On This Rock….

James Tolhurst

Vatican I could be said to have reinforced the power of the papacy. Vatican II in its turn enhanced the position of bishops. It declared that their pre-eminence over the clergy was not simply a question of jurisdiction, by which they obtained a diocese, but a matter of their consecration, by which they became successors to the college of the apostles.

Head of the college of bishops

Vatican II goes on to say that bishops "by virtue of their apostolic office, all of them jointly are responsible for the Church" (Christus Dominus, 6). It therefore introduces the concept of co-responsibility into the mix. Pope Francis has adopted a pastoral homespun approach. He lends himself to selfies, and has exuberantly embraced Twitter and Facebook (he also recently met the CEO of Instagram) because they all enable him to communicate directly with a large audience. He has brought to his pontificate an impatience with the constraints of bureaucracy. Francis has sought to make the Curia more accountable while at the same time enhancing the role of local episcopal conferences, maybe swapping one problem for another. He has streamlined the marriage annulment process and challenged the high costs involved in canonisations – which have both been welcomed.

The role of the Pope can never be reduced to that of chairman: of being in charge of a global company and ultimately answerable to the board. Nor can he take his place as just one patriarch among several (primus inter pares) because "He is endowed with the primacy of ordinary power over all the churches" (Christus Dominus, 2). It is of course true that "the whole body of the faithful have an anointing that comes from the holy one [and] cannot err in matters of belief" (Lumen Gentium, 12). The Pope therefore has that authority which the Church has. But the Pope does not receive his authority from the people of God, but as a successor of St Peter. Nor is the Pope successively simply the last in a line but has from God "supreme, full, immediate and universal power in the care of souls" (Christus Dominus, 2). As Leo I says, "Peter proclaims every day : ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God’ and every tongue which acknowledges the Lord is being taught this confession."



When it comes to the relationship of the Pope and the college of bishops, he is united with the episcopal college, but not simply as their mouthpiece, but also their head. As the missionary document Ad Gentes puts it, "With Peter and subject to Peter" (n.38). Tucked away in Lumen Gentium you will find the Preliminary Explanatory Note which states, "Clearly it is the connection of bishops with their head that is in question throughout and not the activity of bishops independently of the Pope." Newman would say, "St. Peter and his successors were and are universal bishops, that they have the whole of Christendom for their one diocese in a way in which other apostles and bishops have not" (Lectures on the Prophetical Office of the Church). At a Council, the Pope signs as Bishop of the Catholic Church because he has jurisdiction in any diocese which he visits and can officiate at marriage and ordain to the priesthood legally, ex iure, by virtue of his office.

You are Peter…

There are those who argue that there is a need to limit such a universal jurisdiction of the Pope as it would seem to conflict with the concept of the college of bishops and the ownership of the charism of the faith by the people of God (the sensus fidelium). But it is only when exercising the supreme office that the Pope expresses the infallibility of the Church itself. We need to understand very precisely the nature of the original bestowal of the Petrine office. Christ’s words to Peter were in response to his acknowledgement of him as the Son of the Living God. Peter recognised Christ, and Christ recognised him as head of the Church. At the heart of "You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church" is the central fact of the Incarnation itself: source not only of the Sacraments but of the hierarchy (which came before any of the bureaucracy). The late Cardinal Daniélou would argue, "The unique property of the Christian mystery is the gratuitous communication that God makes of himself to man. This is true of his sanctity, this is also true of his truth…Christ the incarnate Word, has communicated to the Church, which is his spouse, all the properties he possesses." When St. John Paul issued his first encyclical, he wished to make known publicly to all "that there is a link between the first fundamental truth of the Incarnation…and my election as Bishop of Rome and Succcessor of the Apostle Peter." We can say that such truth is possessed passively by the whole people of God, but the Pope possesses it actively.

Such power is not appropriated but given, as part of the message of truth that has come into the world with the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven, sufficient enough to defeat both death and Satan. (=the gates of hell) and to survive until the end of time.

Peter, representative of unity

Yes, there is a profound interaction between the Pope and the college of bishops but it remains true, in Augustine’s words, that Peter is "the representative of the unity of the college of apostles". In his commentary on the Explanatory Note of Lumen Gentium, Joseph Ratzinger who had been theological advisor to Cardinal Frings at the Council, would say that the Church is essentially a communio as between head and members and the Pope has a moral obligation to listen to the bishops and the bishops may have an obligation to take the initiative themselves – which is implicit in the essence of collegiality. But in the words of Leo the Great, "Peter is the true leader of all, who have in the first place Christ as their leader… The strength which Christ gives to Peter passes through Peter to the Apostles – because he gave such authority to him whom he chose as head of the whole Church."


