2 January 2016

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.

17 comments:

fenfrk said...

Fr. Hunwicke, I so look forward to reading your commentary on the Synod. Thank you so much for your clarity of thought and expression. It is much appreciated. We are blessed to have men who can think historically and critically.
You are becoming, I fear, a rare species.

Romulus said...

"La Foi, c'est moi."

Michael LaRue said...

A theological point, Fr., though a rather important one. Our Lord, Christ the King, currently reigning, cannot have and needs no successor. Nor can He be said in any way to have ceased being the head of his body, the Church, such that he can have a successor. Nor us he absent from his Church, but is present by the Holy Spirit.

The Flying Dutchman said...

This is obviously not relevant to the post, but I have been wanting to ask: is the W in Hunwicke silent or not?

E Milco said...

I have been writing a series on the problems of "ultra-ultramontanism" as you put it. I'm happy to say that we make several of the same points.

http://paraphasic.blogspot.com/p/a-critique-of-contemporary.html

Melinda said...

Thank you for a most enlightening post. It is historically sensitive posts like this, combined with the humor of "some Roman lawyer with the improbable name Pio Vito Pinto" that made me miss your blogging so dreadfully there for a while.

Jacobi said...

I prefer the title "Keeper of the Keys". It emphasises the Popes role as guardian of Truth, his responsibility to and the limits on him to ensure that Scripture, Revelation, Tradition, all as expressed in the Magisterium of the Church are guarded and kept safe free form decay or disorder.

The Saint Bede Studio said...

If one has misgivings about using the title " Vicar of Christ ", might not that title which has been accepted for centuries and which describes accurately the reality : "SUCCESSOR of Saint Peter, Prince of the Apostles" be used ? I don't myself find it at all helpful to attempt to revive a title which centuries ago ceased commonly to be used, namely " VICAR of Saint Peter".

DMG said...

Thank you, kind pastor.

Ben of the Bayou said...

Dear and Revd Father Hunwicke,

I thank you for your lucid and well-grounded explanation of your usage of Vicar of S Peter, which has appeared here lately with increasing frequency. One wonders whether current events are influencing the frequency of its use. No doubt it is a correct title, having been used frequently in the first millennium of the Church's life. Yet, I too regret with you that the examples of Honorious et al. have had to be made so public, since these cases are not straightforward and require a good bit of careful thinking to understand the complexities of motivation, circumstance, and intention. Sadly, more confusion is entirely possible from this circumstance. But yet, who can doubt that there are some who suffer from a convenient maximising tendency in recent years, which has an odd coincidence with their favorite causes? Can there not be, though, a temptation to push a bit too far in the other direction?

I, for one, have long thought that Pope Francis wants to reanimate an ecclesiological model more akin to that which obtained in the first millennium of the Church than in the second. Whether this is either possible or advisable, I express no opinion, but I do think there can be a danger to a certain kind of revivalist spirit, and I mean that with respect to the question of the title(s) of the Supreme Pontiff. In particular, the word vicar (as you no doubt specially know) means a person who exercises the authority of another. The Pope, as Successor of Peter in the See of Rome, exercises the authority of Christ Himself inasmuch as the Pope is the Visible Head of the Mystical Body, of which Christ is the Invisible Head. Therefore, it seems that the Pope is no so much Successor of Christ, since Christ now lives to die no more but to intercede for us before the Throne of His Father, and therefore never lays aside His Office as Head. Rather, Christ communicates His authority as Head of the Mystical Body to be exercised by Peter and His Successors. Thus, the Pope is Christ's Vicar on Earth, meaning that the Bishop of Rome does not exercise the powers of St. Peter, but that Peter hands on the "Keys" (authority/power) he received personally from Christ to the next occupant of the Office of Vicar of Christ, that he in turn should exercise these same.

Your Reverence mentioned that you "do not believe that any man on earth other than the Incarnate Word can dispense from Divine Law." There is, however, possibly one case in which the Pope does that very thing, and theologians (see Dr. Ott's excellent tome) have long explained it as the use of the vicarious powers of the Pope. To wit, the use of the so-called Petrine privilege. Now, I am no expert in canon law, but as I understand it, by the use of this power the Pope, the Supreme Pontiff and Vicar of Christ on Earth, dissolves a valid, consummated, and natural marriage in favor of one of the parties contracting a sacramental marriage. This is a dispensation of the divine (natural) law of permanence in marriage. (continued...)

