The SSPX is not infrequently accused of being against the pope. The usual arguments are of this level of theological sophistication: “You mustn’t exaggerate!” or “We have a wonderful pope!” or “Who are you to judge?” (which is to say, Who are you to use your minds?) Sometimes they’ll add an amazingly ingenuous “This pope has the faith!”—which is, we have to say, an extremely minimalist qualification for this office in the Church! The boldest thinkers would end the debate by a solemn renunciation of truth: “I’d rather be wrong with the pope,” thereby succeeding in contradicting St. Paul himself: “But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach a gospel to you besides that which we have preached to you, let him be anathema” (Gal. 1:8).
Defense of the papacy does not lie in huddling round the TV screen to receive a blessing urbi et orbi, nor in globe-trotting to participate in World Youth Days. The simple Christians of old did much more for Christendom than those who get enthused over the Wednesday audiences.
By a mysterious design of divine Providence, it is not always those one would expect who are on the front line. If there is one point of doctrine that has undergone the greatest challenge in its history over the last fifty years and that the SSPX defends, it is the pontifical mission of Peter, the role and power of the Supreme Pontiff, which is of divine constitution.
The Mission of the Pope
The classical teaching about the Pope’s mission seems to be obvious, so often has it been reiterated throughout the history of the Church.1 There are two perfectly distinct powers in the Church, and therefore two elements constituting the hierarchy. They are mutually supportive and complementary:
1. The power of sanctifying souls. This power is conferred by the sacrament of Holy Orders. It comprises numerous degrees, the highest of which are the episcopacy and the priesthood. It is conferred by a sacrament; thus it is our Lord Jesus Christ who acts in the soul of its recipients and renders them immediately apt to fulfill their function. The essential act of this role is the power to consecrate the Eucharist, power over the body and blood of the Savior Himself. The effects, according to the Council of Trent, are “the power of consecrating, of offering and administering His body and blood, and also of forgiving and retaining sins...”2
2. The power of governing and teaching. This power is called jurisdiction. The Church possesses the power to make laws and guide its members. Likewise for teaching, authority over its subject is needful. The Code of Canon Law describes it this way: “Of divine institution, the sacred hierarchy, as founded on the power of order, is composed of bishops, priests, and ministers; as founded on the power of jurisdiction, it comprises the supreme pontificate and the subordinate episcopacy; of ecclesiastical institution, other degrees have been added.”3 By its very nature, the power of jurisdiction does not devolve from the power of order, even though generally the two are joined together, and for the bishop, the Church intends to unite them.4 But a bishop can begin to govern his diocese once he has been appointed, even before the episcopal consecration takes place.
These two powers are of a very different nature: one is a sacrament and is derived from the power over the physical body of Christ; the other is moral and organizes the Mystical Body of Christ. The one is transmitted by consecration, which is a physical cause; the other is by mandate, which is a moral cause. The one can absolutely never disappear; the other can be withdrawn. But the two are joined together in the same person, for one power exists for the sake of the other—the power of jurisdiction is in view of the power of order. For all things must concur in the sanctification of souls by the direct operation of Jesus Christ.
Supreme Power of Jurisdiction
The longstanding received doctrine also teaches us that the Lord, who is head of the Church, communicates His power of governing directly to the pope once he accepts the mandate to which he has been elected. It is the pope who transmits it to the Church in different ways according to norms of law and custom. “And upon Peter alone Jesus after His resurrection conferred the jurisdiction of the highest pastor and rector over His entire fold,” the First Vatican Council teaches us.5
A Novel Teaching
In 1961 a book came out, co-published by Karl Rahner and Joseph Ratzinger: Episkopat und Primat. The two authors set forth the thesis that supreme power in the Church is held by the “episcopal college.” The pope would merely act, then, as its representative. Even if the logical connection is not apparent, the thesis argues that Christ did not want to lose governance over the Church. But such would be the case were He to entrust it to Peter! Overlooking any possibility of delegation or instrumentality, they assert that in the opposite case, the Church would be bicephalous. Therefore Jesus communicated His power to “all the Apostles collegially” with presidency given to Peter.
The Conclusions of Vatican II
The Second Vatican Council, enlightened by the new theologians, held to a mid course that set the stage for many a set-back. The conciliar Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, declares that “episcopal consecration, together with the office of sanctifying, also confers the office of teaching and of governing. (These, however, of their very nature, can be exercised only in hierarchical communion with the head and the members of the college.)”6 Every bishop, then, would be invested with both powers upon his episcopal consecration. In effect, it makes him enter into the “college of bishops,” which possesses power along with the pope. Confronted by the full import of such an assertion, a “Prefatory Note” was appended in order to clarify that the power of the episcopal college can only be exercised at the pope’s bidding!
