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."


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.