A very interesting discussion has unfolded on this blog concerning the authority of Rome and whether such authority is legitimate and catholic. It started with a post I had written on the 185th anniversary of Anglo-Catholicism with a historic sermon delivered by John Keble at the University Church of St Mary’s in Oxford. Ben (Politics for Catholics) and Must Follow If I Can both added substantial comments on the subject of the supremacy/infallibility of the pope. I also added a callout for opinions on the authority of Rome (that was where Must Follow If I Can jumped into the discussion) I would be remiss not to admit that this topic appears to have dominated by intended summer series on the catholic liturgy– but clearly the Spirit is alive and well around here and there is a need to explore this topic.
In this post we will examine the authority of the Bishop of Rome from the perspective of the Roman church. We will dive into the teachings of the Roman Catholic church concerning the supremacy and infallibility of the Bishop of Rome and how this manifests itself in the day to day workings of the church as a whole. We will specifically focus on the articulation of the doctrine during the First and Second Vatican councils.
The Roman Catholic church teaches that the Bishop of Rome is the “true vicar of Christ, the head of the whole church and the father and teacher of all Christians” (Pastor aeternus Chapter 4, para 2, First Vatican Council from the Council of Florence). This authority stems from a link between Peter the Apostle to the bishop of Rome which was articulated during the Council of Lyons, “[s]he truly and humbly acknowledges that she received this from the Lord himself in blessed Peter, the prince and chief of the apostles, whose successor the Roman Pontiff is, together with the fullness of power.” The Roman Catholic church relies on nine sources of scripture to defend the link:
- Peter is listed on the top of the ‘apostolic list’ when Jesus calls His followers together (Mk 3:16, Lk 6:14)
- Peter is often singled out among the other apostles (MK 1:36, 16:7, Lk 9:32)
- When the temple tax collectors approach Jesus’ followers to collect the required taxes, they approach Peter which signifies his eminent position of leadership within the group (Mk 17:24-27)
- Peter often spoke to Jesus on behalf of the twelve apostles (Mk 8:29, Lk 12:41, Jn 6:66-69)
- Peter is one of the three apostles who is given special attention by Jesus; when Jairus’ daughter is raised from the dead (Mk 5:37), during the Transfiguration (Mk 9:2), witness to the Agony in the Garden (Mk 14:33) and Peter is renamed by Jesus as well from Simon to Peter meaning ‘rock’ (Mk 3:16)
- Jesus told Peter that He prayed for him personally at the Last Supper that Peter would turn again and steady the faith of his brother apostles (Lk 22:31-32)
- When the tomb is found empty and Peter and John find out, John races ahead of Peter but waits at the entrance for Peter to enter first (or with him), signifying the esteem the other apostles held Peter in (Jn 20:3-8)
- Jesus appears privately to Peter after the Resurrection and Peter is the first of the twelve apostles to witness the Risen Christ (Lk 24:34, 1 Cor 15:5)
- Jesus promised that He would build His church on Peter (Mk 16:18), make him the keeper of the keys to the Gates of Heaven (Mk 16:19) and put Peter in charge of His sheep (Jn 21:15-17)
The Council of Florence articulated the hierarchical structure of the Roman Catholic church with the Bishop of Rome at the top, followed by the Bishops, followed by the Priests and then the laity. The Council spoke of the “pre-eminence” of Rome which was made clear in previous historical events in which Rome rules on heresies within the church (as pointed out in the comments, the overruling of Pope Leo the Great following the Council of Chalcedon).
The First Vatican Council formalized and crystallized the authority of the Bishop of Rome in the dogmatic constitution, Pastor aeternus. That document states clearly that the Pope has supreme authority over:
…matters of faith and morals … and … discipline and government of the church throughout the world.
And furthermore, the constitution called on all members of the church to obedience on the doctrine at hand:
…clergy and faithful, of whatever rite and dignity, … bound to submit to this power by the duty of hierarchical subordination and true obedience.
