When Peter Speaks

A. Burt Horsley, “The History,” in Peter and the Popes (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1989), 103–16.

When​ Peter Speaks

With reference to the matter of doctrine and dogma in the Catholic church, the non-Catholic is frequently misinformed. Surveys have revealed the fact that this is no less true of the average Catholic layman. It might well be said that general ignorance, laced with a taste for the sensational on the part of the non-Catholic and a reluctance to raise questions on the part of the Catholic layman, has led to the acceptance of anything that comes to one’s attention from almost any source as being authentic. Many, out of curiosity to know or hear something authentic or official about the doctrine and the views of the Catholic church, look to the sermon of perhaps a priest or the writings of some Catholic interpreter, assuming that he has the official dogma. In reality, since the very earliest days of the church, especially in times of ecumenical approval, it has been the tradition that the popes, as the successors of Peter in the papacy, have been the ones to speak for the church. Thus, at any given time in the church, there is only one who speaks for the entire church with authority and has the right to declare the position of the church.

The title of this chapter “When Peter Speaks,” might imply many things. Actually, it has reference to the idea that the successor of Peter in the papacy speaks in the name of Peter and, as he represents Peter, speaks forth the word of the prince of the apostles unto his congregation. Historically, many spokesmen, and presently, many contemporary Catholics, have offered their views. Not infrequently, whole groups of bishops may take a position at variance with the Vatican, and the expressions and meditations of individuals available to us in magazines, on the radio, and on television often assume a mantle of authenticity. There are frequent elaborations of theological tradition. But in the last analysis, perhaps the very best source we have to turn to for the official dogma and doctrine of the Catholic church would be the pronouncements of the popes. The official list of the pronouncements begins with the Catholic version of the “First Epistle of the Blessed Apostle, Peter,” as it is called. Consequently, since all popes in the Catholic tradition are heirs to the See of Peter and speak for him by his authority, Peter speaks through them. The term “When Peter speaks,” has to do with the concept of the perpetuation of Peter’s influence through those who have succeeded him and continue to speak for the church.

In addition to the epistles of Peter, a continuation of the idea of the rightful responsibility of the Roman bishop has been preserved in several early established documents.

there is one god; . . . there is one Christ . . . and one Holy Spirit; and . . . there ought to be one bishop (Roberts and Donaldson 5:341).

For example, Pope Innocent I (401–417) wrote in his epistle:

Who does not know or observe that it (the church order) was delivered by Peter the chief of the apostles to the Roman Church, and is kept until now, and ought to be retained by all, and that nothing ought to be imposed or introduced which has no authority or seems to derive its precedents elsewhere (Petry 188–89).

Another interesting reference to Petrine priority is found in a letter to the bishops of Thessaly from Pope Boniface I, dated 11 March 422. “The universal ordering of the Church at its birth took its origin from the office of blessed Peter, in which is found both its directing power and its supreme authority” (Giles 230–31).

Thus it was asserted very early that Peter’s, that is the pope’s, word is final and binding. This concept was reinforced even more strongly by Pope Galaius I (492–96) in a letter to the Byzantine Emperor Anastasius I. Known as his theory of two powers, Galasius denied the right of the emperor to interfere in church affairs:

here are two powers, august Emperor, by which this world is chiefly ruled, namely, the sacred authority of the priests and the royal power. Of these, that of the priests is the more weighty, since they have to render an account for even the kings of men in the divine judgment. You are also aware, dear son, that while you are permitted honorably to rule over human kind, yet in things divine you bow your head humbly before the leaders of the clergy and await from their hands the means of your salvation. In the reception and proper disposition of the heavenly mysteries you recognize that you should be subordinate rather than superior to the religious order, and that in these matters you depend on their judgment rather than wish to force them to follow your will (Robinson 1:72–73).

The question might well be posed, through what media is the voice of Peter heard? Just how do the various popes make their pronouncements to the world and in what manner is their word—or the will of Peter—given out for all to know? Among the earliest sources would be the epistles to which reference has already been made, accredited to Peter himself. Linus did not write anything of which we have record, and there is nothing attributed to Anacletus. But the church gives considerable attention to the writings of Clement. At least one of the epistles of Clement, which is well accepted and perhaps one of the finest extracanonical documents we have from this period, is considered very valuable by the Catholic church in helping to establish authority. At a later time, epistles were used frequently by the bishops of Rome to manifest their will unto the world.

