About Ignatius Insight
  Who We Are
  Ignatius Press
  Ignatius Press catalogs
  Catholic World Report
  Homiletic & Pastoral Review
  IP Novels site
  IP Religious Ed blog
  IP Critical Editions

Church Authority and the Petrine Element | by Hans Urs von Balthasar

Print-friendly version

From In The Fullness of Faith: On the Centrality of the Distinctively Catholic

Nothing is plainer, nothing is more evident, than that in the Catholic realm the authority exercised in the Church of the Word and Sacrament is both form and content. Indeed, it can only be "form" (the exercise of full official authority) because simultaneously it is "content" (Christ's authority, which comes from his Father, which he bequeaths to his disciples in clear words). Similarly, it can only be "content" (the proclaimed gospel) because at the same time it is the "form" of the Church, which authoritatively proclaims it.

Were this not the case, there would be an alienating gulf between the proclaimed content (Jesus Christ's message and the message concerning Jesus Christ) and the proclaiming Church.

Either it would mean that what is proclaimed (redemption through the Son's perfect obedience unto death on the cross) is a historical, objectivized, archaeological fact people can "hold to be true" without inwardly participating in it, such that- his obedience long ago makes us "free Christian men" today. Or it means that we imagine ourselves (in a Pietistic sense) to be sharing directly in the event of the cross, and so reduce the primal act of Christian obedience to the miniscule proportions of an anthropological "honesty" that "does justice to the facts".

Church authority, the obedient exercise of the fullness of power imparted by Jesus Christ and handed on by the Apostles (cf. the Pastoral Epistles), preserves the necessary distance in order to join us to Christ's work in a valid way.

Thus we do not imagine ourselves to coincide with Christ and his redemptive act, but all the same we are those who obey with his obedience and thus are followers of him. Obeying within the Church, we preserve the servant's distance from the Lord of the Church, and at the same time the Lord calls us "not servants, but friends", because we have been initiated into the mystery of his loving obedience, which is the key to all the mysteries of God in Heaven and on earth.

When we confess our sins, we obediently submit to the fullness of power he has imparted to the Church, which, for her part, responds in pure obedience to his command to loose and bind. The two interact, with the result that we not only participate in the continuing influence of the cross but are drawn into the primal obedience of Jesus' Catholic, all-embracing confession of sin on the cross and the Catholic, all-embracing absolution of Easter.

This is not blind obedience. As believers we know about the meaning and fruitfulness of the Lord's obedience, we know about his handing on of full authority and about its uninterrupted exercise down through the centuries. A person who believes in the fullness of Christ's power sees no problem in his handing it on. Indeed, the presence of this fullness of power in today's Church will be a guarantee to him of his Lord's living presence, even if he does not hear the echo, in the eternal realm, of what is done on earth with this full authority, and so remains one who "obeys" in the strict sense.

The Petrine Element

Notwithstanding all the problems connected with the papacy throughout the history of the Church, two things speak in favor of its recognition within the Communio Sanctorum and its apostolicity.

In the first place (and we have already touched upon this) the Petrine element is taken for granted, so to speak, right at the beginning, in the Petrine texts of the New Testament. And of these the most impressive is not the passage in Matthew but rather the overpowering apotheosis of Peter at the end of John's Gospel of love, which begins with the choosing of Peter in the first chapter and contains, at its center, the Apostle's great confession of faith in the Lord.

The Lukan text, in which Peter is commissioned to strengthen his brethren, is no less striking than the passage in Matthew. Then there are the very many other places in Gospels, letters, and in the Acts of the Apostles. How can anyone who claims to adhere to the Word-the Word alone-fail to be profoundly struck by these texts?

In addition there is the fact that, since the first and second centuries, an undisputed primacy of the Apostolic See has been attributed to the Bishop of the Roman community. Rome had no need to demand to be recognized; rather, it was unquestioningly acknowledged, as we can see from the Letter of Clement, the Letter of Ignatius, from Irenaeus, from the sober Admonition to Pope Victor, etc. The principle of primacy had long been established by the time Rome allegedly began to put forward exaggerated claims when starting to develop its own theology of primacy. There can be many differing views as to when these increasing claims began to be unevangelical and intolerable within the context of the Church–in the fourth or ninth or twelfth century–but the "unhappy fact" had already taken place.

One can only try to restore an internal balance within the Church, as the Second Vatican Council saw its task to be; it is impossible to abolish the principle without truncating the gospel itself.

The second argument for the Petrine principle is the qualitative difference between the unity of life and doctrine within the "Roman" Catholic Church and the unity that exists within all other, Christian communions. For, if we begin with the Orthodox, no- ecumenical council has been able to unite them since their separation from Rome. And if we turn to the innumerable ecclesial communities that arose from the Reformation and subsequently, even though they are members of the World Council of Churches, they have scarcely managed to get any further than a "convergence" toward unity. And this unity, as we see ever more clearly, remains an eschatological ideal. Christ, however, wanted more for his Church than this.

If we look only from the outside, the Petrine principle is the sole or the decisive principle of unity in the Catholica. Above it is the principle of the pneumatic and eucharistic Christ and his everliving presence through the apostolic element, i.e., sacramental office, fully empowered to make Christ present, and tradition, actualizing what is testified to in Scripture.

Above it, too, is the Sanctorum Communio, the Ecclesia immaculata, concretely symbolized by the Lord's handmaid who utters her Fiat. But these deeper principles could not exercise their unity-creating power right to the end without the external reference of the Roman bishop. And the more worldwide the Church becomes the more threatened she is in the modern states with their fascism of the right and of the left, the more she is called upon to incarnate herself in the most diverse, non-Mediterranean cultures, and the wider theological and episcopal pluralism she contains, the more indispensable this reference-point becomes. Anyone who denies this is either a fanatic or an irrational sentimentalist.

Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-88) was a Swiss theologian, considered to one of the most important Catholic intellectuals and writers of the twentieth century. 2005 marks the centennial celebration of his birth.

Incredibly prolific and diverse, he wrote over one hundred books and hundreds of articles. Read more about his life and work in the Author's Pages section of IgnatiusInsight.com.

If you'd like to receive the FREE IgnatiusInsight.com e-letter (about every 1 to 2 weeks), which includes regular updates about IgnatiusInsight.com articles, reviews, excerpts, and author appearances, please click here to sign-up today!


World Wide Web


Place your order toll-free at 1-800-651-1531

Ignatius Press | San Francisco
Web design under direction of Ignatius Press.
Send your comments or web problems to:

Copyright 2018 by Ignatius Press

IgnatiusInsight.com catholic blog books insight scoop weblog ignatius