Papacy in Modern Minds
by Fr. Daniel Themann, SSPX
“All of the multitude are holy ones, and the Lord is among them. Why do you lift yourselves up above the people of the Lord?” (Num. 16:3).
So spoke certain men of the Old Testament who claimed to worship the one true God but, being of a too democratic turn of mind, refused submission to the religious authority which that same God had placed over them to rule in His name. The tragic truth is that men, infected with original sin, will always be liberals at heart. That primordial pride which chafed under God’s single command in the Garden of Paradise, will remain the inheritance of a fallen race until the last man is born. Only with reluctance will man bow his neck before God, and with still far greater reluctance will he submit to other men, sinners like himself, when God places some in authority over others.
History has seen countless religious rebels who follow the example of Core in his rebellion against Moses and Aaron. Be they Protestant or Neo-Modernist, they echo the protest quoted above and do not profit from the example which God saw fit to give men on this occasion:
“The earth broke asunder under their feet … And they went down alive into hell the ground closing upon them, and they perished from among the people” (Numbers 16:31-33).
Human Religious Authority
God, the author of human nature, never fails to respect His own craftsmanship. However lofty and supernatural might be His plans, He insists upon their complete harmony with that nature He created. Men might forget that they are men, but God never does. He has made them naturally social, that is, dependent upon other men for their very birth and the guidance of their first tottering steps. He has made them rich in potential but dependent—upon the family, the school, the town, the nation—for the realization of all the intellectual, physical, and moral perfection which lies hidden in the possibilities of the human soul.
So too, in the achievement of that greatest destiny to which men are called; namely, to “be made partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4), God wills that men be perfected within a social context. Therefore, before ascending to His heavenly glory, Our Lord founded, together with the “new testament” in His Blood, a new Israel—the Catholic Church. This new religious society, the fulfillment of the former figure, was founded upon 12 new patriarchs (12 apostles) and 72 new elders (72 disciples). Those who would follow the God-Man must henceforth live in dependence upon those chosen by Him and invested with His own power to teach, to sanctify, and to rule “the church of God, which He has purchased with His own Blood” (Acts 20:28). Nothing could be more consistent with the true state of human nature—nothing so foreign to the false autonomy preferred by fallen nature.
Vicarious and Monarchical
Our Lord, by a stroke of divine genius, established both a visible religious society (as human nature demands) and a visible religious authority (as the nature of a society demands)—without relinquishing His headship over His Mystical Body. Those He left behind, the bishops of the Church, are His vicars and ambassadors who are authorized to act in His name (2 Corinthians 5:20). The dependence of men upon the Church, therefore, is in no way opposed to their ultimate dependence upon Christ Himself. As St. Basil, in the fourth century, so well expressed it: “When Jesus distributes positions of authority, He does not impoverish Himself, but keeps the very things He bestows. He is a priest, and He makes other priests; He is the Rock and makes another the rock, and so He gives to His servants what He Himself has” (Homily 29). St. Basil might also have said, “God is the Shepherd of His people, and He makes others to also be shepherds,” since God often refers to Himself as the Shepherd (Psalm 94:7, John 10:11) while also designating men to be the visible rulers of His flock (Ezekiel 34, 1 Peter 5:2-4).
But to one especially, to St. Peter, was assigned this task of “feeding the sheep” of Christ (John 21:15-17). One man alone, according to Scripture’s cherished custom, was given both a new name and a new mission—to be the foundation stone of God’s household (John 1:42, Matthew 16:18-19). To one man alone may the term “vicar of Christ” be most properly applied since to him alone were given “the keys to the kingdom of heaven.” Therefore, by divine decree, the constitution of the Church is similar to an earthly monarchy. To one shepherd is given that fullness of earthly authority which the Good Shepherd delegated to His Church. As the decree Pastor Aeternus of Vatican I puts it: “To Peter alone, in preference to the other apostles, whether individually or all together, was confided the true and proper primacy of jurisdiction by Christ” (Dz. 1822).
But it should be noted that Christ, the invisible Head of the Church, did not delegate all of His own authority. The pope is Christ’s vicar, not His successor. Jesus Christ alone is the founder of His Church, and He alone defines its mission and the means by which this mission is fulfilled. These means—the truths of faith, the sacraments, etc.—are given into the pope’s hands as a sacred trust to be used by him in guarding and feeding the flock.
