It is the ancient and constant teaching of the Church that Saint Peter lives, presides, and exercises judgment in the Apostolic See under every Roman Pontiff. This teaching is a corollary to the dogmas of the indefectibility of the Apostolic See and the never-failing faith of each Roman Pontiff. Peter can only have such a role, from eternity in Heaven, by the grace of God, if the Apostolic See and the Roman Pontiff is indefectible and never-failing in faith. A Pope can sin personally and gravely, but his decisions under the Keys of Saint Peter are ever protected by Christ, with the constant intercession of the first Roman Pontiff, Saint Peter.
Pope Siricius, in 385:
“We bear the burden of all who are laden; or rather the blessed Apostle Peter bears them in Us, who, as We trust, will protect Us, the heirs of all his government.” [Pope Siricius writes to Himerius of Tarragona; Epistle 1 (PL XIII, 1133), in: Fortescue, Adrian. The Early Papacy (p. 54). Ignatius Press. Kindle Edition.]
Pope Siricius attributes the work of his office as Pope to Saint Peter.
Saint Peter Chrysologus, Doctor:
“We exhort you, Honorable Brother, that you would obediently attend to that which has been written by the Pope of the city of Rome because Blessed Peter, who lives in his own See and presides there, is in charge of all those seeking the truth of faith.” [as quoted by Saint Robert Bellarmine in On the Roman Pontiff, vol. 2: Books III-V (De Controversiis) (p. 159). Mediatrix Press.]
Saint Peter Chrysologus exhorts us to be obedient to all that has been written by whoever is the current Pope, because Saint Peter, the first Pope, the Prince of the Apostles, still lives in the Roman See and presides there, and is in charge of those seeking the truth there. This teaching gives Saint Peter in heaven the role, through intercession before Christ and through the graces of the Holy Spirit, to oversee the Apostolic See at all times, regardless of who may be Roman Pontiff. And since Peter “presides there”, his influence prevails; otherwise, he would not be said to be in charge in that See. This teaching implies the protection of the Apostolic See from grave errors, since blessed Peter is in charge of those who seek truth from the Apostolic See, and blessed Peter is a Saint in Heaven, where he dwells with Christ the Lord.
Pope Saint Leo I, Doctor:
“The order of truth remains; blessed Peter, keeping the strength of the rock, does not abandon the helm of the Church. Whatever We do rightly is his work, whose power lives in his See…. In the person of My lowliness he is seen, he is honored, in whom remains the care of all pastors and of the sheep of their charge. His power does not fail, even in an unworthy heir.” [Sermon III, c. 2; in: Fortescue, Adrian. The Early Papacy (pp. 55-56)]
Pope Saint Peter died a martyr, and yet he has not abandoned “the helm of the Church”, which is the Ark of Salvation. (The helm is the means of steering a ship.) Pope Saint Leo the great, Doctor of the Church, even goes so far as to say that whatever he — a Pope, Saint, and Doctor — does in exercising the Keys of Saint Peter, is rightly considered to be Saint Peter’s work. For his “power lives in his See”. Both the pastors of the Church and the sheep are under his care.
And it does not matter if the Roman Pontiff happens to be very sinful, personally. For the power of Saint Peter over the exercise of his Keys in his See, the Apostolic See, “does not fail, even in an unworthy heir”. Therefore, all these schismatic and heretical claims — that the Church has gone astray since Vatican II, that Pope Francis has led the faithful astray, that many Popes have failed in faith by heresy or other grave error, and the like — cannot be true. For Saint Peter reigns over the Holy See from Heaven. This does not reach to the extent of causing every Pope to be a Saint, nor of keeping the exercise of the Keys from every error of every kind. But it does maintain the indefectibility not only of the Church, but of the Apostolic See of Saint Peter.
