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Why Do Catholics Genuflect?

Teaching Authority

“We must remember that Jesus doesn’t relinquish his authority to Peter; he delegates it. Jesus Christ remains the chief holder of the keys (see Rv 1:18; 3:7) just as he remains the Chief Shepherd or Pastor of the Church but delegates his pastoral duties to human beings (see Eph 4: 11-13). Upon his return, Peter steps aside.”

What do you mean by apostolic succession? Does apostolic authority exist today?

“Behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Mt 28:20). The essence of what is called “apostolic succession” is Christ’s promise to remain with his Church so that “he who hears you hears Me” (Lk 10:16; Mt 10:40; Jn 13:20).

People often wish they could have lived during the first century and known Jesus in the flesh. It’s a natural aspiration. We want to draw as close to Jesus as possible.

We want to hear his voice instructing us, we want to be nurtured by his love, and we want to be motivated by his power. How can we finite, broken, often sinful men and women hear Christ’s voice today as distinctly as the apostles heard it? Did Jesus intend to maintain a living voice today?

I bear Good News: the coming of the Word of God in the flesh represents the closest possible intimacy of God with man. Jesus is called “Emmanuel, God with us” (Mt 1:23).

While we might say that a deceased loved one is still with us in some sentimental way, Christ is as tangibly present with us as he was in the first century. We are not at a disadvantage to first-century Christians. Jesus is truly alive today and continues his ministry through his Body, the Church, speaking and acting with every bit as much authority as he did through the apostles.

Let me put it plainly: he who hears the Church, hears Christ. He who hears the Body, hears the Head. Jesus intended to delegate his authority and ministry to human agents.

Jesus appears to the apostles after his resurrection and passes his ministry along to them: “As the Father has sent me so I send you” (Jn 20:21). Then he breathed on them in order to transfer his Holy Spirit, and pronounced, “If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained” (v. 23). Jesus is not just handing on the baton or engaging in a legal transaction of authority. He is investing his very life into these men in order that they may pass it along to others. 

Even Paul, who claims to have been directly commissioned by Jesus through a vision on the Damascus Road, doesn’t operate independently but submits his ministry to the twelve apostles. He is set apart for apostolic ministry through the laying on of hands by the leaders of the church of Antioch, who were in communion with the Twelve in Jerusalem (see Acts 11:19-26). In Jerusalem, his ministry was given the apostolic seal of approval, and he continued to plant and strengthen other communities by appointing leaders in every church (see Acts 14:23).

When disputes arose over Paul’s preaching, the apostles and elders convened a council in Jerusalem to settle the matter (see Acts 15). Timothy and Titus were extensions of Paul’s ministry (2 Tm 2:1,2; Ti 1:5; see also Heb 13:7, 17) and could render judgment on whether or not a particular teaching was apostolic (see 1 Tm 1:3). 

Historical connection with the apostles was critical in the early Church. As the gospel was proclaimed throughout “Judea, Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of the earth” (see Avts 1:8), it was vital that the new churches be organically connected with the original apostolic band. Apostles or their delegates were dispatched to strengthen the link with the original Christian community and to verify the authenticity of the new community’s faith in Jesus (see Acts 8:14, 15; 10:1-48; 11:19-26). Certain teachers lost their legitimacy because they “went out from us without our authorization” (Acts 15:24).

Structured by apostolic authority in this way, the Church was connected with the resurrected life of Jesus not merely by spirit, memory, or preaching, but by direct succession with the twelve apostles, who were the foundation stones of the Heavenly Jerusalem, the Israel of God (see Rv 21: 12-14).

The Twelve, themselves, demonstrated the importance of apostolic succession when after the suicide of Judas, Peter instructed the other disciples that they must find a successor to Judas’ office (see Acts 1:15-26; Ps 69:26; 109:8). “His bishopric let another take.” The Greek word here is episcope, from which we get “episcopal,” or “having to do with a bishop.” As one apostle passed away he was replaced by a bishop.

This succession continued after the first century as an essential element by which the original community of Jesus could be identified. Clement of Rome’s letter to the Corinthians is considered the most important first-century Christian document outside the New Testament and was widely circulated. He wrote to the church at Corinth around the year 96 while the apostle John may have still been alive.

Pope Clement is not introducing some innovation but rather assuming a way of passing along apostolic leadership when he writes:

Christ … comes with a message from God and the apostles with a message from Christ. … From land to land, accordingly, and from city to city they preached, and from their earliest converts appointed men whom they had tested by the Spirit to act as bishops and deacons for future believers. … Our apostles, too, were given to understand by our Lord Jesus Christ that the office of the bishop would give rise to intrigues. For this reason, equipped as they were with perfect foreknowledge, they appointed the men mentioned before, and afterwards laid down a rule once for all to this effect: when these men die, other approved men shall succeed to their sacred ministry” (1 Clement42:1-4; 44:1-3).