There are also other official documents of papal origin which have come down to us through tradition, taking precedence as media through which the pope makes the will and position of the church known not only to the church, but to the world at large.

One of the most frequently used in times past is called the papal constitution. There had been very little attempt to distinguish the constitution in its unique usage from among other pronouncements or documents until the year 1587 when Sixtus V in his Papal Bull Immensa eterni precisely defined the various writings and announcements that proceed from the Vatican and described the particular format identified with each one according to its purpose.

Papal constitutions are ordinarily used for doctrinal disciplinary pronouncements. A papal bull is a device by which dignitaries are appointed, dioceses are erected and saints canonized. However, prior to the year 1587 a papal bull might have been used for other purposes. For example, it was a papal bull which officially excommunicated Luther and put him under the ban of the church. And it was this document that Luther burned publicly before the Elster gate in Wittenberg along with the canon law, to show his contempt.

There is the papal brief. This generally grants less important decrees or privileges and concessions. The encyclicals, which are perhaps the most important of the forms in terms of discovering doctrine, along with the papal constitution, are papal letters relating to doctrinal or moral matters, exhortations, warnings, or commendations. The word encyclical means that it is a letter which is of a circular nature: it is circulated among all the bishops of the church so that all are aware of its contents.

A rescript regularly contains some grant or favor, some dispensation or privilege bestowed in consequence of a previous petition or request.

There are also decrees, papal instructions ordinarily issued by one of the Roman offices or congregations in the name of the pope to which the pope’s approval is attached either in forma communi, the common form; or in forma specifica, the special form.

Finally, there are two other types of Letters Apostolic that are not usually significant for doctrinal purposes; Motu Proprio, an action taken on the pope’s personal initiative, and the Chirographic autograph letters written in the pope’s own handwriting.

The concern here will be primarily with those documents which have to do with the teaching and guiding of the faithful, subject to the sovereign power of the pope, particularly those things which have to do with faith, morals, discipline, and administration. These are properly ecclesiastical matters, although theological in nature, and are confined primarily to two of the types already mentioned, the encyclical and the papal constitution.

The Catholic tradition assumes that there is authority in the voice of Peter, or in the pronouncements of the popes, that this authority is established and accepted, and that, consequently, great attention and credence are given to the pope when he speaks. This is verified for the Catholic tradition by none other than the great Thomas Aquinas in his famous Summa Theologicae in Part 2ae, the tenth article. After asking whether or not the creed is subject to the authority of the pope, he says that it definitely is for two reasons: (a) because Jesus Christ prayed for Peter’s faith, that it might not fail and (b) because the one bread (of the Eucharist) “makes us one body” in one faith.

Thus the pope is only infallible when he speaks as head of the Church, but then always and necessarily infallible. Infallible means he cannot sin against either faith or morals. The infallibility is part of the primacy of Peter and means that when the pope defines the doctrines he does not merely anathematize those who believe differently nor only exclude error, he also determines and defines truth (Aquinas Part 2ac).

It is necessary to differentiate between pronouncements ex cathedra—when the pope speaks for the entire church from the seat or throne of Peter—and when he is merely giving out his opinion, voicing his feeling in the form of an encyclical for example. This kind of differentiation is necessary in the thinking of people in all faiths.

Coupled together with the idea of authority is the problem of the extent to which the authority of the encyclical is binding upon the church membership when it is not defined as ex cathedra, that is where the pope is not necessarily speaking for the whole church on matters of faith and morals from the throne of Peter. Then the question might arise, even in the thinking of a good Catholic, “To what extent am I obligated to listen to the word of the pope when he has not spoken out in the voice of Peter in the sense that he speaks ex cathedra, from the chair, and has defined it as such. Is it binding upon me as a member of the Catholic church?”

Two statements speak to this matter: one from Monsignor Joseph Fenton in the American Ecclesiastical Review says, “It is quite probable that some of the teachings set forth on the authority of the various papal encyclicals are infallible” (Fenton 217) even though they are not given as ex cathedra statements of the Holy Father. It is absolutely certain that all the teachings contained in these documents and dependent on their authority merit at least an internal religious assent from every Catholic.

