Episcopal Jurisdiction and the Roman See
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from the
American Ecclesiastical Review
Vol. CXX, Jan.-Jun. 1949

     One of the most important contributions to sacred theology in recent years is to be found in the Holy Father's teaching about the immediate source of episcopal jurisdiction within the Catholic Church.  In his great encyclical letter Mystici corporis, issued June 29, 1943, Pope Pius XII spoke of the ordinary power of jurisdiction of the other Catholic bishops as something "bestowed upon them immediately" by the Sovereign Pontiff.[1]  More than a year before the publication of the Mystici corporis the Holy Father brought out the same truth in his pastoral allocution to the parish priests and the Lenten preachers of Rome.  In this address he taught that the Vicar of Christ on earth is the one from whom all the other pastors in the Catholic Church "receive immediately their jurisdiction and their mission."[2]

     In the latest edition of his classic work, Institutiones iuris publici ecclesiastici, Msgr. Alfredo Ottaviani declares that this teaching, which was previously considered as "probabilior" or even as "communis," must now be held as entirely certain by reason of what Pope Pius XII has said.[3]  The thesis which must be accepted and taught as certain is an extremely valuable element in the Christian teaching about the nature of the true Church.  Denial or even neglect of this thesis will inevitably prevent anything like an accurate and adequate theological understanding of Our Lord's function as the Head of the Church and of the visible unity of the kingdom of God on earth.  Thus, in giving this doctrine the status of a definitely certain statement, the Holy Father has greatly benefited the work of sacred theology.

     The thesis that bishops derive their power of jurisdiction immediately from the Sovereign Pontiff is by no means a new teaching.  In his Brief Super soliditate, issued, Nov. 28, 1786, and directed against the teachings of the canonist Joseph Valentine Eybel, Pope Pius VI bitterly censured Eybel for that writer's insolent attacks on the men who taught that the Roman Pontiff is the one "from whom the bishops themselves derive their authority."[4]  Pope Leo XIII, in His encyclical Satis cognitum, dated June 29, 1896, brought out a fundamental point in this teaching when he restated, with reverence to those powers which the other rulers of the Church hold in common with St. Peter, the teaching of Pope St. Leo I that whatever God had given to these others He had given through the Prince of the Apostles.[5]

     That teaching has been enunciated explicitly in a communication of the Roman Church by Pope St. Innocent I, in his letter to the African bishops, issued Jan. 27, 417.  This great Pontiff stated that "the episcopate itself and all the power of this name" come from St. Peter.[6]  The doctrine propounded by Pope St. Innocent I was quite familiar to the African Hierarchy.  It had been developed and taught by the predecessors of the men to whom he wrote, in the first systematic and extensive explanation of the episcopacy within the Catholic Church.  Towards the middle of the third century St. Cyprian, the Martyr - Bishop of Carthage, had elaborated his teaching on the function of St. Peter and of his "cathedra" as the basis of the Church's unity.[7]  St. Optatus, the Bishop of Milevis and an outstanding defender of the Church against the attacks of the Donatists had written, around the year 370, that Peter's "cathedra" was the one See in which "unity is to be maintained by all,"[8] and that, after his fall, Peter had "alone received the keys of the kingdom of heaven, which were to be handed over also (communicandas) to the others."[9]

     During the last years of the fourth century Pope St. Siricius had asserted the Petrine origin of the episcopate in his letter, Cum in unum, when he designated the Prince of the Apostles as the one "From whom both the apostolate and episcopate in Christ derived their origin."[10]  He introduced this concept into his writing as something with which those to whom his epistle was addressed were perfectly familiar.  It was and it remained the traditional and common teaching of the Catholic Church. 

     The thesis that bishops derive their power of jurisdiction immediately from the Roman Pontiff rather than immediately from Our Lord Himself has had a long and tremendously interesting history in the field of scholastic theology.  St. Thomas Aquinas propounded it in his writings, without, however, dealing with it at any great length.[11]  Two other outstanding mediaeval scholastics, Richard of Middleton[12] and Durandus[13], followed his example.  The outstanding pre-Tridentine theological treatise on the Church of Christ, The Summa de ecclesia of the Cardinal John de Turrecremata went into the matter in minute detail.[14]  Turrecremata elaborated most of the arguments which later theologians employed to demonstrate the thesis.  Thomas de Vio, Cardinal Cajetan, contributed much to the development of the teaching in the period immediately preceding the Council of Trent.[15]

     During the Council of Trent, the thesis was debated by the Fathers themselves.[16]  By far the strongest presentation of doctrine lately set forth by Pope Pius XII was made in the Council of Trent by the great Jesuit theologian, James Laynez.[17]  In many ways Laynez' quaestiones, De origine jurisdictionis episcoporum and De modo quo jurisdictio a summo pontifice in episcopos derivatur, remain in the best sources of theological information on the relations of the other bishops in the Catholic Church to the Roman Pontiff to this day.

