What the Bible Says About the Pope

“The Pope, Bishop of Rome and Peter’s successor, ‘is the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful.’” (CCC 882)

A statue of St. Peter is seen during a Mass Oct. 4, 2023, in St. Peter’s Square on the opening day of the 16th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops.
A statue of St. Peter is seen during a Mass Oct. 4, 2023, in St. Peter’s Square on the opening day of the 16th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops. (photo: Andreas Solaro / AFP via Getty Images)

Jesus established his Church on St. Peter as the foundation. That’s why he renamed him — and only him — “Rock” (the meaning of Peter). Moreover, he gave only to him the “keys of the kingdom of heaven,” which harks back to Isaiah 22, as many Protestant commentators fully recognize. When one person is singled out like that, it means something very significant. If we want to express the notion that someone is a leader of something, to say that that thing was “built” on this person, as its foundation, is quite strong. Peter is “the man.” 

Renowned Protestant Bible scholar F. F. Bruce wrote in The Hard Sayings of Jesus:

The keys of a royal or noble establishment were entrusted to the chief steward or majordomo; he carried them on his shoulder in earlier times, and there they served as a badge of the authority entrusted to him … in the new community which Jesus was about to build, Peter would be, so to speak, chief steward.

And if Peter was the leader of the Church at its beginning, why should there not be successors to him, just as with any other organization? Why should the Church be different? We’re to believe that it had a leader for 30-40 years, till Peter was martyred, and then, no more leader? That makes no sense.

If we come to believe that the Bible asserts a leader of the Church, then it seems to me that it follows straightforwardly in logic and common sense that this leader would have successors and that the office would exist in perpetuity. When Judas defected and killed himself, the disciples chose a successor, Matthias (Acts 1:20-26), and the Bible actually uses the word episkopos (“bishop”) to describe the office involved (a key argument for apostolic succession). So why wouldn’t Peter, similarly, also have a successor? How is that parallel or analogy overcome?

Jesus, when talking to Peter in John 21, used an agricultural shepherd and sheep parallel, which is a metaphor for being a pastor. The word “shepherd” is used 15 times in the New Testament in this fashion. In John 21, Jesus was with seven of the disciples (John 21:2) in a post-Resurrection appearance. But he singled out Peter and charged him to “feed my lambs” (21:15) and “tend my sheep” (21:16) and “feed my sheep” (21:17), which could quite plausibly be taken to mean his entire Church, since he uses the words “the sheep” or “sheep” 14 times in John 10, meaning, believers in the Church. There he was talking about himself as the Ultimate Shepherd. But there are also earthly shepherds (pastors or priests or bishops). Jesus didn’t say this to all seven disciples present. He said it to Peter only. That must have some significance. 

If it meant no more than “be a pastor of whatever congregation you have” then it would have been expressed to all. But because it was meant to be an exhortation to feed all the sheep, it was directed toward Peter only. It fits into the scenario of Peter being the leader of the Church.

Protestants often argue that the Church fathers taught that Peter was singled out and asked three times if he loved Jesus, because he denied Jesus three times. That may very well be true, but if so, it doesn’t follow that my interpretation is null and void. He still encouraged him to be a pastor of what is arguably the entire Church. Moreover, the parallel to the denials would be when Jesus asked him three times, “Do you love me?” But the other parts about feeding sheep and lambs are not parallels to the denials. Both things can simultaneously be true, without contradiction.

Peter’s faith, as I have noted several times in my writings, failed for maybe 10-15 minutes, when he made his denials in the face of possible imprisonment or death (i.e., strong coercion or danger). He lost his nerve. Then he heard the cock crow and immediately repented.

Contrast that with Paul, who was persecuting and killing Christians for an extended period of time, and had to be more or less forced by God to repent. Peter wasn’t constantly wavering in his faith. He wasn’t doubting Thomas. He wasn’t any worse than the other disciples (only one, St. John, was with Jesus at the crucifixion). He seemed to have the most understanding and zeal among the disciples before Pentecost. Peter was the one (not the others) who jumped into the stormy sea with Jesus, to walk on the water, etc. Sure, he sank soon after, but at least he jumped in in the first place. 

We see the same sort of thing in Luke 22:32, where Jesus says, “I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail” and “strengthen your brethren” to Peter alone. I believe it’s the only time Jesus is said to have prayed for one person, who is named, and once again it’s Peter. This was at the Last Supper, with all the disciples present.

Why does Jesus say this only to Peter, then? That’s the significance. If Peter wasn’t special and the leader, it seems to me that he would have said it to all of them. After all, most of his words at the Last Supper were directed to all of his disciples. Jesus said this and prayed for Peter precisely because he was the leader, which was also indicated by the verse preceding: “Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat” (22:31). Why Peter? Why not all of the disciples? It’s because — as always! — Peter was the leader.

That’s why Satan was after him: so much so that Luke made it a note to record that Jesus prayed specifically for him. Satan thought he had defeated Jesus, so Peter was the next target, because the devil foolishly thought he could root out Christianity by killing its leaders.