Papal Supremacy Series: The Pope as Head and Member

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. Please let me know what you think.

In the last article, we saw the main contradiction in papal supremacy: you are forced to be in communion with an heretic. This contradiction leads to other problems. For example, the Catholic Church is a societas perfecta, in that she has everything necessary for her purpose. As Pope Leo XIII teaches in Immortale Dei,

This society is made up of men, just as civil society is, and yet is supernatural and spiritual, on account of the end for which it was founded, and of the means by which it aims at attaining that end. Hence, it is distinguished and differs from civil society, and, what is of highest moment, it is a society chartered as of right divine, perfect in its nature and in its title, to possess in itself and by itself, through the will and loving kindness of its Founder, all needful provision for its maintenance and action.

Immortale Dei D.3167

And for this purpose, Our Lord teaches in Matthew 18 that discipline of her members to bring about peace in the body is essential to her purpose.

The keys of the kingdom were given to not only St. Peter but all the apostles for the ability to govern the Church, especially to achieve reconciliation as seen in Matthew 18. This is why the Roman Church prays in her consecration rite of a bishop:

Grant to him, O Lord, the ministry of reconciliation in word and in deed, in the power of signs and of wonders. Let his speech and his preaching be not in the persuasive words of human wisdom, but in the showing of the spirit and of power. Give to him, O Lord, the keys of the kingdom of Heaven, so that he may make use of, not boast of the power which Thou bestowest unto edification, not unto destruction. Whatsoever he shall bind upon earth, let it be bound likewise in heaven, and whatsoever he shall loose upon earth, let it likewise be loosed in heaven. Whose sins he shall retain, let them be retained, and do Thou remit the sins of whomsoever he shall remit.

1922 Pontificale Romanum

So, when a Pope afflicts the faithful, can he be brought to the Church? This would be essential to the Church’s mission, as given in Matthew 18, if the Pope is a fellow member and brother of Christians. But is he? Is the head of the Church on earth also a member? Is the Holy Father also a brother?

Who is My Brother?

Within the unity of Church, every baptised person is a member of the Body of Christ. The distinction between head and member should remain just that: head and member, not head instead of member. As Pope St. Leo the Great writes to Bishop Anastasius of Thessalonica:

The cohesion of the whole body produces a single health, a single beauty; and this cohesion certainly requires unanimity of the whole body, but in particular it demands harmony among priests. And although they have a common dignity, rank is not the same:

Quanta fraternitati, D. 282

Common dignity, distinct ranks. This is true about bishops who are themselves heads of their particular churches, as is prayed in the consecration liturgy.4 As Pope Pius XII teaches,

[As the universal Church so also her individual communities, namely, the particular Churches] are ruled by Jesus Christ through the voice of their respective bishops. Consequently, bishops must be considered as the more illustrious members of the universal Church, for they are united by a very special bond to the divine Head of the whole Body and so are rightly called “principal parts of the members of the Lord”, moreover, as far as his own diocese is concerned, each one as a true shepherd feeds the flock entrusted to him and rules it in the name of Christ.

Mystici Corporis, D. 3804.

The document from which Pope Pius XII quotes is St. Gregory the Great’s reflection on the Book of Job. He is reflecting on Job 19:93 (“He hath stripped me of my glory, and taken the crown from my head.”) and the relationship between the head and the rest of the body. St. Gregory applies this Scripture to the bishops who are not heads instead of members but heads and members: the “principal parts of the members”.

While this applies to the bishops, does this also apply to the Pope? Yes, for that is necessary to make sense of the quoted section of Mystici.

Pope Pius XII is making an analogy between the Catholic Church and each particular church. Just as the Catholic Church is ruled by Jesus Christ through a bishop, so is each particular church. However, the analogy must go the other way. Just like each bishop of a particular church is a “principal member”, so the bishop of the Catholic Church, the Pope, is the “principal member”.

This leads to the conclusion of St. Robert Bellarmine. He argues, echoing Cajetan,

A non-Christian cannot in any way be Pope, as Cajetan affirms in the same book, and the reason is because he cannot be the head of that which he is not a member, and he is not a member of the Church who is not a Christian. But a manifest heretic is not a Christian, as St. Cyprian and many other Fathers clearly teach.

On the Roman Pontiff, Book II, Chapter XXX.

This is not in an obscure or qualified sense but in the true sense of the word: the head is also a member. This also explains why the Pope describes himself not only as a member but also as a brother.

Pope John Paul II teaches in Ut Unum Sint:

We proceed along the road leading to the conversion of hearts guided by love which is directed to God and, at the same time, to all our brothers and sisters, including those not in full communion with us.

Ut Unum Sint, par. 21.

He does not refer to “the brothers” or “those brothers” but “our brothers and sisters”. Grammatically, this shows a relation. If someone is my brother, then I must also be his brother.

Judging an Heretical Brother

However, if the Pope were to commit the sin of heresy, how is he to be judged by the Church? As Vatican Council I taught, that is impossible. Here appears another contradiction. The Pope is a member of the Church, a brother in Christ to all Christians, which means that he should be subject to the principles established in Matthew 18, such as being judged to be in obstinate heresy or sin. If found guilty, he should then become to the bishops and even the entire faithful “as the heathen and publican” (Matt. 18:18). Yet, Vatican Council I, demanding absolute unity to the Bishop of Rome and forbidding any appeal to the Church, leaves no room for this.

Since the Pope can be judged by no one, the Church cannot fulfil this mission of hers, not due to human sin or negligence but because she does not have the mechanisms for it; this is the very definition of a societas imperfecta: a society which lacks what is necessary for her purpose and mission.


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