And Jesus answered him, "Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven."
I guess I have been watching too much of the Olympics lately. Listening to this Gospel reading this morning I felt like I wanted to punch two fists in the air and cheer. (You will be happy to know I restrained myself) Peter, dear St. Peter, just received something far more precious than a gold medal. He got the keys—and not just any keys—THE KEYS! Christ gave Peter the keys to the kingdom of Heaven. And these keys were not just for Peter as an individual. They were for Peter as leader of Christ’s Church—The Church—One, Holy, Catholic Apostolic Church. These keys were not a trophy to put in a shadow box and hang over the mantle. These keys held real authority. “whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” With this authority came a promise. No power of Hell will ever destroy Christ’s Church.
Christ didn’t offer this authority to each of his hundreds of followers, or even to each of his twelve Apostles. He gave it to Peter alone. Only the Church, guided by Peter and his successors carries the guarantee that it will withstand the gates of the Netherworld. With those credentials, how could I ever do anything but follow the successors of Peter?
But what does it mean to follow the successor of Peter? What does it mean to be in communion with Rome? What does it mean to be Catholic? Fr. Alvin Kimel offered this answer:
For the Catholic, the decision to accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and the decision to accept the authority of the Church is one decision. They cannot be separated, for the risen Christ will not be separated from his mystical body.
To be Catholic means to accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and to accept the authority that Christ established. Are you really ready to stand before Christ and say, “Listen, I know you are God and all that, but I really think you got it wrong with this Church authority thing. I just don’t think those old men, holy as they might be, are qualified to tell me how I should live my life. I understand right from wrong. I know how to be a good person. I can follow your example and feed the hungry, clothe the naked, etc. I don’t need all that extra stuff. Thanks anyway.”
This sort of thinking takes great arrogance. Christ calls us to reject arrogance and take on the virtue of humility. He asks us to pray “Thy will be done”. It is not about me and my feelings and my plans. It is about God’s plans. I am just a small cog in Salvation History. I am called to my own role in accordance with God’s will. How do I make sure that I am discerning the will of God? I hold up my thoughts, words, and deeds, to the template of Christ’s teachings as preserved in the teachings of the Church. Do they match? If they do not, I am not free to chalk it up to following my conscience and disregard the differences. The Catechism of the Catholic Church has this to say about conscience:
1790 A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience. If he were deliberately to act against it, he would condemn himself. Yet it can happen that moral conscience remains in ignorance and makes erroneous judgments about acts to be performed or already committed.
1791 This ignorance can often be imputed to be personal responsibility. This is the case when a man “takes little trouble to find out what is true and good, or when conscience is by degrees almost blinded through the habit of committing sin. In such cases the person is culpable for the evil he commits.
1792 Ignorance of Christ and his Gospel, bad example given by others, enslavement to one’s passions, assertion of a mistaken notion of autonomy of conscience, rejection of the Church’s authority and her teaching, lack of conversion and of charity: these can be at the source of errors of judgment in moral conduct.
Contrary to the assertions of some of our Protestant brethren, the Catholic Church does not tell us to check our intellect at the door. On the contrary, as Catholics we are charged to diligently study and pray about teachings we do not fully understand. We are called to seek the grace and understanding that allows us to consciously align our lives with Christ. It is a grave error to believe we can call ourselves Catholic yet reject the authority of the Church. Beginning with Peter, Christ gave us the teaching authority of the Church, the Magisterium. We reject this gift at our peril.