Tomorrow, July 18, 2020, marks the 150th Anniversary of the promulgation of the 1870 document Pastor Aeternus, the First Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Christ. This document formally spelled out the Church’s teaching on the nature of the papacy and papal primacy. It is perhaps best known for the solemn definition of the infallibility of ex cathedra teaching in the closing paragraphs of its fourth and final chapter, declaring:

“We teach and define as a divinely revealed dogma that when the Roman pontiff speaks ex cathedra, that is, when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church, he possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed His Church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals. Therefore, such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are of themselves, and not by the consent of the Church, irreformable.”

Today, Vatican News published an essay by Sergio Centofanti celebrating this anniversary that helps explain the continuity and complementarity between the teachings of the two Vatican Councils. It highlights that in addition to the pope’s authority to define and teach infallibly under certain conditions, the pope’s supreme authority is the key to unity and doctrinal fidelity. The Roman pontiff’s authority is that of Christ. The third chapter of the document decrees (emphasis mine):

“Therefore, whoever succeeds to the Chair of Peter obtains by the institution of Christ himself, the Primacy of Peter over the whole Church… Both clergy and faithful, of whatever rite and dignity, both singly and collectively, are bound to submit to this power by the duty of hierarchical subordination and true obedience, and this not only in matters concerning faith and morals, but also in those which regard the discipline and government of the Church throughout the world. In this way, by unity with the Roman Pontiff in communion and in profession of the same faith, the Church of Christ becomes one flock under one supreme shepherd. This is the teaching of the catholic truth, and no one can depart from it without endangering his faith and salvation.

Critics of Pope Francis (and all the post-conciliar popes) attempt to argue that these teachings about primacy only apply to the type of infallible ex cathedra statement defined in chapter four. This requires a serious leap of logic and common sense. First of all, chapters one through three of Pastor Aeternus do not reference ex cathedra definitions at all. Secondly, since Vatican I, a pope has taught ex cathedra only once, when Pope Pius XII solemnly declared the dogma of the Assumption in 1950. By this logic, an entire ecumenical council was convened to teach about an exercise of authority that would only be employed once in the next 150 years.

The article references the International Theological Commission document “On the Interpretation of Dogmas.” It was written during the time when-then Cardinal Ratzinger was Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. This document reminds us,

“The Second Vatican Council presented the Church’s traditional doctrine on a much greater canvas, and, in doing so, it has accepted that dogma has an historical dimension. … The Council wants the bishops to be primarily the heralds of the Gospel, and subordinates their role as teachers to their evangelizing role (LG 25; cf CD 12-15). This valorization of the pastoral character of the Magisterium underlines the distinction between the unchanging basis of faith, on the one hand, and the way this is expressed, on the other. The point is that the teaching of the Church, while always the same in meaning and content, should be passed on to mankind in a living way, and adapted to what the times demand.

The article closes with a segment on the pope from Pope Benedict’s 2006 address to the youth of Krakow, describing these words as a simple explanation of “what was affirmed in those truths of faith proclaimed long ago in 1870”:

“Do not be afraid to build your life on the Church and with the Church. You are all proud of the love you have for Peter and for the Church entrusted to him. Do not be fooled by those who want to play Christ against the Church. There is one foundation on which it is worthwhile to build a house. This foundation is Christ. There is only one rock on which it is worthwhile to place everything. This rock is the one to whom Christ said: ‘You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church’ (Mt 16:18).

“Young people, you know well the Rock of our times. Accordingly, do not forget that neither that Peter who is watching our gathering from the window of God the Father, nor this Peter who is now standing in front of you, nor any successive Peter will ever be opposed to you or the building of a lasting house on the rock. Indeed, he will offer his heart and his hands to help you construct a life on Christ and with Christ.

Just as Peter, Pius IX, and Benedict XVI did before him, and just as his successors will do in the future, Pope Francis is offering his heart and hands to help us construct a life on and with Christ.


Image by Felix Wolf from Pixabay

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