Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

The Local Church of Rome

by Joseph Clifford Fenton


This article discusses the common teaching that the office of the Pope is inseparably attached to the position of the Bishop of Rome.

Larger Work

The American Ecclesiastical Review



Publisher & Date

The Catholic University of America Press, June 1950

According to the divine constitution of Our Lord's kingdom on earth, membership in that kingdom, the universal Church militant, normally involves membership in some local or individual brotherhood within the universal Church. These individual brotherhoods within the Catholic Church are of two kinds. First there are the various local Churches, the associations of the faithful in the different individual regions of the earth. Then there are the religiones, assemblies of the faithful organized unice et ex integro for the attainment of perfection on the part of those who are admitted into them. According to the Apostolic Constitution Provida mater ecclesia, "the canonical discipline of the state of perfection as a public state was so wisely regulated by the Church that, in the case of clerical religious Institutes, in those matters in general which concern the clerical life of the religious, the Institutes took the place of dioceses, and membership in a religious society was equivalent to the incardination of a cleric in a diocese."[1]

Among these individual brotherhoods that live within the universal Church of God on earth, the local Church of Rome manifestly occupies a unique position. Theologians of an earlier day stressed these prerogatives of the Roman Church quite strongly. Unfortunately, however, in our own time the manuals of sacred theology, considered as a group, dwell almost exclusively upon the nature and the characteristics of the Church universal, without explaining the teaching about the local Church at any length. Consistently with this trend, they have chosen to teach about the Holy Father in relation to the Church throughout the entire world, and have given comparatively little attention to his function precisely as the head of the Christian Church in the Eternal City.

Thus we and the people whom God has commissioned us to instruct may be prone to forget that it is precisely by reason of the fact that he presides over this individual local congregation that the Holy Father is the successor of St. Peter and thus the visible head of the entire Church militant. The Christian community of Rome was and remains Peter's Church. The man who governs that community with apostolic power in the name of Christ is Peter's successor, and is thus Our Lord's vicar in the rule of the Church universal.

It is definitely the more common teaching among the scholastic theologians that the office of the visible head of the entire Church militant is inseparably attached to the position of the Bishop of Rome, and that this absolutely permanent attachment exists by reason of the divine constitution of the Church itself. In other words, an imposing majority of Catholic theologians who have written on this particular subject have manifested the belief that no human agency, not even the Holy Father himself, could render the primacy of jurisdiction over the Church universal the prerogative of some episcopal see other than that of Rome or otherwise separate that primacy from the office and the essential prerogatives of the Bishop of Rome. According to this widely accepted teaching, the successor of St. Peter, the vicar of Christ on earth, could not possibly be other than the Bishop who presides over the local Christian community of the Eternal City.

During even its earliest stage of development, scholastic ecclesiology taught expressly that when St. Peter established himself as the head of the local Christian community in Rome, he was acting in accordance with God's own direction. Thus Alvaro Pelayo teaches that the Prince of the Apostles transferred his See from Antioch to Rome "iubente Domino," and that the location of the principal seat of the Christian priesthood in the "caput et domina totius mundi" was to be attributed to Divine Providence.[2] A century later, the Cardinal John de Turrecremata insisted that a special command of Christ had made Rome the primatial See of the Catholic Church.[3] Turrecremata argued that this action on the part of Our Lord made it impossible for even the Sovereign Pontiff himself to detach the primacy from Peter's own local Church in the Eternal City. Later Thomas de Vio Cardinal Cajetan taught that St. Peter had established his See at Rome by Our Lord's express command.[4]

The Counter-Reformation theologians took up this question in much greater detail. Dominic Soto sponsored the teaching, previously attacked by Turrecremata, to the effect that the fixing of the primatial See at Rome was attributable only to St. Peter, in his capacity as the head of the universal Church.[5] Thus Soto held that any one of St. Peter's successors in the Supreme Pontificate could, if he so chose, transfer the primatial See to some other city, in exactly the same way and with exactly the same authority St. Peter had used in bringing the primacy from Antioch to Rome.

Soto's solution of this question never obtained any considerable foothold in scholastic ecclesiology. His contemporary, the ever-truculent Melchoir Cano, derided the contention that, since there is no scriptural evidence in favor of any divine command that the primatial See should have been established in Rome, St. Peter's transfer from Antioch to Rome must be attributed only to St. Peter's own choice.[6] He employed the occasion of this teaching to bring out his own teaching on the importance of tradition as a source of revelation and as a locus theologicus.

