Rule of the True Christian Faith Against All Heresies

If anyone wishes to detect the deceits of heretics and to keep a sound and effective faith (Heb. 4:12), in the same sense in which it was taught and passed down by Our Lord Jesus Christ and His Apostles, he ought, with the Lord’s help, to fortify his faith by the authority of Scripture, and the Tradition of the Catholic Church.

The Appeal to Scripture

Someone may ask: “Since the canon of Scripture is complete, and is in itself sufficient, what need is there to join to it the interpretation of the Church?” The answer is that, because of the profundity of Scripture, all men do not place the same interpretation upon it. The statements of the same sacred writer are explained by different men in different ways, inspired by their own sense of ambition and pride (2 Tim. 4:3-4; Gal. 1:8; Rom. 16:17-18; 2 Tim. 3:6-8; Titus 1:10; 1 Tim. 1:19), twisting and adulterating the Scriptures “to their own destruction” (2 Pet. 3:16), as St. Irenaeus, writing of heretics, affirms: “Admitting the Sacred Scriptures, they distort the interpretations” (St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Bk. III, ch. 12, n. 12). As a result, according to St. Jerome, “it is no longer the Gospel of Christ, but a man’s, or what is worse, the devil’s” (Leo X, Exurge Domine), because “whosoever shall offend in one point, is become guilty of all” (James 2:10), and “there can be nothing more dangerous than those heretics who admit nearly the whole cycle of doctrine, and yet by one word, as with a drop of poison, infect the real and simple faith taught by Our Lord and handed down by Apostolic Tradition” (Leo XIII, Satis Cognitum). They, who take from Christian doctrine what they please, lean on their own judgments, not on faith, and not “bringing into captivity every understanding unto the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5), they more truly obey themselves than God: “You, who believe what you like, believe yourselves rather than the gospel” (St. Augustine, Bk. 17, Contra Faustum Manichaeum, ch. 3). This is so true that it seems almost possible to extract from a  Biblical statement as many opinions as there are men: Arius expounds in one way, Nestorius in another, Luther in another, Calvin in another, Smyth in another, Cranmer in another, Parham in another and Russell in another still; “But they shall proceed no farther; for their folly shall be manifest to all men” (2 Tim. 3:9).

The Rule for an Authentic Interpretation of Scriptures

Because of this multiform intricacy of errors a rule is necessary, for which reason the Catholic Church puts the greatest care to hold that which has been believed everywhere, at all times and by all: this is truly and properly “Catholic,” that is, universal. Thus, the rule is to follow (1) universality, (2) antiquity, and (3) consent.

(1) We shall follow universality if we acknowledge that one Faith to be true which the whole Church throughout the world confesses;

(2) antiquity, if we in no wise depart from those interpretations which the Apostles, their holy disciples and the Fathers of the Church held;

(3) consent, if in antiquity itself, we follow the common definitions and determinations of all, or nearly all, bishops and Doctors alike.

Avoid Innovations

“O Timothy, keep that which is committed to thy trust, avoiding the profane novelties of words, and oppositions of knowledge falsely so called. Which some promising, have erred concerning the faith” (1 Tim. 6:20-21). We cannot sufficiently wonder at the madness of certain men, at the impiety of their blinded understanding, at their lust of error, such that, not content with the rule of faith delivered once for all, and received from the times of old, they keep seeking one novelty after another, and are constantly longing to add, change, take away in religion, as though this doctrine were not heavenly but of human origin, needing continual emendation, or rather, continual fault-finding, opposing the warnings of Scripture: “As we said before, so now I say again: If any one preach to you a gospel, besides that which you have received, let him be anathema” (Gal. 1:9; Prov. 22:28; Sir. 8:14; Eccl. 10:8). Jesus Christ does not change, and is the same yesterday, today and forever (Heb. 13:8). The Apostle Paul is speaking here of that which has been entrusted to you, O Christian, not that which you have yourself devised; a matter not of wit, but of learning; not of private adoption, but of public tradition; brought to you, and not put forth by you, wherein you are bound to be not an author but a keeper, not a teacher but a disciple, not a leader but a follower. That which has been entrusted to you, let it continue in your possession, let it be handed on by you. We are commanded to avoid to associate ourselves with such people who, while claiming to be believers, act otherwise (1 Cor. 5:11), and the Apostle John insists: “If any man come to you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into the house nor say to him, God speed you” (2 John 1:10). What doctrine is he talking about, but the Catholic and universal doctrine, which has continued one and the same through the succession of ages by the uncorrupt tradition of the truth? “Avoid the profane novelties of words,” which to receive and follow was never the part of Catholics, but of heretics. In truth, what heresy was ever born save under a definite name, at a definite place and at a definite time? Who did ever originate a heresy and did not first separate himself from the agreement of the universality and antiquity of the Catholic Church? History is testimony to the truth of these words: who, before Simon Magus, denied the reality of Christ’s humanity, and who, before Basilides of Alexandria, dared to teach that it were not Christ to have been crucified, for he had no real human body, but another who assumed his semblance? Who before Celestius, disciple of Pelagius, denied that the whole human race is involved in the guilt of Adam’s sin? Who ever before the sacrilegious Arius dared to destroy the Unity of the Trinity? Who before the impious Luther dared to teach that false and apparent justification, according to which man is not made righteous by God’s grace, nor can ever be made so, but rather Christ’s righteousness is imputed to him by faith alone? On the contrary, it is the sure characteristic of Catholics to keep that which has been committed to their trust by the holy Fathers, to condemn profane novelties and, in the Apostle’s words, once and again repeated, to anathematize and shun everyone who preaches any other doctrine than that which has been received. More recently, Pope St. Pius X denounced that even “many Catholic writers go beyond the limits determined by the Fathers and the Church… In the name of higher knowledge and historical research (they say), they are looking for that progress of dogmas which is, in reality, nothing but the corruption of dogmas” (St. Pius X, Lamentabili Sane). Therefore, whatever we shall find to have been held, approved and taught, not by one or two only, but by all equally and with one consent, openly, frequently, and persistently, this we will hold without the slightest hesitation as the true Christian faith.