Ignatius, bishop of Antioch (c. 35-110), composed letters to various churches as he was on his way to be martyred in Rome. He wrote:

All of you are to follow the bishop as Jesus Christ follows the Father, and the elders as the apostles. Respect the deacons as the command of God. Apart from the bishop no one is to do anything pertaining to the Church. … It is not right either to baptize or to celebrate the agape [Lord’s Supper} apart from the bishop; but whatever he approves is also pleasing to God so that everything you do may be secure and valid. Where the bishop appears, there let the people be, just as where Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.”

If a community lacked this organic, historical connection with the apostles, it couldn’t be considered a church: “All are to respect the deacons as Jesus Christ and the bishop as a copy of the Father and elders as the council of God and the band of apostles. For apart from these no group can be called a Church.”

Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons (c. 140-202) assumed that Christians possessed the original teaching of the apostles in those communities whose leaders could be traced back to the apostles. This unbroken historical succession guaranteed the integrity and purity of the apostolic Tradition. “Anyone who wishes to discern the truth,” he insisted, “may see in every church in the whole world the apostolic Tradition clear and manifest. We can enumerate those who were appointed as bishops in the Churches by the apostles and their successors to our own day.”

In the Nicene Creed we confess our belief in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. For a church to be apostolic, there must be both apostolic teaching and apostolic succession.

Do Catholic believe the pope is the successor to Peter?

Yes. But to grasp the significance of St. Peter’s successor we must first appreciate Peter’s stature among the Twelve Apostles. Even the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, a standard Protestant reference book, notes: “Peter’s primacy or leadership among the twelve apostles and in the primitive church is now generally accepted by Protestant and Catholic scholars alike.”

Simon Peter is a complex, emotional personality—hardly someone you would expect to be given the name Petros, that is, “Rock.” He was aggressive as a leader, rash enough to try to correct Christ, and cowardly enough to deny him, only to repent and weep bitterly over his sin. On one occasion, his hypocrisy elicited a severe rebuke from Paul.

Nevertheless, Jesus chose Peter to fill a role of servant leadership over the others. A simple word count of the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles reveals that Peter is mentioned no less than 195 times—more than all the rest of the Twelve combined. The next most common mention is John, with only 29.

Surely in Peter’s life we see Christ’s words vividly illustrated: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9).

Peter’s preeminence in Scripture is nicely summed up by Dr. Alan Schreck:

1. In the Gospels, Peter is usually the spokesman for the apostles, especially at climactic moments (Mk 8:29; Mt 18:21; Lk 12:41; Jn 6:67ff).

2. Peter is often the central figure relating to Jesus in dramatic gospel scenes such as walking on the water (Mt 14:28-32; Lk 5:1ff; Mk 10:28; Mt 17:24f).

3. In the synoptic Gospels, Peter is always named first when the apostles are listed (Mk 3:16-19; Mt 10:1-4; Lk 6:12-16; Acts 1:13). In fact, sometimes the apostles are referred to as simply “Peter and his companions” (Mk 1:36; Lk 9:32; Mk 16:7).

4. In John’s Gospel, John waits for Peter before entering Jesus’ tomb and allows him to go in first, a sign of honor and respect (Jn 20:38). Jesus also singled out Peter as a shepherd of God’s people (Jn 21:15-17).

5. Paul lists Peter as the first witness of Jesus’ resurrection (1 Cor 15:5), and calls him “Cephas” (rock), the name Jesus gave him (Gal 1:18; 2:7ff; 11, 14; 1 Cor 1:12; 3:22; 9:5; 15:5).

6. In the Acts of the Apostles, Peter’s leadership is acknowledged in many ways.

Peter is distinguished from the rest of the Twelve in other Gospel incidents as well. When Jesus reveals that Satan has demanded to sift all of the Twelve, Peter is singled out as the one for whom he is praying. Then Christ prophesies that after his repentance Peter will be the one to strengthen the brethren (see Lk 22:31-32).

Three times Peter boasts that he will never deny Christ (see Mt. 26:33-35). Later Jesus matches Peter’s boasts with a threefold question: “Do you love me?” Three times Peter answers: “Yes, Lord, you know I do!” Jesus then commissions Peter to be a good shepherd who will imitate Jesus in laying down his life for Christ’s sheep and give them their food in due season (see Jn 21:15-19; 18:17, 25-27; see also 13:37; 10:1-18).

The most telling story, however, illustrating Peter’s role in salvation history occurs in the region of Caesarea Philippi, which forms a colorful backdrop for Jesus’ words. There the headwaters of the sacred Jordan River originate through an opening in a massive wall of rock approximately two hundred by five hundred feet. The Jews esteemed this spot as a place of revelation in the age to come and as a meeting place for the upper and lower worlds.

Here Jesus said to Peter: “And so I say to you, you are Peter [Greek petros], and upon this rock [petra] I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Mt 16:18,19).

Jesus has just asked the Twelve: “Who do men say I am?” (see v. 13). In reply, they toss out some prominent names from Hebrew history. “But who do you [plural] say that I am?” Jesus asks (v. 15).