The traditional thesis that Rome is and always will be the primatial See of the Catholic Church received its most important development in St. Robert Bellarmine's Controversies. St. Robert devoted the fourth chapter of the fourth book of his treatise De Romano Pontifice to the question De Romana ecclesia particulari. His main thesis in this chapter was the contention that not only the Roman Pontiff, but also the particular or local Church of the city of Rome, must be considered as incapable of error in matters of faith.[7]

In the course of this chapter St. Robert exposed as "a pious and most probable teaching" the opinion that "Peter's cathedra could not be taken away from Rome,"[8] and that, for this reason, the individual Roman Church must be considered as both infallible and indefectible. In support of this thesis which, incidentally, he considered as an opinion and not as entirely certain, St. Robert appealed to the doctrine that "God Himself has ordered Peter's Apostolic See to be fixed in Rome."[9]

St. Robert by no means closed the door entirely on the thesis of Dominic Soto. He admits the possibility that the divine mandate according to which St. Peter assumed command of the Church in Rome might have been merely a kind of "inspiration" from God, rather than a definite and express order issued by Our Lord Himself. Always insistent that his thesis was not a matter of divine faith, he repeated his contention that it was most probable and pie credendum "that the See has been established at Rome by divine and immutable precept."[10]

Gregory of Valentia, however, taught that Soto's opinion on this subject was singularis nec vero satis tuta.[11] Adam Tanner believed the thesis that "the supreme authority to govern the Church has been inseparably joined to the Roman See by direct and divine institution and law," though not a doctrine of faith, was still something which could not be denied absque temeritate.[12] In his Tractatus de fide Suarez taught that it seemed more probable and "pious" to say that St. Peter had joined the primacy over the entire Church militant to the See of Rome by reason of Our Lord's own precept and will. Suarez believed, however, that St. Peter received no such order from Christ prior to the Ascension.[13] The outstanding seventeenth century theologians, Francis Sylvius and John Wiggers also subscribed to the opinion that the primacy was permanently attached to the local Church of Rome by reason of Our Lord's own command.[14]

The status of this thesis was further improved when Pope Benedict XIV inserted it into his De synodo diocesana.[15] Pope Benedict believed that St. Peter had chosen the Roman Church either at Our Lord's command, or on his own authority, acting under divine inspiration or guidance. Billuart taught that Rome was chosen as a result of Our Lord's own direct instruction.[16] John Perrone taught that no human authority could transfer the primacy over the universal Church from the See of Rome.[17]

In more recent times interest in this particular thesis has centered around the question of the manner in which God had joined the primacy to the episcopate of the local Church of Rome. Some, like Dominic Palmieri, consider it probable that St. Peter received a divinely revealed mandate to establish his See permanently at Rome before he assumed the leadership of the local Church of the Eternal City."[18] Others, like Reginald Schultes, believe such an antecedent command most unlikely, but insist that an explicit divine mandate to this effect was probably given to St. Peter prior to his martyrdom.[19] Still others, like Cardinal Franzelin and Bishops Felder and D'Herbigny, give it as their opinion that St. Peter's final choice of Rome was brought about by a movement of divine grace or inspiration of such a nature as to preclude the possibility of any transfer of the primatial See from Rome at any subsequent time.[20] Cardinal Billot taught that Rome held its position dispositione divina, and that this thesis, though not yet defined, was unquestionably capable of definition.[21] It is interesting to note that Gerard Paris wrote that more probably the primacy over the universal Church was joined to the episcopate of Rome iure divino, saltem indirecto.[22] The possibility of such an indirect divine mandate has not been generally considered in the recent literature of scholastic ecclesiology.

An overwhelming majority of theologians since the Vatican Council has upheld the thesis that, in one way or another, the primacy is permanently attached to the local Church of Rome iure divino. Within this majority we find such outstanding ecclesiologists as Cardinal Camillus Mazzella, Bonal, Tepe, Crosta, De Groot, Hurter, Dorsch, Manzoni, Bainvel, Tanquerey, Herve, Michelitsch, Van Noort, and Lercher.[23] Despite the preponderance of testimony in favor of this thesis, however, Saiz Ruiz and Calcagno reject the theological arguments usually adduced in its favor, while Dieckmann refers to the question as subject to controversy.[24] Granderath makes it evident that the Vatican Council had no intention of condemning Dominic Soto's teaching in its Constitution Pastor aeternus.[25]

As a consequence of this inseparable union of the primacy with the episcopate of Rome, scholastic theology points to the common Catholic teaching that the local Church of Rome, the faithful of the Eternal City presided over by their Bishop who is surrounded by his own priests and other clerics, as an infallible and indefectible institution. If, until the end of time, the man who is charged with the responsibility of presiding over the universal Church militant as Christ's vicar on earth is necessarily the head of the local Church in Rome, then it follows quite obviously that the local Church of the Eternal City must be destined by God to continue to live as long as the Church militant itself. A man could not be Bishop of Rome unless there were a definite Roman Church over which he could rule by divine authority.

