WHAT DO YOU KNOW
Saint Peter and
Catholic or “Roman” Catholic?
By Rev Francis J. Ripley, C.M.S.
CATHOLIC TRUTH SOCIETY No. C283 (1957).
WHAT DO YOU KNOW ABOUT
SAINT PETER AND HIS SUCCESSORS?
THOSE who consider the position of the Catholic Church seriously sometimes have difficulty in understanding how Saint Peter’s authority is continued in the Church through the succession of the Popes.
Our Lord said Saint Peter would
die a martyr (John 21:18-19), yet He gave him authority over the Church, which
was going to last until the end of the world. From Peter, the Rock, were to
come that unity and strength which would make the Church impregnable. The
“gates of hell” would not prevail and Christ would be with His Church “all
days, even to the consummation of the world” (see Matthew 16:18, and 28:20).
If the Church changed
essentially it would cease to be Christ’s Church. But these promises of Christ
apply to His Church and no other. Therefore, all the essentials given by Christ
to His Church must remain. They must still be in His Church. He guaranteed
One such essential feature of
the Church was undoubtedly the authority of Saint Peter. It was the foundation,
and what could be more essential to any building than the foundation? If the
foundation changes, the building changes. Our Lord actually compared His Church
to a building erected on the foundation of Saint Peter’s authority. All the
component parts would be held together by that authority, just as the bricks
and girders of a building only remain together in position if the foundation
Therefore, Christ’s own
guarantee of permanence to His Church implies that the authority he conferred
on Saint Peter will remain with it as the most essential feature, the
foundation, the source of unity, strength and endurance. Peter would die for
the Faith, as Our Lord foretold; but his living voice, his authority, would
remain in the Church. Otherwise, the Church would have changed essentially. It
would not be Christ’s Church.
How does that come about? There
is an early record that before Saint Peter and Saint Paul were martyred in Rome
they together chose Saint Linus as Saint Peter’s successor. He ruled the Church
for about eleven years from A.D. 67. For the next twelve years, Saint Cletus
was Pope and then Saint Clement from A.D. 90 to 100.
We know very little about the
early elections of the Popes apart from names and dates. Probably priests and
people assembled in Rome chose their new Bishop. Some scholars think the laity
took no part in the election until after the time of Pope Saint Sylvester, A.D.
314-335. From his time, the Christian emperors had a voice in the elections.
There was trouble later on from the barbarian invaders. Then came interference
from other sources, such as the civil authorities and the principal families of
Rome. All wanted to have a Pope of their choosing.
From A.D. 769, lay-folk were
officially excluded from the papal elections, but still powerful people, like
the Emperor Otto I in the tenth century, tried to interfere. In the end, the
Church had to take drastic measures to safeguard such an important matter.
In 1227, the fourteenth General
Council of the Church brought the Conclave into being. It was the last and most
decisive of several steps taken since 1059 (when the election of the Popes was
entrusted mainly to the Cardinal Bishops) to define the manner of election. The
method then confirmed is still observed in its essentials.
In the Conclave, the Cardinals
vote in secret session. They remain isolated (conclave means literally a room
closed with a key) until the Pope is chosen. Two-thirds plus one of the
Cardinals must agree on the same candidate before the election is completed.
Under the Conclave system, the Cardinals are free from outside pressure. The
disputes and delays of the earlier methods can no longer happen.
Note that the headship of the
Church belongs to the Bishop of Rome. The Pope becomes head because he is
Bishop of Rome; he does not become Bishop of Rome, because he is head of the
Church. The Pope’s election is primarily the choosing of Rome’s Bishop. The College
of Cardinals makes the election because they are the chief of the Roman clergy.
When their number is complete,
there are 70 Cardinals. [This was changed by Pope John XXIII. In 2012, there
are 120 voting Cardinals.] They can be of any nationality. In their own country,
they may also be archbishops or bishops. They have a church in Rome or a
bishopric near Rome. They are not obliged to live in Rome unless their work
makes it advisable for them to be near the Pope. But wherever they live and whatever
positions they have in their own countries, they are the supreme members of the
bishopric of Rome. They have been the only men with the right to choose Bishops
of Rome since A.D. 1139.
