Papal Supremacy Series: The Church as Sacrament

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.

Trying to save papal supremacy, some posit that the Pope is judged and loses his office immediately upon committing heresy. It is supposed that Jesus Christ Himself judges the Pope and deposes him. However, this is impossible for two reasons. First, Jesus Christ gave the mission of judging and deposing to the Church in her bishops. The Catholic Church, not just Jesus Christ, needs to be able to treat the Pope as an heathen and publican. Second, due to the nature of the Church as a sacrament, the visible element of the Church needs to be visible and accessible to the world, not just secretly to Jesus.

The sacramental issue is twofold: (1) if the Pope falls into heresy, the Church fails to be the sacrament of unity in the world, or (2) if the Pope falls into heresy and is deposed by Christ, the Church fails to be a visible sign (sacrament) of unity in the world.

Due to the Church’s relationship to Jesus Christ as His body, she likewise has a dual or sacramental nature to her. The Church is likened to a sacrament by Vatican Council II, because she is “the visible sacrament of this saving unity” (Lumen Gentium, par. 9). She not only signifies salvific unity to the world, but she also effects it. For the analogy, the outward sign of this sacrament is the Catholic Church’s visible structure. As Vatican Council II teaches:

[The Church] is a society equipped with hierarchical organs and the Mystical Body of Christ, a visible assembly and a spiritual fellowship.

Lumen Gentium, par. 8

[The Church is] the ‘sacrament of unity’, that is, a holy people gathered together and drawn up in order under the bishops.

Sacrosanctum Concilium, par. 26

And as Pope John Paul II explains:

The Church is indeed the sign of salvation accomplished by Christ and meant for all human beings through the work of the Holy Spirit. This sign is visible; the Church, as a community of God’s people, has a visible character.

Audience on 27 November 1991.

It is through this visible structure of the Catholic Church that the inward grace is given. And the Pope is not just essential for, but also definitional to, this visible structure. The visible sign is bound together, centred upon, and only exists and makes sense when in communion with Rome. Even the bishops—which are necessary for the faithful to come together as a community— do not hold a place within the Catholic Church with true authority without communion with the Pope. As Vatican Council II teaches,

A man becomes a member of the college by dint of episcopal consecration and hierarchical communion with the head of the college and with its members. The college [of bishops], which does not exist without its head, is said “to exist as the subject of supreme, plenary power over the universal Church”…The meaning of college, of necessity, always includes its head.

Lumen Gentium, Preliminary Note of Explanation, par. 2

Therefore, the Pope constitutes the essential character of the visible structure and is not merely coincidental with the visible structure.

With the visible structure being the outward sign of the sacrament of the Church, the inward grace is salvation and union with Christ and other members of the Church. As Vatican Council II teaches,

her visible framework [is] the dispenser of the grace and truth which he shed over all mankind.

Lumen Gentium, par. 8

The Church exists in Christ as a sacrament or instrumental sign of intimate union with God and of unity for the whole human race.

Lumen Gentium, par. 1

Therefore, to receive the inward grace, you need the visible structure. To receive the grace, it is necessary to find the Pope.

Here lies the first problem: if the Pope falls into heresy, then every member still has to be united to him to receive union with Christ and the rest of the Church. This is makes communion with both light and darkness of equal worth. Also, it would mean that communion with darkness, contrary to the nature of the Church, is necessary as a means to communion with light. Essentially, the outward sign and the inward grace come to be at odds with each other.

A second problem is the proposed solution of saying that Jesus Christ Himself deposes the Pope if he falls into heresy. If Our Lord secretly (without an outward sign) deposes the Pope, then the Church no longer functions as a sacrament. This is because the inward reality (the Church no longer having its head on earth) would have no outward sign (the visible removal of the earthly head). If he was secretly deposed, then the now anti-Pope’s community would be a false church, but it would be impossible for even the bishops to find the true Church. The true Catholic Church would lack what is necessary to function as a true sacrament of salvation, since its outward sign and inward grace no longer correspond to each other.

Furthermore, if the bishops tried to recognise a secret deposition, they would have no morally safe course. Since they cannot themselves know where the Church is any more and cannot ascertain through a visible sign the identity of the Pope, they could not determine whether or not they are violating divine law by trying the case of a Pope and judging him. For the case of a living Pope, an imperfect ecumenical council (a council either not called or not ratified by the Pope) has no authority to do anything, since it is the episcopal college trying to function without the head, contradicting the teaching of Vatican Council II and the previous councils.

By trying to save papal supremacy, further contradictions must develop. This is where papal supremacy leads. The promise of Jesus Christ to His Church was not infallible protection of St. Peter but of the Church as a whole. Placing it in the hands into a super-bishop called the Pope leads to broken communion with Christ and His Church.


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