The Third Set of Four Charisms: Unity (12) Subjection to the Pope

12. Subjection to the Roman Pontiff is from the necessity of salvation.

Since “Christ and His Vicar constitute one only Head” of the one Church, submission to the Roman Pontiff is an essential part of the plan of salvation chosen by Christ. Those who are saved are always in some way saved by Christ, even if they do not realize it (cf. Mt 25:37-39). The dogma that Christ and His Vicar are one only head of the one Church, the sole Ark of Salvation, means that this submission to the Roman Pontiff is not optional, and cannot be rejected without committing at least an objectively grave sin. Moreover, when Catholic Christians reject or resist or oppose the authority of the Roman Pontiff (not merely disagreeing on a less-than-grave non-infallible matter), they commit the objective offense of schism. Formal schism, that is, schism committed knowingly and deliberately, carries the penalty of automatic excommunication. The knowledge and deliberation needed for the sin of schism to be formal can be well short of the full knowledge and full deliberation required for any objectively grave sin to be an actual mortal sin. So schismatics and heretics might still be in the state of grace. But they nevertheless lose the fullness of their membership in the Catholic Church and are separated from the Apostolic See of Peter. Those who commit schism by separating themselves from, resisting, or opposing the Roman Pontiff are not faithful Catholics. And any Bishops who commit schism lose their jurisdiction (cf. Pope Leo XIII, Satis Cognitum, 15).

Now persons who do not know this requirement of submission to the Roman Pontiff, or who have a sincere but mistaken conscience regarding it, can be saved despite outwardly rejecting the Roman Pontiff and/or the Church. But they are always saved by Christ and His Church, at least implicitly. Excommunication is not the same as loss of the state of grace, though the two can coincide. And any objectively grave sin, even one that lacks the full culpability of actual mortal sin, endangers salvation.

As Saint Thomas Aquinas, Pope Boniface in Unam Sanctam, and the Fifth Lateran Council taught, submission to the Roman Pontiff is “from the necessity of salvation”. Certainly, persons can be saved in great numbers who are non-Catholic Christians, non-Christian believers, or non-believers. But they are always saved, even if they do not know it, by Christ through the one holy catholic and apostolic Church. They are saved by being implicit members. Automatic excommunication for formal schism removes one from formal membership in the Church, but the state of grace and therefore a membership that is at least implicit is still possible. See the section at the end of this book, subtitled: No Salvation Outside the Church.

* Saint Thomas Aquinas: “For it is revealed that to be subject to the Roman Pontiff is from the necessity of salvation….” Latin text: Ostenditur etiam quod subesse Romano pontifici sit de necessitate salutis.

~ The phrase “de necessitate salutis” means “from the necessity of salvation”, but is usually translated less literally and less correctly as “is necessary for salvation”. Certainly, many persons are saved who do not accept submission to the Roman Pontiff, such as Orthodox Christians, Protestant Christians, and non-Christian believers as well as non-believers who are in the state of grace. But they are saved by Christ and His Church, and the Lord Jesus’ plan for that Church grants an essential role of the Roman Pontiff. Similarly, Saint Thomas says that all seven Sacraments are necessary for salvation, meaning essential to the Church, as the sole Ark of Salvation, and essential to God’s plan of salvation through Christ and His Church. But this does not imply that one must receive all even Sacraments to be saved.

~ Invincible ignorance often reduces the culpability of persons who reject the authority of the Roman Pontiff or the Church Herself. But not everyone has invincible ignorance, and invincible ignorance by itself does not save. The state of grace obtained from Christ and His Church saves souls. Invincible ignorance only keeps some persons from falling into actual mortal sin due to reduced culpability. This absence of culpability for a particular actual mortal sin does not imply or grant the state of grace.

* Saint Thomas adds: “And [Saint] Maximus [the Confessor] in the epistle to those of the East directly says: ‘We state that the universal Church has been united and founded upon the rock of the confession of Peter, [and] according to the definition of salvation, in Her, by the necessity of salvation [necessario salutis], our souls are to remain, and to her [our souls] are to be obedient, keeping her faith and confession.’ ”

~ This phrase “from” or “by” the necessity of salvation recurs again and again in this teaching. It is aptly phrased in Latin and usually not well translated. The obligation to submit to the authority of the Roman Pontiff over doctrine and discipline, and over the whole Church, is entirely essential to the plan of salvation because Peter and his successors are both the Rock on which the Church is founded, and one Head of the Church with Christ. Since Christ is absolutely essential to salvation, submission to His Vicar, the Pope, is “from the necessity of salvation”.