The Pope does not get his powers (like Infallibility) from those who elect him; he gets them from his position as Bishop of Rome and head of the Church. Our Lord created that position and made it permanent. It is He, Christ, who gives the powers to the man the Cardinals choose.
Suppose there is a mistake?
Suppose the Cardinals elect someone unworthy? It could happen. Even though the
Cardinals pray for light and pledge themselves most solemnly to choose the
worthiest candidate, their choice is still a human one. Christ never guaranteed
that the choice would always be perfect. But, whoever is validly elected
succeeds to Saint Peter’s position and receives his authority which, we have
seen, was given permanently to the Church by Christ.
The Pope need not be an
Italian. Most of the nations of Europe have given Popes to the Church. Adrian
IV (1154-1159) was formerly Nicholas Brakespeare of Abbots Langley, England.
For a considerable time now,
the Popes have been Italian. The Cardinals have very prudently chosen as Bishop
of Rome a man from the country of which Rome is the capital city. It need not
be so. But the nationalism which has divided Europe for the past few hundred
years made it very difficult and unpractical to make any other choice. In any
case, when a man becomes head of the Church he ceases to have any nationality.
He is the supreme representative of Christ, and the thought of his being
subject to any temporal sovereign has always been repugnant to Christian
people. [Most know that Pope John Paul II was Polish, and Pope Benedict XVI is
Enquirers sometimes ask: “Have there not for periods of history been two or three Popes or claimants to the Papacy at the same time, as, for instance, during the great Western Schism from 1378 to 1418? Can we be sure that the right Pope emerged after the trouble?”
Yes, there were several claimants to the Papacy at the same time, but only one Pope. All Catholics knew there could be only one. The question was: Which of the claimants was the true Pope? News travelled slowly in those days. National groups confused the issue by indulging in active propaganda for their own candidate. There was confusion and much scandal. But the succession from Saint Peter was never broken.
In 1309, there were civil wars in Italy, so Pope Clement V moved to Avignon in the south of France. The next five Popes were French; they lived at Avignon, but they were, of course, Bishops of Rome. Pope Gregory XI died in 1378 and the Conclave met in Rome to choose his successor. Urban VI, an Italian archbishop, was chosen.
Thirteen French Cardinals then
said the wish of the Roman people to have an Italian Pope had influenced the
Conclave in its choice. So they chose Cardinal Robert, of Geneva, as Clement
VII. The Roman Cardinals naturally declared this election schismatical but the
rival lines went on for nearly forty years side by side. Clement VII was
anti-Pope (i.e., a false claimant to the Papacy) from 1378 to 1394. Anti-Pope
Benedict XIII succeeded him and France, Lorraine, Scotland (France’s ally),
Naples and Spain declared for him and regarded him as being legitimately
chosen. Other countries stood by Urban VI. The confusion was increased when a
local council of bishops at Pisa tried to heal the schism in 1409, but only
succeeded in producing yet another anti-Pope, Alexander V, who lasted for a year
and was followed by anti-Pope John XXIII (1410-1415).
The solution finally came when
John XXIII resigned, Benedict XIII was deposed and Gregory XII, Urban VI’s
legitimate successor laid down his office for the sake of peace. A full Council
of the Church then elected Martin V (1417-1431).
The Western Schism is an indication
of the power of Christ in His Church. No merely human institution could have
survived such a test of its unity. The foundation of that unity is Peter’s
authority vested in the Bishop of Rome. Unity survived; its foundation
Doubt about who was the
rightful Pope during the years of the Schism does not affect the position of
later Popes. The Papacy is not handed on by one Bishop of Rome to another, any
more than the Prime Minister hands on his office to another. As a Pope does not
receive his office from his predecessor; the identity of that predecessor does
not really concern him. A man is Pope because the Church recognises him as
Bishop of Rome, the successor of Saint Peter.