Typically, Simon steps forward and speaks for the apostolic band. He identifies Jesus as “the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (v. 16). Jesus then turns and identifies Simon. “And so I say to you, you are Peter [petros] and upon this rock [petra] I will build my church.”

This name change embodies a change in mission. Just as Abram and Jacob were renamed Abraham and Israel when God gave them a new calling (see Gn 17:5; 32:28; 35:10), so it is with Simon Peter. Abraham became “the Rock from which [the children of Israel] were hewn” (Is 51:1). Likewise Peter is the Rock upon which the New Covenant community will be built. As Abraham had spawned a people as numerous as the stars of the heaven and the sands of the sea, so Christ through his agent Peter was to gather a universal people to himself.

It is still common to hear the claim that Jesus promised to build his Church on the rock of a Peter-like faith rather than Peter as a person. But over the last generation an ecumenical team of New Testament scholars reflected a century of deepening research into the languages and background of Matthew’s Gospel when they concluded: “[T]here can be no doubt that the rock on which the church was to be built was Peter.” As a conservative Lutheran theologian has written: “Nowadays a broad consensus has emerged which—in accordance with the words of the text—applies the promise to Peter as a person.”

The now-discredited argument went like this. The Greek text of Matthew contains a pun, a play on words, between petros and petra. Petros refers to a pebble or stone. In contrast, petra refers to a massive, immovable rock. Thus, “You are petros [a little rock] and upon this petra [the big rock of your confession of faith] I will build my church.”

Although it is true that petros and petra can mean little rock and big rock, respectively, in earlier Greek, the distinction was confined to poetry. By the time Matthew was writing the distinction was no longer in use. Another Greek word, lithos, would have been the proper word to use if Jesus had wanted to contrast a rock with a pebble.

Furthermore, Jesus and the apostles conversed in Aramaic. And in Aramaic, “Peter” and “Rock” are exactly the same word, Kepha. “You are Kepha, and upon this kepha I will build my church.” This Aramaic name was carried over into the letters of Paul, who refers to Peter eight times as “Kepha.”

Then why did Matthew make a distinction at all in the Greek? Because petra is a feminine word requiring a feminine ending. Peter, on the other hand, is a male. To call him “Petra” would be like calling Albert “Alberta” or Joseph “Josephine.”

Christ also promised Peter “the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” New Testament scholars see Isaiah 22:15 and the following verses as the background for this saying. The words of the two texts have striking parallels.

To understand the import of God’s words to the royal steward and his successor in this prophetic passage, we must note first that God had previously promised King David that his royal household would endure forever (see 2 Sm 7:13; Ps 132:11,12). In ancient Israel, the king delegated authority over his house to a chief steward or palace administrator who served as a prime minister in the king’s absence. This practice was common in ancient kingdoms. For instance, Joseph had acted as regent, that is, in place of the king (see Gn 41), during Pharaoh’s absences.

These keys of the royal establishment were quite literal. The chief steward carried the keys on his shoulder, where they served as a badge of the authority entrusted to him. In the absence of the king, the steward exercised authority in his name through possession of the keys. He also controlled admission to the royal household, the house of David.

Jesus, as David’s greater Son, came to fulfill God’s promise to David of an eternal kingdom. As he speaks with Peter, he is re-establishing the royal house of David and the fulfillment of the kingdom of Israel based on the Twelve Apostles (Rev 21:19). In keeping with the ancient custom, he appoints Peter as the chief steward over the royal household, the Church, and gives him the keys of the kingdom.

Sometimes people will say, “Yes, Peter exercised the power of the keys by opening the kingdom through his preaching (see Acts 2, 8, 10). At his death, however, the keys were not handed down. The door to heaven was already open.”

This position, however, misunderstands the symbolism of the keys. As in Isaiah 22, the keys are passed on. The office of chief steward, by its nature and function, is an ongoing office as long as the King reigns.

When the office is vacated it must be filled, since the work itself continues. Even those Christians not in visible communion with the Catholic Church acknowledge the need for ongoing visible leadership of their Christian communities. When a pastor or bishop dies or resigns, the pastoral office is filled either through election or appointment. The early Church did the same, and the office of Peter, pastor of the universal Church, chief of the apostles, has always been filled.

Jesus uses a familiar formula when he tells Peter that “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Those words may sound strange to our ears, but they wouldn’t have sounded strange at all to first-century Palestinian Jews. The Jewish Encyclopedia explains this phrase as the “rabbinical term for ‘forbidding and permitting.’”

The rabbis had the power of “binding and loosing”—that is, of establishing rules of conduct binding on the faith community. They offered authoritative teaching and could excommunicate. To “bind and loose” simply represented the verdict of a teacher of the Law who, on the strength of his expert knowledge of the oral tradition, declared some action or thing prohibited or permitted.

In other words, Peter will give decisions based on the teachings of Jesus. Such decisions will be bound in heaven; that is, honored by God. These powers of binding and loosing are also conferred on the Church generally, but to Peter alone is given the keys (see Mt 16:18-19; 18:18).

