IN the aftermath of the recent lifting of the excommunication of the four bishops illicitly ordained by Abp.Lefebvre, and the unfortunate statements of one of them discrediting the historicity of the Nazi extermination of the Jews during World War II, a lot of criticism had been heaped on Pope Benedict XVI from some quarters both outside and within the Catholic Church. This was further exacerbated by his unflinching declarations in his recent visit to Africa against the widespread distribution of condoms as a futile response to the AIDS pandemic in that continent. In effect, what some quarters in the Church had been harping on for a time—even in connection with the Pope’s unwavering magisterium against contraception, abortion and divorce— was an old heresy that the Pope, just like any other bishop, did not really enjoy the supreme authority—in magisterium, in governance and as regards the sacraments—that Catholic doctrine has always taught he enjoyed. Can you shed some light on this matter.
THIS is a deeply theological question, best answered in the context of ecclesiology rather than Canon Law. Nevertheless, short of going into the theological roots of papal supremacy and infallibility in matters of faith and morals, I shall attempt to shed some light on the matter from the prism of Canon Law, which is my competence.
1. The Office of Peter
The identity of the papacy is set forth in the Code of Canon Law in the following glowing terms:
Can.331 — The bishop of the Church of Rome, in whom resides the office given in a spe-cial way by the Lord to Peter, first of the Apostles and to be transmitted to his successors, is head of the college of bishops, the Vicar of Christ and Pastor of the universal Church on earth; therefore, in virtue of his office he enjoys supreme, full, immediate and universal ordinary power in the Church, which he can always freely exercise.
The first part of c.331 gives a series of titles applied to the Roman Pontiff:
1) Bishop of Rome — The canon opens with a reference to the bishop of the Church of Rome, and only afterwards enumerates the other pontifical titles. This implies a logical priority of the title of Roman Pontiff as the foundation of all the other titles. This affirms that the Pope should always be the Bishop of Rome (and not any other See).
2) Successor of Peter by Christ’s Will — The First Vatican Council had already de-clared the permanence of the office of Peter by the Lord’s Will, and that it therefore had to be transmitted to his successors, the Bishops of Rome. As the two Vatican Councils have taught, this office consists in being the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful.
3) Head of the College of Bishops — Caput collegii is clearly Vatican II terminology, although it has a long history and can hardly be considered an innovation. Being the Bishop of Rome and the Successor of Peter, who is the first of the Apostles, the Pope is necessarily also the Head of the Episcopal College. Again this underscores the necessary membership of the Pope in the Episcopal College—i.e., he is intrinsic to that college, even if hierarchically superior to it as its Head.
4) Vicar of Christ and Pastor of the universal Church on earth — The fact that the title of Head of the College appears first does not imply an ontological priority with respect to these last two titles, but rather a logical order in relation to the title of Bishop of Rome. On the other hand, the title of Vicarius Christi—of medieval vintage—is not exclusive to the Pope, since the other bishops are also Vicars of Christ in their respective dioceses and their power come directly from God. Nevertheless, the title acquires special significance in the Pope where it is united to that of Pastor of the universal Church.
2. Characteristics of Papal Power
The redaction of c.331 establishes a connection—therefore—between the Petrine func-tion and the power of the Pope. As previously pointed out, this office consists in being “the per-petual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole com-pany of the faithful.” It is in the service of this finality that the office of Peter comes with a power whose characteristics are enumerated in the second part of c.331: in virtue of his office, he enjoys supreme, full, immediate and universal ordinary power in the Church, which he can al-ways freely exercise.
1) Ordinary (ordinaria potestate)— The Pope possesses his power in virtue of his office, and therefore not as a physical person but as the titleholder of the capital function of government of the universal Church. Thus, it is an ordinary power—not delegated—in the sense of c.131, §1.
2) Supreme (suprema) — It is not subordinated to any other human power, either eccle-siastical or temporal (secular), and therefore enjoys absolute hierarchical superiority in its order. The consequences of this superiority can be gleaned from different canonical provisions:
a) Prima Sedes a nemine iudicatur. This principle, enunciated by c.1404, has as a consequence that any act or decision made in violation thereof is considered invalid (c.1606, §1).
b) The Roman Pontiff is the supreme judge for the entire Catholic world (c.1442). There is neither appeal nor recourse against a decision or decree by the Roman Pontiff (c.333, §3), and a censure is established against one who takes recourse against an act of a Ro-man Pontiff to an ecumenical council or to the college of bishops (c.1372).
c) The supreme direction and coordination of endeavors and activities which deal with missionary work and missionary cooperation belongs to the Roman Pontiff and the college of bishops (c.782, §1).
d) The Roman Pontiff is the supreme administrator and steward of all ecclesias-tical goods (c.1273; cf. c.1256).