Once universal agreement was
reached after the Western Schism as to whom the Church recognised as Bishop of
Rome, that person’s position as Pope was clear. Who were his predecessors
during the period of doubts is of no importance. His position depended on the
permanence of the See of Rome, not on the identity of its Bishops.
It is well worthy of note that
even during the darkest days of the Great Schism nobody doubted the fact of the
unity of the Church as a visible society. No one was prepared to see distinct
organisations within the Church, each demanding obedience. On the contrary,
everyone knew that there was but one visible authority left to His Church by
Christ; all knew that the holder of that authority was the Bishop of Rome; and
all were anxious that the identity of that person should be finally decided.
The basic truth emerges as the constant belief of the Church: Where the Bishop of Rome is, there is Peter; where Peter is, there is Christ; therefore, where the Bishop of Rome is, there is Christ.
WHAT DO YOU KNOW ABOUT
MANY people miss the point of Infallibility because they miss the point of the Church. Brought up in one or other of the denominations they are used to thinking of the churches as mere organisations of believers. The concept of the Church as the mystical Body of Christ, as a living organism, as the union of men with God in Christ, is foreign to them. Yet that is the key to the right understanding of infallibility.
Christ redeemed our race and cancelled out the effects of Adam’s sin. But He did more. He set up amongst us a living Society, one Church. He gave His Holy Spirit to that Society. He commissioned her to preach His truth to every creature.
The Holy Spirit is the Church’s
life-breath. He transforms it from being only an organisation (linked together
by the force of authority) into an organism (welded into one by the inner
principle of life). Christ’s Church is His presence in the world, carrying on
His work, saving the souls of men and teaching them God’s truth.
He often spoke of His Church as
a “kingdom.” In every kingdom, there is authority. Indeed, find the authority
and you find the kingdom. In the Church, the purpose of authority is God’s
glory and men’s salvation. Through it men are united with God, they worship God,
they obey and they hear God.
So the Church bears witness to
the truth just as Christ did: “For this was I born, and for this came I into
the world, that I should give testimony to the truth.” (John 18:37.) She must
pass on the truth — always God’s truth, revealed in Christ. The Spirit of Truth
enables her to do this: “When the Paraclete comes, whom I shall send you from
the Father, the Spirit of Truth, who proceeds from the Father, He shall give
testimony of Me. And you shall give testimony because you are with Me from the
beginning.” (John 15:26.)
The continuous presence of
Christ keeps His Church from error: “Going, therefore, all of you, teach all
nations. . . . Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded
you; and behold, I am with you all days even to the consummation of the world.”
“To err is human,” wrote Pope.
And we might add, with Dryden:
“Nor is the people’s judgment always true
The most may err as grossly as the few.”
Even the most brilliant human mind cannot know for certain (unless he is told) what the man next to him is thinking. Groups of brilliant men have again and again come to conclusions which have later been proved to be false. All history is witness to the fallibility of human reason.
Suppose, then, that God made a revelation to men and merely left it to ourselves to discuss and interpret and teach, it would become so entangled in the course of time that no one would know for certain what the original revelation had been or whether there had even been one.
Certainly, God could not command the acceptance of truth on fallible human authority under pain of eternal damnation. He could not say of truth taught by man unaided: “He that believes and is baptised shall be saved; but he that believes not shall be condemned.” (Mark 16:16.) Yet that is what He said about His Church’s teaching.
If you believe that there is a
God who is absolute truth and that God has revealed certain things to men, you
must reasonably expect those revealed matters to contain truths you would not
otherwise be able to know. You must suppose that those truths are important,
even vital, for you — otherwise God would not have revealed them.
You must suppose, therefore,
that God wants you to know them truly. He wants you to know them as they left
Him — unaltered, undiminished, undefiled by the treatment of fallible human
reason. How could that be?
God has devised a way. It is His Church. He has made it that channel by which His truth passes to men. That is why the Church is infallible. Christ meant it to be so, as we have seen. He sent His Holy Spirit to guide the Church to witness to the truth as He did.
