The words, ‘Feed my sheep’ show Jesus’ intention to guarantee the future of the Church he founded under the direction of a universal shepherd–Peter–to whom he said that by his grace he will be ‘rock’ and will have ‘the keys to the kingdom of heaven’ with the power of ‘binding and loosing.’ After the resurrection Jesus gave a concrete form to the announcement and the promise made in Caesarea Philippi, establishing Peter’s authority as a pastoral ministry of the Church on a universal scale.”

Catechesis by Pope John Paul II on the Church
General Audience, Wednesday 9 December 1992

In this third part of Pope Saint John Paul II’s catechesis on the Church and the papacy, the late pope begins to explain the relationship between the papacy and Christ’s promises to the Church. In many ways, this is the central issue in the rift that has divided Catholics during Francis’s papacy.

The disagreement among Catholics is essentially over the degree to which Christ’s statements to Peter and about the Church’s fidelity to the truth apply to his successors. It has become common for critics of Pope Francis to dismiss his teachings on the simple grounds that, “It’s not infallible, so I don’t have to accept it.” Others, who are slightly more thoughtful, will put forth an argument such as, “We don’t have to assent to what the pope teaches if it contradicts the perennial Magisterium.”

The first argument clearly opposes Catholic tradition on papal primacy. The second ignores a much more important question, which is, “Is it licit for a Catholic to regard a pope’s official teaching as a contradiction of the Catholic faith?

It will become increasingly clear as we read through this 10-week catechesis that the answer, at least according to John Paul, is no. In this address he says:

“Both the primacy and the power of Magisterium are directly conferred by Jesus on Peter as a unique individual, although both prerogatives are ordered to the Church, without however being derived from the Church, but only from Christ.” 

John Paul is teaching here that Peter and his successors have received their primacy and their Magisterial authority over the Church from Christ himself, not from the Church. In other words, because this power comes directly from Christ, no one in the Church has the authority to denounce or contradict his teaching. This is consistent with tradition and is reflected in the Code of Canon Law, which says, “The First See is judged by no one” (CIC 1404).

The critics of Pope Francis implicitly dissent from this teaching, although finding one willing to openly admit that is harder than squeezing a camel through the eye of that proverbial needle. This is in contrast to John Paul, who explicitly describes this doctrinal authority of the pope as a “power.” Before the accusations of believing in a “magical papacy” come flying in, we must be clear that this power is not magic, but it is the primary means by which Christ guarantees the fidelity of his Church:

“Certainly this mission entails a power, but for Peter—and for his successors—it is a power ordered to service, to a specific service, a ministerium. Peter receives it in the community of the Twelve. He is one of the community of the apostles. However, it is certain that Jesus, both by the announcement (cf. Mt 16:18-19) and by the conferral of the mission after his resurrection, assigned in a particular way to Peter everything he transmitted as mission and power to all the apostles.”

He goes on to say,

“A particular ministerium is conferred on him, as a decision of Christ himself, independently of any quality or merit on the apostle’s part, and even despite his temporary infidelity.”

The bulk of this week’s catechetical teaching focuses on the responsibilities entrusted to Peter and his successors: to strengthen his brothers, to “feed my sheep,” and to lay down his life for his flock.

John Paul reminds us here of the sacrificial and martyrological nature of the papacy. The entire role of the papacy is oriented towards the protection of Christ’s flock. Jesus Christ is the good shepherd, but the responsibility:

“The Church is Christ’s property, not Peter’s. … Peter must take up the pastoral ministry for those redeemed “with the precious blood of Christ” (1 Pet 1:19). … It is a service to him who alone is ‘the shepherd and guardian of our souls’ (1 Pet 2:25), as well as to all whom Christ, the good shepherd, has redeemed at the cost of his sacrifice on the cross. The content of this service is also clear: as a shepherd leads his sheep to where they can find food and safety, so the shepherd of souls must offer them the food of God’s word and of his holy will (cf. Jn 4:34), ensuring the unity of the flock and defending it from every hostile attack.”

Saint John Paul II, like his predecessors, did not see the authority of the pope as something from which he can “opt out,” as many of Francis’s critics seem to believe. While the pope himself might be a sinful person, his mandate is to fulfill the pastoral ministry that Christ entrusted to him. Jesus will ensure the doctrinal and ecclesial unity through Peter and his successors. This includes Pope Francis, despite the best efforts of those determined to undermine him.

(See links to discussions of part 1 and part 2 in this catechetical series.)


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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.

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