Supreme Papal Authority is the Ancient Constant Teaching of the Church

Part One —

What the First Vatican Council taught on the supreme authority of the Roman Pontiff was nothing new, but only a clear and definitive expression of the ancient and constant teaching of the Church. Vatican I did not teach a new doctrine on papal authority, but rather the same doctrine found in Sacred Scripture and in the teaching of Popes, Councils, Fathers, Doctors, Saints, Cardinals and Bishops. One and the same position on papal authority has always been taught, from the early centuries of Church all the way to Vatican I and II. And this article will prove that this doctrine on papal authority is both ancient and constant.

For the specific references for the following quotes, see this list of teachings and its endnotes.

The Pope has supreme authority over the whole Church.

Christ Jesus, the Lord: “And in response, Jesus said to him: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father, who is in heaven. And I say to you, that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatever you shall bind on earth shall be bound, even in heaven. And whatever you shall release on earth shall be released, even in heaven.” (Mt 16:18-19).

~ Christ the Lord gave us a very clear and definitive expression of the supreme authority of Peter and his successors. Peter’s two Keys, his authority over doctrine and discipline, are the keys of the kingdom of heaven. So much authority is given to Peter and his successors that what he decides on earth, binding or releasing, is decided in the same way even in heaven.

~ So while the accusation of ultramontanism seeks to greatly restrict the authority of Peter and his successors — because they have not taught and ruled as the ultra-conservatives wish — the teaching of Christ himself clearly gives Peter and his successors supreme authority over the Church on earth. Peter holds the Keys.

~ And as if in response to the wicked claim that the authority of the Roman Pontiff must be limited, otherwise he would lead the Church into heresy or other grave error, Jesus teaches that His Church, founded on Peter and his successors, will never lead us astray or go astray, for then the gates of Hell could be said to have prevailed over the Church.

~ And this is what Pope Leo XIII explains this authority of the Roman Pontiff as well as his indefectibility:

Pope Leo XIII, Satis Cognitum: The words — and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it — proclaim and establish the authority of which we speak. “What is the it?” (writes Origen). “Is it the rock upon which Christ builds the Church or the Church? The expression indeed is ambiguous, as if the rock and the Church were one and the same. I indeed think that this is so, and that neither against the rock upon which Christ builds His Church nor against the Church shall the gates of Hell prevail” (Origenes, Comment. in Matt., tom. xii., n. ii).

“The meaning of this divine utterance is, that, notwithstanding the wiles and intrigues which they bring to bear against the Church, it can never be that the church committed to the care of Peter shall succumb or in any wise fail. “For the Church, as the edifice of Christ who has wisely built ‘His house upon a rock,’ cannot be conquered by the gates of Hell, which may prevail over any man who shall be off the rock and outside the Church, but shall be powerless against it” (Ibid.).

“Therefore God confided His Church to Peter so that he might safely guard it with his unconquerable power. He invested him, therefore, with the needful authority; since the right to rule is absolutely required by him who has to guard human society really and effectively. This, furthermore, Christ gave: “To thee will I give the keys of the kingdom of Heaven.” And He is clearly still speaking of the Church, which a short time before He had called His own, and which He declared He wished to build on Peter as a foundation. The Church is typified not only as an edifice but as a Kingdom, and everyone knows that the keys constitute the usual sign of governing authority.

“Wherefore when Christ promised to give to Peter the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, he promised to give him power and authority over the Church. “The Son committed to Peter the office of spreading the knowledge of His Father and Himself over the whole world. He who increased the Church in all the earth, and proclaimed it to be stronger than the heavens, gave to a mortal man all power in Heaven when He handed him the Keys” (S. Johannes Chrysostomus [St. John Chrysostom], Hom. liv., in Matt. v., 2). In this same sense He says: “Whatsoever thou shall bind upon earth it shall be bound also in Heaven, and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth it shall be loosed also in Heaven.” This metaphorical expression of binding and loosing indicates the power of making laws, of judging and of punishing; and the power is said to be of such amplitude and force that God will ratify whatever is decreed by it. Thus it is supreme and absolutely independent, so that, having no other power on earth as its superior, it embraces the whole Church and all things committed to the Church.”

