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From the Spring, 1992 issue of Touchstone


Is <title>Papal Claims by Thomas A. Baima

Papal Claims

Beyond the Misconceptions

by Thomas A. Baima

The editor of this journal accused me of saying a number of years ago, “Papal infallibility is a highly nuanced reality.” I honestly don’t remember saying that, but it does sound like something I might have said. For papal infallibility and, indeed, the whole Petrine ministry is a highly nuanced reality. It is as nuanced as it is important and controversial. Unfortunately for ecumenical discussion, the nuances often are not appreciated, and misconceptions abound even in learned circles to bedevil a fairer and more accurate consideration. So it is with some caution that I approach this highly nuanced and controversial subject and set myself to get beyond some of the misconceptions.

I think it is only fair to begin with a couple of disclaimers. First of all, even though I am trained as systematic theologian, my area of expertise is in the theology of the development of doctrine and not in the Petrine ministry. So, I offer this more as a survey from which I will refer the reader to the work of some theologians who have made this particular topic their life study.

Secondly, I am a committed Catholic Christian who lives within a faith community and for whom this topic is a matter of belief. I say that not as an apology but simply to clarify that I am dealing with this subject here in a different way than a scholar of comparative religions. I am only writing from a Roman Catholic perspective. Space does not permit me to go into longer explanations or alternative views on a number of important assumptions and interpretations. So to save me from having to repeat disclaimers at every controversial point, let me state at the very outset that this is intended merely as a survey to clarify a few points—important points—in the Roman understanding of papal claims.

Now I propose to do three things to uncover some of the nuancing that exists around the Petrine ministry. The first thing I would like to do is examine the structure of the communion of the Catholic Church as it is set forth in the 1983 Code of Canon Law, which puts into legal language the theology of the Second Vatican Council. There are very fine histories about the development of the papal office, but what I want to focus on in the first section is the present reality of authority and its exercise within the structure of Catholic Christianity.

Next, I would like to examine in some detail the titles that the pope wears, or said another way, the multiple offices that he holds. In this section, by relating it back to the structure of authority in the Church, I would like to sort out those functions of the papacy which are also exercised by other levels of authority within the ecclesial structure. By doing this, I believe we can narrow the scope of our discussion to those things which are absolutely unique to the Petrine ministry of the pope. The discussion of those powers which the pope exercises in common with other bishops in the Church is another subject perhaps for another time.

In the second section, I am going to pay particular attention to the office of the patriarch, which is something we share in common with Eastern Orthodoxy. I am going to dwell on that for a fair period of time, for much of what we Catholic Christians experience of the pope’s authority is actually his patriarchal rather than his Petrine authority.

In the third section, we will, having sorted out the unique Petrine functions from common episcopal functions, look more precisely at what the unique claims are and then touch upon the limits that define them. I can only hope that charitable readers as they look at the scope of this topic will forgive me for having to leave aside some very interesting tangents.

I. The Structure of the Church

If you read the documents of the Second Vatican Council and, in particular, the document Lumen Gentium, the dogmatic constitution on the church, you will find a conception of the church as a communion, as a unity of believers gathered around their bishop in a hierarchical construction.1 When you open the Code of Canon Law, the very first canon tells you a great deal about that hierarchical constitution. Canon 1 reads: “The Canons of this code affect only the Latin Church.”2

In making that statement it is very clear that within Catholic Christianity there must be other churches. Indeed, we find that spelled out in Cannon 111, paragraph 2, where the discussion of membership is raised. That canon reads: “anyone to be baptized who has completed fourteen years of age can freely choose to be baptized in the Latin Church or in another ecclesia rituali sui juris (autonomous ritual Church). In this case the person belongs to that Church which is chosen.”3

This leaves us with a conception of the structure of the church primarily having three levels. There is the local church of the diocese presided over by a bishop, and I think that we are all fairly aware of the universal church and the kind of supreme authority that we see exercised there by the pope. But somewhat invisible and yet very important in the hierarchical structure of the Catholic church is this superior authority which is called the autonomous ritual church. There are twenty-two of them in the Catholic communion, and they each are presided over by a bishop who has the title of patriarch.4 The patriarch then is the head of an autonomous ritual church, and he gathers together the bishops of the local church into provinces over which is placed a metropolitan. A metropolitan functions as a court of appeal for the local bishops, but he cannot intervene in their dioceses unless they invite him. Now the patriarch is different because he can intervene; he does have direct jurisdictional authority.

As I said, there are twenty-two of these autonomous ritual churches presided over by patriarchs, major archbishops, or metropolitans. Together the form the universal Church of Christ presided over by the college of bishops and the pope as supreme pastor at their head.5 This is the structure which the Codes of Law envision and from which all of our ideas of authority flow. So we want to give attention to three levels of functional authority: the local/episcopal level, what I am calling the superior level or super episcopal, and finally the supreme authority of the church.

We can look at this another way. If we were to move in a straight line from the local church to the universal church, we would find a bishop, a metropolitan, a patriarch, and finally the college of bishops and the pope. In a concrete example, taking the Ukrainian church here in Chicago: the local authority is Bishop Innocent Lotocky. He together with the other Ukrainian bishops of the United States are gathered together in a province presided over by Metropolitan Stephen of Philadelphia. Together with the other provinces of the Ukrainian church throughout the world they form a synod of bishops under the presidency of Major Archbishop Myroslav Ivan of Lviv.6 The Ukrainian Catholic church as one of the twenty-two autonomous ritual churches forms the Catholic communion which is presided over by the college of bishops and the supreme pastor, Pope John Paul II. That is how the line of authority could be described moving through the various layers.

