Marks of the Catholic Church

  • What does it mean to be catholic?
  • What are the four marks of the catholic church?
  • Why are they important?

The catholic church defines professes itself to be the one true church founded by Jesus Christ. A church which exists not just here on earth in material form but also in the Heavens and is the connection between women and men here on earth and our celestial home among the angels and saints. The catholic church is said to be marked by four characteristics or more commonly called marks:

“This is the sole Church of Christ, which in the Creed we profess to be one, holy, catholic and apostolic.” These four characteristics, inseparably linked with each other, indicate essential features of the Church and her mission. the Church does not possess them of herself; it is Christ who, through the Holy Spirit, makes his Church one, holy, catholic, and apostolic, and it is he who calls her to realize each of these qualities. Catechism of the Catholic Church

The catholic church is singled out with four marks; one, holy, catholic and, apostolic.

The church is said to be one:

813 The Church is one because of her source: “the highest exemplar and source of this mystery is the unity, in the Trinity of Persons, of one God, the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit.” The Church is one because of her founder: for “the Word made flesh, the prince of peace, reconciled all men to God by the cross, . . . restoring the unity of all in one people and one body.” The Church is one because of her “soul”: “It is the Holy Spirit, dwelling in those who believe and pervading and ruling over the entire Church, who brings about that wonderful communion of the faithful and joins them together so intimately in Christ that he is the principle of the Church’s unity.” Catechism of the Catholic Church

The church is said to be holy:

823 “The Church . . . is held, as a matter of faith, to be unfailingly holy. This is because Christ, the Son of God, who with the Father and the Spirit is hailed as ‘alone holy,’ loved the Church as his Bride, giving himself up for her so as to sanctify her; he joined her to himself as his body and endowed her with the gift of the Holy Spirit for the glory of God.” The Church, then, is “the holy People of God,” and her members are called “saints.”

824 United with Christ, the Church is sanctified by him; through him and with him she becomes sanctifying. “All the activities of the Church are directed, as toward their end, to the sanctification of men in Christ and the glorification of God.” It is in the Church that “the fullness of the means of salvation” has been deposited. It is in her that “by the grace of God we acquire holiness.” Catechism of the Catholic Church

The church is said to be catholic:

831 …the Church is catholic because she has been sent out by Christ on a mission to the whole of the human race:

All men are called to belong to the new People of God. This People, therefore, while remaining one and only one, is to be spread throughout the whole world and to all ages in order that the design of God’s will may be fulfilled: he made human nature one in the beginning and has decreed that all his children who were scattered should be finally gathered together as one…. the character of universality which adorns the People of God is a gift from the Lord himself whereby the Catholic Church ceaselessly and efficaciously seeks for the return of all humanity and all its goods, under Christ the Head in the unity of his Spirit. Catechism of the Catholic Church

And the church is said to be apostolic:

857 The Church is apostolic because she is founded on the apostles, in three ways:
– she was and remains built on “the foundation of the Apostles,” The witnesses chosen and sent on mission by Christ himself;
– with the help of the Spirit dwelling in her, the Church keeps and hands on the teaching, The “good deposit,” the salutary words she has heard from the apostles;
– she continues to be taught, sanctified, and guided by the apostles until Christ’s return, through their successors in pastoral office: the college of bishops, “assisted by priests, in union with the successor of Peter, the Church’s supreme pastor”:

You are the eternal Shepherd

who never leaves his flock untended.

Through the apostles you watch over us and protect us always.

You made them shepherds of the flock

to share in the work of your Son…. Catechism of the Catholic Church

Anglo-Catholics claim to be part of the catholic church because they posses all of the same marks of the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and other particular churches within the catholic fold. However, because members take particular issue with certain social and administrative teachings of the Roman church, and importantly to Roman Catholics, the primacy of the Bishop of Rome, Anglo-Catholics are not welcomed within the catholic fold by the Roman church. Be that as it may, an everlasting plank of Anglo-Catholicism and indeed the entire Church of England (even while under Roman approval) was a connection to the universal catholic church via apostolic succession, holiness, and oneness. A professing of the common creeds, adherence to common patristic councils and a common liturgy albeit in the English tongue had always been accepted traits of a catholic church in union.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church sums it up pretty well in the final articles on the subject:

866 The Church is one: she acknowledges one Lord, confesses one faith, is born of one Baptism, forms only one Body, is given life by the one Spirit, for the sake of one hope (Eph 4:3-5), at whose fulfillment all divisions will be overcome.