~ Pope Leo XIII wrote those words in 1896. But, after the Gospels revealed this authority of Peter, the very same teaching continued in the early Church:

Pope Saint Clement I, 88-97: “If any disobey what He [Jesus Christ] says through Us, let them know that they will be involved in no small offence and danger; but We shall be innocent of this sin.”

Pope Saint Clement I: “Joy and gladness will you afford Us, if you become obedient to the words written by Us, and, through the Holy Spirit, root out the lawless wrath of your jealousy, according to the intercession which We have made for peace and unity in this letter.”

~ Jesus Christ speaks through the Roman Pontiff, and those who disobey commit no small offense.

Saint Irenaeus, Doctor, 130-202, on “the greatest and oldest Church, known to all, founded and established by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul, at Rome,” which is called Roman Church or Apostolic See: “For to this Church, because of Her mightier rule, every Church must agree, that is, those who are faithful from all sides, in which the tradition from the apostles is kept by those who are from all sides.”

~ Every local Church and See in the world must agree with the Roman See, which is the See of Peter and his successors. This is the ancient “tradition of the apostles”, kept everywhere in the Church by all who are faithful.

Tertullian, 155-220: “But if Peter was reproved because, after having lived with the Gentiles, he separated himself from their company out of respect for persons, surely this was a fault in his conversation, not in his preaching.”

~ Saint Peter’s error, while he reigned as Pope, was an error of personal behavior, and not a fault in his decisions of doctrine or discipline. In fact, when later he and the other Apostles decided whether or not Christians must keep the Mosaic disciplines (including dietary laws), they all agreed that such laws were dispensed by Christ. So Peter did not err in his exercise of the Keys, but only in his own behavior as a fallen sinner. Therefore, the correction of Peter by Paul does not excuse any of the faithful from obedience to the decisions of the Roman Pontiffs on doctrine and discipline.

Origen, 184-253: “It is manifest, even if it were not expressed, because the gates of Hell can prevail against neither Peter, nor the Church, for if they prevailed against the rock on which the Church was founded, they would prevail against the Church.” [Mt 16:18]

Origen, 184-253: “neither against the rock upon which Christ builds His Church, nor against the Church, shall the gates of Hell prevail.”

~ Pope Leo XIII quotes approvingly Origen in Satis Cognitum on the above quoted points. The expression of Christ that the gates of Hell will never prevail over the Church signifies Her indefectibility. But Origen says, and Pope Leo XIII agrees, that both the Rock on which the Church is founded and the Church are indefectible. So the meaning of Christ’s words is that Peter and each of his successors is indefectible, for if the gates of Hell prevailed over the Pope, they would have prevailed over the Church, which is impossible due to the promise and power of Christ. Similarly, Saint Cyprian says:

Saint Cyprian, Bishop, 210-258: “Where Peter is, there is the Church”, repeated by Saint Ambrose and Saint Boniface. Confirmed by Pope Benedict XV, in the encyclical In Hac Tanta.

~ The supreme authority of the Roman Pontiff does not imply that the Church will be led into error, as Peter and his successors have an indefectibility in their exercise of the Keys. Thus, the common argument against this dogma of supreme papal authority is refuted by the words of Christ and the teaching of the Church.

Pope Saint Lucius I, Martyr, 253-254: “The Roman Apostolic Church is the mother of all Churches and has never been shown to have wandered from the path of Apostolic tradition, nor being deformed, succumbed to heretical novelties according to the promise of the Lord himself, saying, ‘I have prayed for thee, etc.’ [Lk 22:32]”

~ The supreme authority of the Apostolic See or “Roman Apostolic Church” is shown by Her role as “the mother of all Churches”. Moreover, the Church has always taught that the Papal See has never wandered from Apostolic tradition, nor been deformed by, nor succumbed to heretical errors. And this freedom from heresy and other grave errors is due to the promise and prayer of Christ in Luke 22:32.