Another from Father Thomas Pegues in Revue Thomiste:

The authority of the encyclicals is not at all the same as that of the solemn definitions ex cathedra. These demand an assent without reservations and make a formal act of faith obligatory.

It is, in a sense, sovereign. It is a teaching of the supreme pastor and teacher of the Church. Hence the faithful have a strict obligation to receive this teaching with infinite respect. A man must not be content simply not to contradict it openly . . . an internal mental assent is demanded. It should be received as the teachings of the sovereign authority within the church (Pegues 28).

The main thrust of such statements is that, although it is not obligatory that a Catholic accept the teachings of the pope without question, without reservation, unconditionally as they are given out in the various papal letters, particularly in encyclicals, it seems consistent with the idea of the pope’s unusual position of authority that it is to be expected of a Catholic that he respect this word as the word of the supreme sovereign of the Church; therefore, it is to be heeded and given consideration.

With reference to the famous doctrine of infallibility, it is important that considerable attention be given not only to the historical aspect of it, but also to its theological implications. The Vatican Council of 1869–70 was quite concerned with this problem of the infallibility of the voice of Peter or of the pope. Traditionally, it had been accepted by most Catholics without question. But there had never been an official pronouncement to the extent that it was given out ex cathedra—“This is the doctrine of the church”—so there were those who still had their reservations about it. Consequently, there was substantial voiced opposition from various parties and factions during some council sessions of 1870. After an appeal by the pope himself, and in the face of some opposition, it was finally passed. The vote by bishops in this council was 535 to 2 for acceptance of the doctrine of infallibility.

The straining point of consistency, however, was the fact that whether the council had accepted it or not, by tradition it had come to be. That is, that the pronouncement of the pope, ex cathedra, was infallible. The conciliar affirmation was simply that they agreed with the principle that when the pope speaks in matters of faith and morals ex cathedra, there is no such thing as opposition. These things ought not to be taken by reservation and there should be no appeal, no assent, no agreement to conform; meaning ultimately that there can be no agreement to agree. The official publication of this doctrine appeared in what is known as the papal constitution, Pastor aeternus which defines the dogma as a new dogma, not in the sense that the idea was new, but that it was given out then as official. The following quote is from Seeberg’s History of Doctrines,

In order that there might be one espicopate and that the multitude of believers might by it be held together in harmony, Christ placed Peter above the other apostles: “In him he established both perpetual source of unity and a visible foundation upon whose stability should be constructed the eternal temple” (2:461–62).

This is from the preface of the Pastor aeternus:

The “primacy of jurisdiction over the universal church of Christ” was imparted by Christ directly and immediately to Peter and to Peter alone. It conflicts with the teachings of the Scriptures to say that “this same primacy was conferred, not immediately and directly upon the blessed Peter himself, but upon the church and through it upon him as a minister of this church.” This power has passed from Peter upon his successors: “whence, whoever succeeds in this chair of Peter, he, according to the institution of Christ himself, obtains the primacy of the universal church.” According to this doctrine which is demanded by the Scriptures and tradition, the pope—as the Florentine decretal has taught—is to be recognized as a successor of the prince of the apostles, “the true vicar of Christ is head of the whole church and father and teacher (pater et doctor) of all Christians.” To him belongs the actual “power of jurisdiction” (potestasjurisdictioni). This power is “ordinary” and “immediate” and extends to every single believer, is, i.e. the pope exercises such power, not only in special cases as a last resort, but he can employ it at all times and under all circumstances. It is a “truly episcopal” power, inasmuch as the pope is authorized to perform all episcopal functions in all places. Every individual is therefore bound to render direct obedience to the ordinance of the pope in all things affecting faith and life, or the discipline and government of the church: This is the doctrine of the Catholic truth from which no one can deviate without forfeiting faith and salvation.”

