Referring to the doctrine of Papal Supremacy the Catechism notes in paragraph 882, “the Roman Pontiff, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, and as pastor of the entire Church has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered." Paragraph 937 states, ?The Pope enjoys, by divine institution, 'supreme, full, immediate, and universal power in the care of souls.'?(This is to be distinguished from the Infallibility, the subject of an upcoming presentation, which is a supernatural gift whereby the recipient is shielded from teaching error as it pertains to the faith handed down to us by Christ). Before we examine some of the Biblical texts that reveal this supremacy, we need to point out that the Church, the family of God, is among other things a divinely ordained society and as in all societies there must be an authority whose word is final if chaos is to be avoided. The Jews, for example, had patriarchs, judges and the then kings as well as prophets. Other societies have authorities that govern have prime ministers, kings and presidents. Thus, ordinary human experience shows that the need for authority is primary, which is demonstrated by the fact that the “justification for the existence of authority is not that it works perfectly [for the authorities are sinners like us] or that it never makes mistakes, but simply the rule, ‘no authority, no society.’”

In the present age so often wandering without a moral compass, Catholics might be so bold as to ask, who but the Pope, as Christ's representative, has the moral authority to restore morality to society at large? Since Christ stands at the center of human history and all humans will stand before Him as He judges them at the end of time, it seems reasonable and Catholics believe He has provided His Church with a supreme pastor to rule in concert with bishops. When Simon was first introduced to Jesus, Jesus said, “You are Simon the son of John; you will be called Kephas?(Aramaic for Peter). Underscore this please, Shimon Kephas literally means “Hear the Rock.?This pun is hardly accidental. Old Testament men being given a divine commission by God were given a new name beginning with Jacob and Abram, who became Israel and Abraham, respectively. Jesus spoke these words after Simon, first among the disciples, acknowledged Christ as the “Son of the living God?in sight of the great temple atop the huge rock at Caesarea Philippi on which stood a temple dedicated to Augustus.

With this backdrop, Jesus responds to Peter’s faith by saying: “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death [gates of hell] shall not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.?[Mt 16:17-19]

Those who try to claim that Jesus was referring only to Himself or to Peter’s confession of faith manipulate the words and ignore the fact that Jesus spoke in Aramaic, which has only one word for rock, Kepha. This is the word used by John in 1:42 and by Paul in 1 Cor 1:12; 3:22; 9:15 and 15:5 as well as throughout Galatians (e.g., Gal 1:18; 2:9; 2:11; and 2:14). Many prominent Protestant scholars agree today (e.g., R.T. France and D. A. Carson). Of course, the Old Testament is full of instances where God is referred to as “the Rock?(e.g., Ps 18:2) and St. Paul informs us that the Rock that followed the Israelites in their desert wanderings was Christ (1 Cor 10:4). Christ is of course the foundation (though in Ephesians 2:20 the apostles and martyrs are also referred to as part of the foundation with Christ), but here Christ appears as the architect not the foundation, declaring, “On this rock will I build.?A great apologist of the Counter- Reformation, St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622) explains:

"By these words Our Lord shows the perpetuity and immovableness of this foundation. The stone on which one raises the building is the first, the others rest on it. Other stones may be removed without overthrowing the edifice, but he who takes away the foundation, knocks down the house. If then the gates of hell [see Mt 16:18] can in no wise prevail against the Church, they can in no wise prevail against its foundation and head, which they cannot take away and overturn without entirely overturning the whole edifice . . ."

St. Francis also notes:

"The supreme charge which St. Peter had . . . as chief and governor, is not beside the authority of the Master, but it is only a participation in this, so that he is not the foundation of the hierarchy besides Our Lord, but rather in our Lord: as we call him the most holy Father in Our Lord, outside whom he would be nothing . . ."

Peter and his successors as Bishops of Rome are the vicars of Christ [a "vicar" is one who stands-in for Christ] because Christ so ordained it. The keys are the symbol of the royal dynasty of David founded on a covenant with God about 1000 B.C., from which Christ the Messiah is descended (Mt 1) and which He holds as the rightful King (Rev 3: 7), but He entrusted them to Peter, whom He had, alone among his disciples, prayed that he be strengthen so that he might in turn “strengthen his brethren?(Lk 22:32). Although Christ is the rightful king, he entrusted these symbols of divine authority to Peter as his representative on earth. There is a Biblical analogy for just as King Hezekiah (715-686 B.C.) gave authority to his Prime Minister Eliakim (Isa 22: 20-21), so too did Jesus invest Peter. It is worth noting that Eliakim, not only exercised the King’s authority in the King’s name but was referred to in the scripture as a “father?to the people?the word “pope?in Italian means “father.?Thus, Christ the King of the New Israel, the Church, appoints a Prime Minister to govern His household, which St. Paul says is "the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of truth" (1 Tim 3:15).

