I was chrismated in 1995, becoming Byzantine Catholic. As a part of my journey towards the Catholic faith, I had to learn about and accept papal authority. It was a part of my profession of faith. As a Byzantine, it also meant I had to learn about the relationship of papal authority to the Eastern Churches, and what it means to be in full communion with Rome. There is a delicate balance. On one hand, the pope is not meant to replace the various bishops of the Church, but on the other hand, bishops are not to ignore the directions given to the Church from the Pope in Rome. Not all actions and decrees of the pope are as authoritative as others. There is room for differences of opinion and discipline within the various Churches in communion with Rome, but there is also the need for those in communion with Rome to recognize and respect the decrees of Rome, even when there is disagreement. Often, the most difficult need of all is to recognize that the Pope of Rome holds final authority in the Church, an authority that the pope can exercise when necessary. In all the years since my conversion, I have been working out, and continue to work out, my ecclesiastical understanding that balances out all these factors.

One of my greatest sources of inspiration—one of the chief theological figures who has helped me in my exploration of the papacy as an Eastern Christian—has been the 19th century Russian Orthodox philosopher Vladimir Solovyov. I started to read his work a few years after my conversion. As I did so, I found his ideas were not only similar to the notions I had already developed but went far beyond them and gave direction for my own developing thoughts on papal authority. I found his book, Russia and the Universal Church especially invaluable, as he explained his reasoning for aligning himself with the papacy, even though he was Russian Orthodox:

As a member of the true and venerable Eastern or Greco-Russian Orthodox Church which does not speak through an anti-canonical synod nor through the employees of the secular power, but through the utterance of her great Fathers and Doctors, I recognise as supreme judge in matters of religion him who has been recognised as such by St. Irenaeus, St. Dionysius the Great, St. Athanasius the Great, St. John Chrysostom, St. Cyril, St. Flavian, the Blessed Theodoret, St. Maximus the Confessor, St. Theodore of the Studium, St. Ignatius, etc., etc., — namely, the Apostle Peter, who lives in his successors and who has not heard in vain our Lord’s words: ‘Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build by Church’; ‘Strengthen thy brethren’; ‘Feed My sheep, feed My Lambs.’

O deathless spirit of the blessed Apostle, invisible minister of the Lord in the government of His visible Church, thou knowest that she has need of an earthly body for her manifestations.[1]

Solvovyov wrote as an Easterner—as an Eastern Orthodox religious philosopher. He employed the lessons of history, especially patristic history, to come to his own conclusion concerning the authority that the Pope of Rome possessed. He pointed out that history showed that Rome had consistently come to the defense of orthodox teaching, and that this was recognized by many Fathers of the Church. They had looked to Rome and recognized that the Papacy had been preserved from error, demonstrating its ability to provide an authoritative response to critical issues when necessary.

Solovyov’s observations not only aligned with my own, but the more I studied history, the more confirmation I found, at least within the general framework of history. Popes were human. Their preservation from heresy did not mean they made no mistakes. But when an authoritative response was needed, Rome had always sided with orthodoxy. Everyone taking part in a theological debate always wanted the positive response of the pope.

In the Ante-Nicene era, St. Irenaeus gave what I believe to be the best explanation of this position. In book III of his Against Heresies, he affirmed the need for all Churches to be in accord with the See of Rome. Irenaeus explained that this was not only because the Church of Rome continued under the charism of Peter, but that it continued under the charism of Peter and Paul together:

Since, however, it would be very tedious, in such a volume as this, to reckon up the successions of all the Churches, we do put to confusion all those who, in whatever manner, whether by an evil self-pleasing, by vainglory, or by blindness and perverse opinion, assemble in unauthorized meetings; [we do this, I say,] by indicating that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its preeminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the apostolic tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere.[2]

Solovyov, then, gave witness to me what I had already read and studied in Irenaeus, but centuries after Irenaeus, which allowed him to consider the lessons of history that Irenaeus could never have predicted. What Irenaeus also taught me was the idea that the authority of Rome comes, in part, as a double-authority, because it comes from the merger of the charisms of Peter and Paul, demonstrating why it should be seen as the Church which leads all others in the world.

