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Jesse Tagle wrote:

Hi guys —

What is the source of authority for the Catholic Church?


  { What is the source of authority for the Catholic Church? }

Eric replied:

Hi Jesse,

Thanks for e-mailing.

The authority of the Church is rooted in God, as revealed to us in the Bible. There are several places where we can find this. One is where Jesus renamed Simon to Peter and made him the head of the Church, effectively making him chief steward or prime minister and expressly giving him the keys of the kingdom of Heaven and the power to bind and loose. Jesus also said the Church has the power to judge, and instructed His followers to treat as a pagan anyone who did not listen to the Church. Jude condemns those, apparently rejecting the authority of Church, who acted like Korah in the Old Testament, who rebelled against Moses. We see in Scripture that the Church is the pillar and foundation of the truth, and that the Apostles have the authority to hold sins unforgiven.

The first place to look is Matthew 16:18-19, where Jesus makes Peter the foundation of the Church (effectively, making him the first pope). Here Jesus asks His disciples who He is, and Simon responds saying that He is the Son of God, and Jesus replies,

"Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven."

Matthew 16:17-19

So we see four things:

  1. He renames Simon Peter
  2. He says he will build His Church upon him
  3. He will give him the keys of the kingdom of Heaven, and
  4. He gives him the power of loosing and binding.

"Peter", from the Greek word petros or petra, where we get the term petrified, means rock.
This was significant because they were passing a large rock in Caesarea Philippi which had sacred meaning to the pagans. Jesus is making Peter the foundation of the Church. It's always significant when God renames someone; their new name indicates their new role. He renamed Abram to Abraham, which means father of many nations, and so he became.

The next thing we see is that God gives him the keys of the kingdom of Heaven.

  • What are these keys?

W.F. Albright, in his (Protestant) Anchor Bible Commentary on Matthew speaks about them. Here's what he says:

"Isaiah 22, verse 15, undoubtedly lies behind this saying of Jesus. The keys are the symbol of authority and Father Roland DeVoe rightly sees here the same authority vested in the vicar, the master of the house, the chamberlain of the royal household in ancient Israel. In Isaiah 22 Eliakim is described as having the same authority. Other Protestant scholars admit it too, that when Jesus gives to Peter the keys of the kingdom, Peter is receiving the Prime Minister's office, which means dynastic authority from the Son of David, Jesus, the King of Israel, but also an office where there will be dynastic succession."

Isaiah 22 says,

"In that day I will summon my servant, Eliakim son of Hilkiah. I will clothe him with your robe and fasten your sash around him and hand your authority over to him. He will be a father to those who live in Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. I will place on his shoulder the key to the house of David; what he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open."

Speaking of vicar and master of the house, this is precisely the imagery used in the parable of the wicked servant, Matthew 24:45-51. Here, the master goes away and puts a servant in charge of his house (known as the vicar). The imagery of the master going away is always associated with Jesus departing until the Second Coming. The vicar feeds and takes charge of the household while the master is gone. He becomes the father of the household. Thus this is why we call the Pope, the Holy Father.

The next thing He does is give Peter the power of loosing and binding. According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, this is the power to forbid and permit, and banish and readmit whom they pleased. In essence, it's investing authority in him. Later, this authority of binding and loosing was given to the other Apostles.

So Peter is given a great deal of power here, and according to Apostolic Tradition, that authority was handed down to a successor on Peter's death, and continues to be handed down.

The Church has the authority to judge, according to Jesus. He says in Matthew 18:15-18,

"If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector. I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven."

Here again we see the binding and loosing. Anyone who does not listen to the Church should be treated as a pagan.

One reference in the New Testament to the Israel of the Old Covenant is found in Jude 1. Jude is talking about those who have departed from the faith once for all handed on to the saints (verse 3). He compares them to the rebellion of Korah and denounces them. Let's look at the Rebellion of Korah, Numbers 16. This was a rebellion against Moses, the leader of the People of God. A group comes to oppose him, and they say,

"You have gone too far! The whole community is holy, every one of them, and the Lord is with them. Why then do you set yourselves above the Lord's assembly?

(Numbers 16:3)

Moses rebukes them for not being content with their role as Levites, and trying to grab the priesthood too (verse 10). Then God consumed the sinful rebels by swallowing them, their families, and their possessions up into the earth (verse 32). Apparently there was a similar rebellion in the early church, and St. Jude tells us under divine inspiration that this rebellion is just as sinful in the New Covenant as it was in the Old. Let us not incur the condemnation of Korah by rejecting the ecclesiastical authority which God has established.

1 Timothy 3:15 tells us as well that the Church is the pillar and foundation of the truth. So we should listen to the Church and believe what She tells us. Isaiah 2:2-3 reinforces this; it prophesies that one day, many peoples will come and say,

"Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths."

In other words, God would establish a teaching authority for the whole world.

Another sort of authority is given in John 20:22, where Jesus tells the Apostles,

"Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven."

This is where we get the Sacrament of Confession. The priests have the authority to forgive sins or hold them unforgiven, and naturally the only way they can determine whether they should be forgiven or unforgiven is to hear what they are.

So to summarize, Jesus made Peter the head of the Church (the Pope), with the authority of the keys (the prime ministership) and the power to loose and bind. This authority was handed on through the Popes up until today. The Apostles also received the authority to loose and bind, to forbid and permit and to forgive our sins or hold them unforgiven. When the Church judges someone to be committing sin, and they refuse to accept that judgment, we are to treat them like a non-believer. The Church is the pillar and foundation of the truth, and the teaching authority of the world. Those who rebel against Church authority incur severe punishment by God. Hopefully, this establishes the source of authority for the Church.

Hope this helps,


Jesse replied:

Thank-you Eric,

Can you please help me with two more:

  • What is the nature of the authority of the Church?
  • Why is it linked to the holiness of the Church?

Thank you

Eric replied:

Hmmm, now me thinks I am answering homework questions.

I don't see an obvious link between the holiness of the Church and Her authority (in fact I think to make such a link is inviting trouble — we don't obey the Church leaders because they are holy, we obey them because Christ tells us to) so I'm going to pass on these follow-up questions.


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