II. Papal Titles

With the framework in mind, let us take a look at the second issue, which is the various functions that the pope performs. If you were to open the official Catholic Directory and find the page on popes, you would find that the person who holds that office has a variety of titles after his name. They are from start to finish: His Holiness Pope John Paul II, Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Jesus Christ, Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, Supreme Pastor of the Universal Church, Patriarch of the West, Primate of Italy, Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Province of Rome, Sovereign of the Vatican City State, Servant of the Servants of God.7

Looking at those from top to bottom we find Bishop of Rome; this particular title refers to the local authority that John Paul II exercises as the bishop of the local church, the diocese of Rome. We find that he is Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Province of Rome; like other archbishoprics, the dioceses of Italy are gathered together into an ecclesiastical province, presided over by a metropolitan.8 In that role he has the function of convoking the other bishops and working with them jointly on those things which affect all the dioceses in the province. This corresponds to what Joseph Cardinal Bernardin does in Chicago, as archbishop of Chicago and metropolitan of the province of Illinois. He fulfills that same function.

Going up the ladder we find next the title, Primate of Italy. Primate is a largely honorary title: it means the first bishop of a particular national conference. In European countries and some other places that title automatically goes to the bishop of the most important see. In the United States we do not have a primate; if we did it would be the archbishop of Baltimore as the oldest see.9 But that role of convening the nation’s bishops is taken by the bishop president of the episcopal conference. It is a grouping which seeks to respond pastorally to national needs. Again, this is an office he shares, just as with primate of Italy he would be fulfilling a function similar to Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk who is the bishop president in the U.S.

Next we come to Patriarch of the West. I would like to stop on this point and dwell on the office of patriarch. As Patriarch of the West he fulfills the role of superior authority, just as the twenty-two autonomous ritual churches have a superior authority. In Oriental canon law a patriarch is a bishop on whom the canons confer jurisdiction over all other bishops, including metropolitans and over the clergy and the people of a territory or specified rite. Such jurisdiction is to be exercised in conformity with the Law and under the authority of the Roman pontiff.10

III. The Office and Function of the Patriarch—Superior Authority

The patriarch therefore is a bishop who has a super episcopal jurisdiction which I have been calling a superior authority. What makes him a patriarch is the jurisdiction he enjoys over all other bishops. A metropolitan does not have this, an archbishop does not have this, a primate or a bishop president does not have this. This is a unique aspect of patriarchal authority.

The patriarch’s power is also direct and indirect. It is direct because he has direct authority over the bishops in his patriarchate or in his autonomous ritual church. It is indirect over the clergy and the faithful over whom he exercises authority through the bishops of his patriarchate.11

The third aspect of patriarchal power is that it is “ordinary.” What that means in our canonical tradition is that he exercises it in his own name, not in the name of the Holy See or in that of another person. By virtue of his office, it is his authority. Finally, the authority of the patriarch is “personal,” and what that means is that he cannot delegate it to an assistant for the whole patriarchate. It is his, and so he must be the one who exercises it.12

Now the patriarch exercises this power over a broad range. Basically there are three ways. He does this by enacting and executing laws, by teaching, and by administering. The patriarch above all else can enact laws either for the whole of his autonomous ritual church or for the part of it or for a group of persons, but only in the patriarchal synod. Thus the fathers of the patriarchal synod become colegislators under the presidency of the patriarch. Now the patriarch, after consulting with his permanent synod also enjoys the exclusive right of interpreting any laws he has made authentically.13

The patriarch also has the power to execute laws. Not only does he make them but he is responsible to see that the laws are enforced and that they are carried out faithfully. The patriarch also possesses the power to teach and he can and must do this so that as a father he will be a light to his church. He is to give instruction, to clarify sound doctrines, to promote piety, to correct abuses, to approve and recommend those practices that further the spiritual life. He is to issue encyclical letters, approve courses of preaching, and above all he is to maintain and faithfully preserve the spiritual and liturgical traditions of his ritual church.14

The patriarch also has administrative powers. That is to say he is the general manager of his autonomous church. He provides for the election of bishops, he erects or modifies the boundaries of provinces and dioceses, he calls together the conferences of bishops, and he sees to it that his church’s temporal affairs are completely and faithfully administered.15

As you can see, the office of patriarch is extensive in the area it covers. If I had simply described these particular powers to you without identifying where they came from, I suspect many people would identify them as a papal function. But again, as we are sorting out what is absolutely unique to the Petrine ministry, we have to sort out all of what I have just said, because these powers are not exercised solely by the bishop of Rome but by twenty-two other hierarchs in the communion of the Catholic church.

Before we leave this topic I would like to note a theological dimension to it. Father Donlon writes:

Eastern theologians, both those of the Eastern dissident churches, and quite generally those of the Oriental rites of the Catholic Church, have tended to judge the patriarchal structure in focusing on the note of catholicity that equally marks the Mystical Body. This viewpoint, eloquently expressed in the Forty-fifth General Congregation, October 10, 1963, of Vatican Council II by Monsignor Isaac Ghattas, the Catholic Coptic Bishop of Thebes in Egypt, holds as “providential” the institution of the patriarchates and maintains that it is due to this structure of ecclesiastical life that in extensive territories there have been conserved the Lord’s presence and the Eucharistic Liturgy under the presidency of the patriarch, the high priest chief and center of unity of the episcopal college of his region. “If we insist,” Monsignor Ghattas adds, “on the position and dignity of patriarchs, it is not out of some desire to maintain outmoded traditions, but out of a conception of the Church itself and of its catholic unity. Certainly the Church is universal, but this universality is not to be divorced from the multiplicity of the individual Churches: such is the perspective of the Pauline Epistles and of the Apocalypse. The patriarchate is an element in this structure.”16

Monsignor Ghattas insisted that this patriarchal structure represented a form of diversity in unity and an instrument of communion in the one Church of Christ. Father Donlon goes on to say that this structure offers a dimension of balance within Catholicity by seeking a middle path between centralization and decentralization. The Patriarchal arrangement

may still today afford in certain parts of the Church a congenial grouping that prevents any monolithic uniformity in Catholic life and discipline, while impeding a decentralization which would issue in fragmentation. . . . Prelates of the Eastern rites felt that in it they already possessed what their colleagues of the West were striving to attain through large regional groupings in episcopal conferences.17

Those theological goals that Father Donlon identifies point out the tension that always exists between the Universal and the particular Churches, protecting the diversity, maintaining the universality. It is precisely that maintenance of unity that is the main function of the Petrine ministry.

