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The Authority Of The Pope

by Jeffrey A. Mirus, Ph.D.


This article considers how authority is exercised within the Catholic Church, especially with reference to the primacy of the popes.

Larger Work

Reasons For Hope



Publisher & Date

Christendom Press, 1978

In one sense, to establish that Christ empowered the popes of the Roman Catholic Church to act as his vicars is sufficient to establish everything else about Christianity, including the foundation of the Church. It is far easier for most of us to perceive the necessity of a Church, however, than to perceive the precise structure or exercise of authority within that Church. Therefore it is expedient to consider precisely how authority is exercised within the Catholic Church, especially with reference to the primacy of the popes. In this way, we will find the surest means to learn all the truths, which God would teach to men.

The traditional assertion of Catholics in this matter is that each pope has the totality and supremacy of the power Christ left on earth for the building up of the kingdom of God. The pope is said to have the plenitudo potestatis, or fullness of power. His authority, direct from Christ after the manner of a vicar, extends equally directly to each man, woman and child committed to his care, namely all men. This fact of papal primacy has been denied on numerous occasions, but chiefly in five great eras of the Church's history.

The first great challenge came nearly four hundred years after Our Lord's death when the deference due the Christian emperors in Constantinople began to grow to such outlandish proportions. Since that time a variety of traditions have emphasized the supremacy of the local patriarchs, once under Imperial control, who maintained religious stability following the Imperial decline. The second attack on the papacy came from the powerful laymen of the medieval West, kings and emperors who sought a fuller control over the bishops, who were also great landowners. The third problem arose with the theory of conciliarism in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, originally designed to end the Great Western Schism, and propounding the superiority of the general council over the pope. The fourth denial of the papacy was first implicit and then explicit in Protestantism, with its belief in salvation by faith alone, making priestly and episcopal power superfluous to a large degree. Finally, in our own time, the modernists deny the concept of papal authority for a variety of reasons, not least being their much deeper denial of the objectivity of revealed truth itself.

Happily, the arguments which irrefutably establish the primacy of the popes suffice to answer the objections of those associated with any of the movements just mentioned. In the face of attack, the Church and all her defenders have ever maintained that the popes receive their power by virtue of their succession from Peter. And so the argument must begin by proving that Peter himself had power to pass on.

We may take for granted by now that Jesus worked with twelve apostles who had a special role to play in building up his kingdom. The first important point here is that Peter had a special pre-eminence and predominance among these twelve. This point is easily established from Scripture.

We know, for example, that Peter was first in faith. When Christ asked the disciples who they thought he was, Peter responded before all, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God" (Matt. 16:16). Christ immediately acknowledged that this was revealed to Peter by the Father, and not by men, indicating perhaps, among other things, that there were as yet no men who had this faith and who could reveal it to Peter. On another occasion, after the crowds deserted Jesus because of his teaching about the body and blood, Christ asked the disciples whether they, too, would leave him. Peter again answered for all: "Lord, to whom shall we go. You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe" (John 6:69).

We know also that Peter was the first disciple called, even though Andrew, Peter's brother, recognized and followed Christ as a great teacher before Peter knew of him. Peter, fittingly, is always listed first in the gospel accounts of the disciples, as in Mark 3:16-17: "He appointed the Twelve as follows: Simon, to whom he gave the name Peter; James, son of Zebedee; and John . . .", and so on. There is no doubting that the evangelists knew Peter's primary position.

There is a very interesting type of foreshadowing of the Church in chapter five of Luke's gospel, which suggests Peter's special role among the twelve, and in the later Church as a whole. The crowds were pressing in to hear Jesus speak on the shore of Lake Gennesaret, and Jesus decided to get into one of the boats. He chose Peter's. He then sat down and taught the crowds from that boat of which Peter was the captain. The point is perhaps obvious. In any case, when he had finished, Jesus ordered Peter out to sea for some fishing. Skeptically, Peter lowered his nets, and they were filled to the breaking point. Now Peter was an experienced fisherman, and he had been out all night with no luck. Immediately he fell on his knees in the presence of the supernatural and said, "Leave me, Lord. I am a sinful man." Luke tells us that Jesus replied specifically to Peter: "Do not be afraid. From now on you will be catching men."

