The Fourth Ecumenical Council of Constantinople taught: “In the Apostolic See the Catholic religion has always been preserved unblemished, and sacred doctrine been professed. … in it all true strength of the Christian religion is found” (From the formula of Pope Hormisdas, endorsed by the Fathers of the Fourth Council of Constantinople). And the First Vatican Council taught: “The See of Saint Peter remains always immune from every error by virtue of the divine promise made by the Lord, Our Savior, to the Prince of his disciples: ‘I have prayed for you that your faith might not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren.’ This indefectible charism of truth and faith was therefore divinely conferred to Peter and his successors in this Chair, in order that they might exercise their exalted office for the salvation of all, so that the entire flock of Christ, taken from the poisonous pastures of error, might be nourished with the food of heavenly doctrine and that, after having eliminated what leads to schism, the entire Church might remain one and, supported on its foundation, might stand firm against the gates of hell” (Pastor aeternus, chap. 4).
Since the mid-third century, Saint Cyprian has used the term “cathedra” to indicate the power of the Roman Church, by virtue of the Chair of Peter from which, he says, the unity of the hierarchy derives (cf. Ep. 59, 16). Saint Jerome also wrote: “I decided to consult the Chair of Peter, where is found that faith that the mouth of an Apostle has exalted; I now come to ask for nourishment for my soul there, where once I received the garment of Christ. I follow no other primacy than that of Christ; for this reason, I put myself in communion with your beatitude, that is, with the Chair of Peter. I know that on this rock is built the Church” (Letters I, 15, 1-2).
The charism of truth is entrusted by God first to Saint Peter and to his successors, the Roman Pontiffs, whose seat is consequently called the cathedra of truth par excellence. Given their ministry of truth, the Roman Pontiffs must continually be aware that they are not the owners of the cathedra of truth, but its servants and vicars. The characteristic feature of the ministry of the Apostles consists in being “pastoresvicarii,” as the preface of the Apostles says: “Quos operisTuivicarioseidemcontulistipraeessepastores.” The Petrine ministry in the Church is essentially a vicarious ministry. Therefore, the Roman Pontiff is called the “Vicarius Christi.” Saint Gregory the Great (+ 604) was fond of speaking of the bishop of Rome as the “vicar of Saint Peter” (RegistrumEpistolarumXII, 7). Pope St. Gelasius I (+ 496) stated that the Roman Pontiff must first of all be a “minister catholicae et apostolicaefidei” (Ep. 43).
The following oath that Popes for more than a millennium have made at the beginning of their apostolic ministry is impressive and extremely timely: “I vow to change nothing of the received Tradition, and nothing thereof I have found before me guarded by my God-pleasing predecessors, to encroach upon, to alter, or to permit any innovation therein. To the contrary: with glowing affection as her truly faithful student and successor, to safeguard reverently the passed-on good, with my whole strength and utmost effort; To cleanse all that is in contradiction to the canonical order that may surface; To guard the Holy Canons and Decrees of our Popes as if they were the Divine ordinances of Heaven, because I am conscious of Thee, Whose place I take through the grace of God, Whose Vicarship I possess with Thy support, being subject to the severest accounting before Thy Divine Tribunal over all that I shall confess; I swear to God Almighty and the Savior Jesus Christ that I will keep whatever has been revealed through Christ and His Successors and whatever the first councils and my predecessors have defined and declared. I will keep without sacrifice to itself the discipline and the rite of the Church. I will put outside the Church whoever dares to go against this oath, may it be somebody else or I. If I should undertake to act in anything of contrary sense, or should permit that it will be executed, Thou whilst not be merciful to me on the dreadful Day of Divine Justice. Accordingly, without exclusion, We subject to severest excommunication anyone – be it ourselves or be it another – who would dare to undertake anything new in contradiction to this constituted evangelic Tradition and the purity of the Orthodox Faith and the Christian Religion, or would seek to change anything by his opposing efforts, or would agree with those who undertake such a blasphemous venture” (Liber Diurnus Romanorum Pontificum). It is urgent to restore this papal oath in our days.
In modern times the Roman Pontiffs have insisted on the duty of the Popes to defend the truth and to protect the Church from errors and heresies. Leo XIII taught: “Amid such reckless and widespread folly of opinion, it is, as We have said, the office of the Church to undertake the defense of truth and uproot errors from the mind, and this charge has to be at all times sacredly observed by her, seeing that the honor of God and the salvation of men are confided to her keeping. But, when necessity compels, not those only who are invested with power of rule are bound to safeguard the integrity of faith, but, as St. Thomas maintains: ‘Each one is under obligation to show forth his faith, either to instruct and encourage others of the faithful, or to repel the attacks of unbelievers’ (S. Thomas, Summa theologiae, II-II, quaest. 3, art. 2, ad 2). To recoil before an enemy, or to keep silence when from all sides such clamors are raised against truth, is the part of a man either devoid of character or who entertains doubt as to the truth of what he professes to believe. […] Nothing emboldens the wicked so greatly as the lack of courage on the part of the good. Moreover, want of vigor on the part of Christians is so much the more blameworthy, as not seldom little would be needed on their part to bring to naught false charges and refute erroneous opinions, and by always exerting themselves more strenuously they might reckon upon being successful. After all, no one can be prevented from putting forth that strength of soul which is the characteristic of true Christians, and very frequently by such display of courage our enemies lose heart and their designs are thwarted. Christians are, moreover, born for combat, whereof the greater the vehemence, the more assured, God aiding, the triumph: “Have confidence; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). […] The chief elements of this duty consist in professing openly and unflinchingly the Catholic doctrine, and in propagating it to the utmost of our power” (Encyclical Sapientiae Christianae, January 10, 1890).
