The Primacy of Peter in the Pontificate of Benedict XVI

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By Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Muller, Catholic Exchange, June 13, 2017

The Petrine ministry as a personal commission

All the words commissioning and sending Simon Peter that Jesus spoke during His earthly life and work are spoken personally in each era to the successors of the first of the apostles on the Chair of Peter. Simon, the fisherman from the Sea of Gennesaret, was a historical man, not an ideal artistic figure. This concrete, individual man with his heritage and life history, with human strengths and weaknesses, becomes the instrument of grace, the servant of the Word, and the eyewitness of the crucified and risen Lord, who promised to remain always with the Church until the end of the world.

Once near Caesarea Philippi, Peter summarized the Church’s profession of faith, which is derived from the revelation by the Father, as follows: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!” Thereupon he hears for himself and for his successors the promise and the commission: “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 16:16, 18–19). Jesus asks the whole company of disciples who they think He is, and Peter answers in his person for all of them. And Jesus addresses the whole Church in the person of Peter.

In the Cenacle on the night before His death, as the ultimate fate of all mankind is being decided, Je­sus says to Peter: “And when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren” (Luke 22:32). He, the Son, has prayed to the Father with infallible efficacy that Peter’s faith might not fail and consequently that Peter, after his conversion, might strengthen his brothers and sisters in their faith in Christ, the Son of the living God, the Word of God made flesh.

The risen Lord reveals Himself to the disciples at the Sea of Tiberias. Three times he asks Peter whether he loves Him more than these do. Peter is sad to be reminded in this way of his failure and denial in the courtyard of the high priest’s house. But this relationship to Jesus in unconditional trust and unlimited love, even unto martyrium — witness by his word and by his life — bestows on Peter a unique authority for the Universal Church. Jesus says to him three times: “Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep” (John 21:15–17).

In Peter the popes carry out the pastoral ministry of Christ, who came to lay down His life for His sheep. Vatican I, in keeping with the entire Tradition, formulates it as follows: “Therefore, whoever succeeds Peter in this chair, according to the institution of Christ himself, holds Peter’s primacy over the whole Church” (DH 3057).

All three ecclesiological munera, or offices, that describe the nature of Peter’s primacy are accompanied by references to the human limits of Simon Peter, whether the fact that he tries to separate Jesus’ Messiahship from His suffering in the form of a slave, or the fact that when his life and reputation are at risk he publicly evades professing his faith in Jesus, the Son of the living God.

Again and again, non-Catholic exegesis has tried to see a relativization of the promise of primacy in the rebuke of Peter and of his denial, or else in the incident in Antioch when Paul opposed Peter because the latter was wrong about the practical consequences of the fellowship of the circumcised and the uncircumcised (cf. Gal. 2:11). If that were the case, one would also have to assume that Christ had allowed Himself to be deceived in His choice of His apostles or that reality had caught up with His ideal notions, as though He had failed miserably in founding a Church as God’s house for all nations.

“But why did Christ in his divine power and omniscience not choose the wise, the strong, the highly regarded to be his apostles, bishops, and popes?” we of little faith ask all too humanly, and we get the answer from Paul: “So that no flesh might boast in the presence of God” (1 Cor. 1:29). But in keeping with God’s grace, the apostles are like master builders of God’s house, which once and for all has its foundation on Christ. Those who come after the apostles should take care how they continue to build upon it — with gold and silver, precious stones, or with wood, hay, and straw (cf. 1 Cor. 3:10ff.). The last word about another person, and even about a pope, belongs to no one but God, for He alone judges rightly and justly. Everyone should collaborate in building up the kingdom of God, each according to the measure of the grace and natural talent he has received. Only in God’s tribunal is judgment passed on our work as “God’s fellow workers” (1 Cor. 3:9) and “fellow workers in the truth” (3 John 8).

Thus we can understand every pontificate of a pope as a stretch of Church history, as a specific realization of the permanent Petrine primacy — mediated through the personality of him who has been called by God Himself to build up His house.

Religiously and theologically speaking, it makes little sense to compare the individual persons on the Chair of Peter and their pontificates with one another according to worldly criteria. The decisive thing is the relation to the primacy of Peter, which must be the measure and guide of every pope. For, strictly speak­ing, every pope is the successor of Peter and not just of his chronological predecessor.

Joseph Ratzinger — Pope Benedict XVI

One important characteristic of the pontificate of Benedict XVI was his extraordinary theological talent. By this I mean not simply skills resulting from his professorial activity, but the great originality of his theology on the most important themes of the doctrine of the Faith. What is true of every Christian in general is true also about popes in particular: the most varied charisms are given by the Spirit of God so that they might benefit others, and thus the Body of Christ is built up in the knowledge and love of God. Thus, in the collaboration of its members, the whole Body grows toward the fullness of Christ, so as to become the perfect man. Let him who has received the gift of teaching teach! — “in proportion to our faith” (Rom. 12:6–7).