Here we have a clear prefiguring of the Church, with Peter as its captain, in which Christ's authentic teaching can alone be found. The choice of Simon Peter over the other disciples and fishermen is also clear, for there were at least two boats for Christ's selection. Such a foreshadowing of the universal barque of salvation, catching men from the dark seas of falsehood and death, is a suitable transition to the second point which must be established about Peter before going on to discuss the papacy. For it must be shown that Peter had a special place in Christ's plans for the building up of the kingdom of God — for the Church as a whole.

In this connection, it is fascinating to speculate on Peter's character as "the rock". The image of rock had great significance in Christ's preaching. He took great pains to relate a story about the foolish man who built on sand and the wise man who built on rock (Matt. 7:24-9). The foolish man, whose edifice was washed away, was the man who heard Christ's words but did not put them into practice. The wise man, building securely on rock, was the man who heard Christ and practiced what he heard. A brief consideration of this passage as a prophecy calls to mind the Protestants who not only reject papal authority and refuse to build on the rock of Peter but also argue that faith alone is necessary for salvation, and refuse to stress the importance of doing good works, of putting the Word into practice. In the winds and rains of modern secularism, such half-believers must be washed away.

Although this prophetic element is clearly not the main focus of the text, it is obvious that building on rock was important to Jesus. We are startled, therefore, when Christ, according to John, immediately changed Simon's name to Peter, meaning rock (John 1:42). Such a name change, even apart from its literal meaning, signifies that the one named is being singled out for leadership among God's people. Thus God called Abram Abraham, and changed Jacob's name to Israel. As recounted by the other evangelists, moreover, the literal intention becomes even clearer. After Peter's profession of faith, Jesus turned to him and said: "Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church" (Matt. 16:18-19).

Clearly Our Lord intended Peter to be the very foundation of his Church, of that structured society which would carry out his mission until the end of time. It is this Petrine foundation, indeed, which will make the Church endure, for immediately Christ said, "And the gates of hell [jaws of death] will not prevail against it." It is an awesome promise, impossible to ignore in any objective reading of the gospels.

Nor does this designation of Peter as the foundation in any way contradict Christ's own place in the Church. For as he himself said, "The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone" (Matt. 21:42). This teaching about Christ was reaffirmed by Peter himself before the Sanhedrin (Acts 4:11). It is the cornerstone, which holds the foundation and the entire structure together. It is singly the most important stone of the structure (at least before modern times when it has become merely ornamental). And it is linked directly to that foundation upon which the entire edifice is raised. Nothing could more perfectly illustrate the relationship of Christ to Peter and of Peter to the Church. Peter, the rock, is the rock of salvation itself.

At the same time as Christ called Peter a rock, he gave him "the keys to the kingdom of heaven." Such a commission speaks volumes about Peter's unique status, confirms the conclusion we have just reached, and is central to the entire concept of Petrine authority. For the keys to heaven can only be the power or means of unlocking the door to heaven and of admitting persons. Since heaven is most profoundly the eternal and complete presence of God, the "keys" must involve the power of opening persons to the divine life, or the power of salvation itself. There have been many who have tried to explain that the keys were given to Peter only as a representative of all Christians, who really exercised their trust in common. We will not attempt such feats of divine mind-reading here. Christ in fact singled Peter out, saying: "To you I will give the keys" (Matt. 16:19). If he meant something else, we can never know what it might have been.

The control of the transmission of supernatural life — the control of grace — which Peter was given was complemented immediately by a jurisdictional grant which gave him authority to arrange the conditions within which his mission could best be carried out. "Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven," Jesus said, "and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." This power to oblige men with supernatural ratification is yet another interlocking aspect of the special place Peter had in Christ's plans for the Church as a whole.

