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Vatican I And The Papal Primacy

by James Larson


An exposition of Vatican I's teaching on papal primacy in its Dogmatic Constitution of the Church of Christ (Pastor Aeternus).

Larger Work

Homiletic & Pastoral Review


50 – 55

Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, San Francisco, CA, June 2003

There exists today a very deep division amongst various groups and individuals who would consider themselves traditional Catholics and attached to the Latin Mass. Most of this division is reducible to profoundly antithetical views regarding the Papacy, a state of affairs which, I believe, is due to a very great ignorance of the full teaching of the Church concerning the Papacy as found in the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church of Christ (Pastor Aeternus) of Vatican Council I. It is very common for Catholics across the entire spectrum, from the most liberal to the traditionalist, to deny that submission to the reigning pontiff in his discipline and government of the Church is necessary for salvation. In this error the self-styled traditionalist who defies the Pope's disciplinary orders to cease all support for the Society founded by Archbishop Lefebvre finds himself immersed in the same heresy as the Modernist who denies that he must be obedient to all the many juridical and disciplinary orders of the Pope. Vatican Council I, in fact, defines a twofold Primacy of Peter — one in papal teaching on faith and morals (the charism of infallibility), and the other a primacy of jurisdiction involving government and discipline of the Church — submission to both being necessary to Catholic faith and salvation. A careful examination of the teaching of Pastor Aeternus will hopefully help to expel the aforementioned errors, while at the same time fostering an understanding of the confusing state existing in the Church today which will preclude that type of thinking and response which leads to heresy and schism.

The expressed purpose of the First Dogmatic Constitution of the Church is to proclaim the Church's teaching concerning that twofold unity (of both faith and charity) with the Church which is necessary for salvation. The introduction to Pastor Aeternus begins with the following statement:

The Eternal Pastor and Bishop of our souls, in order to continue for all time the life-giving work of His Redemption, determined to build up the Holy Church, wherein, as in the house of the living God, all who believe might be united in the bond of one faith and one charity.

This first sentence contains all the essential elements of Vatican I's teaching on the Papal primacy. This Primacy is, in the first place, a work whose purpose is to continue the act of Christ's redemption. It is, in other words, a work of mercy. Secondly, it is to be exercised within and through the juridical and visible structure of the Catholic Church. Finally, God's purpose in establishing the Primacy is to draw the faithful into a twofold unity with Christ — a unity of faith and charity — both of which are necessary for salvation.

It is evident from a reading of the Gospels that Christ knew well the terrible insecurity and fragility (due to both original and actual sin) of man's heart and mind, and that his mercy was centered in the longing to draw mankind out of this state of tragic insecurity into the surety of his love and truth. Weeping over Jerusalem, Our Lord exclaimed, "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them that are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered together thy children as the hen doth gather her chickens under her wings, and thou wouldest not" (Matt. 23:37). It is most revealing that these words of Christ come at the end of that chapter which contains the most detailed analysis of the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and scribes, of that fundamental sin in man by which he substitutes the traditions of man for those of God, by which men "tithe mint, and anise, and cumin, and have left the weightier things of the law: judgment, and mercy, and faith" (Matt 23:23).

We are not permitted to conclude that this hypocrisy, the tragic tendency of both intellect and will towards deception, are the natural possession of only the wicked. Rather, they are the common inheritance of us all. In the mystery of Christ's mercy, our redemption depends not primarily on our own exercise of intellect and free will, but upon the surrender, through faith, of these faculties to His forming grace. This is the teaching of Vatican Council I's other great document, The Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith:

Man being wholly dependent upon God, as upon his Creator and Lord, and created reason being absolutely subject to uncreated truth, we are bound to yield to God, by faith in his revelation, the full obedience of our intelligence and will. And the Catholic Church teaches that this faith, which is the beginning of man's salvation, is a supernatural virtue, whereby, inspired and assisted by the grace of God, we believe that the things which he has revealed are true; not because the intrinsic truth of the things is plainly perceived by the natural light of reason, but because of the authority of God Himself, Who reveals them, and Who can neither be deceived nor deceive.

