Tuesday, May 11, 2010

St. Paul's Rebuke of St. Peter

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From a recent paper of mine ("Reflections on the 'Life and Letters of Paul' Class"):

The class handout "Peter and Barnabas's 'Hypocrisy' (Gal 2:11–14)" prompted me to examine the implications of the "Antioch incident" for the primacy of St. Peter. St. Paul recounts the incident as follows:
But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction. And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I say that they were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, "If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?" (Galatians 2:11-14).
The handout points out, "They had previously agreed with Paul that the Law of Moses could not be a barrier to fellowship between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians in the one church." Since St. Paul was inspired by the Holy Spirit, we must accept that St. Peter erred in his conduct. I asked myself, "Does this pose a problem for papal infallibility?" I had not thought so, and deeper examination led me to continue to believe that the Antioch incident is no prejudice to the infallibility of St. Peter, the first bishop of Rome or "pope," according to the consistent testimony of the Fathers of the Church. Papal infallibility means that "the Roman Pontiff, head of the college of bishops, enjoys this infallibility in virtue of his office, when, as supreme pastor and teacher of all the faithful--who confirms his brethren in the faith--he proclaims by a definitive act a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals" (CCC 891). Nothing in St. Paul's account obliges us to believe that all these conditions were in place during the incident.

But if St. Peter was the first pope, how is it that St. Paul "opposed him to his face" (Galatians 2:11)? One might analogize the incident to a hypothetical situation in which Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi publicly rebukes President Barack Obama for acting consistently with his own principles and platform, or even his own executive orders. Just as we would not conclude from such an incident that Pelosi is higher in rank than Obama, we do not conclude that "St. Paul's reprehending [St. Peter is] any argument against his supremacy," as the 18th-century Bishop Richard Challoner of Debra puts it (Challoner). Thus St. Augustine, in his gloss on this passage, instructs us that "Peter gave an example to superiors, that if at any time they should happen to stray from the straight path, they should not disdain to be reproved by their subjects" (qtd. in ST II-II, q. 33, art. 4, ad 2).

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