Primacy of the Pope

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The word primacy, which in general use means the state of being first, as in time, place, rank, etc., as applied to the pope means his state of being first of all the bishops, not only in rank or dignity, but in pastoral authority. The primacy of the pope, then, is that full, supreme, and universal authority over all the bishops and faithful of the Church which belongs by divine right to the bishop of Rome as the successor of St. peter, who received such a primacy among the apostles directly from Christ.

The doctrine of papal primacy, while always present in the deposit of revealed truth, was not always and in every part of the Church so clearly understood or explicitly professed as it has been in the Western Church since the time of Pope St. Leo the Great (d. 461). Lacking the space that would be needed to trace the history of this doctrine, this article will limit itself to presenting the three most authoritative statements that the Church has made on the nature of the papal primacy, namely, the decrees of the Council of florence and of the two Councils of the Vatican.

Council of Florence. The bull of union with the Greeks, Laetentur caeli (1439), contains the following solemn definition of papal primacy: "We likewise define that the holy, apostolic see and the Roman pontiff hold the primacy over the whole world, and that the Roman pontiff himself is the successor of blessed Peter, prince of the Apostles, and that he is the true vicar of Christ, head of the whole Church and father and teacher of all Christians, and that to the same in blessed Peter was given the full power of feeding, ruling, and governing the whole Church, as is contained also in the acts of the ecumenical councils and the sacred canons" (H. Denzinger, Enchridion symbolorum 1307). While this decree enjoyed only short-lived acceptance by the Greeks, it did mark a decisive victory in the West over conciliarism, the doctrine of the superiority of an ecumenical council over a pope.

Vatican Council I. In the canon concluding the third chapter of its dogmatic constitution Pastor aeternus, the first vatican council solemnly defined that the Roman pontiff has not merely an office of inspection or direction, but the full and supreme power of jurisdiction over the whole Church, not only in matters that pertain to faith and morals, but also in those that pertain to ecclesiastical discipline and government throughout the whole world; that furthermore he has not merely the greater share, but the whole plenitude of this supreme power, and that this power is ordinary and immediate, both over all the Churches as well as over all the pastors and faithful (Denzinger 3064). Other aspects of the doctrine of papal primacy contained in the decree, but not resumed in the canon, are the following. The end for which Christ instituted the primacy is to ensure the undivided unity of the episcopate, by which in turn the whole body of the faithful is maintained in unity of faith and communion (Denzinger 3051). While the pope's power of jurisdiction over the whole Church is truly episcopal (3060), it does not conflict with the authority that the bishops have to rule their flocks as true pastors (3061). The pope has the right to communicate with the bishops of the whole world without interference from secular rulers (3062). He is the supreme judge to whom appeal can be made in all ecclesiastical cases; there is no higher authority in the Church to which appeal can be made over his judgment (3063).

In the Acts of the Council one finds an authoritative explanation of the terms episcopal, ordinary, and immediate, by which papal power is described in the decree. The intention of the council was to exclude the doctrines of such writers as J. von hontheim, J. Eybel, and P. Tamburini, who had allowed the pope an authority outside of the Diocese of Rome only similar to that of a metropolitan archbishop with regard to the other dioceses of his province, that is, an authority of inspection rather than of true pastoral jurisdiction, limited to certain extraordinary cases of the neglect of their duties on the part of the local bishops. Against this, the council defined the pope's authority over the whole Church to be truly episcopal, meaning that he has the same kind of authority over the whole Church as each bishop has in his own diocese; to be ordinary, meaning that it belongs to the very nature of the papal office; and to be immediate, meaning that the pope can exercise his episcopal authority over the faithful of any diocese, without being required to use the bishop's mediation (J. D. Mansi, Sacrorum Conciliorum nova et amplissima collectio 52:1103D06A).

