Fr John Flader: the primacy of the Pope

09 Jul 2008

By The Record

I know that the Catholic Church teaches that the Pope has authority over the whole Church, and that the Protestant and Orthodox do not accept this. Can you help me understand better why we hold this truth, what it involves and how we can explain it to others?


Fr John Flader


The authority of the Pope over the whole Church is called the “primacy” of the Pope. The word comes from the Latin word primus, meaning “first”. In the Catholic Church the Pope, who is the Bishop of Rome, has authority over all the other bishops and over the whole Church.
There are two principal types of primacy. One is primacy of honour, where the primate has no more power than the others of his rank, but is honoured by them in a special way. This type of primacy exists in some of the non-Catholic Christian denominations, where one bishop is accorded special honour by the other bishops, but in all other respects is equal to them and has no power over them. He is sometimes referred to as primus inter pares, first among equals.
The other type is primacy of jurisdiction, where the primate has authority over the others and over the whole institution. This is the case with the Pope. His primacy was defined in the First Vatican Council as a dogma of faith in the following terms: “If anyone says that the blessed apostle Peter was not constituted, by Christ Our Lord, Prince of all the Apostles and visible head of all the Church militant; or that he (Peter) directly and immediately received from Our Lord Jesus Christ a primacy of honour only and not one of true and proper jurisdiction, let him be anathema.” (Dz 1823)
Why did Christ give St Peter power over the whole Church? In simple terms, because he wanted his Church to be one, to be united. The Catholic Church is not a federation of dioceses scattered throughout the world, but a single body with a single head. 
In order for an organisation to have unity, it needs a single head, a principle of authority, a person who can speak and act on behalf of the organisation and who has authority over it. For this reason countries have a Prime Minister, a President, a King.
It is clear from Scripture that Our Lord wanted his Church to have one head. Christ singled Peter out from the other apostles and promised to make him the head of the Church: “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church”. (Mt 16:18) After his Resurrection Jesus conferred the primacy on Peter when he said: “Feed my sheep.” (Jn 21:17) Jesus had said some time before that he was the good shepherd (cf. Jn 10:11) and that there would be one fold and one shepherd (cf. Jn 10:16). Now he was making Peter the shepherd, the head of the Church.
Peter began to exercise his primacy from the beginning. It was he who proposed the election of a successor to Judas (cf. Acts 1:15 ff), who spoke to the multitudes when the Holy Spirit came down on the feast of  Pentecost (cf. Acts 2:14 ff), and who presided over the Council of Jerusalem to decide what to impose on converts from the Gentiles (cf. Acts 15:7 ff). When St Paul went up to Jerusalem, he went there “to see Peter” (Gal. 1:18). Peter’s name comes first in all the lists of the Apostles in the Gospels.
What is more, from the beginning the successors of St Peter as Bishop of Rome exercised their authority over the whole Church and this authority was accepted.
By way of example, around the year 96, St Clement, the fourth Pope, wrote a letter to the Church in Corinth giving orders to resolve a dispute about authority that had broken out in that Church. The letter was gratefully accepted and read throughout the city.
In the fourth century the Emperor Constantine sent the Donatist schismatics to Rome to be judged by Pope Melchiades.
And in the fifth century at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, when the letter of Pope Leo the Great was read out, the bishops cried out: “Peter has spoken through Leo.”
From this it is clear that the Pope, the Bishop of Rome, had authority over the Church throughout the world and that this authority was acknowledged everywhere.
By virtue of his authority, the Pope names bishops for the whole world, legislates for the Church through such instruments as the Code of Canon Law, judges various matters through his tribunals in Rome, and teaches the whole Church through Encyclicals, Apostolic Exhortations, etc.
In the words of the Second Vatican Council, “the Roman Pontiff, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, and as pastor of the entire Church has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered.” (Dogm. Const. Lumen gentium, 22; CCC 882)
Given the great responsibility that goes with the exercise of papal authority, we do well to pray very much for the Pope, the Vicar of Christ.