867 The Church is holy: the Most Holy God is her author; Christ, her bridegroom, gave himself up to make her holy; the Spirit of holiness gives her life. Since she still includes sinners, she is “the sinless one made up of sinners.” Her holiness shines in the saints; in Mary she is already all-holy.

868 The Church is catholic: she proclaims the fullness of the faith. She bears in herself and administers the totality of the means of salvation. She is sent out to all peoples. She speaks to all men. She encompasses all times. She is “missionary of her very nature”.

869 The Church is apostolic. She is built on a lasting foundation: “the twelve apostles of the Lamb” (Rev 21:14). She is indestructible (Mt 16:18). She is upheld infallibly in the truth: Christ governs her through Peter and the other apostles, who are present in their successors, the Pope and the college of bishops.

870 “The sole Church of Christ which in the Creed we profess to be one, holy, catholic, and apostolic, . . . subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in communion with him. Nevertheless, many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside its visible confines”. Catechism of the Catholic Church

Authority of Rome: A Catholic Perspective

This post is the third and final instalment on a series concerning the authority of Rome and the infallibility/supremacy of the pope. We will explore the doctrine of papal infallibility from the lens of Christians who still call themselves catholic despite no longer being in official communion with Rome. For some, this is because they do not see Rome has holding the monopoly over what is and is not catholic. For others, this is because they believe that the Roman Catholic church has departed from true catholic teaching or “that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all” (Fr. Vincent of Lérins). This post will examine those positions specifically from the Old Catholic Church and the Anglican Catholic Church. For the purpose of this post Roman and catholic will be distinguished terms; it shall not be assumed when one reads catholic that this means Roman.

The only place to start when we discuss the position of non-Roman catholics on papal infallibility and supremacy is the First and Second Vatican Councils– more so the First Vatican Council. As we learned in the Roman perspective on the issue, the doctrine of papal infallibility/supremacy that we understand today is relatively a very new concept within the Roman Catholic Church having been defined clearly in the 1870s and then further refined in the 1960s. When speaking of papal authority within the church there is a definite pre- and post- Vatican Councils era that any honest observer should take into account when reflecting on a supposed catholic position on the doctrine itself. A period before the doctrine was defined where there today exists a dispute between Romans and catholics as to whether said authority was exercised without resistance (and hence not requiring definition) or was not exercised and hence didn’t require any resisting. And a period after the doctrine was defined when a portion of the Roman Catholic church broke away on the issue itself and many Roman catholics now attend Sunday services in Anglo-Catholic churches– and the established Roman Catholic church insists that the doctrine makes up a core component of the catholic faith requiring strict obedience.

There is no dispute that in the pre-Vatican I council period of the church there was no definitive (let’s say written down, at least) definition of the the doctrine of papal supremacy. Today, proponents of papal supremacy (the Roman Catholic church as a whole) maintain that the doctrine existed during this period but, as Cardinal Newman said, did not require defining because it was held to the evident by the church and her faithful. However, there is a segment of those who call themselves catholic (but not Roman), who would maintain that the doctrine was not defined because it did not exist and was never truly held to be evident by any single person. These faithful point to catholic textbooks and catechisms such as the one I quoted in the previous post that clearly stated there was no authority granted to the pope of that kind.

(Q.) Must not Catholics believe the Pope himself to be infallible?

(A.) This is a Protestant invention: it is no article of the Catholic faith: no decision of his can oblige under pain of heresy, unless it be received and enforced by the teaching body, that is by the bishops of the Church.

Another good example from history is that of the use of oaths of office, especially throughout England, Scotland, Whales and Ireland (and even into Quebec and Canada) because of the historical religious tension between catholics and protestants in those regions. In the early 1800s during the reign of the King George III, a catholic who wished to take public office in any form had to swear an oath that protected against a (now defined false, and therefore heretical) claim by popes that they could forgive regicide and directly guide state affairs through their office (what was in the pre-Vatican councils period, the fundamental question of papal supremacy, it was not about faith or morals at this point). Part of the oath stated, “it is not an article of the Catholic Faith, neither am I thereby required to believe or profess that the Pope is infallible.” And this was supported by the Irish bishops in 1826 when they stated in a pastoral letter to the faithful:

[t]he Catholics of Ireland not only do not believe, but they declare upon oath … that it is not an article of the Catholic faith, neither are they required to believe, that the Pope is infallible, and that they do not hold themselves ‘bound to obey any order in its own nature immoral’, though the Pope or any ecclesiastical power should issue or direct such an order; but, on the contrary, that it would be sinful in them to pay any respect or obedience thereto. (Pastoral letter, 25 January 1826)

Contrary to what the Roman church and her theological authorities continue to repeat, it does not appear that there was a clear definition or understanding of papal supremacy/infallibility in the early church, nor was there indications of a consensus among Bishops, clergy and faithful. This is the position of many catholics who fall outside of the Roman church. They do not see a legitimate claim that the doctrine of papal infallibility/supremacy has existed clearly through-out the history of the church– and some consider this to be new doctrine.

