Roman Primacy – Appellate or Immediate? Both

One of my FB friends has recently brought up the subject of the early Church’s use of Roman Imperial geo-political structures to organize Church jurisdiction. One of the take aways, by way of testing ideas, was that the primatial jurisdiction of the early Roman Church could have derived its organization, and perhaps even essence, from the secular world. A sort of non-divine post-Apostolic creation of the Church in order to better manage ecclesial affairs. Here below is a snip of my comments on this, and I figured it could be shared at large for further dialogue, as I know this is a common discussion in recent exchanges. Let me put my cards down here. I think that the origin of power in St. Peter the Apostle and his successor is the transaction that was made between St Peter and Christ Himself when He stood in the flesh before him. There was no Roman geo-political structure that was factored in at the time nor in the means of said transaction. Therefore, St. Peter enjoys immediate and direct jurisdiction over every baptized sheep in the fold of Christ simply by the direct word of Christ.Now, it would have been more than silly and stupid to organize the primacy of the Church of Rome according to an immediate structure, such that everyone answered directly to Rome, or that proximate and local regions were powerless to manage their own affairs. Not even did the Ceasar Augustus operate the Roman Empire this way. Even St. Paul, when he stood before Porcius Festus, the procurator of Judea, said “I appeal to Ceasar” (Καίσαρα ἐπικαλοῦμαι), c.f. Acts 25:11, because he knew that he could be examined by a higher court than that of Jerusalem. Everyone knew that appellate jurisdiction was the only way both charity and proper order can be had. This is social philosophy 101, and the principle of subsidiary has been supported by the Catholic Church’s social doctrine, even with regard to the Church. Therefore, the primacy of Rome was modeled in the appellate structure, and it was best to be maintained ONLY in this way. Only in extreme circumstances should it be that it is otherwise. If this restriction is not based on divine law (though I would argue it is), it is certainly based on practical government. If Rome was the sole judge, like Moses was initially thought to be, then as problems mount, no resolutions would be reached in time for there to make it worth anyone’s time. A hierarchy is logically and naturally necessary .However, when we get under the skin of such a structure, the power of St. Peter’s successor is not something that came through the Roman imperial system that the Church adopted for canonical organization. Nor is it that St. Peter received a part of the power of primacy, only then to be further managed by Councils which adopted the geo-political principles. On the contrary, as the 1st Vatican Council taught, following Lyons (1274) and Florence (1439), “full power” (plenitudo potestas) was given directly from the mouth of Jesus to St. Peter, and such investiture flows directly to his successors. And so while the Church may have temporally adopted Roman geo-politics as an outward garment to implement the essential apostolic governance of the Church, this doesn’t mean that their origins collapse together as if they were both from the same principle. So what we have here is a distinction between the power of the Petrine office (officium) and the way it it is operative (munus) in the real life of the Church… which I think should always be under the limit of appellation in ordinary and normal circumstances. I understand this is not exactly how things are done today, despite the fact that appeals still go through nunio’s unto the Rome, and is often first heard either in the Apostolic Signatura or the Roman Rota or the CDF (etc,etc), and so I’m sure there is plenty of room for reform. But I wanted to say all of this to show that the immediacy, directness, and ordinary-ness of jurisdictional authority over the universal Church does not entail that appellate structures are not necessary. On the contrary, it is necessary. That being said, the Petrine jurisdicition retains its prerogative in case when the safety and security of the Church requires an immediate action.

8 thoughts on “Roman Primacy – Appellate or Immediate? Both

  1. The example of Caesar is illustrative, at least as an analogy of what you’re getting at here. There was an appellate jurisdiction that stopped at Caesar; at the same time, no one doubts that Caesar had immediate power over the entire empire as well, should he decide to exercise it.

    However, you mention in your comment that this should be reserved for “extreme circumstances.” How does that square with Vatican 1’s definition that the power is “ordinary”?