The pope is the supreme judge of believers (the faithful). It is an error to desire to appeal from his decision to a council as a higher authority. The popes have always been acknowledged as the supreme authority in matters of faith. (And then the pronouncement of the council is formulated as follows):

Therefore, we . . . the holy council approving, teach and declare to be divinely revealed the dogma: That the Roman pontiff, when he speaks from the chair (ex cathedra), that is, when he, exercising the office of pastor and teacher of all Christians by virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, defines the doctrine concerning faith or morals (fide vel moribus) which is to be held by the universal church, he acts, through the divine assistance promised to the blessed Peter himself, with that infallibility by which the divine Redeemer wished his church to be instructed in the defining of doctrine concerning faith and morals; therefore the definitions of such Roman pontiff are of themselves but not by virtue of the consent of the church, beyond revision (irreformabiles). If anyone (which may God prevent) shall presume to contradict this our definition let him be anathema (Ibid.)

That there was some excitement stirred up by this act of the council cannot be ignored. Although the excitement was short-lived, it has at times been revived. Prior to 1870, there had been frequent instances in which some had spoken out in favor of the supreme authority of the council rather than the supreme authority of the pope.

A few select examples of the teachings of the popes cited here, some out of the past, some more recent, provide an insight into the historical exercise of such prerogative. From out of the distant past, we have one of the first examples, a summons by Eugene III, 1 December 1145, to the second crusade. Among other things in this encyclical, he says,

According to the institution of our aforesaid predecessor, by the authority of the Almighty God and by that of Saint Peter the chief of the apostles, conceded to us by God, we grant such remission and absolution of sins that he who shall devoutly begin so sacred a journey and shall accomplish it, or shall die during it, shall obtain absolution for all his sins which with a humble and contrite heart he shall confess, and shall receive the fruit of eternal retribution from the remunerator of all (Petry 247).

This is one of the gems emerging from the middle ages prior to the Reformation wherein the assumption on the part of the pope to grant a plenary indulgence to those who participate in the crusade is assured, conditioned upon confession of sins with a humble and contrite heart.

In 1744, still prior to the act of the Vatican Council which recognized the doctrine of infallibility, a document which we know as the encyclical Inter-omnigenas was given out by Benedict XIV on 2 February 1744. Having to do with prohibiting divorce from a runaway wife, it shows the diversity of topics which come under this kind of pronouncement:

If the wife of a Catholic runs off to the Turks and dares to contract with one of them a criminal alliance, her husband may not marry another in her stead; for marriage, indissoluble by divine right so long as the parties to it live, cannot be dissolved by this woman’s crime. Therefore any man who, in such a case, marries another woman, is guilty of adultery, and must be refused access to the sacraments, unless he had completely separated himself from the woman (Fremantle 106).

The last line makes reference to the new woman whom he would take, the woman whom he might marry in adultery. Unless he completely abandons her and separates himself from her, since this is not a marriage, he would be refused access to the sacraments, this being the crime of adultery.

The excommunication of Queen Elizabeth in the bull Regnans in excelsis by Pius V is something of considerable interest. Among other things, important here is the fact that the pope takes it upon himself not only to excommunicate Elizabeth, but to release all of her subjects from their allegiance and obligation to her. And, if they give support and allegiance to her, then he, in a plenary manner, excommunicates them also:

He that reigns in the highest, to whom has been given all power in heaven and earth, entrusted the government of the one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church (outside which there is no salvation) to one man alone on the earth, namely to Peter, the chief of the Apostles, and to Peter’s successor, the Roman pontiff, in fullness of power [potestatis plenitudo]. This one man he set up as chief over all nations and all kingdoms, to pluck up, destroy, scatter, dispose, plant and build. . . .

. . . Resting then upon the authority of him who has willed to place us (albeit unequal to such a burden) in this supreme throne of justice, we declare the aforesaid Elizabeth a heretic and an abetter of heretics, and those that cleave to her in the aforesaid matters to have incurred the sentence of Anathema, and to be cut off from the unity of Christ’s body.

Moreover we declare her to be deprived of her pretended right to the aforesaid realm, and from all dominion, dignity and privilege whatsoever.