We must remember that Jesus doesn’t relinquish his authority to Peter; he delegates it. Jesus Christ remains the chief holder of the keys (see Rv 1:18; 3:7) just as he remains the Chief Shepherd or Pastor of the Church but delegates his pastoral duties to human beings (see Eph 4: 11-13). Upon his return, Peter steps aside.

In the meantime, however, Peter’s office continues. This is the role of the pope, the successor of Peter. St. Ambrose, the bishop of Milan whose preaching led to the conversion of St. Augustine, said: “Where Peter is, there is the church.” Or as St. Jerome wrote to Pope Damasus: “I follow no one as leader except Christ alone, and therefore I want to remain in union in the church with you, that is, with the chair of Peter. I know that on this rock the church is founded.”

Do Catholics really think the pope is infallible?

It’s worse than you might think: I’m infallible most of the time. When I say that seven times seven is forty-nine or that Jesus Christ is Lord or that I love my wife, I am speaking infallibly—that is, without error. It’s such a modest claim, really, that I even believe you speak infallibly most of the time—and you’re coming to this book for answers!

Such a mystique has grown up around papal infallibility that many Christians fail to grasp how unremarkable is the claim. Some might protest that only God teaches infallibly as though speaking without error is an attribute restricted to Deity. But after all, we assume that most algebra textbooks are without error and Christians have always believed that God occasionally gifts certain human teachers so they can teach divine truth without error—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, to name just a few.

Based on the promises of Christ, Catholics believe that the successor of Peter is, under certain conditions, preserved from teaching falsehood. Vatican I most clearly defined the parameters of this ancient teaching. Vatican II reaffirmed it: “The Roman Pontiff, head of the college of bishops, enjoys this infallibility in virtue of his office, when, as supreme pastor and teacher of all the faithful—who confirms his brethren in the faith (see Lk 22:32)—he proclaims by a definitive act a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals.”

The charism of infallibility is restricted to the pope’s teaching on faith and morals. If the pope tries to settle a debate over the health benefits of vitamin C or predicts who will win the next Davis Cup or opines on the relative merits of Vivaldi over Handel, we regard his opinion as simply another, hopefully educated, opinion. (I, for one, would argue in favor of Handel.) The pope’s competence as pope is restricted to teaching on faith and morals.

Infallibility is also restricted to the Pope’s exercise of his office as chief human pastor and teacher of the Christian Church. For instance, if the Pope is speaking as a private theologian, as John Paul II did in his book Crossing the Threshold of Hope, the charism of infallibility doesn’t apply.

Sometimes people who don’t understand the Church’s teaching fear that a pope is free to invent a new doctrine. But papal infallibility doesn’t mean that the pope is inspired to bring forth new revelation. He teaches the deposit of faith. He doesn’t create it.

When the Pope speaks “ex cathedra,” that is, from the chair of Peter, he is only confirming articles of faith embedded in the Sacred Tradition because clarification is needed. He isn’t introducing or inventing anything novel. Nobody is less free to innovate than a Pope who is bound by two thousand years of precedent. Infallibility is not a creative gift; it is a protective restriction.

Some popes are also sharper and more effective communicators than others. Papal infallibility doesn’t mean that a pope always teaches the right thing at the right time or that he always phrases it as keenly or felicitously as possible. He may fail to emphasize a doctrine at a critical moment in history, and his omission may come to shame future generations. He may be a weak stylist whose syntax and convoluted language fail to resonate with his audience.

Let me bump this up a step. If the pope were given a quiz on faith and morals and circulated it as binding on all Christians, one should hope and expect that he would fill in all the right answers. But infallibility doesn’t even guarantee that. It only insures that he won’t give the wrong answers. He may not fill in any answers. Critics of papal infallibility, like critics of scriptural infallibility, oftenfail to appreciate all these limitations on “infallibility.”

But what about sinful popes? Yes, and what about sinful apostles? Infallibility doesn’t guarantee impeccability (the impossibility of sinning). No Catholic argues that popes are morally unblemished or always act consistently with their teaching.

Paul was forced to withstand Peter to his face when Peter hypocritically refused to dine with Gentile Christians (see Gal 2:11-14). The first pope gave scandal to the teaching that in Christ there was no longer any barrier between Jew and Gentile. He was betraying his own position taken at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15).

We can imagine Paul thinking: “Of all people, Peter, you should know better.” But Paul rebuked Peter for hypocrisy, not heresy.

Catherine of Sienna, in her day, confronted the pope over his personal actions. I even thank God that in his providence some of those self-indulgent Renaissance popes were so busy sinning that they didn’t have time to do much teaching!

A pope may personally fail to act or teach courageously. But Christ entrusted the office of apostle to weak and sinful men. Even he had his Judas. True to his promise, however, he continues to appoint and assist fallible men so they proclaim his infallible teaching.

How is the pope elected?

While Jesus instituted the office of a universal pastor over the Christian community on earth, he diffused his Spirit within the community, leaving it to determine the means of passing along the keys of the Kingdom (see Mt 16:17-19). As in so many matters, Jesus didn’t come to leave us a rulebook or a bureaucracy, but a Spirit-invested community charged with growing in discernment. Consequently, the means of electing a pope has changed over the two millennia of Christianity in order to assure elections that are spiritually discerned rather than politically calculated.

