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Fr. John Trigilio | author
May 02, 2013
Filed under Apologetics
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What is papal primacy?

Fr. John Trigilio writes that papal primacy is based on Christ’s teaching . . .

Reverend John Trigilio Jr.

Reverend John Trigilio Jr.

Papal primacy is the concept that the bishop of Rome (the pope) is the universal pastor and supreme head of the Catholic Church. He has full, supreme, immediate, and universal jurisdictional authority to govern the Church.

This means that no bishop, synod, or council of bishops can override his authority. His teaching authority is defined in the doctrine of papal infallibility. His governing authority is contained in papal primacy.

The Eastern Orthodox Church considers the bishop of Rome to have a primacy in honor among the five patriarchs of Jerusalem, Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople and Rome. They do not recognize his primacy in jurisdiction, however.

Every bishop in the Catholic Church must be approved by the pope and receive a papal mandate before being ordained and consecrated to the episcopacy, and it is the pope who confers on that bishop the authority to govern the diocese to which he has been appointed.

The First Vatican Council defined papal infallibility and papal primacy. “All the faithful of Christ must believe that the Apostolic See and the Roman Pontiff hold primacy over the whole world, and that the Pontiff of Rome himself is the successor of the blessed Peter, the chief of the apostles, and is the true Vicar of Christ and head of the whole Church and faith, and teacher of all Christians.”

The charism of infallibility is exercised only when the pope issues an ex cathedra statement on faith and morals or when he proposes a teaching united with all the bishops of the world. Unlike divine inspiration of scripture, where God directed the sacred authors to write only what he wanted them to write, infallibility means there are no moral or doctrinal errors present in the statement.

The basis for the teachings on papal primacy and papal infallibility are found in Matthew 16:17-19 when Jesus said to Simon, “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell 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.”

Some who dispute papal primacy claim that the original Greek words used by Matthew (Petros for Peter and petra for rock) show a difference between rock and stone, as if Peter were a small stone and the Church was a large rock. Actually, the Greek word for stone is lithos. Petros is nothing more than petra (rock) with a masculine ending. Calling Simon “petra” would be like calling John “Joan” or “Johanna.” So despite the feminine ending of Petra, linguistic and biblical scholarship maintains that Simon “Peter” is the rock upon which Christ built his church.

FATHER JOHN TRIGILIO JR. is an author, theologian and president of the Confraternity of Catholic Clergy. This article is reprinted with permission from “The Catholicism Answer Book: The 300 Most Frequently Asked Questions,” which he authored with Fr. Kenneth D. Brighenti.


Catechism 101

The Pope, Bishop of Rome and Peter’s successor, is the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful. For the Roman Pontiff, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, and as pastor of the entire Church has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered.

The college or body of bishops has no authority unless united with the Roman Pontiff, Peter’s successor, as its head. As such, this college has supreme and full authority over the universal Church; but this power cannot be exercised without the agreement of the Roman Pontiff.

Catechism of the Catholic Church, # 882, 883

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