And the nobles, subjects and people of the said realm, and all others who have taken an oath of any kind to her we declare to be absolved for ever from such oath and from all dues of dominion, fidelity and obedience, as by the authority of these presents we do so absolve them; and we deprive the said Elizabeth of her pretended right to the realm and all other things aforesaid: and we enjoin and forbid all and several the nobles, etc. . . . that they presume not to obey her and her admonitions, commands, and laws. All who disobey our command we involved in the same sentence of anathema (Bettenson 338–39; Fremantle 122).

In a somewhat different vein, on Christmas Day, 1825, Leo XII gave out his proclamation as to Sabbath observance in his encyclical, Caritate Christi:

Warned by you, May the people recall the precept imposed by the Lord, “Remember that thou keep holy the Sabbath day.” But the perversity of many is so great that they do not hesitate on that day to give themselves over to servile work; or, taking advantage of the exemption granted them from such works on that day, they profit by it to go to the devil. Thus, on feast days they give themselves over to banquets, to drunkenness, to debauchery and to all works of the devil. In so far as you can, see to it that this scandal disappears and that it is replaced by a willingness to pray, to listen to the word of God by the very salutary participation in the august sacrifice of the mass not only assisted at piously, but also by the reception of the body of Christ (Wynn 424–29, 518–29).

A matter of doctrine, this interesting interpretation on the Holy Ghost comes to us from Leo XIII in 1897:

The Church which, already conceived, came forth from the side of the second Adam in His sleep on the cross, first showed herself before the eyes for men on the great day of Pentecost. On that day the Holy Ghost began to manifest His gifts in the mystic body of Christ, by that miraculous outpouring already foreseen by the Prophet Joel, for the Paraclete, (in other words, the Holy Spirit) “sat upon the apostles as though new spiritual crowns were placed upon their heads in tongues of fire . . . .” Thus was fully accomplished the last promise of Christ to His apostles of sending the Holy Ghost, who was to complete and, as it were, to seal the deposit of doctrine committed to them under His inspiration. “I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now; but when He, the Spirit of Truth, shall come, He will teach you all truth.” For He who is the Spirit of Truth, inasmuch as he proceeded both from the Father, who is externally True, and from the Son, who is the substantial Truth, receiveth from each both His essence and the fullness of all truth. This truth He communicates to His Church, guarding her by His all-powerful help from ever falling into error, and aiding her to foster daily more and more the germs of divine doctrine and to make them fruitful for the welfare of the peoples. And since the welfare of the peoples, for which the Church was established, absolutely requires that this office should be continued for all time, the Holy Ghost perpetually supplies life and strength to preserve and increase the Church. “I will ask the Father and He will give you another Paraclete, that He may abide with you forever, the Spirit of Truth” (Ibid.)

Now he goes on to point out the extent of the influence of the Holy Ghost upon the bishops of the church:

By Him the bishops are constituted, and by their ministry are multiplied not only the children, but also the fathers—that is to say, the priests—to rule and feed the Church by that blood wherewith Christ has redeemed her. “The Holy Ghost hath placed you bishops to rule the Church of God, which He hath purchased with His own blood.” And both bishops and priests, by the miraculous gift of the Spirit, have the power of absolving sins, according to those words of Christ to the apostles: Receive ye the Holy Ghost; whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them, and whose you shall retain they are retained (Vatican Press Release).

Even today many assume the necessity of a dispensation for someone to get married if there exist certain circumstances with reference to the lives of the intended marital contractors. Although the policy has been altered somewhat by the resolutions of the last Vatican Council, much of the spirit of the tradition still survives in the thinking of some Catholics. In order then, for a Catholic girl to marry a man who has been divorced it would require a papal dispensation, permission from the pope for this to be done. Otherwise, the marriage would be adultery. This could be even more complicated if the person whom she is marrying is not a Catholic and has been divorced. Whatever the complications, a papal document of relief or remedy which implies special permission would be referred to as a rescript, a dispensation.

