Catholic Encyclopedia – The Pope

Article

Ecclesiastical Latin papa, from Greek papas, a variant of pappas – father, in classical Latin pappas — Juvenal, “Satires” 6:633

The title pope, once used with far greater latitude (see below, section V), is at present employed solely to denote the Bishop of Rome, who, in virtue of his position as successor of Saint Peter, is the chief pastor of the whole Church, the Vicar of Christ upon earth.

Besides the bishopric of the Roman Diocese, certain other dignities are held by the pope as well as the supreme and universal pastorate: he is Archbishop of the Roman Province, Primate of Italy and the adjacent islands, and sole Patriarch of the Western Church. The Church’s doctrine as to the pope was authoritatively declared in the Vatican Council in the Constitution “Pastor Aeternus”. The four chapters of that Constitution deal respectively with the office of Supreme Head conferred on Saint Peter, the perpetuity of this office in the person of the Roman pontiff, the pope’s jurisdiction over the faithful, and his supreme authority to define in all questions of faith and morals. This last point has been sufficiently discussed in the article Infallibility, and will be only incidentally touched on here.

The present article is divided as follows:

I. Institution of a Supreme Head by Christ
II. Primacy of the Roman See
III. Nature and Extent of the Papal Power
IV. Jurisdictional Rights and Prerogatives of the Pope
V. Primacy of Honour: Titles and Insignia

Institution of a supreme head by Christ

The proof that Christ constituted Saint Peter head of His Church is found in the two famous Petrine texts, Matthew 16:17-19, and John 21:15-17.

Matthew 16:17-19

In Matthew 16:17-19, the office is solemnly promised to the Apostle. In response to his profession of faith in the Divine Nature of his Master, Christ thus addresses him:

Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-Jona: because flesh and blood hath not revealed it to thee, but my Father who is in heaven. And I say to thee: That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven.

“Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-Jona: because flesh and blood hath not revealed it to thee, but my Father who is in heaven.” The prerogatives here promised are manifestly personal to Peter. His profession of faith was not made as has been sometimes asserted, in the name of the other Apostles. This is evident from the words of Christ. He pronounces on the Apostle, distinguishing him by his name Simon son of John, a peculiar and personal blessing, declaring that his knowledge regarding the Divine Sonship sprang from a special revelation granted to him by the Father (cf. Matthew 11:27).

“And I say to thee: That thou art Peter. . .” He further proceeds to recompense this confession of His Divinity by bestowing upon him a reward proper to himself:

Thou art Peter [Cepha, transliterated also Kipha] and upon this rock [Cepha] I will build my Church.

The word for Peter and for rock in the original Aramaic is one and the same; this renders it evident that the various attempts to explain the term “rock” as having reference not to Peter himself but to something else are misinterpretations. It is Peter who is the rock of the Church. The term ecclesia (ekklesia) here employed is the Greek rendering of the Hebrew qahal, the name which denoted the Hebrew nation viewed as God’s Church (see THE CHURCH, I).

“And upon this rock I will build my Church. . .” Here then Christ teaches plainly that in the future the Church will be the society of those who acknowledge Him, and that this Church will be built on Peter.

The expression presents no difficulty. In both the Old and New Testaments the Church is often spoken of under the metaphor of God’s house (Numbers 12:7; Jeremiah 12:7; Hosea 8:1; 9:15; 1 Corinthians 3:9-17, Ephesians 2:20-2; 1 Timothy 3:5; Hebrews 3:5; 1 Peter 2:5). Peter is to be to the Church what the foundation is in regard to a house.

He is to be the principle of unity, of stability, and of increase. He is the principle of unity, since what is not joined to that foundation is no part of the Church; of stability, since it is the firmness of this foundation in virtue of which the Church remains unshaken by the storms which buffet her; of increase, since, if she grows, it is because new stones are laid on this foundation.

“And the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” It is through her union with Peter, Christ continues, that the Church will prove the victor in her long contest with the Evil One:

The gates of hell shall not prevail against it.

There can be but one explanation of this striking metaphor. The only manner in which a man can stand in such a relation to any corporate body is by possessing authority over it. The supreme head of a body, in dependence on whom all subordinate authorities hold their power, and he alone, can be said to be the principle of stability, unity, and increase. The promise acquires additional solemnity when we remember that both Old Testament prophecy (Isaiah 28:16) and Christ’s own words (Matthew 7:24) had attributed this office of foundation of the Church to Himself. He is therefore assigning to Peter, of course in a secondary degree, a prerogative which is His own, and thereby associating the Apostle with Himself in an altogether singular manner.

“And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” In the following verse (Matthew 16:19) He promises to bestow on Peter the keys of the kingdom of heaven.

The words refer evidently to Isaiah 22:22, where God declares that Eliacim, the son of Helcias, shall be invested with office in place of the worthless Sobna:

And I will lay the key of the house of David upon his shoulder: and he shall open, and none shall shut: and he shall shut and none shall open.

In all countries the key is the symbol of authority. Thus, Christ’s words are a promise that He will confer on Peter supreme power to govern the Church. Peter is to be His vicegerent, to rule in His place.

“And whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven.” Further the character and extent of the power thus bestowed are indicated. It is a power to “bind” and to “loose” — words which, as is shown below, denote the grant of legislative and judicial authority. And this power is granted in its fullest measure. Whatever Peter binds or looses on earth, his act will receive the Divine ratification.

Objections

The meaning of this passage does not seem to have been challenged by any writer until the rise of the sixteenth-century heresies. Since then a great variety of interpretations have been put forward by Protestant controversialists. These agree in little save in the rejection of the plain sense of Christ’s words. Some Anglican controversy tends to the view that the reward promised to Saint Peter consisted in the prominent part taken by him in the initial activities of the Church, but that he was never more than primus inter pares among the Apostles. It is manifest that this is quite insufficient as an explanation of the terms of Christ’s promise.

John 21:15-17

The promise made by Christ in Matthew 16:16-19, received its fulfilment after the Resurrection in the scene described in John 21. Here the Lord, when about to leave the earth, places the whole flock — the sheep and the lambs alike — in the charge of the Apostle. The term employed in 21:16, “Be the shepherd [poimaine] of my sheep” indicates that his task is not merely to feed but to rule. It is the same word as is used in Psalm 2:9 (Septuagint): “Thou shalt rule [poimaneis] them with a rod of iron”.

The scene stands in striking parallelism with that of Matthew 16. As there the reward was given to Peter after a profession of faith which singled him out from the other eleven, so here Christ demands a similar protestation, but this time of a yet higher virtue: “Simon, son of John, lovest thou Me more than these”? Here, too, as there, He bestows on the Apostle an office which in its highest sense is proper to Himself alone. There Christ had promised to make Peter the foundation-stone of the house of God: here He makes him the shepherd of God’s flock to take the place of Himself, the Good Shepherd.

The passage receives an admirable comment from Saint Chrysostom:

He saith to him, “Feed my sheep”. Why does He pass over the others and speak of the sheep to Peter? He was the chosen one of the Apostles, the mouth of the disciples, the head of the choir. For this reason Paul went up to see him rather than the others. And also to show him that he must have confidence now that his denial had been purged away. He entrusts him with the rule [prostasia] over the brethren. . . . If anyone should say “Why then was it James who received the See of Jerusalem?”, I should reply that He made Peter the teacher not of that see but of the whole world.

