Papal primacy is the guarantor of church unity

Father John A. Kiley

The Bishop of Rome has many titles. Certainly referring to our church’s earthly leader as “pope” is the most common usage. “Pope” is probably a development from “pater,” the Latin word for “father,” into the Romanesque “papa” and then eventually into the Gallicized “pape” and the Anglicized “pope.”

The endearing title of “Holy Father” is a more straight-forward English reference to the pope’s paternal ministry. Another more formal title for the visible head of the Catholic Church is “Supreme Pontiff.” “Pontiff” is a contraction of the Latin word “Pontifex” which means “bridge-builder.” The Supreme Pontiff, like Christ himself, is the link, the bridge, the connection between heaven and earth. He, again like Christ, is the mediator between God and man, the visible meeting place of heaven and earth.

A medieval moniker for the pope, which allegedly originated with the last English pope Hadrian IV, is the impressive “Vicar of Christ.” While some modern minds think this phrase a bit pompous, it does get the point across that the pope officially acts in the name of Christ. A more agreeable title to some modern ears is the impressive but less grandiose “servant of the servants of God.” These words are traced back to Pope Gregory the Great. And then, of course, the pope’s administration, if not the pope himself, is often mentioned as the “Office of Peter” or the “Petrine Office,” or sometimes the “Apostolic Office” or “Apostolic See,” clearly suggesting that the apostle Peter was the first to hold the responsibility for leading the Catholic world as the Bishop of Rome.

As Bishop of Rome, the Holy Father receives two personal charisms with firm scriptural foundation: infallibility and primacy. As head of the church, the pope is granted the celebrated gift of infallibility whereby his solemn pronouncements on faith and morals are protected from error. Through this gift, the Holy Spirit does not impel the Holy Father to speak but rather guarantees that when he speaks he will speak in accord with the revealed truths of Scripture and tradition. The renowned confession of St. Peter as recorded in chapter 16 of St. Matthew’s Gospel is the favored site for affirming this claim. “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven." St. Peter and all our Holy Fathers are accorded the unique, personal privilege of infallibility by God himself, protecting the church from hellish interference. This perennial belief of the church was solemnized by Pope Pius IX in 1870 as the First Vatican Council drew to a hasty close.

An equally eminent personal gift granted to the Bishop of Rome is the charism of papal primacy. Primacy indicates the Catholic belief that the Bishop of Rome has supreme authority over the universal church, exercised in his own right but in concert with his fellow bishops and in agreement with church practice. Papal primacy insures the unity of the Christian faithful throughout the world. Just as papal infallibility is the guardian of church orthodoxy, so also papal primacy is the guarantor of church unity.

Unlike other bishops of the church who have immediate jurisdiction only in their own dioceses, the doctrine of papal primacy upholds the divine authority of the bishop of Rome to rule over the entire church. This universal jurisdiction means that all believers are obliged to submit to papal authority for the sake of their salvation. The pope exercises this responsibility ordinarily and immediately. It is not granted to him by his fellow bishops nor by the body of the faithful. The pope is a delegate for no one but Christ. This Sunday’s Gospel features the words from St. John most associated with the charism of primacy: “… Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?’ Simon Peter answered him, ‘Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ He then said to Simon Peter a second time, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ Simon Peter answered him, ‘Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ Jesus said to him the third time, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ Peter was distressed that Jesus had said to him a third time, ‘Do you love me?’ and he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep.’” Christ himself conferred this lofty responsibility for church unity on St. Peter and his successors.