The sun, in Holy Scripture, is sometimes a symbol for our Lord Jesus Christ, most famously in psalm 18, where its circuit round the earth is a figure of the incarnation, passion, descent into hell, resurrection and ascension.

Fittingly, therefore, can the sun also be a symbol for the vicar of Christ, the pope of Rome. Commenting on the verses in psalm 136 which state that God gave the sun power over the day and the moon and stars power over the night, St Francis de Sales says that the moon, here, is a figure of the old high priest, who ruled the people during the night of the old Testament, and that the sun is a figure of the pope, who governs us during the day-time of God’s grace.

With this in mind, it is interesting to reflect on the miracle of Fatima in October 1917. When Lucia suddenly called out, “Look at the sun!”, the people saw it lose its lustre, take on colours not its own, begin to spin on its axis, zig-zag through the sky, and suddenly, to general terror, plunge toward the earth, apparently to bring the world immediately to an end. Then, all at once it was back in its proper place, serenely continuing its journey through the heavens.

It may be that God was telling us in this way of what was to befall the papacy, an institution intimately bound up with the whole message of Fatima. Having been for so many years something which the faithful could rely on in their daily lives, and take for granted, as men take for granted the passage of the sun in the sky, it would become an object of wonder and alarm. It would seem to lose its proper light, and take on hues not its own, humanist, modernist, Lutheran, pantheist. Its teachings would become erratic and alarming. It would, perhaps, appear to become entirely unmoored from the place assigned it by its Creator, even threaten by its massive weight now uncontrolled to blot out in some final crisis all supernatural life on earth…

Then, in a moment, by the sole power of God incarnate, will come salvation. We shall look up, and the pope will be in his proper place once more, as the sun, like a faithful steward, dispenses warmth and light to all who dwell upon the earth.

I don’t think it plausible that Benedict XVI wanted to carry on being the successor of St Peter and not bishop of Rome in order to allow someone else to be bishop of Rome and not successor of St Peter, i.e. that he held and wanted to put into practice a hypothesis that has occasionally been put forward, that a pope can separate the papacy from the Roman see.  But here are some notes about the state of the question.

In 1851, in the apostolic letter Ad apostolicae sedis fastigium, Pius IX condemned the view found in the works of John Nuytz, a canonist from Turin, who maintained that “nothing prevents the supreme pontificate from being, by the decision of some general council, or by the deed of all peoples, transferred from the bishop and city of Rome to another bishop and city” (the original Latin is available here, page 93.)  This condemnation was placed into the Syllabus of Errors, number 35.

That might seem to settle the question, since the pope can’t do more than a general council can do.  But perhaps Nuytz meant it in a conciliarist sense, i.e. he was perhaps thinking of a council acting independently of a pope, given that he also suggests that ‘an act of all the peoples’ (whatever that would look like) might also suffice.  Also, the opposite of ‘nothing prevents’ is not ‘divine law prevents’ but ‘something prevents’, so I suppose Pius IX could have had in mind simply that e.g. ‘respect for tradition’ prevents it, though that seems unlikely.

In the first draft of Pastor aeternus, at Vatican I, the second canon read:

If anyone says that it is not by the institution of Christ the Lord himself that blessed Peter should have perpetual successors in the primacy over the whole Church; or that the Roman Pontiff is not by divine law the successor of blessed Peter in this primacy: let him be anathema.

That is almost the same as the canon as finally agreed on, with one interesting change.  The words ‘divine law’ were moved and made into a gloss on the phrase ‘by the institution of Christ the Lord’.  Hence the canon as promulgated reads:

If anyone says that it is not by the institution of Christ the Lord himself (that is to say, by divine law) that blessed Peter should have perpetual successors in the primacy over the whole Church; or that the Roman Pontiff is not the successor of blessed Peter in this primacy: let him be anathema.

Some of the fathers had said that a distinction should be drawn between the law by which St Peter has perpetual successors, which they said was of divine institution, and the law by which these successors are the bishops of Rome, which they said was better said to be ‘of divine ordination’, i.e. that God had inspired St Peter to make the choice of Rome.

Bishop (not yet Cardinal) Pie, acting as Relator, was basically in agreement with this.  He said that the first law (perpetual successors) was of divine institution, and that the latter was of the institution of St Peter, disponente Domino, and that it is therefore a human law “which nevertheless is better and more truly called an ecclesiastico-apostolic law”.  He argued nevertheless that the canon should be left unchanged, on the grounds that it followed from two premises which are of faith, namely that St Peter has perpetual successors, and that (as Florence defined), these successors are, as a matter of historical fact, the bishops of Rome.  This seems like a bad argument, unless I have misunderstood it.

