JMC : The Catholic Religion / by Charles Coppens, S.J.

The Head of the Church.

101. The Bishop of Rome is recognized by the Catholic Church as her lawful head, with the title of "Supreme Pontiff", or "Pope". She teaches that he holds the Primacy, not of honor only, but also of power, or "Jurisdiction", as it is called, over all the Bishops; that he rules over the whole Church as the successor of St. Peter, in virtue of the institution of Christ Himself. The Vatican Council expresses the doctrine thus "If any one say that it is not by the institution of Christ our Lord Himself, that is by Divine right, that Blessed Peter has an unbroken line of successors in the Primacy over the whole Church, or that the Roman Pontiff is not the successor of Blessed Peter in the same Primacy, let him be anathema". The doctrine is of Apostolic Tradition; for no time can be pointed out in history when this claim of the Roman Pontiffs had its beginning. On the contrary, we find that from the first centuries they have acted as having authority over the other Bishops, of the East and West alike. We mention a few examples: 1. St. Clement, the third successor of St. Peter, settled a dispute of great importance for the Church in Corinth, which had appealed to him, A. D. 97, while St. John the Apostle was still alive. 2. Pope St. Victor, in the second century, ordered the Asiatic Bishops, under threat of excommunication, to conform to the common usage of the Church in the celebration of Easter. 3. In the third century Pope St. Stephen compelled the African and Asiatic Bishops to abandon the custom of rebaptizing those baptized by heretics. 4. In the fourth century, Pope Liberius ordered the Bishops of the East to confess three Persons in God. And at the General Council of Ephesus, the Papal Legate Philip claimed for the Roman Pontiff the power of St. Peter, because, as he said before all the Council, this Apostle "still lives and exercises judgment in his successors". There is no record in the early ages of any appeal from a Papal decision on a matter of faith to any higher tribunal. Appeals to a General Council were made at times by Catholics, but only on matters of discipline.

102. Reason itself shows the necessity of this doctrine. For, 1. We have seen that the Church of Christ is necessarily one (nn. 79, 80); but its unity would be practically impossible without a central authority, a one last judge of controversies. 2. We have also proved that the Church is infallible (n. 72); now this also requires an infallible voice, a judge of the faith. He need not be inspired, -- inspiration is not claimed for the Pope, -- he must be preserved from teaching erroneously by the Spirit of Truth, who abides with the Church forever.

If it be objected that the unanimous voice of the Bishops could act as the last court of appeal, the answer is obvious, that the decision is needed when the Bishops are not unanimous. Shall a bare majority of votes, or a two-third vote be required to secure infallibility? Christ has not said it. Who is to determine this point if there is no head? Now if there is a head, it is the Bishop of Rome; for he has no rival claimant.

103. The Holy Scriptures prove clearly that Christ conferred the Primacy on St. Peter and his line of successors.

1. The first proof is taken from the 16th chapter of St. Matthew's Gospel. We find in Scripture that when God gave a new name to any person, it was ever a sign that the person was entering on some new position in the Divine economy, as when "Abram" became "Abraham", the "Father of many nations" (Gen. XVII, 5). Now Christ changed the name of "Simon" into "Peter", which means "a rock", and He adds the reason, saying, "And upon this rock I will build My Church". His Church was to be supported, and that solidly and permanently, by St. Peter, and of course by his successors, else it could not be a permanent support. It was to be so strong and durable that "the gates of hell shall not prevail against it". It is hard to conceive of a more telling figure: Christ makes Peter so necessary to His Church that without his aid it cannot stand, while with his support it shall stand forever. All this admits of no other plausible explanation than the Catholic traditional teaching, that St. Peter and his line of successors were to be throughout all ages the strength of the Church, maintaining it in its integrity. The Popes are such by giving it unity of government, of doctrine, of worship, and of charity: this four-fold unity belongs to the Church, as we have shown (nn. 79-85), and without the Popes such unity is impossible.

