The Repudiation of the Doctrine of Development as It Relates to the Papacy by Vatican I and Pope Leo XIII

William Webster


One of the claims being made by present day Roman Catholic apologists is that, as an institution, the papacy was something that developed over time. In his book, Upon This Rock, Steve Ray represents this position. He uses the metaphor of the acorn and the oak. In critiquing my book, The Matthew 16 Controversy, Peter and the Rock, Ray states:

Webster’s section on St. Cyprian also demonstrates his unwillingness to represent fairly the process and necessity of doctrinal development within the Church. As we have demonstrated earlier in this book: the oak tree has grown and looks perceptibly different from the fragile sprout that cracked the original acorn, yet the organic essence and identity remain the same. Do the words of the very first Christians contain the full-blown understanding of the Papcy as expressed in Vatican I? No, they do not, as Webster correctly observes (Steve Ray, Upon This Rock (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1999, p. 184).

Now, there is an implicit admission in these statements. Steve Ray is admitting to the fact that the papacy was not there from the very beginning. It was subject to a process of development and growth over time. This is a simple historical fact recognized by historians of nearly every persuasion. The problem for Roman Catholics is not whether there was development. The problem lies in the fact that Vatican I says there was no development. In other words there was no acorn. It was a full blown oak from the very beginning and was therefore the practice of the Church from the very beginnning. Vatican I reaffirmed the decree of the Council of Trent on the Unanimous Consent of the Fathers which has to do specifically with the interpretation of Scripture. It states that it is unlawful to interpret Scripture in any way contrary to the unanimous consent of the Fathers. Vatican I then proceeds to set forth its teachings on papal primacy and infallibility with the interpretation of Matthew 16:18, John 21:15-17 and Luke 22:32 as the basis for its teachings. And then it states that the interpretations that it gives and the conclusions it draws from these interpretations, in terms of the practice of the Church, has been that which has ever been taught in the Church and practiced by it. Here is what Vatican I says:

Chapter I: Of the Institution of the Apostolic Primacy in blessed Peter.

We therefore teach and declare that, according to the testimony of the Gospel, the primacy of jurisdiction over the universal Church of God was immediately and directly promised and given to blessed Peter the Apostle by Christ the Lord. For it was to Simon alone, to whom he had already said: ‘Thou shalt be called Cephas,’ that the Lord after the confession made by him, saying: ‘Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God,’ addressed these solemn words: ‘Blessed art thou, Simon Bar–Jona, because flesh and blood have not revealed it to thee, but my Father who is in heaven. And I say to thee that thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth, it shall be bound also in heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven.’ And it was upon Simon alone that Jesus after his resurrection bestowed the jurisdiction of chief pastor and ruler over all his fold in the words: ‘Feed my lambs; feed my sheep.’
At open variance with this clear doctrine of Holy Scripture as it has been ever understood by the Catholic Church are the perverse opinions of those who, while they distort the form of government established by Christ the Lord in his Church, deny that Peter in his single person, preferably to all the other Apostles, whether taken separately or together, was endowed by Christ with a true and proper primacy of jurisdiction; or of those who assert that the same primacy was not bestowed immediately and directly upon blessed Peter himself, but upon the Church, and through the Church on Peter as her minister.

If any one, therefore, shall say that blessed Peter the Apostle was not appointed the Prince of all the Apostles and the visible Head of the whole Church militant; or that the same directly and immediately received from the same our Lord Jesus Christ a primacy of honor only, and not of true and proper jurisdiction: let him be anathema.


Chapter II: On the Perpetuity of the Primacy of blessed Peter in the Roman Pontiffs.

That which the Prince of Shepherds and great Shepherd of the sheep, Jesus Christ our Lord, established in the person of the blessed Apostle Peter to secure the perpetual welfare and lasting good of the Church, must, by the same institution, necessarily remain unceasingly in the Church; which, being founded upon the Rock, will stand firm to the end of the world.
For none can doubt, and it is known to all ages, that the holy and blessed Peter, the Prince and Chief of the Apostles, the pillar of the faith and foundation of the Catholic Church, received the keys of the kingdom from our Lord Jesus Christ, the Saviour and Redeemer of mankind, and lives, presides, and judges, to this day and always, in his successors the Bishops of the Holy See of Rome, which was founded by him and consecrated by his blood. Whence, whosoever succeeds to Peter in this See, does by the institution of Christ himself obtain the Primacy of Peter over the whole Church. The disposition made by Incarnate Truth therefore remains, and blessed Peter, abiding through the strength of the Rock in the power that he received, has not abandoned the direction of the Church. Wherefore it has at all times been necessary that every particular Church—that is to say, the faithful throughout the world—should agree with the Roman Church, on account of the greater authority of the princedom which this has received; that all being associated in the unity of that See whence the rights of communion spread to all, might grow together as members of one Head in the compact unity of the body.

If, then, any should deny that it is by institution of Christ the Lord, or by divine right, that blessed Peter should have a perpetual line of successors in the Primacy over the universal Church, or that the Roman Pontiff is the successor of blessed Peter in this primacy: let him be anathema.


Hence we teach and declare that by the appointment of our Lord the Roman Church possesses a superiority of ordinary power over all other churches, and that this power of jurisdiction of the Roman Pontiff, which is truly episcopal, is immediate; to which all, of whatever right and dignity, both pastors and faithful, both individually and collectively, are bound, by their duty of hierarchial subordination and true obedience, to submit not only in matters which belong to faith and morals, but also in those which appertain to the discipline and government of the Church throughout the world, so that the Church of Christ may be one flock under one supreme pastor through the preservation of unity both of communion and of profession of the same faith with the Roman Pontiff. This is the teaching of Catholic truth, from which no one can deviate without loss of faith and salvation
(Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom (New York: Harper, 1877), Dogmatic Decrees of the Vatican Council , Chapters I,II, III).

