Page 4, 5th October 1962

5th October 1962
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Primacy of Peter

The Holy Spirit was sent to help the Church to preserve, unfold and expound the Deposit of Faith, not to create new doctrine; and definitions take into account Tradition, which include the whole Church's thought and practice

by Fr. Maurice

Bevenot, S.J.

YOU talk of "the primacy of Peter' when in fact you may only have the Pope in mind and, probably, are thinking of his infallibility. That is the way we tend to telescope things, and we are often not too clear ourselves what we mean by such a phrase.

Yct, alter all, "Peter" means St. Peter, and his primacy certainly looked rather different from what we know of the Pope's today. Nut a few non Catholic scholars recognize the primacy of St. Peter as given to him personally and exercised by him in the earliest times, without in the least admitting that the bishops of Rome succeeded to his privileges.

That Is something which, lhuugh based in Scripture. is not easy to see if one has a wrong idea of what we understand by hradition.


HOWEVER. let us suppose we are talking about the Pope and about his infallibility. This. as we know, was defined nearly a hundred years ago at the first Vatican Council, and we carelessly imagine that that is all we mean when we speak of his primacy. Yet the Pope is head (i.e. primate) of the whole Church not only when he teaches (let alone when he teaches infallibly, which is rare enough). but he is so all the time, looked up to and ucknowledged as the first of the Church's bishops in the Mass, which at every moment is being said in some part of the world.

His infallibility is occasional, his primacy a permanent fact. Though the claim in infallabilily is what is most openly attacked, the primacy goes deeper and, misunderstood as It so often is, is felt by many to he one of the chief obstacles to any "reunion with Rome".

For all that, infallibility still holds the limelight. As the late Dr. Kidd said of the Anglican side at the Malines Conference: "We never got face to face with the question of a primacy of jurisdiction at Malines".


NOW at the first Vatican Council a good deal was said about the Pope's primacy of jurisdiction, and certain passages might at first sight suggest that he is omnicompctcnt. overruling and overriding all the other bishops and the rest of the faithful with them.

Nothing could be more unjust. Those passages must be read not only in the context of the decree itself, but in the whole context of the Council, left, as it was, truncated owing to the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war.

Thais the decree includes a paragraph which asserted Ihal what had just been said of papal authority was meant in no way In derogate from the traditional rights of the Bishops as the successors of the Apostles.

And besides. when some of the bishops present expressed fears on this score, they were assured that, in a subsequent decree, their place in the Church and in relation to the Holy See would be done justice to, and their rights shown to be in no way infringed

The fact of the matter is that a Council can only deal with one thing at a time: the Pope now, the Bishops later. Unfortunately, there Was no `later" for this Council, so that the balance was not restored and this has led to many misapprehensions on the subject.

(1 can piny refer here to rue tale Abbot Cuthbert Butler's two splendid volumec on 1'he Vatican Council (London, 1930) for lliis and other matters, and specifically to Ahhd G. Thils's srna!! rolumr Printaute pontificale ct preroKalives Fplscopalec (T.ornaira, 1961).


HOWEVER, the fact remains that attention has been focussed on the Pope's infallibility, and there is a whole crop of doubts and false nations about it that need clearing up — hardy perennials, most of them.

Need we say that ,infallibility is not impeccability. or that it does not canonize any and every opinion the Pope may put out. even in matters of faith and morals?

What he says may be wise, it may be perfectly true, but it can not be recognized as "infallible"

unless pronounced by him with the fullest authority of his office and addressed to the whole Church. On the. other hand, an infallible

pronouncement by the Pope need

not have been well timed, nor well expressed: lack of prudence or inadequacy tlo not disqualify such a definition provided all the strict requirements for an e.r cathedra definition are fulfilled.

But most of this is very technical and applies equally to definitions pronounced by General Councils themselves. And if anyone denies the infallibility of General Councils, he is not likely to accept the infallibility of the Pope. In fact. the Vatican Council, in defining the Pope's infallibility, so took the infallibility of Councils for granted that it made them the norm, saying that the Pope is infallible in the Same way as Councils are.