The False Appeal to Scripture of Heretics

Heretics do indeed appeal to Scripture, to sprinkle over the evil stench of their doctrine with the perfume of heavenly language, in order that one may more easily be deceived. It was for this reason that our Savior cried, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in the clothing of sheep, but inwardly they are ravening wolves (Matt. 7:15). What is meant by clothing of sheep, except the words which the Prophets, the Apostles and the Lamb of God have spoken? What are the ravening wolves, but the rabid interpretations of heretics, who continually infest the fold of the Church and tear in pieces the flock of Christ, wherever they are able? The Savior says, “By their fruits you shall know them” (Matt. 7:16), that is, when they have begun not only to quote those divine words, but also to expound them, to interpret them, then will that bitterness, that acerbity, that rage, be understood; then will the poison be perceived and those profane novelties be disclosed, then you will see first the hedge broken through, then the landmarks of the Fathers removed, then the Catholic Faith assailed, then the doctrine of the Church torn in pieces. Such were they whom the Apostle rebuked, saying, “For such false apostles are deceitful workmen, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ” (2 Cor. 11:13): in fact, as the Apostles brought forward testimonies on the authority of Sacred Scripture, these men did the same, but when they began to interpret the same passages in different senses, then were discerned the sincere from the crafty, the genuine from the counterfeit, in one word, the true apostles from the false apostles. “And no wonder,” he continues, “for Satan himself transformeth himself into an angel of light. Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers be transformed as the ministers of justice, whose end shall be according to their works” (2 Cor. 11:14-15). Therefore, according to the authority of the Apostle, as often as these false apostles and false teachers cite passages from the Scripture, by means of which, misinterpreted, they seek to support their own errors, there is no doubt that they are following the cunning devices of their father, the devil, by pretending the authority of holy Scripture. This is also attested by the authority of the Gospel, whereas “the devil took [Our Lord Jesus Christ] up into the holy city, and set him upon the pinnacle of the temple, and said to him: If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down, for it is written: That he hath given his angels charge over thee, and in their hands shall they bear thee up, lest perhaps thou dash thy foot against a stone. Jesus said to him: It is written again: Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God” (Matt. 4:5-7). By this warning we can be assured beyond doubt that when we find people alleging passages from the Apostles or Prophets, against the Catholic Faith, the devil is speaking through their mouths, for as then the Head spoke to the Head, so now also the members speak to the members, the members of the devil to the members of Christ, misbelievers to believers, sacrilegious to religious, in one word, heretics to Catholics. They say, if you would be a son of God, cast yourself down, that is, cast yourself down from the doctrine and tradition of that divine Church, which is the temple of God. And if one should ask one of the heretics who gives this advice, “How do you prove, what ground have you, for saying that I ought to cast away the universal and ancient faith of the Catholic Church?” he has the answer ready, “For it is written…,” and immediately he produces a thousand testimonies, a thousand examples, a thousand authorities from the Law, from the Psalms, from the Apostles, from the Prophets, by means of which, interpreted on a new and wrong principle, the unhappy soul may be precipitated from the height of Catholic truth to the lowest abyss of heresy. Finally, the heretics are wont marvellously to beguile the incautious, for they dare to teach and promise that in their church, that is, in the conventicle of their communion, there is a certain great, special and personal grace of God, so that whosoever pertain to their sect, without any labor or effort, even though they neither ask, nor seek, nor knock, have such a dispensation from God, that, borne up by angel hands, it is impossible they should ever dash their feet against a stone.

