The truth of the Catholic Church, its divinity, its uniqueness, what authorizes us to assert that outside of it there is no salvation, is demonstrated or confirmed by its fundamental characteristics, by the distinctive notes, or marks, that we have been proclaiming since the fourth century in the Nicene Creed: “Credo unam, sanctam, catholicam, et apostolicam Ecclesiam.”
The marks of the Church are visible signs for everyone. Since its foundation, the Church has been one and undivided in its doctrine, sacraments, and government; it is holy, pure, and spotless, never sinful though composed of sinners; it is catholic, that is to say, universal, destined to spread throughout the world the baptism instituted by Christ, sole cause of our salvation; it is apostolic because founded on the uninterrupted succession of its pastors from St. Peter and the Apostles to the present day.1
The Catechism of St. Pius X succinctly states: “The Church of Jesus Christ is the Roman Catholic Church, because it alone is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic as He intended” (Q. 107). And during the Regina Caeli of May 27, 2007, Pope Benedict XVI recalled these marks, and added that the Church also has the essential attribute of being “Roman.”
The one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church is the Roman Church. Yet the quality of being Roman is something more than and different from a mark of the Church: it is the actualization of these marks, their concrete and historical abridgment: in the word Roman is summed up, so to speak, the visible face of the Mystical Body of Christ. That is why people used to speak of the Holy Roman Church, and we ought to continue to do so. The term Roman places the Church in time and space, in a place and an historical context.
But in what way is the Church Roman? And what importance does it have for us today?
Rome: A Word Wrapped Up in Mystery
The name Roman Church associates two different realities. The word Roman evokes an historical reality: a city, a civilization, an empire which had a beginning and an end in time. The word Church summons up a supernatural reality plunged in history but belonging to eternity. The link between the two words is nonetheless intimate and indissoluble. It is an intimate and mysterious relationship established not by men but by Divine Providence.
In a lecture held on February 24, 1936, at the Institute of Roman Studies on the “sacred vocation of Rome,” Eugenio Pacelli, then cardinal, said that Rome is a “mysterious word” and spoke of the “city with its feet in the pagan regions of the Tiber and in the tunnels of the catacombs, and its head raised and hidden in the stars, to bow before the throne of God.”2
Tacitus said of Rome that it was the “caput rerum”;3 Horace called it the “princeps urbium”;4 Tibullus, “aeterna urbs”;5 Livy, “caput orbis terrarum.”6 The city that ruled the world bowed its head before the throne of God and became the seat of the universal Chair of Peter, destined to a spiritual reign. The pagan caput mundi became the Eternal City, the city “onde Cristo è romano—where Christ is Roman,” which Dante evokes in the Divine Comedy.7
How and when did this historical transformation come about?
Some historians and modernist theologians like Auguste Sabatier and Adolf von Harnack attempted to respond to this question. For them, it was because of the prestige of the capital of the Roman Empire that the bishop of Rome became the bishop of all the churches. The primacy of the Roman Pontiff would then be a consequence of the grandeur of the Roman Empire.
The still recurrent modernist thesis originates in the theological debate of the first millennium between the Roman Church and the Greek Church and already appears in Canon 28 of the Council of Chalcedon (451), suppressed by St. Leo the Great. The Oriental Churches recognized the primacy of Rome as an honorific supremacy from the fact that Rome had been the capital of the Roman Empire. With the fall of the Roman Empire in the West and the transfer of the “new Rome” to Constantinople, the primacy also would have passed to the Patriarch of this city.
The condemnation of this thesis was reiterated by St. Pius X in the Decree Lamentabilis annexed to the Encyclical Pascendi (1907). In this document, the pope anathematizes the following proposition: “The Roman Church became the head of all the churches not by the ordinances of divine Providence, but purely by political factors.”8 The error consists in founding the jurisdiction of the Church on a primacy of a political nature. In reality, the choice of Rome as the seat of the Chair of St. Peter did not occur because of the greatness and the authority of ancient Rome, but because Rome was the place where St. Peter, upon whom Christ conferred universal primacy, exercised his ministry. Had St. Peter stayed at Antioch and died there, the Bishops of Antioch would have had the same authority as that now held by the Bishops of Rome. Rome would have been an historic city, the center of a great diocese, but nothing more, and the Catholic Church could not have called itself Roman.
It was by a disposition of divine Providence that Peter chose Rome for his Episcopal see. Here, in the Circus of Nero, he endured martyrdom: beneath the central point of the cupola his burial place was and is to be found. His successors, the popes, have carried on his commission to the present day.
Christian Rome, then, derives its greatness from the martyrdom of Peter and not from the power of the Empire. Then again, the Patriarch of Constantinople, while denying the religious primacy of Rome in the name of the political primacy that the new Rome exercised in the world, introduced the right of the Byzantine Emperor to interfere in ecclesiastical affairs to the point of transforming the Patriarch of Constantinople into a veritable religious pro-consul. From then on, submission of religion to politics came to characterize the entire history of “Orthodoxy.”