The thesis on the indefectibility of the local Church of Rome has received rather considerable development in the literature of scholastic ecclesiology. Saiz Ruiz is of the opinion that, if the city of Rome were destroyed, it would be sufficient to have the Sovereign Pontiffs retain the title of Bishop of Rome "sicut hodie episcopi in partibus."[26] The terminology of most of the other modern and classical theologians who have dealt with this question, however, involves a rejection of this contention. The bishops in partibus infidelium, properly called titular bishops since Pope Leo XIII decreed this change in terminology in his apostolic letter In supremo, of June 10, 1882, have no jurisdiction whatever over the Catholics of the locality where their ancient churches were situated. No man, according to the prevailing teaching of scholastic theology, could be the successor of St. Peter and thus the visible head of the universal Church militant unless he had particular episcopal authority over the Christians of the Eternal City.

Although some theologians, like Suarez and, in our own time Mazzella and Manzoni, hold it as probable that the material city of Rome will be protected by God's providence and will never be completely destroyed,[27] most of the others hold that this destruction is a possibility. They maintain, however, that the destruction of the buildings and even the complete uninhabitability of the city itself would in no way necessitate the destruction of the Roman local Church. Older writers like St. Robert Bellarmine were convinced that at one time the actual city of Rome was entirely without inhabitants, while the local Church, with its clergy and its bishop, continued to live.[28]

From time to time heretics have pointed to the seventeenth and the eighteenth chapters of the Apocalypse as indication that ultimately there would be no followers of Christ within the city of Rome. St. Robert admitted such a possibility at the end of the world, but pointed out the traditional interpretation of this section of the Apocalypse, particularly that popularized by St. Augustine, had nothing to do with the Roman Church during the period immediately preceding the general judgment.[29] Francis Sylvius demonstrated that any application of this section of the Apocalypse to the Roman Church was merely fanciful.[30] Modern theologians, Franzelin and Crosta in particular, have followed this procedure.[31]

Another highly important and sometimes overlooked prerogative of the local Roman Church is its infallibility. By reason of its peculiar place in the universal Church militant, this individual congregation has always been and will always be protected from corporate heresy by God's providential power. The local Church of Rome, with its bishop, its presbyterium, its clergy and its laity will exist until the end of time secure in the purity of its faith. St. Cyprian alluded to this charism when he spoke of the Catholic Romans as those "ad quos perfidia habere non potest accessum."[32]

This infallibility, not only of the Roman Pontiff, but also of the local Church of Rome, was a central theme in the ecclesiology of some of the greatest Counter-Reformation theologians. Cardinal Hosius proposed this thesis in his polemic against Brentius.[33] John Driedo developed it magnificently.[34] St. Robert explained this teaching by saying that the Roman clergy and the Roman laity, as a corporate unit, could never fall away from the faith.[35] The Roman Church, as an individual local institution, can never fall away from the faith. Manifestly the same guarantee is given to no other local Church.

It is interesting to note that during the prolonged vacancy of the Roman See the presbyters and the deacons of Rome wrote to St. Cyprian in such a way as to manifest their conviction that the faith of their own local Church, even during this interregnum, constituted a norm to which the faith of other local Churches was meant to conform.[36] The Roman Church could not possibly be the one with which all the other local congregations of Christendom must agree were it not endowed with a special infallibility. In order to be effective that infallibility must be acknowledged in a very practical manner by the other local units of the Church militant throughout the world.

Actually the infallibility of the Roman Church is much more than a mere theological opinion. The proposition that "the Church of the city of Rome can fall into error" is one of the theses of Peter de Osma, formally condemned by Pope Sixtus IV as erroneous and as containing manifest heresy.[37]

Since it is true that the local Church of Rome is infallible in its faith, and that the Holy Father is the only authoritative teacher of the local Church of Rome, it follows that he teaches infallibly when he definitely settles a question about faith or morals so as to fix or determine the belief of that local Church. Since the local Church of Rome is an effective standard for all the other local Churches, and for the universal kingdom of God on earth, in matters of belief, the Holy Father must be considered as addressing the entire Church militant, at least indirectly, when he speaks directly and definitively to the local congregation of the Eternal City. Thus it is perfectly possible to have a definition of the type described in the Vatican Council's Constitution Pastor aeternus, one in which the Holy Father speaks ex cathedra, "exercising his function as the pastor and the teacher of all Christians" and so "according to his supreme apostolic authority defines a doctrine about faith or morals to be held by the universal Church,"[38] precisely when he speaks to determine the faith of the local Church of Rome.