What to do when a Heresy arises

If at any time a part opposes itself to the whole, novelty to antiquity, the dissent of one or a few who are in error to the consent of all or at least of the great majority of Catholics, then we must prefer the soundness of the whole to the corruption of a part. If some novelty were trying to infect even the whole Church, we will take care to cleave to antiquity, which cannot be led astray by any new deceit: “Let there be no innovation – nothing but what has been handed down.” This is our duty, not to lead religion whither we would, but rather to follow religion whither it leads, and it is the part of Christian modesty and gravity not to hand down our own beliefs or opinions to those who come after us, but to preserve and keep what we have received from those who went before us. For, according to these errors and innovations, it follows necessarily that the Church which is guided by the Holy Ghost, the Church which the Apostle calls “pillar and foundation of truth” (1 Tim. 3:15) and which Christ commands us to obey (Matt. 18:17), even more, to obey as if it were He himself speaking (Luke 10:16), is in error and has always erred, that all the faithful of all ages, all the Saints, the chaste, the virgins, all the clergy, so many thousands of Confessors, so vast an army of martyrs, such multitudes of cities, peoples and kingdoms, in a word, almost the whole earth incorporated in Christ the Head, through the Catholic Faith, have been ignorant for so long a time, have been mistaken, have blasphemed, have not known what to believe and what to confess. The heretic often boasts to be the first and the only one who properly understood Holy Scripture, as Nestorius and Luther did in their own time, and that all those teachers were ignorant, who before them had expounded the sacred sentences; in a word, the heretic confidently asserts that the whole Church was even now in error, and always had been in error, making a liar of Christ Himself, who infallibly promised to his disciples: “Behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world” (Matt. 28:20); and to his Church: “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18).

Contradictions in Antiquity

If in antiquity itself two or three men, or even a whole nation are detected in error, we will prefer the decrees of an ancient General Council to the ignorance of a few men, for these, in their decrees, aimed to state clearly and without ambiguity that which was before believed in simplicity. If at any time a Doctor in the Church, be he considered as holy and learned as he may, had erred from the faith, introducing a new and unheard-of doctrine contrary to that of all the saints, know that Divine Providence permits it as a trial (Deut. 13:1-3), as the Apostle also states: “For there must be also heresies: that they also, who are approved, may be made manifest among you” (1 Cor. 11:9), and let that be regarded as a private fancy of his own, separated from the authority of common, public and general consensus, lest, after the sacrilegious custom of heretics and schismatics, rejecting the ancient truth of the universal Creed, we follow, at the utmost peril of our eternal salvation, the new error of one man. Furthermore, lest anyone should rashly think the holy and Catholic consent of these blessed Fathers to be despised, let him hear the Apostle, who states, “And God indeed hath set some in the Church; first apostles, secondly prophets, thirdly doctors” (1 Cor. 12:28): whosoever, therefore, shall despise these, who were appointed by God in His Church in their different times and places, when they are unanimous in Christ in the interpretation of a point of Catholic doctrine, despises not man, but God, from whom is unity in the truth (1 Cor. 1:10; Luke 10:16; Eph. 4:5; John 17:21); and if anyone dissents from their unanimous decision, let him listen to the words of the same Apostle, “For God is not the God of dissension, but of peace” (1 Cor. 14:33), not of him who departs from the unity of consent, but of those who remain steadfast in the peace of consent; “as,” he continues, “also I teach in all the Churches of the saints,” that is, of Catholics, which churches are churches of the saints, because they continue steadfast in the communion of the Faith. And lest anyone, disregarding everyone else, should arrogantly claim to be listened to himself alone, himself alone to be believed, the Apostle goes on to say, “Did the word of God come out from you? Or came it only unto you?” (1 Cor. 14:36), and continuing, adds, “If any seem to be a prophet or spiritual, let him know the things that I write to you, that they are the commandments of the Lord.” Let nobody prefer his own opinions to the consensus of the Fathers, nor recede from the belief of the whole body, which injunction, whoever ignores, shall be himself ignored (1 Cor. 14:36-37). Someone may ask, where and how the sentences of the holy Fathers have been collected together, so that in accordance with them, by the decree and authority of the Councils, the rule of the Church’s faith may be settled? We answer that the sentences of the ancient Fathers are collected and compared in many notorious and praised works, such as the Commentaries and the Catena Aurea by St. Thomas Aquinas O.P., and the Great Biblical Commentary by Cornelius a Lapide S.J., but the final rule (4), to add to the previous three, is found in the living, authoritative and permanent Magisterium of the Roman Church, so that “all those things are to be believed by divine and Catholic faith which are contained in the written or unwritten word of God, and which are proposed by the Church as divinely revealed, either by a solemn definition or in the exercise of its ordinary and universal Magisterium” (Vatican Council I, Sess. 3, ch. 3).

