It is often stated by non Catholic Christian brothers, that
S. Augustine’s great prestige and authority are to be considered
as opposing the idea of petrine primacy.
Strange as it can appear that the Catholic Church proclaimed Doctor of the Church
such a clear “anti-papist”, that impressive claim seems to rest mainly on a very often quoted passage of the Retractationes.
That is, the late systematic review of his works, dated around 427 AD.
A premise on the title of that singular treatise could be useful.
Translating it as “Retractations”, one could get the idea that here you’ll find just simply withdrawn opinions, recantations. Indeed, the latin re-tractare has primarily the neutral meaning of “dealing with again, reconsidering”, rather than “repudiating, recanting”, as it could maybe sound to a modern ear. So, a more adequate translation of the title could likely be “Reconsiderations”.
Here is a translation of the relevant passage, from Book I, chapter 21 (or 20, in other editions):
“I mentioned somewhere with reference to the apostle Peter that ‘the Church is founded upon him as upon a rock.’ This meaning is also sung by many lips in the lines of blessed Ambrose, where, speaking of the domestic cock, he says: ‘When it crows, he, the rock of the Church, absolves from sin.’ But I realize that I have since frequently explained the words of our Lord: ‘Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my church’, to the effect that they should be understood as referring to him Peter confessed when he said: ‘Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God’, and as meaning that Peter having been named after this rock, figured the person of the Church, which is built upon this rock and has received the keys of the kingdom of heaven. For what was said to him was not ‘Thou art rock’, but ‘Thou art Peter’. But the rock was Christ, having confessed whom(even as the whole Church confesses) Simon was named Peter. Which of these interpretations is more likely to be correct, let the reader choose.”
For the original text see eg www.sant-agostino.it/latino/ritrattazioni
Some considerations to begin with:
- We are told that both of these interpretations (petra=Peter, petra=Christ) were offered by Augustine during his theological/pastoral career. Both are offered again in this passage. The reader is absolutely free. He/she can prefer any of the two proposed interpretations (“eligat lector”).
- To make it clearer that the first interpretation is not repudiated at all, Augustine quotes his dear friend and teacher Ambrose in its support ( curious, since in our time passages by Ambrose are often quoted against petrine primacy).
- If anyone can freely hold to the latter as well to the former interpretation, it means the two of them are not seen by Augustine in contradiction with each other.
- Why are they not contradictory ? Probably, because if Christ is the ultimate “petra” ( as the Catholic Church proclaims, too), and He chooses to call Simon “Petrus” just after Himself, the Lord, in S. Augustine’s view, singles Simon out remarkably indeed, among the Apostles and all future generations of believers.
All observations by everyone are welcome.