Another R&R error goes down in flames…
The “St. Peter Denied Christ Three Times” Objection:
St. Robert Bellarmine Refutes another Recognize-and-Resist Error
Time and again we hear the objection, typically made by those who try to justify their pathological refusal to countenance Sedevacantism, that St. Peter denied Christ three times (see Mt 26:69-75) and didn’t thereby cease to be Pope. Ergo, so we are asked to believe, it is absurd to say that Francis is not the Pope just because he is not a Catholic and continually disseminates heresy.
To demonstrate that this objection is untenable, three main points must be kept in mind:
- The incident concerns St. Peter’s personal moral conduct, not his public teaching
- St. Peter didn’t deny any doctrine but denied that He was acquainted with Jesus of Nazareth, and he did so out of acute fear
- St. Peter was not yet Pope at the time of his denial
Although the first two points are important, it is the third that refutes the objection definitively, since the objection cannot have any merit against Sedevacantism whatsoever if Peter was not already Pope when he denied Christ during His Sacred Passion.
In his phenomenal work De Romano Pontifice (“On the Roman Pontiff”), the Doctor of the Papacy, St. Robert Bellarmine, defends dozens of true Popes from the charge of having erred in faith, including the very first one, St. Peter. Let us look, therefore, at what Bellarmine says about St. Peter’s denial, as well as his alleged “heresy” in Gal 2:11-14:
Let us now come to individual Popes, whom our adversaries contend have erred. The First is Peter. Nilus of Thessalonika, in his book, On the Primacy of the Roman Pontiff, writes that Peter erred not only once but twice concerning faith. Further, he even supposes that by this argumentation he has proven that the Roman Pontiffs can err in faith. Certainly no Roman Pontiff received greater privileges from God than Peter. Moreover, it is clear from Scripture that Peter erred twice, both when he denied Christ [see Mt 26] and when he compelled the Gentiles to Judaize [see Gal 2]. The Lutheran Centuriators of Magdeburg add, apart from these two errors, another thirteen falls of St. Peter, on which we wrote elsewhere. We respond: When St. Peter denied Christ, he had not yet begun to be the Supreme Pontiff, for it is certain that Ecclesiastical rule was handed to him by Christ in the last chapter of John, since the Lord said to him after the resurrection: “Simon, son of John, feed my sheep.” Therefore, that denial of Peter cannot be numbered among errors of the Roman Pontiffs. Besides, I add that Peter denied Christ with words, but not truly in his heart: hence Peter did not throw off the confession of faith, nor faith itself, as we showed previously. Now, on the other hand, when St. Peter compelled the Gentiles to Judaize, this was not an error of preaching but of conduct, as Tertullian suggests in his work de Praescriptionibus adversus haereticos. St. Peter did not ratify by some decree that they must Judaize, rather, he formally taught the contrary in Acts XV. Nevertheless, when he was still in Antioch, he separated himself from the dinner table of the Gentiles lest he would give offense to those recently converted to the faith from the Jews and by his example compelled them to Judaize in a certain measure, even Barnabas. But we do not deny that Popes can offer the occasion of erring through their own bad example, rather, we deny that they can prescribe the whole Church to follow some error ex cathedra. Moreover, the examples and doctrines of the Pontiffs are not equally pernicious to the Church, seeing that the Lord instructed them, saying: “Do what they say, but do not do what they do.”
(St. Robert Bellarmine, On the Roman Pontiff, vol. 2, trans. by Ryan Grant [Mediatrix Press, 2016], Book IV, Ch. 8, pp. 175-176; italics given; underlining added.)