True and False Progress in the Faith

Shall there be, then, no progress in Christ’s Church? On the contrary, there must be all possible progress, yet on condition that it be real progress, not alteration of the Faith: for progress requires that the subject be enlarged in itself, refined and consolidated, whereas alteration would transform it into something else. Thus the intelligence, the knowledge, the wisdom of individuals as well as of the whole Church ought, in the course of ages and centuries, to increase and make vigorous progress, yet keeping in the same doctrine, in the same sense, and in the same meaning, maintaining its integrity and characteristic properties.

(4) The Final Rule

The true Church of Christ, the Catholic Church, the careful and watchful guardian of the doctrines deposited in her charge, never changes anything in them, never diminishes, never adds, but while dealing faithfully and judiciously with ancient doctrine, keeps this one object carefully in view: if there be anything which antiquity has left shapeless and rudimentary, to fashion and polish it; if anything already reduced to shape and developed, to consolidate and strengthen it; if anything already ratified and defined, to keep and guard it. In this Church alone is that primacy and universal authority which Our Lord Himself established in the apostle Peter (John 1:42; Matt. 16:16-19; John 21:15:17), for the permanent guidance and benefit of the Church, and which must of necessity remain forever in that Church which will stand firm until the end of time, founded as it is upon a rock (Matt. 7:25; Luke 6:48; 1 Cor. 3:11; Eph. 2:20; Rev. 21:14). The tradition and general consensus of antiquity is clear: firstly from the ancient Fathers, who declared that “with this [Roman] Church, on account of its preeminent authority, it is necessary that every Church should be in concord” (St. Iraeneus, Against Heresies, Bk. 3, ch. 3, n. 2), for “it is the root and mother of the Catholic Church, the chair of Peter, and the principal Church whence sacerdotal unity has its source” (St. Cyprian, Epist. 48 ad Cornelium, n. 3, and Epist. liac., ad eundem, n. 14), never daring to separate himself from it, despite his disagreement over certain points. As Mons. Freppel noticed, “it needs only a few lines from the pen of the Pope to overthrow all that scaffolding of texts and syllogisms. The partisans of innovation may resist as they please, write letter after letter, assemble councils; five lines from the sovereign Pontiff will become the rule of conduct for the universal Church. Eastern and African bishops, all those who at first had rallied round the contrary opinion, will retrace their steps, and the whole Catholic world will follow the decision of the Bishop of Rome (Rev. Luke Rivington M.A., The Primitive Church and the See of Peter): St. Jerome and St. Augustine maintained that it was only the blood of Cyprian’s martyrdom that washed away the sin of his actions in dealing with Pope St. Stephen. Thus St. Jerome addressed Pope St. Damasus saying: “My words are spoken to the successor of the Fisherman, to the disciple of the Cross. As I follow no leader save Christ, so I communicate with none save your Blessedness, that is with the chair of Peter. For this I know is the rock on which the Church is built” (St. Jerome, Epist. 15 ad Damasum, n. 2), adding, “I acknowledge everyone who is united with the See of Peter” (St. Jerome, Epist. 16 ad Damasum, n. 2). For a like reason St. Augustine publicly attested that “the primacy of the Apostolic chair always existed in the Roman Church” (Epist. 43, n. 7), and, “You are not to be looked upon as holding the true Catholic faith if you do not teach that the faith of Rome is to be held” (St. Augustine, Sermo 120, n. 13), while Tertullian comments: “Upon you [Simon Peter], he [Christ] says, I will build my Church; and I will give to you the keys, not to the Church” (Tertullian, Modesty 21:9–10); Pope St. Damasus “decreed…that it ought to be announced that the holy Roman Church has been placed at the forefront not by the Conciliar decisions of other Churches, but has received the primacy by the evangelic voice of Our Lord and Savior, who says: You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it; and I will give to you the keys of the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 16:18-19). The First See, therefore, is that of Peter the Apostle, that of the Roman Church, which has neither stain nor blemish nor anything like it” (Decree of Damasus, 3); likewise Pope St. Leo the Great wrote that “although bishops have a common dignity, they are not all of the same rank. Even among the most blessed Apostles, though they were alike in honor, there was a certain distinction of power. All were equal in being chosen, but it was given to one to be preeminent over the others… [So today through the bishops] the care of the universal Church would converge in the one See of Peter, and nothing should ever be at odds with this head… From the whole world only one, Peter, is chosen to preside over the calling of all nations, and over all the other Apostles, and over the Fathers of the Church. Thus, although among the people of God there are many priests and many pastors, it is really Peter who rules them all, of whom, too, it is Christ who is their chief ruler” (Letter of Leo to Anastasius 446, Quanta fraternitate, 14:11), and Pope St. Innocent I: “The Fathers did not regard anything as finished, even though it was the concern of distant and remote provinces, until it had come to the notice of this See [Rome], so that what was a just pronouncement might be confirmed by the total authority of this See, and thence other Churches…might take up what they ought to teach” (St. Innocent I, Letters 29:1). In the same way St. Maximus the Confessor teaches that “if a man does not want to be, or to be called, a heretic, let him not strive to please this or that man…but let him hasten before all things to be in communion with the Roman See. If he be in communion with it, he should be acknowledged by all and everywhere as faithful and orthodox. He speaks in vain who tries to persuade me of the orthodoxy of those who, like himself, refuse obedience to his Holiness the Pope of the most holy Church of Rome: that is to the Apostolic See,” and the reason, as he explains, is that “the Apostolic See has received and hath government, authority, and power of binding and loosing from the Incarnate Word Himself; and, according to all holy Synods, sacred canons and decrees, in all things and through all things, in respect of all the holy Churches of God throughout the whole world, since the Word in Heaven who rules the Heavenly powers binds and loosens there” (St. Maximus, Defloratio ex Epistola ad Petrum illustrem). So St. Ambrose of Milan declares “Where Peter is, there is the Church. And where the Church, no death is there, but life eternal” (St. Ambrose, Commentaries on Twelve of David’s Psalms 40, 30).  