The Catholic Church is a divinely instituted society, of which all the members profess the doctrine of Christ and are united under the teaching and rule of the Roman Pontiff and the Bishops subject to him, that thereby they may cultivate holiness and obtain salvation.
Like all other societies it has, therefore, a system of authority by which it is ruled, and by which its members are directed toward the end for which it was established; and the description of this system will form the matter of these first chapters.
When we read of the Church’s government or of its legislative acts we often meet the words “Cardinal,” or “Metropolitan,” or “Delegate,” or “Primate,” and we know in a vague way that these are officials of the Church; but the great majority of us Catholics have no very clear idea of the duties or the relative rank of these and other dignitaries. Many of us, doubtless, are far less familiar with the details of the government of our Church than we are with the administrative machinery of our Country or city.
The Two Hierarchies. The governing body of the Church’s clergy is usually known as the Hierarchy, a word derived from the Greek, signifying “priestly rule.”
The Divine Founder of our Church did not intend that the “rank and file” of its membership should have authority in it, or a power to perform sacred public functions. To selected members, called the clergy, was given the office of offering public worship, or administering most of the sacraments, and of ruling and instructing the faithful; and the clergy (the “chosen ones”) are therefore known, first of all, as the Hierarchy of Order, because they receive these powers through the Sacrament of Holy Orders. And in order that there may be system and uniformity, that the work of the whole body may be done in an orderly and effective manner, these leaders of the Church possess also certain legislative powers, on account of which they are known as the Hierarchy of Jurisdiction.
The essential features of the Church’s government are the Papacy and the Episcopacy — the office of Pope and the office of Bishop. These were established by our Blessed Lord. The other grades of the hierarchy and the various details of governmental legislation have been determined by the Church herself in the course of centuries.
The Pope. Every nation has its ruler, be he emperor or king or president. Every society has its legislative head, its centre of authority, its lawmaker and lawgiver. And, as the Church is a society of men, although instituted by God, His wisdom has ordained that at the head of His earthly kingdom there shall be one man, a monarch, endowed with supreme power. This man is the Pope, the successor of St. Peter in the bishopric of Rome. “Upon this Rock I will build My Church.” “I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatsoever thou shalt loose upon earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Our Lord Jesus Christ, wishing His Church to be one, instituted the Primacy of Peter to rule it and to cement it into unity.
The Pope’s Power. The sovereignty of the Pope over the Church differs from that of the rulers of other societies. He has direct authority over all Catholics, from the most exalted prelate to the humblest layman; and he is obliged to render an account of his administration to no human being. None of his power is derived from or delegated by any one else. According to the Vatican Council, he has “the whole fulness of supreme power, ordinary and immediate, over all and each of the pastors and the faithful.” He is the supreme judge in matters of faith. To him belongs the right to regulate all the Church’s discipline. He may enact laws for the whole Church and for any part of it, and dispense from them. He can inflict censures, such as excommunication. He can reserve to himself the power of absolving from certain sins. He and he alone can form, suppress and divide dioceses and approve new religious orders. He can dispense from any vow, no matter how solemn or sacred.
The Pope’s Infallibility. That the successor of St. Peter may preserve the faith of Jesus Christ free from any taint of error, that the shepherd may guide the flock aright, he has been endowed with a wonderful power and privilege. He is infallible in matters of faith and morals. That is, when by virtue of his Apostolic office he defines a doctrine of faith or morals to be held by the whole Church, he speaks without error or danger of error, being preserved from it by the Spirit of God, Which “teaches all truth” and abides with the Church forever.
Non-Catholics often ask: “Does this mean that the Pope cannot make a mistake?” Others go further, and inquire: “Do you Catholics believe that the Pope cannot sin?” The answer to both questions is, No. The Pope is subject to error, like other men. He can sin, even as we, for he is human. He is infallible only when he is speaking as the supreme teacher and head of the Church, and only when he is defining a doctrine concerning faith or morals and imposing it upon the whole Church to be accepted and held by all the Church’s members. He has no immunity from error in other things. He may advocate historical or scientific views that are absolutely false. He may write books which may be full of inaccuracies and misstatements. God protects him from error only when he is exercising his office of sovereign teacher and lawgiver regarding matters which are the doctrine of the Church, whether these be of faith or morals. Such doctrines thus proposed are the teaching of the Church of Christ as soon as the Pope defines them; and any one who refuses to accept them thereby ceases to be a member of the Church.
Here, then, we have the supreme authority, the highest tribunal of appeal, the very foundation of our Church. The man who sits to-day in the chair of Peter is, like him, the rock upon which God’s Church is built. He is guided by the Holy Spirit when he is teaching the truths of God to the world. As the Church is our infallible guide in the path of salvation and our infallible teacher concerning God’s revealed truth, it is logical and necessary to hold that he who rules the Church must be likewise infallible, free from even the possibility of error, when he is solemnly proclaiming its principles of morals or of faith.
The Pope’s Election. The Papacy is a monarchy, differing from other governments of that kind in one important detail; it is not hereditary. It may be termed an elective monarchy. In the first centuries it was the custom to allow the clergy and people of each diocese to choose their own bishop, and this was done at Rome as well as elsewhere; the election, however, required the assent of the neighboring bishops, and the crowning of the new Pontiff was performed by the Bishop of Ostia. The present system of election may be traced back to Pope Nicholas II, for his decree, issued in 1059, restricted the electoral power to the Cardinals. At first the Cardinal-Bishops were the only ones authorized to select the new Pope, but after a time all the Cardinals were allowed to have a share in that important work.
