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The Pope Exercises Supreme Jurisdiction

General Audience — February 24, 1993

In an earlier catechesis we spoke of the Bishop of Rome as the Successor of Peter. This succession has fundamental importance for fulfilling the mission that Jesus Christ handed on to the apostles and the Church.

The Second Vatican Council teaches that the Bishop of Rome, as Vicar of Christ, has supreme and universal power over the whole Church (cf. LG 22). This power, as well as that of all bishops, has a ministerial character (ministerium means service), as the Fathers of the Church had already observed.

The conciliar definitions on the Bishop of Rome's mission must be understood and explained in the light of this Christian tradition. It should be kept in mind that the traditional language used by the councils, especially the First Vatican Council, in regard to the powers of both the Pope and the bishops, uses terms proper to the world of civil law, which in this case must be given their correct ecclesial meaning.

Inasmuch as the Church is a group of human beings called to carry out in history God's plan for the salvation of the world, power in her appears as an indispensable requirement of mission. Nevertheless, the analogical value of the language used allows power to be conceived in the sense provided by Jesus' maxim on "power in order to serve" and by the Gospel idea of the pastoral leader. The power required by the mission of Peter and his successors is identified with this authoritative leadership guaranteed of divine assistance, which Jesus himself called the ministry (service) of a shepherd.

Having said that, we can reread the definition of the Council of Florence (1439), which stated: "We define that the Holy Apostolic See--and the Roman Pontiff--has primacy over the whole world, and that the same Roman Pontiff is the successor of blessed Peter, prince of the apostles and true Vicar of Christ, head of the whole Church, and father and teacher of all Christians, and that upon him, in blessed Peter, our Lord Jesus Christ conferred the full power of shepherding, ruling and governing the universal Church, as is also stated in the acts of the ecumenical councils and the sacred canons" (DS 1307).

We know that historically the problem of the primacy was posed by the Eastern Church separated from Rome. The Council of Florence, trying to foster reunion, expressed the precise meaning of the primacy. It is a mission of service to the universal Church, which necessarily entails a corresponding authority precisely because of this service: the full power of shepherding, ruling and governing, without prejudice to the privileges and rights of the Eastern patriarchs, according to the order of their dignity (cf. DS 1308).

For its part, Vatican I (1870) cited the Council of Florence's definition (cf. DS 3060) and, after mentioning the Gospel texts (Jn 1:42; Mt 16:16f.; Jn 21:15f.), expresses the meaning of this power in further detail. The Roman Pontiff "does not only have the office of inspection and direction," but enjoys "full and supreme power of jurisdiction, not only in matters of faith and morals, but also in those which concern the discipline and governance of the Church dispersed throughout the world" (DS 3064).

Attempts were made to reduce the Roman Pontiff's power to an "office of inspection and direction." Some proposed that the Pope be simply an arbiter of conflicts between local churches or that he merely give a general direction to the autonomous activities of the churches and of Christians with his counsel and exhortation. This limitation, however, did not conform to the mission Christ conferred on Peter. Therefore, Vatican I emphasized the fullness of papal power and defined that it is not enough to recognize that the Roman Pontiff "has the principal role." One must admit instead that he "has all the fullness of this supreme power" (DS 3064).

In this regard it would be well to clarify immediately that this "fullness" of power attributed to the Pope in no way detracts from the "fullness" also belonging to the body of bishops. On the contrary, one must assert that both the Pope and the episcopal body have "all the fullness" of power. The Pope possesses this fullness personally, while the body of bishops, united under the Pope's authority, possesses it collegially. The Pope's power does not result from simply adding numbers, but is the episcopal body's principle of unity and wholeness.

For this reason the Council underscores that the Pope's power "is ordinary and immediate over all the churches and over each and every member of the faithful" (DS 3064). It is ordinary, in the sense that it is proper to the Roman Pontiff by virtue of the office belonging to him and not by delegation from the bishops; it is immediate, because he can exercise it directly without the bishops' permission or mediation.

