National Catholic Register

Education

The Case for Papal Authority

BY David Palm

June 6-12, 1999 Issue | Posted 6/6/99 at 2:00 PM

 

Upon This Rock: St. Peter and the Primacy of Rome in Scripture and the Early Church ByStephen K. Ray (Ignatius Press, 1999 331 pages, $16.95)

Along with the recent renaissance of Catholic apologetics has come, appropriately enough, a renaissance in works aimed at defending and explaining the papacy. Any Catholic interested in learning more about the papacy, or seeking to explain it to others, will find Upon This Rock a veritable one-stop-shop for the best supporting evidence.

The work is divided roughly into three sections. The first deals with St. Peter himself. Author Stephen K. Ray starts with a discussion of the biblical data pertinent to St. Peter. There's so much in Scripture that it is amazing that our separated brethren claim the Bible has nothing special to say about St. Peter and his prerogatives.

Ray does a superb job covering the Old Testament background to the papacy, showing that it is a natural continuation of Old Covenant precedents. Any Catholic in dialogue with non-Catholics will find this Old Testament background a significant boost for demonstrating the continuation of the Petrine office in the succession of popes.

The New Testament too brings forth numerous examples of the primacy of St. Peter and the special prerogatives given to him by Jesus Christ. Ray presents the case for the Petrine primacy and engages the non-Catholic arguments that are leveled against this evidence. Upon This Rock soundly and vigorously rebuts the most popular of these arguments.

Also in the section on St. Peter is a lengthy treatment on the evidence for his presence in Rome. Perhaps the historical evidence the author presents will finally put to rest the contention in some non-Catholic circles that St. Peter never even made it to Rome. Ray traces the history of this rather desperate position, showing that it is a product of anti-Catholic sentiment rather than sober reflection on the available evidence. He asks, “Why would anyone challenge this historical evidence … if it were not that a strong tradition forced them to oppose anything that might substantiate the claims of the historical Catholic Church?”

The second section of the book treats the evidence for the primacy of the successors of St. Peter in the earliest testimony of the Church. So much material has been lost from the first, second and early third centuries of the Church that there is just not as much as we would like to have on any particular subject. However, this makes it all the more impressive that there is a good deal of evidence for the Petrine and Roman primacy from the first Christian centuries and that so much of it comes in the initial years. As Ray points out: “The vast majority of the quotations and historical situations we will analyze [from the early centuries] are prior to the final collection and canonization of the New Testament.”

In the final section of the book Ray lays out current Church teaching on the papacy. He shows both the development of that teaching and the harmony that exists between it and the witnesses to the Petrine primacy in the first Christian centuries. It is neither reasonable nor consistent to insist, as too many non-Catholics do, that the Catholic must either demonstrate the fully formed papacy directly from the Bible and from earliest antiquity or abandon the doctrine as untenable. Rather, as Ray argues, doctrine and belief in the Church show an organic growth throughout the centuries. “The oak tree has grown and looks perceptibly different from the fragile sprout that cracked the original acorn, yet the organic essence and identity remain the same,” he says.

Throughout history, a great many non-Catholics have taken it upon themselves to attack the doctrine of the papacy. Today they are doing the same thing. The renewed vibrancy and success of Catholic apologetics has called forth a spate of books, magazine articles, Web sites, and cassette tapes that seek to undermine Catholic claims.

Ray goes head to head with these arguments, showing their selective use of evidence, special pleading, faulty logic, or often just plain misunderstanding of the Catholic position. Far too many Catholics have been led away from the Church for lack of fundamental answersto these basic challenges. Ray gives the counter-arguments that are needed — with vigor, fairness and charity.

If I have any criticism of the work it is functional. There are copious footnotes, set in small type. The need to move between text and footnotes may be difficult for some readers.

And the book makes for challenging reading in places. But this need not be seenas a criticism. It is not necessarily bad that the reader is expected to do some work — examining the evidence and following arguments and counter-arguments. In fact, this is welcome and healthy in a day and age when what passes for Catholicism has in many quarters been reduced to feelings and emotions.

Ray resurrects and re-presents numerous pieces of evidence and arguments in support of the papacy that have been “buried” in dusty volumes written decades and even centuries ago. The evidence and arguments are, of course, still perfectly valid. But modern Catholics have fallen victim to a kind of collective amnesia and political correctness such that many people consider solid argumentation in support of our faith to be gauche.

Thanks be to God for volumes like Upon This Rock, which bring back to our eyes and minds the solid support for the Catholic doctrine of the papacy written large throughout Scripture and the history of the Church.

David Palm writes from DeSoto, Wisconsin.