Paul Corrected Peter. Conservatives Correct Francis.

The correction Paul gave to Peter is often cited as a justification for the conservative rebukes of Pope Francis. Is there any difference between the correction Saint Paul the Apostle gave to Saint Peter, the leader of the Apostles and the first Pope? Are the papal critics just like Saint Paul correcting Pope Peter? Differences abound.

Here is the passage from the Letter of Paul “and all the brothers who are with me: to the churches of Galatia.” (Gal 1:2).

{2:11} But when Cephas had arrived at Antioch, I stood against him to his face, because he was blameworthy.
{2:12} For before certain ones arrived from James, he ate with the Gentiles. But when they had arrived, he drew apart and separated himself, fearing those who were of the circumcision.
{2:13} And the other Jews consented to his pretense, so that even Barnabas was led by them into that falseness.
{2:14} But when I had seen that they were not walking correctly, by the truth of the Gospel, I said to Cephas in front of everyone: “If you, while you are a Jew, are living like the Gentiles and not the Jews, how is it that you compel the Gentiles to keep the customs of the Jews?”

By calling Peter “Cephas”, Saint Paul is acknowledging that Peter is the Rock on which the Church is founded, and therefore also a valid Roman Pontiff. Paul also acknowledges Peter’s authority over himself in the previous verses:

{2:7} But it was to the contrary, since they had seen that the Gospel to the uncircumcised was entrusted to me, just as the Gospel to the circumcised was entrusted to Peter.
{2:8} For he who was working the Apostleship to the circumcised in Peter, was also working in me among the Gentiles.
{2:9} And so, when they had acknowledged the grace that was given to me, James and Cephas and John, who seemed like pillars, gave to me and to Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, so that we would go to the Gentiles, while they went to the circumcised,
{2:10} asking only that we should be mindful of the poor, which was the very thing that I also was solicitous to do.

Peter was entrusted with the Gospel to the circumcised. Jesus was “working the Apostleship” in Peter. Paul was sent by Peter, James, and John, and told to be mindful of the poor. All of this shows Paul’s subjection to the authority given to Peter.

Peter’s error was that he no longer ate with Gentiles, but only with Christians who were formerly Jews (and so were circumcised). This behavior was attributed, by Paul, to the influence of “those of the circumcision”, i.e. those who claimed that circumcision and the Mosaic law was necessary to Christians.

Some of the other converts from Judaism to Christianity, the “other Jews” of verse 2:13, also followed this erroneous practice, in imitation of Peter.

Paul then realized that “that they were not walking correctly, by the truth of the Gospel.” In other words, he saw that their behavior (discipline) was not in accord with doctrine. And so he offered Peter a correction:

I said to Cephas in front of everyone: “If you, while you are a Jew, are living like the Gentiles and not the Jews, how is it that you compel the Gentiles to keep the customs of the Jews?”

Paul’s correction was a brief theological argument, posed as a question. As Galatians continues, Paul elaborates on this argument. But his words to Peter were brief, and, as far as we know, effective. Peter changed his behavior.

Did Peter teach heresy? No. Peter did not teach that circumcision or the Mosaic law were necessary to Christians. Did Peter hold heresy? There is no reason to think so. And the ease with which he was corrected also indicates that he did not hold heresy. Peter did not teach any grave error; his mistake was not a teaching, but a behavior (discipline).

The doctrinal question on this point was answered by a gathering of the Apostles, described in Acts 15, in which Christians were said to be free from the Old Testament disciplines (as we would phrase it today). The decision of Acts 15 kept a few disciplines, due to the circumstance that many of the early Christians were converts from Judaism. But the Council of Florence, centuries later, would declare that all the Old Testament disciplines were dispensed by Christ and by His Church.

From the description in Galatians, it appears that this correction between Paul and Peter occurred before Acts 15. For after that decision of the Apostles, “those of the circumcision” would not have had enough influence to be eating regularly with the Apostle Peter and to have had such an effect on his behavior. Thus, Peter’s error occurred prior to the dogmatic decision of Acts 15. And this also implies that Peter did not hold heresy. The Magisterium had not yet decided the question as dogma.

