Sometimes kind readers ask me why I use this way of referring to our beloved Holy Father, rather than the perhaps slightly commoner 'Vicar of Christ'.
Of course, I have no problem whatsoever with this latter title, as long as it is properly understood. I accept that it, and its complete propriety, are vouched for both by usage and by Magisterial documents. But I feel that it is that tiny bit more open to misunderstanding. It might be taken to imply that the Roman Pontiff has some sort of direct line to the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity; that, as an individual, he is the very embodiment of the Incarnate Word. This is the ultra-ultramontanism (I, personally, feel it is a horrible heresy) being promoted by some Roman lawyer with the improbable name Pio Vito Pinto, who appears to understand the Holy Father as One whom all the other bishops are bound to obey without question because he embodies in a unique and peremptory way both the Lord Christ and the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete. Pinto ... dear chappie ... you can count me out of your Papacy ...
'Vicar of S Peter' is, of course, the older title of the Roman Pontiff. 'Vicar of Christ' came in, I believe, with the second millennium. I'm not sure why this happened; after all, we could call the Pope the Successor of Christ, on the grounds that the Lord handed over the Church to S Peter as His successor, from whom the popes descend; but we don't. The Fathers of Chalcedon could very easily have shouted out in their conciliar aula "Christ has spoken through Leo", and it would have been completely true; but "Peter has spoken through Leo" was their cry when the Tome had been read.
What makes the reference to S Peter, Prince of the Apostles, in my view preferable, is that it situates the Sovereign Pontiff in the context of the Church of Rome, the Church of S Peter. A fine Orthodox writer called Olivier Clement (You are Peter, 2003) wrote very powerfully and movingly about how it is the Church of Rome in which the voice of S Peter is heard, in which he still speaks and rules. It is the Church of Rome which is the Mother and Mistress of all the Churches; which Presides in Charity. This is a unique role within the Catholic Church Militant here in Earth; and this role exists by divine disposition.
And the authority of the Roman Pontiff comes, not from his personal holiness or brilliance, nor from his episcopal Consecration, but, quite simply and solely, from the fact that he is the Bishop of S Peter's Church, and, qua its Bishop, articulates the vox Petri.
That is why the role of the Pope is not individualistic in the sense of being at the whimsy of one man, even if he were to be a man of vast natural wisdom and permanently filled with the Holy Spirit. The Cardinal Presbyters are the Presbyterium of the Roman Church, so that their role is not that of being dogsbodies of the Pope (remember that in the early centuries the presbyterate was the decisive organ of government in any local particular Church). So, fittingly, the Pope's actions are integrated into that presbyterate. (The Curia Romana is, you see, not devoid of ecclesiological significance.) In earlier centuries, Popes when acting solemnly, associated with themselves synods consisting of all the bishops who just happened at a given moment to be in Rome; all of which bears witness to the fact that when a pope acts qua pope, he takes care not to do so as an isolated and potentially wilful individual.
The position of the pope is lofty, every bit as lofty as Vatican I described it, but it is not the position of a solitary individual giving expression to his private impulses; it is that of the successor of S Peter sitting, at least morally, on his Cathedra and surrounded by his Suburbicarian Bishops, his Presbyters, his Deacons, and all his particular (and Petrine) Church. That is one reason why I felt rather worried by a reported episode in which it was asserted that, by the mediation of a lay friend, our present Holy Father privately dispensed a woman a lege Divina, and, when the friend asked "But isn't that forbidden?", replied "Just tell her the Pope says she can". (You will find the episode narrated in The Great Facade ... see my earlier post ... on pages 459-460.) Father Lombardi, given the opportunity of denying that such a thing happened ... or could conceivably happen ... most sadly did not take that opportunity of clearing the Holy Father of the allegation.
I do not believe that any man on earth other than the Incarnate Word can dispense from Divine Law; and if, per impossibile, any man could, I am sure that he could not do so in a private and informal sort of way.
There is interesting Magisterial backing for making careful distinctions between the Roman Church, and the actions of one of its Bishops as an aberrant individual, in the Letter of Pope S Leo II anathematising his doctrinally dubious predecessor Honorius "qui hanc Apostolicam Ecclesiam non Apostolicae Traditionis doctrina lustravit, sed profana proditione immaculatam fidem subvertere conatus est". I deeply regret having to mention such things in public, but the pope's buddy Archbishop Fernandez has gone on record as saying "The Pope is convinced that the things he's already written or said cannot be condemned as an error. Therefore in the future anyone can repeat these things without being sanctioned". Fernandez may be the 'rector' of a 'Catholic University' and he may indeed be the first person that Pope Francis made a Bishop, without Fernandez ever having had an episcopal cura. But if he goes around implying that History holds no examples of Popes who were deemed, after their pontificates, to have taught or allowed error, he is to blame if he is reminded of Liberius or Vigilius or Honorius or John XXII. It can happen that tactlessness is a lesser sin than concealing the Truth. Pope S Leo II confirmed the condemnation of Pope Honorius by an Ecumenical Council and added his own anathema. It has happened, so it can happen. Please God, may it never happen again.