The occasion on which this great favor was conferred upon St. Peter was this. Jesus asked His disciples: "Who do you say that I am?" Simon Peter answered and said: "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God". It was to reward him for this open profession of faith that Christ said: "And I say to you that thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church, etc.". It was the reward of his faith. Therefore the Holy Fathers often say in their commentaries on this text "The rock is the faith of Peter"; a true saying, but not a full explanation of the text. St. Ambrose goes further and says, "Therefore where Peter is there is the Church" (In Ps. 40, n. 30); and Tertullian, "Was anything hidden from Peter, who is called the rock, whereon the Church was to be built?" (De Praes. a. 21).

2. The next verse in St. Matthew expresses the promise of the Primacy in another form. It says: "And I will give to thee the Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven. And whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in Heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt loose upon earth, it shall be loosed also in Heaven" (19). The promise of the Keys was made to St. Peter alone, while the power of binding and loosing was afterwards conferred on all the Apostles (Matt. XVIII, 18). Now what is betokened by giving to a man the keys of a house, or to a magistrate the keys of a city? It puts the house or city in his power, giving him control of it. Thus Christ gave to St. Peter the Primacy or highest power over His Church, which is His Kingdom on earth, that by means of this power its members may gain access to His Heavenly Kingdom.

3. The Primacy, promised in the texts just explained, was conferred on St. Peter after the Resurrection of Christ, when He appeared to His disciples by the sea of Tiberias (Jo. XXI, 15-17). He took St. Peter aside from the rest, and after asking him three times, "Peter, lovest thou Me more than these?", and after receiving his triple protestation of love, He made him the shepherd of His whole flock, saying: "Feed My lambs . . . Feed my sheep". We read nowhere that Christ ever conferred any such charge for future tunes on any one but St. Peter. His sheep were to form one flock. "There shall be one fold and one shepherd" (Jo. X, 16); and the office of shepherd to this flock is an exact figure of the Primacy. The shepherd must keep the flock together, lead it to healthy pastures, and defend it against the wolves; so the Pope must keep the faithful united, furnish them sound doctrine, and protect them against the enemies of salvation.

That St. Peter was to direct or rule the whole Church, is expressed by the mention of both 'lambs' and 'sheep'. He was of course to have assistant shepherds, the Apostles and the Bishops; but there were to be no independent shepherds who should own separate flocks. There is another text to show that Christ intended St. Peter to be the head of all the Apostles; namely, at the Last Supper, before warning him of His approaching fall, He said: "Thou, being once converted, confirm thy brethren" (Luke XXII, 32).

4. The leadership of St. Peter is indicated in many other passages of Holy Writ. In particular: (a) He is always named first when the list of the Apostles is given. St. Matthew says distinctly: "The first Simon, who is called Peter" (X, 2); and yet he was not the first called by Christ, nor the oldest, nor the most beloved. How then was he first, except in authority? (b) It was Peter who invited the rest to choose another in the place of Judas (Acts I, ii). (c) He was the first to preach to the people on the day of Pentecost (Acts II). (d) He was the first to receive the Gentiles into the Church, being directed to do so by a vision from Heaven (Acts X). (e) In the Council of Jerusalem, he was the first to trace out the course of action which was adopted (Acts XV). (f) When Ananias had laid his money at the feet of the Apostles, it was Peter that rebuked him; he also announced her death to Saphira (Acts V). (g) It was to him that St. Paul went after his sojourn in Arabia (Gal. I, 18).

104. But did not St. Paul rebuke St. Peter? He did just as a Cardinal to-day might call the attention of the Pope to the likelihood of scandal arising from his course of conduct on a particular occasion. When the facts are well understood, they afford additional proof of St. Peter's high position. They are as follows: Though the Law of Moses, on St. Peter's motion, had been declared abrogated, and himself had eaten freely with the Gentile converts, yet he thought it best to conform to the practice of the Jews: "He withdrew and separated himself" from the Gentiles, eating no longer with them; and the rest of the Jews, even Barnabas; followed his example. St. Paul then says: "When I saw they walked not uprightly unto the truth of the Gospel, I said to Cephas before them all: If thou, being a Jew, livest after the manner of the Gentiles, and not as the Jews do, how dost thou compel the Gentiles to live as the Jews?" (Gal. II, 14). Notice that the example of St. Peter is said to "compel" the Gentiles; this is more than St. Paul's example did, and thus argues the superiority of St. Peter. Besides, in all this there is no question of belief but of practice. (Read all Gal. II.)

