Some Protestant friends of mine have objected to the jurisdictional claims of the papacy by pointing to several texts in the Church's Tradition where the authority of the keys is applied to all of the apostles and not just to Peter. Now, it is indeed true that in the Tradition the "keys to the kingdom" are interpreted, in some instances, as applying to the apostles in general, and, in other instances, as applying to Peter in particular. In Matthew 16:19 Jesus speaks of giving the keys to Peter. In Mathew 18:18 Jesus speaks of giving the apostles the power to bind and loose. In John 20:21-23 Jesus “sends” the apostles “as he has been sent by the father” and gives them the power to retain or release men of their sins (which is a call back to the passage of the healing of the paralytic). We have to be careful when quote-mining the Tradition (because of its vastness): What can be missed is how the Tradition precisely expounds on how Peter and the apostles share in the power of the keys.
The first thing to point out is that the binding and loosing of the keys is related to communion and excommunication (after all we are talking about the founding of the “new” covenant community). The new covenant community is united in the truth that is Jesus himself (cf. John 14:6). The nature of schism, heresy, and sin are all connected to the proper understanding of Church unity. Schism is a separation from the communion of the Church, heresy is a separation from the unity of the Church's faith, and sin severs the bond of charity between God and man, and between man and his neighbor. Jesus is giving Peter and the Apostles the juridical authority to declare when one is not in the fold (in the Church-body) and the authority to forgive and thereby restore one's communion to the fold (to the Church-body). All of this flows from an understanding of “covenant.” And we are speaking of the “new” covenant established by Christ ("this cup is the new covenant in my blood" 1 Cor 11:25).
So the covenantal logic of the keys should make sense. But what makes us "one" is precisely the understanding of the Church as “the body of Christ” ("because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread" 1 Cor 10:17). And so the keys, or rather, the “jurisdiction” of Peter and the apostles is intimately tied to the Eucharist and the unity it effects.
The bishop binds and looses in his “local Church.” Now, the local Church makes present the whole church because the Eucharist “is there” and “is open” to communion with other local churches (this is necessary for “Catholic” communion, for “universal” communion). Hence bishops are endowed with the juridical authority of the covenant in their local church. They are what makes the Church “united” and “one” ("that they may be one" John 17:21). They can “bind” and “loose” in the service of the communion over which they preside.
But now we notice that this is what constitutes the “college of bishops”: i.e., the communion of bishops with each other. This is one of the ways in which the “universal Church” is one. But what of bishops who commit schism or heresy? Who refuse communion or who deny the unity of the Church's faith? This is where Peter’s jurisdiction comes in. Just as the bishop binds and looses for the local church, the pope binds and looses for the universal church. Now, this doesn’t mean that the pope can do whatever he wants. It means that he is responsible for respecting the subsidiarity of the local church and he must not subsume the local church in a way which would make the church just one big global local church. But it also means that he has a special jurisdiction which is in the service of the covenant, of its communion and unity, in a universal register. That’s what we call the primacy. So all of this comes together if we properly understand the relationship between the Church and the Eucharist.
This is why the Tradition speaks of the power of the keys in respect to the college of bishops and of the primacy of the pope. Vatican I dealt with the primacy, Vatican II dealt with the college.
From this also follows “infallibility.” All we need to do is to consider it in relation to primacy: who would bind or loose the one with the jurisdiction that is precisely at the service of the church’s universal communion? If the pope became a heretic in his teaching office or a schismatic in his juridical office, then the communion of the church would be lost. The gates of division would have prevailed against communion. This is why Jesus says that the gates of hell shall not prevail: He is speaking of the Church as communion. In other words, the Church is communion.
Dom Dalmasso is a 2023 graduate from Holy Apostles College and Seminary with a Bachelor of Arts in Theology and philosophy. He was a Benedictine monk from early 2011 to late 2012 at Our Lady of Clear Creek Abbey in Oklahoma and was an active-duty United States Marine from August 2014 to August 2018. He runs the YouTube Show / Podcast The Logos Project, and is the editor-in-chief of The Ecclesia Blog. He is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Dogmatic Theology at Holy Apostles.