Faith of Our Fathers, Chapter 10 – The Supremacy of the Popes

photograph of Cardinal James Gibbons taken no later than 1915, location and photographer unknown; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsThe Church did not die with Peter. It was destined to continue till the end of time; consequently, whatever official prerogatives were conferred on Peter were not to cease at his death, but were to be handed down to his successors from generation to generation. The Church is in all ages as much in need of a Supreme Ruler as it was in the days of the Apostles. Nay, more; as the Church is now more widely diffused than it was then, and is ruled by frailer men, it is more than ever in need of a central power to preserve its unity of faith and uniformity of discipline.

Whatever privileges, therefore, were conferred on Peter which may be considered essential to the government of the Church are inherited by the Bishops of Rome, as successors of the Prince of the Apostles; just as the constitutional powers given to George Washington have devolved on the present incumbent of the Presidential chair.

Peter, it is true, besides the prerogatives inherent in his office, possessed also the gift of inspiration and the power of working miracles. These two latter gifts are not claimed by the Pope, as they were personal to Peter and by no means essential to the government of the Church. God acts toward His Church as we deal with a tender sapling. When we first plant it we water it and soften the clay about its roots. But when it takes deep root we leave it to the care of Nature’s laws. In like manner, when Christ first planted His Church He nourished its infancy by miraculous agency; but when it grew to be a tree of fair proportions He left it to be governed by the general laws of His Providence.

From what I have said you can easily infer that the arguments in favor of Peter’s Primacy have equal weight in demonstrating the supremacy of the Popes.

As the present question, however, is a subject of vast importance, I shall endeavor to show, from incontestable historical evidence, that the Popes have always, from the days of the Apostles, continued to exercise supreme jurisdiction not only in the Western Church till the Reformation, but also throughout the Eastern Church till the great schism of the ninth century.

First – Take the question of appeals. An appeal is never made from a superior to an inferior court, nor even from one court to another of co-ordinate jurisdiction. We do not appeal from Washington to Richmond, but from Richmond to Washington. Now, if we find the See of Rome from the foundation of Christianity entertaining and deciding cases of appeal from the Oriental churches; if we find that her decision was final and irrevocable, we must conclude that the supremacy of Rome over all the churches is an undeniable fact.

Let me give you a few illustrations:

To begin with Pope Saint Clement, who was the third successor of Saint Peter, and who is laudably mentioned by Saint Paul in one of his Epistles. Some dissension and scandal having occurred in the church of Corinth, the matter is brought to the notice of Pope Clement. He at once exercises his supreme authority by writing letters of remonstrance and admonition to the Corinthians. And so great was the reverence entertained for these Epistles by the faithful of Corinth that, for a century later, it was customary to have them publicly read in their churches. Why did the Corinthians appeal to Rome, far away in the West, and not to Ephesus, so near home in the East, where the Apostle Saint John still lived? Evidently because the jurisdiction of Ephesus was local, while that of Rome was universal.

About the year 190 the question regarding the proper day for celebrating Easter was agitated in the East, and referred to Pope Saint Victor I. The Eastern Church generally celebrated Easter on the day on which the Jews kept the Passover, while in the West it was observed then, as it is now, on the first Sunday after the full moon of the vernal equinox. Saint Victor directs the Eastern churches, for the sake of uniformity, to conform to the practice of the West, and his instructions are universally followed.

Saint Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, was martyred in 258.

From his appeals to Pope Saint Cornelius and to Pope Saint Stephen, especially on the subject of baptism, from his writings and correspondence, as well as from the whole tenor of his administration, it is quite evident that Cyprian, as well as the African Episcopate, upheld the supremacy of the Bishop of Rome.

Dionysius, Bishop of Rome, about the middle of the third century, having heard that the Patriarch of Alexandria erred on some points of faith, demands an explanation of the suspected Prelate, who, in obedience to his superior, promptly vindicates his own orthodoxy.

Saint Athanasius, the great patriarch of Alexandria, appeals in the fourth century to Pope Julius I. from an unjust decision rendered against him by the Oriental Bishops, and the Pope reverses the sentence of the Eastern Council.

Saint Basil, Archbishop of Caesarea, in the same century has recourse in his afflictions to the protection of Pope Damasus.