It is a matter of manifest Catholic doctrine that the episcopate of the local Church of Rome and the visible primacy of jurisdiction over the universal Church militant are not actually two episcopates, but constitute only one episcopal function. Today, unfortunately, we are prone to imagine that the headship of the Christian community in the city on the Tiber is something hardly more than incidental to the Sovereign Pontificate. Indicative of this tendency is the declaration of a recent and well-written book about the Holy Year, a statement to the effect that "One of the Holy Father's titles is Bishop of Rome."[39]

Such a statement is not erroneous, but it might well be considered somewhat misleading. "Bishop of Rome" is not merely one of the titles of the Holy Father, it is actually the name of the office which constitutes him as St. Peter's successor and as the Vicar of Christ on earth. And, when the same volume speaks of "the return of the Apostolic See to Rome,"[40]" with reference to the end of the residence of the Popes in Avignon, it is using a definitely bad terminology. The Apostolic See, the cathedra Petri, never left the Eternal City. The men who ruled the Church from Avignon were just as truly the Bishops of Rome as any others among the successors of St. Peter. It is precisely by reason of the inseparable residence within it of the Cathedra Petri that the local Church of Rome possesses its extraordinary privileges and charisms within the Church militant.

Joseph Clifford Fenton
The Catholic University of America Washington, D. C.


1 The Provida mater ecclesia was issued on Feb. 2, 1947. The translation of this passage is that of Bouscaren in his Canon Law Digest: Supplement through 1948 (Milwaukee: Bruce Publishing Company, 1949), p. 66.

2 Cf. De statu et planctu ecclesiae, I, a. 40, in Iung, Un Franciscain, theologien du pouvoir pontifical au XIV' siecle: Alvaro Pelayo, Eveque et Penitencier de Jean XXII (Paris: Vrin, 1931), p. III.

3 Cf. Summa de ecclesia, II, c. 40 (Venice, 1561), p. 154".

4 Cf. Apologia de comparata auctoritate papae et concilii, c. 13, in Pollet's edition of Cajetan's Scripta theologica (Rome: Angelicum, 1935), 1, 299.

5 Cf. Commentaria in IV Sent., d. 24.

6 Cf. De locis theologicis, Lib. VI, c. 8, in the Opera theologica (Rome: Filiziani, 1900), II, 44.

7 Cf. De controversiis christianae fidei adversus huius temporis haereticos (Cologne, 1620), I, col. 811.

8 Cf. ibid., col. 812.

9 Ibid., col. 813.

10 Ibid., col. 814.

11 Cf. Valentia's Commentaria theologica (Ingolstadt, 1603), III, col. 276.

12 Cf. Tanner's Theologia scholastica (Ingolstadt, 1627), III, col. 240.

13 Cf. Suarez' Opus de triplici virtute theologica (Lyons, 1621), p. 197.

14 Cf. Sylvius' De praecipuis fidei nostrae orthodoxae controversiis cum nostris haereticis, Lib. IV, q. I, a. 6, in D'Elbecque's edition of Sylvius' Opera omnia (Antwerp, 1698), V, 297; Wigger's Commentaria de virtutibus theologicis (Louvain, 1689), p. 63.

15 Cf. De synodo diocesana, Lib. II, c. I, in Migne's Theologiae cursus completus (Paris, 1840), XXV, col. 825.

16 Cf. Billuart's Tractatus de regulis fidei, diss. 4, a. 4, in the Summa Sancti Thomae hodiernis academiarum moribus accommodata sive cursus theologiae juxta mentem Divi Thomae (Paris: LeCoffre, 1904), V, 171 f.

17 Cf. Perrone's Tractatus de locis theologicis, pars I, c. 2, in his Praelectiones theologicae in compendium redactae (Paris, 1861), 1, 135.

18 Cf. Palmieri's Tractatus de Romano Pontifice cum prolegomena de ecclesia (Prado, 1891), pp. 416 ff.

19 Cf. Schultes' De ecclesia catholica praelectiones apologeticae (Paris: Lethielleux, 1931), pp. 450 ff.

20 Cf. Franzelin's Theses de ecclesia Christi (Rome, 1887), pp. 210 ff.; Felder's Apologetica sive theologia fundamentalis (Paderborn: Schoeningh, 1923), II, 120 f.; and D'Herbigny's Theologia. de ecclesia (Paris: Beauchesne, 1927), II, 213 ff.