The final aspect of this pre-eminence was revealed at the Last Supper, when Jesus told Peter that he had prayed for him specially that he might not defect in faith. "You in turn," he said, "must confirm your brothers" (Luke 22:32). We can not doubt that Christ's prayer would be effective, that Peter would become a reliable source of true faith, and that he had an obligation to strengthen and instruct the other apostles and disciples in that faith.

It must be noted here that all of the powers we have ascribed to Peter were given only by way of a promise. Christ always used the future tense: "Upon this rock I will build my Church" and "To you I will give the keys to the kingdom of heaven." We would not expect to see Peter wielding these powers immediately, therefore, but, trusting in Christ, we would expect him to do so in due time, for the promise would surely be fulfilled. The word of God does not return to him void. Rather, as Isaiah said in prophecy, it "shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it" (55:10-11). The argument that Peter's denial of Christ disproves his authority, therefore, is specious; the promise had not yet been fulfilled. In a threefold parallel of those denials, however, the promise did become reality, after the Resurrection, on the Sea of Tiberias (John 21:15-17).

After the disciples recognized Jesus on the shore, they rushed to greet him and shared a meal. After they had eaten, Jesus took Peter aside: "Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?" "Yes, Lord," he said, "you know that I love you." At which Jesus said, "Feed my lambs." A second time he put his question, "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" "Yes, Lord," Peter said, "you know that I love you." Jesus replied, "Tend my sheep." A third time Jesus asked him, "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" Peter was hurt because he had asked a third time, "Do you love me?" So he said to him, "Lord, you know everything. You know well that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Feed my sheep."

Jesus had made Peter shepherd of his own flock. Peter, for his part, could scarcely believe he had been chosen. He knew well how rich Jesus' preaching had been in the theme of the flock-shepherd relationship. "I am the good shepherd," he had said, "and I know mine and mine know me" (John 10:14). Now Christ had given charge of this selfsame flock to him, a poor fisherman, to care for it in the Lord's absence. This theme of shepherding had long been a central image of God's relation to his people (cf. Ezechiel 34). The admonition to Peter to care for the flock could only mean the fulfillment of the promises, and the ratification of Peter's primacy in that Church which would be born after Christ's departure, on Pentecost.

All of this, of course, was proven by events. Peter took command when a replacement for Judas was selected in Jerusalem between Ascension and Pentecost. Luke tells us that he "stood up in the center of the brothers" (Acts 1:15ff). Moreover, at Pentecost Peter led the proclamation, which converted so many to the new Church. His was a message of death and resurrection, and of bearing faithful witness to the truths of God, and he spoke for all the apostles (Acts 2:14ft). Later, at the first apostolic Council of Jerusalem, when there was a heated and perhaps vicious discussion of the matter of circumcizing gentiles, Peter finally "took the floor" to settle the point. He clearly stated, "Our belief is . . ." in making his decision, and, "At that the whole assembly fell silent" (Acts 15:7ff). Even St. Paul, who was not afraid to rebuke Peter when he thought him wrong, was subordinate to Peter's solemn decisions, and Paul himself told the Galatians that he sought approval of the pillars of the Church at this same Council to be sure he had preached the gospel correctly (2:1-10). Still later, it was Peter who alone decided on the shift of the Church's mission to the gentiles, and we find that those who had objected immediately accepted his explanation (Acts 11:18).

Thus Peter is seen from the first to have the primacy of power and authority in the Church of Christ. He had control of supernatural grace, jurisdiction over men, and indefectibility in faith. He was the very foundation of the Church as a society oriented toward eternal life.

