Is there anything in the Roman Catholic doctrine of papal supremacy that would prohibit the Pope from relinquishing his authority as head of the Church, and instead be "First among Equals?"

One of the fundamental differences separating the Roman Catholic Church from our fellow Christians in the Orthodox Church is the issue of papal supremacy. Rome believes that the Pope is the leader of the entire church, while the Orthodox believe that the Bishop of Rome is first among equals.

Given the pressure of secularism (both from outside and inside the Church), I believe that it is high time for us Christians who believe in the ancient faith to be united.

My questions is this: Given the Roman Catholic doctrine of papal supremacy, would it be possible, for the sake of Christian unity, for the Pope to relinquish that supremacy and become first among equals? Could he decide that it would be better for the universal church if he acted as "Prime Minister" of the faith, instead of "King of the faith?"

  • It's a great question that unfortunately will involve a great deal of speculation, or "what if" kinds of answers. For that matter it many not be answerable within the limits of the SE format. Commented Nov 14, 2017 at 14:04
  • Are you asking if the pope could essentially say, 'I have universal jurisdiction, but I won't exercise universal jurisdiction.'?
    – bradimus
    Commented Nov 14, 2017 at 15:37
  • bradimus - Yes, but could he also make it permanent and applicable to the next Pope?
    – David P
    Commented Nov 14, 2017 at 15:45
  • 2
    @SolaGratia - Not necessarily, especially if you see the role of Bishop, Patriarch, or Pope as one of servant leadership. This model is often used in businesses as well, where the Executive tries not to micromanage the affairs of his/her subordinates, but instead tries to promote teamwork for greatest productivity.
    – David P
    Commented Nov 14, 2017 at 18:51
  • 2
    According to Catholic dogma the "supremacy" of the office of the Roman Pontiff cannot be relinquished. If no one really answers this, I will try to respond in a week's time.
    – Ken Graham
    Commented Nov 15, 2017 at 1:07

3 Answers 3


Papal primacy belongs to the very nature of the Church. No one can change how Christ Himself constituted His Church.

The First Vatican Council defined (Pastor Æternus ch. 2) the dogma that there will be a perpetual line of successors of St. Peter, the first pope, with "Primacy over the universal Church":

If, then, any should deny…that blessed Peter should have a perpetual line of successors in the Primacy over the universal Church…: let him be anathema.

Si quis ergo dixerit, non esse … ut beatus Petrus in primatu super universam Ecclesiam habeat perpetuos successores…: anathema sit.

(taken from my answer here)

Thus primacy is also perpetual.

  • Especially the link to the decrees of Vatican I was especially helpful. Seems clearly that Vatican I will not allow for such a relinquishment of authority. Sadly, it looks like either the RCC or the Orthodox Churches would have to capitulate. There seems to be very little wiggle room here. Capitulation by either side seems highly doubtful.
    – David P
    Commented Nov 16, 2017 at 17:27

No, he cannot, or at least, he can't without saying that the past two-hundred years of Catholic theology is wrong.

Either the Pope has the power of infallibility or he does not. If he does, then he cannot renounce it because he has it by the nature of his position (it is part of his office as established by Christ). If he does not, then both Vatican councils are wrong (as they explicitly proclaim that he does), and it is likely that 14 of the Catholic Ecumenical Councils will need to be revised or rejected (as they were done without the inclusion of the Eastern Patriarchs).

It is not, however, impossible for the Pope to "retire" and leave the seat vacant. So long as the See of Peter is vacant, there is no one to take up claim to Papal Infallibility.

All of that said, there are more issues involved in the schism than just the infallibility of the Pope.

On Jurisdiction

So, based on the comments below, I've been asked to expand this answer to relate to jurisdictional questions. My understanding is that this situation already exists. Namely, that the Pope does have a certain level of jurisdictional control over the Eastern Catholic churches, and Pope John Paul II did create a loose framework called Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, but that they have the right to create their own set of canons amending these canons and are specifically encouraged to do so.

