The Nature of Papal Primacy

Author: Pedro Rodriguez

3. The nature of the papal primacy

Chapter 3 of the dogmatic constitution on the Church of Vatican Council I (Pastor aeternus) is the principal document of the Magisterium about the content and nature of the primatial power of the Roman Pontiff. Chapter 4 is a development and defining of one particular characteristic of this primatial power, namely the Pope's supreme teaching authority, i.e. when the Pope speaks ex cathedra he teaches the doctrine of the faith infallibly. The Magisterium of the Roman Pontiff is one of the chief elements of his primatial authority.

A. Primacy of jurisdiction

The primacy spoken about by Vatican I is a primacy of jurisdiction. The word jurisdiction underlines the binding power of the authority which Christ has conferred on the Pope in the Church. It demands obedience of all the faithful. It is in opposition to a primacy of honor (Primus inter pares) and to a primacy of direction which might be endowed with the power of advising and guiding, but not with the power of commanding.[30] The word, as is obvious, has its roots in judicial language. But what is defined by the Council transcends judicial categories and can be understood more fully in the light of the properties which the Council assigns to the primatial power of the Pope.[31] The Pope's power is

i) universal: it extends to the whole Church, i.e. to all the members of the Church (pastors and faithful) as to all the various matters which can arise;
ii) ordinary: it is not extraordinary, which would mean that it can be used only in exceptional circumstances; nor is it delegated, that is, it belongs inherently to the office of Pope and is not delegated to him by someone else;
iii) supreme: meaning that it is not subordinated to any other authority[32];
iv) full: it takes in all questions which might arise in the life of the Church, and does so from every point of view;
v) immediate: it need not be exercised through intermediaries and where necessary can have the most practical applications.

B. Bishop of the Catholic Church

The authority of the Pope is truly episcopal.[33] This feature is very important because it connects the juridical terminology in which the aforementioned properties are expressed, with the sacramental and ministerial meaning which the term episcop, has in the New Testament. The Pope is indeed a bishop, and his power has an episcopal character and a pastoral purpose. It is not concerned with human or political matters but is rather a power for fulfilling the threefold mission of teaching, sanctifying and leading to God the flock of Christ. For this reason Pope Paul VI delighted in calling himself Bishop of the Catholic Church and under this title he signed the various documents of Vatican II. Undoubtedly he is bishop of Rome, and not of Dublin or Cologne, but as bishop of Rome he is also Pope, successor to Peter, and has, over all the Church (over all diocese and all members of the Church), the office which is proper to a bishop.[34]

A study of this truly episcopal power is the simplest way of understanding more deeply the nature of papal authority. The apostle Peter, he who was charged by Christ with looking after the flock, is he who has the most vivid awareness that his ministry is to be a mere instrument in the hands of Christ, head of the Church. 'The primacy of Peter in leading and serving the Christian people was going to be a pastoral primacy, a primacy of love. The nature and efficacy of the pastoral function of the apostolic primacy would be based on the undying love of Peter for Jesus.'[35] Accordingly it is Peter who encourages the shepherds of the Church to exercise their ministry with their eyes fixed on Christ, so that when the chief shepherd appears you will be given the crown of unfading glory (1 Peter 5:4). The work of bishops consists in making it easy for the faithful, and for all men, to turn, not to the shepherds of the Church, but to the shepherd and guardian of your souls (Christ) (1 Peter 2:25).

Christ is the Shepherd; Christ is the Bishop. This is Peter's message because when jesus promised him the primacy Peter heard him speak of my Church, not your Church. All bishops, with Peter at their head, are vicars, that is, they take the place of Christ on earth. To enable them to fulfill their mission of service he conferred on them the necessary power.