Theodotus of Ancyra, martyr, fl. 303: “This holy See holds the reign of the Churches of the world, not only on account of other things, but also because She remains free from the heretical stench.”

~ Notice the two related papal charisms. The Papal See has full authority over the Churches of the whole world, and one good reason for this supreme authority is that the Apostolic See always “remains free from the heretical stench”. The indefectibility of Peter and his successors, as the Rock on which the indefectible Church is founded, is the reason that Christ could give such supreme authority to the Roman Pontiffs without endangering the Faith or the faithful.

Pope Saint Julius I, 337-352, writing to the Eastern Bishops: “Do you not know that this is the custom, that first you must write to us, and that here what is just shall be decreed.”

Pope Saint Julius I: “It is not right to make laws for the Churches, apart from the knowledge of the Bishop of Rome.”

~ The Eastern Bishops have different customs that the West, but they, too, must obey the Roman Pontiff. Whatever the Pope decrees on doctrine and discipline is what the Church must accept. You cannot form your own little (or large) group and then disregard or disobey the Supreme Pontiff.

Council of Sardica, 344 (not Ecumenical), writing to Pope Saint Julius I: “It seemed best and most proper that the priests of the Lord should refer from every province to the head, that is to the See of the Apostle Peter.”

~ This same understanding and teaching has persisted in the Church from the time of Christ (Mt 16:18; Lk 22:32), throughout the centuries, all the way to Vatican I, Vatican II, and Pope Francis.

Saint Optatus of Milevis to the Donatists: “How can you pretend to have the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, [you] who sacrilegiously fight against the See of Peter by your presumption and impudence?”

~ Saint Optatus might as well be speaking to the restorationists and other papal accusers of today. They speak today as if the Pope has no supreme authority, and yet also as if they are the ones with supreme authority. They “fight against the See of Peter,” and so they are condemned by their own words, by their own presumption and impudence.

Pope Saint Damasus I, 366-384: “The First See, therefore, is that of Peter the Apostle, that of the Roman Church, which has neither stain nor blemish nor anything like it.”

~ The supreme authority of Peter and his successors does not and cannot lead the Church or the faithful into grave error, as that Supreme See has no stain or blemish or the like.

Pope Saint Damasus I, the Roman Synod of 378, to the emperors Gratian and Valentinian II: “Certain bishops, unworthy pastors, have carried their insolence and contempt to the point of refusing obedience to the Bishop of Rome.”

~ Even individual Bishops must be obedient to the Bishop of Rome. Those who refuse that obedience are “unworthy pastors”, says Pope Saint Damasus, for their insolence and contempt has reached the extreme degree of refusing to accept the authority of the Roman Pontiff.

Pope Saint Innocent I, in 417, praised the local Council of Carthage for having “kept and confirmed the example of ancient discipline.” He states: “You have referred to our judgment, knowing what is due to the Apostolic See, from which the Episcopate itself and all authority of this Name has come…. You know that nothing, even in the most distant provinces, is to be settled until it comes to the knowledge of this See; so that the decision be established by the whole authority of this See.”

~ The authority of the Apostolic See settles every controversy, whether on doctrine or discipline. Even a local Council of Bishops (at Carthage) is required to accept the supreme authority of the Pope.

Saint Flavian, martyr, Patriarch of Constantinople, died 449. He was beaten at the so-called “robber council” of Ephesus in 449, and he died soon after (probably of his injuries). Saint Flavian wrote to Pope Saint Leo the great (I) asking him to intervene in the Christological dispute over Monophysitism [the one nature heresy].

Saint Flavian writing to Pope Saint Leo I: “The whole question needs only your single decision and all will be settled in peace and quietness. Your sacred letter will with God’s help completely suppress the heresy which has arisen and the disturbance which it has caused; and so the convening of council — which is in any case difficult — will be rendered superfluous.”