Even certain Protestant commentators frankly own that Christ undoubtedly intended here to confer the supreme pastorate on Peter. But other scholars, relying on a passage of Saint Cyril of Alexandria, maintain that the purpose of the threefold charge was simply to reinstate Saint Peter in the Apostolic commission which his threefold denial might be supposed to have lost to him. This interpretation is devoid of all probability. There is not a word in Scripture or in patristic tradition to suggest that Saint Peter had forfeited his Apostolic commission; and the supposition is absolutely excluded by the fact that on the evening of the Resurrection he received the same Apostolic powers as the others of the eleven. The solitary phrase of Saint Cyril is of no weight against the overwhelming patristic authority for the other view. That such an interpretation should be seriously advocated proves how great is the difficulty experienced by Protestants regarding this text.

Conclusion

The position of Saint Peter after the Ascension, as shown in the Acts of the Apostles, realizes to the full the great commission bestowed upon him. He is from the first the chief of the Apostolic band — not primus inter pares, but the undisputed head of the Church.

If then Christ, as we have seen, established His Church as a society subordinated to a single supreme head, it follows from the very nature of the case that this office is perpetual, and cannot have been a mere transitory feature of ecclesiastical life. For the Church must endure to the end the very same organization which Christ established. But in an organized society it is precisely the constitution which is the essential feature. A change in constitution transforms it into a society of a different kind. If then the Church should adopt a constitution other than Christ gave it, it would no longer be His handiwork. It would no longer be the Divine kingdom established by Him. As a society it would have passed through essential modifications, and thereby would have become a human, not a Divine institution. None who believe that Christ came on earth to found a Church, an organized society destined to endure for ever, can admit the possibility of a change in the organization given to it by its Founder.

The same conclusion also follows from a consideration of the end which, by Christ’s declaration, the supremacy of Peter was intended to effect. He was to give the Church strength to resist her foes, so that the gates of hell should not prevail against her. The contest with the powers of evil does not belong to the Apostolic age alone. It is a permanent feature of the Church’s life. Hence, throughout the centuries the office of Peter must be realized in the Church, in order that she may prevail in her age-long struggle.

Thus an analysis of Christ’s words shows us that the perpetuity of the office of supreme head is to be reckoned among the truths revealed in Scripture. His promise to Peter conveyed not merely a personal prerogative, but established a permanent office in the Church. And in this sense, as will appear in the next section, His words were understood by Latin and Greek Fathers alike.

Primacy of the Roman See

We have shown in the last section that Christ conferred upon Saint Peter the office of chief pastor, and that the permanence of that office is essential to the very being of the Church. It must now be established that it belongs of right to the Roman See. The proof will fall into two parts:

  • that Saint Peter was Bishop of Rome, and
  • that those who succeed him in that see succeed him also in the supreme headship.

Saint Peter was Bishop of Rome

It is no longer denied by any writer of weight that Saint Peter visited Rome and suffered martyrdom there. Some, however, of those who admit that he taught and suffered in Rome, deny that he was ever bishop of the city. It is not, however, difficult to show that the fact of his bishopric is so well attested as to be historically certain. In considering this point, it will be well to begin with the third century, when references to it become frequent, and work backwards from this point.

Saint Cyprian

In the middle of the third century Saint Cyprian expressly terms the Roman See the Chair of Saint Peter, saying that Cornelius has succeeded to “the place of Fabian which is the place of Peter” (Epistle 51:8; cf. 75:3).

Firmilian of Caesarea

Firmilian of Caesarea notices that Stephen claimed to decide the controversy regarding rebaptism on the ground that he held the succession from Peter (Cyprian, Epistle 75:17). He does not deny the claim: yet certainly, had he been able, he would have done so. Thus in 250 the Roman episcopate of Peter was admitted by those best able to know the truth, not merely at Rome but in the churches of Africa and of Asia Minor.

Tertullian

In the first quarter of the century (c.220) Tertullian mentions Callistus’s claim that Peter’s power to forgive sins had descended in a special manner to him. Had the Roman Church been merely founded by Peter and not reckoned him as its first bishop, there could have been no ground for such a contention. Tertullian, like Firmilian, had every motive to deny the claim. Moreover, he had himself resided at Rome, and would have been well aware if the idea of a Roman episcopate of Peter had been, as is contended by its opponents, a novelty dating from the first years of the third century, supplanting the older tradition according to which Peter and Paul were co-founders, and Linus first bishop.

Hippolytus

About the same period, Hippolytus reckons Peter in the list of Roman bishops.

“Adversus Marcionem”

We have moreover a poem, “Adversus Marcionem”, written apparently at the same period, in which Peter is said to have passed on to Linus “the chair on which he himself had sat”.

Saint Irenaeus

These witnesses bring us to the beginning of the third century. In the second century we cannot look for much evidence. With the exception of Ignatius, Polycarp, and Clement of Alexandria, all the writers whose works we possess are apologists against either Jews or pagans. In works of such a character there was no reason to refer to such a matter as Peter’s Roman episcopate.

Irenaeus, however, supplies us with a cogent argument. In two passages he speaks of Hyginus as ninth Bishop of Rome, thus employing an enumeration which involves the inclusion of Peter as first bishop.

Irenaeus we know visited Rome in 177. At this date, scarcely more than a century after the death of Saint Peter, he may well have come in contact with men whose fathers had themselves spoken to the Apostle. The tradition thus supported must be regarded as beyond all legitimate doubt.

Lightfoot’s suggestion (Clement 1:64), that it had its origin in the Clementine romance, has proved singularly unfortunate. For it is now recognized that this work belongs not to the second, but to the fourth century. Nor is there the slightest ground for the assertion that the language of Irenaeus, III:3:3, implies that Peter and Paul enjoyed a divided episcopate at Rome — an arrangement utterly unknown to the Church at any period. He does, it is true, speak of the two Apostles as together handing on the episcopate to Linus. But this expression is explained by the purpose of his argument, which is to vindicate against the Gnostics the validity of the doctrine taught in the Roman Church. Hence he is naturally led to lay stress on the fact that that Church inherited the teaching of both the great Apostles. Epiphanius would indeed seem to suggest the divided episcopate; but he has apparently merely misunderstood the words of Irenaeus.

Those who succeed Peter in Rome succeed him also in the supreme headship

History bears complete testimony that from the very earliest times the Roman See has ever claimed the supreme headship, and that that headship has been freely acknowledged by the universal Church. We shall here confine ourselves to the consideration of the evidence afforded by the first three centuries.

Saint Clement

The first witness is Saint Clement, a disciple of the Apostles, who, after Linus and Anacletus, succeeded Saint Peter as the fourth in the list of popes. In his “Epistle to the Corinthians”, written in 95 or 96, he bids them receive back the bishops whom a turbulent faction among them had expelled. “If any man”, he says, “should be disobedient unto the words spoken by God through us, let them understand that they will entangle themselves in no slight transgression and danger” (Ep. 59). Moreover, he bids them “render obedience unto the things written by us through the Holy Spirit”. The tone of authority which inspires the latter appears so clearly that Lightfoot did not hesitate to speak of it as “the first step towards papal domination” (Clement 1:70). Thus, at the very commencement of church history, before the last survivor of the Apostles had passed away, we find a Bishop of Rome, himself a disciple of Saint Peter, intervening in the affairs of another Church and claiming to settle the matter by a decision spoken under the influence of the Holy Spirit. Such a fact admits of one explanation alone. It is that in the days when the Apostolic teaching was yet fresh in men’s minds the universal Church recognized in the Bishop of Rome the office of supreme head.

Saint Ignatius of Antioch

A few years later (c.107) Saint Ignatius of Antioch, in the opening of his letter to the Roman Church, refers to its presiding over all other Churches. He addresses it as “presiding over the brotherhood of love [prokathemene tes agapes] The expression, as Funk rightly notes, is grammatically incompatible with the translation advocated by some non-Catholic writers, “pre-eminent in works of love”.