There is no longer any question that Peter exercised his powers, in the last analysis, from Rome. It was there, at the center of the civilized world, that he discharged his pastoral responsibilities, and there that he died, in 64 A.D. The see (or diocese) of Rome, therefore, was a universal see, embracing the entire world, the entire flock of Christ. An immediate and strong tradition assures us that this was the case. Peter's Roman See is identified in the writings of Irenaeus, Tertullian and Eusebius, to name a few. If Peter had successors, we would therefore look logically to Rome to find them. But the great question, at this crucial stage of the argument, is whether Peter had successors at all.

There are two lines of discovery on this point, historical and ecclesiological. The first deals with what actually happened in the first years of the Church's life, and it is perhaps the more difficult to develop. But the difficulty lies not so much in the weakness of the evidence as in certain anachronistic assumptions made by those who are eager to disprove the existence of a central authority in the early Church.

Among such persons there seems to be a demand to see the thirteenth century papacy in the first and second centuries, before the Catholic claim can be accepted. But such a view is nonsensical. The conditions of the declining Roman Empire and the early, scattered Christian communities were conditions that made for isolation and a painful sort of local self-reliance. We would not expect to see a continuous stream of fully-developed papal administrative activity in the centuries of minority and persecution. Likewise, we would expect to find no pomp and glory in episcopal or papal carriage until Christianity became legal with the conversion of Constantine in the early fourth century. Thus, when Protestant and secular historians speak of the papacy being formed in the fourth and fifth centuries, they superficially refer only to its external estate.

For as more and more evidence from the early years is uncovered, the record booms out the reality of papal primacy with greater and greater intensity. The bishops of Rome were continuous, and their authority was taken for granted. These points can be illustrated from the first century alone. We know from the previously mentioned commentators that Peter was succeeded by Linus, who was succeeded by Anacletus, who was succeeded by Clement. And already with Clement we have a surviving monument to the pontificate in the year 96. While St. John was yet alive, Pope Clement wrote to the Corinthians to restore order, for there were many who had rebelled against and replaced their lawful religious superiors. The letter, which runs longer than this chapter, is a perfect example of the assumption of great authority in the author.

It was an authority which no one questioned, for though those in disobedience had apparently not solicited the Pope's arbitration, the letter seems to have effected the Pope's will. In it he said quite clearly, already using the papal "we", that "should any disobey what has been said by [Christ] through us, let them understand that they will entangle themselves in transgressions and no small danger."1 Elsewhere in the letter he set forth the ordinary hierarchical structure of the local churches, and insisted that the apostles made it clear that when those they appointed died, "other approved men shall succeed to their sacred ministry."2 He argued that each one must keep to his own rank, and not transgress its limits.

The principle is clear. Papal primacy was a fact before it was a theory; it was taken for granted before men began even to reason about it. History bears out the Catholic tradition on this essential point, which is to say that the Catholic tradition is an authentic tradition, incontrovertible by any foolish passion or passing fad. And the record is no less clear for the subsequent early centuries. Indeed the evidence is sufficient to have driven the great Patristic scholar, John Henry Newman, to the Church of Rome.

In the earliest years of the second century, St. Ignatius of Antioch already spoke of the "Church, which has the first seat in the place of the country of the Romans."3 A few years later, St. Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, a disciple of St. John, thought it proper to journey to Rome to discuss the date of the celebration of Easter, which was then disputed between East and West. His disciple in turn, St. Irenaeus of Lyons, trained in the East and bishop in the West, recognized Pope Victor's authority to excommunicate Polycrates in Asia Minor, and developed the science of ecclesiology at some length, recounting the necessity of union with Rome, which carries on the apostolic tradition of Peter through its bishops. He also touched on the apostolic succession and infallibility. He called Rome "the greatest Church, the most ancient, the most conspicuous, and founded and established by Peter and Paul." As he put it, "in this Church, every Church, that is, the faithful from every side must agree together."4

