Saints Peter and Paul
When Saints Peter and Paul met face to face at Antioch, the Church was still wondering how much of the Jewish law the Gentile Christians had to obey. And St Paul wanted to give St Peter a piece of his mind. Peter was a world-class hypocrite, eating anything with Gentiles one day, and only kosher food with Jews the next. He might be the prince of the apostles, but somebody had to administer a little fraternal correction on this point.
Was this any way to speak to a Pope? Peter was just doing his best to solve an awkward social problem, and everything we read in Acts makes it clear that he was on St Paul’s side in the Jewish-Gentile controversy. In the end, St Paul’s protest seems to have been effective. No bones were broken; and the Vicar of Christ (not for the first or the last time in history) accepted correction.
No, there should be nothing surprising in the fact that St Paul disagreed with St Peter, or in the fact that St Peter was on the wrong side. But this episode in the lives of the two great princes of the Church is a symbol of the tension between two forces in the history of the Church. One is the tendency to reform, to try new experiments, to appeal to the freedom with which Christ has made us free. The other is a fidelity to tradition, a reluctance to be carried away by the trends of the moment. It is a cherishing of the Church’s long inheritance of accumulated wisdom. These are not two contradictory forces. They are complementary, and the well-being of the Catholic community depends on keeping them in creative tension.
Ever since the papacy of Saint John Paul II, the popes have had a wider and nobler conception of the duty they have undertaken. They will give the world positive guidance, they will take initiatives, they will spur us to action. We for our part must respond generously, and if need be heroically, to the conditions of our age, to an aggressively secular government which presumes to tell us we may not practice our faith in public, which refuses to protect the life of the unborn if the mother wants an abortion, which calls us bigots if we think of marriage as between a man and a woman.
St Peter and St Paul have something to say for times like ours. They bear the sword as well as the keys; they were princes of the Church because they sealed their witness by martyrdom. They call us to glorious thrones, but through a hard apostolate. If they disagreed once, it was long ago; they have but one voice now, and it bids us “Be not afraid”.