Papal Supremacy Series: Refusing Communion

This is a continuation of my series on papal supremacy. It is going over my thought process, from my presuppositions to my conclusions. It will show how I, as a Roman Catholic, worked my way through papal supremacy and its inevitable contradiction. For citations, I am usually using the Denzinger 2012 edition. Please let me know what you think.

So, if authentic communion requires common faith, then what happens when unity of faith is not preserved? St. Hilary of Poitiers, dealing with the Arian crisis, faced this issue. Citing the Ephesians passage, he bemoans the heresies afflicting the Church:

Perilous and miserable it is that there are now among them as many faiths as wills, and as many doctrines as manners; whilst modes of faith are written as men will, or as they will, so are understood. Whereas the one truth teaches there is but one God, one Lord, one baptism, and also one faith: hence whilst more faiths are made, they begin by falling from that which is the only faith, and end in having no faith at all.

ad Constantium Augustum

St. Hilary, in his epistle to the western bishops, not only permits but demands communion be broken with any bishop who holds to even a slight variation of the Nicene Faith, telling them:

…your invincible faith keeps the honourable distinction of conscious worth, and content with repudiating crafty, vague, or hesitating action, safely abides in Christ, preserving the profession of its liberty. You abstain from communion with those who oppose their bishops with their blasphemies and keep them in exile, and do not by assenting to any crafty subterfuge bring yourselves under a charge of unrighteous judgement.

On the Councils

And further saying:

For although it was necessary to reply to your letters, in which you offered me Christian communion with your faith, (and, moreover, certain of your number who were summoned to the Council which seemed pending in Bithynia did refuse with firm consistency of faith to hold communion with any but myself outside Gaul), it also seemed fit to use my episcopal office and authority, when heresy was so rife, in submitting to you by letter some godly and faithful counsel.

On the Councils

Communion can only be held with those of the same faith and must be withdrawn from those bishops who depart from the faith. But who refuses this communion?

The Authority to Refuse Communion

The issue of who refuses communion to someone focuses on two aspects of communion: (1) the ontological and (2) the juridical. Focusing first on the ontological, when one obstinately deviates from the common faith, ontological communion is lost. This requires no one to refuse it; it is simply lost. Once it is lost, the Church then has the mission, specified in Matthew 18, to discover and discipline such a lost member, a loose bone, so to speak. In Matthew 18, Our Lord says to His apostles,

But if thy brother shall offend against thee, go, and rebuke him between thee and him alone. If he shall hear thee, thou shalt gain thy brother. And if he will not hear thee, take with thee one or two more: that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may stand. And if he will not hear them: tell the church. And if he will not hear the church, let him be to thee as the heathen and publican. Amen I say to you, whatsoever you shall bind upon earth, shall be bound also in heaven; and whatsoever you shall loose upon earth, shall be loosed also in heaven. Again I say to you, that if two of you shall consent upon earth, concerning any thing whatsoever they shall ask, it shall be done to them by my Father who is in heaven.

Matthew 18:15-19

Here, Our Lord gives the authority to bind and loose to every apostle. This authority was then given to the bishops, who were originally consecrated by an apostle. The keys are essential to the bishop’s ministry of reconciliation. Not just for forgiving sins but for exercising church discipline, in general.

If someone is brought to his bishop and refuses to repent, then he must “be to thee as the heathen and publican” (Matt. 18:17). This means more than just being treated as a bad person. The word for “heathen” is ethnicus in Latin (Matt. 18:17 Clementine Vulgate) and ἐθνικὸς in Greek (Matt. 18:17 Tyndale House Greek New Testament). This is translated well as “heathen” or “Gentile”. This indicates not just being considered a bad person but being seen as outside of the People of God, like the Gentiles were to the Jews. As the Navarre Bible commentary notes,

The last resort—treating a person as a Gentile or a tax collector (v. 17)—is the equivalent of excommunication, understood as an ultimate step towards saving a person’s soul (cf.1Cor5:4–5). The Tradition of the Church has interpreted our Lord’s words in v. 18 as having to do with Christ’s action in the remission of sins: “The words ‘bind’ and ‘loose’ mean: whomever you exclude from your communion, will be excluded from communion with God; whomever you receive anew into your communion, God will welcome back into his.

The Navarre Bible: New Testament, Matt.18:17, p. 110.

The man judged by the Church is subject to be removed from the Church through excommunication, if unrepentant and the sin so severe.

For issues that concern the Catholic Church, it goes to all the bishops, such as in ecumenical councils. Since each bishop is both head and member, father and brother, (as will be shown below), he is able to be subject to Matthew 18.

Here wesee that regarding the ontological aspect, communion is simply lost upon rejecting the faith, just like bones are detached upon cutting the sinew. Regarding the juridical aspect, the bishops are given the authority by Jesus Christ Himself to refuse communion, which we have seen also in the history of the Church with St. Hilary.

Communion with Rome

According to papal supremacy, there is another standard for communion besides common faith: union with Rome. Vatican Council I teaches that this is essential to true governance:

when this bond of unity, both of communion and of profession of the same faith with the Roman pontiff, is guarded, the Church of Christ is one flock under one supreme shepherd.

Pastor Aeternus, D. 3060

To be “one flock”, communion with Rome is necessary. As Vatican Council II teaches,

To ensure the indivisible unity of the episcopate, he set Saint Peter over the other apostles. In him he established the fundamental principle of unity of faith and communion, a principle which would beperpetual and visible.

Lumen Gentium, par. 18

However,what happens if the Roman Pontiff himself falls into error?Could that ever happen?

Ultramontanism: The Solution?

Some would respond that the Bishop of Rome can never fall into error, either in his person or in his teaching. This is the error of Ultramontanism. It tries to find support in Vatican Council I which teaches:

this See of St. Peter always remains untainted by any error, according to the divine promise of our Lord and Savior made to the prince of his disciples: ‘But I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren’.

Pastor Aeternus, D. 3070

Grounded in this interpretation of Pastor Aeternus, it finds unfailing—or rather, unfailable—security in every act of Rome, but it fails to prove its case. Whilethere is a certain charism given to St. Peter by Jesus Christ, the quoted passage does not prove absolute infallibility for his person nor his ordinary Magisterium. And if it did, it would require rejecting the sixth ecumenical council, since Constantinople Council III teaches that a Pope can, and did, fall into error:

After having investigated the dogmatic letters written by Sergius, the former patriarch of the God-protected and imperial city, to Cyrus, who was at that time the bishop of Phasis, and to Honorius, then pope of elder Rome, and in like manner also the letter written in reply by that one, that is, Honorius, to the same Sergius, and after having discovered that these are entirely alien to the apostolic teachings and to the decisions of the holy councils and to all the eminent holy Fathers but instead follow the false teachings of the heretics, these we entirely reject and loathe as soul-destroying.

Constantinople III, D. 550

Therefore, Ultramontanism, being found in neither Scripture nor Tradition, is contradicted by an ecumenical council of the Church. Rather, only ex cathedra definitions would be unable to taint the See of Rome with error, according to Vatican Council I.

However, if Ultramontanism is false, then the question remains: what is to be done with an heretical Pope? There is only one option remaining: conciliarism.


7 thoughts on “Papal Supremacy Series: Refusing Communion

  1. Re the automatic suspension of “ontological communion” via departure from the Church’s common faith, I am reminded of these words from I John: “If we say we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Christ cleanses us.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.