Papal Office is internal to the Episcopate , Some Notes On The Mutual Dependency of Bishops to the Pope, Citations from the Church Fathers

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The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Father, when under Fr Josef Ratzginer, published a wonderful paper entitled “The Primacy of the Successor of Peter in the Mystery of the Church”. Certainly, a must-read for understanding more clearly the unique role of the Papacy in the Church’s universal mission. I will be here quoting a portion which pertains to the separation of powers that exist between Pope and the bishops of the Episcopal College, and provide some demonstration from the Fathers, as well as make a brief comment on the often posed question of how far can the Pope act alone:

“All the Bishops are subjects of the sollicitudo omnium Ecclesiarum as members of the Episcopal College which has succeeded to the College of the Apostles, to which the extraordinary figure of St Paul also belonged. This universal dimension of their episkope (overseeing) cannot be separated from the particular dimension of the offices entrusted to them. In the case of the Bishop of Rome – Vicar of Christ in the way proper to Peter as Head of the College of Bishops – the sollicitudo omnium Ecclesiarum acquires particular force because it is combined with the full and supreme power in the Church: a truly episcopal power, not only supreme, full and universal, but also immediate, over all pastors and other faithful. The ministry of Peter’s Successor, therefore, is not a service that reaches each Church from outside, but is inscribed in the heart of each particular Church, in which “the Church of Christ is truly present and active”, and for this reason it includes openness to the ministry of unity. This interiority of the Bishop of Rome’s ministry to each particular Church is also an expression of the mutual interiority between universal Church and particular Church.”

[my notes]

You will see here that *all the bishops are subjects of the sollicitudo omnium ecclesiarum*. This means that Christ Himself has given to the entirety of the episcopate this common vocation of the “care for all the church”. The Orthodox East  might be surprised to find that this very concept is found in a Papal letter to the Council of Ephesus in 431, and it was read aloud at the Council. Pope Celestine, who believed his judgement against Nestorius’ doctrine was the final word, and who was not silent about the nature of ontological Petrinias in the Roman See, writes to the East:

“This duty of preaching has been entrusted to all the Lord’s priests in common, for by right of inheritance we are bound to undertake this solicitude, whoever of us preach the name of the Lord in various lands in their stead for he said to them, Go, teach all nations. You, dear brethren, should observe that we have received a general command: for he wills that all of us should perform that office, which he thus entrusted in common to all the Apostles. We must needs follow our predecessors. Let us all, then, undertake their labours, since we are the successors in their honour. And we show forth our diligence in preaching the same doctrines that they taught, beside which, according to the admonition of the Apostle, we are forbidden to add anything. For the office of keeping what is committed to our trust is no less dignified than that of handing it down” (Letter of Celestine to Ephesus)

A very similar point was made at the Council of Constantinople 553:

“But also the Holy Fathers, who from time to time have met in the four holy councils, following the example of the ancients, have by a common discussion, disposed of by a fixed decree the heresies and questions which had sprung up, as it was certainly known, that by common discussion when the matter in dispute was presented by each side, the light of truth expels the darkness of falsehood. Nor is there any other way in which the truth can be made manifest when there are discussions concerning the faith, since each one needs the help of his neighbour, as we read in the Proverbs of Solomon: A brother helping his brother shall be exalted like a walled city; and he shall be strong as a well-founded kingdom; and again in Ecclesiastes he says: Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labour. So also the Lord himself says: Verily I say unto you that if two of you shall agree upon earth as touching anything they shall seek for, they shall have it from my Father which is in heaven. For wheresoever two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”

Anyhow, all bishops are subject to this divine vocation, and the Pope cannot remove that divine calling from his brother bishops. Thus, each Pope finds himself in a situation where, although He is head of the episcopal college, he must submit to the reality of the episcopal college as of divine institution. Often times, people think of the Pope as the singular bishop, where all others rent from his sole power. Nonsense.

That being said, Fr Ratzinger continues to note on the unique prerogative of the Head of the episcopal college, that he has full & supreme authority over the other bishops in the College. I think right there, some Catholics who deny Papal *supremacy* would find, if not a blatant contradiction, a pain for them to explain how it all meshes together.

And Ratzinger’s final point is the most important, and harkens back to what I was speaking about concerning the Papal perpective of the Church fathers. The position of the Pope is not an external office, reaching towards the other bishops from without. Rather, his position is internal to the episcopate, and thus reaches to them from within the very nature of the episcopate. This is why, for us, no matter what failures are in respect to the Papal succession, it remains of the esse of the Church, and thus something to continue with as the Church grows in her mission. When a bishop or group of once valid bishops begins to teach heresy, the episcopate is not said to have been diminished, or proven to be of man-made origin. Rather, those persons sever themselves from the episcopate. In the same way, Papal failures do not diminish the ontological role of the Papacy, nor does it prove it is of man-made origin or that it is an external machinery created for the sake of good order, but it continues to be of the essential constitution.