Along the same lines of there being no clear consensus on the authority of the pope through-out the bulk of the history of the Roman church, Old Catholics specifically charge the Roman church with the error of adding doctrine to the faith. This point was touched on in the post on the protestant position on Roman authority as well. The premise is that the whole collection of what has been revealed to mankind concerning God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit as well as the mission and intention of the Church has been handed down in what is called the Deposit of Faith, this Deposit can be accessed by the church and she does regularly as a source of her teaching and preaching of the Good News around the whole world. However, she cannot add to this Deposit, because what has been revealed has been done by God and cannot be altered or added to by the church– not even the pope. And the Roman church does hold to this belief as well. It is without question a catholic doctrine which is professed in the Apostle’s Creed when we say that we believe in One Holy Catholic Church– meaning whole and complete as well as united and together. However, the Roman church does not consider the doctrine of papal infallibility– first defined in the 1870s and again in the 1960s– to be new doctrine because it is a fruit on the tree of faith which has grown over time– or, as Cardinal Newman pointed out, it has existed the whole time (which as we explored earlier, is not entirely conclusive). Old Catholics maintain that what has been taught within the faith throughout the ages and for all time was altered during the course of the First Vatican Council and then again during the Second Vatican Council. Admittedly, there has been some significant controversy within the Old Catholic movement (the “leader” who I quoted in the opening of this post never even associated himself directly with the break from the Roman church) and today the Old Catholic church permits the ordination of married male Priests.

The fallout of not adhering to the authority of Rome but still holding catholic value (or attempting to), is clear in the Anglican Catholic church of today. Members of this church often see themselves as catholic, and would even consider themselves as individuals to be in communion with Rome and still catholics despite the official position from Rome being that they are not in communion. They take issue with certain non-essential elements of the Roman faith which within the Roman church are taken very seriously. These are the trivial cultural practices that although very important, are often presented within the Roman church as being on an equal footing with tenant of the Creeds, for example. This is often because of the zero-sum-game that is created an organization is establish along the blind adherence to how a single man does something in a specific part of the world. Anything you do, regardless of where it falls along the hierarchy of importance within the faith, becomes taboo when it is not in line with what Rome does, it puts the actions and will of the pope on equal, if not very, very near footing with the Will of God for His Church. That is a problem to many Anglican Catholics who have left the Roman church as a result.

A summarizing sentence for the catholic position on papal infallibility/supremacy and the authority of Rome could be: it was never part of the catholic faith to profess the infallibility/supremacy of the pope, that is a new doctrine and it is an error of the Roman church to continue to teach it.

Authority of Rome: A Protestant Perspective

This post is the second installment of a series on papal supremacy/infallibility and the authority of Rome. The first installment on the authority of Rome from a Roman Catholic perspective can be found here. The series was the product of fruitful discussion on a post concerning the 185th anniversary of Anglo-Catholicism. Please feel free to comment on any post in the series, or offer your opinion on this callout post for ideas, theories and opinions on the authority of the Bishop of Rome.

Before we begin this post on the protestant perspective of papal authority, it is important to define the boundaries of protestant theology within the context of this post. Dissent among protestants regarding the pope and the Roman Catholic church in general range from opposition to a handful of doctrines to complete rejection of everything catholic all of the way to ascribing a heinous mission for the Roman church as the whore of Babylon spoken about in the Book of Revelations. Before I can begin a discussion outlining the various protestant positions, I would like to make it clear that we will not be concerning ourselves with outlandish, ill-founded and flat out unChristian ideas about the catholic church. This post will specifically focus on the theological positions of the Anglican Communion (disregarding the Anglican Catholic movement in this particular series for now), and Reformed Christian churches. Note that the position of the  Eastern Orthodox and Russian Orthodox churches will not be covered in this series, those will be part of the third and final installment on the authority of Rome from a catholic perspective. If you want some information on extreme positions against the catholic church (if not for curiosity sake), I encourage you to check out Are You Drinking From The Babylon Cup who has a very respectful blog with a lot of information (even if I do not agree with his opinions at all).

