Last February 28, Joseph Ratzinger also known as Pope Benedict XVI officially resigned as the supreme head of the Roman Catholic church – the first one to ever do so in 600 years. As of this time, the office of the papacy is vacant or “interregnum.” The 1.1 billion strong RC is leaderless.
Pope Benedict XVI cited “old age” as his main reason to explain his resignation. However, the string of clergy sexual abuses worldwide and the much-publicized corruptions within the Vatican quarters of late could well have been the reason for the sudden resignation of the aging prelate. And with his new title, “pope emeritus,” the once esteemed leader of the Roman Catholic religion, will now spend the rest of his life in obscurity.
This historic event, albeit, a controversial one brings up the thorny issue of “apostolic succession” – a Roman Catholic doctrine that maintains that Apostle Peter passed on his apostleship to the succession of church bishops that came after him. The Roman Catholic also teaches that it was Peter who was the first pope and that he was the “rock” in Matthew 16:18 on which the true church is built.
The concept of apostolic succession does bring some practical or useful application to the Catholic organization such as the continuity of the office of the papacy, etc. A religious group as big as theirs definitely cannot afford to have a leadership vacuum.
But practical wisdom or application cannot and must not be pursued at the expense of biblical wisdom or legitimacy.
And this is where the RC’s teaching on apostolic succession fails. It has no biblical foundation or precedence at all. Its premises are highly questionable, uncertain and faulty.
Peter was the first “pope.” “Pope” means in Latin, “papa” or “father.” Peter did not instruct anyone to call him with such a title. None of the apostles gave themselves this title. RC started only using the title “pope” to address the Bishop of Rome exclusively around the 11th century. Peter was an apostle – he was never a pope and he wasn’t the first pope either.
Claim 2 – Peter lived and died in Rome. This is highly doubtful and speculative at best. The only mention that Apostle Peter had probably been in Rome is in 1 Peter 5:13. RC apologists claim that that “Babylon” was a code name for Rome. But then it could also be some other “Babylon,” such as the one in Mesopotamia or in Egypt. To conclusively say that the Babylon in that verse was Rome is too arbitrary and unconvincing.
Claim 3 – Peter did not acknowledge superiority or “primacy” over other apostles. Apostle Peter actually regarded himself merely as equal with his fellow church elders (1 Peter 5:1) and not as someone who is above and over them. Again, there is no biblical foundation to support this purported claim of Peter’s primacy over other apostles. Peter would never call himself with the title popes today are calling themselves such as “pontifex maximus” or “supreme pontiff.” This is unapostolic and unbiblical, to say the least.
Peter is the “rock” on which the true church is built. This is yet another claim of the RC that the New Testament scriptures do not support at all. The imagery of rock has always been associated with God and Christ Jesus (Psalm 18:2, 1 Samuel 2:2, Romans 9:33, 1 Corinthians 10:4). Furthermore, Apostle Paul explicitly identified Jesus as the only “foundation” on which every believer must build his faith upon (1 Corinthians 3:10-11). In both of his epistles, Peter himself did not give even the remotest hint that he was indeed the rock or the foundation of the church.
In addition, the symbols of power as well as titles attached to the pope today also do not have any biblical, much less, apostolic precedence. Peter did not dress like the pope today dresses himself; neither did he allow himself to be addressed with such pompous designations. And true also, Peter did not resign. None of the apostle ever did.
Two days after his official resignation, a Catholic priest based in Italy, burned a picture of the pope and accused him of not being a “true shepherd” because of the former’s abandonment of his office. I can’t blame him.
As I look at this spectacle in Rome, I couldn’t help but recall the words of Jesus in John 10:13 in which he said, “The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.”