So again St. Peter Crysologus: “Blessed Peter, who lives and presides in his own See, provides the truth of faith to those who seek it. For we, by reason of our pursuit of peace and faith, cannot try cases on the faith without the consent of the Bishop of the City of Rome” (St. Peter Crysologus, Letter to Eutyche), and St. Flavian, Patriarch of Constantinople, in his letter to Pope Leo I: “The whole question needs only your single decision and all will be settled in peace and quietness.” Thus St. Cyprian states: “The following is a short and easy proof of the faith. The Lord saith to Peter: I say to thee thou art Peter; on him alone He buildeth His Church; and although after His Resurrection He gives a similar power to all the Apostles and says: As the Father hath sent me, etc., still in order to make the necessary unity clear, by His own authority He laid down the source of that unity as beginning from one,” and continues, “If someone does not hold fast to this unity of Peter, can he imagine that he still holds the faith? If he desert the chair of Peter upon whom the Church was built, can he still be confident that he is in the Church?” ((St. Cyprian, De Unit. Eccl., n. 4); “There is one God and one Christ and one Church and one Chair founded on Peter by the word of the Lord. It is not possible to set up another altar or for there to be another priesthood besides that one altar and that one priesthood. Whoever has gathered elsewhere is scattering” (St. Cyprian, Letter to All His People 43 or 40, n. 5). St. Optatus of Milevis says: “You cannot deny that you know that in the city of Rome the Episcopal chair was first conferred on Peter. In this Peter, the head of all the Apostles (hence his name Cephas), has sat; in which chair alone unity was to be preserved for all, lest any of the other Apostles should claim anything as exclusively his own. So much so, that he who would place another chair against that one chair, would be a schismatic and a sinner” (St. Optatus, De Schism. Donat., Bk. 2). Hence the teaching of Cyprian: “Heresies and schisms have no other origin than that obedience is refused to the priest of God, and that men lose sight of the fact that there is one judge in the place of Christ in this world [i.e. the Roman Pontiff]” (St. Cyprian, Epist. 12 ad Cornelium, n. 5). It is necessary, therefore, to bear in mind that nothing was conferred on the Apostles apart from Peter, but that several things were conferred upon Peter apart from the Apostles. St. John Chrysostom in explaining the words of Christ asks: “Why, passing over the others, does He speak to Peter about these things?” And he replies at once, “Because he was pre-eminent among the Apostles, the mouthpiece of the disciples, and the head of the college” (St. John Chrysostom, Hom. 88 in Joan., n. 1). He alone was designated as the foundation of the Church: “Seest thou that of the disciples of Christ, all of whom were great and deserving of the choice, one is called a rock, and is entrusted with the foundations of the Church” (St. Gregory Nazianzen, Oration 32, 18). To him Christ gave the power of binding and loosing; to him alone was given the power of feeding. On the other hand, whatever authority and office the Apostles received, they received in conjunction with Peter: “If the divine benignity willed anything to be in common between him and the other princes, whatever He did not deny to the others He gave only through him. So that whereas Peter alone received many things, He conferred nothing on any of the rest without Peter participating in it” (St. Leo I, Sermo 4, ch. 2). Indeed, Holy Scripture attests that the keys of the kingdom of Heaven were given to Peter alone, and that the power of binding and loosening was granted to the Apostles and to Peter; but there is nothing to show that the Apostles received supreme power without Peter, and against Peter. Such power they certainly did not receive from Jesus Christ, and therefore bishops are deprived of the right and power of ruling, if they deliberately secede from Peter and his successors; because, by this secession, they are separated from the foundation on which the whole edifice must rest. They are therefore outside the edifice itself, and for this very reason they are separated from the fold, whose leader is the Chief Pastor; they are exiled from the kingdom, the keys of which were given by Christ to Peter alone. So Pope Boniface VIII would affirm the Church to be “one sole mystical body whose Head is Christ and the head of Christ is God (1 Cor. 11:3)… as there had been at the time of the deluge only one ark of Noah, prefiguring the one Church, which ark, having been finished to a single cubit, had only one pilot and guide, that is, Noah, and we read that, outside of this ark, all that subsisted on the earth was destroyed… Therefore, of the one and only Church there is one body and one head, not two heads like a monster; that is, Christ and the Vicar of Christ, Peter and the successor of Peter, since the Lord speaking to Peter Himself said: Feed my sheep (John 21:17), meaning, my sheep in general, not these, nor those in particular, whence we understand that He entrusted all to him [Peter]. Therefore, those who say that they are not confided to Peter and to his successors must confess not being the sheep of Christ, since Our Lord says in John: there is one sheepfold and one shepherd” (Boniface VIII, Unam Sanctam).