IV. The Petrine Ministry—Supreme Authority

So, having distinguished between the office of patriarch which is shared by the heads of all the autonomous ritual churches, I would like to turn now specifically to the Petrine ministry, to that unique office which is different from the superior authority of the Church and which the Second Vatican Council and the Code of Canon Law call the supreme authority.18  This will focus on those titles of the pope: Vicar of Jesus Christ, Successor of Prince of the Apostles, and Supreme Pastor of the Universal Church.

The papacy can only be understood in the framework of the church as a whole and in connection with the hierarchal structure of the church. The church cannot be understood properly either as a papal church or as an Episcopal church. The structure is a more highly nuanced reality. It is not strictly papal, it is not strictly episcopal because there are mediating structures in between.19 Most importantly, the mediating structure of the superior authority of the patriarch is the autonomous ritual church.

Moving higher up the ladder, we come to the supreme authority, which the Second Vatican Council concedes as being the college of bishops with the pope as its president. We look to the exercise of that supreme authority which most often happens through the pope. Dr. George Schwaiger identifies the biblical foundation of the papacy, as Catholic Christianity understands it, to be found particularly in the New Testament where Peter appears as the first of the apostles in rank.20  The Gospels show him to be the apostles’ spokesperson.21 Matthew, Mark and Luke, when they list the apostles, always name Peter first.22 In 1 Corinthians 15:5, Peter is named by Paul as the first to whom the Risen Christ appeared.23 Chronologically, Peter was not the first. But for Paul, it is important to say that he was the first. In this we see an acknowledgment of Peter’s call. Dr. Schwaiger contends that since the formula in 1 Corinthians 15:5 is a very ancient piece of tradition, it is an expression of the primordial conviction that Peter was the primary witness to the Resurrection.24 Peter is not sequentially first but theologically primary.

Three texts that bring this out specifically are Matthew 16:13–19, Luke 22:31, and John 21:15.25 In the Matthew text we find Jesus giving Simon a new and symbolic name—Kephas: Rock, which in Greek is rendered Petros and in English Peter.26  Jesus is promising to this apostle that he will be the foundation of the Church. Peter, therefore, as the Kepha is to guarantee stability, security, permanence and unity.27  Jesus builds the Church, including its foundation. That foundation will appear visibly through Peter. The other apostles are also included in this function in Ephesians 2:20.28  Because the Church is also founded on prophets, there is a charismatic dimension, and that fuller element must not be overlooked in any assessment of biblical ecclesiology.

Dr. Schwaiger develops this relationship to ecclesiology by nothing that:

Though Peter is given a special charge, it is clear that he can only exercise it in unity with and in conjunction with the rest of the apostles and indeed with the Church as a whole. That function of the Rock, the Kephas, is defined by Jesus as the power of the keys, the power to bind and to loose.29

Matthew 16:18 quotes Jesus: “whatsoever you declare to be bound on earth shall be bound in heaven and whatsoever you declare to be loosed on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

Binding and loosing, according to Dr. Schwaiger, is:

understood by Catholic Christians to include the authority to teach and to impose doctrine. The metaphor of binding and loosing means to exclude from the community and to readmit and also to impose an obligation and to release from it and finally, to declare something lawful or prohibited.30

These same functions—teaching/imposing, excluding/readmitting, declaring lawful/unlawful—are also assigned by Jesus to the other apostles in Matthew 18:18, but it is clear that Peter will exercise them in a special manner which is his alone. The Gospel of Matthew does not explain what the primacy of Peter consists of, but the two-fold conferring of authority in Matthew 16:18 and Matthew 18:18 does not make sense unless a single function is meant, though shared at various levels.31

As we look to Luke 22:27–32, we find Jesus giving a special task to Peter, a task in which Jesus promises him that his prayer will enable him to fulfill it.32 Dr. Schwaiger comments that:

Even Peter will not be spared a crisis of faith as predicted by Jesus, but the prayer of Jesus offered for Peter in particular will help him to recover. It would then be his task to supply support for his brothers, that is for the whole community. Peter is to be the stronghold of the faith. Peter is made shepherd of the flock. This metaphor common in the Old and New Testaments comes from the agricultural culture and is based on the notion that the shepherd has to find pastures and watering places for the flock, to defend it against attack and to preserve due order within the flock.33

In the Acts of the Apostles, Peter is portrayed as the head of the infant Church.34 His behavior shows him to be conscious of his responsibility as head. This headship is not without limits and experiences challenges, as shown in the dispute between Peter and Paul in Antioch over the question of the obligation of the ritual law of the Old Testament on the infant church.35 These texts are found in Acts 15:7–12 and Galatians 2:11–21. It is important to realize as we look at the papal claims that Jesus himself did not appoint successors to Peter or any of the other apostles. The succession followed from the nature of the mission which Peter and the apostles receive in Matthew 28:18, which is to the ends of the earth and to the end of time. A mission to the end of time expresses the necessity of a succession. In the early centuries you can find a development of a consciousness of what we have come to call the primacy of the Roman pontiff, but the testimonies are much like something in seed or kernel form. They are not fully explicit, they merely testify to a developing kind of primacy.36

To cite one example, let us look back to the second century and to Saint Ignatius of Antioch who says that the Roman church is the “president of love,” that is, the first in the realization of the new principle introduced by Christ into history.37  Saint Ignatius goes on to say that the Roman church teaches others but does not receive instruction itself.38 Another example is found in Saint Irenaeus of Lyons. To define Catholic tradition against Gnosticism he compares Gnostic teaching in contradistinction to the tradition handed on in the local churches founded on the apostles.  These are the competent witnesses.39 Dr. Schwaiger writes:

The apostolic succession guarantees the truth of the doctrine and in such a matter sufficient proof has been given when it is shown that in the greatest and most ancient Church, one universally known and founded by the glorious apostles Peter and Paul, its line of bishops goes back to the apostles and that its doctrine is therefore apostolic.40.

