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Papal supremacy refers to the doctrine of the Catholic Church that the pope, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, and as pastor of the entire Church has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered.[1] In brief, the Pope enjoys, by divine institution, supreme, full, immediate, and universal power in the care of souls.[2]

Institution of papal supremacy

The Catholic doctrine of papal supremacy is based on the assertion by the Bishops of Rome that it was instituted by Christ and that papal succession is traced back to Peter the Apostle. The authority for the position is derived from the Confession of Peter documented in Matthew 16:17-19 when, in response to Peter's acknowledgment Jesus' divinity, Jesus responded:

"Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death [gates of hell] shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven."

Critics claim that the creation of the term papal supremacy dates back to the 6th century, which was the beginning of the rise of the Bishops of Rome to the position of not just religious authority, but the power to be the ultimate ruler of the kingdoms within the Christian community which it has since retained. In the complex development of papal supremacy, two broad phases may be noted.

First phase of papal supremacy

Cited evidence about the supremacy of the pope in the earliest days of the church is a matter of dispute. Most scholars recognize that he was given unique esteem as the successor to St. Peter. Catholics maintain that the unique authority of the Petrine seat was given deference, but non-Catholic Christians argue that the bishop of Rome held greater esteem, not greater authority than the other bishops. The Catholic Church claims a Papal succession which runs unbroken back to Peter who it claims was invested with the "keys of the kingdom of heaven".

Irenaeus of Lyons believed in the second century that Peter and Paul had been the founders of the Church in Rome and had appointed Linus as succeeding bishop.[3]

Saint Innocent I who served in the Papacy from 401 to 417 was champion of papal supremacy in the entire Church. Saint Gelasius I who served from 492 to 496, in a controversy with Anastasius, the Byzantine emperor, likewise fought to maintain the doctrine of papal supremacy. This dispute was an incipient point of conflict between the Holy See and the Empire.

From the late 6th to the late 8th century there was a turning of the papacy to the West and its escape from subordination to the authority of the Byzantine emperors of Constantinople. This phase has sometimes incorrectly been credited to Pope Gregory I, whose reign lasted from 590 AD – 604 AD, who, like his predecessors, represented to the people of the Roman world a church that was still identified with the empire. Unlike some of those predecessors, Gregory was compelled to face the collapse of imperial authority in northern Italy. As the leading civilian official of the empire in Rome, it fell to him to take over the civil administration of the cities and to negotiate for its protection with the Lombard invaders threatening it. Another part of this phase occurred in the 8th century, after the rise of the new religion of Islam had weakened the Byzantine Empire and the Lombards had renewed their pressure in Italy. The popes finally sought support from the Frankish rulers of the West and received from the Frankish king Pepin The Short the Italian territory later known as the Papal States. With the crowning by Pope Leo III of Charlemagne, first of the Carolingian emperors, the papacy also gained his protection.

In the Letters of the Second Ecumenical Council of Nicea the Roman Church is referred to as the "head of all churches" twice, at the same time it affirms Christ to be the head of the Church, and the Apostle Peter is referred to as the "chief Apostles," but when listed with Paul they are referred to as the "chief apostles."[4]

Second phase of papal supremacy

The second great phase in the process of papal supremacy's rise to prominence began, one that extended from the mid 11th to the mid 13th century. It was distinguished, first, by Gregory VII's bold attack after 1075 on the traditional practices whereby the emperor had controlled appointments to the higher church offices, an attack that spawned the protracted civil and ecclesiastical strife in Germany and Italy known as the Investiture Controversy. It was distinguished, second, by Urban II's launching in 1095 of the Crusades, which, in an attempt to liberate the Holy Land from Muslim domination, marshaled under papal leadership the aggressive energies of the European nobility. Both these efforts, although ultimately unsuccessful, greatly enhanced papal prestige in the 12th and 13th centuries. Such powerful popes as Alexander III (r. 1159 - 81), Innocent III (r. 1198 - 1216), Gregory IX (r. 1227 - 41), and Innocent IV (r. 1243 - 54) wielded a primacy over the church that attempted to vindicate a jurisdictional supremacy over emperors and kings in temporal and spiritual affairs.

Early in this phase, defense of Papal supremacy was voiced by the likes of St. Anselm of Canterbury and Saint Thomas Becket. St. Anselm (1093-1109) testified to the supremacy of the Roman Pontiff in his writings (relating to Matthew 16) and by his acts. When pressed to surrender his right of appeal to Rome, he answered the king in court: "You wish me to swear never, on any account, to appeal in England to Blessed Peter or his Vicar; this, I say, ought not to be commanded by you, who are a Christian, for to swear this is to abjure Blessed Peter; he who abjures Blessed Peter undoubtedly abjures Christ, who made him Prince over his Church." Saint Thomas Becket in 1170 famously shed his blood in defense of the liberties of the Church against the encroachments of the Norman King Henry II who ordered his murder in Canterbury Cathedral.


Gallicanism refers to a certain group of religious opinions for some time peculiar to the Church of France, or Gallican Church, and the theological schools of that country. These opinions, in opposition to the ideas which were called in France Ultramontane (ultra montes - "beyond the mountains" , that is, beyond the Alps—generally referring to the Pope in Rome), tended chiefly to a restraint of the pope's authority in the Church in favour of that of the bishops and the temporal ruler. It is important, however, to remark at the outset that the warmest and most accredited partisans of Gallican ideas by no means contested the pope's primacy in the Church, and never claimed for their ideas the force of articles of faith. They aimed only at making it clear that their way of regarding the authority of the pope seemed to them more in conformity with Holy Scripture and tradition.

The dispute between Pope Innocent XI and Louis XIV led to the "Four Gallican Articles," drafted by the French episcopacy for Louis. The Articles state that monarchs are not subject to the Papacy, that ecclesiastic councils supersede the Papal authority, that the Papacy must defer to regional church custom, and that papal decrees are not obligatory unless the entire church adopts them.

Examples of papal supremacy

  • Urban II's launching in 1095 of the Crusades, which, in an attempt to liberate the Holy Land from Muslim domination, marshaled under papal leadership the aggressive energies of the European nobility.
  • The Papacy determined whom they wished to be the king of various lands by the crowning by Pope Leo III of Charlemagne, first of the Carolingian emperors, rather than a man proclaiming himself king.
  • Pope Clement VII rejected the King of England and Wales and Lord of Ireland, King Henry VIII right to an annulment from his wife, and subsequently, lead to England's 'Break with Rome'.


  1. Paragraph 882 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church [1]
  2. Paragraph 937 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church [2]
  3. Ireneaus Against Heresies 3.3.2: the "...Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. ...The blessed apostles, then, having founded and built up the Church, committed into the hands of Linus the office of the episcopate."
  4. Nicea II

See also

Further reading

  • Whelton, Michael. Two Paths: Papal Monarchy - Collegial Tradition: Rome's Claims of Papal Supremacy in the Light of Orthodox Christian Teaching (ISBN 0-9649141-5-8)