The beginning of what historians call the “modern age” coincided with the beginning of Protestantism. This new, counterfeit Christianity represented a certain “institutionalization” of the rebellious tendencies of original sin—perhaps the first such institution which the Western world had seen since the coming of Christ. Luther and his new breed of believers professed a horizontal, rather than hierarchical, form of Christianity wherein each believer became an autonomous interpreter of God’s word. The authority and infallibility which they indignantly denied to Christ’s vicar, they unhesitatingly accorded to each and every man. A church of one needs no shepherd.
But human nature refused to be wholly ignored. Although, in theory, Protestantism stripped religion of its social aspect, in practice, men could not do without it. Congregations under the headship of clergymen, seminaries, and official versions of scripture, hymnals, and liturgical books—in short, most of the trappings of hierarchical papism—gradually arose within non-Catholic circles. Over the succeeding centuries, despite the growing entrenchment of Luther’s anti-authority revolution both in secular and religious thought, some tension inevitably persisted between the thirst for independence and the necessity of dependence. The result was often an uneasy truce. Where hierarchy could not be completely abolished, at least it must be subjected to democratic influence.
With Vatican II and the opening of the Catholic Church to “modern values,” this truce has been forced upon the very constitution of the Church. In this new venue, the revolution goes by the fraternal sounding name collegiality, one of the three now classic errors of the Second Vatican Council. Difficult to define precisely, its broad outlines are, nevertheless, easily discernible. Supreme authority in the Church must no longer be considered as the prerogative of one man. Rather, the pope shares his authority with his brother bishops in such a way that supreme authority belongs to the college of bishops to be exercised by them as a body. The Church must govern herself more democratically and pursue consensus among the shepherds—indeed, even among the sheep—before taking a decision in matters of faith, morals, and discipline.
This Neo-Modernist theory owes much of its success to certain passages from Lumen Gentium, Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church. Although the document as a whole expresses itself equivocally on the question of the supreme authority in the Church, paragraph 22, nonetheless, contains the following erroneous statement: “The order of bishops, which succeeds to the college of apostles and gives this apostolic body continued existence, is also the subject of supreme and full power over the universal Church, provided we understand this body together with its head the Roman Pontiff and never without this head.”
Protestants had maintained for centuries that Peter held no primacy of authority over the other apostles, but a primacy of honor only. This is easily disproved both by examples within Scripture where Peter is seen exercising his authority (Acts 1:15 ff., Acts 2:14 ff., Acts 5:29 ff., Acts 15:7 ff.) as well as from numerous testimonies of the Church Fathers. Collegiality, however, is a more sophisticated error. It begins with the truth that Peter is equal to the other apostles insofar as he was chosen to be an apostle. It ends by ignoring the fact that Peter’s role changed between the Resurrection and the Ascension. Obviously, Christ had no need of a vicar so long as He walked the earth and was visibly present to His Church. It was only just before His ascent to heaven that Christ gave to Peter his unique role as chief shepherd (John 21:15-17) and fulfilled the promise to make of Peter that foundation stone which his new name implied.
The Faith of All Time
Without question, Peter’s primacy of authority was not associated with the episcopal see of Rome from the beginning—since this see had not yet been founded. Rather, the primacy became associated with this city—the capital of the known world—by the authoritative choice of St. Peter himself. What place more fitting could be found for the capital of the universal kingdom of God upon earth? No doubt faithful to the inspiration of grace in his choice, St. Peter completed the divine institution of the primacy by designating the mode of that perpetual transmission which had been instituted by Christ. As taught by numerous theologians (e.g. Bellarmine, Billot, Suarez, Palmieri), supreme authority in the Church belongs to the bishop of Rome by divine right, which is identical to an apostolic right since an apostle is the immediate legate of Christ.
St. Jerome summarizes well the faith of the early Church—and the faith of all time—when he states in his letter to Pope St. Damasus: “I speak to the successor of the fisherman and to the disciple of the cross. Following no chief but Christ, I am united in communion with your Holiness, that is, with the chair of Peter. I know that on that rock is built the Church.” The mission of this Church is to repair, one generation at a time, the miserable consequences of man’s first fall. But human nature cannot be restored by ignoring it. Men must be social and dependent upon earth if they would arrive to the joyful fellowship of the wedding feast of the Lamb—and enjoy the company of the saints and glorify the merciful wisdom of God forever.