Peter—The Rock?

The following speech by Peter Richard Kenrick, Archbishop of St. Louis, was prepared to be given at the Vatican Council in Rome in 1870, when the dogma of the infallibility of the pope was under discussion.

Peter Richard Kenrick, Archbishop of St. Louis,

[The following speech by Peter Richard Kenrick, Archbishop of St. Louis, was prepared to be given at the Vatican Council in Rome in 1870, when the dogma of the infallibility of the pope was under discussion. Some forty bishops whose names were on the list of those wishing to be heard had not had opportunity when on June 3 the debates on the main question were suddenly silenced. Pri­vate printing was prohibited, but the American prelate, refusing to be thus "gagged," found a way to have his views privately printed in Naples in an edition of seven hundred and carefully circulated among the members of that council. This did not, however, change the outcome—the enunciation of the dogma of papal infallibility. Only a brief ex­cerpt from the speech is given herewith, containing points that will be useful to our evangelists and other ministerial workers.]

I beg you so far to indulge me, most eminent and reverend fathers, as to give me your calm attention while I say things which doubt­less will not be agreeable to many of you. I am not about to set forth anything heretical or savoring of heresy, (as the remarks of the archbishop of Dublin may have led you to fear,) nor anything opposed to the principles of the faith, nor anything but what, so far as my slender abilities permit, I shall endeavor to sustain with solid argument. One thing I wish to give warning of: I speak for myself only, not for others; and I do not know but that what I am about to say may give dis­satisfaction even to those with whom I take sides in the discussion of this question. If, in the course of my speech, I happen to speak too sharply on any point, remember and imi­tate the example of those leaders who were persuaded to patience by the famous saying, "Strike, but hear." I shall pay due respect to Their Eminences the moderators of the con­gregation; but I will not be put down by commotions.

The primacy of the Roman pontiff, both in honor and in jurisdiction, in the universal church, I acknowledge. Primacy, I say, not lordship. But that the primacy is vested in him as the successor of Peter, all the tradi­tion of the church testifies, from the beginning. And on the sole strength of this testimony I accept it as an absolutely certain principle and dogma of faith. But that it can be proved from the words of Holy Scripture, by anyone who would be faithful to the rule of interpre­tation prescribed to us in that profession of faith which we have uttered at the opening of this Council, and so often on other occasions, I deny. It is true that, following the principles of exegesis, I held the opposite view when I was writing the Observations which the arch­bishop of Dublin has attacked so sharply. But on a closer study of the subject, I judge that this interpretation must be abandoned. My reason for this change of opinion is the follow­ing:

The rule of Biblical interpretation imposed upon us is this: that the Scriptures are not to be interpreted contrary to the unanimous consent of the fathers. It is doubtful whether any instance of that unanimous consent is to be found. But this failing, the rule seems to lay down for us the law of following, in their interpretation of Scripture, the major number of the fathers, that might seem to approach una­nimity. Accepting this rule, we are compelled to abandon the usual modern exposition of the words, "On this rock will I build my church."

In a remarkable pamphlet "printed in fac­simile of manuscript," and presented to the fathers almost two months ago, we find five different interpretations of the word rock, in the place cited; "the first of which declares" (I transcribe the words) "that the church was built on Peter; and this interpretation is fol­lowed by seventeen fathers—among them, by Origen, Cyprian, Jerome, Hilary, Cyril of Alex­andria, Leo the Great, Augustine.

"The second interpretation understands from these words, 'On this rock will I build my church,' that the church was built on all the apostles, whom Peter represented by virtue of the primacy. And this opinion is followed by eight fathers—among them, Origen, Cyprian, Jerome, Augustine, Theodoret.


"The third interpretation asserts that the words, 'On this rock,' etc., are to be understood of the faith which Peter had professed—that this faith, this profession of faith, by which we believe Christ to be the Son of the living God, is the everlasting and immovable foundation of the church. This interpretation is the weight­iest of all, since it is followed by forty-four fathers and doctors; among them, from the East, are Gregory of Nyssa, Cyril of Alexandria, Chrys­ostom, Theophylact: from the West, Hilary, Ambrose, Leo the Great; from Africa, Augus­tine.

"The fourth interpretation declares that the words, 'On this rock,' etc., are to be under­stood of that rock which Peter had confessed, that is, Christ—that the church was built upon Christ. This interpretation is followed by six­teen fathers and doctors.

"The fifth interpretation of the fathers un­derstands by the name of the rock, the faithful themselves, who, believing Christ to be the Son of God, are constituted living stones out of which the church is built."

Thus far the author of the pamphlet afore­said, in which may be read the words of the fathers and doctors whom he cites.

From this it follows, either that no argument at all, or one of the slenderest probability, is to be derived from the words, "On this rock will I build my church," in support of the primacy. Unless it is certain that by the rock is to be understood the apostle Peter in his own person, and not in his capacity as the chief apostle speaking for them all, the word supplies no argument whatever, I do not say in proof of papal infallibility, but even in support of the primacy of the bishop of Rome. If we are bound to follow the majority of the fathers in this thing, then we are bound to hold for certain that by the rock should be understood the faith professed by Peter, not Peter professing the faith.

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Peter Richard Kenrick, Archbishop of St. Louis,

March 1955

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