* Saint Thomas quoting Saint Cyril: “According to this promise of the Lord, the Apostolic Church of Peter remains pure and spotless from all leading into error, or heretical fraud, above all Heads and Bishops, and Primates of Churches and people, with its own Pontiffs, with most abundant faith, and the authority of Peter. And while other Churches have to blush for the error of some of their members, this [Apostolic Church of Peter] reigns alone, immovably established, enforcing silence, and stopping the mouths of all heretics; and we, by the necessity of salvation [et nos, necessario salutis], not drunken with the wine of pride, confess, together with it, the formula of truth and of the holy apostolic tradition.” [From the golden chain of Saint Thomas Aquinas, attributed incorrectly to Saint Cyril, but approved by Thomas.]

~ I wonder if Saint Thomas Aquinas picked up the expression “necessario salutis” from the above text, attributed to Saint Cyril, published in the Golden Catena, one of the earliest of Thomas’ works. In any case, the expression is quite clear when read across multiple texts: certain things are so closely related to what is absolutely essential to salvation (in this case, Christ himself) that they are rightly termed “from the necessity of salvation”. The Vicar of Christ is certainly most closely related to the author of our Salvation, Christ the Lord.

~ Notice that in Saint Thomas’ commentary on the Gospels above, the Apostolic See “remains pure and spotless” and certainly also free from “heretical fraud”. But the Apostolic See can only stop the “mouths of all heretics”, not only some of them, if that See is itself necessarily always free from heresy and grave error. And the head of that See, the Roman Pontiff, must therefore also have this same indefectibility, this same freedom from heresy and all grave error (on doctrine and discipline). Thus, when the Roman Pontiff exercises the Keys of Saint Peter, he cannot err gravely.

* Pope Boniface, Unam Sanctam: “But this authority, even though it may be given to a man, and may be exercised by a man, is not human, but rather divine, having been given by the divine mouth to Peter, and to him as well as to his successors, by Christ Himself, that is, to him whom He had disclosed to be the firm rock, just as the Lord said to Peter himself: ‘Whatever you shall bind,’ [Mt 16:19] etc. Therefore, whoever resists this authority, such as it has been ordained by God, resists the ordination of God. [Romans 13:2]”

“Moreover, that every human creature is to be subject to the Roman pontiff, we declare, we state, we define, and we pronounce to be entirely from the necessity of salvation.”

~ The authority of Peter and his successors is divine, not human, since it was given to Peter and his successors “by the divine mouth” of Christ. Those who resist the authority of any Roman Pontiff, resist the ordination of God. There is no argument that can prevail over this ancient and constant teaching of the Church. Each Roman Pontiff has supreme authority directly from Christ, since Christ and His Vicar of one only Head. Then the obligation to be subject to the Roman Pontiff, the head of the Church, is binding on “every human creature” because the Church is the sole Ark of salvation for all humanity. (All are offered salvation; not all accept that offer.) Some might be saved without this subjection, due to invincible ignorance from a sincere but mistaken conscience. But the refusal of submission is always, for anyone, at least an objectively grave sin. Then, Catholic Christians, especially those well-informed about magisterial teaching, must consider, in the fear of God, that any refusal of subjection to any Roman Pontiff might be for them an actual mortal sin. Of those to whom more is given, more will be expected (Lk 12:48).

* Fifth Lateran Council: “And since it arises from the necessity of salvation that all the faithful of Christ are to be subject to the Roman Pontiff, just as we are taught by the testimony of the divine Scriptures and of the holy Fathers, and as is declared by the Constitution of Pope Boniface VIII of happy memory, which begins ‘Unam Sanctam,’ for the salvation of the souls of the same faithful, and by the supreme authority of the Roman pontiff and of this holy See, and by the unity and power of the Church, His spouse, the same Constitution, being approved by the sacred Council, we renew and approve.”