Even if this paragraph aims at hierarchical union, the notion of power of jurisdiction conferred directly by Christ to bishops independently of the pope was to have deleterious consequences....
The Declaration Dominus Jesus
It was not until the year 2000 with the publication of the Declaration Dominus Jesus by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) that an attempt was made to give an official explication of the meaning of the affirmation made by Vatican II that “...the unique Church of Christ...subsists in the Catholic Church....”7 The obvious meaning of this text gives scandal since it leads one to believe that there exist other forms of the Church of Christ.
The document informs us:
“16. ...This Church, constituted and organized as a society in the present world, subsists in [subsistit in] the Catholic Church, governed by the Successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him” [Lumen Gentium, 8]. With the expression subsistit in, the Second Vatican Council sought to harmonize two doctrinal statements: on the one hand, that the Church of Christ, despite the divisions which exist among Christians, continues to exist fully only in the Catholic Church, and on the other hand, that ‘outside of her structure, many elements can be found of sanctification and truth’ [Ibid.], that is, in those Churches and ecclesial communities which are not yet in full communion with the Catholic Church. But with respect to these, it needs to be stated that ‘they derive their efficacy from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Catholic Church’ [Unitatis Redintegratio, 3].
“17. Therefore, there exists a single Church of Christ, which subsists in the Catholic Church, governed by the Successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him [CDF, Declaration Mysterium Ecclesiae, 1]. The Churches which, while not existing in perfect communion with the Catholic Church, remain united to her by means of the closest bonds, that is, by apostolic succession and a valid Eucharist, are true particular Churches [Unitatis Redintegratio, 14 and 15]. Therefore, the Church of Christ is present and operative also in these Churches, even though they lack full communion with the Catholic Church, since they do not accept the Catholic doctrine of the Primacy, which, according to the will of God, the Bishop of Rome objectively has and exercises over the entire Church [Vatican I, Constitution Pastor Aeternus (DS 3053-3064); Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, 22].”
The Church is unique, but in other respects, the document recognizes modes of existence beyond the pope’s power. Required are a valid episcopate and Eucharist. From the standpoint of Vatican II, episcopal consecration suffices to confer the power of governing to a schismatic bishop, as in the Eastern “particular Churches” or in China. By episcopal consecration alone, he becomes a member of the college of bishops, which is the depositary of jurisdiction. Thus there can be multitudes of “sister Churches” which are lacking only one thing, it would seem. Consequently, a constitutive element of things needful for salvation—that is, belonging to the Church under the governance of Peter—becomes optional. It is hard to see why this fact should become necessary only in the Catholic Church.
An Incomplete Church
The last leaf of this new ecclesiology thus opens. This Church will only be complete when all the scattered members of the episcopal college are in communion with one another and with the Sovereign Pontiff. Therefore the Catholic Church is imperfect. She is “one” without possessing the elements that make her “one”! It is not souls in peril of damnation that need the Church, but the Church that needs them in order to attain her fulness.
This is the justification for the ill-considered ecumenism with the Orthodox and the Chinese “Churches”—mental meanderings in which the doctrinal affirmations of the Creed clash with contrary explanations.8 A few authoritative acts of the Supreme Pontiff will never suffice to rectify the theological principle of a two-headed Church, nor check the destructive effects of an ecumenism that concedes an intrinsic power of salvation among the schismatics.
1 Just to mention a few: Pius VI, Super Soliditate, Charitas, Deessemus; Vatican I, Constitution Pastor Aeternus; Leo XIII, Satis Cognitum; Pius XII, Mystici Corporis Christi, Ad Sinarum Gentes.
2 Denzinger, Sources of Catholic Dogma [hereafter, Dz.], 957 (DS 1764).
3 Canon 108, §3.
4 In this domain, John Paul II introduced innovations.
5 Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Christ, Pastor Aeternus, Dz. 1822 (DS 3053).
6 Art. 21, §4.
7 Lumen Gentium, Art. 8, §2.
8 We recommend to the readers the excellent article by Don Mauro Tranquillo in Tradizione Cattolica, No. 2, 2010 (translated and published in the March 2011 issue of The Angelus, available on line at www.angelusonline.org.)