Saint John Chrysostom, Patriarch of Constantinople, appeals in the beginning of the fifth century to Pope Innocent I. for a redress of grievances inflicted on him by several Eastern Prelates, and by the Empress Eudoxia of Constantinople.

Saint Cyril appeals to Pope Celestine against Nestorius; Nestorius, also, appeals to the same Pontiff, who takes the side of Cyril.

In a Synod held in 444, Saint Hilary, Archbishop of Arles, in Gaul, deposed Celidonius, Bishop of Besancon, on the ground of an alleged canonical impediment to his consecration. The Bishop appealed to the Holy See, and both he and the Metropolitan personally repaired to Rome, to submit their cause to the judgment of Pope Leo the Great. After a careful investigation, the Pontiff declared the sentence of the Synod invalid, revoked the censure, and restored the deposed Prelate to his See.

The same Pontiff also rebuked Hilary for having irregularly deposed Projectus from his See.

The judicial authority of the Pope is emphasized from the circumstance that Hilary was not an arrogant or a rebellious churchman, but an edifying and a zealous Prelate. He is revered by the whole Church as a canonized Saint, and after his death, Leo refers to him as Hilary of happy memory.

Theodoret, the illustrious historian and Bishop of Cyrrhus, is condemned by the pseudo-council of Ephesus in 449, and appeals to Pope Leo in the following touching language: “I await the decision of your Apostolic See, and I supplicate your Holiness to succor me, who invoke your righteous and just tribunal; and to order me to hasten to you, and to explain to you my teaching, which follows the steps of the Apostles…. I beseech you not to scorn my application. Do not slight my gray hairs…. Above all, I entreat you to teach me whether to put up with this unjust deposition or not; for I await your sentence. If you bid me rest in what has been determined against me, I will rest, and will trouble no man more. I will look for the righteous judgment of our God and Savior. To me, as Almighty God is my Judge, honor and glory are no object, but only the scandal that has been caused; for many of the simpler sort, especially those whom I have rescued from diverse heresies, considering the See which has condemned me, suspect that perhaps I really am a heretic, being incapable themselves of distinguishing accuracy of doctrine.” Leo declared the deposition invalid and Theodoret was restored to his See.

John, Abbot of Constantinople, appeals from the decision of the Patriarch of that city to Pope Saint Gregory I., who reverses the sentence of the Patriarch.

In 859 Photius addressed a letter to Pope Nicholas I, asking the Pontiff to confirm his election to the Patriarchate of Constantinople. In consequence of the Pope’s conscientious refusal Photius broke off from the communion of the Catholic Church and became the author of the Greek schism.

Here are a few examples taken at random from Church History. We see Prelates most eminent for their sanctity and learning occupying the highest position in the Eastern Church, and consequently far removed from the local influences of Rome, appealing in every period of the early Church from the decisions of their own Bishops and their Councils to the supreme arbitration of the Holy See. If this does not constitute superior jurisdiction, I have yet to learn what superior authority means.

Second – Christians of every denomination admit the orthodoxy of the Fathers of the first five centuries of the Church. No one has ever called in question the faith of such men as Basil, Chrysostom, Cyprian, Augustine, Jerome, Ambrose and Leo. They were the acknowledged guardians of pure doctrine, and the living representatives “of the faith once delivered to the Saints.” They were to the Church in their generation what Peter and Paul and James were to the Church in its infancy. We instinctively consult them about the faith of those times; for, to whom shall we go for the Words of eternal life, if not to them?

Now, the Fathers of the Church, with one voice, pay homage to the Bishops of Rome as their superiors. The limited space I have allowed myself in this little volume will not permit me to give any extracts from their writings. The reader who may be unacquainted with the original language of the Fathers, or who has not their writings at hand, is referred to a work entitled, “Faith of Catholics,” where he will find, in an English translation, copious extracts from their writings vindicating the Primacy of the Popes.

Third – Ecumenical Councils afford another eloquent vindication of Papal supremacy. An Ecumenical or General Council is an assemblage of Prelates representing the whole Catholic Church. A General Council is to the Church what the Executive and Legislative bodies in Washington are to the United States.