Saint Irenaeus

The same century gives us the witness of Saint Irenaeus — a man who stands in the closest connection with the age of the Apostles, since he was a disciple of Saint Polycarp, who had been appointed Bishop of Smyrna by Saint John. In his work “Adversus Haereses” (III:3:2) he brings against the Gnostic sects of his day the argument that their doctrines have no support in the Apostolic tradition faithfully preserved by the Churches, which could trace the succession of their bishops back to the Twelve. He writes:

Because it would be too long in such a volume as this to enumerate the successions of all the churches, we point to the tradition of that very great and very ancient and universally known Church, which was founded and established at Rome, by the two most glorious Apostles, Peter and Paul: we point I say, to the tradition which this Church has from the Apostles, and to her faith proclaimed to men which comes down to our time through the succession of her bishops, and so we put to shame . . . all who assemble in unauthorized meetings. For with this Church, because of its superior authority, every Church must agree — that is the faithful everywhere — in communion with which Church the tradition of the Apostles has been always preserved by those who are everywhere [Ad hanc enim eoclesiam propter potentiorem principalitatem necesse est omnem convenire ecclesiam, hoc est eos qui sunt undique fideles, in qua semper ab his qui sunt undique, conservata est ea quâ est ab apostolis traditio].

He then proceeds to enumerate the Roman succession from Linus to Eleutherius, the twelfth after the Apostles, who then occupied the see. Non-Catholic writers have sought to rob the passage of its importance by translating the word convenire “to resort to”, and thus understanding it to mean no more than that the faithful from every side (undique) resorted to Rome, so that thus the stream of doctrine in that Church was kept immune from error. Such a rendering, however, is excluded by the construction of the argument, which is based entirely on the contention that the Roman doctrine is pure by reason of its derivation from the two great Apostolic founders of the Church, Saints Peter and Paul. The frequent visits made to Rome by members of other Christian Churches could contribute nothing to this. On the other hand the traditional rendering is postulated by the context, and, though the object of innumerable attacks, none other possessing any real degree of probability has been suggested in its place.

Saint Victor

During the pontificate of Saint Victor (189-98) we have the most explicit assertion of the supremacy of the Roman See in regard to other Churches. A difference of practice between the Churches of Asia Minor and the rest of the Christian world in regard to the day of the Paschal festival led the pope to take action. There is some ground for supposing that the Montanist heretics maintained the Asiatic (or Quartodeciman) practice to be the true one: in this case it would be undesirable that any body of Catholic Christians should appear to support them. But, under any circumstances, such a diversity in the ecclesiastical life of different countries may well have constituted a regrettable feature in the Church, whose very purpose it was to bear witness by her unity to the oneness of God (John 17:21). Victor bade the Asiatic Churches conform to the custom of the remainder of the Church, but was met with determined resistance by Polycrates of Ephesus, who claimed that their custom derived from Saint John himself. Victor replied by an excommunication. Saint Irenaeus, however, intervened, exhorting Victor not to cut off whole Churches on account of a point which was not a matter of faith. He assumes that the pope can exercise the power, but urges him not to do so. Similarly the resistance of the Asiatic bishops involved no denial of the supremacy of Rome. It indicates solely that the bishops believed Saint Victor to be abusing his power in bidding them renounce a custom for which they had Apostolic authority. It was indeed inevitable that, as the Church spread and developed, new problems should present themselves, and that questions should arise as to whether the supreme authority could be legitimately exercised in this or that case. Saint Victor, seeing that more harm than good would come from insistence, withdrew the imposed penalty.

Inscription of Abercius

Not many years since a new and important piece of evidence was brought to light in Asia Minor dating from this period. The sepulchral inscription of Abercius, Bishop of Hierapolis, contains an account of his travels couched in allegorical language. He speaks thus of the Roman Church: “To Rome He [Christ] sent me to contemplate majesty: and to see a queen golden-robed and golden-sandalled.” It is difficult not to recognize in this description a testimony to the supreme position of the Roman See.

Tertullian

Tertullian’s bitter polemic, “De Pudicitia”, was called forth by an exercise of papal prerogative. Pope Callistus had decided that the rigid discipline which had hitherto prevailed in many Churches must be in large measure relaxed. Tertullian, now lapsed into heresy, fiercely attacks “the peremptory edict”, which “the supreme pontiff, the bishop of bishops”, has sent forth. The words are intended as sarcasm: but none the less they indicate clearly the position of authority claimed by Rome. And the opposition comes, not from a Catholic bishop, but from a Montanist heretic.

Saint Cyprian

The views of Saint Cyprian in regard to papal authority have given rise to much discussion. He undoubtedly entertained exaggerated views as to the independence of individual bishops, which eventually led him into serious conflict with Rome. Yet on the fundamental principle his position is clear. He attributed an effective primacy to the pope as the successor of Peter. He makes communion with the See of Rome essential to Catholic communion, speaking of it as “the principal Church whence episcopal unity had its rise” (ad Petri cathedram et ad ecclesiam principalem unde unitas sacerdotalis exorta est).

The force of this expression becomes clear when viewed in the light of his doctrine as to the unity of the Church. This was, he teaches, established by Christ when He founded His Church upon Peter. By this act the unity of the Apostolic college was ensured through the unity of the foundation. The bishops through all time form a similar college, and are bound in a like indivisible unity. Of this unity the Chair of Peter is the source. It fulfils the very office as principle of union which Peter fulfilled in his lifetime. Hence to communicate with an antipope such as Novatian would be schism (Epistle 66:1).

He holds, also, that the pope has authority to depose an heretical bishop. When Marcian of Arles fell into heresy, Cyprian, at the request of the bishops of the province, wrote to urge Pope Stephen “to send letters by which, Marcian having been excommunicated, another may be substituted in his place” (Epistle 66:3). It is manifest that one who regarded the Roman See in this light believed that the pope possessed a real and effective primacy.

At the same time it is not to be denied that his views as to the right of the pope to interfere in the government of a diocese already subject to a legitimate and orthodox bishop were inadequate. In the rebaptism controversy his language in regard to Saint Stephen was bitter and intemperate. His error on this point does not, however, detract from the fact that he admitted a primacy, not merely of honour but of jurisdiction. Nor should his mistake occasion too much surprise. It is as true in the Church as in merely human institutions that the full implications of a general principle are only realized gradually. The claim to apply it in a particular case is often contested at first, though later ages may wonder that such opposition was possible.

Saint Dionysius of Alexandria

Contemporary with Saint Cyprian was Saint Dionysius of Alexandria. Two incidents bearing on the present question are related of him.

Eusebius gives us a letter addressed by him to Saint Xystus II regarding the case of a man who, as it appeared, had been invalidly baptized by heretics, but who for many years had been frequenting the sacraments of the Church. In it he says that he needs Saint Xystus’s advice and begs for his decision (gnomen), that he may not fall into error (dedios me hara sphallomai).

Again, some years later, the same patriarch occasioned anxiety to some of the brethren by making use of some expressions which appeared hardly compatible with a full belief in the Divinity of Christ. They promptly had recourse to the Holy See and accused him to his namesake, Saint Dionysius of Rome, of heretical leanings. The pope replied by laying down authoritatively the true doctrine on the subject.

Both events are instructive as showing us how Rome was recognized by the second see in Christendom as empowered to speak with authority on matters of doctrine.