Infallibility is not sinlessness. It is not divine inspiration. It is not a special message from God. It is not an illumination of the mind. It is not a special source of information. It does not mean that individual Bishops or groups of Bishops or one Pope or all Popes can never make mistakes or teach error. It does not give divine power to the Pope. It does not even mean that the Pope cannot be condemned as a heretic.
The infallibility of the Church is the infallibility of the Bishops. They are, in the fullest sense, the successors of the Apostles. When they teach a truth so widely that it can be called the teaching of the episcopate of the Catholic Church, that teaching is true. ‘God’s power’ keeps it from being wrong.
Sometimes a definite statement
of the truth is demanded. The world may, for example, want to know
authoritatively what the Bishops teach on a certain matter. Or a new problem
might arise for which a solution is urgently demanded. Or it might be that men
need a certain truth to be emphasised for them by being declared part of God’s
revelation. In cases like these, the Pope may make a solemn definition.
If you really want to know what the infallibility of the Pope means you should go to the source, the definition by the General Council of the Church at the Vatican on July 18, 1870. Here it is: “It is a divinely revealed dogma that the Roman Pontiff, when he speaks ex cathedra, that is, when, acting in the office of shepherd and teacher of all Christians, he defines by virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, doctrine, concerning faith or morals, to be held by the universal Church, possesses through the divine assistance promised to him in the person of Saint Peter the infallibility with which the divine Redeemer willed His Church to be endowed in defining doctrines concerning faith or morals, and that definitions of the Roman Pontiff are therefore irreformable because of their nature, and not because of the agreement of the Church.”
Note what a limited gift this is. Infallibility simply guarantees that the teachings of the united Catholic episcopate and the definitions of the Pope (whose authority is the foundation of the unity of the Church) are free from error. God’s revelation is safeguarded. Human minds can work on it, discuss it, study it, explain it, draw conclusions from it and still not destroy it.
That is what matters most. God’s
truth must be preserved. In studying that truth, the human mind has abounding
scope for its activity. But infallibility is there all the time to keep the
truth untarnished. It is God’s wonderful device for reconciling the fallible
activity of our minds and the infallible truth of the revelation He has made.
It is important to understand the conditions which must be fulfilled before the Pope speaks infallibly. They should be studied carefully in the definition of the Vatican Council already quoted. Once they are realised it is easy enough to see that if a Pope, in his private teaching, for example, or in a letter to a Bishop or group of Bishops, or under any circumstances when all the conditions for infallibility are not fulfilled, teaches error, he may even be condemned as a heretic.
A case in point is that of Pope Honorious (625-638), who was condemned as a heretic by the Sixth General Council in 680 for having in a letter to Sergius, Patriarch of Constantinople, smoothed over heretical teaching and failed to give a dogmatic decision.
Much money has been spent by various Protestant bodies in the attempt to find one single Papal definition which has been proved wrong or to find where one Pope contradicted another or a General Council. The records have been diligently searched by brilliant minds; nothing has been overlooked; not one minor detail has been ignored. The result has been the complete vindication of the Church and the Pope.
From what has been written it will be evident that the personal character of the Pope is quite irrelevant to his infallibility. God uses his preventive power over him, whether he be a Saint, like Pius X, or .a sinner, like Alexander VI.
It should be evident, too, that infallibility is in no way opposed to legitimate human freedom. Quite the opposite. The purpose of infallibility is to safeguard the truth. Therefore, it is to safeguard freedom. For, said Christ, “The truth shall make you free.” (John 8:32).
WHAT DO YOU KNOW ABOUT
CATHOLIC OR “ROMAN” CATHOLIC?
“WHY do you not call yourselves Roman Catholics? There are other true Catholics apart from members of the Roman Church. There are different traditions in the Church of Christ. You have no right to a monopoly of the word ‘Catholic’.”
That is how a favourite
objection is often stated. More official perhaps, is the statement in Hook’s “Church
Dictionary”: “Let the member of the Church of England assert his right to
the name of Catholic, since he is the only person in England who has a right to
that name. The English Romanist is a Roman Schismatic and not a Catholic.” One
even finds in Blunt’s “Dictionary of Sects and Heresies” the statement
that “Roman Catholics are a sect organised by the Jesuits out of the relics of
the Marian party in the reign of Queen Elizabeth.”