21 Cf. Billot's Tractatus de ecclesia Christi, 5th edition (Rome: Gregorian University, 1927), 1, 613 f.

22 Cf. Paris' Tractatus de ecclesia Christi (Turin: Marietti, 1929), pp. 217 f.

23 Cf. Card. Mazzella's De religione et ecclesia praelectiones scholastico-dogmaticae, 6th edition (Prado, 1905), pp. 731 ff.; Bonal's Institutiones theologiae ad usum seminariorum, 16th edition (Toulouse, 1887), 1, 422 ff.; Tepe's Institutiones theologicae in usum scholarum (Paris: Lethielleux, 1894), 1, 307 f.; Crosta's Theologia dogmatica in usum scholarum, 3rd edition (Gallarate: Lazzati, 1932), 1, 309 ff.; De Groot's Summa apologetica de ecclesia catholica, 3rd edition (Regensburg, 1906), pp. 575 ff.; Hurter's Theologiae dogmaticae compendium, 2nd edition (Innsbruck, 1878), 1, 332; Dorsch's Institutiones theologiae fundamentalis, 2nd edition (Innsbruck: Rauch, 1928), II, 229; Manzoni's Compendium theologiae dogmaticae, 4th edition (Turin: Berruti, 1928), 1, 263; Bainvel's De ecclesia Christi (Paris: Beauchesne, 1925), p. 201; Tanquerey's Synopsis theologiae dogmaticae fundamentalis, 24th edition (Paris: Desclee, 1937), p. 492; Herve's Manuale theologiae dogmaticae, 18th edition (Paris: Berche et Pagis, 1934), 1, 401; Michelitsch's Elementa apologeticae sive theologiae fundamentalis, 3rd edition (Vienna: Styria, 1925), p. 378; Van Noort's Tractatus de ecclesia Christi, 5th edition (Hilversum, Holland: Brand, 1932), p. 188; and Lercher's Institutiones theologiae dogmaticae, 2nd edition (Innsbruck: Rauch, 1934), 1, 378 ff.

24 Cf. Saiz Ruiz, Synthesis sive notae theologiae fundamentalis (Burgos, 1906), pp. 430 ff.; Calcagno, Theologia fundamentalis (Naples: D'Auria, 1948), pp. 229 f,; and Dieckmann, De ecclesia tractatus historico-dogmatici (Freiburg-im-Breisgau: Herder, 1925), 1, 437 f.

25 Cf. Granderath, Constitutiones dogmaticae sacrosancti oecumenici Concilli Vaticani ex ipsis eius actis explicatae atque illustratae (Freiburg-im-Breisgau: Herder, 1892), pp. 137 ff. Although Soto's teaching has not been condemned, the doctrine according to which the primacy could be taken away from Rome by the action of a general council or of the populace as a whole was proscribed by Pius IX in his Syllabus of errors. Cf. DB. 1735.

26 Cf. Saiz Ruiz, op. cit., p. 433.

27 Cf. Suarez, op. cit., p. 198; Mazzella, op. cit., p. 738; Manzoni, op. cit., p. 264.

28 Cf. St. Robert, op. cit., col. 813.

29 Cf. ibid., col. 814 .

30 Cf. Sylvius, op. cit., q. I, a. 4, conclusio 3, p. 291.

31 Cf. Franzelin, op. cit., pp. 213 f.; Crosta, op. cit., p. 312, quotes Franzelin on this question. It is interesting to note that the doctrines of these scholastics coincide with the teachings of the exegete Allo on this subject. Cf. his Saint Jean: L'Apocalypse, 3rd edition (Paris: Gabalda, 1933), pp. 264 ff.

32 Ep. 59, in CSEL, 3, 2, 683.

33 Cf. Hosius, Confutatio prolegomenon Brentii (Lyons, 1564), pp. 170 ff.

34 Cf. Driedo, De ecclesiasticis scripturis et dogmatibus (Louvain, 1530), lib. 4, c. 3, pp. 549 ff.

35 Cf. St. Robert, op. cit., col. 812.

36 This letter is listed among the epistles of St. Cyprian, n. 30.

37 Cf. DB, 730.

38 DB, 1839.

39 Cf. Fenichell and Andrews, The Vatican and Holy Year (New York: Halcyon House, 1950). p. 89.

40 Ibid., p. 4.

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