The East never wrote extensively in agreement with this in the post Schism era, with the exception of a few byzantine’s in the 14th/15th century. But even then, they most likely understood the Papal office to be an external office from the episcopate, coming to it *from the outside*, for the sake of good order. But their predecessors , and I mean here the Greek Catholicism of the 1st millennium, understood that this Papal office came from *within the episcopate*. Some statements from early Byzantine prove this:

During the Pontificate of Pope Symmachus, Greeks appealed to him on behalf of the Eastern christians who were suffering from the mono-physite fall out:

“You who are taught daily by your sacred teacher, Peter, to feed the sheep of Christ entrusted to you throughout the whole habitable world” (Mansi, 8.221)

Two bishops of Thessaly write to Pope Boniface II in 521:

“For these things we appeal to your blessedness and the Apostolic See, and through it we believed we hear and adore thrice blessed Peter, and the chief Shepherd of the Church, Christ our Lord” (Mansi, 8.748)


Also, I wanted to mention a scenario which took place some half a century before the outbreak of the Three Chapters controvery, which involves a Western saint venerated by the Orthodox themselves, St Avitus of Vienne. In 499 AD, King Theodoric wanted the Italian bishops to judge deposed Pope Symmachus for some moral crimes he was accused of. The Synod of Italian bishops, including St Avitus write the following:“..the person who was attacked [Symmachus] ought himself to have called a council, knowing that to his See in the first place the rank of Chiefship of the Apostle Peter, and then the authority of venerable councils following out the Lord’s command, had committed a power *without its like in the churches*; nor would a precedent be easily found to show, that in a similar matter the prelate of the aforementioned see had been subject to the judgement of his inferiors” (Mansi 8.248)

In a letter from the Italian bishops (including the name Avitus of Vienne) to the Roman Senators [the ones wishing Symmachus condemned] , they write:

“We were in a state of anxiety and alarm about the cause of the Roman church , in as much as we felt that our order was endangered by an attack upon its head…What license for accusation against the headship of the universal church ought to be allowed? As a Roman senator and a Christian bishop, I conjure you that the state of the Church be not less precious to you than that of the commonwealth. If you judge the matter with your profound consideration , not merely is that cause which was at Rome to be contemplated, but as, if in the case of any other bishop any danger be incurred, it can be repaired, so if the Pope of the city be put in question, not a single bishop, but the Episcopate itself, will appear to be in danger. He who rules the Lord’s flock will render an account how he adminsters the care of the lambs entrusted to him; but it belongs not to the flock to alarm its own shepherd , but to the judge [God].” (Mansi 8.293)

And even some years later St Avitus writes to Pope Hormisdas:

“Whilst you see that it is suitable to the state of religion, and to the full rules of the Catholic faith, that the ever watchful care of your exhortation should inform the flock committed to you throughout all the members of the universal Church. As to the devotion of Gaul, I will promise that all are watching for your sentence respecting the state of the faith” (Mansi 8.408)

And in another letter to the Count of Patrimony of Theodoric, Senarius, Avitus writes:

“you know that it is one of the laws regarding councils, that, in things which pertain to the state of the Church, if any doubt arises, we should , as obedient members , recur to the supreme bishop of the Roman church , as to our head” (Gallandi x.726)

And even after the Three Chapters controversy was well on its way, Pope Gregory I writes:

“To all who know the gospel , it is manifest that the charge of the whole Church was entrusted by the voice of the Lord to blessed Peter, chief of all the Apostles. For to him it was said ‘Peter , lovest thou me? Feed my lambs’….he hath received the keys of the kingdom of heaven the power of binding and loosing is given him , the care of the whole church is committed to him and the primacy , and yet he is not called universal Apostle” (Book 5, letter 20 – To the Emperor)

So you see here that the Papal office comes from the voice of Christ, and is not an external reality to the Church’s government, as if it is added atop. Rather, it is part of that government; indeed, a vital component. And secondly, notice how Gregory sees a certain universalism with regard to Peter’s position in the Church, but voids out the notion of an universal apostle. What Gregory means is that Peter was not the only Apostle, but yet his primacy is nevertheless universal and from Christ. So likewise, the Roman See always taught that the Bishop of Rome is not the only bishop, but that his primacy is universal, and from the Lord. Gregory thought the title “Universal Bishop” excluded the existence of other bishops.


So we have, then, a recognition by the Church fathers this idea that the Petrine primacy of the Roman See is not an external reality, as though it was added unto the episcopal constitution. Rather, it is one with the episcopal constitution. Secondly, that this essential element of the episcopal constitution is not something which can pertain to any and all Sees, but only that of the Roman See (we can explain concerning more about Gregory’s letter wherein he speaks of 3 locations of Peter’s see if it is brought up in rebuttal) since it alone receives the succession to Peter’s primacy.On the other hand, we saw from the Fathers that all bishops, including the Pope, have received a common calling from the divine Christ, and thus neither the Pope nor the bishops can eradicate each other. They must work in concord.

However, this does not mean that the ministry of the Petrine primacy cannot, if need so, act in such a way so as to impose upon the bishops what a certain group, or even majority, might say in opposition. A perfect example would be the subject of contraception & birth control. Some members of the holy episcopate in the 19th/20th centuries ruled in favor of it, but Pope Paul VI shut it down with the publication of Humanae Vitae.

But, we can ask, can the Pope go against the entire episcopate? I answer no, in both theory & practice. Here is why. It is not because the supreme & immediate power does not reside in the Pope over all the bishops [Vatican I is clear that this is the case], but rather it is because Christ always sustains a remnant, if not all, in the divine vocation of the Episcopate that will always be on the right-believing side of things. Thus, by way of accident [from our perspective], and not by absolute necessity, the Pope will never be alone in his own Papal magisterium for this reason.

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