The modern papacy and its claims to universal, ordinary jurisdiction and to infallible teaching authority constitute a major alternative to the understanding of authority in the Church as understood within the Anglican tradition. Before presenting an Anglican interpretation of the papacy, a correct understanding of what papal claims are and are not is needed.
The word “Pope” comes from “papa,” Greek papas, meaning “father.” Not until Pope Gregory VII in 1073 was use of the title “Pope” formally restricted to the Bishop of Rome, but already in 998 the Archbishop of Milan was rebuked for using the title. However, in the ancient Church, and to this day in the Eastern Churches, the title is more widely used. In particular the Coptic Patriarch of Alexandria is commonly styled Pope, as in Pope Shenouda III. Likewise, the honorific “Holiness,” also restricted to the Bishop of Rome in the West, is used by all Eastern Orthodox patriarchs, with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople known as “His All-Holiness.”
The modern Bishops of Rome claim the following titles:
Bishop of Rome, Metropolitan and Archbishop of the Roman Province, Primate of Italy, Patriarch of the West, Sovereign of the State of Vatican City, Vicar of Jesus Christ, the Successor of Saint Peter, Prince of the Apostles, the Supreme Pontiff who has the primacy of jurisdiction and not merely of honor over the universal Church, and Servant of the Servants of God.
Claims for the Petrine or papal office only reached their full modern extent during the First Vatican Council (1869-1870), which defined as doctrines for Roman Catholics the ideas of universal, immediate, and ordinary jurisdiction and infallibility. These ideas were believed by many Roman Catholics well before Vatican I, but were doubted by others. Many Roman Catholic authorities and writers before 1870 can be cited who rejected papal infallibility. These writers include Jacques Bénigne Bossuet (1627-1704) and the Gallican Churchmen of the 17th century in general. A pastoral letter of the Roman Catholic bishops of Ireland in 1826 asserted that:
It is not an article of the Catholic Faith, nor are we thereby required to believe, that the Pope is infallible.
Editions of the popular Keenan’s catechism prior to Vatican I referred to papal infallibility as
…a protestant invention, and it is no article of the Catholic Faith. No decision of his can oblige under pain of heresy, unless it be received by the teaching body – that is by the Bishops of the Church.
The point of these quotations is merely to show that acceptance of the doctrine of papal infallibility was not universal or absolutely necessary as a matter of faith among Roman Catholics before the late 19th century.
“Universal, immediate, and ordinary jurisdiction” means that the Bishop of Rome, as the bishop of bishops who is responsible for the welfare of the whole Church, claims authority and jurisdiction in every diocese of the world just as if he were the bishop ordinary of that diocese. The authority claimed by the Pope over all dioceses, therefore, is not mediated necessarily through other, subordinate bishops, but may be exercised everywhere directly and immediately.
The claim to infallible teaching authority is much more circumscribed. Vatican I declared, and Vatican II (1962-1965) confirmed, that the Pope, when speaking as the head of the Universal Church on a matter of faith or morals, is infallible when he declares that a doctrine is a part of the deposit of divine revelation handed down from Apostolic tradition. The same infallible authority is claimed for the body of Roman Catholic bishops as a whole, but only if they teach in union with the Pope. The whole Church also is thought to be “infallible” in a sense: that is, over time God will ensure that the sensus fidelium, the sense or consensus of the faithful, remains sound and true. But this general sense of the faithful is practically less important when teaching authority is in question, since the point of papal or episcopal infallibility is to guide the faithful and to help define what in fact the faithful do and should believe. The authority of the sensus fidelium really is just a way of saying that over time the Church as a whole will be kept in truth by God.
The claim to papal infallibility is carefully limited. It does not mean that everything said by the Pope is thought to be infallible. To be infallibly defined a teaching must be taught by the Pope, not as a private individual or even as a theologian or interpreter of the Faith, but rather ex cathedra, that is “from the Chair” of the Pope acting as Pastor and Doctor of all Christians, and by virtue of his supreme Apostolic authority. Furthermore, the Pope so speaking must define the doctrine in question as a teaching for the whole Church. Likewise, the teaching in question cannot involve any matter whatsoever, but only a matter of doctrine concerning faith or morals. The only doctrine defined in this manner since Vatican I is the Assumption of Mary (1950), though in retrospect infallible authority is claimed for the definition of the Immaculate Conception of Mary (1854) before Vatican I.
