Why Catholics believe in the authority of the Pope

We are called to respect the authority that comes from God. 
al ha bayit.jpg

There was a time when I questioned the authority of priests and of the Pope.

Today, as we celebrate the Feast of the Chair of Saint Peter, I wish to share with you some of the lessons that made me respect the Papacy and its authority and the things that helped me understand the Catholic Church even more.

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus gives the keys to the kingdom of heaven to Peter:

“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 16:18-19

What does this mean? What authority did Jesus give Peter when He gave Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven?

In order to understand this, we have to go back to the Old Testament and take a look at the structure of the Davidic Kingdom:

The Structure of the Davidic Kingdom

During the time of the Divided Kingdom (that is, the time of the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah — which is the Davidic Kingdom), the Southern Kingdom was always ruled by a king from the descendants of David as promised by God to David (1 Samuel 7:16). As the Son of David, Jesus is the King of kings.

Beside the king was the king’s mother, the Gebira or the Queen Mother, who interceded for others to the king and to whom even the king himself paid homage (1 Kings 2:19). That is why our early Church fathers and we Catholics venerate (or give high respect to) Mary as the Queen of Heaven because she is the Queen Mother of the King. (Again, we only venerate her and not worship her or give her praise.) That is also why we ask her to intercede for us to the King.

And then, there was the al-ha-bayit (which is the Hebrew for over-the-house) who acts as the chief steward or the prime minister of the kingdom. When it comes to authority, the al-ha-bayit is second only to the king.

The Roles of the Al-Ha-Bayit

In the second book of Kings, Eliakim was the al-ha-bayit. He was also called the master of the palace.

“They (the Assyrians) called for the king, but Eliakim, son of Hilkiah, the master of the palace, came out, along with Shebnah the scribe and the chancellor Joah, son of Asaph.” — 2 Kings 18:18

The other mention of the al-ha-bayit was way back in the book of Genesis, when Joseph was assigned over the house of Pharaoh or the whole land of Egypt:

“So Pharaoh said to Joseph: ‘Since God has made all this known to you, there is no one as discerning and wise as you are. You shall be in charge of my household, and all my people will obey your command. Only in respect to the throne will I outrank you.’ Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, ‘Look, I put you in charge of the whole land of Egypt.’” — Genesis 41:39-41

In these verses, the main role of the al-ha-bayit is to be in charge of the king’s house which is his kingdom, especially in the absence of the king. That is why we Catholics believe in the authority of Peter and his successors, the Popes, over the Church of Jesus. 

Of course, God will never be absent in our lives because He is always with us. But until Jesus comes again, He gave us the Papacy to guide us, to love us, and to unite us as we journey to eternity and until Jesus comes again.

The book of the prophet Isaiah also gives us a clue as to the other roles of the al-ha-bayit (and even how he was clothed). The context of the following verses is that God would replace Shebna, the former al-ha-bayit, with Eliakim:

“On that day I will summon my servant Eliakim, son of Hilkiah; I will clothe him with your robe, gird him with your sash, confer on him your authority. He shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to the house of Judah. I will place the key of the House of David on his shoulder; what he opens, no one will shut, what he shuts, no one will open. I will fix him as a peg in a firm place, a seat of honor for his ancestral house.” — Isaiah 22:20-23

As we read from Isaiah, the al-ha-bayit was also to be a father to the house of Judah, which was the Davidic Kingdom. That is also why Peter and his successors are called the Pope (or Papa) because they are to be a father to the Church of Jesus, His kingdom, His sheep.

“‘Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” He said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’” — John 21:15

The al-ha-bayit, like Peter, was also given the key to the House of David. What the al-ha-bayit opens, no one will shut, and what he shuts, no one will open. This is similar to the authority given by Jesus to Peter regarding the kingdom of heaven. 

This is why we Catholics believe that following the authority of the Pope and of the Catholic has eternal consequences for us.

Our Role as Catholics with Regards to Authority

We Catholics believe that the Catholic Church is the spotless bride of Christ. Spotless, meaning perfect.

However, we also understand that while the Church is perfect, its members and its leaders are not. We have always faced challenges regarding the corruption and immorality of some of our members and even our clergy.

But, this is not a reason for us to give up on our Church or disrespect our leaders whose authority comes from God.

David gives us a wonderful example by sparing the life of King Saul even if the king was always trying to kill David:

“When [Saul] came to the sheepfolds along the way, he found a cave, which he entered to relieve himself. David and his men were occupying the inmost recesses of the cave. David’s servants said to him, ‘This is the day about which the LORD said to you: I will deliver your enemy into your hand; do with him as you see fit.’ So David moved up and stealthily cut off an end of Saul’s robe. Afterward, however, David regretted that he had cut off an end of Saul’s robe. He said to his men, ‘The LORD forbid that I should do such a thing to my master, the LORD’s anointed, to lay a hand on him, for he is the LORD’s anointed.’ With these words David restrained his men and would not permit them to attack Saul. Saul then left the cave and went on his way.” — 1 Samuel 24:4-8

Like Saul, the people to whom God gave His authority are not perfect. But like David, we are called to be merciful and to respect the authority that comes from God.

Others may abuse this authority. But, we are still called to love, to respect, and trust in God’s justice.

I, personally, think about it this way. While God’s authority is perfect, the ones receiving that authority are not. But, they still deserve our respect by the merits of the authority given by God.

This is also probably why we celebrate not just the Feast of Saint Peter, but also of his chair which is the sign of God's authority.

Do you also struggle with understanding the authority given by God to the Pope and the priests?

I hope this post helped you understand where you can find the historical and Biblical bases of the Papacy. 

If this post helped you in understanding the Catholic faith, please feel free to pass it along to family and friends whom you think will be helped by this post.