105. The arguments of the "rock" and of the "shepherd" prove that the Primacy was to be permanent in the Church, for a building always needs its support. and the flock its shepherd. And yet we do not read that, when St. Peter died, any other Apostle assumed the leadership. But it passed to his successor in the See of Rome, St. Linus; then to St. Cletus; then to St. Clement, whom we have seen settling the dispute for the Corinthians during the lifetime of St. John (xi. 101). His letter to the Corinthians is extant and admitted to be genuine. The claim of the Bishops of Rome to exercise the Primacy has always been acknowledged to be valid. Thus St. Ignatius, who died in 107, called the Church of Rome "The head of the union of charity", that is, "of Christianity" (Pp. ad Rom.). Tertullian calls its Bishop "The Supreme Pontiff, the Bishop of Bishops" (De Pu. C. i). St. Cyprian wrote: "He who resists the Church, he who abandons the chair of Peter, on whom the Church is founded, shall he flatter himself that he is in the Church?" (De Un. Ec. 4). There is also the celebrated saying of St. Augustine: "Rome has spoken, the cause is ended" (Sermo 131, c. 10).

It is objected that St. Gregory the Great repudiated the title of "Universal Bishop". He did so in the meaning in which he understood the Patriarch of Constantinople to claim it, as "sole Bishop". He himself teaches that all Bishops are subject to the Bishop of Rome (Pp. ad Jo. Syr. 9, 12).

It may be remarked that the Synagogue was a figure of the future Church of Christ; and it had permanently a High Priest, whose office corresponded in many points to that of the Pope. Would God have given a more perfect organization to the figure than to the reality?

106. The Waldenses in the Middle Ages, and some modern writers, questioned the dogmatic fact (n. 100), defined by the Vatican Council, that St. Peter at his death was Bishop of Rome. But in vain: for all the claims of the Bishops of Rome to the Primacy (n. 101) have always rested on the fact that they are the successors of St. Peter. He was martyred at Rome A. D. 67. St. Cyprian, about the year 260, speaks of Rome as "Peter's place, the chair of Peter, the principal Church, the source of unity of the Priesthood" (Pp. ad Corn. 55, 14). A century earlier, St. Irenaeus had called it: "The Church founded and constituted by the two most glorious Apostles Peter and Paul" (Con. Haer. 3, 3). Tertullian, Origen, St. Clement himself (Pp. ad Cor.), and others testify to the same. St. Peter says, in his first Epistle (V, 13), that he writes from Babylon; now Rome was to the Jews in his day what ancient Babylon had been to their ancestors, a name for oppression and wickedness the home of their conquerors. It is called Babylon in the Apocalypse (XIV, 8, etc.); and the name Babylon in St. Peter's Epistle was unanimously so understood before the Reformation. St. Peter never preached in any other place to which the name Babylon could be applied; and no other city than Rome has ever claimed to be the the place of St. Peter's death and burial. The Protestant Dr. Whiston says: "That St. Peter was at Rome . . . is so clear in Christian antiquity, that it is a shame for a Protestant to confess that any Protestant ever denied it" (Memoirs, London, 1750).

107. Finally, the fact that the Roman Pontiff holds to-day, and has held for centuries, the unique position which is his, cannot be accounted for except by his right of succession to the Prince of the Apostles. Whoever should maintain that the Pope either usurped his powers and imposed his authority on all the other Bishops, or that these freely chose to put a master over themselves, must first point out when and where such changes were made. But lie betrays great simplicity of mind, and a strange ignorance of history, if he imagines that either of these alternatives was possible, was in conformity with human nature. Men in authority do not tamely submit to a usurper who has not the power of compelling submission; and there is no record of any protest against such usurpation, or of united action to establish the innovation. When England rejected the Pope's supremacy, this was not the doing of its Episcopacy, but of the secular power, and it was accomplished by the banishment and death of the true Bishops; the new Hierarchy was established by the throne. But of all such changes there are historical documents; of the Pope's alleged usurpation of the Primacy there are none.