In addition, however, to this claim of infallible authority, often called the “extraordinary magisterium” or teaching authority, Roman Catholics believe in the ‘ordinary magisterium’ of the papacy. That is to say, the Pope teaches many matters in his encyclicals and other documents and speeches which have authority for Roman Catholics. For instance, the condemnation of contraception by artificial means voiced by many Popes, including particularly Paul VI in Humanae Vitae, has not been explicitly taught with an invocation of infallible authority. Nevertheless, this condemnation is authoritative. The exact status and the binding character of the authority of such ordinary teachings, however, is debated by Roman Catholic theologians. All Roman Catholic theologians would agree that when a teaching is frequently repeated and is longstanding, it has a very great authority for Roman Catholics. Some Roman Catholic theologians argue that with sufficient repetition even teachings that make no direct invocation of infallibility nevertheless become virtually as authoritative as those with such invocation. Other theologians, however, would argue that it is permissible to dissent from such opinions and remain a good Roman Catholic. Pope John Paul II narrowed the possibility for such dissent, but this question remains somewhat unsettled among Roman Catholics.
Roman Catholics do not claim that the Pope is necessarily a holy or even a good man. Roman Catholics are perfectly willing to admit that, for instance, many Popes were wicked and even personally held to gravely erroneous religious views. A Roman Catholic such as Dante is quite willing to picture for his readers many Popes burning in hell. The Roman claim is not that the Pope is necessarily good, but rather that a divine inspiration will prevent him, no matter what his private viciousness or errors might be, from formally teaching a fundamental doctrinal error to the whole Church. The Holy Spirit, Roman Catholics believe, will preserve the Church in truth through the Pope, and will do so despite the private opinions and character of the Pope if necessary.
Finally, Anglicans should recognize that Roman Catholics sincerely view the papal office as a gift from God for the benefit of the whole Church. Non-Roman Catholics sometimes look upon the papacy with suspicion as a kind of ecclesiastical power-grab. While at times such suspicion may have been justified, the Popes of our century have been men of great personal austerity and sanctity. Whatever one thinks of the papal claims, in the long run Christian unity requires that non- Romans assess the papacy as generously as possible and try to accommodate its claims as much as conscience will allow.
An Anglican Understanding of the Papacy and Papal Claims Anglican understanding of the papacy and its claims ultimately rests on the authority of the Fathers of the Church and the nature of the office of bishop. Since Roman Catholics share respect for the Fathers and share the episcopal office, dialogue on this issue should in principle be possible.
Of the titles and authority of the Popes, Anglicans need have no problem granting that the Pope is the Bishop of Rome, the Metropolitan of the Roman Province, the Primate of Italy, or the Patriarch of the West. The Ecumenical Councils and Holy Tradition give the Bishop of Rome primacy as the first bishop of the Christian world. A primacy of honor and respect certainly is due the Pope. Anglicans also need not object to the idea of the Pope is the ‘Vicar of Christ’. After all, every Christian in a sense is a ‘vicar’ or representative of Christ for the world, and bishops in general, and the first bishop of the Christian world in particular, are Christ’s vicars in a special sense.
Likewise Anglicans can grant that Saint Peter was the first or prince of the Apostles and that the Pope is his successor as Bishop of Rome. Peter was, it is generally agreed, first bishop of Rome, and those who believe in the Apostolic Succession can grant that the authority of the founder of a see or Church extends in some measure to his successors. However, Peter also was, according to the same ancient traditions, the first bishop of Antioch. One of the first great expanders of papal authority and power, Saint Gregory the Great (Pope Gregory I, died 604), in letters to the patriarchs of Antioch and Alexandria, says that he shares the Petrine office with them both, since Peter also was first bishop of Antioch and sent SaintMark to found the Church in Alexandria (see Book V, Epistle 39, Book VI, Epistle 60, and especially Book VII, Epistle 40). So whatever the Petrine office properly is, Gregory the Great was willing to see it as something shared. Anglicans might consider this idea of a shared Petrine office as a starting point for future ecumenical dialogue on the subject of papal claims.
However, Vatican Councils I and II explicitly say that papal authority may be exercised apart from any and all other bishops. This raises the first great Anglican concern. Anglicans need not object to the idea of the Pope leading the Church or articulating the mind of the Church and the will of God in a unique way. However, the idea that the Pope can act entirely alone, even apart from the bishops of Antioch and Alexandria and the other great sees, seems dangerous to Anglicans. The part is not greater than the whole. The sense of the Church and the mind of God primordially inhere in the whole Church and all of her bishops, and the bishops as a body therefore should carry ultimate authority.