In the 1968 film Shoes of the Fisherman, there’s a dramatic moment when all the cardinals rise and spontaneously acclaim their choice of the new pope. Actually, this has never happened. What works for Hollywood rarely works in the real world.

Peter may well have appointed his successor. At other times, the Holy Spirit working through history has used the clergy and the laity to choose the pope. To avoid political influence from ruling families, voting was eventually limited to clergy and then to the College of Cardinals.

With one exception, since 1179, only cardinals have voted for the pope, and popes are usually elected from among the cardinals. The cardinals can, however, elect whomever they wish as pope as long as he is a baptized male. In 1996 John Paul II issued Universi Dominici Gregis, once again updating the rules that govern a papal election.

When a pope dies, a “conclave” is called. A conclave is the fraternal meeting of the cardinals convened to elect a new pope. But it hasn’t always been brotherly.

The term conclave comes from the Latin for “locked with a key” and dates back to the time of Pope Gregory X (1272-1276). During his election, the cardinals were deadlocked for three and a half years. The laity grew so frustrated waiting for a new pope that they locked the cardinals in session, tore off the roof of the building they were meeting in (to expose them to the elements), and put them on a diet of bread and water until they decided.

Gregory liked the idea and decreed that in the future, cardinals would be locked in one room where they would sleep and vote. After three days their food was limited to one dish a meal. Such severe measures have rarely been necessary, however, and the last conclave to go more than four days was in 1831; it lasted fifty-four days.

During the conclave, the cardinals live within the Vatican in modest quarters assigned by lot. Security is tight. The Sistine Chapel is swept for electronic bugging devices. The cardinals are sequestered and cut off from the outside world. No one can speak to them as they travel between their rooms and the Sistine Chapel.

The conclave begins with prayer and the celebration of the liturgy in the Sistine Chapel. The cardinals swear not to encourage “any group of people or individuals who might wish to intervene in the election of the Roman pontiff.” Then follows a meditation on the solemn responsibility of acting “with right intention for the good of the universal Church having only God before their eyes.” There are no campaign speeches in the chapel. Any debate goes on outside the chapel.

When the time to vote arrives, each cardinal in secret writes the name of his choice on the ballot in a way that disguises his handwriting. One by one, the cardinals approach the chapel altar with their folded ballot held up so that it can be seen. After kneeling in prayer for a sort time, the cardinal rises and swears, “I call as my witness Christ the Lord who will be my judge, that my vote is given to the one who before God I think should be elected.”

Detailed regulations govern the counting of the ballots. Generally, a two-thirds majority is sufficient to elect a pope. After special chemicals are added to the ballots, they are burned so the smoke will be clearly white or black, informing the people gathered in St. Peter’s Square and throughout the world whether or not we have a new successor to the apostle Peter. White signals yes; black, not yet. With rare exceptions, those elected pope accept the office and shoulder the new responsibilities asked of them by their brothers.

History shows us that the means for choosing a pope have varied, and the process has sometimes been stormy. But Catholics worship a God who isn’t surprised by human frailty and who continues to accomplish his purposes in the world amidst human vacillations. Even the first pope, Peter, who was directly elected by Jesus himself, denied Christ three times and fled him on Good Friday.

Nevertheless, Jesus’ promise that the gates of hell will not prevail against his Church is trustworthy. To the amazement of skeptics, the papacy remains the oldest continuing institution in the Western world. It is the “rock” Jesus established (see Mt 16:17-19).

What is a papal encyclical?

Papal encyclicals are, first of all, letters. As such, they continue an ancient tradition. The first Christians enjoyed writing and reading letters. In fact, of the twenty-seven New Testament books, twenty-one of them are letters that were circulated, or “cycled”, among the various churches and individuals.

The first pope, the apostle Peter, addressed his first “encyclical” to “the dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia” (1 Pt 1:1). This custom of addressing more than one congregation continued with the successors of the apostles. In the second century, for instance, a letter known as The Martyrdom of Polycarp was addressed to “the church of God which sojourns in Philomelium and all dioceses of the holy and Catholic Church in every place.”

The bishops of the first centuries frequently sent letters to one another, as well as to the proverbial “people in the pews,” in order to teach, encourage, resolve conflict, and foster unity among this new diverse people who were not to be divided by the distinctions of Jew and Gentile, slave or free, rich or poor, educated or uneducated. Since Rome was the political nerve center of the empire and a radiating hub for the spread of the “Jesus” movement, the bishop of Rome received a lot of mail from brother bishops. He was a “networker,” a kind of clearinghouse, cycling these letters throughout the network of bishops.

Referring to these early encyclicals, Optatus of Milevis (d. 370) wrote: “Thanks to an exchange of official letters, the entire universe agrees and becomes one with the bishop of Rome in a society of communion.” Thus encyclicals were and are important to maintain Christian unity and fidelity to divine revelation.