Emperor Aurelian

Equally noteworthy is the action of Emperor Aurelian in 270. A synod of bishops had condemned Paul of Samosata, Patriarch of Alexandria, on a charge of heresy, and had elected Domnus bishop in his place. Paul refused to withdraw, and appeal was made to the civil power. The emperor decreed that he who was acknowledged by the bishops of Italy and the Bishop of Rome, must be recognized as rightful occupant of the see. The incident proves that even the pagans themselves knew well that communion with the Roman See was the essential mark of all Christian Churches. That the imperial Government was well aware of the position of the pope among Christians derives additional confirmation from the saying of Saint Cyprian that Decius would have sooner heard of the proclamation of a rival emperor than of the election of a new pope to fill the place of the martyred Fabian.

The limits of the present article prevent us from carrying the historical argument further than the year 300. Nor is it in fact necessary to do so. From the beginning of the fourth century the supremacy of Rome is writ large upon the page of history. It is only in regard to the first age of the Church that any question can arise. But the facts we have recounted are entirely sufficient to prove to any unprejudiced mind that the supremacy was exercised and acknowledged from the days of the Apostles.

It was not of course exercised in the same way as in later times. The Church was as yet in her infancy: and it would be irrational to look for a fully developed procedure governing the relations of the supreme pontiff to the bishops of other sees. To establish such a system was the work of time, and it was only gradually embodied in the canons. There would, moreover, be little call for frequent intervention when the Apostolic tradition was still fresh and vigorous in every part of Christendom. Hence the papal prerogatives came into play but rarely. But when the Faith was threatened, or the vital welfare of souls demanded action, then Rome intervened. Such were the causes which led to the intervention of Saint Dionysius, Saint Stephen, Saint Callistus, Saint Victor, and Saint Clement, and their claim to supremacy as the occupants of the Chair of Peter was not disputed.

In view of the purposes with which, and with which alone, these early popes employed their supreme power, the contention, so stoutly maintained by Protestant controversialists, that the Roman primacy had its origin in papal ambition, disappears. The motive which inspired these men was not earthly ambition, but zeal for the Faith and the consciousness that to them had been committed the responsibility of its guardianship. The controversialists in question even claim that they are justified in refusing to admit as evidence for the papal primacy any pronouncement emanating from a Roman source, on the ground that, where the personal interests of anyone are concerned, his statements should not be admitted as evidence. Such an objection is utterly fallacious. We are dealing here, not with the statements of an individual, but with the tradition of a Church — of that Church which, even from the earliest times, was known for the purity of its doctrine, and which had had for its founders and instructors the two chief Apostles, Saint Peter and Saint Paul. That tradition, moreover, is absolutely unbroken, as the pronouncements of the long series of popes bear witness.

Nor does it stand alone. The utterances, in which the popes assert their claims to the obedience of all Christian Churches, form part and parcel of a great body of testimony to the Petrine privileges, issuing not merely from the Western Fathers but from those of Greece, Syria, and Egypt. The claim to reject the evidence which comes to us from Rome may be skilful as a piece of special pleading, but it can claim no other value. The first to employ this argument were some of the Gallicans. But it is deservedly repudiated as fallacious and unworthy by Bossuet in his “Defensio cleri gallicani”.

The primacy of Saint Peter and the perpetuity of that primacy in the Roman See are dogmatically defined in the canons attached to the first two chapters of the Constitution “Pastor Aeternus”:

  • “If anyone shall say that Blessed Peter the Apostle was not constituted by Christ our Lord as chief of all the Apostles and the visible head of the whole Church militant: or that he did not receive directly and immediately from the same Lord Jesus Christ a primacy of true and proper jurisdiction, but one of honour only: let him be anathema.”
  • “If any one shall say that it is not by the institution of Christ our Lord Himself or by divinely established right that Blessed Peter has perpetual successors in his primacy over the universal Church, or that the Roman Pontiff is not the successor of Blessed Peter in this same primacy. — let him be anathema”.

A question may be raised as to the precise dogmatic value of the clause of the second canon in which it is asserted that the Roman pontiff is Peter’s successor. The truth is infallibly defined. But the Church has authority to define not merely those truths which form part of the original deposit of revelation, but also such as are necessarily connected with this deposit. The former are held fide divina, the latter fide infallibili.

Although Christ established the perpetual office of supreme head, Scripture does not tell us that He fixed the law according to which the headship should descend. Granting that He left this to Peter to determine, it is plain that the Apostle need not have attached the primacy to his own see: he might have attached it to another.

Some have thought that the law establishing the succession in the Roman episcopate became known to the Apostolic Church as an historic fact. In this case the dogma that the Roman pontiff is at all times the Church’s chief pastor would be the conclusion from two premises — the revealed truth that the Church must ever have a supreme head, and the historic fact that Saint Peter attached that office to the Roman See. This conclusion, while necessarily connected with revelation, is not part of revelation, and is accepted fide infallibili.

According to other theologians the proposition in question is part of the deposit of faith itself. In this case the Apostles must have known the law determining the succession to the Bishop of Rome, not merely on human testimony, but also by Divine revelation, and they must have taught it as a revealed truth to their disciples. It is this view which is commonly adopted. The definition of the Vatican to the effect that the successor of Saint Peter is ever to be found in the Roman pontiff is almost universally held to be a truth revealed by the Holy Spirit to the Apostles, and by them transmitted to the Church.
Nature and extent of the papal power

This section is divided as follows:

  • the pope’s universal coercive jurisdiction
  • the pope’s immediate and ordinary jurisdiction in regard of all the faithful, whether singly or collectively
  • the right of entertaining appeals in all ecclesiastical causes.

The relation of the pope’s authority to that of ecumenical councils, and to the civil power, are discussed in separate articles.

The pope’s universal coercive jurisdiction

Not only did Christ constitute Saint Peter head of the Church, but in the words, “Whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth, it shall be bound also in heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth, it shall be loosed in heaven,” He indicated the scope of this headship.

The expressions binding and loosing here employed are derived from the current terminology of the Rabbinic schools. A doctor who declared a thing to be prohibited by the law was said to bind, for thereby he imposed an obligation on the conscience. He who declared it to be lawful was said to loose). In this way the terms had come respectively to signify official commands and permissions in general. The words of Christ, therefore, as understood by His hearers, conveyed the promise to Saint Peter of legislative authority within the kingdom over which He had just set him, and legislative authority carries with it as its necessary accompaniment judicial authority.

Moreover, the powers conferred in these regards are plenary. This is plainly indicated by the generality of the terms employed: “Whatsoever thou shalt bind . . . Whatsoever thou shalt loose”; nothing is withheld. Further, Peter’s authority is subordinated to no earthly superior. The sentences which he gives are to be forthwith ratified in heaven. They do not need the antecedent approval of any other tribunal. He is independent of all save the Master who appointed him. The words as to the power of binding and loosing are, therefore, elucidatory of the promise of the keys which immediately precedes. They explain in what sense Peter is governor and head of Christ’s kingdom, the Church, by promising him legislative and judicial authority in the fullest sense. In other words, Peter and his successors have power to impose laws both preceptive and prohibitive, power likewise to grant dispensation from these laws, and, when needful, to annul them. It is theirs to judge offences against the laws, to impose and to remit penalties. This judicial authority will even include the power to pardon sin. For sin is a breach of the laws of the supernatural kingdom, and falls under the cognizance of its constituted judges. The gift of this particular power, however, is not expressed with full clearness in this passage. It needed Christ’s words (John 20:23) to remove all ambiguity. Further, since the Church is the kingdom of the truth, so that an essential note in all her members is the act of submission by which they accept the doctrine of Christ in its entirety, supreme power in this kingdom carries with it a supreme magisterium — authority to declare that doctrine and to prescribe a rule of faith obligatory on all. Here, too, Peter is subordinated to none save his Master alone; he is the supreme teacher as he is the supreme ruler. However, the tremendous powers thus conferred are limited in their scope by their reference to the ends of the kingdom and to them only. The authority of Peter and his successors does not extend beyond this sphere. With matters that are altogether extrinsic to the Church they are not concerned.