Now both Tertullian and Hippolytus see the line of succession of bishops of Rome originating with Peter. Saint Cyprian identifies the link with Peter provided by the succession to the episcopal office as the fundamental justification of all episcopal power and, likewise, determining the unity of the universal Church of Christ.41

This ministry of unity by the Roman bishop is seen from the second century on, where Rome was asked to decide questions of controversy. Rome was, if you would, a court of appeal in matters of discipline. Moreover, appeals to local bishops against its decisions were considered inadmissible.42  This limitation on the rights of local bishops has developed so that already by the fourth century there is a sense of judicial primacy. But that primacy is not what we see today. Dr. Schwaiger insists:

The distinction must be made between the dogmatic statement of the primacy, that is, explicit faith and the actual exercise of the office though there is a close connection between affirmation and action. In the first thousand years the exercise of papal primacy took the form of arbitration. Later, the popes themselves took the initiative more and more in making decisions. For a long time, they exercised their authority by means of paternal admonitions. But, as early as the Second Century it also took the form of juridically binding precepts.43

Pope Stephen I, as far as we can tell, first articulated these supreme pastoral functions by an appeal to Matthew 16:18 and demanded from all the acceptance of his doctrine on the baptism of heretics and threatened those who opposed it with excommunication.44  His threat based itself in an appeal to the authority conferred on the Apostle Peter, which Pope Stephen claimed had been transmitted to Peter’s successors. We find later, in the fourth century and the Council of Chalcedon, a letter from the council to Pope Leo stating that the pope is the interpreter of the voice of the apostle, Peter.45

By the end of the first millennium, the patriarchal authority in the West had gradually been absorbed into the supreme pastoral authority, so there was a confusion in the West of the patriarchal office with the supreme pastoral office. We see then the beginnings of the centralization tendencies. The most important text we have on the primacy comes from the First Vatican Council where it began to be considered very strictly. I will quote the entire text:

We teach and declare that the Roman Church has the primacy and ordinary authority by the disposition of the Lord over all other Churches. This jurisdictional power of the Roman Pontiff which is truly episcopal is direct. Towards this authority, the pastors and the faithful of every rite and rank both individually and collectively are bound by the duty of hierarchical subordination and true obedience not only in matters of faith and morals but also in matters of discipline and government in the Church throughout the whole world. By maintaining unity of the fellowship as well as of the same faith with the Roman Pontiff, the Church of Christ is thus one flock under one supreme pastor . . . The authority of the supreme pontiff does no detriment to the ordinary and direct power of jurisdiction by which the bishops, the successors of the apostles, appointed by the Holy Spirit are true pastors of the flocks assigned to each of them to rule and feed. It is on the contrary acknowledged, strengthened and defended by the supreme and universal pastor as was affirmed by St. Gregory the Great when he said “my honor is the honor of the universal Church. My honor is the vigorous strength of my brothers, I am only truly honored when due honor is paid to each of them . . .” Because the Roman Pontiff is by the divine right of apostolic primacy, head of the whole Church, we also teach and declare that he is the supreme judge of all the faithful to whose judgment appeal can be made in all matters which come under ecclesiastical examination. But the verdict of the Apostolic See may be rejected by no one since there is no higher authority. And no one may pass judgment. Hence they stray from the right path of truth who affirm that it is permissible to appeal to a General Council against the judgment of the Roman Pontiffs as if the General Council were a higher authority than the Roman Pontiff. If anyone therefore says that the Roman Pontiff has only the office of supervision and guidance and not the fullness of supreme power of jurisdiction over the whole Church, not merely in matters of faith and morals but also in matters of discipline and government in the Church throughout the whole world or if he says that the Pope has only the major share and not the whole fullness of the supreme power or that this power is not ordinary and direct over both the Churches individually and collectively and the pastors and the faithful individually and collectively, let him be anathema.46

We should realize that Vatican I was not able to complete its work, because of the Franco-Prussian War, when we examine the claims that it makes about the Petrine ministry. First, speaking of papal power it says that this power is one of supreme and full jurisdiction. This refers to discipline and government. Second, there is the supreme power of teaching—to guard and faithfully explain the revelation. Third, there are universal powers of jurisdiction, that is to say, that no one is exempt. Fourth, there is ordinary power of jurisdiction that is derived from the office. Fifth, there is immediate power that can be exercised without an intermediary. And sixth, there is episcopal power, the sacramental power, of the order of bishops.

Here is the distinction that I want to call us back to. The first three are uniquely papal, uniquely the Petrine ministry. The last three, which Vatican I spent so much time talking about, are fundamentally patriarchal powers, as we can see from the description of the patriarchal authority above. So, again to do this sifting, we want to bracket out the ordinary power of jurisdiction, the immediate power of interventional jurisdiction, in which the pope is no different from any of the patriarchs, and the episcopal power in which he is no different than any other bishop. This bracketing will allow us to focus our attention narrowly on the supreme and full jurisdiction in discipline and government, the supreme power of teaching, of guarding and faithfully explaining the revelation of Jesus Christ. This is where we will touch on infallibility and the universal power of jurisdiction, the fact that no one is exempt from it.

I said earlier that to understand the papal ministry, we had to situate it in the wider ministry of the hierarchical construction of the church. The hierarchy according to Vatican II is a ministry of service that guides the people of God in the common pursuit of salvation. Centuries ago Pope Leo drew the comparison between Peter and the pope. The Second Vatican Council draws the same comparison between the apostles and the bishops and then situates Pope Leo’s Peter/pope analogy within the apostles/bishops analogy. The Code of Canon Law brings this into practice by naming as the supreme authority of the church, the college of bishops with the pope as its president.47 Father Patrick Granfield writes:

Vatican II emphasizes the Catholicity, the Apostolicity of authority in the Church. By stressing the sacramental and collegial qualities of Church leadership, it provided a more cohesive understanding of how the Pope and the Bishops, each with a particular ministry, function within the community of believers. Moreover, in the document of collegiality, we have new perspective by which to examine the limits of Papal sovereignty. The question is: What precisely are the norms governing the cooperation between the College of Bishops and its head, the Pope, who together share in the governance of the Universal Church? Vatican II does not fully answer the question, but, some indications of limits are clearly there.48

V. What the Petrine Ministry Is Not

Following a construction that Father Granfield has identified in his book, The Limits of the Papacy, we can turn to an attempt at balancing the teaching of the First Vatican Council with the conclusions that theologians are drawing from the Second Vatican Council. Let us try to understand the Petrine ministry by saying what it cannot do. When I say cannot, I mean that the Petrine ministry does have limits, real and actual limits.