3) Full (plena) — The Pope possesses all the power that Christ entrusted to his Church, and therefore all that is necessary and sufficient for the government of the Church in all the or-ders and spheres of ecclesial life. Such plenitude includes both the power of Order as well as the power of jurisdiction, extending to all the functions of the sacra potestas: munus sanctificandi, docendi et regendi. It also extends to all the functions of government properly speaking—i.e., legislative, executive and judicial.
Full, however, does not mean unlimited. As the Council pointed out, such power had been granted by God “in the care of souls...to promote the common good of the universal Church and the particular good of all the churches.” Thus, its limits are determined by the ends of the Church, and it must respect the constitution and structure of the Church itself, which are of di-vine institution.
4) Immediate (immediata) — The Pope can exercise his power over each and every one of the faithful, and over each and every one of the particular Churches, without need of any per-mission, authorization or license of the respective Bishops or Ordinaries. Consequently, the faithful also have the right to direct themselves to the Pope without any need of intermediary.
This characteristic of the power of the Roman Pontiff also has different manifestations in the CIC, among which are the following:
a) Anyone of the faithful is free to bring to or introduce before the Holy See a case either contentious or penal in any grade of judgment and at any stage of litigation (c.1417, §1).
b) It is the right of the Roman Pontiff himself alone to judge ... other cases he has called to his own judgment (c.1404, §1, 4º), whether motu proprio or at the petition of parties (cf. c.1444, §2).
c) Clerics are bound by a special obligation to show reverence and obedience to the Supreme Pontiff and to their own Ordinary (c.273); while individual members (of Institutes of Consecrated Life) are also bound to obey the Supreme Pontiff as their highest superior by reason of the sacred bond of obedience (c.590, §2).
d) The Roman Pontiff can dispense all types of vows and oaths in the Church (cc. 1196 and 1203).
5) Universal (universali) — The exercise of the Pope’s power extends to all spheres in the Church, whether territories, persons or matters. Therefore, nothing in the ecclesiastical order can be subtracted from his authority, or reserved to any other authority without his consent.
6) Exercised freely always (quam semper libere exercere valet) — because otherwise it would not be full and supreme. He has the right, according to the needs of the Church, to deter-mine the manner, either personal or collegial, of exercising this function (c.333, §2 in fine).
On the other hand, the text of the canon (and that of LG, n.22) intentionally states semper libere—not semper et libere—to avoid any impression that the Pope can continually and arbitrarily meddle in what is the competence of the local Ordinaries. And when he does, he will do so always united in communion with the other bishops and with the universal Church (c.333, §2 in medio).
3. Extension and Limits of Papal Power
To speak of extension and limitation of the exercise of papal power is tantamount to speaking about primacy and hierarchical communion, and these notions are regulated in c.333, §§1 and 2 respectively.
1) The Primacy — This term refers to a complex relationship that exists between the Pe-trine Office, Pastor of the universal Church, and the individual Bishops who are also Pastors of the particular Churches.
Can.333, §1 — The Roman Pontiff, by virtue of his office, not only has power in the uni-versal Church but also possesses a primacy of ordinary power over all particular Churches and groupings of churches by which the proper, ordinary and immediate power which bishops possess in the particular churches entrusted to their care is both strengthened and safeguarded.
This paragraph of c.333 establishes the two important aspects regarding the extension of papal power:
a) The Primacy of the Roman Pontiff extends not only over the universal Church in its totality, but also to each and every one of the particular Churches and groupings thereof. This is really nothing else but a manifestation of the immediate character of the power that cor-responds to the Pope by virtue of his office.
b) Such Primacy does not undermine the equally ordinary, proper and immediate power of the Bishops in their respective particular Churches (c.381, §1). On the contrary, the lat-ter is both strengthened and safeguarded (c.333, §1; cf. LG, n.27).
2) Hierarchical Communion — If the extension of the papal power is best expressed by the notion of papal primacy (in the context of the communio ecclesiarum), the limits of the ex-ercise of such power is best expressed by the notion of communio hierarchica, as laid down in the next paragraph of c.333.
Can.333, §2 — The Roman Pontiff, in fulfilling the office of the supreme pastor of the Church, is always united in communion with the other bishops and with the universal Church; however, he has the right, according to the needs of the Church, to determine the manner, either personal or collegial, of exercising this function.
What this paragraph establishes is that the exercise of the primacy of power is not ex-empted from the communion in the Church, and that the Pope—as Head of the Church—cannot separate himself from the body of the Bishops or from the body of the universal Church.
Perhaps we can end this discussion of the Petrine office by going back to the Gospel pas-sage which is its Scriptural foundation. The setting is Caesarea Philippi, after Peter had made his personal confession of the divinity of Jesus Christ. Then Jesus answered and said, “Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-Jona, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to thee, but my Father in heaven, And I say to thee, thou art Peter [Rock] and upon this rock I will build by Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Mt. 16, 17-19).
Why is the Pope the supreme authority in the Church of Christ? Simply because its founder, Jesus Christ, established it that way.