Make your own free website on


by Michael Davies

c. The Power of Jurisdiction.

The power of jurisdiction obliges the faithful to do what the Church judges necessary for their salvation. It means that the Roman Pontiff in respect of the whole Church, and the bishops in respect of their individual dioceses, have the power of governing,that is, they have legislative, juridical, administrative, and punitive power, whereby to secure the Church's attainment of the supernatural end for which she was founded. As has been explained, a Pope can never impose or authorize as an universal law something which is contrary to faith or morals, although in prudential judgements on particular matters he may err. Such instances could occur with ecclesiastical penalties such as suspensions or excommunications when a pope may act on the basis of incorrect information, or for personal reasons not connected with the good of the Church. An evident example was the excommunication by Pope Alexander VI of the Dominican monk Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498), and his condemnation and execution for schism and heresy. Savonarola's writings were examined by a theological commission during the pontificate of Pope Paul IV (1555-1559) and declared to be free from error. There is a definite possibility that Savonarola will be beatified before the end of this century. The possibility of an erroneous papal judgement is accepted by Cardinal Journet, who writes: "The canonical power may be led astray by false witnesses, by ignorance or passion in its despositaries, when it confers an office on a subject thought to be worthy, when it pronounces on the validity of a marriage, or when it issues a sentence of excommunication."

The Spanish Dominican theologian, Melchior Cano (1509-1560), who played a prominent part in the debates of the Council of Trent, taught explicitly what had been admitted implicitly by the theologians of the middle ages, that the Church is infallible in the laws which it establishes for all the Christian people, at least in re gravi et quae ad christianos mores formandos apprime conducat. He accepted that certain laws can lack prudence and balance. He made particular mention in this respect of ecclesiastical penalties, censures, excommunications, suspensions, irregularities, and interdicts, but insisted that everything that in the precepts, decisions, and sanctions of the sovereign pontiffs and councils contributes truly to the formation of the Christian life of the faithful is the object of the infallibility of the Church in the sense that the Church can, in this respect, command nothing which is contrary to the doctrine of Jesus Christ or to the precepts of reason. This was also the opinion of St. Robert Bellarmine who declared it impossible for the Pope to err "in precepts addressed to the entire church" and "concerning things necessary to salvation, or in themselves good or bad." It was explained to the Fathers of the First Vatican Council that although the jurisdictional power of the Pope was absolute it was not arbitrary. It is not to be used by the Pope and the bishops at their whim, but must only be used to build up the Body of Christ. If either the Pope or the bishops use their power of jurisdiction in a manner that is manifestly destroying rather than building up the Mystical Body, then the faithful are not obliged to obey them. But such a withdrawal of obedience could be justified only when the case for doing so was overwhelming. The initial presumption must always be that the person exercising authority is in the right. (see below) An example of a justifiable refusal to obey a papal precept can be found in the case of Robert Grosseteste, a thirteenth century bishop of Lincoln, who refused to obey a direct command of Pope Innocent IV to appoint his nephew to a canonry in Lincoln Cathedral. The Bishop argued correctly that the flock must inevitably suffer if their spiritual shepherds lived in another country and regarded them as nothing more than a source of income.

1997 Michael Davies.

Previous Chapter | Next Chapter | Table of Contents | Back to Lex orandi, lex credendi page

Last modified 27th October, 1997, by David Joyce.