His thought was borne out in the practical realm. Early heretics such as Marcion and Praxeas viewed Rome as their final hope of support, though they were always disappointed. Likewise, orthodox bishops, such as Basilides, Fortunatus and Felix in the time of the third-century Pope Stephen, had recourse to Rome from around the world for reinstatement in the sees from which they had been unjustly expelled. Tertullian had summed it up admirably when he exclaimed of Rome about the year 200, "O Church, happy in its position, into which the apostles poured out, together with their blood, their whole doctrine."5

Later in the third century, St. Cyprian, who often quarreled with the Popes over important matters, such as the authority of sinners and the validity of baptism among heretics, nonetheless wrote glowingly of "the See of Peter and the principal Church, whence the unity of the priesthood took its rise ... whose faith has been commended by the apostles, to whom faithlessness can have no access. "6 It was no different in the fourth century when Pope Julius rebuked the Eusebians for novelties, stating, "For what we have received from the blessed Apostle Peter, that I signify to you."7 About the same time, the canon lawyer Sozomen set down the maxim that all law outside the will of the bishop of Rome is invalid.

It was only after all this had been established, only after several hundred years of taking papal power for granted, that the first major and prolonged challenge to papal authority by the Byzantine Emperor and the Eastern Patriarchs began. Finally, in the fourth and fifth centuries, we see the Popes begin to develop the theory of papal primacy in an effort to show these dignitaries the error of their new position. And at the same time, we find a vindication of papal authority by one of the greatest, and certainly one of the most irascible and cantankerous, Fathers of the Church.

St. Jerome was acutely and temptingly aware of his own intellectual prowess, and he took a high view of his own opinions in most matters. It is more remarkable, then, that he used the Roman See, which St. Cyprian had earlier called the "chair of Peter", as the norm of faith in his controversy with the heretic Ruffinus. He also stated his own mock-arrogant position in a letter to Pope St. Damasus: "I, following no one as my chief but Christ, am associated with thy blessedness, that is, with the See of Peter. I know that on that rock the Church is built."8

But perhaps the crowning glory in the continuous recognition of papal primacy came from the now-recalcitrant East at the famous Council of Chalcedon in 451 A.D. At that Council the person and natures of Christ were defined in such a way as to lay hundreds of years of Christological heresy to rest. The formula the Council adopted was drawn from a massive letter of Pope Leo the Great written in 449. The Council recognized the papal primacy throughout, and at the conclusion of its work one particular slogan became quite popular. "Peter speaks through Leo," it was said.

Quite obviously the testimony in favor of the Holy See could be extended chronologically to our own day, but this survey of the first five centuries, gleaned mainly from the work of Newman, is sufficient to establish the historical point. Papal primacy by virtue of a Petrine succession was taken for granted from the first by men who were in a position to know Christ's will in the matter. To deny this is to rewrite history.

The second line of argument used to establish the primacy of all the popes as successors of Peter is simply an outgrowth of ecclesiology, of the study of the nature of the Church itself. The arguments in favor of papal primacy in this area were more or less fully developed by Dominican theologians in the conciliarist controversies of the fifteenth century,9 and the vast majority of these arguments were available to the fathers of the Council of Florence when they issued the decree on primacy for the reunion with the Greeks in 1439. Indeed, when the First Vatican Council prepared its definitions on the papacy and infallibility in 1870, the theological treatises circulated to buttress the pro-papal point of view included unrevised reprints of the most prolific of the fifteenth century papalists, Juan de Torquemada. Little if any development has occurred in this area since that time, and very little pro-papal literature of any significance is in print today. Therefore we can do no better than to draw directly on these fine Renaissance theologians.

A further comment on Peter's own authority paves the way, for Peter was precisely the vicar of Christ. He was to exercise the power of the keys in Christ's absence for the salvation of souls, but it cannot be forgotten that the "sheep" in the flock were still Christ's own, and not Peter's. The key pronoun is "my". Christ said, "Feed my sheep." What this means can be more fully understood in light of Christ's teaching regarding the faithful steward, who takes zealous charge over the master's affairs until the master's return. The gospels are rich in this theme. Peter, as shepherd of Christ's sheep, is a vicar; he serves in the place of the Good Shepherd, in place of the Master, until the Master's return.