~ How can the authority of the Roman Pontiff settle a serious theological dispute, where one side is dogma and the other is heresy? Could not the Pope, perhaps inadvertently, take the wrong side, the heretical side? No. For the papal charism of supreme authority is accompanied by other charisms, including the charism of truth and never-failing faith and the unblemished, i.e. indefectible, nature of the Apostolic See. In this way, grace prevents this supreme authority from ever being misused by any Pope to teach any grave error on doctrine, or to harm the Church or the faithful by any grave error on discipline.

Saint Augustine, Doctor, 354-430: “For my part, I should not believe the Gospel except as moved by the authority of the Catholic Church.”

Saint Augustine: “Roma locuta est; causa finita est [Rome has spoken; the case is closed].”

Saint Augustine: the Roman Church, “in which the ruling authority of the Apostolic See has always held firm.”

~ Those who claim to have understood the Gospel better than the authority of the Roman Pontiff and the body of Bishops delude themselves by pride. The faithful do not accept any interpretation of the Gospel apart from the authority of the Roman Pontiff and the body of Bishops teaching with him. By the grace of God, the authority of the Apostolic See has always held firm in the faith. And when the Roman See has decided a matter of doctrine or discipline, the case is closed. This, too, indicates the supremacy of papal authority.

Saint Augustine: “Unless the Lord dwelt in the Church, as She is now, the most careful speculation would fall into error; but of this Church [it] is said: She is the holy temple of God.”

~ The Lord Jesus dwells in the Church, and the Holy Spirit is the soul of the Body of Christ, the Church. Therefore, the Roman Pontiff and the body of Bishops led by him do not and cannot lead the faithful astray by their authority. And so the argument is refuted which claims that supreme authority for the Roman Pontiff would harm the faith. The indefectibility of the Church is better than the most careful speculation by Her accusers. No matter how many allegedly holy and wise scholars reject what the Church teaches through the Roman Pontiff or the body of Bishops led by him (gathered in an Ecumenical Council or dispersed in the world), they are wrong and the Church is right. Every argument made by the accusers of Popes and Councils does not weigh more than the supreme authority of the Roman Pontiff and the indefectibility of the Church.

Saint Cyril of Alexandria, Doctor, 370-444: “They [the Apostles] strove to learn through one, that preeminent one, Peter.”

~ Even the great and holy Apostles were submissive to the teaching authority of the Apostle Peter and his successors.

Saint Peter Chrysologus, Doctor, 406-450, Bishop of Ravenna: “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.”

~ Saint Peter still lives, presides, and exercises authority in the Apostolic See. So the authority of each Roman Pontiff is not only that of Christ, but also of Peter.

The Third Council of Constantinople, Actio XVIII: “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 [Pope Saint] Agatho.”

~ By the grace of God, Peter continues to act through each Roman Pontiff.

Pope Saint Zosimus, 417-418: “the tradition of the Fathers attributed so much authority to the Apostolic See that no one dared to challenge its judgment and has always preserved it through canons and regulations … such great authority belongs to Us that no one could argue again with Our decision….”

Pope Saint Boniface I, 418-422: “No one has ever boldly raised his hands against the Apostolic Eminence, from whose judgment it is not permissible to dissent; no one has rebelled against this, who did not wish judgment to be passed upon him.”

Pope Saint Boniface I: “there is to be no review of our judgment. In fact, it has never been licit to deliberate again on that which has once been decided by the Apostolic See.”

Pope Saint Boniface I, to the bishops of Thessaly: “It is therefore certain that this Church [the Roman See] is to the Churches throughout the world as the head to its members. If anyone cut himself off from this Church, not being in union with her, he is outside the Christian religion.”