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This analogy of faith, the insight into the inner connection between revealed truth and the goal of salvation for every person, is based on the analogy of being, that is, on the truth-capability of created reason also, which recognizes in what really exists in the world the esse, verum, et bonum [being, the true, and the good], which in turn are the mirror and likeness of God’s reason and love. On the basis of the analogia entis, theology is possible as the science of revealed faith according to the analogia fidei.

Theological knowledge does not cater to the intellectual curiosity that preens in the private club of a few specialists and delights in its own intelligence. Without the constant exchange with theology, as it has been developed by the Fathers of the Church and by the great theologians of the Middle Ages and the modern era in a wide variety of schools, the Magisterium could not live up to its responsibility. For the Church’s Magisterium testifies to the revealed Faith of the Church in the Creed, the auditus fidei [the hearing of the faith], whereas the intellectual presentation thereof is accomplished rationally and conceptually, so that the intrinsic reasonableness of the entire depositum fidei comes to light in theological reflection and becomes fruitful in preaching and pastoral care.

Certainly, in its authority the Magisterium, as an authentic witness to revelation by virtue of the assistance of the promised Holy Spirit, is superior to academic theology, but at the same time it makes use of the latter out of an inner necessity. The Pope and bishops can correctly and completely teach and present for belief only those things and all those things that are contained in God’s historical revelation. As for the linguistic and conceptual form, however: “The Roman Pontiff and the bishops, by reason of their office and the seriousness of the matter, apply themselves with zeal to the work of enquiring by every suitable means into this revelation and of giving apt expression to its contents; they do not, however, admit any new public revelation as pertaining to the divine deposit of faith” (LG 25). For the Pope and the bishops, unlike Peter and the other apostles, are not personally bearers of revelation. Nor do they receive any inspiration, as the authors of Sacred Scripture did; rather, they are bound by the testimony of the word of God in Scrip­ture and Tradition. In truly handing on the Faith in their teaching office, however, they enjoy the assistance of the Holy Spirit (assistentia Spiritus Sancti).

Even Peter in his first letter, an “Encyclical,” exhorted Christians and especially priests and bishops to have an answer ready for anyone who asks about the “Logos of hope” (cf. 1 Pet. 3:15) that is ours through faith in Christ the Lord, “the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls” (1 Pet. 2:25).

A major theme of Joseph Ratzinger, not only as a theologian but also as the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and as the Pope, with different responsibilities in each instance, was to point out the intrinsic connection between faith as hearing and as understanding, between the auditus fidei and the intellectus fidei. Here the faith is not measured by an external standard and subjected to a criterion that is foreign to it, as in the rationalistic concept of reason that is reduced to feasibility. One cannot study philosophy, history and the social sciences more geometrico [in a geometric fashion]. Faith as enlightenment by the light of Christ (lumen fidei) is, instead, reasonable in itself, in keeping with the Logos of God — a rationabile obsequium[rational wor­ship] (cf. Rom. 12:1). To academic theology belongs the task of mediating between the knowledge of God in faith and the knowledge of the world through natu­ral reason (lumen naturale), as it is presented in the natural sciences and the humanities, so that in the consciousness of believers the truths of the faith and natural knowledge do not fall apart but, rather, form a new synthesis in every age.

Of course one cannot reduce the entire work of a pontificate to a single priority, and anyway it is reserved to God alone to judge the fruitfulness of it. But the theological elaboration of the intrinsic unity and interdependence of faith and reason is nevertheless one aspect that lends a particular character to the pontificate of Benedict XVI. Faith and reason are not mutually limiting or mutually exclusive but rather serve the perfection of man in God and in His Word, which assumed our flesh, and in His Spirit, who reveals the most profound being and life of God: God is love, as the great Encyclical Deus caritas est explains.

So we can say: Benedict XVI was one of the great theologians on the Chair of Peter. In the long series of his predecessors a comparison suggests itself with the outstanding scholarly figure of the eighteenth century, Pope Benedict XIV (1740–1758). Likewise one will think of Pope Leo the Great (440–461), who formulated the decisive insight for the Christological profession of the Council of Chalcedon (451). In the long years of his academic work as a professor of fundamental and dogmatic theology, Benedict XVI accomplished independent theological work that places him in the ranks of the most important theologians of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. For more than fifty years the name Joseph Ratzinger has stood for an original comprehensive outline of systematic theology. His writings combine scholarly knowledge of theology with the living form of the Faith. As a science that has its genuine place within the Church, theology can show us the special destiny of man as God’s creature and image.

In his scholarly works, Benedict XVI could always fall back on a marvelous knowledge of theological and dogmatic history, which he conveyed in such a way that God’s vision of man, which supports everything, comes to light. This is made accessible to many people by Joseph Ratzinger’s use of [Umgang mit] words and language. Complex subjects are not made incomprehensible to the average reader by a complicated presentation; instead these matters are made transparent, revealing their inner simplicity. The point is always that God wants to speak to every person, and His Word becomes a light that enlightens every man (cf. John 1:9).

