Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Thursday, April 19, 2018


MsgrLiptak_TNQ. I am reading about a new statue of Pope John Paul II recently unveiled in Rome. The statue, according to The New York Times (26 May), has stirred up a debate among some Romans about its artistic worth. The reporter suggests that this disagreement is especially regrettable because John Paul "forged an intimate relationship with Rome, where, during the 26 years of his papacy, he also held the title Bishop of Rome." Could it be that the reporter did not realize that the Pope – any Pope – is always Bishop of Rome?

A. The words quoted above do seem odd. I recall reading them, and questioning myself how much research went into the Times’s story.

Christ our Lord named St. Peter as the foundation of the Church when he designated him the Church’s rock foundation and the Keeper of the Keys (i.e., the one possessing full power of binding and loosing); see Matthew 16:18; also 10:2; also 16:16 sqq. Because Peter was Bishop of Rome when he died, Catholic Tradition has perennially held that the Bishop of Rome succeeds Peter in such powers and role that belonged to him by the Lord’s designation as head of the Apostolic College and the Rock-like foundation of the Church.

The Church, understanding and applying this doctrine, teaches that Peter and his successors enjoy supreme authority over the entire Church in two very special ways: jurisdiction and Episcopal authority. In the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Pope is "head of the college of bishops," and "the Vicar of Christ," and "the Pastor of the universal Church on Earth." (No. 936; see Code of Canon Law, Can. 331.) Moreover, the Pope enjoys, "by divine institution, ‘supreme, full, immediate and universal power in the care of souls.’" (ibid)

Again, as the new Code puts it:

"The office uniquely committed by the Lord to Peter, the first of the Apostles, and to be transmitted to his successors, abides in the Bishop of the Church of Rome…" (Can. 331)

Could it happen that the Pope might either move from Rome to another Diocese, or else be forced out of Rome? This possibility has already become a reality, as, for example, when the Holy Father temporarily resided in France – Avignon (1309 to 1450).

There is also an argument that can be drawn directly and simply from history in support of the premiss that the Pope must also be Bishop of Rome. The argument is summarized in the fact that only the Roman Catholic Church has ever claimed this to be the case. And the claim reaches back to the very beginning.

Here I could add a note about one of the greatest Protestant theologians of the century; namely, the Swiss Karl Barth. (His unique contribution to theology is encapsulated in his Summa, the awesome 15-volume work known as The Church Dogmatics, written in German and consuming heavy, oversize volumes, for which an English translation is now available.) Barth, invited as an observer to the final sessions of Vatican Council II, in the early 1960s, was impeded by illness from attending. However, in September 1966 (after the Council, therefore), he was able to accept an invitation by Pope Paul VI, who, at one point, seated him next to a contingent of Cardinals – a gesture he rightly deemed a special honor.

Following his study/prayer time in Rome, Barth wrote a small monograph detailing his visit. (I have a copy in my own library.) In it, Barth speaks candidly about his pilgrimage to "the threshold of the Apostles"; in fact, the title of his monograph is this very traditional phrase, used of the required visit every bishop must make at five-year intervals; the Latin expression is Ad limina Apostolorum, referring to SS. Peter and Paul. Peter is buried deep beneath the world-famous basilica bearing his name; Paul just outside the walls of Rome, under a Church built over the spot where he was martyred.