Another important item to keep in mind when reading about the various protestant positions on the supremacy of the pope is that historically opposition to the pope did not fall along the lines of how we understand the doctrine today. Given that the formalization of the supremacy/infallibility of the pope was first defined in 1870 at the First Vatican Council and then further defined at the Second Vatican council during the 1960s, we have to remind ourselves when reading about bold statements of opposition to the pope from history, that those dissenters were not writing about the doctrine as defined today, in fact in most cases what they were historically opposing was concurred by the church during the First and Second Vatican councils (more on that below). In history, traditional opposition to the bishop of Rome, rested on his temporal ability to make or end monarchs through out Christian Europe, to forgive regicide and to control the public decisions of catholic secular leaders– all items which were defined by the First and Second Vatican councils as in fact falling outside of the authority of the bishop of Rome.

Protestants the world over generally disregard the doctrine of papal infallibility based on a few common points:

  1. The Roman church relies on a overly literal reading of Matthew 16:18 (when Jesus apparently called Peter the Rock upon which He will build His church). James Robert White points out that in the passage Peter is the second person “you” but that “this rock” (being in the third person), refers to Christ. Protestants read Matthew 16:18 as Christ telling Peter that He is the Rock and Peter (along with the other apostles) is laid upon it to build the church
  2. Protestants point out that this interpretation of Scripture was supported by Saint Augustine of Hippo when he wrote, “on this rock, therefore, He said, which thou hast confessed. I will build my Church. For the Rock (petra) is Christ; and on this foundation was Peter himself built.” (On the Gospel of John Tractate 12435)
  3. Protestants understand “the keys” mentioned by Christ in Matthew 16:19 to be the Word of God which ties in with instructions given to Timothy by Saint Paul regarding the defense of the true gospel accounts by apostles
  4. Reading Luke 22:32 when Jesus prays for Peter’s faith to be returned and strengthened, Protestants assert that infallibility cannot possibility rest with Peter as that would make the prayers of Christ regarding his faith redundant and pointless
  5. Protestants maintain that Peter’s prominence in the Book of Acts is overplayed by Roman Catholics. A reading of Acts as a whole together with the epistles presents a division within the church between Peter and Paul over the admission of Gentiles. During the First Council of Jerusalem, Protestants agree that it appears Peter rose to make final judgement, but the debate leading up to the council played out between Peter and Paul in their letters. Many times Paul rebukes Peter for not accepting Gentiles into the Christian faith as Christ directed. Protestants assert that it is Paul who takes center stage during the Acts of the Apostles and any inclusion of Peter is done to justify Paul’s position of authority among the Christians (many times Paul appeals to how he has the same powers and Spirit as Peter despite not being a direct witness of the life of Jesus Christ)
  6. Protestants point out that no formal Jewish magisterium existed and yet the faith endured for over a thousand years before Christ, Protestants use this historical fact to point out that the Roman Catholic teaching is a new doctrine (more on ‘new doctrines’ will come in the third installment, in this argument Protestants are pulling from the catholic playbook, and it gets a little awkward because of that)
  7. Protestants sift through history and point out several occasions when popes have spoke heresy (as recognized by the Roman church herself today, see mention above about temporal authorities of the pope) and use this to refute the claim that the pope alone is infallible. Specifically, Protestants will ascribe little weight to a pope stepping in to avoid heresy on the grounds that heresy was avoided because the opinion of the pope prevailed, Protestants consider this to be a cyclical argument that is illogical and has absolutely no direct Scripture to back it up
  8. Protestants point out that the Roman claim that monarchical leadership by an infallible pope as being inevitable within the universal church (or the more secular argument that any large organization needs decisive and clear leadership) as being directly contrary to Scripture where the church hierarchy is explained in a more local manner with deacons, priests and bishops (Titus 1:5-7, see also Saint Ignatius of Antioch quote in previous series posts)
  9. Protestants argue that over the entire history of the church, papal infallibility/supremacy lacked universal or widespread acceptance in the Christian world (even within the Roman church herself) which supports the claim that there is a lack of scriptural and historical basis for the doctrine itself. This was the issue addressed by Cardinal Newman in his quote about doctrine not being defined until it has been violated, but a historical review of how the First Vatican Council came to discuss papal authority will reveal that it was on the suspicion by church authorities that Pope Pius IX had overstepped his own authority in unilaterally ruling in favour of the Franciscan view of the Immaculate Conception of Mary over the Dominican view within the church which makes Newman’s casual observation about the defining pre-existing doctrine a little rich, considering the subject was the potential violator in this instance

A simple statement to capture the Protestant position concerning the Roman doctrine of supremacy of the pope can be summed up thus: it is not supported in Scripture or the historical record. They claim that the Roman church relies on a overly literal reading of certain passages of the gospels in order to justify a position of leadership for Peter above the others. Furthermore, they assert that claims to papal supremacy have more to do with secular issues than any ecclesiastical ones (this is supported historically, in that no pope has ever had to exercise papal authority to keep bishops from erring against the Creeds, it has always been done when theological questions fell along potentially new doctrine development, for example asserting the Immaculate Conception of Mary).