Notice here that Vatican I states that its interpretation of Matthew 16 and John 21 has been the interpretation that has ever been understood in the Church. That is, from them very beginning. It further states that Peter was given a primacy of jurisdiction from the very beginning by Christ himself and that this primacy was passed on to Peter’s successors, the bishops of Rome. This, it says, has been known to all ages. In other words, there was no acorn. According to Vatican I, the papacy was a full blown oak from the very beginning because it was established by Christ himself. And then it states that this teaching is part of the content of saving faith. To deviate from this teaching is to incur the loss of salvation. This is an explicit affirmation that outside the Church of Rome there is no salvation. Later on, in its teaching on papal infallibility, Vatican I states:

For the Holy Spirit was not promised to the successors of Peter, that by his revelation they might make known new doctrine; but that by his assistance they might inviolably keep and faithfully expound the revelation or deposit of faith delivered through the Apostles. And, indeed, all the venerable Fathers have embraced, and the holy orthodox doctors have venerated and followed, their Apostolic doctrine; knowing most fully that this See of holy Peter remains ever free from all blemish of error according to the divine promise of the Lord our Saviour made to the Prince of his disciples: ‘I have prayed for thee that thy faith fail not, and, when thou art converted, confirm thy brethren.’ This gift, then, of truth and never–failing faith was conferred by heaven upon Peter and his successors in his chair, that they might perform their high office for the salvation of all...

Therefore faithfully adhering to the tradition received from the beginning of the Christian faith, for the glory of God our Saviour, the exaltation of the Christian religion, and the salvation of Christian people, the sacred Council approving, we teach and define that it is a dogma divinely revealed: that the Roman Pontiff, when he speaks ex cathedra, that is, when in discharge of the office of pastor and doctor of all Christians, by virtue of his supreme Apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine regarding faith and morals to be held by the universal Church, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, is possessed of that infallibility with which the divine redeemer willed that his Church should be endowed for defining doctrine regarding faith or morals; and that therefore such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are irreformable of themselves, and not from the consent of the Church. But if any one—which may God avert—presume to contradict this our definition: let him be anathema (Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom (New York: Harper, 1877), Dogmatic Decrees of the Vatican Council, Chp. 4, pp. 266-71).

Vatican I is basing its teaching of papal infallibility on the interpretation of Luke 22:32. A teaching or tradition which it says was received from the very beginning of the Christian faith. The Council asserts that the doctrine of papal infallibility is a divinely revealed dogma and all who refuse to embrace it are placed under anathema.

The papal encyclical, Satis Cognitum, written by Pope Leo XIII in 1896, is a commentary on and papal confirmation of the teachings of Vatican I. As to the issue of doctrinal development, Leo makes it quite clear that Vatican I leaves no room for such a concept in its teachings. Leo states over and over again that the papacy was fully established by Christ from the very beginning and that its has been the foundation of the constitution of the Church and recognized as such from the very start and throughout all ages. He further affirms that Vatican I’s teaching has been the constant belief of every age and and is therefore not a novel doctrine:

Wherefore, as appears from what has been said, Christ instituted in the Church a living, authoritative and permanent Magisterium, which by His own power He strengthened, by the Spirit of truth He taught, and by miracles confirmed. He willed and ordered, under the gravest penalties, that its teachings should be received as if they were His own...Jesus Christ, therefore, appointed Peter to be that head of the Church; and He also determined that the authority instituted in perpetuity for the salvation of all should be inherited by His successors, in whom the same permanent authority of Peter himself should continue. And so He made that remarkable promise to Peter and to no one else: “Thou are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church” (Matt. xvi., 18)...It was necessary that a government of this kind, since it belongs to the constitution and formation of the Church, as its principal element - that is as the principle of unity and the foundation of lasting stability - should in no wise come to an end with St. Peter, but should pass to his successors from one to another...When the Divine founder decreed that the Church should be one in faith, in government, and in communion, He chose Peter and his successors as the principle and centre, as it were, of this unity...Indeed, Holy Writ 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. Wherefore, in the decree of the Vatican Council as to the nature and authority of the primacy of the Roman Pontiff, no newly conceived opinion is set forth, but the venerable and constant belief of every age (Sess. iv., cap. 3).

The Roman Catholic Church, itself, has officially stated that there was no development of this doctrine in the early Church. After all, if the fullness of the definition of papal primacy as defined by Vatican I was instituted by Christ immediately upon Peter, as both Vatican I and Leo XIII affirm, then there is no room for development. It was instituted by Christ himself and was therefore present from the very beginning and would have been recognized as such by the Church as Vatican I states: ‘Whence, whosoever succeeds to Peter in this See, does by the institution of Christ himself obtain the Primacy of Peter over the whole Church’, a fact which Vatican I says has been known to all ages leading to the practice ‘that it has at all times been necessary that every particular Church—that is to say, the faithful throughout the world—should agree with the Roman Church, on account of the greater authority of the princedom which this has received.’ This documentation completely demolishes present day Roman Catholic apologists' theory of development. They are at odds with the magisterium of their own Church. Indeed, these apologists must set forth a theory of development because of the historical reality, but such a theory is at open variance with the clear teaching of Vatican I and Leo XIII.

So when we analyze these papal teachings in the light of history it is perfectly legitimate to ask the question on two levels. As to the actual insitution of the papacy, do we find the teachings of Vatican I expressed by the fathers of the Church in their practice? And secondly, as to the issue of interpretation, do we find a unanimous consent of the fathers regarding Vatican I’s interpretation of Matthew 16:18, John 21:15-17 and Luke 22:32 that supports papal primacy and infallibility? In both cases the answer is a decided no.