There are those, too, especially some Anglicans and Modernists, who use the word “Catholic” in the sense of comprehensiveness. The Church is Catholic, they maintain, because it must welcome and assimilate all opinions, however contradictory they may be, so long as they are sincerely held.
The answer to these contentions rests on the true meaning and history of the word “Catholic.” It is derived from a Greek work and it means universal.
When Jesus Christ, Our Lord, established a Church amongst us, He said it was for all men. It was to be universal or Catholic. Here are His words: “Going, al of you, teach all nations. Go ye into the whole world and preach the Gospel to every creature.” (Matthew 28:19; Mark 16:15.)
Less than a century after
Christ’s death Saint Ignatius, the great martyr-bishop of Antioch, wrote a
letter to the people of Smyrna in which the combination “the Catholic Church”
occurs for the first time. His words are: “Wheresoever the bishop shall appear,
there let the people be, even as where Jesus may be, there is the Catholic
Church.” By the beginning of the third century, the meaning of the term
“Catholic” as applied to the Church had become clearly established. It was used
technically to imply sound doctrine as opposed to schism.
Thus, Clement of Alexandria (died
215) wrote: “We say that both in substance and in seeming, both in origin and
in development, the primitive and Catholic Church is the only one, agreeing as
it does in the unity of one faith.” From quotations like this it is easy to see
how “Catholic” became the proper name of the true Church founded by Christ.
There are two significant
passages in the “Catechetical Discourses” of Saint Cyril of Jerusalem,
composed about the year 347. In the first he gives some advice to travellers:
“If ever you are staying in any city, ask not simply where the Lord’s house is —
for the sects of the profane also attempt to call their own dens houses of the
Lord — not merely where the church is, but where is the Catholic Church. For
this is the special name of the holy body the mother of us all.” Writing of the
Creed he tells us: Now it (the Church) is called Catholic because it is
throughout the world, from one end of the earth to the other.”
Saint Augustine of Hippo uses
the word Catholic as a synonym for the Church 240 times. The occasion was
mainly the Donatist heresy. Against its errors, the note of universality was
particularly emphasised. Note what Saint Augustine wrote: “Whether they wish or
no, heretics have to call the Catholic Church Catholic.”
In another place, he put down
something which is applicable today: “Although all heretics wish to be styled
Catholic, yet if anyone ask where is the Catholic place of worship none of them
would venture to point out his own conventicle.” Ask a London policeman for the
Catholic Church, and he will direct you to Westminster Cathedral, not Saint Paul’s.
The word Catholic is, therefore, the proper name of that one, visible, organised Church founded by Jesus Christ, God Himself. It is the Church we read about in the Acts of the Apostles, where it is described as having its head, its bishops, its priests, its deacons, its sacraments, its doctrines, its authority, its unity and its disciples.
That same Catholic Church was persecuted by the Roman Emperors. It emerged triumphant and saved civilisation in Europe. It is the Church of all the Fathers, Doctors and Saints of East and West. It was the glory of Europe; it was the pride of England.
This same Catholic Church came to this country first in Roman times. When it had almost died out Saint Augustine (of Canterbury, we call him) brought it back again from the Bishop of Rome, Saint Gregory the Great. They knew it as the Catholic Church. As such, it was known by the ordinary men and women of England until the so-called Reformation. For them Christ’s Church was simply the Catholic Church.
This same Catholic Church built
our splendid Cathedrals — Canterbury, York, Lincoln, Durham and the rest. It
gave us the fine churches which still decorate our land. It founded the great
universities and many schools and hospitals. For fifteen hundred years, all the
great apostles and missionaries belonged to it.
The saints, whose names many of us bear, like Francis of Assisi, Thomas of Canterbury, Wilfrid of York, Bernard of Clairvaux, Henry the Emperor, Louis of France, Edward the Confessor, Margaret of Scotland, Hilda of Whitby, and hosts of others, were members of it. One and all, they knew it as the Catholic Church.
