What’s in a Title? In This Case, Infallible Truth

“The bishop of the Church of Rome, successor to St. Peter, is ‘head of the college of bishops, the Vicar of Christ and Pastor of the universal Church on earth.’” (CCC 936)

Peter Paul Rubens, “Christ Giving the Keys to St. Peter,” c. 1614
Peter Paul Rubens, “Christ Giving the Keys to St. Peter,” c. 1614 (photo: Public Domain)

Several dear friends (priests) at my home institution, Seton Hall University — a diocesan university — have the title Monsignor (My Lord).

I remember a student who came from a Jesuit high school asking why there were so many priests at Seton Hall with that title. Monsignor is an honorary title, conferred on diocesan priests by the pope at the recommendation of the local bishop, and by receiving the title the priest becomes a member of the papal household. The title made its way into the papal household in Avignon and was first used in France. But the title Monsignor does not add to or subtract from the priest’s authority; it is an honorary title with no impact on the priest’s duties.

Many feel this honorary title is inappropriate, maybe historic or medieval and thus a candidate for demotion. In fact, a slight demotion happened: less than a year after his election to the See of St. Peter, on Jan. 4, 2014, La Stampa announced that Pope Francis had eliminated the conferral of the honorary title Monsignor on diocesan priests under the age of 65:

The only Pontifical Honor that will be conferred on ‘secular priests’ will be that of ‘Chaplain to His Holiness’ and this will be conferred only on ‘worthy priests’ who are over 65 years of age.

The reason provided was Pope Francis’ fight against careerism and personal ambition in the Church, as he has asked priests to be humble and simple servants and not aspire for titles. Again, we are dealing with an honorific or merely titular title, which does not have an impact on the priest’s authority, duties and mission, and as such can be downgraded, changed or maybe obliterated all together.

The changes in the new and updated 2020 Pontifical Yearbook, which was released April 2, 2020, are of a different nature. These are theologically charged titles of the Roman Pontiff which carry a profound ecclesiological, theological and historical meaning, and consequently have no expiration date. In other words, these titles are for posterity, and the duty of a present pontiff is to transmit the theological-historical tradition which includes or is synthesized in the unchanged titles. In the new 2020 Pontifical Yearbook, all of the Roman Pontiff’s titles are intentionally moved to the bottom of the page and grouped under the Historic Titles headline in the following order: Vicar of Jesus Christ, Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Primate of Italy, Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman Province, Sovereign of the State of Vatican City and Servant of the Servants of God. The fact is that these titles are neither historic nor honorific, as is the case with Monsignor; instead, there is history and theology in those titles that cannot be demoted or downplayed. The Church’s teaching on the title Vicar of Jesus Christ in based on two solid pillars: Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. There is current theology and history in the now-demoted “historic” title. How can theology be demoted? Does this mean a demolition of the Papacy?

The word vicarvices agens (the one who acts in place of the one who is absent) — is absent from the Scripture, but the general concept of representation by participation, the apostles acting as Jesus’s representatives, and the mission entrusted by Jesus to the Apostles comes across clearly in the Scripture: “Amen, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 18:19). Or “Whoever listens to you listens to me. Whoever rejects you rejects me. And whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me” (Luke 10:16). Or “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21). However, Peter as the visible Vicar of Christ in the Church, who by participation becomes Vicar, is clear and specific in the Scripture: “I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:19).

Christ ascended into heaven and is perpetually in possession of the keys, even if he entrusts them by participation to Peter on earth. In other words, there are not two masters in the Church who have the keys, two masters who labor independently and use the keys independently. Instead, Peter is raised by Jesus in his place, and acts as his substitute, his representative — his visible vicar on earth. Full exercise of authority is vested and invested in Peter as Vicar by Jesus himself. In sum, the theology behind the keys’ consignment is that Peter is the visible Vicar of Christ in his Church, and by participation Peter possesses the power which in essence is proper to Christ, to bind and loose, decide and determine. Peter is raised by Jesus to be the supreme pastor to “feed [the] lambs” (John 21:15).

