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Paul's Rebuke and Peter’s Hypocrisy
When I was in college, I used to listen to hours of Catholic Answers every week. I couldn't get enough of it. I had recently experienced a profound encounter with the Lord, and I was eager to gain more information to better understand my faith.
During that time, and possibly even today, the show dedicated a significant amount of time to providing apologetic responses to objections raised by Protestant arguments. I listened to Catholic Answers for a long time, and I eventually realized that about 90% of the questions callers asked were the same forty questions. It reached a point where when one of these Top Forty questions was posed, I already knew the response (around that time, I started exploring other content, haha).
One of those Top Forty questions revolved around an objection to the Church's teaching on papal infallibility. The caller would invariably refer to Galatians 2 and St. Paul's account of confronting St. Peter "to his face." The objection questioned how Peter could have been infallible if Paul had to publicly correct him.
The answer lies in the text (Galatians 2, Acts 11, and Acts 15). Peter taught, based on God's revelation, that Gentiles were welcome in the early Church without the need for circumcision or adherence to dietary laws. However, as Paul recalled, when in Antioch, Peter stopped eating with Gentile Christians out of fear of criticism from Jewish Christians who insisted on separating Gentiles from the rest of the community.
In essence, Peter was not following his own teachings. What he taught was true and authoritative, but due to his fear of how others would perceive him, his actions contradicted his preaching. When Paul confronted Peter, he wasn't challenging Peter's teachings but rather urging him to recognize the inconsistency between his actions and his teachings, inconsistency that was causing scandal in the community.
This distinction between Peter’s preaching and his behavior is essential, and not just for when we are explaining Catholicism to Protestants. Since 2013, I have seen more arguments then I can count from Catholics who sloppily use this passage from Galatians to justify their opposition and suspicion to Pope Francis’s teaching.
The pope’s teaching is protected by the Holy Spirit and requires our docility and respect. If I find myself feeling defensive about a papal teaching, that feeling is an invitation for me to ask the Lord, “Why am I reacting this way? Why is this teaching challenging?” My defensiveness is not an excuse to publicly oppose the pope’s teaching.
This brings me to my own "Paul opposing Peter" moment.
I’ve said several times in the past that I’m not sure I’d still be Catholic if it weren’t for Pope Francis. Even though I’ve been Catholic my whole life, when I first read his teaching I said to myself, “I want to believe in the God who Pope Francis talks about.” His teachings have challenged many of the false and spiritually abusive beliefs I held for most of my life, beliefs that I had been taught by well-meaning pastors, theologians, and apologists. At its core, this newsletter and podcast are simply my efforts to share what I have found healing, challenging, and transformative in the Pope's teachings.
My awareness of how leaders in the Church have abused their power and prioritized the institution over human dignity has been explicitly shaped by Francis’s teaching. It’s from him that I was taught that every human person is infinitely valuable. He taught me about God’s gentle and non-coercive love. Francis was the one who showed me that the marginalized and vulnerable demand the majority of my attention. He was the pope who helped me see that even the Church has failed to protect human dignity in the past and has needed to change it’s practices and teachings. He told me how insidious and toxic clericalism is. It was from him that I first heard the term, “abuse of conscience.”
I have been deeply influenced by these teachings, and it is precisely because of them that I have come to believe that there is a culture of clerical and institutional self-protection that has permeated every level of the Church. It is through the Church's social teachings that I have recognized this culture of self-protection as a structure of sin that must be confronted with the virtue of solidarity. Specifically, solidarity with the most vulnerable in the Church, those who have been abused and harmed by clergy and ministers. The antidote to these structures of self-protection lies in structures that center the voices of survivors and prioritize the vulnerable and marginalized.
Over the past 70 years, several truly horrendous predators have risen to prominence in the Church, such as Fr. Marie-Dominique Philippe (founder of the Brothers of St. John Community), his brother Fr. Thomas Philippe (mentor of Jean Vanier), Jean Vanier himself (founder of L’Arche), Fr. Maciel (founder of the Legion of Christ), and, of course, former Cardinal McCarrick.
Pope Saint John Paul II promoted McCarrick and was friends with Fr. Maciel. As reported by CNA, the Vatican sanctioned Fr. Marie-Dominique Philippe and Fr. Thomas Philippe in the 1950s due to sexual abuse, but these sanctions somehow escaped the knowledge of John Paul II, who promoted these men and their communities (that level of ignorance boggles belief). It certainly looks like there's a culture of clerical self-protection that's been curated by predators for decades, maybe a century, at the highest levels of the institutional Church.
It’s Pope Francis who has shaped my understanding in this area. But then I watch what’s happening with the disgraced former Jesuit, Fr. Marko Rupnik and my heart sinks. (If you’re unaware of Fr. Rupnik, here are two articles with the details.) I don't know what's happening behind the scenes, but to any reasonable observer, it appears that Pope Francis is not prioritizing the voices of abuse survivors. Instead, it seems he is protecting Rupnik from prosecution and giving a platform to those who defend him. It’s difficult—not just difficult, scandalous—for me to see Pope Francis complicit in this culture of clerical coverup and protection.
Which brings me to an aspect of the story about Paul rebuking Peter that has stood out to me recently. Peter's failure was precisely a failure of courage. His sin was hypocritically conforming to the religious culture of the time out of fear of persecution from the "circumcision party." He knew what was true and taught what was true, but he failed to stand firm in the truth of his own teaching, of what God had revealed to him. By acting hypocritically, he scandalized the Christian communities for which he was responsible.
It looks like Pope Francis is capitulating to the prevailing religious culture and structures of sin in the Church instead of living up to his own teachings. This failure of courage is re-victimizing abuse survivors and creating obstacles for future victims to come forward. And it’s so incredibly disappointing.
I’m not St. Paul and I’m not a successor to the apostles. I don't pretend to have any kind of authority or voice to confront the pope. But I hope that Pope Francis has his own St. Paul, someone close to him, someone with integrity, who has the courage to tell him about the harm and scandal that his actions are causing.