Furthermore, the idea that the papacy possesses immediate, universal, ordinary jurisdiction seems contrary to the authority of other bishops. The idea of appeal to Rome against a lawless bishop is not objectionable. But the idea that the Pope has, not only the authority to help correct abuses, but also ordinary and immediate jurisdiction everywhere, seems to reduce other bishops to the level of administrative assistants to the one true bishop. In short, papal jurisdictional claims are contrary to the proper authority of other bishops. What Gregory the Great writes against excessive claims by Constantinople may equally be applied to the modern papal claims:
[T]his name of Universality was offered by the holy synod of Chalcedon to the pontiff of the Apostolic See which by the providence of God I serve. But no one of my predecessors has ever consented to use this so profane a title; since, indeed, if one patriarch is called Universal, the name of patriarch in the case of the rest is derogated. But far be this, far be it from the mind of a Christian… .For if this expression is suffered to be allowably used, the honor of all patriarchs is denied.. .a diabolical usurpation…. (Book V, Epistle 43)
Gregory here and elsewhere (see, e.g., Book VIII, Epistle 30) rejects a title claimed by the modern papacy, and denies that any of his predecessors ever claimed such a title. It would seem, then, that the Pope should only have immediate, ordinary jurisdiction within his own diocese of Rome and that any authority claimed by him over other dioceses should be mediated and limited by the proper authority of other bishops.
Eric Mascall presents a systematic theological argument against modern papal claims. Mascall argues that everything essential for the life of the Church is given through a sacrament. Now the unity of the Church is an essential mark of the Church, which is ‘One’ as well as ‘Holy Catholic and Apostolic’ (Nicene Creed). It follows that the organ of the Church’s unity must be conveyed through a sacrament. But the papal office is not conveyed through a sacrament. The Pope is usually already a bishop. The Pope becomes Pope through election by the papal electors (called cardinals) and by enthronement as Bishop of Rome. It would seem, therefore, that the organ of the Church’s unity is the office of bishop, not the office of Pope. Episcopacy is conveyed through a sacrament, namely ordination. The office of bishop and the communion of the bishops with one another is more basic than any particular bishopric. So, again, while the Bishop of Rome might properly have a role in leading the bishops, he is not properly the ‘bishop of bishops’ in a sense that would allow him to act apart from the rest of the Church and the episcopacy.
In particular, a General Church Council, representing the whole Church, properly is superior to the Pope or to any other individual bishop. And in fact the Ecumenical Councils of the undivided ancient Church felt free to censure Popes, living and dead. The name of Pope Vigilius, for instance, was erased from the diptychs by the Fifth Ecumenical Council in 553, for his support of certain condemned writings, until he accepted the Council’s teaching. Pope Honorius (died 638) was posthumously anathematized by the Sixth Ecumenical Council in 680 – and by subsequent Popes – as a Monothelite heretic. Much later, during the time of the Great Schism (1378-1417) when there were two and even three plausible claimants to the papacy, only a council held to be ecumenical by Roman Catholics was able to resolve the problem and dispose of the claims of the various supposed Popes.
On the matter of infallibility it is an historical fact that individual Popes sometimes were either slow to accept developments of doctrine or held positions that were eventually judged heretical. Aside from the examples just cited, one might note that the Bishops of Rome were slow to develop beyond Monarchianism in Trinitarian doctrine; that Pope Liberius (reigned from 352-366) at one point signed an Arian formula, albeit under imperial compulsion; and that Pope Damasus acquitted Pelagius of heresy and only reversed himself under compulsion. If one begins by assuming that the Pope cannot err when teaching as the teacher of the Universal Church on a doctrinal matter, these cases become virtually impossible to explain without circular argument. A Roman Catholic is reduced to saying that since the Pope in question held an erroneous position, he must necessarily not have been teaching at the time in his papal office but only as a private individual. But this begs the question. There is no internal distinction between, say, the Monothelite writings of Honorius and the orthodox Tome of Saint Leo the Great. Failing such internal distinction it seems to be impossible to know before-hand or at the time if a given papal writing is or will be sound or not. In that case how is ordinary papal teaching of special value in preserving the Church in truth or in guiding the faithful?
If the private or ordinary teaching of the Pope can be wrong, the chief advantage to the papal claims in the matter of teaching would seem to lie in the extraordinary magisterium, when a modern Pope explicitly claims to teach infallibly for the whole Church in a matter of faith or morals. However, this magisterium is used very rarely. When it has been used, as in the definition of papal infallibility itself by Vatican I and Pius IX and of the Assumption in 1950, its product seems questionable: neither Anglicans nor the Eastern Orthodox accept either of these doctrines in their Roman form; neither of them can be directly supported from Scripture; and both of them in fact are innovations in doctrine.
