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Papacy 101 for semi-trads…

Pope Pius VI explains: What is the Pope?

Pope Pius VI (1717-1799) reigned from 1775 to 1799, a critical time in Church history.

It was during his reign that the French Revolution took place, the “Civil Constitution of the Clergy” was imposed in France, Napoleon attacked the Papal States, and the robber synod of Pistoia was held, to mention just a few things. The Jesuits did not exist during Pius VI’s pontificate, having been abolished by his predecessor Clement XIV in 1773; they were not re-established until his successor Pius VII did so in 1814.

On Aug. 29, 1799, Pope Pius VI died in exile, a prisoner of Napoleon’s army. At 24 years and 6 months, his pontificate is the fourth longest in history.

One of the highlights of Pius VI’s reign was the condemnation of the Synod of Pistoia (1786), which was a sort of prototype of the Modernist Second Vatican Council (1962-65). Just recently, the secular Oxford University Press has published a detailed study of the topic, a book entitled The Synod of Pistoia and Vatican II: Jansenism and the Struggle for Catholic Reform (2020). The author is Shaun Blanchard, a Novus Ordo theology professor in Louisiana.

In 1794, Pope Pius VI published the Apostolic Constitution Auctorem Fidei against the errors of the Synod of Pistoia. The list of the 85 condemned errors is available in full in Denzinger 1501-1599. The bull also has a preamble, or introductory text, of great importance and relevance to our time, and that text we have translated and published in the following post:

Our main focus in this post, however, will be the errors of Johann Valentin Eybel (1741-1805), an Austrian canon law professor who was eventually excommunicated for spreading heresy and other pernicious errors chiefly concerning the Church and the Papacy.

In 1782 Eybel anonymously published the booklet What is the Pope? (German original: Was ist der Papst?) for the occasion of Pope Pius VI’s visit to Vienna. In it, he scandalously denied the Catholic teaching on the Papacy and embraced Febronianism. In response to Eybel’s defection from the Faith, Pius VI released the bull Super Soliditate on Nov. 28, 1786.

The full text of this document had never before been released online in English translation, until now. We make it available at the following link:

The document, which is also sometimes referred to as a bull, a brief, or a decree, is rich in doctrinal content and therefore of the greatest importance for us today, for in our day the Papacy is denied even by those who claim to be its greatest defenders, namely, the self-styled “traditionalists” of the recognize-and-resist position — not only Lefebvrists but also many of the indult congregations now impacted by Antipope Francis’ decree Traditionis Custodes. People such as Peter Kwasniewski, Taylor Marshall, Eric Sammons, Christopher Ferrara, Michael Matt, and Brian McCall are among the more prominent Papacy-denying voices.

Here is a preview of the content of Super Soliditate, which, we must not neglect to point out, was published 84 years before the First Vatican Council:

That the Church was established by Jesus Christ on the solid foundation of the rock (cf. Mt 16:18); that Peter, above all the others, was chosen by the singular favor of Jesus Christ, so that, having the power of his Vicar on earth, he became the Prince of the Apostolic College and received, in consequence, for himself and for his successors to the end of time, the charge and the supreme authority to feed the flock (cf. Jn 21:17), to confirm his brethren (cf. Lk 22:32), to bind and to loose throughout the entire world (cf. Mt 16:19): these are the dogmas of faith received from the lips of Jesus Christ Himself, handed down and defended by the constant teaching of the Fathers, which the universal Church has kept in every age with religious care, and which she has very often confirmed by the decrees of the Sovereign Pontiffs and the Councils against the errors of innovators.

Therefore, it is hardly surprising that in past ages those whom the old enemy of the human race has filled with his own hatred of the Church, have been in the habit of attacking in the first place this See which maintains unity in all its vigor: so that by destroying, if it were possible to do so, the foundation, and severing the bond between churches and the Head, the bond which is the principal source of their support, their strength, and their beauty, after having by this means reduced the Church to desolation and ruin by crushing her strength, they might in the end strip her of that liberty which Jesus Christ gave to her, and reduce her to a state of unworthy servitude.

While St. Augustine tells us that “it is in the chair of unity that God has placed the doctrine of truth” (Epistle 105), there is nothing, on the contrary, that the unfortunate writer [Johann Valentin Eybel] does not use to attack and outrage in every possible way this See of Peter where the Fathers have unanimously recognized and venerated that Chair “in which alone unity was to be conserved by all Christians, and from which flow out to all the churches the rights of communion which we must venerate” (Optatus of Mila, Bk. II, contr. Parm.; St. Ambrose, Epistle XI, 1); “with which it is necessary for every church to be in agreement, that is to say, the faithful from whatever area they come” (St. Irenaeus, Adv. Haer., III, 3).

It is St. Augustine who testifies, after having learned it in the Scriptures, “that the primacy of the Apostles is preeminent in Peter in virtue of a more excellent grace; that this primacy of the apostolate is to be preferred to all episcopal dignity; that the Roman Church, the See of Peter, is that rock which the proud gates of hell cannot vanquish” (De baptism., II, 1; Cont. Petil, II, 51; Psalm. cont. Don.). This is the language which refutes another of the writer’s calumnies: that which pretends that in designating the rock on which he built his Church Jesus Christ wished men to understand, not the person, but rather the faith and the confession, of Peter: as if the Fathers who, because of the marvelous fecundity of the Scriptures, have also given this latter sense to the word of Peter, have by that fact abandoned the literal sense which bears directly on St. Peter, and did not, very openly, retain this literal sense. It is thus that St. Ambrose, St. Augustine’s master, says, “It is to Peter himself that it was said ‘Thou art Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church.’ Therefore, where Peter is, there is the Church” (In psalm., XL, 30).

Such is the unanimous language of the Fathers. Such is the perpetual tradition of the Doctors: a tradition which St. Bernard, who had gathered it from the ancients, condensed in these few words addressed to Pope Eugene (De Consid., II, 8): “It is in your hands that the keys of heaven have been placed; to them that the sheep have been entrusted… Other shepherds have each their own flocks assigned to them; but to you all the flocks are entrusted, as a single flock to a single Pastor. You alone are the only Pastor, not only of all the sheep, but of all the shepherds.” It is on the milk of this doctrine that have been nourished all those who have grown to manhood in the Church of Christ; it is this milk, if they will remember, that was given from their earliest years to those — whoever they are — who are allowing themselves to be driven about by every wind of doctrine. In every age it has been preached as the teaching of the Gospel that the sheep were entrusted to Peter, by Christ for him to provide for their food, not Peter who was entrusted to the sheep to receive his spiritual nourishment from them.

(Pope Pius VI, Bull Super Soliditate)

It is beautiful to see the Catholic doctrine on the Papacy set forth so firmly and clearly, with historical evidence adduced in support throughout. The full text is quite long (a big thank-you to the volunteer who transcribed it!), but it is well worth the read, for it contains many hidden gems.

This latest example from the true traditional Catholic magisterium confirms once more that the Catholic teaching on the Papacy is settled. Our obligation is simply to adhere to it.

Image source: shutterstock.com (Alessandro Vaiano)
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