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Divine Right Of The Pope

( Originally Published 1870 )


JUSTICE must be rendered to the Popes on one point. It is not they who appeal to considerations of a nature entirely external and human. They understand that a power such as they possess, or dream of possessing, cannot be founded on what would serve at most as the foundation of an ordinary dynasty. Be-sides, to appeal to facts of this kind is to invite comparison and examination, and implicitly to submit to the result, a thing impossible when the power claimed is declared to be divine. The Papacy cannot, there-fore, condescend to justify its existence. Read all that it has said about itself during the last twenty years. It would form a large volume. Of proofs there are none ; of excuses, none. Nothing, therefore, can be more unlike all that we have reviewed and discussed in our three last chapters. There the question of right was put to one side ; the Papacy was set down as a fact, and when a picture had been drawn of all the benefits or supposed benefits it has conferred on man-kind, it was declared that its legitimacy was proved by its acts. This is the course now pursued by a great many authors,— by some, who are very Catholic, to escape from the necessity of discussing the question of right ; by others, who are very slightly Catholic, so as to be able to flatter the Papacy without subscribing to its pretensions.

We might have refused to follow both parties on this ground, inasmuch as, in the judgment of the Popes themselves, it is not the true one. In following them, we have done no more than go round the question. It is time to look it in the face.

According to our own view, the Church is the Catholic Church, but in the primitive and true sense of the word ; it is the universal society of Christians, that is to say, of those who recognise Jesus Christ as their Saviour and their King.

What is the precise degree of faithfulness, of faith, required in the sight of God to be a member of this society ?

We do not say, and we deny that any one can say. The same degree may, in the sight of God, be high or low, sufficient or insufficient, according to the circumstances in which you may have lived, according to the degree of knowledge you may have had of the Saviour. The function of the Church, as a visible local society, is to give you this knowledge and lead you to Him.

The Church, according to Rome, is certainly also the universal society of Christians ; but, to be in it, you must belong to that visible Church which she calls exclusively the Church.

To be saved, is it enough to be a Christian ?' ' No, you must also be a Catholic.' This summary of the Roman system is extracted word for word from the catechism in use among the Catholics of Geneva.

A strange confession, and a strange contradiction. You recognise that I can be a Christian without being a Catholic, and so possess, as it would seem, the essential ; but the essential is to be saved, and that, I am told, I can only be within the pale of the Roman Church.

Out of that Church, then, there is no salvation. She may sometimes have softened down this maxim, or suffered it to be softened down ; but still this has remained the official doctrine, and wherever she dares, we find it taught. Bear in mind that the Syllabus (Art. 17) forbids you ` to have any hope of the salvation of all those who are not in the bosom of the true Church.'

Such are the two systems. Which was that of the Apostles ?

We do not require that the Roman unity, completely organized, should be pointed out to us in their writings ; we ask that at least the germs of it should be shown, and even this cannot be done.

We do find there, in ail its breadth, the idea of a spiritual unity, a unity based on the sole fact of believing in Jesus Christ, and of having Him for a common Master, the Church existing only because there are Churches, because there are Christians. We see a St. Paul, or St. John, or St. Peter writing to these Churches, giving them directions of every kind, and nowhere speaking to them of any visible bond established, or to be established, between them. They may, no doubt, if they think it right, have common chiefs, but this will only be a matter of human arrangement ; and from the silence of the Epistles it is indisputable that the Apostles did not establish this unity, that when they spoke of the Church, they meant the general body of Christians, and that it was only to the Church, so understood, that they gave that beautiful name of Bride of Christ, her glory on earth, and her crown in heaven.


Abandoning, therefore, all thought of dependence on the instructions given by the Apostles, and on what the early days of the Church teach us, the Roman Church has had to seek elsewhere for the foundation of that visible unity which she was constituting. Pretensions such as hers could only reason-ably have for their basis a divine right, an absolute command of God. She sought, therefore, for such a command among the facts that preceded the writings of the Apostles ; and she pretended that she had found it in those words addressed by Christ to one of them : ` Thou art Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church.'

Hundreds of volumes have been written on these words. Let four or five pages be allowed to us.

First, there is one fact that strikes us immediately.

If these words mean what they have been made to mean, they are perfectly isolated and lost in the New Testament. Neither Jesus Christ who spoke them, nor the Apostles who heard them, nor, later on, the faithful in their relations with St. Peter, ever seem to remember, or make allusion to them. You find the Church represented by the figure of a building ; you find that beautiful image of a rock, the divine basis, the eternal and unshakable foundation ; but the rock, as we are told by St. Paul, the rock, as we are told by St. Peter, is Jesus Christ. There is not a word more.

Another observation. Of the four evangelists, one only — St. Matthew — has related the circumstance. St. Mark, the disciple of Peter, relates the same conversation between Jesus Christ and the Apostle, and omits only one detail in the course of his narrative, and that one is precisely the famous declaration. St. John does not reproduce it either, though he wrote after the others, and might have seen St. Peter and his immediate successors in the full enjoyment of their rights. And thus these words, which one would not be surprised to meet in twenty passages of the New Testament, if only they had meant what Rome makes them mean, we should be glad to hear it explained first why they are only to be found once, and then mentioned casually in a narrative. The Papacy may write them in colossal letters round the interior of that dome which proclaims its pride afar ; it will never give them, in the opinion of any one who dares to think, a value which Christ, which the Apostles, which St. Peter himself, evidently never assigned to them.

