As new student at Rome Gregorian University in the fall of 1961, I worried about the
Scripture proofs required for the theological theses I was studying. When I asked an older
student for advice, he responded, "don t worry too much about Scripture. As long as
you know Matthew 16:18, you won't have any trouble during exams."
Fortunately, I didn't follow his advice.
But the underlying attitude toward Scripture which his words surfaced still resonates in
many Catholics 40 years later. Since personal computers added new terms to our language, I
often refer to Matthew 16:18 as the "virus that ate the Bible."
MEANING OF TEXT
Once Pope Stephen I (254-257) used this text against Cyprian of Carthage to defend Roman
primacy, Christians began to hear something in these words which Matthew never intended.
We Catholics especially, ignoring both the evangelist's historical situation and modern
tools of biblical exegesis, find it as difficult to separate this verse from the modern
papacy as to separate Rossini's "William Tell Overture" from the Lone Ranger.
Considering that these words to Peter are found only in Matthew, presuming Mark and Luke'
s communities never read Matthew's Gospel, and taking for granted that Matthew's readers
believed Jesus' Second Coming would take place in their lifetime, Scripture scholars find
it impossible to interpret Sunday's Gospel (Mt 16:13-20) as a "foundation text"
for the Roman papacy.
But having heard these words used in a papal context all our lives, we've turned them into
a statement which, for all practical purpose, makes Jesus' more significant and demanding
Gospel teachings fade into obscurity.
Since the required length of this column limits my explanation of specific passages, I
recommend that those who want to go deeper into Matthew's theology on this point read
either Benedict Viviano's article on Matthew in the New Jerome Biblical Commentary or
Daniel Harrington's parallel piece in the Collegeville Bible Commentary. Both authors
mirror mainstream Catholic biblical teaching on the subject.
Viviano, for instance, demonstrates how Matthew is concerned to explain and support Peter
as an early Christian leader, showing that the evangelist has no intention of setting up a
perpetual line of successors to this outspoken disciple of Jesus. He even goes so far as
to suggest that Matthew adds this passage to his Gospel for "ecumenical"
reasons. Peter is a compromise acceptable to both the Jewish communities, who preferred
James as the Church's overall leader, and the Gentile communities, who opted for Paul.
But whether we buy into Viviano's explanation, or try to show how the "key of
David" in the first reading ( 9Is 22:15, 19-23) connects with Matthew's "keys to
the kingdom of heaven," the important thing about Peter in Matthew's Gospel is his
faith in Jesus. The evangelist believes that only those Christian communities will survive
which are rock-grounded on Jesus. Peter's proclamation of faith becomes every Christian's
proclamation of faith.
It's that same faith which prompts Paul to praise "the dep<%-2>th of the riches
and wisdom and knowledge of God" in the second reading (Rom 11:33-36). The Apostle
knows that only such deep, grounding faith can lead us to go far enough outside ourselves
to discover God working within ourselves.
No Church structure or minister can ever take the place of faith in our lives. That's why
Scripture, as a book of faith, has been a guide and help to believers for centuries. Those
who regard the Bible only as a source of proof-texts are ignoring the reason Jews and
Christians originally saved these writings. In their opinion, faith is always more
important than structure.