There are several ideas to be developed from this, and the first is the opposite of what the modern anti-papalists will instantly conclude. It is altogether wrong to argue that since the sheep are still Christ's, Peter's authority is limited, and that the people can choose to accept or reject that authority based on their perception of its conformity with Christ's own teaching. To the contrary, a vicar is never answerable to the household he serves. It is his precise nature that he is answerable only to the one who gave him his charge, or, in Peter's case, to Christ alone. At the end of time Peter may be judged; until then, he must be obeyed.

At this point, a reminder is in order. Peter exercised a universal apostolic authority. All others were under him, regardless of rank or geography. Further, his see was the Roman See. Therefore the Roman See is the universal see, the diocese of the whole Church. The Roman See is thus the key to the Petrine succession, and if that succession is true, total authority would belong to each pope who succeeded to the Roman See (regardless of where he physically located his administration). It remains only to further develop the notion of vicar to prove that the succession must be true.

The idea of Peter as vicar implies a continuation of vicars until Christ's return to take charge in his own person once again. That is, a vicariate includes the idea of succession. While in purely human terms, there might be some doubt, with Christ in mind all doubt must cease. For Christ, being Divine, knew Peter would die before he returned, and yet he still entrusted him with his flock. The conclusion that he intended successors is inescapable, and we see in history what we would therefore expect-men acting as if they had heard Christ teach this very point.

A final argument offers further confirmation. Jesus told his disciples, "I will be with you always until the end of the world" (Matt. 28:20). Now Christ's presence is manifested most directly to men in their engraced ability to draw near the Father in holiness and to ultimately enter heaven. To promise his presence was for Christ to indicate that those things necessary to the Church as a life-giving society will never be taken away. But Jesus entrusted the keys to the kingdom of heaven and authority to exercise them to Peter. To remove these essentials would be to destroy the Church, which by Christ's own promise is impossible. Therefore, Jesus must have intended that there be others to carry on Peter's power when Peter died, and we need have no doubt about the legitimacy of a Petrine succession.

We have simply proven that each successor holds directly from Christ the same powers as Peter. Peter himself had the authority to designate the means of selection of his successor. It is probable that he hand-picked Linus. Later popes entrusted this duty to the clergy of Rome, as was their right. In our own day, the selection is assigned to the College of Cardinals, as representing the entire Church in a special administrative way. There need be no qualms about the means, as long as they are established by papal authority. What can be said of Peter can be said of all the popes: they all have custody of the keys (dispensation of grace) and jurisdictional power.

It remains only to demonstrate that purity in faith, or infallibility, also applies to the popes as it did to Peter. There are two minor arguments and two major arguments for this thesis. First, it might be said that the Roman See cannot err since it came into being as a result of Peter's confession of faith (Matt. 16:17; note: the protestant claim that Christ built the Church on this profession rather than as a result of it, and not on Peter himself, simply departs from the text). Second, we might surmise that Christ's prayer for Peter's indefectibility can be applied to all the popes. More important is the simpler major argument: the earliest ages of Christianity testify clearly to the belief that the Roman See cannot err.

The second major argument is more complex, but decisive. Briefly, Jesus promised that the gates of hell, or jaws of death, would not prevail against his Church. Since the Church lives by faith in Christ (by every word that comes from the mouth of God, actually), a universal error in faith would mark the triumph of Satan and death. But we have already established that all popes have Peter's jurisdictional power of binding and loosing, which means that the entire Church, down to its last member, must obey papal teaching in those things which pertain to the Christian life (i.e., faith and morals). It is clear at once that if the pope taught an error, the entire Church would be bound to error, and the Church's death would be manifest. Since this condition is impossible, it must also be impossible for a pope to formally teach error in faith and morals.

