The Official Title of the Pope

Now let us make an honest effort to find what the Roman Catholic Church teaches con­cerning the title of the pope.

By W.W. PRESCOTT, Veteran Editor, Takoma Park, D.C.

When an honest effort is made to es­tablish a fact of history by candid research, all preconceived opinions must be laid aside, and we must be ready, with an unprejudiced mind, to give due weight to the testimony of reliable and authoritative documents. When we desire to know what is the authoritative teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, the real voice of that church, we must distinguish between the teaching of Roman Catholic writers, even though they may have a high standing in that church, and the officially recognized teaching of the church. It is, therefore, necessary to ask first, What historical documents are recognized by Roman Catholics as conveying the official voice of that church concerning its doctrines? The following extracts will give a clear answer to this question:

"The doctrinal standards of the Roman Catholic Church may accordingly be divided into three classes:

"1. The Ecumenical Creeds, which the Roman church holds in common with the Greek, excepting the Filioque clause, which the Greek rejects as an unauthorized, heretical, and mischievous innovation.

"2. The Roman or Tridentine Creeds, in opposi­tion to the evangelical doctrines of the Reformation. Here belong the Council of Trent, the Profession [Creed] of Pope Pius IV, and the Roman Catechism. They sanction a number of doctrines, which were prepared in part by patristic and scholastic theology, papal decrees, and medieval councils, but had always been more or less controverted, viz., tradition as a joint rule of faith, the extent of the canon including the Apocrypha, the authority of the Vulgate, the doctrine of the primitive state and original sin, justi­fication by works as well as by faith, meritorious works, seven sacraments, transubstantiation, the withdrawal of the cup, the sacrifice of the mass for the living and the dead, auricular confession and priestly absolution, extreme unction, purgatory, in­dulgences, and obedience to the authority of the pope as the successor of Peter and vicar of Christ.

"3. The modern papal and Vatican decisions in favor of the immaculate conception of Mary, and the infallibility of the Pope. These were formerly open questions in the Roman church, but are now binding dogmas of faith."1

When the first edition of this work was printed in 1877, all the doctrinal standards were comprehended under the three foregoing heads, but in 1917 another doctrinal standard was issued by Benedict XV. The following quotation deals with this added standard:

"The code of Canon Law, prepared by the author­ity of Pius X and issued by Benedict XV, 1917, contains definitions of Catholic doctrine and rules of Catholic practice. It takes the place of the code prepared by Gratian, professor of canon law at Bologna in the eleventh century. Gratian's com­pilation, which, according to Dollinger, is 'filled through and through with forgery and error,' Papstthum, p. 55, with the additions made to it by Gregory IX, 1234, and later popes, was, together with Leo X's bull, cast by Luther into the flames, 1520. The code issued by Benedict XV was made by papal bull, the binding law of the church, and anyone attempting to change it was threatened with the wrath of Almighty God and the apostles Peter and Paul. To the documents as thus enumer­ated, the student must go who would make sure what the authoritative teachings of the Roman church are." 2

These four doctrinal standards cover the whole ground of the authoritative teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. It follows, there­fore, that if we sincerely desire to know the teaching of that church upon any particular subject, we must look for it in these doctrinal standards. As an illustration of this fact, let us consider the many Roman Catholic cate­chisms in many languages. We may cite any of these catechisms, if we wish to do so, but there is only one catechism, the "Roman Catechism," issued by the authority of the Council of Trent, from which we can quote with the statement, "The Roman Catholic Church teaches this." If we quote from any other catechism, we must present its teaching simply as the teaching of the writer of the catechism, and not as the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. The same principle applies to our use of any Roman Catholic writings other than those included in the four doctrinal standards cited.

Now let us make an honest effort to find what the Roman Catholic Church teaches con­cerning the title of the pope. This will, of course, lead us to make quotations from the doctrinal standards already mentioned. Pre­liminary to this let us note what title was con­ceded to the pope before there was any au­thoritative definition of his title. Here is a brief statement bearing upon the matter:

"The very names the popes assumed or accepted mark the broad division between the earlier and new Gregorian Papacy. To the end of the twelfth century they had called themselves Vicars of Peter, but since Innocent III this title was superseded by Vicar of Christ." 3

Another quotation will be of special interest in this connection:

"The pseudo-Isidorian idea that the pope was the Episcopus universalis [universal bishop] of the church, was now developed by the ambition of the popes and the cringing flattery of their creatures, favored by the state of politics and the ignorance of the age, to a degree never anticipated in former times. Bishops were degraded to be merely vicars of the pope, who had advanced since the time of Innocent III from being the Vicarius Petri [Vicar of Peter], to be the Vicarius Dei or Christi [Vicar of God or of Christ]." 4

Three more quotations deal with the same subject and confirm the testimony already given:

"As for himself, Innocent III stated frankly that he was above men and below God, the very Vicar of Christ."'

