Protestantism and Roman
Catholicism Compared:


The Papacy

The temptation for Protestants to look upon the Pope as simply a religious leader, rather on the lines of the Archbishop of Canterbury' or the President of the Methodist Conference, is one which has to be resisted, because the claims which the Roman Catholic Church makes for the papal office far exceed anything that is attributed to any other Christian leader, and place it in an entirely different category from the offices they hold.

The powers of the Pope are defined in the canon law of the Church of Rome as 'The supreme or full power of jurisdiction over the universal Church both in matters of faith and morals and in matters of discipline and government'.

Jurisdiction means the power to make laws. It is not leadership by moral influence or persuasion which the Pope claims, but the power to compel obedience and to bind the conscience of the individual. In other words, what the Pope teaches, the individual is bound to believe and obey.

This power, it is claimed, the Pope has over the universal Church. That means, in the first place, over the whole Roman Catholic Church, clergy and people, and all the organs of that church, no one and nothing is excepted. The College of Cardinals and even a Universal Council of the Church are subject to the supreme authority of the Pope. Although he was elected by the Cardinals he does not derive his authority from them, nor from the Church, but it is claimed that, as the successor of Peter, he receives it direct from Christ. The concept of the 'universal church' includes all baptized Christians, and the Pope claims jurisdiction over your conscience and mine even though we do not acknowledge the claim.

The Pope's authority is absolute and immediate in all matters of faith and morals, and in matters of discipline and government. That means that if the Pope teaches, as he does, that the Virgin Mary was taken up bodily into heaven, even though it is not in the Bible it must be believed. Or if the Pope teaches that his own teachings are infallible it must be believed. Similarly if the Pope teaches that artificial contraception is wrong within marriage, he must be obeyed; I have spoken to many Roman Catholics who say that they do not accept these things, particularly the moral directives of the Pope on birth control. But if that is their view they are in open conflict with the clear teaching of their Church. It means that they are bad Catholics, not that the Church of Rome has changed its position, or is likely to change its position.

This brings us to the word 'immediate', which is used to describe the Pope's authority, and means that the authority of the Pope over every person in the Church is direct. It touches each member without the need to go through any intermediate officer of the Church. So ultimately what matters in the Roman Church is what the Pope teaches, not what the parish priest or the bishop think. I mention this because sometimes it is thought that the individual can escape from the unpalatable things the Pope teaches by going to a priest who adopts a liberal interpretation and a lenient discipline. But strictly speaking there is no such refuge for the Roman Catholic conscience from clear papal teaching.

This concept of the immediate authority of the Pope is an important factor both in the interpretation of the decrees of Vatican II, and also in the implementation by progressive clergy of what they believed were the reforms that were to be introduced following the Council. Some of the bishops at Vatican II requested that attention should be given to modernizing the diplomatic service of the Vatican. The legates or nuncios who perform the diplomatic services of the Vatican are the Pope's personal representatives to secular governments and local Catholic bishops throughout the world. As vicars or representatives of the Supreme Pontiff they carry his instructions and act with his full authority.

The Pope responded in a document entitled Sollicitudo Oninium Ecciesiarum, in which he stated, 'the proper and specific office of the Pontifical Representative is to render even closer and more operative the ties that bind the Apostolic See and the local churches'. The document also affirms that, 'the authority which the Pope exercises over the entire Church is one that is full, supreme, universal, ordinary and immediate'. These words are intended to impress upon all who read them that the Pope's authority reaches to every area of the Church's life in doctrine, liturgy and morals, and can be challenged by none. Moreover, such authority derives from the normal function of the Pope's office and calls for total obedience. This statement coming only four years after the Second Vatican Council is a powerful confirmation of the traditional powers of the papacy.

The present Pope is determined to affirm and deploy the full authority of the papal office in order to restore uniformity after a period of license and confusion following Vatican II. The papal legates will play an important part in this plan, since they carry with them the full and personal authority of the Pope himself.

It seems that the Pope's travels have opened his eyes to many things which are being done in the Church in the name of Vatican II, which are neither in accordance with its letter or its spirit. Some of these things have surprised and shocked him and he is convinced that the remedy must come from the center, from the reassertion of the prerogative of the papal office. This is possible because Vatican II has left the whole diplomatic machinery of the papacy intact. The doctrine of the papacy the Council had no power to change, but neither has there been any change in the system of papal representation through the function of the papal ambassadors. Thus the full and immediate authority of the Pope still has effective channels through which it can pass into nearly every country in the world.

In 1980 the Pope issued an Instruction Inaestimabile Donum in which he listed many of the things which he saw exceeded the limits of Vatican II, liturgically; i.e. confusion of the roles of priests and laity; lay people and priests saying the eucharistic prayer together; lay people preaching; priests leaving off liturgical vestments; lack of reverence for the sacrament; unauthorized eucharistic prayers; liturgical texts being used for political ends; and much more besides. He called for obedience to the norms laid down, and for bishops to see that such instructions are carried out. The means are there for the Pope to see that such injunctions are not disregarded.

The confusion and the optimism of the immediate post-Vatican II period are subsiding. As Paul Johnson wrote recently, 'There are dramatic signs that Pope John-Paul II intends to take drastic steps to restore discipline and uniformity among the world's 600 million Catholics and, in particular, to insist on a new standard of obedience and conformity among the bishops of the Church'. Johnson continues, 'This emerged strongly during the recent synod in Rome (1980), where progressive-minded prelates, who in recent years have had things very much their own way, were whipped into line by the pontiff on such issues as sexual morality, marriage law, and divorce. Many of them left Rome depressed and apprehensive. As one of them put it: "The era of reform which began with the election of Pope John XXIII is now definitely over"'.

Protestants should not mistake the voice of progressive theologians inside the Church of Rome for the voice of Rome itself. Pope John-Paul II has made it very clear, both by his words and actions, that he sees the role of the theologian as serving the magisterium (teaching office) of the Church which is centered in the papacy.

One is sometimes tempted to wonder if Protestant Church leaders fully appreciate the formidable nature of the papacy, especially when they are given to rather loose talk about conceding to the Pope a 'primacy of honor' and recognizing him as some kind of universal president of the churches. The proper nature and claims of the papacy cannot be reconciled with this sort of understanding. Its nature and function is, as we have seen, something quite different. Either the Pope is what he claims to be, the Vicar of Christ and the Viceregent of God on earth, wielding full and immediate authority over the universal Church, or he is an impostor. There would seem to be no middle path. The decree of the First Vatican Council should leave us in no doubt: 'If anyone says... that (the Pope) received only a primacy of honor and not a true and proper jurisdiction: let him be anathema'.

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