Up to the present time nineteen Ecumenical Councils have been convened, including the Council of the Vatican. The last eleven were held in the West, and the first eight in the East. I shall pass over the Western Councils, as no one denies that they were subject to the authority of the Pope.

I shall speak briefly of the important influence which the Holy See exercised in the eight Oriental Councils.

The first General Council was held in Nicaea, in 325; the second, in Constantinople, 381; the third, in Ephesus, in 431; the fourth, in Chalcedon, in 451; the fifth, in Constantinople, in 553; the sixth in the same city, in 680; the seventh, in Nicaea, in 787, and the eighth, in Constantinople, in 869.

The Bishops of Rome convoked these assemblages, or at least consented to their convocation; they presided by their legates over all of them, except the first and second Councils of Constantinople, and they confirmed all these eight by their authority. Before becoming a law the Acts of the Councils required the Pope’s signature, just as our Congressional proceedings require the President’s signature before they acquire the force of law.

Is not this a striking illustration of the Primacy? The Pope convenes, rules and sanctions the Synods, not by courtesy, but by right. A dignitary who calls an assembly together, who presides over its deliberations, whose signature is essential for confirming its Acts has surely a higher authority than the other members.

Fourth – I shall refer to one more historical point in support of the Pope’s jurisdiction over the whole Church. It is a most remarkable fact that every nation hitherto converted from Paganism to Christianity since the days of the Apostles, has received the light of faith from missionaries who were either especially commissioned by the See of Rome, or sent by Bishops in open communion with that See. This historical fact admits of no exception. Let me particularize.

Ireland’s Apostle is Saint Patrick. Who commissioned him? Pope Saint Celestine, in the fifth century.

Saint Palladius is the Apostle of Scotland. Who sent him? The same Pontiff, Celestine.

The Anglo-Saxons received the faith from Saint Augustine, a Benedictine monk, as all historians, Catholic and non-Catholic, testify. Who empowered Augustine to preach? Pope Gregory I., at the end of the sixth century.

Saint Remigius established the faith in France, at the close of the fifth century. He was in active communion with the See of Peter.

Flanders received the Gospel in the seventh century from Saint Eligius, who acknowledged the supremacy of the reigning Pope.

Germany and Bavaria venerate as their Apostle Saint Boniface, who is popularly known in his native England by his baptismal name of Winfrid. He was commissioned by Pope Gregory II., in the beginning of the eighth century, and was consecrated Bishop by the same Pontiff.

In the ninth century two saintly brothers, Cyril and Methodius, evangelized Russia, Sclavonia, Moravia and other parts of Northern Europe. They recognized the supreme authority of Pope Nicholas I. and of his successors, Adrian II. and John VIII.

In the eleventh century Norway was converted by missionaries introduced from England by the Norwegian King, Saint Olave.

The conversion of Sweden was consummated in the same century by the British Apostles Saints Ulfrid and Eskill. Both of these nations immediately after their conversion commenced to pay Romescot, or a small annual tribute to the Holy See – a clear evidence that they were in communion with the Chair of Peter.

All the other nations of Europe, having been converted before the Reformation, received likewise the light of faith from Roman Catholic Missionaries, because Europe then recognized only one Christian Chief.

Passing from Europe to Asia and America, it is undeniable that Saint Francis Xavier and the other Evangelists who, in the sixteenth century, extended the Kingdom of Jesus Christ through India and Japan, were in communion with the Holy See; and that those Apostles who, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, converted the aboriginal tribes of South America and Mexico received their commission from the Chair of Peter.

But you will say: The people of the United States profess to be a Christian nation. Do you also claim them? Most certainly; for, even those American Christians who are unhappily severed from the Catholic Church are primarily indebted for their knowledge of the Gospel to missionaries in communion with the Holy See.

The white races of North America are descended from England, Ireland, Scotland and the nations of Continental Europe. Those European nations having been converted by missionaries in subjection to the Holy See, it follows that, from whatever part of Europe you are descended, whatever may be your particular creed, you are indebted to the Church of Rome for your knowledge of Christianity.

Do not these facts demonstrate the Primacy of the Pope? The Apostles of Europe and of other countries received their authority from Rome. Is not the power that sends an ambassador greater than he who is sent?