In 1529, the Diet of Spires took place. When the Catholic princes proposed certain moderate conditions for the settling of religious difficulties, the Lutherans solemnly protested against them and the word Protestant was born of the denial of freedom and conscience. Although that historical fact is now generally forgotten. Protestant still remains an official name of the Established Church of England. The Sovereign designates it by that name in the Coronation Oath.
It would have been obvious to any of the Saints we have mentioned that a church different from theirs could not be rightly called the Catholic Church. But how could a church be different from the Catholic Church?
The difference would have to be in essentials. For example, if a Church professed doctrines different from those of the Catholic Church, it could not be the Catholic Church.
If a church’s essential acts of worship were different from those of the Catholic Church, it could not be the Catholic Church. If the authority acknowledged by a church is not the same as the authority of the Catholic Church, that Church could not be the Catholic Church.
In the course of time, bodies broke off from the Catholic Church because they did not agree with her beliefs, or did not worship as she did or would not recognise her authority. They became new and different churches. They ceased to be the Catholic Church.
Also, at different times men started new churches. They were not the same as the Church Jesus Christ had founded. They were in opposition to it. His Church was, as we have seen, the Catholic Church: those new, man-made churches were not the Catholic Church.
It is particularly obvious that the new churches which came into being as a result of the Reformation are different from the Catholic Church. They were founded as protests against the belief and the worship and the authority of the existing Church, which was the Catholic Church. They are, therefore, non-Catholic churches; they are protesting or Protestant churches. If any pre-Reformation Saint were to come back today, he would recognise the Old Church, the Church he knew and loved, the Catholic Church. The new churches would be strange to him, different in essentials from his Church. He would know them as non-Catholic churches.
Roman Catholics are the only
real Catholics. There are no Catholics apart from them. The word “Roman” only
describes Catholic more fully. The universal Church founded by Christ, has its
centre in Rome. By their very nature or their constitution, all other churches
are local, racial or national. Words like Roman, Romish, Romanist, Papist,
Papistical, Papisher were originally used of the old Church by Protestants to
signify their hatred of the Bishop of Rome, the Pope.
Nowadays Roman is applied to
the one Catholic Church to indicate that there are other Catholics as well, who
are not in union with Rome. This is a return to the trick of the fourth century
heretics who were so thoroughly castigated by Saint Augustine of Hippo.
The centre of unity at Rome is
the greatest source of strength in Christ’s Church. We are proud to be called
Roman Catholics in that sense. But when those who do not acknowledge the
authority of the Pope claim that they are Catholics as opposed to us who are
Roman Catholics we register the strongest possible objection.
Christ’s Church is Catholic,
because it encircles the whole world. It is Roman, because its centre is in
Rome, where the Bishop of that City is the successor of Saint Peter, whom
Christ made head of His Church. On the other hand, the term Anglo-Catholic is
self-contradictory. Catholic means universal or international; Anglo means not
universal but national.
“It is not against the nature of a circle, however large, to have a centre,” wrote the late John Arendzen; “but it is decidedly against the nature of a circle to be square. To speak of Anglo-Catholics is like speaking of square circles; and to speak of Roman Catholics is like speaking of a circle with a centre.”
As for the use of the term “Catholic” to indicate comprehensiveness, it is thoroughly dishonest to give the impression that this is the sense in which it was used by Saint Ignatius of Antioch, Saint Cyril of Jerusalem or Saint Augustine of Hippo. These and other Fathers of the Church taught that the Catholic Church is most decisively cut off from all that lies outside her. She must oppose with all her strength anything that threatens her vital principle of unity and stability.
It is not to our purpose here to show how this principle of comprehensiveness offends, not only against the teaching of Christ, which, being absolute truth could not embrace contradictions, but against right reason as well.
There is no need to call the Pope’s Church the Roman Catholic Church, Catholic alone is sufficient. “Roman” is often used with an insulting or unacceptable meaning. There is only one Catholic Church. It is that which Jesus Christ founded, which has been on earth since His day, and to which He said: “I will be with you all days even to the consummation of the world.”