Lest anyone should impiously reject the clear teaching of this Doctor of the Church, we will also quote the First Vatican Council’s dogmatic constitution on the Petrine primacy:
So we teach and declare that according to the testimonies of the Gospel the primacy of jurisdiction over the entire Church of God was promised and was conferred immediately and directly upon the blessed Apostle Peter by Christ the Lord. For the one Simon, to whom He had before said: “Thou shalt be called Cephas” [John 1:42], after he had given forth his confession with those words: “Thou art Christ, Son of the living God” [Matt. 16:16], the Lord spoke with these solemn words: “Blessed art thou, Simon Bar Jona; because flesh and blood hath not revealed it to thee, but my Father who is in heaven. And I say to thee: That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it: and I shall give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose upon earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven” [Matt. 16:17 ff.]. And upon Simon Peter alone Jesus after His resurrection conferred the jurisdiction of the highest pastor and rector over his entire fold, saying: “Feed my lambs,” “Feed my sheep” [John 21:15 ff.]. To this teaching of Sacred Scriptures, so manifest as it has been always understood by the Catholic Church, are opposed openly the vicious opinions of those who perversely deny that the form of government in His Church was established by Christ the Lord; that to Peter alone, before the other apostles, whether individually or all together, was confided the true and proper primacy of jurisdiction by Christ; or, of those who affirm that the same primacy was not immediately and directly bestowed upon the blessed Peter himself, but upon the Church, and through this Church upon him as the minister of the Church herself.
(First Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution Pastor Aeternus, Ch. 1; Denz. 1822; underlining added.)
It is a common misconception to think that Christ conferred the primacy on St. Peter in Mt 16:18. He did not; He merely announced that he would do so at some future point: “And I say to thee: That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven…” (Mt 16:18-19).
In fact, we can see that our Lord specifically did not enjoin upon Simon Peter the papal task of confirming his brethren (cf. Denz. 1836) until after his “conversion”, that is, not before he had repented of his denial: “And the Lord said: Simon, Simon, behold Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat: But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and thou, being once converted, confirm thy brethren” (Lk 22:31-32).
To understand better the significance of our Lord’s promise of unfailing Faith to St. Peter and his task of confirming the others in that Faith, we turn to the Great Commentary on the Gospels by the 17th-century Jesuit biblical scholar Cornelius a Lapide, where we also find confirmation once more that the pontificate of St. Peter did not begin until after our Lord died on the Cross:
Another and a certain privilege was common to Peter with all his successors, that he and all the other bishops of Rome (for Peter, as Christ willed, founded and confirmed the Pontifical Church at Rome), should never openly fall from this faith, so as to teach the Church heresy, or any error, contrary to the faith. So S. Leo (serm. xxii), on Natalis of SS. Peter and Paul; S. Cyprian (Lib. i. ep. 3), to Cornelius; Lucius I., Felix I., Agatho, Nicolas I., Leo IX., Innocent III., Bernard and others, whom Bellarmine cites and follows (Lib. i. de Pontif. Roman).
For it was necessary that Christ, by His most wise providence, should provide for His Church, which is ever being sifted and tempted by the devil, and that not only in the time of Peter, but at all times henceforth, even to the end of the world, an oracle of the true faith which she might consult in every doubt, and by which she might be taught and confirmed in the faith, otherwise the Church might err in faith, quod absit [which God forbid]! For she is, as S. Paul said to Timothy, “the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim. iii. 15). This oracle of the Church then is Peter, and all successive bishops of Rome. This promise made to Peter and his successors, most especially applies to the time when Peter, as the successor of Christ, began to be the head of the Church, that is, after the death of Christ.
And when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren. “From the sifting of Satan, that is from his temptation and from the sin by which thou wilt deny Me; for by this thou wilt be turned aside from Me, and My grace and love.” So Euthymius, Theophylact, Jansen, F. Lucas, and others.
(The Great Commentary of Cornelius a Lapide: S. Luke’s Gospel, trans. by Thomas W. Mossman, 4th ed. [Edinburgh: John Grant, 1908], pp. 482-483; italics given; underlining added.)
Could it be any clearer that the only way that Francis is able to do what he does is because he is not the Pope of the Catholic Church and therefore does not possess the prerogatives and protections promised by Christ to St. Peter and his successors?
And thus we see that the objection that Sedevacantism must be rejected because St. Peter denied Christ three times and still remained Pope, is false.
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