The introduction to Pastor Aeternus concludes by assuring us that our security in faith and charity (communion) is its immediate concern and that our belief in and acceptance of the Papal Primacy is the Rock upon which this security is built:

And in order that the episcopate also might be one and undivided, and that by means of a closely united priesthood the faithful might be kept secure in the oneness of faith and communion, He set Blessed Peter over the rest of the Apostles, and fixed in him the abiding principle of this twofold unity . . . We, therefore, for the preservation, safekeeping, and increase of the Catholic flock, with the approval of the Sacred Council, do judge it to be necessary to propose to the belief and acceptance of all the faithful, in accordance with the ancient and constant faith of the universal Church, the doctrine touching the institution, perpetuity and nature of the sacred Apostolic Primacy, in which is found the strength and solidity of the entire Church.

Institution Of The Primacy

Chapter I of Pastor Aeternus, which is very short, treats of the institution of the Primacy. The words by which Christ conferred this primacy upon Peter are quoted:

And I say to thee that thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatsoever thou shalt bound on earth, it shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth, it shall be loosed in heaven" (Matt. 16:18-19).

There are two important points made by the Council in regard to this institution. First, it contains not only a promise to Peter of a primacy in matters of faith and morals, but also a primacy of what this document calls "the jurisdiction of Chief Pastor and Ruler over all His fold." Jurisdiction may be defined as the right to exercise official authority over a designated group of people. The Pope's jurisdiction is a right of government and discipline over the entire Church. This subject will be thoroughly explored in our analysis of Chapter III of Pastor Aeternus, which deals with the nature of the Primacy. Meanwhile, however, there is a second point made by Chapter I which is also very crucial for our understanding of the Primacy of Jurisdiction:

At open variance with this clear doctrine of Holy Scripture, as it has ever been understood by the Catholic Church, are the perverse opinions of those who, while they distort the form of government established by Christ the Lord in His Church, deny that Peter alone before all the other Apostles, whether taken separately or together, was endowed by Christ with a true and proper primacy of jurisdiction.

Christ established His Primacy of Jurisdiction in the person of Peter alone. This is a truth enormously important for the maintenance and defense of unity of communion within the Church. It has ever been the policy of schismatics to attempt to draw a distinction between the juridical office of Peter and his simple person, and to claim that we only have to obey the person of the Pope when his government and discipline of the Church are in accord with what we recognize to be the proper course of action for the office of the papacy. According to the argument of such people, the "person" of a Pope may turn against the "office" of the papacy, thus orienting the Church in a direction, which violates the office of the papacy and contradicting that direction willed for the Church by Christ. This argument is, for instance, proposed by the followers of Archbishop Lefebvre in order to justify their direct disobedience to the commands of Pope John Paul II. At this point we may simply note that this position directly contradicts the teaching of Vatican Council I. In our analysis of Chapters II and III of Pastor Aeternus we will see that the Council offers more profound insight into Christ's direction of the Church through the person of Peter and his successors.

The Perpetuity Of The Primacy In The Successors Of Peter

With astonishing precision, Chapter II of Pastor Aeternus unveils the mystery of Peter living in his successors:

That which the Prince of Shepherds and great shepherd of the sheep, Jesus Christ our Lord, established in the person of the Blessed Apostle Peter to secure the perpetual welfare and lasting good of the Church, must, by the same institution, necessarily remain unceasingly in the Church, which, being founded upon the Rock, will stand firm to the end of the world. For none can doubt, and it is known to all ages, that the holy and Blessed Peter, the Prince and chief of the Apostles, the pillar of the faith and foundation of the Catholic Church, received the keys of the kingdom from our Lord Jesus Christ, the Saviour and Redeemer of mankind, and lives, presides and judges to this day, always in his successors the Bishops of the Holy See of Rome, which was founded by Him and consecrated by His Blood. Whence, whosoever succeeds to Peter in this See does by the institution of Christ Himself obtain the primacy of Peter over the whole Church. The disposition made by Incarnate Truth (dispositio veritatis) therefore remains, and Blessed Peter, abiding in the rock's strength, which he received (in accepta fortitudine petrae perseverans), has not abandoned the direction of the Church.