Pope Saint Agatho, in his Letter to the Roman emperor, which was accepted into the acts of the Third Council of Constantinople:
“Therefore the Holy Church of God, the mother of your most Christian power, should be delivered and liberated with all your might (through the help of God) from the errors of such teachers, and the evangelical and apostolic uprightness of the orthodox faith, which has been established upon the firm rock of this Church of blessed Peter, the Prince of the Apostles, which by his grace and guardianship remains free from all error, the whole number of rulers and priests, of the clergy and of the people, unanimously should confess and preach with us as the true declaration of the Apostolic tradition, in order to please God and to save their own souls.”
The “apostolic uprightness of the orthodox faith” is based upon the Rock of faith, Saint Peter, for it is “by his grace and guardianship” that the Church remains, Pope Agatho says, “free from all error.” Now we must qualify this statement of his, in that infallible teachings (and dogmatic facts) are free from all error, while non-infallible doctrine and discipline is free from all grave error. But the lesser errors possible in what is non-infallible cannot prevail forever, and so the Church is rightly said, as an apt figure of speech, to be free from all error.
But notice that the uprightness of the faith is attributed to the continued work of Saint Peter, guarding the Church and obtaining the graces that She needs to be free from grave error. Certainly, these graces are obtained by Peter from Christ, by intercession, and they are gifted to the Church through the Holy Spirit. But the continued role of Peter in keeping the Church indefectible is undeniable. For this letter of Pope Saint Agatho is part of the teachings of the Ecumenical Council Constantinople III, as Pope Leo XIII also notes (see below).
“The faith of Peter was catholic and not able to fail; but the faith of the Roman Church is the faith of Peter; therefore, the faith of the Roman Church is the catholic faith, from which this See can never defect.” [Defensio Fidei Catholicae Adversus Anglicanae Sectae Errores , chap. 5, n. 7]
The faith of Peter and his successors can never fail, just as the Church has always taught, just as Vatican I confirmed. But notice that the faith of the Roman Church — meaning the church at Rome or the Apostolic See — has the faith of Peter. And this is one explanation for why the Apostolic See remains always unblemished by any grave error. We also know that each Roman Pontiff has the charism of truth and of never-failing faith, a charism which was first given to Peter.
Pope Leo XIII, in Satis Cognitum 13, quotes Pope Saint Leo I and the Council of Florence on the role that Saint Peter has in presiding over the Pontificates of each of his successors. Peter does not abandon the government of the Church, regardless of whom the current Roman Pontiff may be. And the charisms given to each Roman Pontiff are given to him “in Blessed Peter, by our Lord Jesus Christ”.
“It was necessary that a government of this kind, since it belongs to the constitution and formation of the Church, as its principal element — that is as the principle of unity and the foundation of lasting stability — should in no wise come to an end with St. Peter, but should pass to his successors from one to another. ‘There remains, therefore, the ordinance of truth, and St. Peter, persevering in the strength of the rock which he had received, hath not abandoned the government of the Church which had been confided to him’ (S. Leo M. [Pope St. Leo I the Great] sermo iii., cap. 3). For this reason the Pontiffs who succeed Peter in the Roman Episcopate receive the supreme power in the church, jure divino [by divine law]. ‘We define’ (declare the Fathers of the Council of Florence) ‘that the Holy and Apostolic See and the Roman Pontiff hold the primacy of the Church throughout the whole world: and that the same Roman Pontiff is the successor of St. Peter, the Prince of the Apostles, and the true Vicar of Christ, the head of the whole Church, and the father and teacher of all Christians; and that full power was given to him, in Blessed Peter, by our Lord Jesus Christ to feed, to rule, and to govern the universal Church, as is also contained in the acts of oecumenical councils and in the sacred canons’ (Conc. Florentinum). Similarly the Fourth Council of Lateran declares: ‘The Roman Church, as the mother and mistress of all the faithful, by the will of Christ obtains primacy of jurisdiction over all other Churches.’ These declarations were preceded by the consent of antiquity which ever acknowledged, without the slightest doubt or hesitation, the Bishops of Rome, and revered them, as the legitimate successors of St. Peter.” [Pope Leo XIII Satis Cognitum 13]
First, Pope Leo XIII quotes Pope Saint Leo the great, again teaching that Peter continues, in a sense, to govern the Church. And as Peter has his authority from Christ, each of Peter’s successors receives the supreme authority of the Church “by divine law”.
