Wednesday October 6, 2004 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Twenty-seventh Week in Ordinary Time
Reading (Galatians 2:1-2, 7-14) Gospel (St. Luke 11:1-4)
In the first reading today, Saint Paul talks about going up to Jerusalem to present the Gospel that he had preached to those who were apostles before him. Yesterday, we heard him say that after three years of being out in the desert he went to Jerusalem simply to talk to Peter, to make sure once again that the Gospel as he understood it was correct. This is a rather remarkable point considering that he starts out by telling us that the Gospel he received was not received from any human being, but rather it was received in a revelation from Christ.
So he goes and presents the Gospel to the apostles, who acknowledge that what he has been preaching is in fact correct. It is important for us to understand this because Saint Paul, being the great apostle that he was, is being obedient to the authority of the Church. He received what he had directly from Christ, and yet he is going to submit himself to the authority of Saint Peter and also Saint James, who was the bishop of Jerusalem. He places himself underneath the apostles.
Then he goes on to tell us, however, that when he was in Antioch and Saint Peter came, that he had to stand up and take on Peter face-to-face because Saint Peter had been eating with the Gentiles who had converted to Christianity but when some of the people who wanted the Christians to be circumcised (to become Jewish before they could become Christian) came, suddenly Peter, as well as Barnabas and the others who had been Jews before they became Christians, started pulling away saying, “We can’t eat with the Gentiles because they haven’t been circumcised. They are unclean, therefore, we can have nothing to do with them as Jews.”
Now when people read that they would say, “Obviously, then, Peter is not infallible,” because in our belief that the Holy Father is infallible, people can look at this point and say, “Clearly, the Pope must not be infallible because Peter was wrong.” Well, there has to be a distinction made. What the Church teaches regarding the infallibility of the Pope is that he is infallible when he is speaking with the fullness of his apostolic authority in matters of faith and morals. It does not mean that the Pope cannot sin. It does not mean that the Pope is without error in his actions, but rather that he is protected and guided by the Holy Spirit in regard to his teaching of the entire Church.
The thing we see in this reading is that the actions of Peter, as Saint Paul says himself, were not on the right road; but that does not mean that what Peter taught was wrong. Certainly, he teaches by his actions as well, but his actions are not protected from doing anything wrong. So we see in this case also the imperfection of Saint Peter, that is, that Peter had not yet come to the point of being able to love Our Lord perfectly. Saint Paul, in standing up to Saint Peter, helps him to grow in humility because Saint Paul makes it very clear that this was done publicly. But it was also in God’s providence for a very specific reason: to be able to show that the Gentiles did not have to become Jews before they could be considered Christians. It was a very poignant example that Saint Paul was able to use to make this point. In this way, God used even the weakness and the imperfection of Saint Peter to be able to bring about the teaching which was very clear and which then set the standard for the rest of time in the Church.
What we have to be able to see for ourselves, then, as we look at the Popes throughout the centuries (and, of course, we look at our own Holy Father today), is that they are weak, sinful human beings. Our Holy Father goes to Confession, it is said, every single day. He is not trying to make any bones about the idea that he cannot sin because he knows he can. But when he teaches as the teacher of the entire Church, his teaching is protected by the Holy Spirit from error and from leading anyone into error. That is the clear distinction that must be made. And when we look at some of the unfortunate men who were in the papacy before, some of the most horrendous sinners on the face of the earth at the time, we recognize that once again God protected their teaching. They never taught anything that was contrary to the truth. They lived almost everything that was contrary to the truth, but they never tried to teach to the faithful anything contrary to the truth.
So when we see this point in the reading from Galatians today, the thing we have to understand is that the infallibility does not extend to the way the Pope lives out his life, but only to his teaching as the Universal Teacher and when it is with the full weight of his apostolic authority. Also, just to make very clear in case there is any question, this does not mean that every time the Pope opens his mouth to speak that it is infallible. So far, the popes have spoken infallibly twice – that is all. John Paul II to this day has never yet put out an infallible document. There is nothing that he has done that he has tried to make an infallible teaching for the Church. That does not mean we can just ignore all of his teaching because we are guaranteed that he is going to be without error in teaching the faithful, but those documents he has written are not infallible documents, that is, he was not intending to make an infallible statement.
Again, we just need to be very clear on what the Church teaches so that when this is brought into question, whether in our own minds or attacked by someone outside the Church, we can defend the truth and we can defend what Our Lord Himself has done. Saint Paul, recognizing the authority of the apostles (particularly Peter), was willing to present to them the Gospel as he preached it in order to be obedient. Yet, at the same time, these same apostles whose authority was upheld were weak human beings who were sinful just like us. And in the midst of their sinfulness and their weakness, God used them to be able to lead the Church. What is critical for us to understand is that they are not somehow superhuman. Our Holy Father, as extraordinary as he is, is a weak, sinful human being like the rest of us; but he has been chosen by God precisely because he is a weak, sinful human being to be the Pope. He has given to the Holy Father His own authority to be the chief shepherd, to be the rock, to be the one who shares in that kingly office of Christ to lead the people in the way of humility and in the way of truth to union with Jesus Christ.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.