    • Thank you for your comment. So Vatican 1 intended to teach about the nature and extent of the Petrine primacy in the Bishop of Rome, but not to how that office should operate vis-a-vis the other churches of Christendom. I would say that the majority of Christendom, Rome acted as a final court of appeals. That changed around the Gregorian reforms for the better, in those days. However, we live in a very different context.

      Now, let me be clear: I do not think it would be very safe right now for someone like Pope Francis to back off from the amount of oversight the Holy See has upon the Roman rite because the local bishops of that rite are all liberals. So I think it would take some time to do, and before we could get a safe place we would need another Ecumenical Council which cleans house, and new oaths of fidelity that both clergy and laity are required to oblige prior to membership. It would drastically reduce the population of Catholics, but it would be for the betterment of Christ’s body.

      • The meaning of “ordinary” in the Vatican I definition does not mean “common” or “routine,” Isaac. “Ordinary” means (canonically) that the Pope has an indisputable canonical right to exercise such an act within the circumscription of “an Ordinary” (normally a diocesan bishop) when he chooses to do so.

        See, for example, Jurisdiction in the Early Church: Episcopal and Papal by Dom Gregory Dix (London, 1975: Church Literature Association) pp. 123-124 for an example from the early 1930s of the Archbishop of Canterbury performing a canonical act in the diocese of another Church of England bishop (which that bishop himself opposed and refused to perform) which was “ordinary, immediate, and episcopal,” to cite the terms of the Vatican I definition.

      • “the local bishops of that rite are all liberals”

        I also appreciate your frankness. As a new Catholic (I just converted from Mormonism), this sort of statement gives me ulcers. There’s so much about the church I love, but I sometimes struggle to muster the supernatural faith required to trust God to see the church through this present crisis.

  2. You know, I really appreciate your frankness. “However, we live in a very different context.” If by this you mean that no ecclesiology could have anticipated, or informed us how to deal with, the current situation, East and West, then you are onto something. Figuring it out will mean some real humble pie needs to be eaten, IMHO by ordinaries with and without beards in fairly equal measure. Now, we Orthodox laity have more at our disposal (those muscles rarely used, but not atrophied). What can Catholic laity do? How does your ecclesiology account for PF and all that has happened in the west since Vatican II? Unless, of course, you think it ok, more or less.

    Still, I read on other blogs how, since at least St. Charles Borromeo, thoughtful Catholics have pondered various distasteful scenarios, but it always seems to end with vagueness about who is supposed to judge whom and what can be done about it (generally nothing). Who’s watching the watchers sort of thing. It certainly would be cleaner if indeed “The Holy See is judged by none.” If Catholics still abide by that, thought, how do you end up not enabling? I’m embarrassed for my enablement of my clergy who are wackadoo. But I don’t have the extra set of mental obstacles to put myself through like you do with Pastor Aeternus. I’ve no clear answer, other than wonder if the old stories about the laity stoning wayward bishops has any truth to it, and if so, how it all went down.

  3. Tertullian argued in his Treatise on Baptism for the primacy of Rome, because it was one of the oldest churches and thus its tradition should be pure. But Tertullian also, in the same treatise, identifies its tradition as being againat infant baptism!

    But whatever pretentions Rome may have had, or whatever true legitimacy, as being the guardian of tradition, when they embraced the Gnostic heresy or predestination that all the fathers opposed until Augustine, when they embraced Augustine I say, they fell into heresy, and lost any primacy they may have had up to that point

    Assuming they did not actually lose that primacy earlier, around 250 AD with the controvery between Cyprian and Stephen. Because Stephan bishop of Rome demanded that the North African bishops accept hwretical baptisms that occurred in Gnostic sects so long as the verbal formula “in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost” had been used, and the African bishops held a council and condemned him. Even if their successor aquiesced to Rome, Cyprian and company were righg that Stephen was Judas and this was heretical. Therefore Rome was bowing to Gnosticism even before it became the Satanic Predestination religion of Augustinian Manicheanism!

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