Then Leo XIII quotes the Ecumenical Council of Florence, as teaching that the power, that is, the authority of each Roman Pontiff is given to him “in Blessed Peter”. So we see that Peter’s role in each subsequent Pontificate is confirmed by an Ecumenical Council. But always this authority in Peter is from the Lord Jesus.
Pope Leo next quotes the Ecumenical Council of the Lateran (IV) as teaching that the authority of the Church at Rome, i.e. the Roman See, is by the will of Christ. But this authority is also from Peter, since each Pope is a successor of Peter.
Later in the same document (Satis Cognitum 13), Pope Leo XIII cites the papal legate, Fr. Philip, at the Council of Ephesus, and the pronouncements of the Councils of Chalcedon and Constantinople III, to reach a more specific conclusion and teaching: that Peter lives and exercises judgment in each Roman Pontiff.
“Wherefore what was acknowledged and observed as Christian faith, not by one nation only nor in one age, but by the East and by the West, and through all ages, this Philip, the priest, the Pontifical legate at the Council of Ephesus, no voice being raised in dissent, recalls: ‘No one can doubt, yea, it is known unto all ages, that St. Peter, the Prince of the Apostles, the pillar of the faith and the ground of the Catholic Church, received the keys of the Kingdom from Our Lord Jesus Christ, that is: the power of forgiving and retaining sins was given to him who, up to the present time, lives and exercises judgment in the persons of his successors’ (Actio iii.). The pronouncement of the Council of Chalcedon on the same matter is present to the minds of all: ‘Peter has spoken through Leo’ (Actio ii.), to which the voice of the Third Council of Constantinople responds as an echo: ‘The chief Prince of the Apostles was fighting on our side: for we have had as our ally his follower and the successor to his See: and the paper and the ink were seen, and Peter spoke through Agatho’ (Actio xviii.).”
This teaching, as stated by the papal legate, Philip, is quite startling: Peter both lives and exercises judgment in the person of each Roman Pontiff. This occurs by grace, and since it is of necessity, and not subject to the personal qualities or holiness of each Pope, it must be of prevenient grace, which no human person can resist. Then this doctrine is accepted in practice by two Councils, each of which states that Saint Peter is speaking, that is, exercising the judgment of the Keys (over doctrine and discipline), through the current Pope: Leo at Chalcedon, and Agatho at Constantinople III. The “paper and the ink” refers to the letter of Pope Saint Agatho to the Council.
Pope Benedict XV:
“2. Indeed the unique gift of Peter’s primacy is that he might spread everywhere and preserve the riches of charity and faith, as Ignatius Theophorus [Saint Ignatius of Antioch], a man of Apostolic times, beautifully declared. For in those noble letters he wrote to the Roman Church on his journey, announcing his arrival in Rome to be martyred for Christ, he gave testimony to the primacy of that Church over all others by calling it ‘presiding officer over the universal community of charity.’ This was to signify not only that the Universal Church was the visible image of divine charity, but also that Blessed Peter, together with his primacy and his love for Christ (affirmed by his triple confession), remains heir of the Roman See. Accordingly the souls of all the faithful should be ignited by the same fire.” [Principi Apostolorum Petro, n. 2]
Blessed Peter “remains heir” of the Apostolic See. And the reason for this role of Peter is to maintain the unity of the faithful, that they “should be ignited by the same fire” of faith and love.