A papal encyclical, then, is simply a teaching letter from the pope, the chief pastor of the universal Church, which addresses matters of doctrine, morals, and discipline or important commemorations. Papal encyclicals are not divinely inspired in the manner of Scripture and do not contain any new revelation. But they are authoritative teaching instruments from the one who teaches in Christ’s name and has received a special charism (gift) from the Holy Spirit.

For that reason, a papal encyclical is to be received as possessing authority beyond the personal theological opinion of the pope. Pope Pius XII, in the encyclical Humani generis, (August 12, 1950) wrote that in a papal encyclical we hear the voice of Jesus. “He who hears you,” Jesus said to the apostles, “hears me” (Lk 10:16).

Historically, encyclicals have often been written to solve passing problems and thus offer little direct guidance to the questions Catholics face today. Since the practice of sending papal encyclicals was revived in 1740, most of the succeeding 289 encyclicals have passed into history. The use of Islamic names by Christians in Albania or a thank you letter to the American bishops for remembering the pope’s anniversary are hardly pressing concerns for contemporary Christians. It’s estimated that only about ten percent of papal encyclicals still provide relevant guidance.

On the other hand, a number of encyclicals address issues of enduring significance. Some of the most important of these would include Pope John Paul II’s thirteen encyclicals, which cover matters as diverse as the Church’s missionary mandate, the redemption of the human race in Christ, the inviolability of human life, the role of Mary in redemption, Catholic social teaching, the relationship between faith and reason, and the unity of Christians. Other important encyclicals of the last few pontificates include Pope Paul VI’s Ecclesiam suam (On the Church), Humanae vitae (On the regulation of birth) and Populorum progressio (On the development of peoples); and Pope John XXIII’s Mater et Magistra (On Christianity and social progress) and Pacem in terris (On establishing universal peace).

Encyclicals are only one form of official papal documents. These documents can be ranked in the following way based on the degree of formal authority they possess: apostolic constitutions (highest authority), encyclical letters, encyclical epistles, apostolic exhortations, apostolic letters, letters, and messages.

Can a pope resign?

As many as ten popes may have resigned over the centuries but the historical evidence is ambiguous. Whatever the number, we know that rarely has a pope resigned. The case of Pope Celestine V in 1294 is best known because the poet Dante, in writing the Inferno, imagined him to have gone to hell for resigning. More recently, Pope Benedict XVI resigned in 2012.

Other bishops must resign at age seventy-five, and the 1983 Code of Canon Law (332:2) as well as the regulations established by Pope Paul VI in 1975 provide for the resignation of a pope. But most popes have regarded resignation as out of character for the papal office. One of the chief responsibilities of the pope is to maintain and deepen the unity of God’s people, but resigning the office would invite political factions to arise with the hope of pressuring a pope to abdicate. Such a development would violate the very unity the pope is pledged to strengthen.

If a pope becomes disabled through illness, he can delegate much of his work to other Vatican officials. If he goes into a coma, most Vatican offices would continue to operate. Decisions requiring his authority would simply be postponed until his passing and the subsequent papal election. Currently there are no canonical procedures for removing a pope.

We must remember that a pope does not hold political office. He is the earthly household head of the Christian family. And as Pope Paul VI has said, paternity cannot be resigned. What could be more unseemly than for the earthly spiritual father of the Christian Church to be a deadbeat dad? It just isn’t fitting.

What is canon law?

The Church recognizes many types of law. They are all related, however. All legitimate law ultimately finds its source and justification in the moral character of God, which forms what is called the Eternal Law. All other legitimate law is an expression of this Eternal Law and includes natural law, revealed law, civil law, and church law.

Canon law or ecclesiastical law is the official body of laws for the Catholic Church covering faith, morals, and discipline. These laws assist the Church in carrying out her mission to the world and govern the various relationships between persons, offices, and groups within the Catholic communion. Canon law covers such things as how to celebrate the sacraments, administer church property, resolve formal conflicts, and organize official groups such as religious orders and lay associations of the faithful.

While canon law is related to both the natural moral law and revealed law, it is identical with neither. Tenets from both are codified in canon law and are thus unchangeable and universal. Christ’s words instituting the Eucharist, for instance, are both divine revelation and part of canon law. These will never change and must be followed everywhere by every priest. But other kinds of canon law are purely disciplinary and subject to change as the Church’s needs change or as the culture she is operating in changes.

From the first century, the apostles and the earliest Christian bishops and pastors had to apply divine revelation in particular cultural and social settings. Christ had established a New Covenant that extended beyond the kingdom of Israel. This shift in covenant meant that rabbinic applications of the laws of Moses would be inadequate.

The kingdom of God had been inaugurated. How would these new citizens of the kingdom organize their community upon the new law of Christ? What were the new standards or “canons”? Some of these “laws” would vary from culture to culture.