Father Granfield notes that the pope is limited first by his membership in the church. Fundamentally, he is a baptized member of the faithful and just as membership in the Church creates limits for all of us, he is bound by the same limits.49 The pope is also limited by the Christ event, by the public revelation that occurred in the Second person of the Blessed Trinity becoming a human being. It is the purpose of his office to maintain and safeguard the integrity of the transmission of this event.50 He is, as Bishop Pierre Duprey says, fundamentally a witness to the Christ event, and the purpose of his office is to maintain and safeguard the unity of the community gathered around that Christ event.51

Father Granfield identifies other limits as well—legal limits.52 Through much of this section, I will be summarizing Father Granfield’s ideas. As I said above, the Church is neither a papal nor episcopal organization, it is also not an absolute monarchy because the pope cannot do just whatever he wants; he does not have unlimited authority. For instance, he is not an absolute monarch because he is limited by the constitution of the church. The Church was established by Christ and he cannot change that. He is also limited by the doctrinal and structural restraints of the Church. He is limited by revelation, he is limited by the Sacraments, he is limited by earlier councils. If he were an absolute monarch he could wake up tomorrow and declare that the Sacrament of Penance was not a sacrament. However, he cannot do that. We understand that the sacrament was instituted by Christ; it was part of Christ’s intention to be part of the fabric of the Church. This is not something the pope can change.

The pope is also limited by natural law.53  Pointing to the obvious, Father Granfield tells us the pope is not God and he does not have control over nature. Natural law requires of all human beings that they pursue the good and avoid the evil. The pope is no different from us. So one of the limits on his authority is that he cannot declare evil, good or, good, evil. The pope is human and as a result he can even commit the sin of heresy and as a result be deposed. This is not a far out idea. As recently as last year, in a context I do not remember, Cardinal O’Connor of New York was asked what he would do if the pope proclaimed something he could not believe in, and the cardinal answered for that to happen the pope would have to proclaim heresy, in which case it would not be a problem believing him because he would have to be deposed. I would hardly say that Cardinal O’Connor is classified as a supporter of Hans Kung’s views. So there are limits right from natural law on papal authority.

Next, Father Granfield identifies the limits on papal authority from divine positive law. I alluded to this in the section on legal limits. The pope cannot create new sacraments; he also cannot abolish the sacraments. He cannot dispense from marital impediments such as consanguinity and the direct line. These are things which come to us as part of the unique revelation of Christianity and are not subject to his revision.54

Then Father Granfield addresses ecclesiastical law. He says that as a member of the Church the pope is morally bound to follow the law, even if he is the lawgiver. A legislator is subject to his own laws according to Catholic teaching. You see this in practice every time the pope says Mass. There is scrupulous attention to the ecclesiastical and liturgical laws, even though he is the lawgiver. Again, this suggests that if we are approaching the subject with the conception of an absolute monarch, we are off base. Absolute monarchs are not so limited in what they can do.55

Finally, there are dogmatic limits. Father Granfield notes that the pope cannot reject the deposit of faith. He cannot define something that is in no way related to revelation. He is not above the Word of God but serves it. Speaking specifically of the ex-cathedra declarations, there are conditions he needs to meet in order for those declarations to be valid. For instance, his act in proclaiming them must be free of force and fear. He cannot be coerced into proclaiming a dogma. He must be free of mental illness. If for some reason a pope was mentally incompetent at the time he proclaimed the dogma, it would not be a valid act. Dogmatic conditions state that he must proclaim it from the office of supreme pastor, not as an opinion as a private theologian or even as the bishop of Rome. He must act in virtue of the Petrine ministry, that he is doing that act of arbitrating, of safeguarding and handing on, of witnessing to the revelation. What he defines must be a teaching in the area of faith and morals, not science or geography. He must propose the doctrine as something to be held by the universal Church. This must be a very explicit type of thing.56

This view of the limits on the jurisdiction of the supreme pastor sets one of the boundaries of our understanding. But to fully view this office, we must turn from negative definitions of what the pope cannot do, to positive ones of what he can do. Nowhere is this more vital in ecumenical dialogue than in a consideration of the doctrine of infallibility. Dr. Martin Marty has called this the single, unique faith claim which sets the Catholic church apart from all others.57

VI.  Infallibility

Having examined the jurisdictional primacy of the supreme pastor, I want to turn next to what is the most unique claim of the Catholic church—the infallibility exercised by him.

Detailed histories of the development of the doctrine of infallibility have been written. I will not attempt to summarize them here. Rather, I will base my comments on a single article on the subject. Its author, the Most Reverend Pierre Duprey, M. Afr., S.E.O.D., is a theologian of Eastern Christianity by training and practice. He was trained as an ecclesiologist at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome. He is a former professor of theology in the Holy Land. He speaks two of the languages of Orthodoxy, Greek and Arabic. He is a man who has spent a lifetime reflecting on ecclesiological and ecumenical questions from the Eastern Christian perspective. Recently, he was ordained bishop and appointed Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity in Rome. As such, he is a major official of the Roman Curia, the number two man in ecumenism in the Holy See.

I chose his article for two reasons. First, since the point of this lecture is to move beyond misconceptions, I want you to leave with a theological view that is reliable. While his position is not official, since he wrote the article as a private theologian, nevertheless, given the position of trust he holds in the Curia, you may expect his theology to represent the Roman Catholic position. Second, and more importantly, Bishop Duprey touches three foundations that any theology of infallibility must address today:

1. It is ecumenical.
2. It is global—situating itself in the wider experience of Christianity, not merely the Western churches.
3. It is Catholic—faithfully speaking from within the Catholic Church, not apart from it.