Thus we see that the name of the Pope is indelibly marked on every page of ecclesiastical history. The Sovereign Pontiff ever stands before us as commander-in-chief in the grand army of the Church. Do the bishops of the East feel themselves aggrieved at home by their Patriarchs or civil Rulers? They look for redress to Rome, as to the star of their hope. Are the Fathers and Doctors of the early Church consulted? With one voice they all pay homage to the Bishop of Rome as to their spiritual Prince. Is an Ecumenical Council to be convened in the East or West? The Pope is its leading spirit. Are new nations to be converted to the faith? There is the Holy Father clothing the missionaries with authority, and giving his blessing to the work. Are new errors to be condemned in any part of the globe? All eyes turn toward the oracle of Rome to await his anathema, and his solemn judgment reverberates throughout the length and breath of the Christian world.

You might as well shut out the light of day and the air of heaven from your daily walks as exclude the Pope from his legitimate sphere in the hierarchy of the Church. The history of the United States with the Presidents left out would be more intelligible than the history of the Church to the exclusion of the Vicar of Christ. How, I ask, could such authority endure so long if it were a usurpation?

But you will tell me: “The supremacy of the Pope has been disputed in many ages.” So has the authority of God been called in question – nay, His very existence has been denied; for, “the fool hath said in his heart there is no God.” Does this denial destroy the existence and dominion of God? Has not parental authority been impugned from the beginning? But by whom? By unruly children. Was David no longer king because Absalom said so?

It is thus also with the Popes. Their parental sway has been opposed only by their undutiful sons who grew impatient of the Gospel yoke. Photius, the leader of the Greek schism, was an obedient son of the Pope until Nicholas refused to recognize his usurped authority. Henry VIII. was a stout defender of the Pope’s supremacy until Clement VII. refused to legalize his adultery. Luther professed a most abject submission to the Pope till Leo X. condemned him.

You cannot, my dear reader, be a loyal citizen of the United States while you deny the constitutional authority of the President. You have seen that the Bishop of Rome is appointed not by man, but by Jesus Christ, President of the Christian commonwealth. You cannot, therefore, be a true citizen of the Republic of the Church so long as you spurn the legitimate supremacy of its Divinely constituted Chief. “He that is not with Me is against Me,” says our Lord, “and he that gathereth not with Me scattereth.” How can you be with Christ if you are against His Vicar?

The great evil of our times is the unhappy division existing among the professors of Christianity, and from thousands of hearts a yearning cry goes forth for unity of faith and union of churches.

It was, no doubt, with this laudable view that the Evangelical Alliance assembled in New York in the fall of 1873. The representatives of the different religious communions hoped to effect a reunion. But they signally and lamentably failed. Indeed, the only result which followed from the alliance was the creation of a new sect under the auspices of Dr. Cummins. That reverend gentleman, with the characteristic modesty of all religious reformers, was determined to have a hand in improving the work of Jesus Christ; and, like the other reformers, he said, with those who built the tower of Babel: “Let us make our name famous before” our dust is scattered to the wind.

The Alliance failed, because its members had no common platform to stand on. There was no voice in that assembly that could say with authority: “Thus saith the Lord.”

I heartily join in this prayer for Christian unity, and gladly would surrender my life for such a consummation. But I tell you that Jesus Christ has pointed out the only means by which this unity can be maintained, viz: the recognition of Peter and his successors as the Head of the Church. Build upon this foundation and you will not erect a tower of Babel, nor build upon sand. If all Christian sects were united with the centre of unity, then the scattered hosts of Christendom would form an army which atheism and infidelity could not long withstand. Then, indeed, all could exclaim with Balaam: “How beautiful are thy tabernacles, O Jacob, and thy tents, O Israel!”

Let us pray that the day may be hastened when religious dissensions will cease; when all Christians will advance with united front, under one common leader, to plant the cross in every region and win new kingdoms to Jesus Christ.

– text taken from The Faith of Our Fathers, Being a Plain Exposition and Vindication of the Church Founded by Our Lord Jesus Christ, by Cardinal James Gibbons, Archbishop of Baltimore, 1917