Protestant controversialists contend strenuously that the words, “Whatsoever thou shalt bind etc.”, confer no special prerogative on Peter, since precisely the same gift, they allege, is conferred on all the Apostles (Matthew 18:18). It is, of course, the case that in that passage the same words are used in regard of all the Twelve. Yet there is a manifest difference between the gift to Peter and that bestowed on the others. In his case the gift is connected with the power of the keys, and this power, as we have seen, signified the supreme authority over the whole kingdom. That gift was not bestowed on the other eleven: and the gift Christ bestowed on them in Matthew 18:18, was received by them as members of the kingdom, and as subject to the authority of him who should be Christ’s vicegerent on earth. There is in fact a striking parallelism between Matthew 16:19, and the words employed in reference to Christ Himself in Apocalypse 3:7: “He that hath the key of David; he that openeth, and no man shutteth; shutteth, and no man openeth.” In both cases the second clause declares the meaning of the first, and the power signified in the first clause by the metaphor of the keys is supreme. It is worthy of note that to no one else save to Christ and His chosen vicegerent does Holy Scripture attribute the power of the keys.

Certain patristic passages are further adduced by non-Catholics as adverse to the meaning given by the Church to Matthew 16:19. Saint Augustine in several places tells us that Peter received the keys as representing the Church — e.g. Tractate 1 on the Gospel of John, no. 12: “Si hoc Petro tantum dictum est, non facit hoc Ecclesia . . .; si hoc ergo in Ecclesia fit, Petrus quando claves accepit, Ecclesiam sanctam significavit’ (If this was said to Peter alone, the Church cannot exercise this power . . .; if this power is exercised in the Church, then when Peter received the keys, he signified the Holy Church); cf. Tractate 124 on the Gospel of John, no. 5; Sermon 295. It is argued that, according to Augustine, the power denoted by the keys resides primarily not in Peter, but in the whole Church. Christ’s gift to His people was merely bestowed on Peter as representing the whole body of the faithful. The right to forgive sins, to exclude from communion, to exercise any other acts of authority, is really the prerogative of the whole Christian congregation. If the minister performs these acts he does so as delegate of the people. The argument, which was formerly employed by Gallican controversialists, however, rests on a misunderstanding of the passages. Augustine is controverting the Novatian heretics, who affirmed that the power to remit sins was a purely personal gift to Peter alone, and had disappeared with him. He therefore asserts that Peter received it that it might remain for ever in the Church and be used for its benefit. It is in that sense alone that he says that Peter represented the Church. There is no foundation whatever for saying that he desired to affirm that the Church was the true recipient of the power conferred. Such a view would be contrary to the whole patristic tradition, and is expressly reprobated in the Vatican Decree, cap. 1.

It appears from what has been said that, when the popes legislate for the faithful, when they try offenders by juridical process, and enforce their sentences by censures and excommunications, they are employing powers conceded to them by Christ. Their authority to exercise jurisdiction in this way is not founded on the grant of any civil ruler. Indeed the Church has claimed and exercised these powers from the very first. When the Apostles, after the Council of Jerusalem, sent out their decree as vested with Divine authority (Acts 15:28), they were imposing a law on the faithful. When Saint Paul bids Timothy not receive an accusation against a presbyter unless it be supported by two or three witnesses, he clearly supposes him to be empowered to judge him in foro externo. This claim to exercise coercive jurisdiction has, as might be expected been denied by various heterodox writers. Thus Marsilius Patavinus, Antonius de Dominis, Richer, and later the Synod of Pistoia, all alike maintained that coercive jurisdiction of every kind belongs to the civil power alone, and sought to restrict the Church to the use of moral means. This error has always been condemned by the Holy See. Thus, in the Bull “Auctorem Fidei”, Pius VI makes the following pronouncement regarding one of the Pistoian propositions:

[The aforesaid proposition] in respect of its insinuation that the Church does not possess authority to exact subjection to her decrees otherwise than by means dependent on persuasion: so far as this signifies that the Church “has not received from God power, not merely to direct by counsel and persuasion but further to command by laws, and to coerce and compel the delinquent and contumacious by external and salutary penalties” [from the brief "Ad assiduas" (1755) of Benedict XIV], leads to a system already condemned as heretical.

Nor may it be held that the pope’s laws must exclusively concern spiritual objects, and their penalties be exclusively of a spiritual character. The Church is a perfect society. She is not dependent on the permission of the State for her existence, but holds her charter from God. As a perfect society she has a right to all those means which are necessary for the attaining of her end. These, however, will include far more than spiritual objects and spiritual penalties alone: for the Church requires certain material possessions, such, for example, as churches, schools, seminaries, together with the endowments necessary for their sustentation. The administration and the due protection of these goods will require legislation other than what is limited to the spiritual sphere. A large body of canon law must inevitably be formed to determine the conditions of their management. Indeed, there is a fallacy in the assertion that the Church is a spiritual society; it is spiritual as regards the ultimate end to which all its activities are directed, but not as regards its present constitution nor as regards the means at its disposal.

The question has been raised whether it be lawful for the Church, not merely to sentence a delinquent to physical penalties, but itself to inflict these penalties. As to this, it is sufficient to note that the right of the Church to invoke the aid of the civil power to execute her sentences is expressly asserted by Boniface VIII in the Bull “Unam Sanctam”. This declaration, even if it be not one of those portions of the Bull in which the pope is defining a point of faith, is so clearly connected with the parts expressly stated to possess such character that it is held by theologians to be theologically certain. The question is of theoretical, rather than of practical importance, since civil Governments have long ceased to own the obligation of enforcing the decisions of any ecclesiastical authority. This indeed became inevitable when large sections of the population ceased to be Catholic. The state of things supposed could only exist when a whole nation was thoroughly Catholic in spirit, and the force of papal decisions was recognized by all as binding in conscience.

The pope’s immediate and ordinary jurisdiction

In the Constitution “Pastor Aeternus”, cap. 3, the pope is declared to possess ordinary, immediate, and episcopal jurisdiction over all the faithful:

We teach, moreover, and declare that, by the disposition of God, the Roman Church possesses supreme ordinary authority over all Churches, and that the jurisdiction of the Roman Pontiff, which is true episcopal jurisdiction is immediate in its character.

It is further added that this authority extends to all alike, both pastors and faithful, whether singly or collectively. An ordinary jurisdiction is one which is exercised by the holder, not by reason of any delegation, but in virtue of the office which he himself holds. All who acknowledge in the pope any primacy of jurisdiction acknowledge that jurisdiction to be ordinary. This point, therefore, does not call for discussion. That the papal authority is likewise immediate has, however, been called in question. Jurisdiction is immediate when its possessor stands in direct relation to those with whose oversight he is charged. If, on the other hand, the supreme authority can only deal directly with the proximate superiors, and not with the subjects save through their intervention, his power is not immediate but mediate. That the pope’s jurisdiction is not thus restricted appears from the analysis already given of Christ’s words to Saint Peter. It has been shown that He conferred on him a primacy over the Church, which is universal in its scope, extending to all the Church’s members, and which needs the support of no other power. A primacy such as this manifestly gives to him and to his successors a direct authority over all the faithful. This is also implied in the words of the pastoral commission, “Feed my sheep”. The shepherd exercises immediate authority over all the sheep of his flock. Every member of the Church has been thus committed to Peter and those who follow him.