Faith and reason

To point out only one of the groundbreaking theological speeches of the Pope, I would like to mention the Regensburg Lecture from the year 2006. In it Benedict XVI once again emphasized the intrinsic connection between faith and reason. Neither reason nor faith can be thought of independently of the other and still achieve its real purpose. Reason and faith are protected from dangerous pathologies by mutual correction and purification. Benedict XVI thereby connects with the great tradition of the theological sciences, which, in the overall structure of the university, can prove to be the element that binds everything together.

The encyclical Fides et ratio by John Paul II comes to mind whenever there is a discussion of the tragic developments in European intellectual life. In nomi­nalism a voluntaristic picture of God had developed. In order to remove God entirely from the reach of our metaphysical reason, He was thought of as sheer will, which man must accept in blind obedience, without any possibility of understanding Him rationally. In opposition to Him, man had to declare his autonomy so as to ensure his freedom. Modern atheism as humanism without or against God has one of its roots in a theological aberration. But if God Himself is reason and will, word and love, then the knowledge of God and our understanding of the world, nature and grace, reason and freedom do not come into conflict but rather prove to be the expression of the personal communion of God and man in Jesus Christ, the God-man. God is not man’s rival, but rather the fulfillment of all searching for truth and for the perfection of man in freedom as love and self-gift [Hingabe].

The figure of Jesus of Nazareth

The fortunate combination of the Pope as the universal teacher of the Faith with the theological thinker Joseph Ratzinger probably appears most convincingly in his three-volume work, Jesus of Nazareth.

As the successor of Peter, the Pope professes the revealed truth, which goes beyond natural reason, that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah, the Son of the living God. The theologian Ratzinger, based on his lifelong study of the question of Jesus in historical criticism, has at his disposal the intellectual means of making very clear, that is, of communicating intellectually the consistency and inner truth of the fact, that the Jesus of history is identical with the Divine Word made flesh who is recognized in faith.

Joseph Ratzinger’s lifework culminates in his book on Jesus. With his three volumes on Jesus he has stimulated a vigorous discussion about Jesus of Nazareth, whom Christians profess as the universal Savior and the sole Mediator between God and mankind. In this individual man, Jesus of Nazareth, God definitively and irreversibly made the historical coincidence of divine revelation and human self-surrender to the Father become a concrete event. Hence we profess with the Church that Jesus is the Christ, in whom it becomes possible for mankind to experience the historical salvific presence of God. He is the one who accomplishes the Father’s will and wishes to lead all mankind along the way to the knowledge of the truth (cf. 1 Tim. 2:4–5).

In the New Testament we find the formation of the apostolic Church’s profession of faith, which is achieved in the living faith of the disciples; this faith originated in the encounter with Jesus of Nazareth as a historical person, with the words of His preaching of the kingdom of God, and in the experience of His death and Resurrection from the dead. In the event on Easter morning and in light of God’s self-reve­lation in His Son, the believer meets with a person who is his Creator and Perfecter: Jesus Christ is the Lord whom we profess in faith, the Lord and Head of His Church.

In its epilogue, the Gospel of John mentions the justification for its composition and for the Church’s entire witness to the Faith in Scripture and Tradition, so as to oppose all attempts to read the Gospel as a simple historical biography. The purpose is not merely to give information about a person, but rather it was written “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30–31).

This look at the six decades of intensive intellectual and scholarly penetration of the various themes of Christology in the theological work of Joseph Ratzinger brings to light the continuity of his thought. His long wrestling with the figure of Jesus, which he himself formulates in the first volume of the trilogy on Jesus can be traced through his writings. From the very beginning he asks himself the question: “Who is Jesus of Nazareth” — for men, for the world?

He decisively opposes an attitude of skepticism that considers God incapable of revealing himself definitively, and he shows a fine sense of the ideological constraints that may monopolize people’s attention.

With the clarity that can be derived from the Church’s profession of faith, he develops from histori­cal findings and the Gospel accounts an inviting over­all view of Jesus of Nazareth that stimulates further reflection. On the basis of the historically consoli­dated formulations of the Christological dogmas, as they were formulated in the great ecumenical councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon, Joseph Ratzinger devel­ops his approaches to Christology and to Catholic theology as a whole, which now are being presented synoptically in the sixteen volumes of his Collected Works in German [Gesammelte Schriften].

Finally, in looking to the crucified and risen Lord Jesus, man finds his ultimate fulfillment in the one “whom God made our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30), “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3). Until the second coming of Christ, Peter unites the many disciples in their profession of the one Faith: You are Christ, the Son of the living God. This is the mission of the papacy for the Church and for the world.

Editor’s note: This article is an excerpt from Cardinal Muller’s Benedict and Francis: Their Ministry as Successors to Peterwhich is available from Sophia Institute Press

image: Frippitaun /