Bishop Duprey situates the question of infallibility within the ecumenical sphere. Since it is one of the unique claims of the Roman Catholic church, it becomes a matter of controversial theology to address it. While Orthodox Christianity asserts with the Catholic church a doctrine of the infallibility of the church, expressed through the ecumenical councils, we differ in our claim that in certain well-defined circumstances and in matters of faith and morals, that same infallibility can be enjoyed by the bishop of Rome as supreme pastor.

Again, I am isolating the Roman Catholic doctrine from the larger category. Most Christian communions have a doctrine of infallibility. Orthodox Christians believe it is found in the church. Evangelical Christians locate it in the inspired writings of the Bible. Infallibility as a doctrine is not unique to the Catholic church. But having said that, we Catholic Christians do make some unique claims. I would now like to turn to these.

Bishop Duprey looks to the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, for the ecclesiological basis for infallibility. He writes:

The ultimate foundation of infallibility as such should be sought in the very nature of revealed faith . . . the Judeo-Christian religion bases itself not on a direct revelation of God to the human spirit, but on a revelation through intermediaries. Judeo-Christianity is a faith, and a faith founded on the Word of God as transmitted by witnesses.58

The Church, then, is the receiver of revelation from God. It has the mission to witness to that revelation, thereby transmitting it to others. Infallibility then is a quality of the action of witnessing to the revelation. To understand that quality, we must focus on the action of witness.

What is at stake in this witness is of the highest importance: it is Salvation . . . Revelation is the . . . vehicle of the means of salvation which God offers to humanity.59

Bishop Duprey notes that there are implications from this concept. It implies that “revelation is presented as the bearer of a guaranteed truth, since it comes from God.”60  It implies also “that human channels which transmit it will also be marked with this guarantee of truth.”61

So, within the reception and transmission of the saving revelation there exists a quality, the guarantee of truth, which we call infallibility. Bishop Duprey continues:

This guarantee of truth, founded on the action of the Spirit goes beyond and conditions what is called inspiration. For since God chose to reveal himself in and through history, this guarantee explains how the Spirit guides the leaders of the people of God in making those decisions which are most crucial for the course of history. The history of salvation truly carries the truth of Revelation because it is entirely under the mysterious guidance of the Spirit of God.62

Now, note well, this is not the doctrine of indefectibility. It is not a static preservation of a previously revealed proposition. It is a living, dynamic process. It flows directly from the very ground of Christian knowledge and never is separated from it. This interconnectedness, this integrity of source (and I use the singular deliberately—one source) overcomes some of the problems caused by theologians attempting to collapse infallibility into indefectibility.

Bishop Duprey continues:

It is the same Spirit that inspires those of God’s people who put it in writing, thus giving a more notional form (that of written language) to the traditions which preserve the “memory” . . . of the historical events in which God makes known at once his plan, his Name and his countenance.63

So, while there have been produced collections of documents “which,” Bishop Duprey says, “may be read and received with the guarantee of the Spirit, the revealed truths which the traditions of the people of God carry,” the collection is not the source. The source, the one source, is the work of the Spirit in the revelation itself. And it is the quality within that work of the Spirit which guarantees the transmission of truth that we call infallibility.

For Bishop Duprey the reality of infallibility is in Judeo-Christianity the necessary consequence of the very notion of revealed truth. He writes:

. . . it is no exaggeration to say that we risk getting on the wrong track whenever we forget . . . the link between the history of the people of God and the infallibility of the judgments of those who (with the power of the Spirit) bring out its real meaning and its central implications so as to hand them on for the salvation of “those who believe.” Infallibility is given to affirm the authentic meaning of the revelation which God has made by engaging himself in a complex history where he has allied himself with a limited and sinful humanity.64

Here is the central logic. Revelation is for salvation. Faith in the revelation comes from and rests upon witness. But if the witness is not certain, if there is no guarantee of its trustworthiness, then the end of the act is not achieved. God acts through revelation to bring about salvation. If the action, viewed in the wider context that the bishop describes, cannot be seen as occurring with authentic certainty, then God’s action does not bring about its intended result. But God must be able to finish what he starts.

According to Bishop Duprey, this brings us to the crux of the matter. The crux is not to justify an infallibility seen as the impossibility of error in formulating certain judgments.65 This is agreed to by both Orthodox and Catholic tradition. The crux is to find who, in what circumstances, and with what guarantees, enjoys the assistance of the Spirit.66  He writes:

Jesus Christ, the word of God in person, stands at the heart of the word of Faith and his great utterances on truth and salvation say infallibly what God wishes to reveal. But if his life and his deeds are also charged with truth above all his death and resurrection—who will discern the meaning of these with that guarantee of infallibility which can only come from the Holy Spirit?67

To illustrate this point, Bishop Duprey calls to mind the beginning of the process of ecclesial witness on the day of Pentecost.

When the morning of Pentecost came, and later in his exchanges with the Jews, Peter, as spokesman for the “witnesses” who are the Apostles proclaims the profound meaning of the Cross and Resurrection, identifying it with the apostolic faith, he speaks the truth “infallibly.”68 Here is the starting point of infallibility in the Christian Community in direct continuity with what I have said also about the people of God in the Old Covenant . . . infallibility is inseparable from the proclamation of saving faith, the gift of the Spirit, so the proclamation shall not be misleading but authentic.69

Bishop Duprey holds that it is the Church, as the body of Christ, animated by the Holy Spirit, which is the bearer of the “truth infallibly transmitted” by the apostolic community on the basis of the acts and words of the Incarnate Logos of God.70 This carrying is the sensus fidelium, the backdrop, against which we should see the ministry of infallibility. Returning to the question of “who will discern” the bishop quotes Lumen Gentium.