NOW this is where people tend to find difficulties. it is one thing for all the official representatives of the Church to meet and discuss together and so come to a decision on a matter of faith or morals; it is quite another for a single man to decide such a matter on his own.

People will say: "There is safety in numbers: we can't believe in this separate infallibility of the Pope". But they misunderstand the situation, though it is a pardonable misunderstanding.

The Pope has no separate infallibility, if this is taken to mean being able to define something "on his own" without reference to the life and belief of the whole body of the Church--any more than the

foundation of a building can act as foundation apart from the presence of the building on it.

This was expressly laid down at the time. it so many, even among Catholics, have come to think otherwise, it is probably due to the final phrase in the Vatican definition: ' .. and therefore such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are irreformable of themselves, and not because of the consent of the Church".

But this was added solely to exclude the Gallican view that. even when the Pope really defines. his definition does not become infallible until the rest of the Bishops have accepted it.

The phrase did not exclude the Pope's dependence on scripture and Tradition for any delinHion he might make on faith or morals.

The decree itself says "The Roman Pontiffs have, according to the needs of the

times, either summoned General Councils, or explored the mind of the Church throughout ils length and breadth, or again used local synods or other means which providence offered, and thereupon have defined for all to hold what, with God's help, they have come to recognize as

being in accord wlth sacred Scripture sod apostolic Tradilion.

"For flit Holy Spirit was promised to the successors of St.

Peter not to reveal to them sonic new doctrine to publish, but to assist them to preserve with all reverence the Revelation received through the Apostles (i.e. the deposit of Faith), and to expound It with all faithful ness. (Denz.1836)-" The implication is clear enough: the promise of the assistance of the Holy Spirit in no way dispenses the Pope from taking all the means available to assure himself of the revealed truth committed to the Church.


S°,for instance, the Pope did not spring something new our the Church when he defined our Lady's assumption. It was something he found already engrained in the thought and practice of the whole Church. Yet it needed carefui formulation and he consulted all the bishops of the Church about He then recognized it as a belief that had really grown up--and had persisted in the minds of bishops and faithful—out of what little Ihere is about our Lady in the Scriptures (yet who can measure the greatness of that "little"I).

indeed. such a common belief could not have so taken root in

the mind of the Church. unless it had been germinally in the original revelation, and had been destined, tinder the gentle fructifying sunshine and rain of the Holy Spirit. toblossom as we know it, in the course of time.

That definition may have scandalired many who do not believe in the development of Tradition, let alone In the infallibility of the Pope, but for Catholics who think at all it came, we may say, almost as a relief.

Mary's assumption was, then. no mere pious belief, like so many which are popular for a time, have a certain limited value and then drop away, simply h a v i n g coloured sonic era of the Church's life.

No, we now know that what we had always held, in fact came to us from God: that it is no mere tlreologoamenon, but that we have God's own word for it and can welcome it as such: "My God. because Thou halt said it and Thy word is true, I believe that Mary is already body and soul in


it is no strain on our faith: do we not say in the creed: "I believe

in the resurrection of the body" ? it just means the anticipation, in our Lady's case, of what is to happen to us all—and what is the difference to God's eternity

between the "now" of the end of her earthly life and the "then" (lo

us) of the end of the world?


ANYHOW, the Pope did not define it "on his own". He was leaning, as he (and any Council) must always do, on Scripture and Tradition. which together contain whatever God has revealed.

The Holy Spirit guides the Church in more ways than one. in a Council all the Bishops of the Catholic Church cooperate directly in the formulation and explicit definition of a dogma; but the Pope can, as the successor of St. Peter on whom the Church is built, make such a definition himself, though in doing so he is quite as much bound by Scripture and Tradition (which includes the living thought of the whole. Church) as is the Council itself.

Anythingless would be sheer human arbitrariness in the one case as in the other, and that the Holy Spirit would not guarantee.

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