Shall we be told that the words may have been omitted, though the thing itself was none the less recognised ?

The facts are absent like the words. If there are two or three which some have endeavoured to interpret as showing that a primacy belonged to St. Peter, there are others which completely overthrow the theory. Is there a question of electing an Apostle in place of Judas ?—it is Peter certainly who proposes that the matter should be considered ; but that is all : the remainder of the account only mentions ` the Apostles.' Is there a question of the institution of deacons ?—a grave matter assuredly, the first step in the organization of the Church, we are quite prepared to admit, if you like, that Peter may have taken part in the discussion ; but what is yet more certain is, that the account in the Acts of the Apostles says nothing about him, does not even mention his name. When accused, at a subsequent date, for having administered baptism to the heathen, there is not a word in the mouth of his accusers which presupposes his being the head of the Church ; not a word in his own mouth that presupposes his holding such a position. Another time St. Paul thinks it his duty to find fault with him ; and not a word from St. Paul indicates a man excusing himself for having to blame a superior. Take all that we have of St. Peter, discourses and epistles, and do you find a single reference to those splendid rights to which he might to which he should have appealed boldly ? Listen to Christ Himself bidding farewell to His disciples. He beholds them fearful at the thought that, when He is gone, they will be without a guide, without a head. This was the time, or never, to remind them that they should have one His representative, His vicar. But no. Here, as at other times, there is not a word ; and, after His resurrection, when He gives them His last commands, again not a word, not a single one, even when He addresses Himself particularly to Peter to take away the shame of his denial. He re-stores him to his rights as a shepherd, as an Apostle ; He says nothing to him that He would not have said, under similar circumstances, to any of the others ; and if He adds a promise, it is but the promise of martyrdom.

Thus both before and after the death of Jesus, both before and after the first steps taken by the Church, everything concurs to contradict the Roman interpretation of these famous words, and more than four centuries had yet to elapse before Rome herself would begin to explain them in this sense. The Fathers only see in them a special and figurative representation of the promises already made to all the Apostles collectively. They call to mind that everywhere in the New Testament the rock means Jesus Christ ; that the Church is everywhere represented as built either on Him or on the Apostles, and in no wise on one of the Apostles ; and if, during this period, some persons begin to suppose that St. Peter may possibly have received a little more than the eleven others, there is still a gulf between that little and the immense consequences which Rome lias drawn from it.

To these difficulties, or, to speak more accurately, to those impossibilities which spring from the very depths of the question itself, you must add those which the Roman Church has raised up by appropriating the privilege of the primacy of St. Peter.

She wishes to show that the Popes are the heirs of that Apostle ; but as no trace exists of any command emanating from him, of any testament whatever, it has been necessary to make the inheritance depend on the mere fact of his presence in the city of Rome, of which he was, we are told, the first bishop.

After what we have just said, we might refuse to consider this question. Whether St. Peter ever lived at Rome or not, it is perfectly evident that he could not have left what he did not possess, what his colleagues had never recognised as belonging to him, what he himself had never claimed.

We must be allowed a few words, however, if only to show what boldness it lias required to raise the Roman edifice.

During five-and-twenty years, so we are told, St. Peter was bishop at Rome. We will not raise objections for one year, or two, or four ; but however the calculations be made, it is not two, or four, or ten years that are wanting ; the difficulty is to find one during which St. Peter was at Rome.

According to tradition, his death took place, like that of St. Paul, towards the year 64 or 66. Now, the book of the Acts shows him to have been at Jerusalem till 51 or 52 ; fourteen or fifteen years only remain, consequently, to be accounted for. Were these fourteen or fifteen years spent at Rome ? In 57 or 58 St. Paul writes the Epistle to the Romans. It is the longest of his epistles, but it does not contain a word about St. Peter, not one allusion to his labours or his presence at Rome. In 62 or 63 St. Paul himself is at Rome.

He writes from thence several epistles, and still there is nothing about St. Peter ! A short time before his death, he writes again from Rome to his disciple Timothy. He speaks to him of his solitariness and his sufferings. All have forsaken him except one. This must be Peter, no doubt. No ; it is some one else. What was Peter doing ? Where was he ? In prison ? But in that case it becomes doubly incredible that Paul should not mention him. To speak at length of his own sufferings, and not to have a word to say about those of his colleague, not even to name him, and to say or suffer it to be believed that he, Paul, is at that time the only one who is preparing to die for the gospel, this could only be cunning reticence and detestable falsehood. No, no ; St. Peter was not at Rome ; St. Peter had never been there. What would be the value of tradition, even if it were clear, in the presence of facts so distinct, so formally adverse ? If the whole history of St. Paul had been manufactured expressly as a weapon to be used against the Popes, it is not easy to see how it could have been made more embarrassing for them, and more destructive.

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