The Second Vatican Council continued to see the fruit of the doctrine of Papal supremacy and infallibility grow on the tree of faith. In the dogmatic constitution on the church (Lumen gentium), the manifestation of the articles contained within Pastor aeternus were explored further, especially in regard to how the Roman Pontiff worked with fellow bishops from around the world. What arose was an ecumenical concept that called for “bishops [to be] joined with one another, and the Bishop of Rome, by bonds of unity, charity, and peace.” (Eusebius of Caesarea, Hist. Ecc.). How we understand the Pope today in the modern church is the function of the articulation of the doctrine during the First and Second Vatican councils. A lot of scholarly reading that I did over the weekend on Lumen gentium spoke with a hopeful tone of how the new concept of the Bishops working together with the Bishop of Rome would materialize in the church. Today we see this with national, regional and topical synods that produce rich and thoughtful theology and dogma to inform the vicar of Christ and indeed the whole church. It is because of this careful balance between supremacy and ecumenism that was developed from the First and Second Vatican councils that we can say today that a unilateral action of the Bishop of Rome has not happened in modern times, and most likely will not happen in modern times– that is not to say he lacks the authority to do this. But it speaks to the secular practicality of the governance of the church as a whole, when the system which has been developed (or inspired) eases historical tensions.
Furthermore, Lumen gentium explained the relationship between the Bishop of Rome and his fellow bishops thusly:
But the college or body of bishops has no authority unless it is understood together with the Roman Pontiff, the successor of Peter as its head. The pope’s power of primacy over all, both pastors and faithful, remains whole and intact. In virtue of his office, that is as Vicar of Christ and pastor of the whole Church, the Roman Pontiff has full, supreme and universal power over the Church. And he is always free to exercise this power. The order of bishops, which succeeds to the college of apostles and gives this apostolic body continued existence, is also the subject of supreme and full power over the universal Church, provided we understand this body together with its head the Roman Pontiff and never without this head.
The Roman Catholic Church maintains that the authority of the bishop of Rome was present in Peter from the start of the early church. For this it largely relies on nine moments from the Acts of the Apostles:
- Peter initiated and oversaw the replacement of Judas following the Ascension of Jesus (Acts 1:15-26)
- When the Spirit rained down on the apostles during Pentecost, it was Peter who delivered the inaugural sermon (Acts 2:37-41)
- When crowds accepted the testimony of the apostles, it was Peter who urged them to repent and be Baptized (Acts 2:37-41)
- It was Peter who recorded the first healing within the church (Acts 3:1-10)
- When Peter and John were arrested and asked to account for their actions, it was Peter who spoke on their behalf (Acts 4:5-12)
- Peter handled the first case of ecclesial discipline within the church (Acts 5:1-11)
- It was Peter who brought the Spirit to endorse the new missionary as the church spread beyond Judea and into Samaria (Acts 8:14-17)
- When God had arranged for the first Gentile conversations, He sent Peter to preach and administer the Baptisms (Acts 10:1-48)
- When the first recorded council in church history took place in Jerusalem, it was Peter who stood up and ended the debate with a solemn proclamation of Christian doctrine (Acts 15:6-11)
The Roman Catholic church maintains that this authority has developed over time within the church. Cardinal John Henry Newman (thanks to Must Follow If I Can for the quote) provides one the best explanations for the development of the papacy when we look through the historical record in his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine:
When the Church, then, was thrown upon her own resources, first local disturbances gave exercise to Bishops, and next ecumenical disturbances gave exercise to Popes; and whether communion with the Pope was necessary for Catholicity would not and could not be debated till a suspension of that communion had actually occurred. It is not a greater difficulty that St. Ignatius does not write to the Asian Greeks about Popes, than that St. Paul does not write to the Corinthians about Bishops. And it is a less difficulty that the Papal supremacy was not formally acknowledged in the second century, than that there was no formal acknowledgment on the part of the Church of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity till the fourth. No doctrine is defined till it is violated.
And, in like manner, it was natural for Christians to direct their course in matters of doctrine by the guidance of mere floating, and, as it were, endemic tradition, while it was fresh and strong; but in proportion as it languished, or was broken in particular places, did it become necessary to fall back upon its special homes, first the Apostolic Sees, and then the See of St. Peter.
The Second Council of Lyons I think sums up the authority of the Bishop of Rome from the Roman perspective in one simple line: the Bishop of Rome is the head of the “Holy Roman church [with] … supreme and full primacy and principality over the whole catholic church.”