This immediate authority has been always claimed by the Holy See. It was, however, denied by Febronius. That writer contended that the duty of the pope was to exercise a general oversight over the Church and to direct the bishops by his counsel; in case of necessity, where the legitimate pastor was guilty of grave wrong, he could pronounce sentence of excommunication against him and proceed against him according to the canons, but he could not on his own authority depose him. The Febronian doctrines, though devoid of any historical foundation, yet, through their appeal to the spirit of nationalism, exerted a powerful influence for harm on Catholic life in Germany during the eighteenth and part of the nineteenth century. Thus it was imperative that the error should be definitively condemned. That the pope’s power is truly episcopal needs no proof. It follows from the fact that he enjoys an ordinary pastoral authority, both legislative and judicial, and immediate in relation to its subjects. Moreover, since this power regards the pastors as well as the faithful, the pope is rightly termed Pastor pastorum, and Episcopus episcoporum.

It is frequently objected by writers of the Anglican school that, by declaring the pope to possess an immediate episcopal jurisdiction over all the faithful, the Vatican Council destroyed the authority of the diocesan episcopate. It is further pointed out that Saint Gregory the Great expressly repudiated this title (Epistle 7:27 and Epistle 8:30). To this it is replied that no difficulty is involved in the exercise of immediate jurisdiction over the same subjects by two rulers, provided only that these rulers stand in subordination, the one to the other. We constantly see the system at work. In an army the regimental officer and the general both possess immediate authority over the soldiers; yet no one maintains that the inferior authority is thereby annulled. The objection lacks all weight. The Vatican Council says most justly:

This power of the supreme pontiff in no way derogates from the ordinary immediate power of episcopal jurisdiction, in virtue of which the bishops, who, appointed by the Holy Spirit [Acts 20:28], have succeeded to the place of the Apostles as true pastors, feed and rule their several flocks, each the one which has been assigned to him: that power is rather maintained, confirmed and defended by the supreme pastor.

It is without doubt true that Saint Gregory repudiated in strong terms the title of universal bishop, and relates that Saint Leo rejected it when it was offered him by the fathers of Chalcedon. But, as he used it, it has a different signification from that with which it was employed in the Vatican Council. Saint Gregory understood it as involving the denial of the authority of the local diocesan (Epistle 5:21). No one, he maintains, has a right so to term himself universal bishop as to usurp that apostolically constituted power. But he was himself a strenuous asserter of that immediate jurisdiction over all the faithful which is signified by this title as used in the Vatican Decree. Thus he reverses (Epistle 6:15) a sentence passed on a priest by Patriarch John of Constantinople, an act which itself involves a claim to universal authority, and explicitly states that the Church of Constantinople is subject to the Apostolic See (Epistle 9:12). The title of universal bishop occurs as early as the eighth century; and in 1413 the faculty of Paris rejected the proposition of John Hus that the pope was not universal bishop.

The right of entertaining appeals in all ecclesiastical causes

The Council goes on to affirm that the pope is the supreme judge of the faithful, and that to him appeal may be made in all ecclesiastical causes. The right of appeal follows as a necessary corollary from the doctrine of the primacy. If the pope really possesses a supreme jurisdiction over the Church, every other authority, whether episcopal or synodal, being subject to him, there must of necessity be an appeal to him from all inferior tribunals. This question, however, has been the subject of much controversy. The Gallican divines de Marca and Quesnel, and in Germany Febronius, sought to show that the right of appeal to the pope was a mere concession derived from ecclesiastical canons, and that the influence of the pseudo-Isidorean decretals had led to many unjustifiable exaggerations in the papal claims. The arguments of these writers are at the present day employed by frankly anti-Catholic controversialists with a view to showing that the whole primacy is a merely human institution. It is contended that the right of appeal was first granted at Sardica (343), and that each step of its subsequent development can be traced. History, however, renders it abundantly clear that the right of appeal had been known from primitive times, and that the purpose of the Sardican canons was merely to give conciliar ratification to an already existing usage. It will be convenient to speak first of the Sardican question, and then to examine the evidence as regards previous practice.

In the years immediately preceding Sardica, Saint Athanasius had appealed to Rome against the decision of the Council of Tyre (335). Pope Julius had annulled the action of that council, and had restored Athanasius and Marcellus of Ancyra to their sees. The Eusebians, however, had contested his right to call a conciliar decision in question. The fathers who met at Sardica, and who included the most eminent of the orthodox party from East and West alike, desired by their decrees to affirm this right, and to establish a canonical mode of procedure for such appeals. The principal provisions of the canons which deal with this matter are:

  • that a bishop condemned by the bishops of his province may appeal to the pope either on his own initiative or through his judges
  • that if the pope entertains the appeal he shall appoint a court of second instance drawn from the bishops of the neighbouring provinces; he may, if he thinks fit, send judges to sit with the bishops

There is nothing whatever to suggest that new privileges are being conferred. Saint Julius had recently, not merely exercised the right of hearing appeals in the most formal manner, but had severely censured the Eusebians for neglecting to respect the supreme judicial rights of the Roman See: “for”, he writes, “if they [Athanasius and Marcellus] really did some wrong, as you say, the judgment ought to have been given according to the ecclesiastical canon and not thus…. Do you not know that this has been the custom first to write to us, and then for that which is just to be defined from hence?” Nor is there the smallest ground for the assertion that the pope’s action is hedged in within narrow limits, on the ground that no more is permitted than that he should order a re-hearing to take place on the spot. The fathers in no way disputed the pope’s right to hear the case at Rome. But their object was to deprive the Eusebians of the facile excuse that it was idle for appeals to be carried to Rome, since there the requisite evidence could not be forthcoming. They therefore provided a canonical procedure which should not be open to that objection.

Having thus shown that there is no ground for the assertion that the right of appeal was first granted at Sardica, we may now consider the evidence for its existence in earlier times. The records of the second century are so scanty as to throw but little light on the subject. Yet it would seem that Montanus, Prisca, and Maximilla appealed to Rome against the decision of the Phrygian bishops. Tertullian, tells us that the pope at first acknowledged the genuineness of their prophecies, and that thus “he was giving peace to the Churches of Asia and Phrygia”, when further information led him to recall the letters of peace which he had issued. The fact that the pope’s decision had weight to decide the whole question of their orthodoxy is sufficiently significant. But in Saint Cyprian’s correspondence we find clear and unmistakable evidence of a system of appeals. Basilides and Martial, the bishops of Leon and Mérida in Spain, had in the persecution accepted certificates of idolatry. They confessed their guilt, and were in consequence deposed, other bishops being appointed to the sees. In the hope of having themselves reinstated they appealed to Rome, and succeeded, by misrepresenting the facts, in imposing on Saint Stephen, who ordered their restoration. It has been objected to the evidence drawn from this incident, that Saint Cyprian did not acknowledge the validity of the papal decision, but exhorted the people of Leon and Mérida to hold fast to the sentence of deposition (Epistle 67:6). But the objection misses the point of Saint Cyprian’s letter. In the case in question there was no room for a legitimate appeal, since the two bishops had confessed. An acquittal obtained after spontaneous confession could not be valid. It has further been urged that, in the case of Fortunatus (Epistle 59:10), Cyprian denies his right of appeal to Rome, and asserts the sufficiency of the African tribunal. But here too the objection rests upon a misunderstanding. Fortunatus had procured consecration as Bishop of Carthage from a heretical bishop, and Saint Cyprian asserts the competency of the local synod in his case on the ground that he is no true bishop — a mere pseudo-episcopus. Juridically considered he is merely an insubordinate presbyter, and he must submit himself to his own bishop. At that period the established custom denied the right of appeal to the inferior clergy. On the other hand, the action of Fortunatus indicates that he based his claim to bring the question of his status before the pope on the ground that he was a legitimate bishop. Privatus of Lambese, the heretical consecrator of Fortunatus who had previously been himself condemned by a synod of ninety bishops (Epistle 59:10), had appealed to Rome without success (Epistle 36:4).

