Why is the authority that Jesus vested in Peter handed down to successors?

Here’s a quick Biblical reason why the current Pope continues to exercise Peter’s authority:

In Isaiah 22, King Hezekiah has discovered that his household steward Shebna has been stealing money from the King. The obvious evidence is the pricey tomb Shebna has built for himself:

“What have you to do here and whom have you here, that you have hewn here a tomb for yourself, you who hew a tomb on the height, and carve a habitation for yourself in the rock?”

The King banishes his corrupt chief steward:

“Behold, the LORD will hurl you away violently, O you strong man. He will seize firm hold on you, and whirl you round and round, and throw you like a ball into a wide land; there you shall die, and there shall be your splendid chariots, you shame of your master’s house.”

And makes a new one of Eliakim. He dresses him in the official clothes:

I will call my servant Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, and I will clothe him with your robe, and will bind your girdle on him, and will commit your authority to his hand; and he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah.”

And gives him the key to the Kingdom, the House of David:

“And I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open…and he will become a throne of honor to his father’s house.”

Of course, if Eliakim dies or falls out of royal favor, the King will get himself another prime minister–it’s not a one-time status unique to Eliakim.

Centuries later, Jesus borrows from this scene of a King authorizing his #1 official when he tells Peter:

“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

So Peter is entrusted with the keys not to an earthly kingdom, but the Kingdom of Heaven. And being a holder of the King’s keys, when Peter dies or retires, a new prime minister will take his place.

For More Information:

Isaiah 22, New American Bible translation, on the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops website.


The commission to Peter by Jesus is found in Matthew 16:18.  Here is Matthew, Chapter 16, New American Bible translation, on the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops website.


The Catechism of the Catholic Church explores the theological underpinnings of papal authority in detail. Related sections include:

880 When Christ instituted the Twelve, "he constituted [them] in the form of a college or permanent assembly, at the head of which he placed Peter, chosen from among them."398 Just as "by the Lord's institution, St. Peter and the rest of the apostles constitute a single apostolic college, so in like fashion the Roman Pontiff, Peter's successor, and the bishops, the successors of the apostles, are related with and united to one another."399 881 The Lord made Simon alone, whom he named Peter, the "rock" of his Church. He gave him the keys of his Church and instituted him shepherd of the whole flock.400 "The office of binding and loosing which was given to Peter was also assigned to the college of apostles united to its head."401 This pastoral office of Peter and the other apostles belongs to the Church's very foundation and is continued by the bishops under the primacy of the Pope. 882 The Pope, Bishop of Rome and Peter's successor, "is the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful."402 "For the Roman Pontiff, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, and as pastor of the entire Church has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered."403 883 "The college or body of bishops has no authority unless united with the Roman Pontiff, Peter's successor, as its head." As such, this college has "supreme and full authority over the universal Church; but this power cannot be exercised without the agreement of the Roman Pontiff."404 884 "The college of bishops exercises power over the universal Church in a solemn manner in an ecumenical council."405 But "there never is an ecumenical council which is not confirmed or at least recognized as such by Peter's successor."406 885 "This college, in so far as it is composed of many members, is the expression of the variety and universality of the People of God; and of the unity of the flock of Christ, in so far as it is assembled under one head."407
This site also makes it possible to see cross-references to each section of the Catechism; click on the number of the article (like "884") and a window will pop up with related articles.

Get updates!

Subscribe to our RSS feed in a reader to keep up with the latest answers to questions about the papal election, or get new posts in your Inbox by entering your email below: