The papacy is one of my favorite topics to write about. A look through our other 100 blog posts will reveal more posts on the papacy than any other topic. It is because this issue of authority is the main issue separating Catholicism and all other Christian faiths. So it is of utmost importance. Though I have written a good deal on it, one can never exhaust the topic. There is always something new.
During the school year, I use Saturday and Sunday as the day where I pray with my children, and supplement their education. After prayers we go over the daily Mass readings. Then we read a chapter of the Bible. We also will do one lesson from the catechism. In addition, we will take another book or two, and read a chapter or section from it. These may be religious in nature, historical, or a great book of literature. During summer vacation, we do this almost daily.
One additional element I added about two years ago is a sort of “Q&A”. Each of my four children asks me a question about Church Teaching, traditions, disciplines, other religious beliefs and customs, or Christian history. I do my best to answer their questions. My oldest child is 13, and my youngest is 8. Sometimes I get a little big-headed, and I start to think that my children won’t give me a question I can not handle. That is usually when they bring me back down to Earth.
Yesterday my youngest child, Brandon, surprised me. It wasn’t that his question was particularly difficult, but I had to try and explain it on a level that he could understand. The gospel reading for yesterday was Matthew 16:13-9. This is one of my favorites. During our little Q&A session, Brandon asked me, “What do the keys mean?”
I can answer this question. I have fielded it numerous times from Protestants. They have a different idea of what the keys are. Though I have written on this before, it is on my mind. So let us look at it again. I’m not sure I can explain it exactly as I did to Brandon, but there is no need to do that here.
In Matthew 16 Jesus bestows the “keys to the kingdom of heaven” on St. Peter. This bit of symbology is very important. Protestants believe that Peter’s authority was merely declaratory. That he simply declared what had already been decreed in Heaven. To an extant this is true, but it is by no means a complete understanding of the authority of the keys.
For sure, all truth comes from God; and He pre-existed everything on Earth. So in a sense, the power of the keys is declaratory. The Holy Spirit reveals to Peter and his successors the truth, and they proclaim it. Where the keys are more than declaratory is in the fact that only Peter and his successors have the ability to formally define truth on their own. They alone are guided by the Holy Spirit in this way. Unless a teaching is defined or ratified by the Supreme Roman Pontiff as infallible, it is fallible. A particular belief may, in fact, be infallible, but we can not know it with absolute certainty until the pope speaks on it.
The keys are also of a disciplinary nature. Because only Peter and his successors possess the powers of the keys, only they have supreme authority over the Church Universal. What they say goes. A discipline, ritual, ceremony, or custom that affects the entire Church can only be decided by the Roman Pontiff. Yes, a dicastery in the Roman Curia may decree on one of these issues, but they must have the pope’s approval to actually be authoritative. Even then, the same Pontiff, or another one, may change the decision. Unlike teachings, customs, rituals, disciplines, ceremonies, etc. are not a part of the depositum fidei. Hence, they can be altered or erased entirely.
When you read Matthew 16:13-9, you can see this unique authority of the keys. We must remember how the ancient world viewed keys. Most cities were walled. Those who possessed the keys had the authority to accept or deny entry to anyone. Hence, to possess keys was to possess a real authority. It is the same with keys given to Peter. When looked at in this way, the keys take on an even more important function.
When Jesus gave the keys to St. Peter, He wasn’t just giving Peter a mere doctrinal or disciplinary authority. Peter and his successors were given the ability to admit to Heaven, or deny them entry. At first this may seem heretical, but it isn’t. It is completely in line with the Bible and the Church.
We have seen that St. Peter and his successors were given the authority to teach us (authoritatively, if you will) what to believe, and how to live. They were given the authority to define on faith and morals. What’s more, Jesus guaranteed that, under certain conditions not explicitly laid out in Scripture, but nonetheless implied, that Peter and his successors would be infallible.
If the popes declare infallibly, that means that what they define is 100% true. Now everyone is required to believe what is true (as far as God gives us the ability to recognize and understand the truth). So then everyone is bound to believe and obey (as far as they are given the grace by God to do so) the infallible definitions of the popes.
Nearly all three years of Jesus’ public ministry was spent teaching us what to believe, and how to live. This being so, one must recognize the importance of truth. One is forced to admit that truth is necessary for salvation. Now, if we knowingly and willingly deny to believe what is true, or knowingly and willingly refuse to live according to the truth, then we can not get to Heaven.
Therefore, it is true to say that the popes were given the authority to admit, or deny admittance, to Heaven. They are the holders of the keys given to them by Christ Himself. Let us always heed the infallible decrees of the popes, lest they use those keys to lock Heaven’s gates on us!
Peace in Christ,
David J. Pollard
American Catholic Solidarity