Sacred Tradition, the second pillar of the Church’s teaching on the theology of the title Vicar of Christ, follows the lead of Scripture. Among the Church Fathers of the second century, St. Ignatius of Antioch (50-117) in his Epistle to the Magnesians recommends that Christians be in godly concord with the bishop, who “preside[s] after the likeness of God” (chapter VI). Among the Latin Fathers, Tertullian (155-220) uses Vicar of the Father (Vicarius Patris) in his Adversus Marcionem (Book, 3:6). St. Cyprian (circa 200-258) in Epistle 63 reflects more on the theology of the priest acting as and representing Christ himself — Sacerdos vice Christi vere fungitur. According to St. Cyprian, the priests and bishops act as visible representatives of Christ among the faithful, while the invisible Head of the Church remains the same — Jesus Christ. The bishops are vicars of the apostles; consequently, the bishop of Rome is vicar of the first among the Apostles: Peter. St. Cyprian was the first to express the inherent connection of Christ-Peter-pope, which he defined as the pope’s role as Vicar of Peter. The Council of Ephesus in 431 sealed the role of Peter and his successors — the popes — governing the Church, stating:

… the holy and most blessed Peter, prince and head of the Apostles, pillar of the faith, and foundation of the Catholic Church, received the keys of the kingdom from our Lord Jesus Christ, the Savior and Redeemer of the human race, and that to him was given the power of loosing and binding sins: who down even to today and forever both lives and judges in his successors.

The important theological shift from the concept of the pope as Vicar of Peter to the pope as Vicar of Christ happened during the reign of Pope Felix III (483-492) in his letters to Emperor Zeno and Acacius. This led to the A.D. 494 Council of Rome, at the close of which the Fathers called Pope Gelasius Vicarium Christi te videmus (in you we see the Vicar of Christ) —a statement that had been repeated several times during the council. The theology of the pope as Vicar of Christ was reinforced in the Middle Ages, including during the Gregorian reform. This led St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), known to be Europe’s “man of the twelfth century” and an ardent defender of faith, in his De Consideratione (On Consideration) to reflect on the primacy of the pope and his extended governance over the whole world because the pope was none other than the Vicar of Christ:

[who is] destined to rule over not one people, but all, that is if the many waters are many peoples. So then while each of the other bishops has his own ship, you are in command of the greatest, the Universal Church throughout the world, the sum of all the other churches put together.

Pope as Vicar of Jesus Christ is also sanctioned at the Council of Florence in 1439, defined this way:

…that the holy apostolic see and the Roman pontiff holds the primacy over the whole world and the Roman pontiff is the successor of blessed Peter prince of the apostles, and that he is the true vicar of Christ, the head of the whole church and the father and teacher of all Christians, and to him was committed in blessed Peter the full power of tending, ruling and governing the whole church, as is contained also in the acts of ecumenical councils and in the sacred canons.

The primacy of the pope as Vicar of Christ remained unchanged. The First Vatican Council solemnly redefined the teaching in the Dogmatic Constitution Pastor Aeternus — Church of Christ:

… holy Apostolic See and the Roman Pontiff hold a worldwide primacy, and that the Roman Pontiff is the successor of blessed Peter, the prince of the apostles, true vicar of Christ, head of the whole Church and father and teacher of all Christian people. To him, in blessed Peter, full power has been given by our lord Jesus Christ to tend, rule and govern the universal Church. All this is to be found in the acts of the ecumenical councils and the sacred canons.

Vicar of Jesus Christ has been a constant theological title of the Roman Pontiff which has been based in both Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition over the centuries of Church history. It is a title that is sound historically and theologically; it is not an honorific or honorary title that can be downgraded and discarded in history. On the contrary, this is a title that has shaped both history and theology and is crucial to the life of the Church. Different from the honorific title Monsignor which neither adds to nor subtracts from the priest’s authority, Vicar of Christ is a profoundly theological title. The teaching on the pope, Vicar of Christ is taught by the Holy Scripture and Tradition, defined by ecumenical councils and approved by the popes, making the theology behind the title infallible. Consequently, the title cannot be changed, dumped in history or demoted. If this happens, it means that the papacy itself is demoted. This title and the theology behind the title is immutable and can only be transmitted to posterity.

Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Christopher Wray testifies Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee at the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

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