Blessed Pope John Paul I mentions the role of Peter in every pontificate, by quoting Pope Saint Leo with approval:
“From the moment we were elected throughout the days that followed, we were deeply struck and encouraged by the warm manifestations of affection given by our sons and daughters in Rome and also by those sending us from all over the world the expression of their irrepressible jubilation at the fact that God has again given the Church her visible Head. Our mind re-echoes spontaneously the emotion-filled words that our great saintly Predecessor, Saint Leo the Great, addressed to the faithful of Rome: ‘Blessed Peter does not cease to preside over his See. He is bound to the eternal Priest in an unbroken unity … Recognize therefore that all the demonstrations of affection that you have given me because of fraternal amiability or filial devotion have with greater devotedness and truth been given by you and me to him whose See we rejoice to serve rather than preside over it’ (Saint Leo the Great, Sermo V, 4-5: PL 54, 155-156).” [Inauguration of Petrine Ministry, 3 September 1978]
So this teaching on the role of Saint Peter, in Heaven, over every Pontificate, is not only ancient, but continues to be taught in modern times. Peter continues to preside over his See. And the reason is that Peter in Heaven is forever united to Christ the eternal Priest, forming an “unbroken unity” which then helps to unify the Church. And then Blessed Pope John Paul I sees himself as serving the See of Peter, which is still governed by Peter himself, through grace.
Then the most authoritative source for this doctrine is the teaching of the First Vatican Council, in Pastor Aeternus.
Pastor Aeternus Chapter 2: “1. That which our Lord Jesus Christ, the Prince of shepherds and great Shepherd of the sheep, established in the blessed Apostle Peter, for the continual salvation and permanent benefit of the Church, must of necessity remain forever, by Christ’s authority, in the Church which, founded as it is upon a Rock, will stand firm until the end of time [cf. Mt 7:25; Lk 6:48].”
“2. For no one can be in doubt, indeed it was known in every age that the holy and most blessed Peter, prince and head of the Apostles, the pillar of faith and the foundation of the Catholic Church, received the keys of the kingdom from our Lord Jesus Christ, the Savior and Redeemer of the human race, and that to this day and forever he lives and presides and exercises judgment in his successors, the bishops of the Holy Roman See, which he founded and consecrated with his blood.”
“3. Therefore whoever succeeds to the Chair of Peter obtains by the institution of Christ himself, the primacy of Peter over the whole Church. So what the truth has ordained stands firm, and blessed Peter perseveres in the rock-like strength he was granted, and he does not abandon that governorship of the Church which he once received.”
“4. For this reason it has always been necessary for every church — that is to say, for the faithful throughout the world — to be in agreement with the Roman Church because of its more capable leadership. In consequence of being joined, as members to head, with that See, from which the rights of sacred communion flow to all, they will grow together into the structure of a single Body.”
“5. Therefore, if anyone says that it is not by the institution of Christ the Lord himself (that is to say, by divine law) that blessed Peter should have perpetual successors in the primacy over the whole Church; or that the Roman Pontiff is not the successor of blessed Peter in this primacy: let him be anathema.”
Notice the teaching that Blessed Peter continues to persevere in governorship of the Church. For he “lives and presides and exercises judgment in his successors”, the Roman Pontiffs.
Whoever accuses a Roman Pontiff of grave error in his exercise of the Keys of Saint Peter, accuses Peter himself. And whoever accuses Peter, accuses Christ Jesus, who gave Peter and his successors the charisms of the Roman Pontiff, including a never-failing faith.
Vatican I, Pastor Aeternus, Chapter 4, n. 6-7:
“Indeed, their Apostolic teaching was embraced by all the venerable fathers and reverenced and followed by all the holy orthodox doctors, for they knew very well that this See of Saint Peter always remains unblemished by any error, in accordance with the divine promise of our Lord and Savior to the prince of his disciples: ‘I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren’ [Lk 22:32].”
“This gift of truth and never-failing faith was therefore divinely conferred on Peter and his successors in this See so that they might discharge their exalted office for the salvation of all, and so that the whole flock of Christ might be kept away by them from the poisonous food of error and be nourished with the sustenance of heavenly doctrine. Thus the tendency to schism is removed and the whole Church is preserved in unity, and, resting on its foundation, can stand firm against the gates of Hell.”
The gift and privilege of never-failing faith was divinely conferred on Peter, but is also conferred on each and every successive Roman Pontiff. This preserves every Pope from apostasy, heresy, schism, or idolatry, and from grave error on doctrine and discipline.
Ronald L. Conte Jr.