The pope is to be listened to and respected, even when he teaches in a non-authoritative way, but especially when he is teaching with his pastoral authority. This does not mean everything the pope believes and teaches must be followed. Obviously, the Christian faith allows for a variety of beliefs and expressions, and the pope does not override a Christian’s conscience. Still, when people dispute some notion or teaching of the pope, he should be respected. His position must be honestly engaged and given the most charitable interpretation possible. This tendency by many to disregard the pope–while claiming to hold to tradition–has both shocked and saddened me as a Byzantine Catholic. When I became Catholic, I knew I should respect the office of the papacy. To do that, I knew I must grant the pope’s authority to speak and correct errors, especially ideological errors that run counter to the teaching of the Gospel. Indeed, even those who have been thought to have opposed the authority of the pope, like St. Photius, have always done so with a fine balancing act, where they did not dispute the leadership position of the pope. As John Meyendorff explained:

Thus, for Photius, as for later Byzantine theologians, the polemical argument artificially opposing Peter to his confession did not exist. By confessing his faith in the divinity of the Savior, Peter became the Rock of the Church. The Council of 879-80, which followed the reconciliation between Photius and John VIII, went even so far as to proclaim: “The Lord placed him at the head of all Churches, saying …. ‘Feed my sheep.’”[3]

Photius did fight against the pope, but he also recognized the pope at the same time, and in his reconciliation with the Pope of Rome, he affirmed the authority of Rome despite the way many would later use him in polemics against the papacy.

Since reading Solovyov, my understanding of the papacy continues to develop, but always within the framework that I developed along with my reading of patristics and Solovyov. Perhaps the two thinkers who influenced me the most, after Solovyov and patristics, have been Nicholas of Cusa and Joseph de Maistre. Each had to deal with Catholics contending against the papacy, and both explained how tradition develops according to the needs of the people at the time they lived. Most importantly, they taught how Catholics must recognize that the pope holds the final authority when he intervenes in ecclesial affairs.

Nicholas of Cusa, in his writings, pointed out that disciplines change, and that one could not and should not challenge present disciplines by demanding strict adherence to what was done in the past merely because it was in the past. Tradition is living, and what Christians need to follow are the disciplines that emerge today because they deal with the needs of today:

Hence, even if today there is an interpretation by the Church of the same Gospel command differing from that of former times, nevertheless, the understanding now currently in use for the rule of the Church was inspired as befitting the times and should be accepted as the way of salvation. [4]

Times change, and so Christian practices change. When needed, the pope will give definitive directions, and those who oppose him because they prefer how things were done in the past ultimately turn tradition into a dead letter that will inspire no one.

Joseph de Maistre, in his works defending the authority (and infallibility) of the pope also recognized the fact that the practice of the faith will change over time and will differ from place to place. He also pointed out that people often misconstrue what they read concerning the past, as they make equivocations in their arguments. Similarities does not mean things are the same. Nor do they need to be. What is important is that general principles or laws lay behind the changing disciplines of time:

General laws are eternal. All the rest vary, and never does one time resemble another. No doubt man will always be governed, but never in the same way. Other customs, other knowledge, other beliefs will necessarily lead to other laws. Names can also be misleading in this sphere as in so many others, for they are liable both to express similarities between contemporaneous things without expressing their differences, and to designate the same word things that time has changed. [5]

Papal authority is necessary because it helps guarantee changes have a place in which they hold continuity, with someone who has the charism to interpret the teachings of tradition so that they can properly apply them in the present. Joseph de Maistre explained that this is what confirms the faith, and without someone who holds the final authority, the faith would become subjective and relative without any basis to hold it together:

Whoever had the right to tell the Pope he is mistaken would, for the same reason, have the right to disobey him, which would destroy supremacy (or infallibility) … For, if the body politic is not to crumble, there can be no appeal from a permanent and necessary government to an intermittent power … [6]

It is this basic understanding of the faith–this basic understanding of the papacy–that I find is being attacked, not by the Orthodox (as it was in Vladimir Solovyov’s time), not by those who have already entered visible schism (like they were at the time of Nicholas of Cusa), but by those who claim to be Catholic and claim to be authoritative interpreters of tradition while disregarding the pope. Indeed, they claim that their interpretation of tradition supersedes the authority of the pope, and if they do not like what the pope has to say, they can undermine the pope without reprisals (because they would ignore any handed out by the pope).

Their arguments mirror the errors associated with the Gallicans. In France in the 19th century, the Gallicans also tried to undermine Papal authority, and they did so for nationalistic purposes. Is it no wonder today when Catholics meet up with these so-called traditionalists (many of whom form nationalistic wings that speak against the pope, including in the United States), they call those who accept the authority and respect that Catholics are to show to the pope “ultramontanists”? They demonstrate, in this fashion, that they are more attuned to their nationalistic interests than the universal quality and character of the Church, and that they have no interest in recognizing an authority beyond themselves.

