The first reading of today’s Mass gives a clear picture of Paul’s relationship with the first Pope and Curia. What can the Church today learn from it?
First of all, we can see clearly that God gives strong gifts to members of the Church who are not part of the hierarchy. Paul received the Gospel from Christ himself, independently of the then current teaching authority of the Church. This tells us that God is ultimately in charge of the Christian project to redeem the world and is the ultimate strategist for the Kingdom.
Second, independent or not, Paul is given a revelation to go to Peter and others of the Twelve to verify that he is teaching the same Gospel as they. The then hierarchy agreed with Paul’s proclamation and his right to proclaim. It seems obvious from this that God wishes one message spoken, a unity of faith in the Church, that goes beyond personality and personal charism. Each gifted member, then, has the duty to ensure this by realizing communion with the leadership.
Within the context of the mutual handshake, Paul confronts the first Pope with his error. Peter was living one way as a Christian (not observing the Law of Moses himself) and yet talking another way to Gentile converts (requiring them to observe the Law). The hypocrisy was born of Peter’s fear of the faction in the community that insisted on observance of Mosaic Law as part of Christian practice. Paul saw that Peter and his colleagues “were not on the right road in line with the truth of the Gospel” and he dared to speak up. He boldly unmasked Peter and corrected his point of view with Gospel arguments. It is Paul’s position, not Peter’s, that was subsequently embraced in Christian history. All of this tells us that dissent is legitimate, sometimes necessary, in the Church as long as it speaks the Gospel truth. And that is the great challenge of any dissenter.
The Church today, to be true to its call, should take care not to deny this Paul and Peter story in any of its aspects.