It is true that the church and Bishop of Rome usually were orthodox in the disputes of the ancient Church. Because of Rome’s generally good record as a bastion of orthodox teaching, and because of the prestige of the Bishop of Rome as successor of both Peter and Paul, the papacy became a court of appeal in the theological controversies of the ancient Church. There are many texts from the Fathers that support Roman primacy and the need to maintain unity with the Apostolic tradition represented by Peter and Paul and generally maintained by their Roman successors. But these facts are well and sufficiently accounted for by an Anglican understanding of the proper authority of the Roman bishop as the first bishop of the Christian world, the successor of Peter (though not to the exclusion of Antioch, Alexandria, and the whole episcopate), and an organ through which the universal Church ordinarily, though not invariably or without instances of error, articulates its teaching. But neither Scripture nor the Fathers support modern papal claims to infallible teaching authority even apart from the rest of the Church or the other bishops, to superiority of papacy over Ecumenical Councils, or to universal, ordinary, immediate jurisdiction.
On these points the Anglican (and Eastern Orthodox) understanding of the papacy is closer to Scripture and Tradition. The modern Roman Catholic position requires a belief in the development of doctrine of a sort rejected by Anglicans. Again the Roman argument appears to be circular: the papacy claims to guide the development of doctrine even beyond the bounds of what can be clearly demonstrated by Scripture, but the papal claims to such guiding authority are the result of a development far beyond the Petrine texts of Scripture. Anglicans, in contrast, take as their guiding principle of authority in the Church the claim that no doctrine or belief is generally necessary that cannot be proved directly from Scripture. Tradition articulates, clarifies, and interprets Scripture authoritatively, but does not produce developments that lack clear biblical foundation.
The chief gospel texts taken by Roman Catholics to show the authority of Saint Peter are St. Matthew 16:13-19, St. Luke 22:31-32, and St. John 21:15-19. In addition it is noteworthy that when the gospels list the Apostles, Saint Peter is always named first, that Peter is the leading figure of the first half of Acts, and that Saint Paul speaks of Peter as leading the Jewish Christian community.
The three main Petrine gospel texts are very complex and cannot be dealt with in full detail here. However, these texts are entirely accounted for by Anglican understanding of the papal office. These texts do not seem to give Peter any authority that is not elsewhere given to all of the Apostles. For instance, in the famous text from St. Matthew 16, after the confession of Christ by Peter, Christ says, [F]lesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven. And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter [Petros], and upon this rock [petra] I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. (16:17-19)
Many of the Church Fathers understood ‘this rock’ to refer, not to Saint Peter personally, but to his confession of Jesus as the Messiah (cf. I Corinthians 3:11; I St. Peter 2:6-8). Furthermore, Christ plainly is making a pun here, since the name ‘Peter/Cephas’ means ‘rock’: ‘You are Rocky, and I will build my Church on this Rock [of the confession you have just made].’ In any case, all that is said of Peter here is elsewhere said of the other Apostles: God the Father also teaches and will teach the other Apostles by revelation (St. John 16:13-15); they too are given the keys and the power to bind and loose sins (St. Matthew 18:18-19; St. John 20:22-23); they too form the foundation of the Church (Ephesians 2:20); and, Christ promises to be with them all in power forever (St. Matthew 28:18-20). Peter is given no unique office, power, or authority.
While Peter plainly was the leader of the Apostles and of the earliest Christians, in Acts 15 it seems that Saint James, not Peter, presides at the ‘Council of Jerusalem’ and gives its definitive judgement. It is true that when James gives his judgement, he does so by referring to Peter’s argument, but he also appeals to Scripture (1 5:13-21). When James speaks of ‘my sentence’ or judgement he does not call upon Peter’s authority. The sentence of James is circulated by a letter from ‘the Apostles and elders, with the whole church’ (15:22), with no indication that Peter has any unique authority over the whole Church or in the Jerusalem Church. Likewise in Galatians 2 Saint Paul describes his freedom in rebuking Peter for an error in judgement that implied an error in doctrine.
All of these New Testament texts make sense and are fully accounted for by the Anglican understanding of the Petrine and papal offices. Modern papal claims in no way find sufficient support in these texts. Modern papal claims are only based on these New Testament texts insofar as these texts were the beginning point of a development that long ago went far beyond what the texts themselves can support.
In short, the modern claims of the papacy are not supported by Scripture or early tradition. Most arguments for the papacy’s claims assume what is in fact in question, namely the legitimacy of the extraordinary claims to jurisdiction and teaching authority made by Vatican I and Vatican II. Nevertheless, Anglican Catholics should be open to the idea of a reinterpreted papacy, which corrects excessive claims to universal jurisdiction and which ties the magisterium more firmly to the limiting authority of the Tradition and the whole Church.