Christian Rome and Pagan Rome
A second question then arises: Why did Divine Providence designate Rome, and not some other city, as the place of the ministry and death of the Prince of the Apostles?
Numerous Christian authors have treated of this subject: St. Augustine’s City of God originated from a meditation on this very theme. No one offers as good a synthesis of his thought as a disciple of the Doctor of Hippo, St. Prosper of Aquitaine (ca. 390-463): “We believe that Divine Providence predisposed the Roman Empire in its extension so that the nations that would be called to the unity of the Body of Christ would have first been united by the law of a sole Empire, even if the grace of God is not limited to the borders of Rome.”
The grace of God extends well beyond the frontiers of the Roman Empire because the commandment of Jesus Christ is to preach the gospel to all nations from one end of the earth to the other (Mk. 29:19). But since grace presupposes nature, God predisposed a natural framework propitious for the propagation and reception of His Word. This historical and legal framework was the Roman Empire.
Rome appeared in the Mediterranean basin as the city destined to unify the world to prepare it for the diffusion of Christianity. The great consular roads over which the Roman Legions marched opened the way for the preachers of the gospel; the Latin language became the universal and sacred language of the Church; Roman law served as the juridical basis for the canon law of the Church and the common law of the West. And yet Rome, the cradle and the fatherland of universal law, became guilty of the greatest injustice in history: the trial and condemnation of Jesus Christ. After condemning Jesus to death, the Roman Empire, which had accepted into the Pantheon all the religions of the earth, refused the Truth of the gospel and persecuted the nascent Church in a way it had never before treated the numerous sects that thronged there. This is what sealed its doom. The cause of the decadence and fall of the Roman Empire does not lie in Christianity, as many historians even now still assert, but in its rejection of the word of Truth and Life that Christianity announced.
The history of the Church at its beginning can be looked at as the struggle between two Romes: pagan Rome, which sought to destroy Christianity, and Christian Rome, which vanquished the greatest political and military power history had every known with the arms of truth and charity alone. No other empire equaled the splendor of the Roman Empire. It seemed created to last for millennia, even if it was also subject to the laws of time and history. Of pagan Rome today there remain only ruins. That is the law of all things human and terrestrial: the great successes and worldly triumphs are followed in even more rapid succession by decadence, disaggregation, and death. Pius XII reminded us of this when he said: “Whenever we pass by the monuments of our Christian past, however ancient they may be, we always feel something immortal: the faith they announce still lives, indefinitely multiplied by the number of those who profess it; the Church to which they belong still lives, ever the same through the centuries.”9
To Emperor Constantine in the fourth century belongs the merit of having reconciled Rome with Christianity, of being the Father of an era that was to absorb the cultural and institutional heritage of Rome, grafting onto it the spirit and law of the gospel and offering humanity a bond, not only external, as had been imposed by the lex romana, but also interior and spiritual.
The same Constantine, by transferring the capital of the Empire to the shores of the Bosporus nonetheless compromised the unity, even geographical, between Rome and the Christianity he had authorized in 313 by the Edict of Milan. Yet even in this, Constantine was unconsciously the instrument of Divine Providence. There was not room in Rome for two Empires: a Christian empire and a terrestrial Empire. If the Roman Empire had not fallen, nascent Christianity would have been crushed. The Holy Roman Empire was inaugurated by the coronation of Charlemagne at Rome on Christmas night in the year 800 by Pope St. Leo III, but the emperors never resided at Rome, which remained the holy city reserved for the Chair of St. Peter.
St. Leo the Great (440-461) played the leading role in the Romanization of Christianity that developed in the fifth century while the Western Roman Empire was collapsing. He made a statement like that of St. Prosper of Aquitaine, whose contemporary and friend he was: “God took care that the peoples were united in a single Empire of which Rome was the head in order that from her the light of Truth, revealed for the salvation of the nations, might be more effectively diffused in all of its members.”
Leo was the great protagonist of his century, the fifth century, which saw the definitive fall of the Roman Empire. No one had as he did the full awareness of the inexorable decline of Rome, but also of the rise of a new Rome whose empire would be much more vast and glorious than the former. During the course of the long centuries of anarchy between the fall of the Roman Empire and the birth of the Holy Roman Empire in a Europe overrun by the barbarians and torn by internal conflicts, only the papacy remained standing in all its majesty. Society was then a seething magma in which there was no longer anything stable or permanent. In this crucible the Apostolic See was consolidated as the homogeneous center of government and jurisdiction, but also as the focal point of a nascent civilization.
In the question of the Summa Theologica dedicated to the birth of Christ, St. Thomas asks why the Saviour was born at Bethlehem and not at Rome. And here is what the Angelic Doctor replies:
“According to a sermon in the Council of Ephesus [P. iii, cap. ix]: ‘If He had chosen the great city of Rome, the change in the world would be ascribed to the influence of her citizens. If He had been the son of the Emperor, His benefits would have been attributed to the latter’s power. But that we might acknowledge the work of God in the transformation of the whole earth, He chose a poor mother and a birthplace poorer still.’
