'And on This Rock'

Two books that cover just about everything you want to know about the papacy

The Shepherd and the Rock: Origins, Development and Mission of the Papacy by J. Michael Miller CSB (Our Sunday Visitor Publishing, 1995, 383 pp., $19.95)

Jesus, Peter and the Keys: A Scriptural Handbook on the Papacy by Scott Butler, Norman Dahlgren, and David Hess (Queenship Publishing Company, 1996, 431 pp., $14.95)

TWO BOOKS about the papacy have appeared recently that theologians, catechists, and apologists should have on their shelves. The first is Father J. Michael Miller's The Shepherd and the Rock: Origins, Development and Mission of the Papacy, published by Our Sunday Visitor.

Father Miller's work is a virtual contemporary summa on the Petrine office. It covers the biblical roots of the papacy, the historical development of the Petrine ministry, a systematic exposition of the theology of the papal office, and an overview of administrative aspects of the papacy, such as the Roman curia, papal elections, and papal politics.

Though a faithful priest of the Church, Father Miller is no fundamentalist or ultramontanist. He intelligently grapples with contemporary issues of papal authority, collegiality, and curial reform. He doesn't regard the papacy as a divine monarchy, with other bishops mere agents of the Pope, but he does firmly uphold the hierarchical nature of the Church, as outlined in Vatican II's dogmatic constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium.

An acute problem among Catholics today, with our heightened sense of democracy and collegiality, is the relationship between the papacy and “particular Churches” (dioceses). Often the papal office is regarded by critics as at best a mere external link uniting the various dioceses into a universal federation of sorts. Yet as the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith's document, Some Aspects of the Church Understood as Communion, makes clear, the papacy is not extrinsic to the essence of the particular Church or in opposition to its legitimate autonomy. Rather, the papacy is a basic element of it. Father Miller makes this same point:

“The universal Church is embodied in particular Churches which are united to one another by bonds of communion. Because of the mutual interiority of the local Church and the universal Church, the ministry of Peter entrusted to the bishop of Rome touches the life of particular Churches as an office interior to them. It is present and active in the local Churches from within. Thus, only those Churches which accept this ministry are in full communion with one another in the Catholic Church. Communion with the successor is a constitutive element of every particular Church in the koinonia. When this relationship is missing in a local Church, even if the episcopacy and Eucharist are present, the bonds of communion with the whole Church are necessarily imperfect.”

The papacy, then, is no mere “also ran.” It is part of the very structure which Christ willed his Church to have. Indeed, the papal office is essential to the unity of the Church; it is “the visible center of the communion of the Churches and the steward of their unity,” as Father Miller writes.

Protestant, Orthodox, and dissident Catholic critics sometimes posit a tension, if not an outright opposition, between the papal office and Christ himself, as head of the Church. In reality, it is precisely by his close identification with Jesus that the Pope is “Vicar of Christ.” This title is not meant to suggest that the Pope “takes the place of Christ” in the sense of taking from Christ what rightly belongs only to him. Rather, the Pope is the “Vicar of Christ” as an icon of Christ to the whole Church and to the world. The papacy has, to use an expression from Pope Paul VI, an almost sacramental function of being the means by which Christ the great shepherd pastors the whole Church. This, then, is not a mere personal exaltation of a man. Father Miller writes:

“The Pope, of course, is not a replacement for an otherwise absent Christ. Like all the baptized, he represents Christ to the world. He does so according to the particular mission he has received as chief shepherd of the universal Church. Far from being a title of pretension, the designation ‘vicar of Christ’ makes great demands on the Pope to bring Christ's presence to others.”

Father Miller's superb overview of the papacy painstakingly demonstrates the divine origins of papal office, its Spirit-guided development throughout Church history, and its contemporary structure and ministry to the unity and fidelity of the universal Church today.

The second “must have” work on the papacy is Jesus, Peter and the Keys: A Scriptural Handbook on the Papacy (Queenship Publishing Company), by Scott Butler, Norman Dahlgren, and David Hess. This book is a compilation of arguments and texts supporting Catholic teaching on the papacy. The first half covers the biblical case for the papacy; the second the historical argument for the same.

Jesus, Peter and the Keys tackles both traditional Protestant and Orthodox objections to the papal office. For example, it is often claimed by Protestant and Orthodox scholars that the “rock” referred to by Christ in the famous Petrine passage of Matthew 16, 18-19 is not Peter, as the Catholic Church has held. The argument centers on the transition, in the original Greek text, from petros and petra. Jesus said to Peter, “You are petros [Peter, rock] and upon this petra [rock] I will build my Church.”

The claim is that because of the slight variation between petros and petra, we must conclude that Christ referred to two entirely different things here: on the one hand, to Peter or Petros, on the other to the rock or petra on which the Church will be built. The former is a masculine word; the latter a feminine one. The rock or petra on which the Church is built has been variously interpreted by Protestant and Orthodox scholars as Peter's faith, his act of professing his faith or Christ himself.

Recently, ecumenical dialogue has lead to greater objectivity by some exegetes regarding Matthew 16, 18. The authors of Jesus, Peter and the Keys cite numerous renowned Protestant and Orthodox scholars who acknowledge that the difference between petra and petros is merely one of gender: an otherwise feminine noun, petra (rock) is changed to a masculine form, petros, when it becomes a name for a man, Peter. The play on words is retained in the Aramaic form of kepha (rock), which is probably the language in which Christ originally uttered the words, and which is where we get the name Cephas (a transliterated form of the Aramaic kepha) for Peter.

The bottom-line: many prominent Protestant and Orthodox scholars agree that, contrary to what some anti-Catholics claim, Peter is the rock upon which Christ promised to build his Church. Of course, these scholars don't draw from this that the Pope is the successor of Peter and the vicar of Christ. They reject the papal office on other grounds. Even so, by demonstrating how even non-Catholic Christian scholars agree about Peter's identity as the rock in Matthew 16, 18, Jesus, Peter and the Keys, contributes to the on-going discussion.

The historical section of the book is also potent. The claim is often made that there is scant evidence for the papacy in the early Christian centuries or that the Fathers of the Church, while granting a certain preeminence of honor for the bishop of Rome, denied he exercised any divinely bestowed universal authority in the Church. Even a curious reading of Jesus, Peter and the Keys refutes these claims. The book shows how (1) the early popes claimed a universal authority and (2) how the early Church Fathers recognized this claim. And all of this by direct quotes from the relevant primary sources.

Avaluable element of the book's layout is the list of 234 important questions about the papacy that the authors pose, the answers to which are marked off in the text by number. In that respect, the book resembles a sort of scholarly catechism on the papal office.

The book's only major drawback is with so much material being presented, the reader may hardly know where to begin. A bit more synthesis and summarization would have been helpful. In any event, anyone who claims there is scant or no evidence for the papacy in the Bible or the early centuries of the Church has not read and considered the mass of evidence compiled in this volume.

Mark Brumley is managing editor of The Catholic Faith magazine.