This truth was likewise attested by the most ancient General Councils, which indicate in the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome, the Supreme [visible] Head of the Church (Council of Nicaea, Can. 6; Council of Constantinople I, Can. 2). The same was affirmed in the Acts of the Councils: during the opening of the 3rd Session of the Council of Ephesus, which dealt with the condemnation of the heretic Patriarch of Constantinople, “Philip the presbyter and legate of the Apostolic See said: There is no doubt, and in fact it has been known in all ages, that the holy and most blessed Peter, prince and head of the Apostles, pillar of the faith, and foundation of the Catholic Church, received the keys of the kingdom from Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Savior and Redeemer of the human race, and that to him was given the power of loosing and binding sins: who down even to today and forever both lives and judges in his successors, the bishops of the Holy Roman See, which he founded and consecrated with his blood. The holy and most blessed pope Celestine, according to due order, is his successor and holds his place, and us he sent to supply his place in this holy Synod, which the most humane and Christian Emperors have commanded to assemble, bearing in mind and continually watching over the Catholic Faith. For they both have kept and are now keeping intact the Apostolic doctrine handed down to them from their most pious and humane grandfathers and fathers of holy memory down to the present time” (Denz. 112). To this St. Cyril of Alexandria, the champion of orthodoxy, answered: “The professions which have been made by [the Papal Legates] Arcadius and Projectus, the most holy and pious bishops, as also by Philip, the most religious presbyter of the Roman Church, stand manifest to the holy Synod. For they have made their profession in the place of the Apostolic See, and of the whole of the holy Synod of the God-beloved and most holy bishops of the West. Wherefore let those things which were defined by the most holy [Pope] Celestine, the God-beloved bishop, be carried into effect, and the vote cast against Nestorius the heretic, by the holy Synod, which met in the metropolis of Ephesus be agreed to universally; for this purpose let there be added to the already prepared acts the proceedings of yesterday and today, and let them be shewn to their holiness, so that by their subscription according to custom, their canonical agreement with all of us may be manifest.” This was remarked again at the Council of Chalcedon, where Pope St. Leo the Great was the one who drafted the main document, the Tome, and it was widely hailed by the bishops in attendance as a masterful defense of orthodoxy. The Acts of the Council (Sess. 2) record that “After the reading of the foregoing epistle, the most reverend bishops cried out: This is the faith of the fathers, this is the faith of the Apostles. So we all believe, thus the orthodox believe. Anathema to him who does not thus believe. Peter has spoken thus through Leo. So taught the Apostles. Piously and truly did Leo teach, so taught Cyril. Everlasting be the memory of Cyril. Leo and Cyril taught the same thing, anathema to him who does not so believe. This is the true faith,” echoed by the Acts of the Council of Constantinople III: “And Peter spoke through Agatho” (The Prosphoneticus to the Emperor). When it came time to excommunicate Dioscorus (Sess. 3), the Papal legates said the following: “Wherefore the most holy and blessed Leo, archbishop of the great and elder Rome, through us, and through this present most holy Synod together with the thrice blessed and all-glorious Peter the Apostle, who is the rock and foundation of the Catholic Church, and the foundation of the orthodox faith, hath stripped him of the episcopate, and hath alienated from him all hieratic worthiness. Therefore let this most holy and great Synod sentence the before mentioned Dioscorus to the canonical penalties.”  Whoever succeeds to the chair of Peter obtains, by the institution of Christ Himself, the primacy of Peter over the whole Church (St. Leo I, Sermo 3, ch. 3), and it must be held by all faithful Christians that “the holy Apostolic See and the Roman Pontiff hold a world-wide primacy, and that the Roman Pontiff is the successor of blessed Peter, the prince of the Apostles, true Vicar of Christ, [visible] Head of the whole Church and father and teacher of all Christian people. To him, in blessed Peter, full power has been given by Our Lord Jesus Christ to tend, rule and govern the universal Church. All this is to be found in the acts of the Ecumenical Councils and the sacred canons” (Council of Florence, Sess. 6). So the Fathers of the Council of Constantinople IV, following the footsteps of their predecessors, published this solemn profession of faith: “The first condition