~ This teaching that subjection to the Roman Pontiff is from the necessity of salvation is not only the ancient and constant teaching of the Church, but also a dogma confirmed by an Ecumenical Council, Lateran V. Now this Council uses the term “all the faithful of Christ”, while Unam Sanctam uses the term “every human creature”. These two terms agree when one considers that every human creature is offered salvation, and those who do obtain salvation, do so only through Christ and His Church, at least by implicit membership in the Church (e.g. an implicit baptism of desire and dying in the state of grace). Thus, all who are saved, even non-Christians, must be included in the expression “all the faithful of Christ”.

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5 Responses to The Third Set of Four Charisms: Unity (12) Subjection to the Pope

  1. Robert Fastiggi says:

    Dear Ron,
    Thank you very much for your series on the 12 papal charisms. i hope your articles are read by many. As you know, some Catholic traditionalists now argue that we should resist papal decisions that are destructive of the common good. Dr. Peter Kwasniewski and others have made this argument. Some traditionalists even argue that the Missal of St. Paul VI is illicit because it is opposed to the common good. I tried to respond to this argument, which seems to be held by Dr. John Lamont: The question, of course, is who determines whether a papal decision is opposed to the common good. The position of these traditionalists would allow Catholics to disobey any papal decision that they decide is opposed to the common good. I believe this position completely undermines papal authority over matters of discipline. As such, it stands in opposition to the solemn teaching of Vatican I (Pastor Aeternus, chap. 3 ; Denz.-H, 3064). I hope you would agree.

    • Ron Conte says:

      Yes, I agree. Papal decisions, in the exercise of the Keys of Saint Peter (over doctrine and discipline, including the liturgy), have divine assistance and can never contradict the indefectibility of the Church. So these decisions can never be destructive of the common good of the Church or the faithful (or even of the world, since the Church is sent to convert and save sinners everywhere). The claim that papal decisions can be judged, condemned as contrary to the common good, and opposed is contrary to the teachings of the Church on the papal charisms, which protect the decisions of the Pope for the Church. The result of such a claim is that every Catholic would then distrust and judge every every decision of Popes and Ecumenical Councils. This would leave the faithful vulnerable to false teachers, and would divide the faithful from the Pope and the body of Bishops.

      These types of claims are very self-serving. If the faithful cannot trust the Popes, then who should they trust? The implied answer is that these accusers of Popes wish to be the ones leading the faithful. And they often speak as if Popes, Councils, and the body of Bishops can err very grievously, but they themselves are above reproach. There is an implicit indefectibility that is assumed by them, as they judge and condemn so many different papal and conciliar decisions. It is as if only they are fit to teach the faithful. They usurp the indefectibility of the Church, while they attack the same.

  2. Vít Lacman says:

    Dear mr. Conte
    May I still ask You some additional questions regarding idolatry? As You can already tell, for me it’s very difficult to discern what is lawful, mortal or venial and I would like to again use Your help, if You don’t mind.

    Firstly, if one has an extreme attachment or devotion to something (money, social media, entertainment) and because of it he is neglecting a lot his relationship with God and distracts him from his day to day life, would that thing be an mortal idol? For example if his time for reading the Bible is much shorter and he prays only a little, it takes the most of his free time and his whole day revolves around it?
    And a related question: Would too little time, energy or attention devoted to God (saying only a few quick prayers every day, seldom reading the Bible) in itself be gravely sinful?

    Secondly, what would an idolatry look like in regards to food. For example, would it be a mortal sin for someone to eat exclusively junk food or drink only beer or be obsessed with sugar or something like that?

    And thirdly, this is a completely different question. Is reading articles, books or other material that is denying the existence of God and might endanger my faith (for example debunking of miracles by skeptics) seriously sinful? I have read that every catholic must strive to avoid everything dangerous to his faith.

    Thank you for Your answers and for Your willingness to still answer me. Hopefully, I am writing You for the last time.

    • Ron Conte says:

      None of those things are mortal sins. To be a mortal sin, it has to be absolutely incompatible with continuing in the state of grace. Even though, rhetorically, people say that various things can be idols, they are not idols in the sense of a mortal sin. One should pray more and be more devoted to God and give less attention to material and temporal concerns. But failing in that regard is imperfection and at times venial sin, not mortal sin. God continues to hold persons in the friendship of the state of grace who fail in the ways that you described. Please do not consider God to be harsh in His judgments of us, but merciful. And that mercy is thoroughly integrated into morality, such that actual mortal sins are not so easy or common as you imagine.

  3. Vít Lacman says:

    Thank You, mr. Conte

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