Vatican I's definition, however, does not assign to the Pope a power or responsibility to intervene daily in the local churches. It means only to exclude the possibility of imposing norms on him to limit the exercise of the primacy. The Council expressly states: "This power of the Supreme Pontiff does not at all impede the exercise of that power of ordinary and immediate episcopal jurisdiction with which the bishops, appointed by the Holy Spirit (cf. Acts 20:28) as successors of the apostles, shepherd and govern the flock entrusted to them as true pastors..." (DS 3061).

Indeed, we should keep in mind a statement of the German episcopate (1875) approved by Pius IX that said: "The episcopate also exists by virtue of the same divine institution on which the office of the Supreme Pontiff is based. It enjoys rights and duties in virtue of a disposition that comes from God himself, and the Supreme Pontiff has neither the right nor the power to change them." The decrees of Vatican I are thus understood in a completely erroneous way when one presumes that because of them "episcopal jurisdiction has been replaced by papal jurisdiction"; that the Pope "is taking for himself the place of every bishop"; and that the bishops are merely "instruments of the Pope: they are his officials without responsibility of their own" (DS 3115).

Now let us listen to the full, balanced and serene teaching of Vatican II, which states that "Jesus Christ, the eternal shepherd...willed that their successors, namely the bishops, should be shepherds in his Church even to the consummation of the world. And in order that the episcopate itself might be one and undivided, he placed blessed Peter over the other apostles, and instituted in him a permanent and visible source and foundation of unity of faith and communion" (LG 18).

In this sense Vatican II speaks of the Bishop of Rome as "pastor of the entire Church," having "full, supreme and universal power" (LG 22). That power is "primacy over all, both pastors and faithful" (LG 22). "The individual bishops, insofar as their own discharge of their duty permits, are obliged to enter into a community of work among themselves and with the Successor of Peter, upon whom was imposed in a special way the great duty of spreading the Christian name" (LG 23).

According to the same council, the Church is also catholic in the sense that all Christ's followers must work together in the overall mission of salvation, each in his own apostolate. The pastoral work of all, however, and especially that collegial activity of the whole episcopate, attains unity through the Bishop of Rome's ministerium Petrinum. The Council again says: "The bishops, faithfully recognizing the primacy and pre-eminence of their head, exercise their own authority for the good of their own faithful" (LG 22). We should also add from the Council that, if the collegial power over the whole Church attains its particular expression in an ecumenical council, it is "the prerogative of the Roman Pontiff to convoke these councils, to preside over them and to confirm them" (LG 22). Everything, then, depends on the Pope, the Bishop of Rome, as the principle of unity and communion.

At this point we should again note that, if Vatican II adopted the tradition of the ecclesiastical Magisterium on the topic of the Bishop of Rome's ministerium Petrinum previously expressed at the Council of Florence (1439) and at Vatican I (1870), to its credit, when it repeated this teaching, it brought out the correlation between the primacy and the collegiality of the episcopate in the Church. Because of this new clarification the erroneous interpretations often made of Vatican I's definition are rejected and the full significance of the Petrine ministry is shown in its harmony with the doctrine of episcopal collegiality. Also confirmed was the Roman Pontiff's right "within the exercise of his own office to communicate freely with the pastors and flock of the entire Church," and this in regard to all rites (cf. DS 3060, 3062).

This does not mean claiming for the Successor of Peter powers like those of the earthly "rulers" of whom Jesus spoke (cf. Mt 20:25-28), but being faithful to the will of the Church's Founder, who established this type of society and this form of governance to serve the communion in faith and love.

To fulfill Christ's will, the Successor of Peter must assume and exercise the authority he has received in a spirit of humble service and with the aim of ensuring unity. Even in the various historical ways of exercising that authority, he must imitate Christ in serving and bringing into unity those called to be part of the one fold. He will never subordinate what he has received for Christ and his Church to his own personal aims. He can never forget that the universal pastoral mission must entail a very profound participation in the Redeemer's sacrifice, in the mystery of the cross.

Regarding his relationship with his brothers in the episcopate, he must remember and apply the words of St. Gregory the Great: "My honor is the honor of the universal Church. My honor is the solid strength of my brothers. I am truly honored, then, when each of them is not denied the honor due him" [1] .

[1]   Epist. ad Eulogium Alexandrinum, PL 77, 993