Anyway, a request was again made that the words ‘iure divino’ be omitted.  The next Relator, a bishop Zinelli, said that while it cannot be doubted but that St Peter transferred his see from Antioch to Rome as the result of a divine revelation (ex revelatione divina), as Innocent III says in letter 209 (PL 214:761), nevertheless, it had not been the intention of the drafters to condemn those who rejected this, but only to say that, given the divine law about perpetual succession, and the act of St Peter in choosing Rome, therefore the bishops of Rome are in fact these divine-law-promised successors (and hence that if someone refused to accept Pius IX as the successor of St Peter, he would be contravening divine law.)  However, he accepted that the canon as it stood was ambiguous, and said that it had therefore been decided to move the words ‘iure divino’ to the place that they came finally to occupy.

Having roundly denounced codified Roman Law I ought to make one reservation. The problem with codification is that only God can know Human Nature comprehensively and thus only God can legislate for men in a way that will provide exceptionless norms that will apply in all times and places. Our knowledge of our nature is finite and non-exhaustive. Consequently, if we attempt to transcribe the natural law in statutory form either serious injustices will follow or so many exceptions and reforms will have to be made that respect for the rule of law (and ultimately the rule of law itself) will be jeopardized, leading to tyranny or anarchy. The Common Law is built on precedent and thus the Natural Law is transcribed into human law progressively by analogy. In a healthy Common Law system the Ius Gentium (those precepts of human law directly transcribed from the natural law) is entirely based on precedent. The human legislator reserves statute for the Ius Civile, the indifferent matters in which man himself genuinely legislates. This respects the origin of the civil authority in God and His law and excludes, from the very nature of the case, the lie that the powers that be are ordained by contract. In the light of these considerations we see that codified law implies a divinisation of the human legislator and imputes to the state a totalitarian authority over man and his destiny (see: CCC2244).

So what is the reservation? Well, Canon Law is not derived from human nature because man’s supernatural end is not proportionate to his nature but is gratuitous. It is not possible through self-knowledge or introspection to discover what the precepts of the Divine Law might be. “[F]aith is not a blind sentiment of religion welling up from the depths of the subconscious under the impulse of the heart and the motion of a will trained to morality; but faith is a genuine assent of the intellect to truth received by hearing from an external source”. Canon Law is grounded not in Natural Law but in Divine Positive Law, known through faith. It is thus fitting that Canon Law be statutory and codified. It is good for the Pope to associate with him in judgment and in legislation those (the bishops) who share with him care for the end for which the Divine Law is instituted. The positive promise that the Deposit of Faith will not perish applies to the episcopate as a whole not to the Pope in particular. It is good that the Bishops be elected by the clergy and faithful of their see “he who rules over all should be chosen by all” as St Leo says. For the faithful as a whole enjoy the same positive guarantee as the episcopate. There is, however, no need for precedent to play the same role in the Canonical legal system as in the temporal order. Certainly, the doctrinal judgments of the supreme authority in the Church are irreformable and the strictures against changing even a bad law still apply, but we have no direct access to the Divine Nature from which we might draw through accumulated precedent. Thus, the ‘Roman’ Law of Justinian (fittingly, given its divine pretensions) does indeed play a providential role in the elaboration of the science of Canon Law and was transplanted to the West just in time for St Gregory VII and his disciples to make use of it in this way. In those matters where the Spiritual Power properly holds sway we may consequently rejoice in the imperium sine fine of the Roman Pontiff (while praying he will use it in moderation and with good counsel); but in regard the temporal power we can only pray of the Ius Anglorum that “wider still and wider shall thy bounds be set; God, who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet”.

Some time ago I had the privilege of meeting Hugh Owen. His father was Sir David Owen, the Secretary-General of International Planned Parenthood; he himself is a deeply spiritual Catholic convert with a large family who spends his spare time explaining the doctrine of creation as taught by the Fathers of the Church and later witnesses to tradition.

In conversation he mentioned the consecration of Russia, which we both think has not yet been accomplished as it is meant to be. He remarked that too often this consecration is presented as a mere response to the evil of atheistic materialism that has spread from Russia throughout the world; as if it were, in effect, an exorcism of Russia. Thus explained, it is not surprising that it should meet with little enthusiasm from Russians themselves, as no one wants to have his country regarded in the world as a sheer source of evil.

But, he continued, ‘consecration’ implies some good quality in the thing consecrated; a fitness to be offered to heaven. This is true whether we think of the consecration of nazirites in the Old Testament, or of Christian families to the Sacred Heart or of devout souls to the immaculate Heart. Russia has been the source of immense evil; yet, he thought from his own observations, it is still in a sense Holy Russia; there is a sense of Christian realities present within it, lacking from the apostate nations of the West. Its schism is another’s sin more than its own. It is a fit instrument (he thought) to be used by God, once consecrated by the Pope of Rome, for the salvation of the nations.