Pope Saint Celestine I, 422-432: “The sanctions of the blessed and Apostolic See may not be violated.”

emperor Valentinian III, 423-455: “We must defend the faith handed down by our fathers with all care; and we must keep the proper reverence due to the blessed apostle Peter incorrupt in our time also. Therefore the most blessed Bishop of the Roman city, to whom ancient right has given the authority of the priesthood over all, shall have his place, and power to judge about the faith and about bishops.”

~ Notice that the above several quotes all express the supreme authority of the Roman Pontiff. These quotes and the many quotes before and after all fit the description given by the restorationists, by the accusers of Popes and Councils, of what they call “ultramontanism”. But labeling an idea with a negative term does not prove the idea to be false. Clearly, the Church has always taught an authority given to the Roman Pontiff of such primacy and supremacy as to fit that description of ultramontanism. But whatever the terminology, the teaching is from Christ (Mt 16:18; Lk 22:32) and is as always understood and expressed in the ancient constant teaching of Popes, Councils, Fathers, Doctors, and Saints.

~ You can call it “ultramontanism” or “extreme”, but it is nevertheless the teaching of the ordinary universal Magisterium, confirmed by the First Vatican Council, and therefore is a dogma binding on all the faithful. As for me, I do not consider this teaching to be in any way extreme or unusual.

~ All these papal accusers speak and act as if they each have supreme authority. They presume to decide every question of doctrine or discipline, as if definitively. And they have the arrogance to accuse the Vicar of Christ of heresy, apostasy, and idolatry, merely for disagreeing with them. They seek to deprive the successors of Peter and the body of Bishops acting with the Roman Pontiff in Ecumenical Councils (or dispersed in the world) of their proper authority, so that they themselves, these accusers of the Church, can rule with supreme authority in place of the successors of Peter and the successors of the other Apostles.

Pope Saint Leo I (the great), Doctor, 440-461: “The special care of Peter is received from the Lord; he prayed for the faith of Peter in particular in as much as the state of the others would be more certain if the mind of the Prince were not conquered. Therefore, in Peter the strength of all is fortified and the help of divine grace is so ordered that the strength which was given to Peter through Christ would be conferred through Peter to the remaining Apostles.”

~ As Pope Saint Leo teaches, the supreme authority of Peter and his successors cannot be used to harm the Faith or the Church, not only because the Church is indefectible, but also because Peter and his successors have “the help of divine grace” so that strength from Christ flows to each Roman Pontiff and to the body of Bishops through the Pontiff. The mind of Peter and his successors cannot be conquered in the sense that they have the charism of truth and never-failing faith, and they cannot defect from the Faith. For if the faith of Peter were conquered, by any grave failing of faith, the Church would lose Her indefectibility promised to Her by Christ.

Pope Saint Leo I: “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.”

~ Again, we see that Peter continues to act in every one of his successors, even if one or another successor is personally unworthy. And so the care of all the pastors and sheep never fails, as the promise and prayer and Christ does not fail (Mt 16:18; Lk 22:32). Peter never abandons the helm of the Ark of Salvation.

Pope Saint Gelasius I, 492-496, epistle to the Emperor Anastasius: “This is what the Apostolic See guards against with all her strength because the glorious confession of the Apostle is the root of the world, so that She is polluted by no crack of depravity and altogether no contagion. For if such a thing would ever occur (which may God forbid and we trust cannot be), why would we make bold to resist any error?”

The example of Pope Vigilius, d. 555, as related by Saint Bellarmine: “It happened a little afterward, that [Pope] Silverius died and Vigilius, who to that point sat in schism, now began to be the sole and legitimate Pontiff for certain through the confirmation and reception by the clergy and the Roman people. From this time neither error nor feigning of error was discovered in Vigilius, but rather, supreme constancy in the faith even to death, as it shall appear. For he received with the pontificate the strength of faith and he was changed from a weak chaff into the most solid rock.”