This is precisely, of course, what Vatican I defined. The pope, as vicar of Christ, when exercising his teaching office in a definitive and binding manner toward the whole Church on a matter of faith and morals is protected by the Holy Spirit from error. That is, he is infallible. The logic is flawless and the conclusion inescapable. Cardinal Newman said well when he wrote: "We have no reason to suppose that there is so great a distinction of dispensation between ourselves and the first generation of Christians, as that they had a living infallible guidance, and we have not."10

It should now be obvious that the pope of the Roman Catholic Church has authority over all men from highest to lowest, an authority recognized and therefore most commonly exercised within the Church itself. The other bishops, who participate in the apostolic succession, must nonetheless act collegially with the pope in administering their dioceses if they are to be sure of being on the right course. Popes alone, like Peter, have the plenitudo potestatis — the fullness of power represented by the keys. Each pope is therefore not only a passive foundation, but an active constructor of the Church by virtue of his grace-giving power, assurance of faith and binding jurisdiction.

By way of conclusion, several modern problems might be briefly discussed. There are many on both the schismatic traditionalist and larger heretical modernist sides who seem to question or escape papal authority in a number of ways. On the ultra-traditionalist side, it is sometimes argued that a pope's failure to act decisively and effectively against modern errors warrants a crisis of confidence in papal authority as a whole. Whatever the case may be in fact, there can be no grounds for such a crisis. Neither zealousness nor prudence, and neither administrative ability nor favorable conditions are guaranteed by God to the papacy. A priceless institution even at its worst, the papacy nonetheless has only two specific claims to greatness: the power it possesses and the guarantee of infallibility when exercises its supreme authority in teaching. These promises do not apply to the private opinions, sins or shortcomings of a man who is pope but never chooses to teach, or, for that matter, to exercise any of his other powers.

Along similar lines, it is argued that a pope forfeits his right to obedience when he goes against the teaching of a previous pope or a past tradition of the Church. As for the latter case, the popes alone can judge what is and what is not an authentic tradition, and, in any case, only the authentic traditions of faith itself, and not the practice thereof, are irreformable. For the former, it is necessary to distinguish between the teaching of the faith, which when formally promulgated by the pope is infallible, and matters of discipline, which are human expedients suited to time and place. In the first instance it is obviously impossible that two popes should contradict each other, and not a single case of this has ever been substantiated. In the second, popes are of equal authority and one pope is free to change the disciplines of his predecessor.

More seriously, some have argued that a heretical pope falls from his see and forfeits his authority. This proposition was thoroughly laid to rest in the fifteenth century quite simply because there is no reason to assume its truth and every reason to doubt it. No pope can be a heretic in the face of formal correction by the Church, since that would mean he would have to correct himself. Therefore, that willful denial of the Church's teaching, which results in loss of membership, must be impossible to popes. Moreover, a privately heretical pope, or even one who is known to hold an erroneous opinion, can never deal death to the Church, since he would be protected from error when he came to formally bind the Church to a formula of faith. The Church is sufficiently protected by the doctrine of infallibility, and so no dilemma on the score of papal heresy exists. Moreover, as no one can judge the pope but Christ, such an automatic deposition would be impossible to determine, making any attempt to operate within this framework absurd.11

On the modernist side, the grounds for ignoring the pope run so deep that comment is impossible here. They relate to a misunderstanding of the nature of truth, revelation and the development of doctrine, and are treated in the closing chapters of the book. It is important to comment, however, on the free and unpunished disobedience so prevalent in our own time, which tends to obscure the reality of papal power. In this connection it must be remembered that at the deepest supernatural level, and unlike merely human institutions, the papacy knows no distinction between authority (the right to rule) and power (the ability to get things done). For, whatever the tangible results in this life, what the pope binds here is binding also in heaven, where all justice will one day be perfectly meted out.