On the other hand, as the official spokesman for the conciliar Commission on Faith explained, papal power is not unlimited or arbitrary. It is limited by the divinely given constitution of the Church, one of the basic elements of which is the episcopacy; hence the pope could neither in theory nor in practice deprive the bishops of their pastoral function or reduce them to the status of mere vicars of the pope [Mansi 52:715BC; cf. Leo XIII, Satis cognitum, Acta Sanctae Sedis 28 (189596) 732]. St. Peter received his supreme power not for the destruction but for the building up of the Church, and in using it he was bound by the divine and natural law (Mansi 52:1105CD; 1109A). Still, it must be admitted that there is no juridical appeal in the Church against a possible misuse of papal power. In the case of a publicly heretical or schismatic pope, most theologians hold that the other bishops collectively would have the authority to declare this man no longer pope, and to sanction the election of his successor. But against an abuse of papal power, the Church would have to resort to moral remedies: to persuasion and to prayer, relying on Christ's promises of divine aid (Mt 28.20).

Vatican Council II. In the third chapter of its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, the second vatican council, while affirming the collegial nature and authority of the episcopate, at the same time emphasizes the role of the pope as the divinely appointed head of the episcopal body or college. This college, it declares, has no authority except in union with its head, who has, in virtue of his office as vicar of Christ and pastor of the whole Church, the full, supreme, and universal authority over the Church, which he can always freely exercise. The college of bishops, always understood as united with the pope and never as separated from him, is likewise a subject of supreme and full power over the whole Church, but it cannot exercise this power without the consent of the Roman pontiff. It exercises this supreme power in a solemn manner in ecumenical councils, which it is the prerogative of the pope to convoke and to confirm; moreover, collegial authority can be exercised by the bishops dispersed throughout the world, provided that the head of the college summons them to a collegial action, or at least approves or freely receives their united action, so that it becomes a truly collegial act [22; Acta Apostolicae Sedis 57 (1965) 2527].

From this it follows that there are two ways in which supreme authority can be exercised in the Church: either personally by the pope, or collegially by the whole episcopate, necessarily including the pope; there are not two separate supreme authorities that could ever come into conflict. The pope, as head of the body, remains free to decide whether a particular decision calls for collegial action or not. The other bishops, even collectively, have no authority to oblige the pope to choose the collegial rather than the personal exercise of supreme power in any given case. The fact that they can share in acts of universal jurisdiction does not give them such a right to do so as would conflict with the pope's liberty to exercise his supreme authority as he judges best [Nota explicativa 34; Acta Apostolicae Sedis 57 (1965) 7475]. Hence there is no reason to see in the doctrine or practice of collegiality any conflict with the doctrine of papal primacy. To say that the pope, as head of the episcopal college, is in all his acts inseparably united with his fellow bishops, who by their membership in this body are made capable of sharing with him in the exercise of supreme authority, is in no sense to diminish that plenitude of authority which Vatican Council I defined the pope to have. The one visible head, to whom all the members are joined in love and obedience, is, by Christ's will, the manifest sign and the efficient cause of the unity of the episcopal body, by whose unity, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the whole Body of Christ is assured of its oneness.

See Also: apostolic see; apostolic succession; authority, ecclesiastical; binding and loosing; bishop (in the bible); bishop (in the church); conciliarism (history of);conciliarism (theological aspect); councils, general (ecumenical), theology of; infallibility; keys, power of; papacy; unity of the church; church, articles on.

Bibliography: g. glez, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al. (Paris 190350) 13.1:247-344. u. betti, La costituzione dommatica "Pastor aeternus" del concilio Vaticano I (Rome 1961). g. dejaifve, Pape et évêques au premier concile du Vatican (Bruges 1961). g. thils, Primauté pontificale et prérogatives épiscopales (Louvain 1961). k. rahner and j. ratzinger, The Episcopate and the Primacy (New York 1962). p.c. empie and t.a. murphy, Papal Primacy and the Universal Church (Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue 5; Minneapolis 1974). h.u. von balthasar, The Office of Peter and the Structure of the Church (San Francisco 1986). p. granfield, The Limits of the Papacy (New York 1987). r. b. eno, The Rise of the Papacy (Wilmington, Del. 1990). k. schatz, Papal Primacy: From its Origins to the Present (Collegeville 1996). m. buckley, Papal Primacy and the Episcopate (New York 1998). h. j. pottmeyer, Towards a Papacy in Communion (New York 1998). j. r. quinn, The Reform of the Papacy (New York 1999).

[f. a. sullivan]