So two days ago we celebrated the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter. I figure this is an odd enough sounding feast that we should probably talk about it a little.
Why are we celebrating a chair?
The chair of St. Peter, or “cathedra,” is the specific place and object associated with the universal teaching authority of the Church.
Well what does that mean?
In ancient times chairs were seen as symbols of teaching authority, so for example, in Matthew 23:2, Jesus refers to how the Scribes and Pharisees sit on the chair of Moses. This is a reference to a teaching authority inherited by the religious leaders of the day from the Prophet Moses. Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, however, certain events happen which essentially strip this authority of meaning.
The first is Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Moses went up a mountain to receive teaching from God and brought it back to the people, hence being the greatest Prophet in Hebrew history, and the source of Jewish teaching authority. Jesus is the New Moses, who sat upon the mountain as God Himself, and taught His disciples – and if you examine what He says in that Sermon, you will see that He corrects numerous misunderstandings of the people in regards to the Law given by Moses, including on subjects like divorce, and murder. Jesus has not replaced the Law here, but He has replaced Moses as the true Lawgiver, and thus as the source of teaching authority.
What else happens in Matthew’s Gospel? Jesus gives authority to others. First to Peter in Matthew 16:18-19, in a specific way as the rock upon which He will found His Church, and then in a more general way to all the Apostles in Matthew 18:18-19. But in Matthew 18 this establishing of authority to bind and loose and to teach follows on the heals of Christ speaking more fully on the role of the Church in authority. Christ establishes it as the final appeal when a dispute arises among believers, if it cannot be settled privately, or with the aid of a few, then believers are to go to the Church, and those who do not listen as to be treated as if they aren’t part of the community of believers.
So Jesus takes the place of Moses, superseding him in authority. He then establishes a Church, which has authority to teach. Next He establishes Peter as the rock upon which it will be built after what we could call the very first infallible statement by a Pope – the confession that Jesus is the Messiah, and the Son of God. Finally He sets up the Apostles as collectively sharing in some of that same authority.
This Feast is a celebration of St. Peter, but even more than that it is a celebration of the blessing of God which has seen fit to give us infallible teachings through the Apostles and their successors the Bishops, both in councils, and in the particular statements of the Popes which fulfill the requirements for infallibility. This is what’s referred to as the Pope speaking “ex cathedra” or “from the chair.” What chair? Peter’s chair. Hence our feast!