of salvation is to maintain the rule of the true faith. And since that saying of Our Lord Jesus Christ, You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church (Matt. 16:18), cannot fail of its effect, the words spoken are confirmed by their consequences. For in the Apostolic See the Catholic religion has always been preserved unblemished, and sacred doctrine been held in honor. Since it is our earnest desire to be in no way separated from this faith and doctrine, we hope that we may deserve to remain in that one communion which the Apostolic See preaches, for in it is the whole and true strength of the Christian religion” (From Pope Hormisdas’s formula of the year 517 – Denz. 171). Because of this divine ordinance all Christians are bound to submit to this power by the duty of hierarchical subordination and true obedience, not only in matters concerning faith and morals, but also in those which regard the discipline and government of the Church throughout the world. In this way, by unity with the Roman Pontiff in communion and in profession of the same faith, the Church of Christ becomes one flock under one Supreme Shepherd (John 10:16), without detracting from the honor and ordinary power by which bishops, who have succeeded to the place of the Apostles by appointment of the Holy Ghost, govern each the particular flocks which have been assigned to them. This is the teaching of the Catholic truth, and no one can depart from it without endangering his faith and salvation. Since the Roman Pontiff, by the divine right of the apostolic primacy, governs the whole Church, we likewise teach and declare that he is the supreme judge of the faithful (Pius VI, Super Soliditate), and that in all cases which fall under ecclesiastical jurisdiction recourse may be had to his judgment, as demonstrated by the history and tradition of the Church: “The Holy Roman Church possesses the supreme and full primacy and principality over the whole Catholic Church. She truly and humbly acknowledges that she received this from the Lord himself in blessed Peter, the prince and chief of the Apostles, whose successor the Roman Pontiff is, together with the fullness of power. And since before all others she has the duty of defending the truth of the faith, so if any questions arise concerning the faith, it is by her judgment that they must be settled” (From emperor Michael Palaeologus’s profession of faith read out at the Council of Lyons II – Denz. 466; cf. Council of Sardica, Can. 9). The sentence of the Apostolic See (than which there is no higher authority) is not subject to revision by anyone, nor may anyone lawfully pass judgment thereupon, for “there is no authority greater than that of the Apostolic See” (Pope Nicholas I, Epist. 86 to emperor Michael), and so they stray from the path of truth who maintain that it is lawful to appeal from the judgments of the Roman Pontiffs to a General Council as if this were an authority superior to the Roman Pontiff. In fact, Pope St. Gelasius on the decrees of Councils says: “That which the First See has not approved of, cannot stand; but what it has thought well to decree has been received by the whole Church” (St. Gelasius, Epist. 26 ad Episcopos Dardaniae, n. 5), and likewise, as it was shown, it has ever been unquestionably the office of the Roman Pontiffs to ratify or to reject the decrees of Councils. Rightly, therefore, has Pope Leo X laid down in the Council of Lateran V “that the Roman Pontiff alone, as having authority over all Councils, has full jurisdiction and power to summon, to transfer, to dissolve Councils, as is clear, not only from the testimony of Holy Scripture, from the teaching of the Fathers and of the Roman Pontiffs, and from the decrees of the sacred canons, but from the teaching of the very Councils themselves.” The Holy Ghost was promised to the successors of Peter not so that they might, by his revelation, make known some new doctrine and innovation, but that, by his assistance, they might religiously guard and faithfully expound the revelation or deposit of faith transmitted by the Apostles, in accordance with the divine promise of Our Lord and Savior to the prince of his Apostles: “But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and thou, being once converted, confirm thy brethren” (Luke 22:32). The definitions of the Roman Pontiff made according to these principles are of themselves, and not by the consent of the Church, irreformable and infallible. This gift of truth and never-failing faith was therefore divinely conferred on Peter and his successors in this See, so that they might discharge their exalted office for the salvation of all, and so that the whole flock of Christ might be kept away from the poisonous food of error and be nourished with the sustenance of heavenly doctrine (cf. Vatican Council I, Dogmatic Constitution Pastor Æternus).