Furthermore, the power to bind and loose refers to a power of jurisdiction in ancient Israel which only the King can override. These are also rabbinic terms which describe the legislative and judicial authority of the office of rabbi. They could literally bind men to their teaching with authority from God. Christ Himself said, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses?seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice?(Mt 23:2-3). Thus, just as Moses had an authoritative office, so Christ assigned a similar office to Peter. To the objection that the power to bind and loose was also given to the other Apostles (Mt 18: 17-18), we respond their power is similar but pertains only to their local jurisdiction, whereas Peter’s commission applies to the universal Church. It should be clear how important these keys are also from the Rev 1: 17-18, where Jesus says, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one; I died and behold I am alive for evermore, I have the keys of Death and Hades. In Rev 3: 7, refers to “The words of the holy one, who has the keys of David, who opens and no one shall shut, who shuts and no one opens.?These are the royal keys Christ presented to Peter.

In the 21st chapter of John’s Gospel, Peter is challenged three times to express his love for Jesus. Jesus? response to Peter’s three professions of love are in succession “feed my sheep,?“tend my sheep,?“feed my sheep.?These are commands to exercise authority over Christ’s flock, under the authority of Christ. Earlier in this same Gospel (John 10:11-16), Jesus presents Himself as the Good Shepherd, and says how there is to be but “one flock and one Shepherd.?Therefore, the immediate question springs to mind: If Christ is the Good Shepherd, why can’t He “feed?and “tend?His own sheep? Now, clearly, Jesus can. After all, He is God. Yet, if that’s the case, why is He commissioning Peter to do it? Clearly, in John 21:15-19, Christ is speaking in an earthly, vicarious sense. Notice, for example, how the sheep do not cease to belong to Jesus. They are still “my sheep.?Yet, Peter is told to “feed?and “tend?them. He is, therefore, being commissioned to act as Christ’s “stand-in?after the Lord’s Ascension into Heaven. Jesus will remain the one Shepherd, yet Peter will “feed?and “tend?the sheep, in the sense that Jesus will not be physically present to do it. Thus, Peter will be the visible, vicarious shepherd of the flock. And we can see this more clearly in the original Greek. For example, the word which is used for “feed?in John 21 is “boskein?--a word which the Jewish historian Philo of Alexandria, and other 1st c. writers, use to denote “spiritual nourishment.?Similarly, the word “tend?is actually the Greek “poimanao?--the same Greek word which is translated as “rule?in Matt 2:6, Rev 2:27, 7:17; 12:5, where it is applied to Jesus Himself. We see this “rule?in Rev 19:15, “From his mouth issues a sharp sword with which to smite the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron; he will tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name inscribed, King of kings and Lord of lords.? Therefore, like Jesus, Peter is to “rule?over the sheep, and to “supply them with spiritual nourishment.?Thus, Peter is established as the supreme pastor of the Church in Christ’s physical absence?[It is also used to describe the rule of bishops in Acts 20:28 and 1 Pet 5:2].

The primacy of Peter is underlined by Scripture. In the Gospels and the first half of the Acts of the Apostles, Peter is the dominant personality. He is spoken of 191 times, while according to Archbishop Fulton Sheen, all the other apostles together are spoken of only 130 times (John is second to Peter with 48 mentions). Peter is always listed first when a list of the Apostles is given (e.g., Mt. 10:2; Mk 3:16; Lk 16:14) and even the angel tells Mary Magdalene to go and tell “His disciples and Peter?that He is risen. Paul informs us in 1 Cor 15:5 that Jesus appeared first to Kephas, then to the twelve. In Acts 1, it is Peter who calls for the filling of the office [episkopos], or as the King James versions translates it, “bishopric? of Judas. In Acts 2, Peter exercises primacy again on Pentecost when he becomes the first Christian to preach the Gospel in the Church age, explaining the speaking in tongues as a fulfillment of the prophecy of Joel 2. In Acts 3, he performs the first miracle of the Church age when he heals the lame man and in Acts 4, after being arrested with John for preaching the Resurrection, Peter “filled with the Holy Spirit?speaks boldly in front of the Sanhedrin. In Act 5, Peter’s very shadow produces miracle after miracle for faith filled persons. Later in Acts 5, Peter prophesies, in turn, the immediate deaths of converts Ananias and his wife Sapphira, for holding back some of the proceeds from their property, which they alleged to have given entirely to the Church. Peter said they lied, not to him, but “to the Holy Spirit.?This was the first anathema. Peter is the first to refute heresy, when Simon Magus proposes the power to give the Holy Spirit be given him in Acts 8 and the first after Christ to raise a man from the dead in Acts 9:40.

In Acts 10, Peter exercises the power to bind and to loose by admitting the first Gentiles into the Church (Cornelius) after receiving a vision from Jesus to do so. Although some objections were raised at the thought of admitting the unclean Gentiles, Peter’s explanation was accepted by the other Apostles in Acts 11?the Church was now Catholic (which means "universal"). In Acts 15, Peter annunciates another dogma, declaring that Jewish Christians need not follow the Law of Moses as regards circumcision, which is accepted by the first Church Council at Jerusalem "in silence" and without debate and sent out by letter to the Churches as the “decision of the Holy Spirit.?Other examples could be cited but I think the point is made that the papacy is biblically based and derived from the primacy of St. Peter.