     During the century following the Council of Trent, three of the classical scholastic theologians wrote magnificent explanations and proofs of the thesis that episcopal authority in the Church of God is derived immediately from the Vicar of Christ on earth.  St. Robert Bellarmine treated the question with his accustomed clarity and sureness,[18] using an approach somewhat different from that employed by Turrecremata and Laynez and closer to that of Cajetan.  Francis Suarez dealt with the thesis "in extenso" in his Tractatus de legibus, and set forth certain explanations which completed the teaching of Laynez himself.[19]  Francis Sylvius, in his "Controversies", summarized the findings of his great predecessors in this field and gave what remains to this day probably the most effective brief presentation of the teaching in all scholastic literature.[20]  During the same period a very brief but theologically sound treatment of the same subject was given by the Portugese Franciscan Francis Macedo in his De clavibus Petri.[21]  Two of the leading sixteenth- century thomistic theologians, Dominic Soto[22] and Dominic Bannez,[23] likewise included this teaching in their "Commentaries."

     Pope Benedict XIV included an excellent treatment of this thesis in his great work De synodo diocesana.[24]  Among the more recent authorities who have dealt with the question in a noteworthy manner are the two Jesuit theologians Dominic Palmieri[25] and Cardinal Louis Billot.[26]  Cardinal Joseph Hergenroether treated the topic effectively and accurately in his great work "Catholic Church and Christian State."[27]

     The most important opposition to the thesis, as might be expected, came from the Gallican theologians.  Bossuet[28] and Regnier[29] defended the Gallican cause on this question.  Others, however, not infected with the Gallican virus, have opposed this teaching in times past.  Noteworthy among these opponents were Francis de Victoria and Gabriel Vasquez.  Victoria, outstanding theologian though he was, seems to have misconstrued the question at issue, and to have imagined that in some way the traditional teaching involved the implication that all bishops had been placed in their sees by appointment from Rome.[30]  Vasquez, on the other hand, was attracted by a now outworn theory that episcopal jurisdiction was absolutely inseparable from the episcopal character, and that the Holy Father's authority over his fellow bishops in the Church of Christ is to be explained by his power of removing or altering the material or subjects over which this jurisdiction is to be exercised.[31]

     The teaching of Pope Pius XII on the origin of episcopal jurisdiction definitely is not a claim that St. Peter and his successors in the Roman See have always appointed directly every other bishop within the Church of Jesus Christ.  It does mean, however, that every other bishop who is the ordinary of a diocese holds his position by the consent and at least the tacit approval of the Holy See.  Furthermore, it means that the Bishop of Rome can, according to the divine constitution of the Church itself, remove particular cases from the jurisdiction of the bishops and transfer them to his own jurisdiction.  Finally it signifies that any bishop not in union with the Holy Father has no authority over the faithful.

     This teaching in no way involved a denial of the fact that the Catholic Church is essentially hierarchical as well as monarchical in its construction.  It does not conflict with the truth that the residential bishops have ordinary jurisdiction, rather than merely delegated jurisdiction; in their own Churches.  Actually it is a certainly true explanation of the origin of that ordinary jurisdiction in the consecrated men who rule the individual communities of the faithful as successors of the apostles and as subjects of the head of the apostolic college.  It means that the power of jurisdiction of these men comes to them from Our Lord, but through His Vicar on earth, in whom alone the Church finds its visible center of unity in this world. 

Joseph Clifford Fenton
The Catholic University of America
Washington, D.C.