Pope John XXIII taught: “All the evils which poison men and nations and trouble so many hearts have a single cause and a single source: ignorance of the truth—and at times even more than ignorance, a contempt for truth and a reckless rejection of it. […] Anyone who consciously and wantonly attacks known truth, who arms himself with falsehood in his speech, his writings, or his conduct in order to attract and win over less learned men and to shape the inexperienced and impressionable minds of the young to his own way of thinking, takes advantage of the inexperience and innocence of others and engages in an altogether despicable business. […] The weapons of truth and honesty, then, must be used in defense against these weapons of evil. We must strive zealously and relentlessly to ward off the impact of this great evil which every day insinuates itself more deeply. […] Some men, indeed do not attack the truth willfully, but work in heedless disregard of it. They act as though God had given us intellects for some purpose other than the pursuit and attainment of truth. This mistaken sort of action leads directly to that absurd proposition: one religion is just as good as another, for there is no distinction here between truth and falsehood. ‘This attitude,’ to quote Pope Leo again, ‘is directed to the destruction of all religions, but particularly the Catholic faith, which cannot be placed on a level with other religions without serious injustice, since it alone is true’ (Leo XIII, Litt. enc. Humanum genus). Moreover, to contend that there is nothing to choose between contradictories and among contraries can lead only to this fatal conclusion: a reluctance to accept any religion either in theory or practice. How can God, who is truth, approve or tolerate the indifference, neglect, and sloth of those who attach no importance to matters on which our eternal salvation depends; who attach no importance to pursuit and attainment of necessary truths, or to the offering of that proper worship which is owed to God alone? So much toil and effort is expended today in mastering and advancing human knowledge that our age glories—and rightly—in the amazing progress it has made in the field of scientific research. But why do we not devote as much energy, ingenuity, and enthusiasm to the sure and safe attainment of that learning which concerns not this earthly, mortal life but the life which lies ahead of us in heaven? […] Once we have attained the truth in its fullness, integrity, and purity, unity should pervade our minds, hearts, and actions. For there is only one cause of discord, disagreement, and dissension: ignorance of the truth, or what is worse, rejection of the truth once it has been sought and found. It may be that the truth is rejected because of the practical advantages which are expected to result from false views; it may be that it is rejected as a result of that perverted blindness which seeks easy and indulgent excuses for vice and immoral behavior.” (Encyclical Ad Petri Cathedram, June 29, 1959, 1-2).
Throughout the course of history Satan, the father of lies, continually attacks the Church, and especially the cathedra of truth, which is the Chair of Peter. Through the inscrutable permission of Divine Providence the attacks of Satan against the Roman cathedra have in rare cases had the effect of a temporary and limited eclipse of the Papal Magisterium, when some Roman Pontiffs have made ambiguous doctrinal statements, thereby causing a temporary situation of doctrinal confusion in the life of the Church.
One can see this possibility expressed in the following words taken from the Exorcism against Satan and the rebel angels, written by Pope Leo XIII in 1884. The original text says: “Behold, the ancient enemy and murderer strongly raises his head! Transformed into an angel of light, with the entire horde of wicked spirits he goes about everywhere and takes possession of the earth, so that therein he may blot out the Name of God and of His Christ and steal away, afflict and ruin into everlasting destruction the souls destined for a Crown of Eternal Glory. On men depraved in mind and corrupt in heart the wicked dragon pours out like a most foul river, the poison of his villainy, a spirit of lying, impiety and blasphemy; and the deadly breath of lust and of all iniquities and vices. Her most crafty enemies have engulfed the Church, the Spouse of the Immaculate Lamb, with sorrows, they have drenched her with wormwood; on all her desirable things they have laid their wicked hands. Where the See of the Blessed Peter and the Chair of Truth have been set up for the light of the gentiles, there they have placed the throne of the abomination of their wickedness, so that, the Pastor having been struck, they may also be able to scatter the flock.” On the morning of October 13, 1884 — exactly thirty-three years before the final Marian apparition at Fatima and the extraordinary miracle of the sun — Pope Leo XIII, while he was assisting at Holy Mass in thanksgiving for the one he had just celebrated, had a vision that is now famous. Satan appeared before God asking him for permission to act undisturbed for a hundred years in order to destroy the Church, which permission was granted to him. The Pontiff then saw swarms of demons fall on the basilica of St. Peter, to invade the Petrine See. Immediately after the vision the Pope composed the prayer to Saint Michael the Archangel, which he ordered to be recited at the end of each low Mass, and the famous exorcism, from which the quotation just cited is taken. The dramatic phrase ‘on the See of most blessed Peter’ would later be removed by Pius XI in order to avoid scandal for the faith, but today at the very least it is prophetic.
Let us conclude with the following prayer of Dom Prosper Gueranger: “Holy Apostle! Calm the wildness of the tempest, lest the weak should take scandal. Beseech Our Lord that he permits not the residence of thy Successor to be disturbed in that Holy City, which has been chosen for so great an honor. If it be, that her inhabitants deserve punishment for their offenses, — spare them for the sake of their brethren of the rest of the world; and pray for them that their Faith may once more become what it was when St. Paul praised it and said to them: Your faith is spoken of in the whole world” (Rom. 8:1) (The Liturgical Year, 1887 edition London, p. 436-437).
+ Athanasius Schneider, Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Saint Mary in Astana