Ben of the Bayou said...

(continues)

Finally, please kindly permit me to disagree with the (no doubt otherwise) fine work of the scholar Olivier Clement. In the spirit of St Ignatius of Antioch, second Successor of S Peter in that See, it seems to me that the Saint's Letter to the Smyrneans proves sufficiently enough that there is no Roman Church, properly speaking (or Church in any other city), without the Bishop of Rome (pace the historical anomalies). And, although the Roman Church presides in charity, it is only in function of having a Bishop of Rome that there can be a "S Peter speaking through" anyone. Certainly, I would desire in no way to separate the Bishop from his Diocese, as you so meetly and well maintain. And yet, if we are to make clear distinctions, we must maintain that the powers exercised by the Bishop of Rome are his by the Office of Bishop of Rome, and not those belonging to the Roman Church that they happen to give to their Bishop, nor those belonging to the first holder of that Office, in se, that are now passed to his successors.

My dear Father Hunwicke, I thank you once again for your lucid writing, which is manifestly a help to your many readers. May the Lord continue to bless you and your family, through the intercession of Our Lady. Please believe me to have the honour to remain

Yours sincerely in Christ,

Ben of the Bayou

William Tighe said...

"If one has misgivings about using the title 'Vicar of Christ', might not that title which has been accepted for centuries and which describes accurately the reality : 'SUCCESSOR of Saint Peter, Prince of the Apostles' be used ? I don't myself find it at all helpful to attempt to revive a title which centuries ago ceased commonly to be used, namely 'VICAR of Saint Peter'."

There might be a problem with this, to explain which would require a long comment. In brief, to put it simplistically, the Patriarch of Antioch is also SUCCESSOR of St. Peter, if we speak only of episcopal succession. In the case of the unique office of the Bishop of Rome, however, we are not speaking of his episcopal succession, but of his "Petrinity," that unique sort of "apostolic" succession which is the origin of the phrase "sedes apostolica" and the old title of the pope as "Apostolicus;" in other words, if one wishes to put it this way, the pope's unique "juridical" succession to St. Peter, whereby every pope succeeds (upon his acceptance of his election, even before he is consecrated to the episcopate, if he is not already a bishop) immediately to the "locus Petri." It is, in this context, imperative to read two very important articles by the late and great Professor Walter Ullmann (1910-1983): "Leo I and the Theme of Papal Primacy" and "The Significance of the 'Epistola Clementis' in the Pseudo-Clementines," both of them published in the same volume of *Journal of Theological Studies* (new series, XI, 1960, pp. 25-51 and 295-317). As I have recently sent a photocopy of each of these articles to Fr. Hunwicke, perhaps I may leave the task of expounding, and commenting upon, them to him, as this is his blog. I will say only this: Ullmann holds that "theoretical papalism" was fully adumbrated, if in practice "embryonically," by Leo the Great, who combined Roman inheritance law and the Roman See's belief that its bishop was uniquely Peter's successor, all summed up in the pithy phrase that the Bishop of Rome is "indignus heres Beati Petri."

Mary Kay said...

I am a bit confused regarding the comment of Ben of the Bayou. I understood the ability of a pope to 'dissolve a valid, consummated, natural marriage in favor of one of the parties contracting a sacramental marriage', as the Pauline privilege, and not the Petrine privilege, as Ben has stated. I have to admit I may have been wrong more than once or twice in my life....

Mr. Mary Jones

Stephen said...

It is of course one thing for me to make claims about who and what I am; it is something else completely to have others accept those claims; and then it is yet a third act for all to live and work in concert with these claims as normative for the community.