“ ‘But the weak things of the world hath God chosen, that He may confound the strong’ (1 Cor. 1:27). And therefore, in order the more to show His power, He set up the head of His Church in Rome itself, which was the head of the world, in sign of His complete victory, in order that from that city the faith might spread throughout the world; according to Isaias 26:5-6: ‘The high city He shall lay low...the feet of the poor,’ i.e. of Christ, ‘shall tread it down; the steps of the needy,’ i.e. of the apostles Peter and Paul.”10
In light of this we can understand how St. Catherine of Siena, Patroness of Italy, writing to Pope Gregory XI to urge him to return to Rome as to his rightful see, ardently affirmed: “Think that this land is the garden of the blessed Christ and the source [principe]of our faith.”11 “Here is to be found the head and source [principe] of our faith.”12
The Roman Primacy
Rome had exercised its political hegemony over the world; the Roman Pontiff extended the law of the gospel over the world. The Church’s power of jurisdiction which replaced that of pagan Rome was expressed from the early centuries in the doctrine of the Roman primacy.
Catholic doctrine on the primacy of Peter and the jurisdiction of the Roman Pontiff, expounded already by St. Clement, the third pope, at the end of the first century,13 was defined in the Second Council of Lyons in 1274,14 at the Council of Florence in 1439,15 in the Professio fidei Tridentina,16 and, to finish, was solemnly affirmed by the First Vatican Council in the Dogmatic Constitution Pastor Aeternus (July 18, 1870).
When one speaks about the First Vatican Council, generally the only thing being referred to is the dogma of papal infallibility. In point of fact, Pastor Aeternus first establishes that the primacy of the pope consists not only in honorary pre-eminence over the other bishops and faithful, but in a veritable supreme power of jurisdiction, independent of any other power, over all the pastors and over the whole flock.
In Pastor Aeternus of Vatican I, Chapter 3, the definition of the Council of Florence (Sept. 4, 1439) was solemnly renewed, by which all Christians must believe “ ‘that the Apostolic See and the Roman Pontiff hold primacy over the whole world, and that the Pontiff of Rome himself is the successor of the blessed Peter, the chief of the apostles, and is the true vicar of Christ and head of the whole Church and faith, and teacher of all Christians; and that to him was handed down in blessed Peter, by our Lord Jesus Christ, full power to feed, rule, and guide the universal Church, just as is also contained in the records of the ecumenical Councils and in the sacred canons.’ ”17
The foundation of papal sovereignty does not consist, then, in the charisma of infallibility conferred by Christ on Peter alone as head of the Church and to the Apostolic College united to Peter; but it consists in the apostolic primacy the pope possesses over the universal Church as the successor of Peter and prince of the Apostles. This primacy comprises also the power of teaching as it was defined by the fourth Council of Constantinople,18 by the Council of Florence, 19 and then by the First Vatican Council.20
The pope is not infallible in the exercise of his power of government: the disciplinary laws of the Church, unlike divine and natural laws, can change. Papal infallibility has a single object, faith and morals, that can only be exercised according to determined conditions. But the monarchical and hierarchical constitution of the Church which confides plenary sovereignty to the Roman Pontiff is of divine faith and thus guaranteed by the seal of infallibility.
1 See for example P. Hermann Dieckmann, S.J., De Ecclesia (Freiburg: Herder, 1925), I, 497-538; Michael Schmaus, La Chiesa, tr. It. Marietti (Casale Monferrato, 1963), pp. 472-556; Adriano Garuti, Il mistero della Chiesa: Manuale de ecclesiologia (Rome: Edizioni Antonianum, 2004), pp. 135-157.
2 Eugenio Pacelli, Discourse of February 24, 1936, in Discorsi e Panegirici (Milan: Vita e Pensiero, 1939), pp. 510, 509-14.
3 Tacitus, Hist., 2, 32.
4 Orazio, Od., 4, 3, 13.
5 Tibullus, Carm., 2, 5, 29.
6 Titus Livius, Ab urbe condita, 1, n. 16.
7 Dante, Purgatorio, 32, 102.
8 “Ecclesia romana non ex divinae providentiae ordinatione, sed ex mere politicis condicionibus caput omnium Ecclesiarum effecta est.” Lamentabili, Prop. 56, Dz. 2056.
9 Pius XII, Discorsi e Radiomessaggi (Rome: Tip. Poliglotta Vaticana, 1950), Vol. X, p. 357.
10 Summa Theologica, III, Q. 35, Art. 7 ad 3.
11 St. Catherine of Siena, Letter 347 to Count Alberico da Balbiano, ivi, p. 169 (pp. 165-169).
12 St. Catherine of Siena, Letter 370 to Urban VI, ivi, p. 272 (pp. 270-273).
13 St. Clement of Rome, Ai Corinti, cap. 5 & 6 in PG, 1, coll. 217-221.
14 DS 363-365
15 DS 1307.
16 DS 999
17 DS 3059, 3073; Dz. 1826, 1839.
18 DS 363-365.
19 DS 1307.
20 DS 3065.