Could a future Pope assert some sort of dominance over the Eastern Churches? Yes. Is that likely? No.

The Orthodox, as a whole, are still uninterested in full communion.

  • That's not what infalliblity means. Commented Nov 14, 2017 at 20:24
  • 2
    I think the question is more about universal jurisdiction than infallibility.
    – bradimus
    Commented Nov 14, 2017 at 20:27
  • @brad I think they have a thing or two to do with each other. If I were infallible, I would want my jurisdiction to extend beyond Wisconsin!
    – Peter Turner
    Commented Nov 14, 2017 at 20:51
  • @cwallenpoole - bradimus is correct. I am asking more about the Pope's power now and going forward and whether he could relinquish control to an Ecumenical Council. Of course there are many other theological issues that would need to be worked out (filioque, purgatory, immaculate conception), but presumably a great council could be called by the Pope that would include the Bishops from the East, and they might be able to resolve these issues. As I understand it, papal infallibility has some wiggle room, as even the RCC doesn't think the Pope is infallible all the time.
    – David P
    Commented Nov 14, 2017 at 21:00
  • Well the filioque is kind of a none issue, as the council of Florence demonstrated. People just need to get informed. Immaculate conception is difficult for some to understand but once you make them realize the parallel between Eve and the New Eve like with Adam and the New Adam it shouldn't be too hard. Purgatory is already an Orthodox doctrine but it's not clearly defined, it's a very vague thing but its there. The way to unity will require Orthodox Christians to understand certain doctrines, because Rome will never budge on the dogmas. However the rites could be kept and that seems to help. Commented Nov 15, 2017 at 1:27

The quick answer is no; the Roman Catholic Church will never relinquish papal supremacy. The reason is because of its asserting same over near 2,000 years. Here is its Catechism formulation.

552 Simon Peter holds the first place in the college of the Twelve;283 Jesus entrusted a unique mission to him. Through a revelation from the Father, Peter had confessed: "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." Our Lord then declared to him: "You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it."284 Christ, the "living Stone",285 thus assures his Church, built on Peter, of victory over the powers of death. Because of the faith he confessed Peter will remain the unshakable rock of the Church. His mission will be to keep this faith from every lapse and to strengthen his brothers in it.286

553 Jesus entrusted a specific authority to Peter: "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."287 The "power of the keys" designates authority to govern the house of God, which is the Church. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, confirmed this mandate after his Resurrection: "Feed my sheep."288 The power to "bind and loose" connotes the authority to absolve sins, to pronounce doctrinal judgments, and to make disciplinary decisions in the Church. Jesus entrusted this authority to the Church through the ministry of the apostles289 and in particular through the ministry of Peter, the only one to whom he specifically entrusted the keys of the kingdom.

  • But authority given surely can be delegated or given away, can it not? The English Crown, through the divine right of Kings, may have had complete authority over the UK. But since Magna Carta, the Crown has given most all of its power over to Parliament.
    – David P
    Commented Nov 16, 2017 at 14:18
  • The trouble is whether or not the Roman Catholic Church would repent and say, oops we thought Christ had given Peter a mandate who had given same to the Roman Pope. Now, they could "escape" this in one of two ways; say yes, Peter had a mandate (feed My sheep), but he gave it to Asia Minor (1 Peter 5); or they could say yes, Peter had the keys and he exercised them first (primacy) with his sermon to the Jew and Gentile. We will quit usurping this unique Peter only role already exercised (see Tertullian). Both are unlikely since these things have been written and known for some 2,000 years.
    – SLM
    Commented Nov 16, 2017 at 17:35
  • Why downgraded since my answer is exactly the same as the "chosen" answer?
    – SLM
    Commented Nov 16, 2017 at 17:36
  • I didn't downgrade your answer. Somebody else must have done this. I will upgrade your answer. The only reason I gave the other answer the nod was the link to Vatican I.
    – David P
    Commented Nov 16, 2017 at 17:58

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