Before any bishop is ordained, he has to have a pontifical mandate from the Pope showing his acceptance of his authority and a sign of his communion with him (Canon 1013). In one of his letters, St Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote, "Under him [the Pope] the other officers of mother Church are organised in so far as they are called to share in his responsibility and exercise the power entrusted to them." Fr Holloway would add, "Through the fullness of Peter there descends within the people of God the fullness of the magisterium of Our Lord…The college of bishops is integrated as through its head." That pre-eminence can be sensed in the words used by Pius XII on the occasion of the definition of the Assumption of Our Lady "By the authority of Our Lord Jesus Christ, by the authority of the blessed apostles Peter and Paul and by our own authority do pronounce, declare and define as a divinely revealed dogma…" It is an awesome power, linking the current successor of St. Peter to the Lord who taught as one having authority, and not as their scribes and Pharisees (Matt. 7:29).


Out of the Vatican…

Jesus not only made Peter the rock on which he established his Church but gave him also the task of confirming his brethren (Lk. 22:32). This does not mean issuing regular infallible statements with the breakfast copy of The Times (as W. G. Ward would have preferred) but being the centre of that communio which is the Church. In a sense this is what Newman calls a monarchical power. Leo XIII (1878–1903) the successor to Pius IX continued to insist that the Pope needed some territory (the temporal power) in order to fulfil his role. When that power was reduced to the dimensions of the Vatican City in 1929, one of the results was that the papacy no longer had to bother with political and administrative concerns and was left to concentrate on matters affecting the Church. But no longer seen as a political force, the Vatican now exercises more weight in the assemblies of the world than the medieval sovereign ever did.

Great is the truth and it shall prevail

We have passed from that time when the Pope wielded his authority in solidarity with other secular powers through that period when Rome for the sake of the Church exercised a centralising role. Now the Pope and the episcopal conferences are in a symbiotic relationship. But the Pope remains "the subject of supreme and entire power over the whole Church," as the Explanatory Note makes clear, and possesses the authority to define matters relating not simply to faith but also to morals. Queen Elizabeth I declared that she would not make windows in men’s souls but that policy is not open to the Pope. As the internet enables the papacy to reach to the ends of the earth, it also opens up the divisions which exist. Local pressures also come to bear more heavily on regional episcopal conferences because their views are being given more importance ecclesiastically and the internet helps to publicise them and highlight their differences if these emerge.

The Church is destined to be in a minority when it comes to make plain its opposition to some of the moral positions which are stridently championed by the media and have become accepted by many. But on a more profound level as it bears the responsibility of maintaining a tradition of loyalty to the truth handed down by Christ to teach all nations. This requires a coherent and rigorous pastoral care that is capable of appealing not simply to the heart but also to the mind in this questioning scientific age. The Church has to draw out of the quantum of knowledge those aspects which enhance and deepen the message, so that the hidden depths can then be revealed in all their richness. The Pope has to play that coordinating central role, with the help of his competent advisors, both animating and directing in the midst of so much confusion and uncertainty, both for the ordinary people in the Church and for those on the outside looking in.

A need for greater interaction

It must be the case that when Peter confirms his brethren, the bishops in particular – but also priests and theologians – need to allow them-selves to be confirmed. Too often there has been a polite acquiescence which either hid grudging acceptance or even worse, what is oxymoronically described as loyal disobedience. Being confirmed in the faith means accepting direction but also being able to give advice in a familiar context. The creation among Cardinals of C8 has injected new life into the Consistory; for bishops, there needs to be a mechanism for direct access between each diocesan ordinary and the Pope, and vice versa, instead of via the episcopal conference. The latter would assume a predominantly administrative role, instead of one which effectively inhibits the power of the bishops by demanding majority decisions. It would be ironical if the Curia were to be emasculated and in their place, local episcopal conferences were virtually empowered to take over their function and their bureaucracy.

Holy Father

We rightly call the Pope not king or president, but Holy Father, because we recognise in him the care that the Good Shepherd has for his family the Church; for the Pope is the ultimate witness of Christ’s undying love and his eternal truth. He is that living expression of Jesus’ words "as the Father has sent me, even so I send you," the rock on which he has built his Church.

Fr Tolhurst studied for his Doctorate in Salamanca on The Church – a Communion: In the Preaching and Thought of John Henry Newman, since published by Gracewing.


Faith Magazine

July - August 2016