Project Canterbury

Recollections of Malines
by Walter Frere, C.R.

[London: The Centenary Press, 1935 119pp]

An extract from the letter sent from the Cardinal Merrier to the Archbishop of Canterbury, April 11, 1923.

. . . The logical sequence of our conferences, as well as the duty of loyalty incumbent respectively on the members who met there, alike require that they should take up again the examination of the primacy of the Bishop of Rome, the successor of Peter, now defined as a dogma of the catholic faith at the Council of the Vatican.

Our third Conference which, like you, I hope may take place soon, and be in a certain sense on a larger scale, should therefore assume the task of studying this doctrine more fundamentally, and should devote itself, as you desire, to gaining a precise view of its significance.

Meanwhile I count it a personal duty to tell you that which I believe to be the Roman Catholic doctrine on this special point, being the subject on which you have thought good to question me. You ask me if the primacy which is accorded to the Sovereign Pontiff signifies, or involves as a consequence, that by Divine right the Pope alone is Vicar of Christ upon Earth in the sense that from him alone there comes either directly or indirectly all legitimate power of exercising in a valid manner the ministry of the Church;—"if the term 'primacy' is understood as implying that the Pope holds jure divino the unique and solemn position of sole Vicar of Christ on earth from whom as Vicar of Christ must come directly or indirectly the right to minister validly within the Church."

Certainly the Roman Pontiff is in a supreme sense the Vicar of Christ upon earth; and the piety of the faithful is accustomed to give him this title by choice. But St. Paul declares that all the Apostles are the Ministers of Christ "sic nos existimet homo ut ministros Christi." The Roman liturgy in the preface of the Mass for Apostles calls all the Apostles "Vicars," appointed by the Eternal Pastor for the pastoral supervision of His work. "Gregem tuum, pastor aeterne, non deseras, sed per beatos apostolos tuos continua protectione custodias: ut iisdem Pastoribus gubernetur, quos operis tui Vicarios eidem contulisti praesse pastores." More than that, we constantly declare of the simple priest in the exercise of his ministry, that he is the representative of Christ, "another Christ," "sacerdos alter Christus." If he did not hold the place of Christ, as "vices gerens Christi, Vicarius Christi," how could he say truly of the Body and Blood of our Lord, "Hoc est Corpus meum; hic est calix Sanguinis mei"? How could he, in remitting sins which God alone can absolve, say "Ego te absolve," I absolve thee?

The current application therefore of the name "Vicar of Christ" to the Sovereign Pontiff does not involve the consequence that alone the Bishop of Rome has possession of powers which come direct from Christ.

The powers of the Bishop have reference partly to the historic Body of our Saviour Jesus Christ—that is the Power of Order—partly to His mystical Body—that is the Power of Jurisdiction.

The Power of Order—that is the power to consecrate the Body and Blood of our Saviour in the Holy Eucharist; the power of conferring on another the fullness of the priesthood including the power of the transmitting it so as to perpetuate the Christian life in the Church—was communicated by Christ to all His Apostles. It belongs in its fullness to the Bishops as their successors; and no human authority can hinder its validity.

For example: is it not well known that the Church of Rome recognizes the validity that continues to exist in the Orders and Sacraments of the Orthodox Eastern Church, notwithstanding that for a thousand years it has stood apart from the Roman primacy?

As to the Power of Jurisdiction—that is the power to govern the Church, the mystical Body of Christ—it belongs by divine right to the episcopate; that is to say, to the Bishops the successors of the Apostles, in union with the Sovereign Pontiff.

The episcopate, as a joint institution of government, is of divine right; and it would not be in the power of the Bishop of Rome to abolish it.

The power of jurisdiction that devolves on each Bishop is thus also of divine right; it is ordinary and immediate within the limits of the diocese assigned to the Bishop by the Sovereign Pontiff.

The peace and unity of Christian Society in fact demand that at the head of the government of the Church there should be a supreme authority, which itself is also ordinary and immediate over the whole of the Church, over the faithful and their pastors.

It is to this supreme authority that the prerogative belongs of assigning to each Bishop that portion of the Christian flock which he is called to govern, in union with the Roman Pontiff, and under his authority.

The power of jurisdiction of the Bishop over his flock is of divine right; but when theologians raise the question how to interpret this divine origin their views are not unanimous.

Some think that this power of jurisdiction comes immediately from God, as does the power of order. In this view, while the Pope nominates the Bishop and assigns him his subjects, the jurisdiction over these subjects comes from God without human intervention. This opinion according to Benedict XIV is supported by solid arguments. "Validis fulcitur argumentis."

But, Benedict adds, there is also a rival view to this opinion according to which jurisdiction comes from Christ as the principal cause, but is conveyed to the Bishop by the Roman Pontiff acting as intermediary. In this view, the episcopal consecration gives the Bishop the aptness for jurisdiction, but the actual jurisdiction in its fullness is dependent upon a mandate from the Sovereign Pontiff.

This second view, says Benedict XIV, seems to have the better arguments of reason and authority. "Rationi et auctoritati conformior videtur sententia."

No further decision requiring universal acceptance has ever settled the controversy.

The Codex juris canonici published by Benedict XIV which has full authority in the Catholic Church does not settle it either; it sums up in these terms the general doctrine of the Roman Church and the episcopate. "Episcopi sunt apostolorum successores atque ex divina institutione peculiaribus ecclesiis praeficiuntur quas cum potestate ordinaria regunt sub auctoritate Romani Pontificis."

It is not necessary, according to the Fathers of the Vatican Council, that this universal authority of the Sovereign Pontiff should be considered by the Bishops as a threat or a danger. On the contrary it is a support, a power, and a protection of the authority of the Bishop over against his people. "Tantum abest, ut haec Summi Pontificis potestas officiat ordinariae ac immediatae illi episcopalis jurisdictionis potestati, qua Episcopi, qui positi a Spiritu Sancto in Apostolorum locum successerunt, tanquam veri pastores assignatas sibi greges, singuli singulos, pascunt et regunt, ut eadem a supremo et universali Pastore asseratur, roboretur et vindicetur."

More than once in the course of my episcopal career experience has confirmed the truth of this declaration of the Council.

But the time has not come for me to go further into this question. I must confine myself to replying briefly to the question to which your esteemed letter has for the moment called my attention. The conference which, please God, we hope soon to renew, will have to determine more closely this question of the primacy of the Pope, which takes precedence of all other questions in importance whether Christian or social.

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