Did Peter commit an actual mortal sin? Since the question had not yet been decided, Peter’s error could not be considered a mortal sin. A Pope can choose to act in accord with one theological opinion or another, when the Magisterium has not yet decided the question. Paul’s correction was in the realm of theological opinion, not dogma. Notice that Paul argued from faith and reason; he did not cite a dogmatic decision (as he would have, if Acts 15 was a past event).

Did Peter cause grave harm to the Church, the Faith, or the salvation of souls? No, he did not, and for much the same reasons. The behavior in question was wrong because it implied a theological position which was in error. But that error was not, at that time, heretical.

Saint Thomas Aquinas was not guilty of heresy for his incorrect position on the Immaculate Conception, as the dogma was not yet defined. Pope John 22nd was not guilty for his incorrect position on the Beatific Vision given to the faithful departed, for the same reason.

Peter briefly caused some Christians to adopt an erroneous discipline. They were not guilty of mortal sin for this error, and neither was he. Their salvation was not thereby endangered. No heresy or other grave error was taught; it was a behavior, not a teaching.

Peter did not teach or commit heresy. He did not commit an actual mortal sin that would harm the Faith. He did not commit an actual mortal sin at all.

Paul’s correction was a brief theological argument, offered openly (publicly). Paul did not accuse Peter of heresy, nor did he accuse him of mortal sin, or evil intentions, or any form of corruption. Paul acknowledged the authority of Peter over him (over Paul). He did not speak or act as if he were a higher authority than Peter. A correction in the form of a theological argument is not one of pretended authority, but rather an appeal to faith and reason.

Pope Francis

The faithful may disagree with any Roman Pontiff, in his decisions on discipline (when these are not dogmatic). If they disagree, they should have a theological argument to support their position. The faithful can even disagree with a non-infallible teaching of the Roman Pontiff, to a limited extent. And then there is the question of interpretation. Perhaps a controversial assertion by the Pope can be interpreted, charitably, so that there is no reason to disagree.

Therefore, it is difficult for me to see the justification for the current practice among papal critics:
* interpreting papal assertions in the worst manner possible
* exaggerating any perceived error
* treating any claimed error as if it were very grave when, at most, it is a very limited error
* arrogantly assuming that the papal critics can’t possibly be the ones who are in error
* taking a position of absolute opposition to the Roman Pontiff, rather than of support
* calling for his resignation
* accusing him of heresy
* accusing him of gravely immoral intentions
* blaming him for the child abuse crisis (which is long-standing)

And then they justify all of this with the claim that they are Paul correcting Peter. Saint Paul and Saint Peter are in heaven, looking down with disgust at the way these critics are treating the Roman Pontiff. Don’t use their names to justify this type of bad behavior. Paul did not treat Peter the way that the papal critics treat Francis. Paul’s brief mild correction of Peter, supported by a theological argument, is nothing like the arrogant opposition and uncharitable assumptions of critics of Francis.

Don’t compare yourselves to Paul correcting Peter. The comparison is laughable.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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1 thought on “Paul Corrected Peter. Conservatives Correct Francis.

  1. Another comparison of some of the supporters of the open letters to the Pope is that they compare themselves with St. Catherine of Siena. Not kidding. But St. Catherine never intended her letters to be public (or open letters for everyone to read). She never stamped any of her letters to any Church or advised people to publicize it. Another big difference is in the content of the letter itself, what a difference!:

    St. Catherine wrote with so much love, respect, tenderness, meekness, submission to the Holy Father, never forcing in any way for the Holy Father to respond:

    *”In the name of Jesus Christ crucified and of gentle Mary, mother of God’s Son.

    Very loved and reverend father in Christ Jesus,

    I Caterina, servant and slave of the servants of Jesus Christ and your poor wretched unworthy daughter, am writing to you in his precious blood. I long to see you the sort of true gentle shepherd who takes an example from the shepherd Christ, whose place you hold….. Just so I am begging you, I am telling you, my dear babbo [children’s words for father], in the name of Christ crucified, to conquer with kindness, with patience, with humility, with gentleness the wrongdoing and pride of your children who have rebelled against you their father. “*

    Again, what a difference! Reading this letter it actually encourages the Holy Father. I would not be surprised if Pope Gregory XI actually wept after reading this loving letter of encouragement. Another difference is that St. Catherine was personally known to the Pope, had a friendly/advisor relationship.


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