Three very closely linked points are here made concerning the perpetuity of Peter's Primacy. First, that which was established in the person of Peter must necessarily remain until the end of time in the successors of Peter. Second, this can only be if Peter "lives, presides and judges, always in his successors." The words used by the Council — "lives, presides, judges" — show that we are here speaking of a power and authority of government and discipline which are distinct from the teaching Magisterium of the Church. When speaking of the Pope's Primacy of Jurisdiction we are in no way concerned with infallibility. We are, instead, speaking of supreme power and authority, of God's will for us in regard to his governance of the Church through the Papacy; and his will is simply that in all things concerning this government and discipline, we are to correspond our will to his — in other words, we are to obey the Pope.

The third point made by this passage is that this power and authority of the Pope are "to this day, always," thus eliminating any possible contention that this living, presiding and judging by Peter could conceivably fail in any given Pope. This also is an extremely important point. It has always been the policy of schismatics to appeal to some other Pope or Council, past or future, against the decisions of a reigning pontiff. It has also been the constant tradition of popes to condemn such a position. Pope Benedict XIV specifically condemns those who would appeal to a future Ecumenical Council:

We likewise excommunicate and anathematize each and every one, of whatever state, grade, or condition he may be, We place under interdict the universities, colleges, and chapters, by whatever name they are constituted, who appeal from Our ordinances or instructions, or those of the Roman Pontiffs then existing, to a future Universal Council, as well as those who would assist, counsel, or favor this appeal (Pastoralis Romani Pontificis, March 30, 1741).

Pope Leo XIII, in the following passage, condemns any attempt to oppose the directives of a reigning Pope to those of previous pontiffs:

Similarly, it is to give proof of a submission which is far from sincere to set up some kind of opposition between one Pontiff and another. Those who, faced with two differing directives, reject the present one to hold to the past, are not giving proof of obedience to the authority which has the right and duty to guide them; and in some ways they resemble those who, on receiving a condemnation, would wish to appeal to a future Council, or to a Pope who is better informed" (Epistola tua, June 17, 1885).

According to the Council, in order to remain Catholic we must at all times fully assent to the Catholic truth that "Christ has not abandoned the direction of the Church," and that Peter, in and through Christ, is always ruling the Church through the reigning Pope. It is therefore heretical to declare that the government of the Church by a reigning pontiff contradicts the will of Christ. This does not, of course mean that Christ always wills to give us the most sublime gifts through the papacy, or that he may not use the papacy to chastise us — to take away graces, or to substitute lesser gifts for greater ones. Nor does it mean that the Pope may not make decisions and acts of governance and discipline which appear neither prudent nor wise. Finally, it does not mean that within the limits of prudence and charity we are forbidden to try to show a Pope that he may be wrong in some course of action. It does mean (and we will see this fully substantiated in our examination of the next chapter of the Council's teaching) that Christ always wills that we be subject to the Pope in his discipline and governing of the Church, and that we do not engage in any apostolic activity which is contrary to his expressed will.

The Power And Nature Of The Primacy

Chapter III of Pastor Aeternus is entitled "On the Power and Nature of the Primacy of the Roman Pontiff." The heart of its teaching is contained in the following paragraph:

Hence we teach and declare that by the appointment of our Lord the Roman Church possesses a sovereignty of ordinary power over all other Churches, and that this power of jurisdiction of the Roman pontiff, which is truly Episcopal, is immediate; to which all, of whatsoever rite and dignity, are bound, by their duty of hierarchical subordination and true obedience, to submit, not only in matters which belong to faith and morals, but also in those that appertain to the discipline and government of the Church throughout the world; so that the Church of Christ may be one flock under one supreme pastor, through the preservation of unity, both of communion and of profession of the same faith, with the Roman pontiff. This is the teaching of Catholic truth, from which no one can deviate without loss of faith and salvation.