Concerning the claims of the Churches of the East

It must be noted, against all danger of schism, that the Patriarchate of Constantinople had soon began an attempt to overturn the Apostolic and Conciliar Tradition regarding the Supremacy of the Bishop of Rome, and in different occasions, when the Western Bishops and the Papal legates were not present, proposed new canons which were later rejected by the Supreme Pontiff; such as Canon 3 of the Council of Constantinople I, and Canon 28 of the Council of Chalcedon, which absurdly claimed equal rights between the Patriarch of Constantinople and the Pope of Rome, on the basis of mere political authority and prestige, as if Patriarchal authority and jurisdiction corresponded to a city’s size and political sway: “For the Fathers rightly granted privileges to the throne of old Rome, because it was the royal city… And the One Hundred and Fifty most religious Bishops, actuated by the same consideration, gave equal privileges to the most holy throne of New Rome [Constantinople], justly judging that the city which is honored with the Sovereignty and the Senate, and enjoys equal privileges with the old imperial Rome, should in ecclesiastical matters also be magnified as she is, and rank next after her.” Having been rejected by the Papal legates, the Eastern Fathers of Chalcedon wrote to Pope St. Leo, asking him to approve this canon, though at the same time acknowledging his Supremacy and asking for his approval: “Accordingly, we entreat you, honor our decision by your assent, and as we have yielded to the head our agreement on things honorable, so may the head also fulfill for the children what is fitting.” In response, Pope St. Leo sent back various Letters, one of which was Letter 104 which he wrote to the Emperor: “Let the city of Constantinople have, as we desire, its high rank, and under the protection of God’s right hand, long enjoy your clemency’s rule. Yet things secular stand on a different basis from things divine: and there can be no sure building save on that rock which the Lord has laid for a foundation. He that covets what is not his due, loses what is his own. Let it be enough for [Patriarch] Anatolius that by the aid of your piety and by my favor and approval he has obtained the bishopric of so great a city. Let him not disdain a city which is royal, though he cannot make it an Apostolic See; and let him on no account hope that he can rise by doing injury to others. For the privileges of the Churches determined by the canons of the holy Fathers, and fixed by the decrees of the Nicene Synod, cannot be overthrown by any unscrupulous act, nor disturbed by any innovation.” Another one was Letter 106, which he wrote to the devious Patriarch of Constantinople: “And so after the not irreproachable beginning of your ordination, after the consecration of the bishop of Antioch, which you claimed for yourself contrary to the regulations of the canons, I grieve, beloved, that you have fallen into this too, that you should try to break down the most sacred constitutions of the Nicene canons: as if this opportunity had expressly offered itself to you for the See of Alexandria to lose its privilege of second place, and the Church of Antioch to forego its right to being third in dignity, in order that when these places had been subjected to your jurisdiction, all metropolitan bishops might be deprived of their proper honor. By which unheard of and never before attempted excesses you went so far beyond yourself as to drag into an occasion of self-seeking, and force connivance from that holy Synod [Chalcedon] which the zeal of our most Christian Prince had convened, solely to extinguish heresy and to confirm the Catholic Faith: as if the unlawful wishes of a multitude could not be rejected, and that state of things which was truly ordained by the Holy Ghost in the canon of Nicaea could in any part be overruled by any one. Let no synodal councils flatter themselves upon the size of their assemblies, and let not any number of priests, however much larger, dare either to compare or to prefer themselves to those 318 bishops, seeing that the Synod of Nicaea is hallowed by God with such privilege, that whether by fewer or by more ecclesiastical judgments are supported, whatever is opposed to their authority is utterly destitute of all authority.” Pope St. Leo underlined this error as an unlawful request made by Constantinople’s bishop, founded on a greed of power and political prestige, which is and will forever be a different and inferior foundation than what the Church is built upon, namely, the rock of Peter. Moreover, he condemned that Canon 28 illicitly introduced at Chalcedon as an innovation, on the basis of Canon 6 of Nicaea, confirming the original interpretation of the latter for Papal Primacy and the universal jurisdiction of Rome. Patriarch Anatolius eventually assured the Pope he did not support Canon 28 nor considered it valid, because “its efficacy and its confirmation have been reserved to the authority of Your Holiness” (Epist. 132 Anatolii ad Leonem). This senseless and demonic power struggle, which caused serious damage to the Church, ultimately led several Eastern Churches, subjected to the Emperor of Constantinople, to separate themselves from the Pope of Rome, becoming what is commonly but wrongly known as “Orthodox Churches.”


Thus removed the tendency of schism, the whole Church will be preserved in unity, and, resting on its divine foundation, can stand firm against the gates of hell. It is then incumbent on all Catholics who are anxious to approve themselves as genuine sons of Holy Mother Church, to adhere henceforward to the holy Faith of the holy Fathers, to be wedded to it, to die in it and for it; but as to the profane novelties of profane men, to detest them, abhor them, oppose them, give them no quarter. Amen.

“I will go peaceably and firmly to the Catholic Church: for if Faith is so important to our salvation, I will seek it where true Faith first began, seek it among those who received it from God himself.”

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton

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