Individual Protestant churches have articulated their position on papal authority via various statements of faith or articles of faith. Again, we have to keep in mind that more often than not however, these articles were composed well before 1870 and therefore are not direct objections to how we view the papacy today, but to the clear abuses of papal authority that even the Roman church acknowledges today (no reasonable catholic argues that the pope has the authority to make or break world leaders or demand that a catholic government official does something).

The Anglican Church articulates her position against papal authority in the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion (which according to Anglo-Catholics contains nothing which is contrary to true catholic teaching):

XIX. Of the Church. The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance, in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same. As the Church of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch, have erred, so also the Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of Ceremonies, but also in matters of Faith.

XXI. Of the Authority of General Councils. General Councils may not be gathered together without the commandment and will of Princes. And when they be gathered together, (forasmuch as they be an assembly of men, whereof all be not governed with the Spirit and Word of God,) they may err, and sometimes have erred, even in things pertaining unto God. Wherefore things ordained by them as necessary to salvation have neither strength nor authority, unless it may be declared that they be taken out of holy Scripture.

Note how the Anglican Church acknowledges that councils and the faithful are subject to err and that they have erred in the past but that the metric for determining the error was not a secular office, but the Word of God itself.

John Wesley amended the Anglican Articles of Faith for use by Methodists. The Methodist Articles of Faith are similar to the Thirty-Nine Articles but omit the lamenting about councils being in error in the past, or capable of error in general.

V. Of the Sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures for Salvation. The Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation; so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man that it should be believed as an article of faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation..

Reformed churches and Presbyterian churches reject papal infallibility outright. The Westminster Confession of Faith, which was meant to replace the Thirty-Nine Articles of Faith in 1646, outright call the pope the ‘anti-Christ’:

(Chapter one) IX. The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.

(Chapter one) X. The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.

(Chapter Twenty-Five) VI. There is no other head of the Church but the Lord Jesus Christ. Nor can the Pope of Rome, in any sense, be head thereof; but is that Antichrist, that man of sin, and son of perdition, that exalts himself, in the Church, against Christ and all that is called God.

Evangelical and Pentecostal churches all reject the authority of the Pope. As does the Church of Latter Day Saints and the Jehovah’s Witness. These churches tend to oppose the pope along the same theological lines as the Methodists (going so far as to call the pope the anti-Christ and ascribe heinous intentions regarding its formation).

The next installment of our series will cover the authority of Rome from the catholic perspective. It will require the reader to divorce the concepts of Roman and catholic and to understand them as two separate things. We will cover the position of the Orthodox churches, the Old Catholics and the Anglican Catholic perspective. To get the brain working before that installment is released, I leave you with this article from the 1860 edition of Keenan’s Catechism which was widely in use across England, Scotland and Wales within Roman Catholic schools (it was approved for use after being found to contain no catholic doctrinal error):

(Q.) Must not Catholics believe the Pope himself to be infallible?

(A.) This is a Protestant invention: it is no article of the Catholic faith: no decision of his can oblige under pain of heresy, unless it be received and enforced by the teaching body, that is by the bishops of the Church.

Authority of Rome: A Roman Perspective

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:

  1. Peter is listed on the top of the ‘apostolic list’ when Jesus calls His followers together (Mk 3:16, Lk 6:14)
  2. Peter is often singled out among the other apostles (MK 1:36, 16:7, Lk 9:32)
  3. 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)
  4. Peter often spoke to Jesus on behalf of the twelve apostles (Mk 8:29, Lk 12:41, Jn 6:66-69)
  5. 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)
  6. 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)
  7. 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)
  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)
  9. 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:

  1. Peter initiated and oversaw the replacement of Judas following the Ascension of Jesus (Acts 1:15-26)
  2. When the Spirit rained down on the apostles during Pentecost, it was Peter who delivered the inaugural sermon (Acts 2:37-41)
  3. When crowds accepted the testimony of the apostles, it was Peter who urged them to repent and be Baptized (Acts 2:37-41)
  4. It was Peter who recorded the first healing within the church (Acts 3:1-10)
  5. 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)
  6. Peter handled the first case of ecclesial discipline within the church (Acts 5:1-11)
  7. 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)
  8. When God had arranged for the first Gentile conversations, He sent Peter to preach and administer the Baptisms (Acts 10:1-48)
  9. 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.”