This is an astounding teaching, and one about which most Catholics are abysmally ignorant. Every Catholic must submit to the Pope in his government and discipline of the Church. This is a dogma of the Catholic Church, the denial of which is a heresy and entails loss of salvation.

The Pope's juridical primacy covers the entire "work" of the Church. He is the supreme administrator, legislator, and judge of all the faithful. Pastor Aeternus declares the supreme independence of this power in the following passage:

And since, by the divine right of Apostolic primacy, one Roman pontiff is placed over the universal Church, We further teach and declare that he is the supreme judge of all the faithful, and that in all causes the decision of which belongs to the Church recourse may be had to his tribunal, but that none may reopen the judgment of the Apostolic See, than whose authority there is no greater, nor can any lawfully review its judgment. Wherefore they err from the right path of truth who assert that it is lawful to appeal from the judgments of the Roman pontiffs to an ecumenical council, as to an authority higher than that of the Roman pontiff.

The Pope's juridical Primacy does not convey any right upon the papacy to violate any man's conscience or to coerce into sin. It is simply the supreme power of the Pope over all the workof the Church (including such things as the regulating of everything to do with the Church's sacramental life, the establishment of religious orders or other apostolic movements and organizations within the Church, the consecration of bishops and ordination of priests, the discipline and punishment of the faithful, and the excommunicating of those who prove incorrigible). The man who would insist upon his right of engaging in some type of apostolic work against a papal mandate is guilty of doctrinal error and possibly schism. He may also be guilty of a terrible conceit, or of an equally terrible despair regarding Christ's promise to be with his Church and his Vicar until the end of time.

Vatican Council I does not concern itself directly with the concept of episcopal collegiality. It simply binds all, no matter of what status or dignity, to the same obedience and submission. Twenty six years after the close of the Council, however, Pope Leo XIII was to deal directly with this issue in his encyclical on The Unity of the Church (Satis Cognitum). Pope Leo quotes St. John Chrysostom on the relationship, which exists between bishops and the Pope in the Divine Constitution of the Church:

If the divine benignity willed anything to be in common between him [the Pope] and the other princes, whatever He did not deny to the others He gave only through him. So that whereas Peter alone received many things, He conferred nothing on any of the rest without Peter participating in it,

In this same document, Leo XIII comments on the above passage:

From this it must be clearly understood that bishops are deprived of the right and power of ruling, if they deliberately withdraw from Peter and his successors . . . But the episcopal order is rightly judged to be in communion with Peter, as Christ commanded, if it be subject to and obeys Peter.

Certainly, if we applied these criteria of episcopal power and authority to certain bishops in this country, we might be deeply skeptical as to their legitimacy to rule over the faithful of their dioceses.

Unquestionably, many terrible things have occurred in the Church over the past thirty-five years. Some lay blame for this state of affairs at the feet of the Popes who have ruled during this period. If they allow this judgment to lead them into defiance and refusal of submission to the Pope, then Satan has had his day with them. In describing the state of the Church at the end of time Our Lord said, "And because iniquity hath abounded the charity of many shall grow cold" (Matt. 24:12). The Papal Primacy is a work of charity guaranteeing unity of both truth and communion within the Church. Pope St. Gregory the Great laid down the principle that "Divine justice provides shepherds according to the just deserts of the faithful." If a man becomes convinced that a reigning Pope is doing some dreadful things (and there certainly have been those who did such things), then he is under two obligations: to look in a mirror and try to understand why God might find it necessary to chastise the faithful (or not-so-faithful), and to pray with increased fervor and charity for the Pope and the whole Church. We may be assured that if we are firmly established in this, the spirit of the saints, then any activities, which we might undertake in love and defense of the Church will not lead us into the excesses of heresy or schism.

Mr. James Larson is a graduate of the University of Minnesota. He was a convert to the Catholic Church 22 years ago. In 2000, he and another home-schooling father received the Minnesota Catholic Defense League's award for Catholic of the Year for their explanation and defense of the Catholic faith and Catholic history on a series of about 20 radio talk shows. His last article in HPR appeared in August-September 2002.

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