In the Great Commission of Mt 28: 16-20, Jesus told the Apostles to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo I am with you always, to the close of the age.'" The office of the bishops and primacy of the Bishop of Rome or Pope, as he was later called, were to continue. This is evident in the writings of the early Church Fathers. St. Clement, the third Pope, writing to the Corinthians about 80 A.D. concerning a dispute over removing some of the clergy, noted, ?Our Apostles knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be strife for the office of bishop. For this reason, therefore, having received perfect knowledge, they appoint[ed] those who have already been mentioned, and afterwards added the further provision that, if they should die, other approved men should succeed to their ministry.?

When Pope Victor I (189-198) chose to excommunicate the Asian churches from the universal church and Rome for following their own tradition concerning the appropriate day to celebrate the Resurrection, a number of bishops were critical of him, but none challenged his authority to do so. St. Irenaeus urged him not “to cut off whole churches?and he relented, though he had called synods to consider the problem on his own authority. St. Irenaeus, writing his famous “Against Heresies?after 180 A.D. noted, It is possible, then, for everyone in every Church, who may wish to know the truth, to contemplate the tradition of the Apostles which has been made known throughout the whole world. And we are in a position to enumerate those who were instituted bishops by the Apostles, and their successors to our own times. . . .The blessed Apostles [Peter and Paul] having founded and built up the Church [of Rome] handed over the episcopate to Linus. Paul makes mention of this Linus in the epistle to Timothy [2 Tim 4:21] To him succeeded Anencletus; and after him in the third place, from the Apostles, Clement." These men were the first three popes.

Tertullian, a Church Father writing about 200 A.D. in his work, "The Prescription Against the Heretics" notes, "Moreover, if there be any [heresies] bold enough to plant themselves in the midst of the apostolic age, so that they might seem to have been handed down by the Apostles because they were from the time of the Apostles, we can say to them: let them show the origins of their Churches, let them unroll the order of their bishops, running down in succession from the beginning, so that their first bishop shall have for author and predecessor some one of the Apostles[Titus 1: 7; 1 Tim 3: 1-2] or the apostolic men who continued steadfast with the Apostles. For this is the way the apostolic Churches transmit their lists: like the Church of the Symrnaeans, which records that Polycarp was placed there by John; like the Church of the Romans, where Clement was ordained by Peter. In just this same way the other Churches display those whom they have as sprouts from the apostolic seed, having been established in the episcopate by the Apostles."

Writing in 251 A.D., St. Cyprian of Carthage noted: And again He says to him [Peter] after His resurrection: 'Feed my sheep' (John 21:17). On him He builds the Church, and to him He gives the command to feed the sheep; and although He assigns a like power to all the Apostles, yet He founded a single chair, and He established by His own authority a source and an intrinsic reason for that unity. Indeed, the others were that also which Peter was; but a primacy is given to Peter, whereby it is made clear that there is but one Church and one chair. So too, all our shepherds, and the flock is shown to be one, fed by all the Apostles in single-minded accord. If someone does not hold fast to this unity of Peter, can he imagine that he still holds the faith? If he desert the chair of Peter upon whom the Church was built, can he still be confident that his is in the Church?" Fathers of the Church throughout the early centuries of the Church might be cited for hours, but what no one can provide is the testimony of even one of them denying this primacy. Even when their were disputed matters, such as involved St. Cyprian of Carthage and the pope, he still insisted on the primacy, writing in 255 or 256 A.D., "Nevertheless, in order that unity might be clearly shown, He established by His own authorty a source for that unity, which takes its begining from one man alone. Indeed, the other Apostles were that also which Peter was, being endowed with an equal portion of dignity and power; but the origin is grounded in unity, so that it may be made clear that there is but one Church of Christ. Indeed this oneness of the Church is indicated in the Song of Songs, when the Holy Spirit, speaking in the Lord's name, says, 'One is my dove, my perfect one, to her mother the only one, the chosen of her that bore her." If someone does not hold fast to this unity of the Church, can he imagine that he holds the faith? If he resists and withstands the Church, can he still be confident that he is in the Church, when the blessed Apostle Paul teaches this very thing and displays the sacred sign of unity when he says: 'One body and one spirit, one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one Baptism, one God' (Eph 4:4-6).

If you have questions or comments, please e-mail us at

Author's Bio: 

Claude R. Sasso is a graduate of Loyola University of Chicago, from which he holds a Ph.D. in European history. He served 20 years in the U.S. Army as an officer, retiring in 1987. He currently teaches at William Jewell College in Liberty, Mo. and runs his own business with his brother, Leonard. The business is entitled L & C Software, Inc. and specializes in Christian software, books, audio and video tapes and music. He can be found on the internet at He is also the founder of the Catholic Faith and Reason Association found on the net at