Finally, it is often remarked that the late date of Vatican I's teachings shows the primacy to be a new idea. To the contrary, as has been indicated here, the idea is as old as Christianity itself. The Church defines a doctrine only when necessary, and her relative silence over many long centuries actually suggests that this portion of the faith was rarely doubted. The Church has ever believed that the popes alone have the keys to salvation in Christ. Moreover, she has always affirmed that in providing grace and truth, the papacy liberates, not enslaves. It frees men from error and sin, and assists them in attaining a spiritual maturity, which greatly facilitates the continual choice of the good. The papacy is thus absolutely essential to the Church, for under papal guidance the Christian man or woman progressively attains to his or her true end-the perfection of holiness and the unrestricted life of the children of God.


1. Clement, Letter to the Corinthians, para. 59, in Colman J. Barry, O.S.B., ed., Readings in Church History, Vol. I (Newman Press, Westminster, Md.: 1960).

2. Ibid., paras. 40 and 44.

3. Quoted in John Henry Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, p. 157. Cf., Ignatius, Letter to the Romans, in Barry, op. cit., p. 24, salutation.

4. Quoted in Newman, p. 157; from Adversus Haereses, III, 3; see Against Heresies in Barry, p. 46, col. 1.

5. Quoted in Newman, p. 157.

6. Ibid., p. 158. For a supporting argument, see Cyprian, On the Unity of the Church in Barry, p. 63, No. 4.

7. Quoted in Newman, p. 158.

8. Ibid., 159-160.

9. This was the subject of my doctoral dissertation, Catholic Reform and the Defense of the Papacy in the Renaissance, 1973 (Ann Arbor, University Microfilms; Princeton University Library; Christendom College; Gannon College, care of Rev. Robert Levis, Erie, Pa.; Santa Sabina (Rome)). See also my "Renaissance Ecclesiology: A Study of Papal Power" in Faith & Reason I, 2 (Summer 1975).

10. Newman, p. 85.

11. There are some difficulties still to be worked out regarding papal heresy and deposition in the scholarly literature. If a formal heretic ceases to be a member of the Church, can a pope be a formal heretic? Can a non-member be pope? The problem of heresy and Church membership is explored in William H. Marshner, "Membership in the Church: Some Fundamental Questions" in Faith & Reason, 11:3 (Winter 1976). Non-deposition for heresy is treated thoroughly in my article "On the Deposition of the Pope for Heresy" in Archivum Historiae Pontificiae 1975.

Suggested Reading

First Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Christ [Pastor Aeternus] Vatican 1.

Grasso, Domenico, S.J., The Problem of Christ (Albs House, Staten Island: 1969) esp. part II, chaps. IV & VII.

Mirus, Jeffrey A., "On the Deposition of the Pope for Heresy" In Archivum Historiae Pontificiae, 1975.

Mirus, Jeffrey A., "Renaissance Ecclesiology: A Study in Papal Power" in Faith & Reason 1:2 (Summer 1975).

Newman, John Henry, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (e.g., Christian Classics, Westminster, Md.: 1968)

D'Ormesson, Wladimir, The Papacy (trans. Michael Derrick) (Hawthorne Books, N.Y.: 1959) (Vol. 81 of The Twentieth Century Encyclopedia of Catholicism)

Petrus de Palude, Tractatus de Potestate Papae, ed. P.T. Stella (Pas Verlag, Zurich: 1966)

Juan de Torquemada, Summa de Ecclesia II & III in J. Th. Rocaberti, ed., Bibliotheca Maxima Pontificis, XIII, 283ff.

Tommaso de Vio (Cardinal Cajetan), De Divina Institutione Pontificatus Romani Pontificis, ed. Friedrich Lauchert (Munster 1925) (Corpus Catholicorum, X)

Tommaso de Vio, Tractatus de Comparatione Auctoritatis Papae et Concilii and Apologia for same in V.J. Pollet, ed., Auctoritas Papae et Concilii seu ecclesiae comparata (Angelicum, Rome: 1936) (Scripta Theologica, I)

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