The difficulties at Carthage which led to the Donatist schism provide us with another instance. When the seventy Numidian bishops, who had condemned Caecilian, invoked the aid of the emperor, the latter referred them to Rome, that the case might be decided by Pope Miltiades (313). Saint Augustine makes frequent mention of the circumstances, and indicates plainly that he holds it to have been Caecilian’s undoubted right to claim a trial before the pope. He says that Secundus should never have dared to condemn Caecilian when he declined to submit his case to the African bishops, since he had the right “to reserve his whole case to the judgment of other colleagues, especially to that of Apostolical Churches” (Epistle 43:7). A little later (367) a council, held at Tyana in Asia Minor, restored to his see Eustathius, bishop of that city, on no other ground than that of a successful appeal to Rome. Saint Basil (Epistle 263:3) tells us that they did not know what test of orthodoxy Liberius had required. He brought a letter from the pope demanding his restoration, and this was accepted as decisive by the council. It should be observed that there can be no question here of the pope employing prerogatives conferred on him at Sardica, for he did not follow the procedure there indicated. Indeed there is no good reason to believe that the Sardican procedure ever came into use in either East or West. In 378 the appellate jurisdiction of the pope received civil sanction from Emperor Gratian. Any charge against a metropolitan was to come before the pope himself or a court of bishops nominated by him, while all (Western) bishops had the right of appeal from — their provincial synod to the pope. Similarly Valentinian III in 445 assigned to the pope the right of evoking to Rome any cause he should think fit. These ordinances were not, however, in any sense the source of the pope’s jurisdiction, which rested on Divine institution; they were civil sanctions enabling the pope to avail himself of the civil machinery of the empire in discharging the duties of his office. What Pope Nicholas I said of the synodal declarations regarding the privileges of the Holy See holds good here also: “Ista privilegia huic sanctae Ecclesiae a Christo donata, a synodis non donata, sed jam solummodo venerata et celebrata”. (These privileges bestowed by Christ on this Holy Church have not been granted her by synods, but merely proclaimed and honoured by them.)

Much has been made by anti-Catholic writers of the famous letter “Optaremus”, addressed in 426 by the African bishops to Pope Saint Celestine at the close of the incident relating to the priest Apiarius. As the point is discussed in a special article, “Apiarius of Sicca”, a brief reference will suffice here. Protestant controversialists maintain that in this letter the African bishops positively repudiate the claim of Rome to an appellate jurisdiction, the repudiation being consequent on the fact that they had in 419 satisfied themselves that Pope Zosimus was mistaken in claiming the authority of Nicaea for the Sardican canons. This is an error. The letter, it is true, urges with some display of irritation that it would be both more reasonable and more in harmony with the fifth Nicene canon regarding the inferior clergy and the laity, if even episcopal cases were left to the decision of the African synod. The pope’s authority is nowhere denied, but the sufficiency of the local tribunals is asserted. Indeed the right of the pope to deal with episcopal cases was freely acknowledged by the African Church even after it had been shown that the Sardican canons did not emanate from Nicaea. Antony, Bishop of Fussala, prosecuted an appeal to Rome against Saint Augustine in 423, the appeal being supported by the Primate of Numidia. Moreover, Saint Augustine in his letter to Pope Celestine on this subject urges that previous popes have dealt with similar cases in the same manner, sometimes by independent decisions and sometimes by confirmation of the decisions locally given (ipsa sede apostolica judicante vel aliorum judicata firmante), and that he could cite examples either from ancient or from more recent times. These facts appear to be absolutely conclusive as to the traditional African practice. That the letter “Optaremus” did not result in any change is evinced by a letter of Saint Leo’s in 446, directing what is to be done in the case of a certain Lupicinus who had appealed to him (Epistle 12:13). It is occasionally argued that if the pope really possessed jure divino a supreme jurisdiction, the African bishops would neither have raised any question in 419 as to whether the alleged canons were authentic, nor again have in 426 requested the pope to take the Nicene canon as the norm of his action. Those who reason in this way fail to see that, where canons have been established prescribing the mode of procedure to be followed in the Church, right reason demands that the supreme authority should not alter them except for some grave cause, and, as long as they remain the recognized the law of the Church should observe them. The pope as God’s vicar must govern according to reason, not arbitrarily nor capriciously. This, however, is a very different thing from saying, as did the Gallican divines, that the pope is subject to the canons. He is not subject to them, because he is competent to modify or to annul them when he holds this to be best for the Church.

Jurisdictional rights and prerogatives of the pope

In virtue of his office as supreme teacher and ruler of the faithful, the chief control of every department of the Church’s life belongs to the pope. In this section the rights and duties which thus fall to his lot will be briefly enumerated. It will appear that, in regard to a considerable number of points, not merely the supreme control, but the whole exercise of power is reserved to the Holy See, and is only granted to others by express delegation. This system of reservation is possible, since the pope is the universal source of all ecclesiastical jurisdiction. Hence it rests with him to determine in what measure he will confer jurisdiction on bishops and other prelates.

(1) As the supreme teacher of the Church, whose it is to prescribe what is to be believed by all the faithful, and to take measures for the preservation and the propagation of the faith, the following are the rights which pertain to the pope:

  • it is his to set forth creeds, and to determine when and by whom an explicit profession of faith shall be made;
  • it is his to prescribe and to command books for the religious instruction of the faithful; thus, for example, Clement XIII has recommended the Roman Catechism to all the bishops.
  • The pope alone can establish a university, possessing the status and privileges of a canonically erected Catholic university;
  • to him also belongs the direction of Catholic missions throughout the world; this charge is fulfilled through the Congregation of the Propaganda.
  • It is his to prohibit the reading of such books as are injurious to faith or morals, and to determine the conditions on which certain classes of books may be issued by Catholics;
  • his is the condemnation of given propositions as being either heretical or deserving of some minor degree of censure, and lastly
  • he has the right to interpret authentically the natural law. Thus, it is his to say what is lawful or unlawful in regard to social and family life, in regard to the practice of usury, etc.

(2) With the pope’s office of supreme teacher are closely connected his rights in regard to the worship of God: for it is the law of prayer that fixes the law of belief. In this sphere very much has been reserved to the sole regulation of the Holy See. Thus

  • the pope alone can prescribe the liturgical services employed in the Church. If a doubt should occur in regard to the ceremonial of the liturgy, a bishop may not settle the point on his own authority, but must have recourse to Rome. The Holy See likewise prescribes rules in regard to the devotions used by the faithful, and in this way checks the growth of what is novel and unauthorized.
  • At the present day the institution and abrogation of festivals which was till a comparatively recent time free to all bishops as regards their own dioceses, is reserved to Rome.
  • The solemn canonization of a saint is proper to the pope. Indeed it is commonly held that this is an exercise of the papal infallibility. Beatification and every permission for the public veneration of any of the servants of God is likewise reserved to his decision.
  • He alone gives to anyone the privilege of a private chapel where Mass may be said.
  • He dispenses the treasury of the Church, and the grant of plenary indulgences is reserved to him. While he has no authority in regard to the substantial rites of the sacraments, and is bound to preserve them as they were given to the Church by Christ and His Apostles, certain powers in their regard belong to him;
  • he can give to simple priests the power to confirm, and to bless the oil of the sick and the oil of catechumens, and
  • he can establish diriment and impedient impediments to matrimony.