For instance, the Apostle Paul decrees that women must wear head coverings during worship and be silent in the churches (see 1 Cor 11:5-16; 14:34). Perhaps in today’s Muslim culture, the original intent of Paul’s legislation would be understood and even helpful. But in the modern Western world, these practices no longer bear the meaning they did in the ancient Mediterranean world and could possibly mislead people about the Church’s teaching on women.

So some canon law is changeable; some is not. Some canon law applies everywhere, and some is restricted to a particular territory or group.

As the Church grew and exercised the powers of binding and loosing—that is, prohibiting and permitting—promised to her by Christ (see Mt 16:17-19; 18:18), the body of church orders, liturgical procedures, council canons, and so on also grew. In the mid-twelfth century, the scholarly monk Gratian collected and organized four thousand council decrees, papal pronouncements, and texts from the Church fathers in a single work called the Decretum Gratiani.

For his labors, he came to be called the “father of canon law,” and the Italian poet Dante happily assigned him a place in Paradise. Gratian’s text came to form the first part of the Corpus Iuris Canonici (Body of Canon Law), which remained the standard collection until the first full-scale Code of Canon Law was issued in 1917.

When Pope John XXIII announced his intention to call the Second Vatican Council in 1959, he also announced a new revision of canon law, which was completed in 1983. This law governs the Western Catholic Church. There is also the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, which was completed in 1990.

Only a pope or an ecumenical council has the authority to create canon law or interpret it for the universal Church. The Pontifical Commission for the Authentic Interpretation of the Code assists the Pope by fielding inquiries about canon law, proposing the correct interpretation, and then sending it to the pope for final approval. The legal system of the Catholic Church is the oldest such system continually operating in the world.

What was Vatican II?

The Second Vatican Council (also called Vatican II) was held from October 11, 1962, to December 8, 1965. It was the twenty-first ecumenical (“whole world”) council of the Catholic Church and certainly the single most important event for the Catholic Church in the twentieth century. Without question, it has set the tone and agenda for the Catholic Church ever since.

An ecumenical council is a solemn, official gathering of all the bishops of the world and, when confirmed by the successor of Peter (the pope), constitutes the highest teaching authority within the Church. Catholics believe these councils are guided by the Holy Spirit in a special way and are preserved from error.

The prototype for ecumenical councils is the Jerusalem Council, which convened around the year 49 or 50 and is described in Acts 15. Disputes had broken out among Christian teachers and evangelists over the conditions by which Gentile believers should be received into the Church. The disagreements had become so sharp that the unity of the Church was threatened. So the apostles and bishops gathered in Jerusalem, imploring the special guidance of the Holy Spirit to resolve the problem..

After prayer and debate, the issue was settled. A document was produced declaring the decision. Believers throughout the world were to regard the decision of the apostles and bishops as authoritative. The unity of the Church had been preserved.

Nearly nineteen hundred years after the Jerusalem Council, Vatican II was opened in 1962 by Pope John XXIII. Over twenty-six hundred bishops attended, with many other Catholic and non-Catholic observers. Overall participation exceeded three thousand. After the death of John XIII, the Council was continued by Pope Paul VI, who succeeded him on June 21, 1963.

The Council was convened to foster unity among Christians, renew the Church, and update some of its forms and institutions, as well as promote peace and the unity of all mankind. It sought to pass along faithfully the sacred truths of the faith, but with a view towards teaching it more effectively in the modern world. As Pope John XXIII put it: “The substance of the ancient doctrine is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another.”

Unlike many previous councils, Vatican II wasn’t convened for the purpose of combating heresy or to resolve some threat to divide the Church. It did, however, produce sixteen documents with a number of distinct emphases:

  • The Church is, first and foremost, a mystery or sacrament, and is more than the visible institution.
  • While the fullness of the faith subsists in the Catholic Church, all baptized Christians are brothers and sisters already in some imperfect communion with the Catholic Church.
  • Our first step towards unity is personal renewal and repentance: “There can be no ecumenism worthy of the name without a change of heart. … Let all Christ’s faithful remember that the more purely they strive to live according to the gospel, the more they are fostering and even practicing Christian unity.”
  • The laity, the people of God, are called by God to extend the mission of the Church especially in areas of evangelization, social justice, family life, the media, and the development of a more humane culture.
  • Worship requires the “full, conscious, active participation” of all the lay faithful since the Eucharistic liturgy represents the source and summit of our faith.
  • We must have a renewed study of Sacred Scripture. “Just as the life of the Church grows through persistent participation in the Eucharistic mystery, so we may hope for a new surge of spiritual vitality from intensified veneration for God’s word, which “lasts forever” (Is 40:8; 1 Pet 1:23-25).
  • Since faith is a free act and cannot be coerced, all people by virtue of their created dignity as the image of God have a right to religious liberty.
  • It acknowledged that God is often at work in other world religions. Dialogue with non-Christians is essential. The call to dialogue, however, is not opposed to the call to conversion. The Catholic Church is a missionary Church and every disciple of Christ is obligated to participate in it according to his ability.
  • Religious life must be renewed by a fresh discovery of the gospel and given new forms.