Although the individual bishops do not enjoy the prerogative of infallibility, they can nevertheless proclaim Christ’s doctrine infallibly. This is so, even when they are dispersed around the world, provided that while maintaining the bond of unity among themselves and with Peter’s successor, and while teaching authentically on a matter of faith and morals, they concur in a single viewpoint as one which must be held consluviely.71

Lumen Gentium reminds us of the Eastern Christian conception of infallibility in which the prerogative is vested in the episcopal body.72  It is there by virtue of the principle that unites the body, the bond of apostolic succession, which makes the present body the bearer of the original unity of the apostles. Apostolic succession is in this context a continuation of the tradition of the oral Torah in Judaism. In Scripture, Tradition, and the Church, Bishop Duprey writes:

Order in the tradition was based on witnesses and not on written documents. But the legitimacy of these witnesses depended on the legitimacy of the succession of masters and its continuity.73

Support for this position, and indeed the Judeo-Christian comparison comes from Eusebius who has preserved a letter of Ignatius of Lyon to Florinus:

The scriptures are the stable witness with which one must agree, the teaching and the life of Jesus which are its authentic interpretation, oral Torah, transmitted and received in the most profound fidelity by the succession of disciples. And this oral Torah Irenaeus calls Gospel, in the singular, transmitted by the apostles. Irenaeus insists furthermore on the succession of the legitimate “preachers of the Gospel” who are the bishops in each of the churches spread throughout the world.74

The episcopal body, the college of bishops, constituted by the apostolic succession, is the instrument for guarding that infallibility which provides a guarantee for the adherence of faith.75 Dei Verbum states:

in order that the full and living Gospel might always be preserved in the Church the apostles left bishops as their successors handing over their own teaching role to them.76

And Lumen Gentium continues this theme:

the bishops . . . when gathered together in an ecumenical council . . . are teachers and judges of faith and morals for the universal church. Their definitions must then be adhered to with the submission of faith.77

It is into this context of the teaching of Lumen Gentium that the Bishop Duprey would set the infallibility of the supreme pastor, the bishop of Rome. He sees papal infallibility as entirely dependent

in its nature and exercise on the nature and exercise of the primacy. Where circumstances require it, the bishop of Rome in communion of faith and responsibility with the whole episcopal body which he binds together in unity and of which he has care, can declare infallibly what an ecumenical council would declare. It is the infallibility of the episcopal college which expresses itself in him.78

Now it is obvious that Bishop Duprey is expressing both a claim and a limit. If we situate the ministerial infallibility in this way there is “no way . . . to say that the pope can of himself and without reference to the faith of the episcopal body and of the church define the Catholic faith.”79 He writes:

Every solemn definition pronounced from the chair of Peter in the Church of Peter and Paul is nothing but a datum of that faith, the content of which the episcopal body as a whole has the mission to affirm authentically.80

Whether it is an ecumenical council presided over by the bishop of Rome, or the bishop of Rome acting as supreme pastor, it is in both cases the college of bishops in the unity of faith which speaks through its head and never apart from him that expresses the prerogative of teaching infallibly.81 It is this meaning we see in Vatican I’s expression that the infallibility of the entire church passes through the judgment of the supreme pastor.82

Recalling the limitations on papal action that I noted above, and turning to the two recent exercises of papal prerogative, the Marian dogmas of 1870 and 1950, we see that in both cases these were further explanations of the dogmatic statements of the Council of Ephesus in 431. It is all part of the ongoing dynamic of the development of doctrine.

That dynamic is the point on which I would like to close. The development of doctrine is not like the judicial system in the United States where a single question is asked in court and then begins to climb the ladder, to higher and higher jurisdictions, eventually reaching the Supreme Court for a decision. Strict constructionism is inadequate to explain the reality of the church.

Bishops witness to their faith in their local churches. Lumen Gentium says: “in and through this profession of faith of the local churches (dioceses) in communion is expressed the faith of the Catholic Church.83 But Bishop Duprey notes that the living dynamic faith of the diocese is not exhausted in the Creed, but is further expressed in the liturgy, fraternal love, solidarity, and the holiness of life that creates the koinonia, the communion.84 This koinonia is the location of the sensus fidelium which is maintained by the ministry of bishops. Bishop Duprey writes:

It is this faith and this only that the bishop utters with his brother bishops in the Council, this which the bishop of Rome makes explicit. This circle is thus joined up; for, once “received,” this “rendering more explicit” goes back into the life of the local church and is knitted into their communion.85

The church itself proclaims through its faith and the whole of its life the deposit of Revelation which the Council or the bishop of Rome has rendered precise by infallible discernment.86

This is ministerial infallibility, by which the bishops teach the church so that it can be faithful to the mission it received from the Lord Jesus Christ:

Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded. And remember I am with you always to the end of the age.87


1. “Lumen Gentium. The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church,” The Documents of Vatican II, ed. Walter Abbot, S.J. (New York: Herder and Herder, 1966), pp. 14–101.

2. The Code of Canon Law, a translation of Codex Iuris Canonici. (CIC) (Washington: Canon Law Society of America, 1983), p. 3 (Page numbers cited here are from the English translation.)

3. Ibid. p. 33.

4. The Eastern Christian Churches, Ronald G. Roberson, C.S.P. (Rome: Pont, Institutum Studiorum Orientalium, 1990), p. 80. There is an important difference in how the number of these autonomous churches is determined. Dr. Roberson lists the number of Catholic Eastern Churches at 18 using the theological norm of whether or not they have an actual autonomous hierarchy. Without bishops, theologically they are not churches. Adding the Latin Church, these would include:

1)    The Latin Catholic Church
2)    The Maronite Catholic Church
3)    The Italo-Albanian Catholic Church
4)    The Chaldean Catholic Church
5)    The Syro-Malabar Catholic Church
6)    The Armenian Catholic Church
7)    The Coptic Catholic Church
8)    The Ethiopian Catholic Church
9)  The Syrian Catholic Church
10)  The Syro-Malankara Catholic Church
11)  The Melkite Catholic Church
12)  The Ukrainian Catholic Church
13)  The Ruthenian Catholic Church
14)  The Romanian Catholic Church
15)  The Greek Catholic Church
16)  The Byzantine-Yugoslavian Catholic Church
17)  The Bulgarian Catholic Church
18)  The Slovak Catholic Church
19)  The Hungarian Catholic Church

I have followed the numbering used by the Sacred Congregation for Eastern Churches, which uses a juridical norm. Therefore, to these 19, I add those other Byzantine Catholic communities, which because of present circumstances have their hierarchies either impaired or suppressed. These include:

20)  The Russian Catholic Church
21)   The Byelorussian Catholic Church
22)   The Georgian Catholic Church

Having said that, I must also note here that not all of the heads of these churches are titled as patriarch. One wears the title of Major Archbishop and several others are Metropolitans. Because of the political conditions under which these churches must live, they have differing degrees of full autonomy. Nevertheless, in theory of law, each head of an autonomous ritual church functions as patriarch, so I shall use that term throughout.

