When we say the Church is apostolic we are referring, first of all, to the Church's foundation on the faith of those who Christ chose to be his witnesses. But the Church is also apostolic in its continued office of authority that, for the good of the Church, guards the faith given to those first witnesses.
These twin themes of faith and authority merit special attention this year in light of a recent declaration published by the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (See “New Report On Authority Opens Doors,” Register, June 6-12). The declaration issued May 12, The Gift of Authority, examined the question of the authority in the Church, focusing on the papal primacy — a question acknowledged by the authors to be “at the heart of our sad divisions.”
How the document will contribute to advance of communion between Anglicans and Roman Catholics remains to be seen, but it has already highlighted the issue of authority in the Church and, in particular, the authority of the bishop of Rome as successor of St. Peter.
“There is an extensive debate about the nature and exercise of authority both in the churches and in wider society,” states The Gift of Authority. “Anglicans and Roman Catholics want to witness, both to the churches and to the world, that authority is a gift of God to bring reconciliation and peace to humankind.”
This authority, to be exercised after the fashion of Jesus, who taught “as one who had authority” (Matthew 7:29), is a gift in service of proclaiming the faith and preserving the unity of the body of believers. St. Paul speaks clearly about this: “For even if I boast a little too much of our authority, which the Lord gave for building you up and not for destroying you, I shall not be put to shame” (2 Corinthians 10:8).
Authority in the Church then is not to be understood as something that oppresses or constrains — to the contrary, properly used it preserves the possibility of embracing the freedom of the Gospel. Whereas worldly rulers seek to divide and conquer, the Church seeks to unite and liberate. For even when Church authority needs to correct and condemn, it does so in service of preserving the truths of the faith revealed in Jesus Christ. Authority is necessary in order to allow the faith to be handed on from one generation to the next. Without that authoritative tradition, it would be impossible to profess the same faith in Jesus Christ that the apostles did. After the apostolic age, authority is what makes faith in Jesus Christ possible.
Inseparable from Faith
Authority is therefore inseparable from faith. The key section of the joint declaration, on the office of the Bishop of Rome, makes this clear. It lays to rest the popular Protestant complaint that the papal office “adds” things to the faith that are not part of the Gospel that Jesus preached and handed on to the apostles. It is worth quoting at length, for it connects the teaching office of the pope — his authority — to the faith of the whole Church:
“Within his wider ministry, the Bishop of Rome offers a specific ministry concerning the discernment of truth, as an expression of universal primacy. This particular service has been the source of difficulties and misunderstandings among the churches.
Every solemn definition pronounced from the chair of Peter in the church of Peter and Paul may, however, express only the faith of the Church. Any such definition is pronounced within the college of those who exercise [the episcopal ministry] and not outside that college. Such authoritative teaching is a particular exercise of the calling and responsibility of the body of bishops to teach and affirm the faith.
When the faith is articulated in this way, the Bishop of Rome proclaims the faith of the local churches. It is thus the wholly reliable teaching of the whole Church that is operative in the judgment of the universal primate. In solemnly formulating such teaching, the universal primate must discern and declare, with the assured assistance and guidance of the Holy Spirit, in fidelity to Scripture and Tradition, the authentic faith of the whole Church, that is, the faith proclaimed from the beginning. … It is this faith which the Bishop of Rome in certain circumstances has a duty to discern and make explicit. … The reception of the primacy of the Bishop of Rome entails the recognition of this specific ministry of the universal primate. We believe that this is a gift to be received by all the churches.”
The obligation to “discern and declare … the faith proclaimed from the beginning” is what Catholics have long held to be the ministry of Peter. To have a joint Anglican-Catholic declaration affirm the same is something to be celebrated.
The Gift of Authority points to two great examples in history of the bishop of Rome exercising his authority on behalf of the apostolic faith. Pope St. Leo the Great (440-461), in a time of turmoil, insisted that the bishop of Rome had universal jurisdiction according to the divine constitution of the Church. Against the heresy that Christ only had one nature, he wrote an important letter (the Tome to Flavian) defending the Church's doctrine on the person of Christ. This year marks the 1,550th anniversary of that early exercise of papal teaching authority. Leo's authority was recognized in a marvelous way at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 when the Tome was read, explaining that Christ was one person with two natures. The council fathers made Leo's teaching their own, exclaiming: “Peter has spoken through Leo.”
Leo and Gregory
While Leo the Great defended the doctrine of the universal Church, Pope St. Gregory the Great (590-604) as bishop of Rome exercised his ministry to nourish the faith of a local church. It was Gregory who sent St. Augustine (of Canterbury) to preach the Gospel in England. Through Augustine, Gregory established the Church in England, and created the strong links between Canterbury and Rome that endured for nearly a millennium until Henry VIII. It was Gregory who took upon himself the title servus servorum Dei — servant of the servants of God — that the pope still uses to this day.
Leo and Gregory are illustrious examples of authority exercised in the teaching and propagation of the faith. The success of their ministry is due to the fact that it is Christ's will that it be Peter who strengthens the faith of the Church. The Gift of Authority notes that papal authority “is exercised by fragile Christians for the sake of other fragile Christians,” quoting the words of Christ to Peter: “Simon, Simon, behold Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed that your own faith may not fail; and once you have turned back, you must strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:31-32).
Satan attacks the faith of the whole Church, but Christ prays for Peter, so that through Peter's confession and conversion the whole Church might remain steadfast. Pope St. Martin I (649-655), exiled and martyred for defending the full humanity of Christ, expressed this claim most boldly from his imprisonment: “God wishes all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth through the prayers of Peter. Hence I pray that God will strengthen [them] in the orthodox faith, help them stand firm against every heretic and enemy of the Church, and guard them unshaken.”
Christ prays for Peter, and Peter prays for the Church. It would be an incredible claim if it were not for the words of Christ, giving to his Church the authority to bind and loose, and giving to Peter the keys of the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 16:18). It is necessary that the Church pray also for Peter, even as Christ prays for him, for he bears a blessed burden.
In 1978, an 80-year-old Pope Paul VI, less than 40 days before his death, celebrating his 15th anniversary as pope, preached a homily which speaks beautifully of his own experience of exercising authority in the service of the faith.
“Our office is the same as that of Peter, to whom Christ gave the mandate of strengthening the brethren. … It is the office of serving the truth of the faith, and of offering this truth to all who seek it,” he said, exhausted from years of a very difficult pontificate. “Such is the untiring, watchful and consuming purpose that has carried us forward during 15 years of our pontificate. ‘I have kept the faith!’ we can say today, with the humble but firm consciousness of never having betrayed the holy truth. … This commitment to teaching in the service and defense of truth, we have offered at the cost of much suffering.”
“I have kept the faith,” Paul VI could say truthfully. So too could Leo and Gregory before him, and likewise Peter before them. The prayer of Christ for his Vicar on earth does not go unheard.
Raymond de Souza writes from Rome.