Common Wisdom: The Peace of St. Peter

Almost a year has passed since the Holy Father came to say Mass at Camden Yards in Baltimore. His visit reinforced my gratitude to God for blessing my own time—my own catastrophic half of this catastrophic century—with John Paul II. His great natural gifts and transparent devotion have combined to serve well a spiritually needy Church.

But greater than the gratitude I feel for John Paul II is my gratitude for the papacy itself: for the Magisterium and for the Church understood not only as the people of God, but as the people of God organized into the Body of Christ. On earth, in his great mercy, Christ has provided for us a temporal head—for his headless, heedless sheep.

Like most people, I have lots of opinions on all kinds of subjects. I value reason, and believe it is possible to convince and be convinced of many things by rational argument. But I also know how easy it is to be wrong, to be careless or lazy or led astray by bias or misinformation or sheer stupidity. So however much I am convinced of most of my opinions, I reserve a tiny corner of agnosticism, because after all, “I could be wrong.”

Only a very few matters are so important that they require greater certitude, a reliance upon sure authority. But those few areas touching on the soul’s immortal destiny and absolute duties must be got right. I cannot imagine, as a great many Protestants cheerfully can, apparently, leaving them to be solved by myself and an open Bible.

Yes, I know that Protestants do not rely on themselves but on the Holy Spirit to guide them to the proper interpretation of Scripture. But it is glaringly evident that well-meaning, good-hearted, God-fearing Christians disagree in a thousand different ways when this technique is put to the test. My efforts to do likewise would founder not on a lack of faith in the Holy Spirit, but on lack of faith in myself.

If you believe Christianity at all, which means believing in Christ and his power to save, you must trust him to do it in his own way. And his own way of safeguarding his followers’ understanding of his message was to set up a Church with a head who could reliably settle disputes. The apostles were not twelve individuals or even twelve little popes, but an embryonic hierarchy that acted as a hierarchy with a head even in the Gospels and more so in the Book of Acts.

You may argue, as some Protestants do, that Peter’s preeminence was genuine but belonged to him alone. But no revolt ensued as the second or third or fourth successor to Peter assumed that preeminent position and circulated letters about matters arising in local churches. In the early centuries after Christ, many councils were called to adjudicate thorny theological questions, but the councils needed the presence or approval or at least the tacit toleration of Peter’s successor to be treated as authoritative.

If the Church has not been protected from crucial error over the past two thousand years, then I see no reason to assume that the Arian question has been settled, or the dispute with the Donatists, or those with the Monophysites or Pelagians or Albigensians, or any of the other heretics whose ideas still percolate outside of what C. S. Lewis called “mere Christianity.” In fact, mere Christianity is a mere opinion, a mere school of thought, without the weight of Rome’s two thousand-year-old authority.

This is not religious arrogance, but humility. With biblical scholars perennially quarreling and even holy people at odds on questions of great consequence, how are we to set ourselves—with our limited intelligence and sin-warped wills—as sure guides on right thinking and right acting?

One does one’s best. Experience helps to teach us. You try something and if it does not work, you hope you have not immobilized the nation’s defense or created the chaotic aftermath of the Great Society.

But the idea that our Lord would leave us with an equally messy way of deciding whether he had two natures or one, or whether the Holy Eucharist was truly and permanently his body and blood in substance, is appalling—as appalling as the hundreds upon hundreds of yet-dividing sub-sects of Christianity that reflect the alternative to Peter.

What is truth? Many times I do not know. But sometimes, on certain eternally important questions, I know where it may be found. And I thank God for it.


  • Ellen Wilson Fielding

    Ellen Wilson Fielding is a writer and former contributing editor to Crisis Magazine.

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