What does it mean that Peter has been given the “keys to the kingdom of heaven”? This image that represents the authority of the office of Peter – his role in “the kingdom” – is drawn from the passage from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah that we heard in our first reading today where Eliakim, who succeeds Shebna as “the master of the palace”, is given the “key of the House of David.” “The Master of the palace” was like the Prime Minister of the Kingdom who represented the king and carried the authority of the king while the king was away. Jesus is the promised “king” of the House of David, and in today’s Gospel he appoints Peter as his representative or vicar for the “kingdom” he came to build – the Church. Jesus, in renaming Simon “Peter”, i.e., calling him the “rock”, echoes what the Lord says about Eliakim – that he will “fix him like a peg in a sure spot.” The rock foundation provides stability on which to build a lasting structure that won’t be washed away or destroyed in the flood or the storm. Like a “peg in a sure spot”, it is immovable, and one can hang something on it or attach something to it without worrying that it will fall. This is how we as Catholics understand the Pope, the successor to Peter – the one who sits in the “Chair of Peter”. The Pope is the “Vicar of Christ” on earth. He represents, in a visible way, Christ on earth, and carries and can exercise Christ’s authority until Christ the King returns at the end of time. This does not mean that the Pope cannot make mistakes or is sinless. The Pope is not infallible when it comes to specific policy matters concerning things like economics and the environment, but when it comes to teaching faith and morals, Jesus has established the Pope and the magisterium of the Church to ensure that his teaching – the “Faith of the Apostles” – is handed on faithfully until the end of time. Jesus teaches authoritatively through his Church. This teaching office enables us to have definitive teaching we can “hang our hats on”, so to speak, when it comes to faith and morals, including things not specifically mentioned in the Bible like in-vitro fertilization, human cloning, and other medical-moral issues. This authority given to Peter and his successors also accounts for the “development of doctrine.” That is the idea that teachings can develop over time, like a tree that grows. Even though the tree changes shape as it grows, it is still the same tree and remains connected to its root. There is a continuity in the church’s teaching because the church is a “living” organism. It is the same truth that is taught but that truth is applied in a new way to address a new reality. This dynamic is essential for evangelization. There can be a new expression to an unchanging truth that allows that truth to be received in the present day and the present circumstances. Any new expression does not contradict the old. This allows the Church to speak to the modern world without “selling out” to modernity. A beautiful and recent example is John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body” that reformulates the traditional teaching of the church on sex and marriage using language and concepts that contemporary society can understand.
The language of “binding” and “loosing” conveys, in a similar way as does the metaphor of the “keys” that open or shut, that the Pope and his representatives, the bishops, have the authority to lift or to impose a ban of excommunication. Excommunication is a judgment or penalty given when someone steadfastly holds to a teaching contrary to the teaching of the church or it is incurred directly when someone commits a grave act that they know is contrary to the teaching of the church. Excommunication formally recognizes that by the position held or the crime committed, the person has placed himself or herself outside of or “out of communion” with the Church and her constant teaching. It is a penalty imposed with the intention to bringing the person back into communion. It is like a warning that the person has formally crossed a line and what they are professing or claiming or doing is no longer in continuity with the church’s teaching. This authority is often portrayed as something insensitive or against science or rationality as when the Church excommunicated Galileo. But in that case, the excommunication was not a judgment against Galileo’s science. Rather, the excommunication came when the scientist Galileo began making pronouncements having to do with Biblical interpretation. After clarifying his position and recanting his error, Galileo was reconciled with the Church.
Far from being a source of division, the Church’s authority in teaching has always been a source of unity. It is one thing that distinguishes Catholicism from Protestantism and many other religions. It is very common for different Protestant denominations who are reading the same Bible to hold contradictory teachings from each other. It is common even within the same congregation that opposite positions on certain matters are equally acceptable. There are many issues where this is the case, from the understanding of the Eucharist – is it the real presence of Jesus or just something symbolic?… to things like women’s ordination and the biblical understanding of marriage. What is the true teaching of Jesus? Positions that are contrary to each other both cannot be right. Protestants have a hard time resolving such questions because they have no teaching authority. Each protestant pastor is in effect his or her own “pope”. If they disagree with their pastor, they start a new church. One way to understand the purpose of the teaching office of the Church is that the “inspired” word of God in the scriptures does us little good unless the Lord has also given us a teaching authority to interpret that word authentically. The literally hundreds of thousands of different Protestant churches – all these divisions in the Body of Christ – are the result of a lack of authority. Many people come to the Catholic Church or come back to the Catholic church because they are seeking the truth – a truth to build on – and they can’t find it in a world steeped in relativism where anything goes. I have often seen it over the years working with adults who convert to Catholicism that they feel at home in the Catholic church because the church they grew up in no longer teaches what Jesus taught.
There is much consternation or even fear today among some circles in the Church that Pope Francis – due to his style and emphasis – is going to change some of the teachings of the church. The readings today should give us much consolation when we hear such grumblings about the Pope. We believe that the popes, like Peter, have been chosen by Christ, and like Shebna, they will be replaced by the Lord if they are not faithful. The popes are who the church needs at the time they are given to us to reflect and to witness to the presence of Christ. We might not care for a particular Pope or understand his methods, but we shouldn’t question God’s choice. Rather, we should say with St. Paul who marveled at God’s design that brought the light of the Gospel to the Gentiles through the disobedience of Israel, “how inscrutable are his judgments and how unsearchable his ways!” and trust that the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against the Church built by Christ.