To Prof. Tighe's comments, that the great Pope St. Leo the Great put forth an embryonic construct of claims that his successors would prune, nurture and grow into what is now the modern Papacy is still just the first thing. . And, to the outside observer, the second thing may have been normative for Latin rite catholics during the high-water mark of ultramontanism in the 20th century. But the boundaries by which the third thing were ever operative universally are quite narrow. And that the second thing is now in so great a state of flux within the penumbra of the Patriarch of Rome, it is not unreasonable to assume that this is all a natural reaction to overreach of the first thing.

Tu es Petrus is, of course, not interpreted the same universally, and the maximalist interpretation would lend its adherents to consider it a trump card. But the evidence speaks more to overreach as the card has been played too much, and not as it should have been.

William Tighe said...


Hint: in his article on the "Epistola Clementis" Ullmann holds as key this passage from St. Irenaeus' "Against Heresies:"

“Themeliosantes oun kai oikodomesantes oi makarioi apostoloi ten ekklesian Lino ten tes episkopes leitourgian enecheirisan. Toutou tou Linou Paulos en tais pros Timotheon epistolais memnetai. Diadechetai de auton Anenkletos; meta touton de trito topo apo ton apostolon ten episkopen kleroutai Kleme(n)s, ho kai heorakos tous makarious apostolous, kai sumbeblekos autois.”

(The blessed apostles, then, having founded and built up the Church, committed into the hands of Linus the office of the episcopate. Of this Linus, Paul makes mention in the Epistles to Timothy. To him succeeded Anacletus; and after him, in the third place from the apostles, Clement was ALLOTTED the episcopate. This man, as he had seen the blessed apostles, and had been conversant with them, might be said to have the preaching of the apostles still echoing [in his ears], and their traditions before his eyes.)

The crux of Ullmann's argument is "kleroutai/allotted" (or "received as an inheritance"). For Ullmann, although, as he states, nobody can know for certain what Irenaeus meant, it introduces a qualitative difference between the position of Clement (and his successors) with regard to the apostles, and that of Linus and Anacletus - a difference which many later writers from Tertullian onwards tried to explain by supposing that Linus and Anacletus were bishops in Rome during the lifetimes of Peter & Paul (and perhaps afterwards), but that Clement "inherited," as a bequest from St. Peter, his apostolic principate (hence, "Apostolicus" and "Sedes Apostolica"). Ullmann himself, a practicing Austrian Catholic of Jewish ancestry and a refugee from the Nazis, seems to find this plausible, although incapable of historical proof.

William Tighe said...


Second hint: cf. also George Edmundson, *The Church in Rome in the First Century (The Bampton Lectures for 1913);* London, 1913: Longmans, Green & Co. Edmundson (1848-1930), a one-time Fellow of Brasenose, was one of those amazing clerical polymaths which on occasion graced the Church of England, writing as he did about the history of the Nethernands, John Milton's Dutch literary connexions, and the exploration of the Amazon basis, as well as serving on the commission that delimited the boundary between British Guiana and Brazil, all the while living the life of an active parochial clergyman. Perhaps because the book's conclusions, about the dating of the New Testament books, about the early history of the Church of Rome, and about the dating of the (anonymous) Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians (not the same thing as the "Epistola Clementis" of Ullmann's article), as well as the possible identity of Clement himself, were so far from what was then the "scholarly consensus" on such matters, the book suffered the strange fate, for a Bampton Lecture, of attracting almost no reviews and of falling almost immediately into a nearly total obscurity that endured until J. A. T. Robinson (he of "Honest to God" notoriety: a wonky theologian, but a careful historically-minded Scripture scholar) rediscovered it and praised it to the skies in his *Redating the New Testament* (1977). Edmundson, although leaving aside entirely any question of any "Petrine succession," seems to consider Linus, Cletus and Clement all three to have been bishops, or "presbyter-bishops" in Rome during the late lifetimes of SS Peter & Paul, and subsequently each one succeeding the other as "leader" of the Roman presbyterium.

StrongmanBob said...

Who is the vicar of Christ other than his faithful and wise steward?

And Peter said to him: Lord, dost thou speak this parable to us, or likewise to all? And the Lord said: Who (thinkest thou) is the faithful and wise steward, whom his lord setteth over his family, to give them their measure of wheat in due season?