(3) The legislative power of the pope carries with it the following rights:

  • he can legislate for the whole Church, with or without the assistance of a general council;
  • if he legislates with the aid of a council it is his to convoke it, to preside, to direct its deliberations, to confirm its acts.
  • He has full authority to interpret, alter, and abrogate both his own laws and those established by his predecessors. He has the same plenitude of power as they enjoyed, and stands in the same relation to their laws as to those which he himself has decreed;
  • he can dispense individuals from the obligation of all purely ecclesiastical laws, and can grant privileges and exemptions in their regard.
  • In this connection may be mentioned his power to dispense from vows where the greater glory of God renders it desirable. Considerable powers of dispensation are granted to bishops, and, in a restricted measure, also to priests; but there are some vows reserved altogether to the Holy See.

(4) In virtue of his supreme judicial authority

  • causae majores are reserved to him. By this term are signified cases dealing with matters of great moment, or those in which personages of eminent dignity are concerned.
  • His appellate jurisdiction has been discussed in the previous section. It should, however, be noted
  • that the pope has full right, should he see fit, to deal even with causae minores in the first instance, and not merely by reason of an appeal. In what concerns punishment,
  • he can inflict censures either by judicial sentence or by general laws which operate without need of such sentence.
  • He further reserves certain cases to his own tribunal. All cases of heresy come before the Congregation of the Inquisition. A similar reservation covers the cases in which a bishop or a reigning prince is the accused party.

(5) As the supreme governor of the Church the pope has authority over all appointments to its public offices. Thus

  • it is his to nominate to bishoprics, or, where the nomination has been conceded to others, to give confirmation. Further, he alone can translate bishops from one see to another, can accept their resignation, and can, where grave cause exists, sentence to deprivation.
  • He can establish dioceses, and can annul a previously existing arrangement in favour of a new one. Similarly, he alone can erect cathedral and collegiate chapters.
  • He can approve new religious orders, and can, if he sees fit, exempt them from the authority of local ordinaries.
  • Since his office of supreme ruler imposes on him the duty of enforcing the canons, it is requisite that he should be kept informed as to the state of the various dioceses. He may obtain this information by legates or by summoning the bishops to Rome. At the present day this jus relationum is exercised through the triennial visit ad limina required of all bishops. This system was introduced by Sixtus V in 1585, and confirmed by Benedict XIV in 1740.
  • It is to be further observed that the pope’s office of chief ruler of the Church carries with it jure divino the right to free intercourse with the pastors and the faithful. The placitum regium, by which this intercourse was limited and impeded, was therefore an infringement of a sacred right, and as such was solemnly condemned by the Vatican Council. To the pope likewise belongs the supreme administration of the goods of the Church.
  • He alone can, where there is just cause, alienate any considerable quantity of such property. Thus, e.g., Julius III, at the time of the restoration of religion in England under Queen Mary validated the title of those laymen who had acquired Church lands during the spoliations of the previous reigns.
  • The pope has further the right to impose taxes on the clergy and the faithful for ecclesiastical purposes.

Though the power of the pope, as we have described it, is very great, it does not follow that it is arbitrary and unrestricted. “The pope”, as Cardinal Hergenröther well says,

is circumscribed by the consciousness of the necessity of making a righteous and beneficent use of the duties attached to his privileges….He is also circumscribed by the spirit and practice of the Church, by the respect due to General Councils and to ancient statutes and customs, by the rights of bishops, by his relation with civil powers, by the traditional mild tone of government indicated by the aim of the institution of the papacy — to “feed” — and finally by the respect indispensable in a spiritual power towards the spirit and mind of nations.

Primacy of honour: titles and insignia

Certain titles and distinctive marks of honour are assigned to the pope alone; these constitute what is termed his primacy of honour. These prerogatives are not, as are his jurisdictional rights, attached jure divino to his office. They have grown up in the course of history, and are consecrated by the usage of centuries; yet they are not incapable of modification.

Titles

Pope

The most noteworthy of the titles are Papa, Summus Pontifex, Pontifex Maximus, Servus servorum Dei. The title pope (papa) was, as has been stated, at one time employed with far more latitude. In the East it has always been used to designate simple priests. In the Western Church, however, it seems from the beginning to have been restricted to bishops. It was apparently in the fourth century that it began to become a distinctive title of the Roman Pontiff. Pope Siricius seems so to use it, and Ennodius of Pavia employs it still more clearly in this sense in a letter to Pope Symmachus. Yet as late as the seventh century Saint Gall addresses Desiderius of Cahors as papa. Gregory VII finally prescribed that it should be confined to the successors of Peter.

Pontiff

The terms Pontifex Maximus, Summus Pontifex, were doubtless originally employed with reference to the Jewish high-priest, whose place the Christian bishops were regarded as holding each in his own diocese. As regards the title Pontifex Maximus, especially in its application to the pope, there was further a reminiscence of the dignity attached to that title in pagan Rome. Tertullian, as has already been said, uses the phrase of Pope Callistus. Though his words are ironical, they probably indicate that Catholics already applied it to the pope. But here too the terms were once less narrowly restricted in their use. Pontifex summus was used of the bishop of some notable see in relation to those of less importance. Hilary of Arles is so styled by Eucherius of Lyons, and Lanfranc is termed “primas et pontifex summus” by his biographer, Milo Crispin. Pope Nicholas I is termed “summus pontifex et universalis papa” by his legate Arsenius, and subsequent examples are common. After the eleventh century it appears to be only used of the popes.

Servant of the Servants of God

The phrase Servus servorum Dei is now so entirely a papal title that a Bull in which it should be wanting would be reckoned unauthentic. Yet this designation also was once applied to others. Augustine entitles himself “servus Christi et per Ipsum servus servorum Ipsius”. Desiderius of Cahors made use of it: so also did Saint Boniface, the apostle of Germany. The first of the popes to adopt it was seemingly Gregory I; he appears to have done so in contrast to the claim put forward by the Patriarch of Constantinople to the title of universal bishop. The restriction of the term to the pope alone began in the ninth century.

Insignia and marks of honour

Tiara

The pope is distinguished by the use of the tiara or triple crown. At what date the custom of crowning the pope was introduced is unknown. It was certainly previous to the forged donation of Constantine, which dates from the commencement of the ninth century, for mention is there made of the pope’s coronation. The triple crown is of much later origin.

Cross

The pope moreover does not, like ordinary bishops, use the bent pastoral staff, but only the erect cross. This custom was introduced before the reign of Innocent III.

Pallium

He further uses the pallium at all ecclesiastical functions, and not under the same restrictions as do the archbishops on whom he has conferred it.

Kiss

The kissing of the pope’s foot — the characteristic act of reverence by which all the faithful do honour to him as the vicar of Christ — is found as early as the eighth century. We read that Emperor Justinian II paid this respect to Pope Constantine. Even at an earlier date Emperor Justin had prostrated himself before Pope John I, and Justinian I before Agapetus. The pope, it may be added, ranks as the first of Christian princes, and in Catholic countries his ambassadors have precedence over other members of the diplomatic body.

MLA Citation

  • Joyce, George. “The Pope”. Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume 12, 1911. Saints.SQPN.com. 23 March 2010. Web. 19 December 2014. <http://saints.sqpn.com/-ce/>