Who may be chosen to fill the office of Pope? Strictly speaking, any male Catholic who has come to the age of reason — even a layman. Strange to say, it would be legally possible to elect even a married man; for the law of the “celibacy of the clergy” is not of divine institution, but is a rule of the Church which developed gradually and was finally made a part of her legal code for the greater part of the world. But there is no danger, in the present state of the Church’s discipline, that we will have a Pope with a wife, nor even that any layman will be selected in preference to a cleric. For more than five hundred years the choice has fallen in every instance upon a Cardinal.
Would it be possible for the Pope to nominate his successor? No; this is expressly forbidden by the Church’s law, because it would mean an act of jurisdiction by one who no longer has authority — for a dead Pope is no longer Pope, and any selection made by him has no binding force on the Church after his death.
The Conclave. The election of a Pope takes place at what is called a Conclave, which word signifies that the voting prelates (the College of Cardinals) are under lock and key. This is an ancient practice, dating back to the twelfth century.
“Death lays his icy hand on kings,” sang the old poet; and he who is more exalted than any king must bow to the same in exorable law. When the Sovereign Pontiff dies, his actual death is verified by a quaint ceremony. One of the Cardinals approaches the bedside and strikes the forehead of the dead Pope three times with a silver mallet, calling him by his baptismal name. The death of the Pope being thus legally attested, the Cardinals are summoned to the Conclave to elect his successor.
A part of the Vatican Palace is walled off, and ten days after the death of the Pope the Cardinals begin their work. The balloting is usually secret, and as a two-thirds vote is required for an election, it frequently happens that several ballotings are required.
The governents of Austria and Spain, and others as well, have been allowed at some elections to register their opposition to some proposed candidate, enforcing the withdrawal of his name. This was known as the Power of Veto. It has been definitively forbidden in all elections hereafter.
When a candidate is found to have the necessary number of votes and has manifested his willingness to accept the office, he is thereby Pope. He needs no ceremony of consecration to elevate him to the Papacy.
It would be possible, though far from probable, that a person might be elected Pope who is not already a Bishop. He would become Pope as soon as he was lawfully chosen, and could then perform all the duties of the Papacy which pertain to jurisdiction; but he could not ordain or consecrate until he himself had been raised to the episcopate by other Bishops.
Within a few days after his election the new Pope is crowned with solemn ceremonies after a Mass of Coronation, in which petitions are offered for the spiritual and temporal welfare of the new Pontiff, and for the prosperity of the Church under his rule.
The Pope’s New Name. For about one thousand years it has been customary for each new Pope to change his name. This is said by some to be in imitation of the taking of the name of Peter by the first Pontiff. Usually the name is taken of some preceding Pope whose works and sanctity commend themselves to the new Pontiff, and whose policies, perhaps, he intends to imitate.
Such is the method which our holy Church uses for the perpetuation of her government, continuing through century after century that glorious line of successors to him who received from our Saviour the commission to feed His lambs and His sheep. The powers of evil have conspired against that Church, but they have not prevailed. Storms have raged around the bark of Peter, but it has not been overwhelmed. The enemies of God’s Church have tried and are trying to destroy that which is indestructible.
The Pope’s Titles. The “Pope” gets that name from the Latin “Papa,” a childish word for “Father.” By virtue of his office he is also the “Patriarch of the West,” the “Primate of Italy,” and the “Metropolitan of the Province of Rome,” as well as the Bishop of Rome. He is often spoken of as the “Sovereign Pontiff.” The word Pontiff comes from the priesthood of pagan Rome, and signifies literally “bridge-builder,” because the high-priests of Rome, among other civic duties, had charge of the bridges over the Tiber.
The Pope is usually mentioned as “Our Holy Father,” and is addressed as “Your Holiness,” or, in Latin, “Beatissime Pater” —“Most Blessed Father.” He speaks of himself in official documents as “Servus Servorum Dei”—“Servant of the Servants of God.”
The Pope’s Insignia. The ordinary garb of the Sovereign Pontiff is white. He does not use the crosier or pastoral staff of Bishops. Among his insignia are the pallium, which signifies his rank as a Primate, and the tiara, or triple crown. In early centuries the Pope wore a simple mitre, like other Bishops; but about the ninth century a crown was added to it, to denote the Pontiff’s temporal power as ruler of the States of the Church. Later a second crown was added, Tiara and and about the year 1365 a third — signifying, according to some, the supreme authority of the Pope in spiritual things, his jurisdiction over the Church considered as a human society, and his dominion as a temporal monarch. According to others, the triple crown typifies his threefold office as teacher, lawgiver and judge.
Peterspence. A part of the revenue of the Holy See at the present day is provided by a yearly contribution from the faithful of various countries. This bears the name of “Peterspence,” because in England, in Saxon times, each householder gave a penny. It began in the reign of King Offa, in 787, and spread from England to other nations of northern Europe. At the time of the Reformation it ceased throughout the world, and was not reestablished until the reign of Pius IX.
Benedict XV, the Sovereign Pontiff at the present time (1917), is the 26oth Pope. That long line of saints, of martyrs, of learned teachers and of wise rulers has endured for nearly twenty centuries, and will endure till the end of time. Other religions have arisen and flourished and died; for they were not divine in their origin, and contained at most only a part of God’s truth in their teachings. But the Catholic Church was founded by Jesus Christ Himself, and that Church will be man’s guide and the chief means of his salvation until that dread day when “the Son of Man shall sit in the seat of His majesty and all nations shall be gathered before Him.”