the writings of the Fathers. He has given me a book written by William David Webster entitled The Church of Rome at the Bar of History, which you may or may not be familiar with. I have not read it yet; supposedly, however, the book in its entirety gives quotes from the Fathers which are contrary to contemporary Catholic teachings on all the major issues, i.e. justification, Eucharist, etc.
The other questions I wanted to resolve was regarding the fact that, according to my friend, Scripture records Peter as leading others astray from the true doctrine. The passage in question can be located in Galatians 2:11-15. What are your thoughts on this?
Thank you for taking the time to address these questions. Also, could I refer my friend to you if he has further questions? I think sometimes someone outside the situation can offer a more clear explanation given that they are not personally vested in the relationship.
J. Salza: Steve, first, your friend would have to prove that the popes were inconsistent on a teaching of faith and morals. I can assure that this is not the case. Your friend has the burden of proof on this. When you say that he has discovered “inconsistencies” in Catholic teaching, have him bring forward the evidence. It is easy to make such sweeping statements without proof. Remember also that there is a distinction between discipline and doctrine. The Church’s doctrine cannot change because it comes from Christ through the apostles. Disciplines, of course, can and do change, and the popes have made these changes throughout history (days of obligation, hours of fasting, liturgical things, etc.)
When Jesus told Peter “whatever you bind or loose on earth is bound or loosed in heaven” (Matt. 16:18-19), He was promising to protect Peter from teaching error to the universal Church. Otherwise, Jesus could not make such a sweeping promise to Peter. Because God cannot lie (Titus 1:2; Heb. 6:18), Peter must be protected from teaching error, since what he binds or looses, heaven binds and looses as well. Indeed, God intrudes into the mind of the pope and prevents him from teaching error, just like the Father penetrated the mind of Peter when he confessed that Jesus was the Christ.
You recall what happened next. Jesus said Peter is the rock upon which He would build the Church and gave Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven. The basis for infallibility is the ability of the pope to accept and confess God’s divine guidance without error. It has nothing to do with the pope’s private opinions or conduct. The fact that all the popes have spoken with one voice over the past 2,000 years when it comes to dogmatizing principles of Catholic faith and morals proves that Jesus has kept His promise.
Note also that nothing the Church teaches on faith or morals just “pops up.” This is because the Church’s teaching comes from the Tradition of the apostles, which we call the sacred deposit of faith. The Church may try to clarifying the way she expresses doctrine, but there can be nothing new under the sun, as they say. Often, the Church will issue a dogmatic teaching to clarify a point of contention or refute a heresy. But clarifying the way in which she expresses the divine deposit of faith does not mean she makes up new doctrines. The doctrines remain the same.
Regarding Galatians, this passage has nothing to do with Peter leading people astray. Paul opposed Peter because he was separating himself from the Gentiles during meals. Why was this a big deal? Because Peter was the one who infallibly taught that the Gentiles were equal members of the New Covenant. Peter was the one who made this monumental decision as we read in the book of Acts. Paul was criticizing Peter’s conduct, not his teaching authority. Everyone would have looked naturally to Peter and his conduct since he was the leader. God specifically reveals this in Scripture to teach us that there is a difference between a pope’s private conduct and opinions and his official teaching authority.
I believe Peter’s conduct can be viewed as legitimate. Peter had a mission to the Jews, and Paul was the apostle to the Gentiles. Paul was therefore very concerned about how the Gentiles were evangelized. Paul viewed Peter’s conduct as a possible scandal to the Gentile’s evangelization. However, Peter had his own reasons. In the book of Acts, we read that the Jews were angry that Peter was dining with Gentiles. They could not understand this, since they always viewed themselves as having a preferential position with God. Peter was trying to pacify them for the moment by trying to make the best out of a difficult situation.
Paul probably should have known this. Paul did the very same thing, and Peter could have just as easily called Paul a hypocrite. Paul engaged in the Jewish purification ritual, and also had Timothy circumcised, even though Paul perennially taught that we were now free from the law of Moses. Why did he do this? For pastoral reasons. He was reaching out to the Jews, while trying to evangelize the Gentiles. Peter did the same thing.
Grace be with you.