"It would not be sane for his panegyrist to deny that Innocent the Third was proud. The fact is categorically recorded. He was a haughty pontiff in the first intention of the term—not in or for him­self, but in virtue of his office. From his desire to magnify the power and glorify the prestige of the apostolic see, he used the title of Vicar of Christ." 6

"Innocent [III] is believed to be the first pope that assumed the title 'Vicar of Christ' a title re­served in the earliest church for the Holy Spirit. Innocent's predecessors were content to be vicarii (i.e., successors) of Peter. In the Donation of Constantine (755-7) Peter is vicarius of Christ, the pope of Peter."

These extracts show plainly and convinc­ingly that up to the time of Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) the recognized title of the pope was the "vicar of Peter." It is not possible to quote any formal action to this effect from the doctrinal standards, as no such action was taken. Innocent III was the first pope to claim any other title, but his claim to be the vicar of Christ was not officially and authoritatively recognized until more than two centuries later. At the Council of Florence held under Pope Eugenius IV (1431-47) the following action was taken:

"The Council of Florence defined that: 'The Roman pontiff is the true vicar of Christ, and the head of the whole church, and the father and teacher of all Christians; and that to him in blessed Peter was delivered by our Lord Jesus Christ the full power of feeding, ruling, and governing the whole church.' "8 [The decree of a council is an authorita­tive pronouncement.]

It was also at the Council of Florence that the pope, Eugenius IV, insisted that the Greeks should recognize him as the vicar of Christ. The following quotation deals with this:

"The pope demanded at the Council of Florence [1439] that the Greeks should recognize him as the chief pontiff, successor of Peter, and vicar of Christ."

The Reformation of the sixteenth century made it necessary for the church to define its doctrines anew, and this was done at much length in the Council of Trent. An authorita­tive summary of the doctrines as thus estab­lished is found in the creed of Pope Pius IV, the tenth article of which reads as follows:

"I acknowledge the holy Catholic Apostolic Roman Church for the mother and mistress of all churches ; and I promise and swear true obedience to the bishop of Rome, successor to St. Peter, prince of the apostles, vicar of Jesus Christ." "

Another very important council of the Roman Catholic Church is the Vatican Council held in Rome in 1870. The first paragraph of chapter three of the "First Dogmatic Constitu­tion of the Church of Christ," entitled, "On the Power and Nature of the Primacy of the Roman Pontiff," reads thus:

"Wherefore, resting on plain testimonies of the Sacred Writings, and adhering to the plain and express decrees both of our predecessors the Roman pontiffs, and of the general councils, We renew the definition of the ecumenical Council of Florence, by which all the faithful of Christ must believe that the Holy Apostolic See and the Roman pontiff pos­sesses the primacy over the whole world ; and that the Roman pontiff is the successor of blessed Peter, prince of the apostles, and is true vicar of Christ, the head of the whole church, and father and teacher of all Christians ; and that full power was given to him in blessed Peter, by Jesus Christ our Lord, to rule, feed, and govern the universal church : as is also contained in the acts of the ecumenical coun­cils and in the sacred canons." "

Under the general heading "Consensus and Dissensus [Agreements and Disagreements] of the Roman Catholic and the Ecumenical Prot­estant Churches," with the subhead "Dissen­sus" [Disagreements], Division IX, speaks of the Pope, thus:

"The infallible head of the Universal Church, the vicar of Christ on earth, by virtue of his office as the successor of Peter. This is the cardinal doctrine of Romanism, but is rejected by Greeks and Protes­tants as an antichrist usurpation of the prerogative of Christ." "

In this connection it will be desirable to quote the formula used in officially crowning the pope with the tiara :

"Accipe Tiaram, tribus coronis ornatum, et scias te esse Patrem Principum et Regum, Rectorem orbis, in terra Vicarium Salvatoris nostri Jesu-Christi, Cui est honor, et gloria, in secula seculorura, Amen." 63

Translation: "Receive the tiara adorned with three crowns, and know that thou art the father of princes and kings, ruler of the world, vicar on earth of our Saviour Jesus Christ." 14

Special emphasis should be placed upon the very significant fact that in not one of these authoritative utterances concerning the title of the pope do we find the title Vicar of the Son of God.