Indeed, the 19th century fight against ultramontanism was a fight for nationalism using strawmen to justify rejecting the authority of Rome: no one says that everything the pope says and thinks must be followed. Those who respect the pope and his authority already recognize this. The Church understands that there are various levels of teaching authority that the pope can exercise, and there is freedom to interact and engage the pope with creative fidelity in regards those levels of teaching authority. The key, however, is fidelity: the desire to be in union with the pope, and to respect the pope even while holding to an opinion different from his.

And the reality is the pope is not, as many nationalists and so-called traditionalists try to claim, some sort of dictator. But just because he is not a dictator does not mean he cannot use the power and authority given to him when needed. Exercising his authority when authentic teaching is being denied is not the action of a dictator, but the action of the Pope of Rome. If the pope promotes a teaching, such as that the death penalty in incompatible with Christianity, while others try to exercise some particular ecclesial authority to promote the continued used of the death penalty, the pope performs his duty to protect the Church if he removes such a person from a position of ecclesial authority. The Church is not an anarchy. The role of the pope is not to do nothing when the Church is being compromised from within, but to act as a shepherd, exposing the error and exercising his discretion in dealing with those who would harm the Church.

It is very telling when I see so-called traditionalists denigrate the role and authority of the pope. They are trying to co-opt Catholicism from within. And they do so in a dishonest fashion. Often, quotes are taken out of context to create contention, demonstrating a diabolical intent to cause confusion among the faithful. Quotes alone are insufficient: Satan in Scripture is shown to quote Scripture to present half-truths to those he would tempt (such as Christ in the desert). Half-truths easily become absolutized and create false, often heretical, notions. That such half-truths can appear to be traditional and not be is one of the reasons why tradition does not merely hold to the dead letter of the past but promotes the spirit or meaning of what came before and demonstrates it and engages it according to the circumstances at hand. This is why Nicholas of Cusa said the Church, especially through the pope, can and will change disciplines, including liturgical ones, because the Church follows the living Spirit, the Holy Spirit, and not the appearances people try to give it through the dead letter. So-called traditionalists might be right in saying we should hold onto tradition and keep it dear, but the problem is that they don’t know tradition, they don’t understand it, and they keep it dead and make it the letter that kills.

Early tradition proclaimed the pope is the first among equals. The implication of this is that he is the leader of the Church, because to be “first,” to be the “archon,” the one who is in the lead. Jesus is the “first born among the dead,” the one who will lead the dead in the resurrection. And so the See of Peter is the one at the front of the Church, leading it when necessary. The key, of course, is “when necessary,” because the other bishops are not expected to be mere yes-men who repeat what the pope says, but also leaders in their own right, in their own particular Sees, presenting the faithful under them what they need. They are equals, with equal dignity and honor, but only one is first and is capable of holding the final say when contention emerges.

This is exactly what Ossius of Cordova, the writer of the Nicene Creed, understood concerning the authority of Rome (as he established at the council of Sardica, proclaiming Rome as being the final arbiter between bishops in conflict with each other). This is exactly why Joseph de Maistre said the pope must have some sort of infallibility: if there was no one who held such a final authority to deal with internal theological debates within the Church, there would be no way for the faithful to know where to turn when those debates occur. Infallibility only determines that the popes, with help from the Holy Spirit, will be able to give an answer which will not lead the faithful astray if it is followed. Those who think the pope can and will lead people astray, therefore, have already turned away from the Papacy and therefore from the central authority over the Church. And this is exactly the problem we face with so many so-called traditionalists and nationalists around the world seeking to undermine Pope Francis. They have abandoned the papacy and in doing so, have shown how untraditional they are.



[1] Vladimir Solovyev, Russia and the Universal Church. Trans. Herbert Rees (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1948), 34-5.

[2] St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies in ANF(1):415-16.

[3] John Meyendorff, “St. Peter in Byzantine Theology” in The Primacy of Peter. Ed. John Meyendorff (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1992), 72.

[4] Nicholas of Cusa, “To the Bohemians” in Nichola of Cusa: Writing on Church and Reform. Trans. Thomas M. Izbicki (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008), 23.

[5] Joseph de Maistre, “The Pope” in The Works of Joseph de Maistre. Trans. Jack Lively (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1965), 142.

[6] Joseph de Maistre, “The Pope,” 132.


Image: Photograph of Vladimir Solovyov. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Image in the public domain.

Discuss this article!

Keep the conversation going in our SmartCatholics Group! You can also find us on Facebook and Twitter.

Liked this post? Take a second to support Where Peter Is on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!

Henry Karlson was raised a Southern Baptist, and became a Byzantine Catholic in 1995. He is the author of The Eschatological Judgment of Christ from Wipf and Stock and writes at "A Little Bit of Nothing" on Patheos.

Share via
Copy link