On at least one occasion, an item became doctrine by mistake. Pope Pius XII had given word of mouth counsel to a specific group. And, because the matter had to do with faith and morals, someone assumed this to be a statement of infallible weight. The following was reported by the press:

Pope Pius XII told Italian doctors in answer to a questionnaire here Sunday that the use of pain-killers is legitimate under certain circumstances, even when they hasten death. The statement was the latest of a long series of comments in which the eighty-one-year old Pontiff has discussed the moral problem of easing human suffering in childbirth and in sickness. The Pope told the doctors that the age-old ban of the Roman Catholic church on mercy-killing remains firm, but that in certain circumstances they may use death-hastening painkillers. The Pope said that once a dying Christian has made his peace with God, said final prayers and discharged other duties and desires such as leave taking with friends, he may accept anesthesia to cut pain at death’s approach. But the Pope forbade doctors to force anesthesia on dying patients who wish to face their sufferings as a means of expiation and as a source of merit in order to go forward in the love of God in the abandonment to His will (Pope Pius XII).

Thus, the Pope was still speaking and to some the voice of Peter was still being heard. In fact, Pius XII did a great deal to clarify the position of the Church regarding the issue of mercy killing in the years just prior to his death. Another significant pronouncement to come down to us during his administration has been the Sacra Virginitas of 25 March 1954, in which he pointed out the importance and the sanctity of the sacrament of marriage. At the same time, he tells us that the church and the members of the church—Christians—must never be led, because of the sanctity and importance of marriage, to assume that in itself marriage is as high a state as that of virginity. The following is quoted from the English translation:

Holy virginity and that perfect chastity which is consecrated to the service of God is without doubt among the most precious treasures which the Founder of the Church has left in heritage to this society which He established . . . Innumerable is the multitude of those who from the beginning of the Church until our time have preserved their virginity unspoiled; others after the death of their spouse, have consecrated to God their remaining years in the unmarried state, and still others, after repenting their sins, have chosen to lead a life of perfect chastity; all of them at one in this common oblation, that is, for love of God to abstain for the rest of their lives from sexual pleasure. May then what the Fathers of the Church preached about the glory and merit of virginity be an invitation, a help, and a source of strength to those who have made the sacrifice to persevere with constancy, and not take back or claim for themselves even the smallest part of the holocaust they have laid on the altar of God. And while this perfect chastity is the subject of one of the three vows which constitute the religious state, and is also required by the Latin Church of clerics in major orders and demanded from members of Secular Institutes, it also flourishes among many who are lay people in the full sense: men and women who are not constituted in a public state of perfection and yet by private promise or vow completely abstain from marriage and sexual pleasure, in order to serve their neighbor more freely and to be united with God more easily and more closely. . . .

However, since there are some who, straying from the right path in this matter, so exalt marriage as to rank it ahead of virginity and thus depreciate chastity consecrated to God and clerical celibacy, our apostolic duty demands that we now in a particular manner declare and uphold the Church’s teachings on the sublime state of virginity, and so defend Catholic truth against these errors. . . .

Those therefore who do not marry because of exaggerated self-interest or because as Augustine says, they shun the burdens of marriage, or because like Pharisees they proudly flaunt their physical integrity, an attitude which has been condemned by the Council of Gangra, lest men and women renounce marriage as though it were something despicable instead of because virginity is something beautiful and holy, none of these can claim for themselves the honour of Christian virginity . . . This then, is the primary purpose, this is the central idea of Christian virginity: to aim only at the divine, to turn thereto the whole mind and soul; to want to please God in everything, to think of Him continually, to consecrate body and soul completely to Him.

And certainly those who obligate themselves by perpetual vow to keep their virginity, put into practice in the most perfect way possible what Christ said about perpetual abstinence from marriage; nor can it justly be affirmed that the intention of those who wish to leave open a way of escape from this state of life is better and more perfect. . . (Ibid. 1–5).

In summary, it is one of the great traditions of the institution of the papacy that the pronouncements of the popes represent the word of Peter, who is the Vicar of Christ unto the world. And, when these pronouncements on matters of faith and morals are given to the world and to the church, ex cathedra, they are infallible. The greatest tendency in the interpretation by non-Catholics of this particular doctrine is to assume that it means that the pope is perfect, that he can make no mistake. There is no intent to convey the idea that the pope does not make mistakes, that he may not be sinful the same as anyone else, but rather in matters of faith and morals, he would speak out infallibly, that is, without error, since he would be speaking for the Lord and he would not err in this respect. This does not mean that he cannot be sinful himself in matters of faith or morals, or that he cannot himself sin against morals.