Since this address was delivered the Code of Canons of the Oriental Churches (CCEO) has been published and the scholarly reflection by Eastern Canonists is now available. The Rev. Dr. John Faris notes in his commentary that “Ecclesial autonomy is relative in as much as they can govern themselves in all matters except those which are reserved to the supreme authority of the Church. All autonomous churches do not enjoy the same degree of self-governance, but the power to govern themselves is graduated according to the hierarchical status of their heads. There are four kinds of autonomous churches:

Patriarchal churches (cc. 55–150) are fully self-governing except in those matters reserved in law to the Roman Pontiff. Patriarchs are elected by the synods of the patriarchal church and no papal confirmation of the elections is required. Instead, the newly-elected patriarch requests ecclesiastical communion from the Roman Pontiff (cc. 77,2) The patriarch and the synod of bishops of the patriarchal church together constitute the superior authority of governance in the patriarchal church. In general the patriarch possesses executive power and the synod of bishops is the superior legislative and juridical authority in the patriarchal church.

Canon 152 of the 1990 Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches states what is stated in common law concerning patriarchal churches or patriarchs is understood to be applicable to major archiepiscopal churches or major archbishops, unless the common law expressly provides otherwise or it is evident from the nature of the matter.

Canon 153 states that a major archbishop is elected by the synod, just as a patriarch, but must request confirmation from the Bishop of Rome.

Canon 155 states that metropolitans who preside over the other churches sui juris are appointed by the Bishop of Rome.

5. Canon 330, CIC, Op. cit. p. 117.

6. Annuario Pontificio. (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1985), pp. 3–8.

7. [missing]

8. CIC, pp. 163

9. The USA was first under the jurisdiction of Quebec and England. After 1776, the establishment of a local church became necessary. The Right Rev. John Carroll was ordained as the first bishop of Baltimore.

10. New Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v., “Patriarch,” p. 1088.

11. Ibid, p. 1090.

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid, p. 1091.

14. Ibid.

15. Ibid.

16. New Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. “Patriarchs: History and Theology,” p. 1093.

17. Ibid.

18. Canon 330–367. CIC, p. 117–135.

19. Schwaiger, George. “Pope.” Encyclopedia of Theology: The Concise Sacramentum Mundi, ed. Karl Rahner. (New York: Seabury Press, 1975), p. 1243.

20–26. Ibid.

27. Ibid. See also Matthew 7:24–27 and Luke 6:47–49 for the Parable of the Wise Man who builds his house on rock. This is the biblical image of how the foundation guarantees the integrity of the structure.

28. Ibid. See also Ephesians 2:20 as Christ’s action of building the Church. When read first, followed by Matthew 16:18 and then 18:18 the hierarchal constitution is situated in the wider people of God it is instituted to serve.

29. Ibid, p. 1244.

30–34.  Ibid.

35. Ibid. See also Acts 15:7–12 and Galatians 2:21.

36–41. Ibid.

42. Ibid. This was regarding the date of Easter.

43–45. Ibid.

46. Enchiridion Symbolrum, ed. Heinrich Denzinger, rev. Adolfus Schoenmetzer. (Barcinone: Herder, 1973), section 3060–3064. (earlier ed. 1827–1831). The Christian Faith in the Doctrinal Documents of the Catholic Church, ed. J. Neuner, S.J., and J. Dupuis, S.J. (New York: Alba House, 1981), pp. 230–31.

47. Canon 330–367, CIC, pp. 117–135

48. Granfield, Patrick. The Limits of the Papacy. (New York: Crossroads, 1987), p. 44.

49. Ibid. p. 58. See also: Patrick Granfield, “The Church as Institution,” The Journal of Ecumenical Studies, 16 (1973), pp. 425–447.

50. Ibid.

51. Duprey, Pierre. “Some Reflections on Infallibility.” Ecumenical Trends, 18:5 (May 1989), pp. 65–70.

52. Granfield, Patrick. The Limits of the Papacy, pp. 61–63.

53. Ibid, pp. 63–64.

54. Ibid. pp. 65–66.

55. Ibid.

56. Ibid. pp. 68–73.

57. Marty, Martin. “Response to ‘Scripture, Tradition and Infallibility’ by Pierre Duprey.” Unpublished paper read at the ELCA/Roman Catholic Dialogue in the USA. Chicago, 1990.

58. Duprey, op. cit.

59–65. Ibid.

66. Agapius and Nicodemus, The Rudder (Pedalion), ed. D. Cummings. (Chicago: Orthodox Christian Educational Society, 1957), p. xv.

67. Duprey, op. cit.

68–73. Ibid.

74. Pierre Duprey, “Scripture: Tradition and the Church,” Unpublished paper read at the ELCA/Roman Catholic Dialogue in the USA (Chicago, 1990), p. 9.

75. Ibid.

76. Duprey, “Reflections on Infallibility,” op. cit.

77–81. Ibid.

82. See also Denzinger-Schoenmetzer 3074.

83. Ibid. See Lumen Gentium, pp. 44–46.

84. Ibid. p. 69

85. Ibid.

86. Ibid.

87. Matthew 28:18–20 (NRSV).

This article is edited from a paper presented to the Chicago chapter of the Fellowship of St. James on March 1, 1991.

The Reverend Thomas A. Baima, S.T.L. is Associate Director of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the Archdiocese of Chicago.

Thomas A. Baima is a Roman Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago and provost of the University of Saint Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Illinois. He holds a doctorate from the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas in Rome/Angelicum.

“Papal Claims” first appeared in the Spring 1992 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.

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