Papal Primacy Explained and Defined

What is papal primacy? The definitive statement of the doctrine was provided by Vatican Council I in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Christ, Pastor Aernus (July 18, 1870). In a key passage, the council teaches:

...That the Roman Church, by the disposition of the Lord, holds the sovereignty of ordinary power over all others, and that this power of jurisdiction on the part of the Roman Pontiff, which is truly episcopal, is immediate; and with respect to this, the pastors and the faithful of whatever rite and dignity, both as separate individuals and all together, are bound by the duty of hierarchal subordination and true obedience, not only in things which pertain to faith and morals, but also in those which pertain to the discipline and government of the Church spread over the whole world.

Other elements of Vatican I's teaching are: primacy was instituted by Christ in St. Peter; it is transmitted in perpetuity to Peter's successors, the popes; and there is no appeal from a judgment of the Roman pontiff to some higher authority, such as an ecumenical council.

Vatican I's definition of papal primacy signaled the quashing, after centuries of conflict and debate, of the movements called conciliarism and Gallincanism. The essence of conciliarism is the idea that either extraordinary circumstances (moderate conciliarism) or in ordinary ones (radical conciliarism) an ecumenical council has authority over the pope; while Gallincanism (together with its cousins Febroniansm and Josephinism) leans in the direction of national churches, functioning with a strong element of secular control. As if to prove that bad ideas never die, the present anti primacy campaign of the Catholic progressives borrows elements from both.

Vatican Council II (1962-1965) deliberately endorsed Vatican I's teaching on papal primacy and made it its own. It also brought the doctrine of collegiality to the fore as a complementary principle.

In 1964, it its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, Vatican II taught that bishops are "vicars and legates of Christ," not "vicars of the Roman Pontiff." Although they have authority for their own local churches-"not over other churches nor the Church universal"-each bishop nevertheless is obliged to practice "care and solicitude" for the Church as a whole. A college of bishops, "together with their head, the Supreme Pontiff, and never apart from him, they have supreme and full authority over the universal Church," exercised especially in an ecumenical council.

In saying "never apart from" the pope, the fathers of Vatican II wished to emphasize that collegiality and primacy go together. They also emphasized that, although the episcopal college cannot act without its head, the bishop of Rome, he can teach and govern the Church without referring to the college for he has "full, supreme and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered."

A great deal of time and energy since Vatican II have gone into efforts to work out the relationship between primacy and collegiality in theoretical and practical terms. no one doubts that much remains to be done.

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papal primacy explained and defined