Papal supremacy

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Papal supremacy is the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church that the pope, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ and as pastor of the entire Christian Church, has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered:[1] that, in brief, "the Pope enjoys, by divine institution, supreme, full, immediate, and universal power in the care of souls."[2]

The doctrine had the most significance in the relationship between the church and the temporal state, in matters such as ecclesiastic privileges, the actions of monarchs and even successions.

Institution of papal supremacy

Inscription at front of Archbasilica of St. John Lateran, cathedral church of the Bishop of Rome: Sacros(ancta) Lateran(ensis) eccles(ia) omnium urbis et orbis ecclesiarum mater et caput meaning "Most Holy Lateran Church, of all the churches in the city and the world, the Mother and Head"

The Catholic doctrine of papal supremacy is based on the assertion by the Bishops of Rome that it was instituted by Christ and that papal succession is traced back to Peter the Apostle in the 1st century. The authority for the position is derived from the Confession of Peter documented in Matthew 16:17–19 when, in response to Peter's acknowledgment of Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God, which many relate to Jesus' divinity, Jesus responded:

Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death [gates of hell] shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

Critics claim that the creation of the term papal supremacy dates back to the 6th century, which was the beginning of the rise of the Bishops of Rome to the position of not just religious authority, but the power to be the ultimate ruler of the kingdoms within the Christian community (Christendom) which it has since retained. Catholics have countered this argument by the fact that in the first three centuries of Christianity the church in Rome intervened in other communities to help resolve conflicts.[3] Pope Clement I did so in Corinth in the end of the first century.[4] In the end of the 2nd century, Pope Victor I threatened to excommunicate the Eastern bishops who continued to celebrate Easter on 14 Nisan, not on the following Sunday[5] In the third century, Pope Cornelius convened and presided over a synod of 60 African and Eastern bishops,[6] and his rival, the antipope Novatian, claimed to have "assumed the primacy".[7]

In the complex development of papal supremacy, two broad phases may be noted.

First phase of papal supremacy

Cited evidence about the supremacy of the pope in the earliest days of the church is a matter of dispute. Most scholars recognize that he was given unique esteem as the successor to St. Peter. Roman Catholics maintain that the unique authority of the Petrine seat was given deference, but non-Roman Catholic Christians argue that the bishop of Rome held greater esteem, not greater authority than the other bishops. The Roman Catholic Church claims a Papal succession which runs unbroken back to Peter who it claims was invested with the "keys of the kingdom of heaven".

Irenaeus of Lyons believed in the second century that Peter and Paul had been the founders of the Church in Rome and had appointed Linus as succeeding bishop.[8]

Saint Innocent I, who served in the papacy from 401 to 417, championed papal supremacy in the entire Church. Saint Gelasius I, who served from 492 to 496, in a controversy with Anastasius, the Byzantine emperor, likewise fought to maintain the doctrine of papal supremacy. This dispute was an incipient point of conflict between the Holy See and the Empire.

From the late 6th to the late 8th centuries there was a turning of the papacy to the West and its escape from subordination to the authority of the Byzantine emperors of Constantinople. This phase has sometimes incorrectly been credited to Pope Gregory I (who reigned from 590 to 604 A.D.), who, like his predecessors, represented to the people of the Roman world a church that was still identified with the empire. Unlike some of those predecessors, Gregory was compelled to face the collapse of imperial authority in northern Italy. As the leading civil official of the empire in Rome, it fell to him to take over the civil administration of the cities and to negotiate for the protection of Rome itself with the Lombard invaders threatening it. Another part of this phase occurred in the 8th century, after the rise of the new religion of Islam had weakened the Byzantine Empire and the Lombards had renewed their pressure in Italy. The popes finally sought support from the Frankish rulers of the West and received from the Frankish king Pepin The Short the first part of the Italian territories later known as the Papal States. With Pope Leo III's coronation of Charlemagne, first of the Carolingian emperors, the papacy also gained his protection.

In the Letters of the Second Ecumenical Council of Nicea, the Roman Church is referred to as the "head of all churches" twice; at the same time it affirms Christ to be the head of the Church, and the Apostle Peter is referred to as the "chief [of the] Apostles" – but when listed with Paul they are together referred to as the "chief apostles."[9]

Second phase of papal supremacy

The second great phase in the process of papal supremacy's rise to prominence began, one that extended from the mid 11th to the mid 13th century. It was distinguished, first, by Gregory VII's bold attack after 1075 on the traditional practices whereby the emperor had controlled appointments to the higher church offices, an attack that spawned the protracted civil and ecclesiastical strife in Germany and Italy known as the Investiture Controversy. It was distinguished, second, by Urban II's launching in 1095 of the Crusades, which, in an attempt to liberate the Holy Land from Muslim domination, marshaled under papal leadership the aggressive energies of the European nobility. Both these efforts, although ultimately unsuccessful, greatly enhanced papal prestige in the 12th and 13th centuries. Such powerful popes as Alexander III (r. 1159 – 81), Innocent III (r. 1198 – 1216), Gregory IX (r. 1227 – 41), and Innocent IV (r. 1243 – 54) wielded a primacy over the church that attempted to vindicate a jurisdictional supremacy over emperors and kings in temporal and spiritual affairs. As Matthew Edward Harris writes, 'The overall impression gained is that the papacy was described in increasingly exalted terms as the thirteenth century progressed, although this development was neither disjunctive nor uniform, and was often in response to conflict, such as against Frederick II and Philip the Fair'.[10]