[1] Cf. the NCWC edition, n. 42.
[2] Cf. Osservatore Romano, Feb. 18, 1942.
[3] Cf. Institutiones iuris publici ecclesiastici, 3rd edition (Typis Polyglottis Vaticanis, 1948), I, 413.
[4] Cf. DB, 1500.
[5] Cf. Codicis iuris canonici fontes, edited by Cardinal Pietro Gasparri (Typis Polyglottis Vaticanis, 1933), III, 489 f.  The statement of Pope St. Leo I is to be found in his fourth sermon, that on the second anniversary of his elevation to the papal office.
[6] DB, 100.
[7] Cf. Adhemar D'Ales, La theologie de Saint Cyprien (Paris: Beauchesne, 1922), pp. 130 ff.
[8] Cf. Libri sex contra Parmenianum Donatistam, II, 2.
[9] Cf. ibid., VII, 3.
[10] Cf. Ep. V.
[11] St. Thomas taught in his Summa contra gentiles, Lib. IV, cap. 76, that, to conserve the unity of the Church, the power of the keys must be passed on, through Peter, to the other pastors of the Church.  Subsequent writers also appealed to his teaching in the Summa theologica, in IIa-IIae, q. 39, art. 3, in his Commentary on the Sentences of Peter the Lombard, IV, dist. 20, art. 4, and in his Commentary on the Gospel according to St. Matthew, in cap. 16, n. 2, in support of the thesis that bishops derive their power of jurisdiction immediately from the Soverign Pontiff.
[12] Cf. Richard's Commentary on the Sentences, Lib. IV, dist. 24.
[13] Cf. D. Durandi a Sancto Porciano Ord. Praed. et Meldensis Epiccopi in Petri Lombardi sententias theologicas libri IIII (Venice, 1586), Lib. IV, dist. 20, q. 5, n. 5, p. 354.
[14] Cf. Summa de ecclesia (Venice, 1561), Lib. II, chapters 54-64, pp. 169-188.  Turrecremata's thesis is identical with that set forth by Pope Pius XII, although his terminology is different.  The Holy Father speaks of the bishops receiving their power of jurisdiction "immediately" from the Holy See, i.e., from Our Lord through the Sovereign Pontiff.  Turrecremata, on the other hand, speaks of the bishops as receiving their power of jurisdiction "mediately" or "immediately" from the Holy Father, i.e., from him directly or from another empowered to act in his name.
[15] Cf. Cajetan's De comparatione auctoritatis Papae et concilii, cap. 3, in Fr. Vincent Pollet's edition of his Scripta theologica (Rome: The Angelicum, 1935), I, 26 f.
[16] Cf. Sforza Pallavincini Histoire de concile de Trente (Montrouge: Migne, 1844), Lib. XVIII, chapters 14 ff; Lib. XXI, chapters 11 and 13, II, 1347 ff; III, 363 ff; Hefele-Leclercq, Histoire des conciles (Paris: Letouzey et Ane, 1907 ff), IX, 747 ff; 776 ff.
[17] In Hartmann Grisar's edition of Laynez' Disputationes Tridentinae (Innsbruck, 1886), I, 97-318.
[18] Cf. De Romano Pontifice, Lib. IV, chapters 24 and 25.
[19] Cf. Lib IV, cap. 4, in Migne's Theologiae cursus completus (MTCC) XII, 596 ff.  Suarez touches upon this matter in his treatise De Summo Pontifice in his Opus de triplici virtute theologica, De fide, tract. X, section I.
[20] Cf. Lib. IV, q. 2, art. 5, in the Opera omnia (Antwerp, 1698), V, 302 ff.
[21] Cf. De clavibus Petri (Rome, 1560), Lib. I, cap 3, pp. 36 ff.
[22] Cf. In quartam sententiarum (Venice, 1569), dist. 20, q. 1, art. 2, conclusio 4, I, 991.
[23] Cf. Scholastica commentaria in secundam secundae Angelici Doctoris D. Thomae (Venice, 1587), in q. 1, art. 10, dub. 5, concl. 5, columns 497 ff.
[24] Cf. In Lib. I, cap. 4, n. 2 ff, in MTCC, XXV, 816 ff.
[25] Cf. Tractatus de Romano Pontifice (Rome, 1878), 373 ff.
[26] Cf. Tractatus de ecclesia Christi, 5th edition (Rome: The Gregorian University, 1927) I, 563 ff.
[27] Cf. Catholic Church and Christian State (London, 1876), I, 168 ff.
[28] Cf. Defensio declarationis cleri Gallicani, Lib. VIII, chapters 11-15, in the Oeuvres completes (Paris, 1828), XLII, 182-202.
[29] Cf. Tractatus de ecclesia Christi, pars. II, sect. I, in MTCC, IV, 1043 ff.
[30] Cf. Relectiones undecim, in Rel. II, De potestate ecclesiae (Salamanca, 1565), pp 63 ff.
[31] Cf. In primam secundae Sancti Thomae (Lyons, 1631), II, 31.