C. Power and service of Peter

Frequently nowadays, and rightly so, because it is based on Scripture and Tradition, we speak of the mission of the Pope and the bishops as a ministry, as a service. Indeed, they are there to serve. 'The office which the Lord has committed to the pastors of his people is, in the strict sense of the term, a service, which is called very expressively in Sacred Scripture, a diakonia or ministry.'[36] One of the titles proper to the Pope himself is 'servant of the servants of God.' The term service cannot be understood as a divesting themselves of the authority which is theirs by right, opposing service to power. That would be a most unbiblical and untraditional way of understanding the word ministry. The Pope and the bishops can only render to the Church the service God wants from them id they exercise their power, which is of divine origin and only they have. If they were not to use their power, they would be unable to serve; they would be of no use. Now all of us Christians ought to serve one another as Christ loved us and served us. But bishops, besides being counted among the faithful themselves, are pastors and must serve their brethren and children through the use of their pastoral power. Such service demands humility (The greatest among you must be your servant, Matt. 31:11) and fortitude (The Holy Spirit has made you overseers to feed the Church of God, Acts 20:28). St. Leo the Great, paraphrasing the words of Jesus, put it like this: 'You are a Rock, Simon. Rather, I am the unshakeable Rock, I am the Cornerstone which unites what was separated. I am the Foundation and no one can lay any other. And yet, you Simon, you also are a Rock because I am going to give you my strength, in such a way that by this sharing, the power which is only mine will be common to you and to me.'[37]

D. Unity: reason for primacy

Vatican Council I affirmed that the authority of the Pope, and the resulting obligation to obey him, took in 'not only matters that pertain to the faith and morals, but also matters that pertain to discipline and government of the Church throughout the whole world.'[38] It is what we call universal power (applicable, it is clearly understood, to ecclesiastical matters only). The power which the Pope receives from Christ has its own internal statutes and lays upon the successor of St. Peter a very grave moral obligation.

Earlier on I referred to this service on behalf of the unity of the Church. The Pope has a very wide power in order to be able to serve in a supreme way the unity of the Church. He must use his authority whenever it is required and in the way it is required so as to serve the unity of faith and communion in the Church. Not to use it could constitute a serious fault; and to hinder its exercise is to hinder the supreme way which Christ has instituted for keeping his Church one.[39] On the other hand, if the Pope were to intervene with his supreme authority where it was not needed he would be making use of the power conferred on him by Christ in a way contrary to the meaning of that power which, in the whole Church, is for building up, not pulling down (2 Cor. 10:8) and is 'for us men and for our salvation.' In the ministry of the Pope to build up and save is to care for the unity of faith and of communion among pastors and faithful.

E. The Pope, Vicar of Christ

The primacy of the Pope is a mystery in the economy of salvation. And to this mystery belong those internal statutes just previously spoken about.

'In his chief ministry the Pope is obliged by the objective rules of faithfulness which derive from the revealed word of God, from the fundamental constitution of the Church and by Tradition.'[40] He has the necessary divine assistance to carry out his office. But this does not relieve him of a very grave responsibility before Christ whom God has appointed to judge everyone, alive or dead (Acts 10:42). It demands of the holder of the office of bishop of the Catholic Church humility, prudence and holiness and of the faithful continual prayer to God for the head of the Church on earth.

However, and this is important, on earth there is no external tribunal, neither in the Church nor in civil society to which one can appeal against his decisions. The Pope must look for advice, take the steps which prudence demands in the delicate function of governing the Church, listen to the opinion of his brother bishops, etc., but 'the judgement of the apostolic See, whose authority is unsurpassed, is not subject to review by anyone, nor is anyone allowed to pass judgement on his decisions. Therefore, those who say that it is permitted to appeal to an ecumenical council from the decisions of the Roman Pontiff (as to an authority superior to the Roman Pontiff) are far from the straight path of truth.'[41]

We reach here, perhaps, the nerve center of all teaching about the primacy. It is what most brings out the fact that we are faced with a 'mystery of faith' and not with 'an organizational factor' in the Church ascertainable by the natural light of human reason. But it also brings us to take our stance on what is the ultimate basis of the whole mystery, a basis which is centered on Christ himself. The basis of the primacy is, on the one hand, its historical institution be Christ, but on the other it is the actual presence today of Christ in the primatial acts of the Pope. 'The relation of the primacy to Christ is not only historical-causal, but also actual-causal, for in the activity of the Pope Christ himself is audible and visible. Of the Pope it can truly be said: he acts in the person of Christ.'[42] With theological wisdom St. Catherine of Siena called the Pope the 'gentle Christ on earth' but at the same time, conscious of the moral responsibility of the Pope, she urged him to exercise with fortitude his 'service of unity' in the Church, that is to say, to be faithful to his most important mission.

From the time when St. Clement of Rome intervened in the affairs of the church of Corinth to reestablish peace in that troubled community down to our own days with its contemporary methods for governing the universal Church, the Roman Pontiffs have been the instruments willed by Christ for maintaining unity among the bishops and for keeping the multitude of the faithful, that is to say, the Church, in a unity of faith and communion. The ways of exercising the primacy have varied with time, but its substance does not change for it is immutable. Accordingly the primacy cannot be watered down in the wake of 'episcopalian' or 'democratic' ideals.