Early in this phase, defense of Papal supremacy was voiced by the likes of St. Anselm of Canterbury and Saint Thomas Becket. St. Anselm (1093–1109) testified to the supremacy of the Roman Pontiff in his writings (relating to Matthew 16) and by his acts. When pressed to surrender his right of appeal to Rome, he answered the king in court: "You wish me to swear never, on any account, to appeal in England to Blessed Peter or his Vicar; this, I say, ought not to be commanded by you, who are a Christian, for to swear this is to abjure Blessed Peter; he who abjures Blessed Peter undoubtedly abjures Christ, who made him Prince over his Church." Saint Thomas Becket in 1170 famously allowed his blood to be shed in defense of the liberties of the Church against the encroachments of the Norman King Henry II who, in popular belief, ordered his murder in Canterbury Cathedral. Whether or not King Henry II actually ordered the killing of Becket may never be known.


Gallicanism was a movement in the Kingdom of France to augment the rights of the State and to the prejudice the rights of the Catholic Church in France.

An example of Gallicanism was the dispute between King Louis XIV of France and the Holy See about the application of the 1516 Concordat of Bologna after Louis XIV's extension of the droit de régale throughout the Kingdom of France in 1673.[11] The dispute led to the 1682 Declaration of the Clergy of France promulgated by the 1681 Assembly of the French clergy.[12] The Articles asserted that the civil power has absolute independence; that the pope is inferior to the General Council and the decrees of the Council of Constance were still binding; that the exercise of pontifical authority should be regulated by the ecclesiastical canons, and that dogmatic decisions of the pope are not irrevocable until they have been confirmed by the judgment of the whole Church.[13] The apostolic constitution Inter multiplices pastoralis officii promulgated by Pope Alexander VIII in 1690, and published in 1691, quashed the entire proceedings of the 1681 Assembly and declared that the Declaration of the clergy of France was null and void, and invalid. In 1693, Louis XIV rescinded the four articles and "wrote a letter of retraction" to Pope Innocent XII.[12][14](p487) Those members of the 1681 Assembly, who were presented as candidates for vacant episcopal sees and were refused papal confirmation of their appointment, received confirmation, in 1693, only after they disavowed everything that the 1681 Assembly decreed regarding ecclesiastical power and pontifical authority.[12]

Examples of papal supremacy

  • Urban II's launching in 1095 of the Crusades, which, in an attempt to recover the Holy Land and territories of the Byzantine Empire which had been conquered by Muslim Seljuk Turks, marshalled European nobility under papal leadership.
  • The Papacy determined whom they wished to be the king of various lands by the crowning by Pope Leo III of Charlemagne, first of the Carolingian emperors, rather than a man proclaiming himself king.

See also


  1. Paragraph 882 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1997).
  2. Paragraph 937 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1997).
  3. Afanassieff, Nicholas (1992). "The Church Which Presides In Love" in The Primacy of Peter: Essays in Ecclesiology and the Early Church, John Meyendorff, ed. New York. Ch. 4, pp. 126–127.
  4. Cross, F. L., ed. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. New York: Oxford University Press. 2005, article "Clement of Rome, St"
  5. Eusebius Pamphilius Church History, Life of Constantine, Oration in Praise of Constantine, Ch. XXIV. from Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Ser. II, Vol. I, Phillip Schaff, ed., at
  6. McBrien, Richard P. "Pope Cornelius, a reconciler, had a hard road." National Catholic Reporter 40.41 (Sept 24, 2004): 19(1). General OneFile. Gale. Sacred Heart Preparatory (BAISL). 5 Dec. 2008 [1]
  7. Chapman, John (1911). "Novatian and Novatianism". Catholic Encyclopedia. New Advent. Retrieved 2014-01-31.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. Irenaeus Against Heresies 3.3. from Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Ser. II, Vol. I, Phillip Schaff, ed., at 2: the "Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. . . . The blessed apostles, then, having founded and built up the Church, committed into the hands of Linus the office of the episcopate."
  9. Nicea II. Halsall at
  10. Harris, Matthew (2010). The Notion of Papal Monarchy in the Thirteenth Century : the Idea of Paradigm in Church History. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press. p. 85. ISBN 978-0-7734-1441-9.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11.  One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainOtt, Michael (1911). [ "Droit de Regale" ] Check |ws link in chapter= value (help). In Herbermann, Charles (ed.). Catholic Encyclopedia. 12. New York: Robert Appleton.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2  One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainDégert, Antoine (1909). [ "Gallicanism" ] Check |ws link in chapter= value (help). In Herbermann, Charles (ed.). Catholic Encyclopedia. 6. New York: Robert Appleton.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13.  One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainSicard, Jean Auguste (1907). [ "Assemblies of the French Clergy" ] Check |ws link in chapter= value (help). In Herbermann, Charles (ed.). Catholic Encyclopedia. 1. New York: Robert Appleton.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. Denzinger, Heinrich; Hünermann, Peter; et al., eds. (2012). Enchiridion symbolorum: a compendium of creeds, definitions and declarations of the Catholic Church (43rd ed.). San Francisco: Ignatius Press. ISBN 0898707463. Missing or empty |title= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Further reading

  • Whelton, Michael. Two Paths: Papal Monarchy – Collegial Tradition: Rome's Claims of Papal Supremacy in the Light of Orthodox Christian Teaching. ISBN