The importance attached to this title (the Vicar of Christ) and the office indicated by it are clearly set forth in the following para­graph:

"You might as well shut out the light of day and the air of heaven from your daily walks as exclude the pope from his legitimate sphere in the hierarchy of the church. The history of the United States with the President left out would be more intelligible than the history of the church to the exclusion of the vicar of Christ.'

In dealing with this subject we must mark the distinction between the official title of the pope and the different offices of the pope. The Council of Florence in 1439 authorita­tively declared the pope to be "the true vicar of Christ," and then mentioned the offices which he would hold as the result of such a title, namely, "the head of the whole church. and the father and teacher of all Christians," and said, "to him in blessed Peter was de­livered by our Lord Jesus Christ the full power of feeding, ruling, and governing the whole church." It thus appears that the pope has only one official title, but that he fills a variety of offices.

We may say then that from the doctrinal standards which have been cited, the following conclusions are fully warranted:

1. For centuries in the early history of the Roman Catholic Church the pope was called the successor of Peter, or the vicar of Peter.

2. Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) was the first pope to depart from this custom, and he assumed the title of Vicar of Christ, but he did this without the action of any council of the church.

3. The Council of Florence in 5439 officially defined the pope to be "the true vicar of Christ," and the pope Eugenius IV (1431-47) demanded "that the Greeks should recognize him as the chief pontiff, successor of Peter, and vicar of Christ."

4. By the authority of the Council of Trent, Pope Pius IV (1559-66) issued a confession of the Catholic faith in which the bishop of Rome was recognized as "successor to St. Peter, prince of the apostles, and vicar of Jesus Christ."

5. The Vatican Council held in 1870 re­newed the definition of the Council of Florence and declared that the pope is "the successor of blessed Peter, prince of the apostles, and is true vicar of Christ."

6. The title "the vicar of the Son of God," does not appear in the doctrinal standards as the title of the pope.

7. We are therefore fully justified in con­cluding that the authoritative title of the pope is "Vicar of Christ."


1 Schaff, Philip, "The Creeds of Christendom," Vol. I, pp. 84, 85. Harper and Brothers, New York, 1877.

2 Schaff, David S., "Our Fathers' Faith and Ours," pp. 16, 17. G. P. Putnam's Sons, New York, 1928.

3 Janus (J. J. Ig. Hollinger), "The Pope and the Council," p. 159. [Note: Hollinger was a Roman Catholic historian who testified that history so plainly disproved the doctrine of papal infallibility that he would not accept that dogma and was ac­cordingly disfellowshiped from the Roman Catholic Church.]

4 Gieseler, John, "A Compendium of Ecclesiastical History," Vol. III, pp. 159-161. [Note : Summus Pontifex non hominis pun, sed yeti Dei vere Vicarius appellatur. Nam quamvis simus Apostolorum Prineipis successores, non tamen ejus aut alicujus Apostoli vel hominis, sed ipsius sumus Vicarii Jesu Christi.—Innocent III, lib. 1, epist. 326, ad Faventin, Episc. Translation: The ehief pontiff is rightly called the vicar not of mere man, but of the true God. For although we may be the successors of the prince of the apostles, neyertheless we are not the vicars of him or of any apostle or of a man, but of Jesus Christ Himself.—The First Book of Inno­cent III. Epistle 326, to Bishop Faventinus. Foot­note. p. 161.]

5 Packard, Sidney R., "Europe and the Church Under Innocent III," p. 8.

6 Gordon-Pine, C. H. C., "Innocent the Great," p. 205.

7 Robertson, Archibald, "Regnum Dei," p. 267, Note t, The Bampton Lectures. 1901.

8 "Dogmatic Canons and Decrees," p. 253. Devin­Adair Company (R.C.), 1912.

9 Creighton, M., "The History of the Papacy," Vol. II, P. 347.

10 "Dogmatic Canons and Decrees," Profession of the Tridentine Faith, Article X, pp. 178, 179.

11 Ibid, the Vatican Council, pp. 246, 247. Devin­Adair Company, New York, 1912.

12 Schaff, Philip, Vol. I, "The Creeds of Christen­dom," p. 926.

13 Wordsworth, Chr., "Letters to M. Gondon," p. 317. London, 1848,

14 A Roman Catholic Dictionary," p. 880. Ben­ziger Bros., New York.

15 James Cardinal Gibbons, "The Faith of Our Fathers," p. 114. John Murphy Company, Baltimore, 1876.

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By W.W. PRESCOTT, Veteran Editor, Takoma Park, D.C.

March 1939

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