As a result of the Council, Catholic Scripture study has increased and a renewed liturgy has been installed. The laity has assumed a more prominent place in guiding parishes, proclaiming the gospel, and serving the poor and the unborn. Various renewal movements have flourished. Catholics find themselves in prayer groups, Bible studies, and social reform work with many Christians outside the Catholic Church.

High-level ecumenical dialogues have produced much better formal relations between the Catholic Church and other Christian communities. Pope John Paul II has come to be admired as a leading advocate for religious liberty, peace, the poor, and refugees.

At the same time, much internal debate, even controversy, has ensued in the wake of Vatican II, especially over liturgy, ecumenism, and catechesis. But what would one expect from a Council that sought to maintain firm continuity with eternal truths yet risk up-dating its methods in proclaiming that truth?

There has also been a stunning decline of priests and nuns since the Second Vatican Council. Why? Many are the proposed answers. I like to think that it is the Holy Spirit’s way of prodding the laity to take responsibility for Christ’s Church. The Church is far broader than its leadership.

Occasionally, among Catholics usually in debate with one another, you will hear puzzling references to the “spirit of Vatican II.” My suggestion? We should read the text of Vatican II before we try to discern its spirit. The Spirit and the Word are one.

The Decrees and Declarations of the Council are to be read in light of the Constitutions. The Constitutions go to the heart of the Church, its “constitution.” The Decrees and Declarations pertain more to pastoral and practical matters. While all the teaching of an ecumenical council is binding, the four constitutions of Vatican II provide an interpretive key for the other decrees and declarations.

These are the Documents of Vatican II:

Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium)

Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum)

Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium)

Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes)

Decree on the Instruments of Social Communication (Inter Mirifica)

Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio)

Decree on Eastern Catholic Churches (Orientalium Ecclesiarum)

Decree on the Bishops’ Pastoral Office in the Church (Christus Dominus)

Decree on Priestly Formation (Optatam Totius)

Decree on the Appropriate Renewal of the Religious Life (Perfectae Caritatis)

Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity (Apostolicam Actuositatem)

Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests (Presbyterorum Ordinis)

Decree on the Church’s Missionary Activity (Ad Gentes Divinitus)

Declaration on Christian Education (Gravissimum Educationis)

Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate)

Declaration on Religious Freedom (Dignitatis Humanae)

What is the Catechism of the Catholic Church?

In 1992 the first universal Catechism of the Catholic Church in over four hundred years was completed. Two years later it was published in English. It had been prepared through six years of intense work by a papal commission consisting of twelve cardinals and bishops.

The word “catechism” comes from the Greek word katekhein, meaning “to resound, to echo, to make [one] hear.” In the New Testament, katekhein refers to instruction in the way of the Lord. A disciple is a learner, that is, one instructed by the master with the aim of becoming like him (see Lk 6:40).

Christ is the Master who instructs us through his body, the Church. A catechumen is the person undergoing instruction in the faith. To catechize is to instruct; catechesis is the instruction. A catechism “echoes” those instructions and is a compilation of basic Christian truths to be used to instruct disciples and guide teachers.

In Scripture we occasionally see brief creeds and teaching summaries, but our earliest systematic presentation of Christian doctrine for new converts is the Didache, a text from the late first century. Examples of fourth-century catechetical instruction can be found in St. Cyril of Jerusalem’s Lectures, St. Gregory of Nyssa’s Catechetical Oration, and St. Augustine’s De Catechizandis Rudibus.

Catechetical materials varied from region to region and were not uniform. The invention of the printing press and, later, the Protestant Reformation changed this. With the teaching of the Church under attack, it was necessary to standardize the instruction.

The first catechism intended for universal distribution and use was commissioned by the Council of Trent and issued by Pope St. Pius V in 1566. It is commonly called The Roman Catechism. In the United States a national catechism was produced in the late nineteenth century based upon the Roman Catechism; it was called The Baltimore Catechism.

After the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), the need for a clear restatement of basic Catholic teaching began to be felt. In 1985, the bishops of the Catholic Church recommended to Pope John Paul II that a new universal catechism be composed. After much consultation with theologians and the bishops, The Catechism of the Catholic Church was issued in 1994 and directed to the bishops, all teachers of the faith, the Christian faithful, and all sincere inquirers.

Pope John Paul II has described this new catechism as “a sure and authentic reference text for teaching Catholic doctrine and particularly for preparing local catechisms. It is also offered to all the faithful who wish to deepen their knowledge of the unfathomable riches of salvation (cf. Eph 3:8). It is meant to support ecumenical efforts that are moved by the holy desire for the unity of all Christians, showing carefully the content and wondrous harmony of the Catholic faith. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, lastly, is offered to every individual who asks us to give an account of the hope that is in us (cf. 1 Pet 3:15) and who wants to know what the Catholic Church believes.”

For someone interested in pursuing what the Catholic Church actually teaches, rather than being tossed to and fro by the opinions of various Catholics, The Catechism of the Catholic Church is the place to start. Millions are now in circulation, and it is easily available at most bookstores.

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