'When the Pope acts in virtue of his office he represents at one and the same time the whole Church and the entire body of bishops. But one cannot deduce from this that he receives his power from the community of believers or from the bishops. On the contrary, he receives it from Christ.'[43] 'The Pope,' writes Cardinal Ratzinger, 'is not just someone who speaks in the name of the bishops, a kind of mouthpiece they give themselves and which is there to do their bidding. The Pope is where he is, with a direct responsibility before God, to take the place of the Lord, and to ensure the unity of the word and work of Christ, in the same way as Christ gave Peter that same function within the community of the Twelve.'[44]

F. Unity of Christians around the Pope

On one occasion Pope Paul VI said that he viewed 'the charism of the primacy in the Church, given by Christ himself to Peter, whose humble successor I am, more as an office to be exercised than as a right.'[45] This way of seeing things coincides with the attitude which Christians ought to have and which was expressed by Msgr. Escriv de Balaguer: Christians must 'work, not as subject to an authority, but with the piety of children, with the love of those who feel themselves to be and are members of the Body of Christ.'[46] Behind this spirituality of love for the Pope lies the deep conviction that his authority cannot be done away with. 'Do not tire of preaching love and full obedience to the Holy Father. Even if his office had not been instituted by Jesus Christ my head tells me that a strong central authority -- that of the Holy See -- would be needed to induce those who are in disagreement with the Church and who blunder about to act reasonably. But over and beyond these logical reasons there is the will of God who has wanted to have a Vicar on earth and to assist him infallibly with his Holy Spirit.'[47]

In the words of Pope Paul VI to the Council Fathers: 'If our apostolic office obliges us to put up signposts, to define terms, to lay down guidelines and modes for the exercise of episcopal power it is -- you know well -- for the good of the entire Church and for the unity of the Church. The need for guidelines and direction is all the more necessary as the catholic unity spreads, as she faces graver danger, as the needs of the Christian people become more pressing in different historical circumstances and, we could add, as the means of communication become more sophisticated.'[48]

Behind the theology of the successor of Peter there is always the communion, the unity of the Church in the midst of her variety. According to divine revelation this is the formal meaning of the primacy of Peter: to be the perpetual and visible center and foundation of the community of Churches which is vivified by the Spirit of Christ. This is what, in a turbulent crisis of faith and unity, is felt by many who are outside the boat of Peter. Those of us who through the grace of God sail in Christ's boat have the grave responsibility not to defraud that hope.


[30] Dz. 3064 (1831)
[31] Dz. 3064 (1831)
[32] Vatican Council I, the theologians tell us, made this affirmation in a positive, not an exclusive way, for the episcopal college, with the Pope at its head, also has full and supreme power in the Church (cf. _Decree on the Church_, no.22) and in this sense has a power equal to the Pope's power
[33] Dz. 3060 (1827)
[34] The power of the Pope is not to be thought of as standing in the way of the power of the bishops, each in his own diocese; cf. Dz. 3061 (1827)
[35] Paul VI, _Address_ March 29. 1967
[36] _Decree on the Church_, no.24
[37] St. Leo the Great, _Sermon III on the Nativity_
[38] DZ. 3060 (1827)
[39] For this reason Vatican I affirmed the right of the Pope to communicate freely with the bishops and faithful of the whole Church, cf. Dz. 3062 (1829)
[40] Cardinal Seper, _Introductory address to the synod of bishops, 1969
[41] Dz. 3063 (1830)
[42] M. Schmaus, _Teologia Dogmatica, VI. La Iglesia_. Madrid, 1960, p.462
[43] G. Philips, "L'Eglise et son mystere au IIe Concile du Vatican_, Paris, 1967, 297
[44] J. Ratzinger, _Das neue Volk Gottes_, Düsseldorf 1969, p.169
[45] Paul VI, _Address_, Oct. 27, 1969, A.A.S. 61 (1969), p.728
[46] J. Escriv de Balaguer, 1965
[47] _Idem_, 1943
[48] Paul VI, _o.c._


Reprinted from Catholic Position Papers
September, 1981 -- Japan Edition
Seido Foundation for the
Advancement of Education