Pope Pelagius II, 590 AD, writing to the Bishops of Istria: “For you know how the Lord in the Gospel declares: ‘Simon, Simon, behold Satan has desired you that he might sift you as wheat, but I have prayed to the Father for thee, that thy faith fail not, and thou, being converted, confirm thy brethren.’ See, beloved, the truth cannot be falsified, nor can the faith of Peter ever be shaken or changed.”

Pope Saint Gregory I (the great), Doctor, 590-604: “Who does not know that the whole Church was strengthened in the firmness of the Prince of the Apostles, to whom it was said, ‘Upon this rock I will build my Church … and thou, being converted, confirm thy brethren?’ [Mt 16:18; Lk 22:32]” Saint Bellarmine: “There Gregory clearly teaches the strength of the Church depends upon the strength of Peter, and hence Peter is less able to err than the Church herself.”

~ The above several quotes teach the charism of truth and never-failing faith taught in Pastor Aeternus, chapter 4, n. 6-7, as a confirmation of the ancient and constant teaching of the Church on the meaning of Luke 22:32. No successor of Peter can ever fail in truth or faith, by teaching grave error, nor by failing in faith himself through apostasy, heresy, schism, or idolatry. It is undeniable and very clearly established that this charism of truth and never-failing faith has always been the teaching of the Church. And therefore the supreme authority of the Roman Pontiff can never possibly be used to teach heresy, nor to lead the Church astray from divine truth and the true faith.

~ Notice that Vigilius, who prior to becoming Roman Pontiff was a manifest heretic and antipope, became a rock of faith as soon as the true papacy was entrusted to him. He was converted, just as Christ promised in Luke 22:32. This historical example is an excellent proof that no Pope can teach or commit heresy, for when even a heretic and antipope became Roman Pontiff, all heresy and grave error was immediately vanquished in him by the grace of God. Neither is this contrary to free will, as every Roman Pontiff must freely accept his office, in order to be the valid Pope.

Saint Maximus the Confessor, 580-662: “from the incarnate Word’s descent to us, all Christian churches everywhere have held and hold the great Church that is here [at Rome] to be their only basis and foundation since, according to the Savior’s promise, the gates of Hell have never prevailed against her.”

~ Here is the two related teachings on which this article is based: that the Apostolic See has supreme authority, and that this authority cannot be misused to the grave harm of the Church, the Faith, or the faithful, since our Lord and Savior has promised that the gates of Hell will never prevail over Her. And since the Roman Pontiff is the foundational Rock of the Church, this indefectibility of the Church also implies an indefectibility of the Roman Pontiff. Though the ancient teachings do not use the word “indefectibility”, the meaning of these many teachings is clearly that neither the Church, nor the Roman Pontiff who is, with Christ, one Head of the Church as well as Her Rock, can ever go astray or lead astray. This freedom from grave error and from all grave failings of faith prevents the misuse of the papal supreme authority. Note that both teachings were explicitly taught by Vatican I, after many centuries of the same teachings from the many sources cited in this article and in this larger set of teachings.

Saint Maximus the Confessor (c. 580-662) was an opponent of the Monothelite (one-will in Christ) heresy. He was also a great supporter of the primacy and authority of the Bishop of Rome, and he even defended Pope Honorius I (d. 638) against those who maintained the Pope was a Monothelite. Speaking of the See of Rome, Maximus writes:
“This Apostolic See, which, from the Incarnate Word of God Himself, as well as from the holy councils (according to the sacred canons and definitions) has received and possesses the sovereignty, authority and power of binding and loosing over all the churches of God in the entire world, in and through all things.”

~ The power to bind and loose, given to Peter by Christ, has always been interpreted to have been handed down to every Roman Pontiff, and to comprise a supreme and full authority over the whole Church.

** This article already has nearly 5,000 words, and we are only up to the 7th century in considering all the teachings that apply to this narrow topic: the supreme authority of the Roman Pontiff and his freedom from grave error and grave failings of faith, which secures that authority from ever harming the Faith or the faithful.

This article will be continued in part two, God willing.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

Please take a look at this list of my books and booklets, and see if any topic interests you.

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