Besides, whoever denies the Primacy ignores the difference between the power of "Order" and that of "Jurisdiction", or commission. All validly consecrated Bishops have exactly the same powers of Order, but their rights of jurisdiction are limited to the territory or district over which they are appointed by higher authority. If there were no higher authority, there would be no such commission given, no special jurisdiction. The highest official cannot receive his commission except in virtue of a different arrangement and since his power is not human, it cannot be derived from men, but must be of Divine origin. No such arrangement is spoken of in Scripture or Tradition except the succession of the Pope to St. Peter, the Prince of the Apostles (n. 105).

108. As to the infallibility of Papal teachings, the Vatican Council defined in 1870 that the Roman Pontiff is infallible when he speakes ex cathedra (n. 99). The whole Church recognized this Council as General and this decree as conclusive. The decree adds: "Therefore these definitions of the Roman Pontiff, of themselves, and not through the consent of the Church, are irreformable." Thus it puts an end to the teachings of a school, from the country of its origin known as the "Gallican", which maintained that the Pope receives his authority from the Church, and that, as a consequence, his dogmatic decrees are not infallible in themselves, but only in virtue of their acceptance by the Church. It called these views "Cisalpine", and dubbed as "Ultramontane" the doctrines maintained South of the Alps, namely, that the Papal Primacy is of Divine institution, and that the Pope is infallible in virtue of his office. It is to be observed that the decree (n. 99) explains ex cathedra utterances to be teachings, or definitions, not acts of government, still less of personal conduct; and only those teachings which regard faith and morals, and which the Pope addresses to the whole Church in the exercise of his supreme Apostolic authority. If there is room to doubt whether any particular utterance fulfils these conditions, the doubt is solved by considering the circumstances of the pronouncement; if doubt still remains, the utterance is not known for certain to be infallible. The decree states that the extent of Papal infallibility is the same as that of the Church's infallibility, and that it is not secured by any Divine inspiration, but "by the assistance of God promised to the Pope in the person of Blessed Peter".

109. Objections against this doctrine are mostly drawn from historical statements of instances in which either the teaching of a Pope was not ex cathedra, or it was not heretical. These are the principal objections: 1. St. Peter denied Christ; but this occurred before he had actually received the Primacy; and of course he was not teaching ex cathedra. 2. Points of doctrine were submitted by St. Peter to the Council of Jerusalem, and also by Pope St. Leo to the Council of Chalcedon. But in neither case was appeal made to a higher authority. Conciliar decrees give greater solemnity and publicity to an infallible utterance. Besides, Councils are convened to investigate a disputed doctrine with a view to a final decision. 3. Pope St. Stephen was opposed by St. Cyprian; but the Pope was right (n. 101, 3). 4. Pope Liberius is said to have subscribed an heretical formula. But it contained nothing positively heretical, and there is not even a pretense for saying that he taught heresy ex cathedra. 5. Pope Honorius is said to have been anathematized as a heretic by the Fourth General Council of Constantinople (n. 193). But it was not for having taught heresy, least of all ex cathedra, but for not having made a sufficiently firm protest against heresy in a private letter. 6. It is sometimes said that the Popes have acquired their power by a forgery, the so-called "False Decretals". But these were compiled in the ninth century, long after the Popes had been recognized by numberless writers as possessing all the right ascribed to them at present. Therefore these rights could not have been acquired by means of those Decretals. 7. In the case of Galileo, the tribunal which condemned him was not infallible; for the Pope cannot delegate his infallibility to any tribunal. If he approved the decree, he merely confirmed a disciplinary measure, and did not formally define any doctrine whatever.

<< ======= >>