The Canon of the Vatican Council “On the Perpetuity of the Primacy of Blessed Peter in the Roman Pontiffs” states that St. Peter, the first Pope, has perpetual successors in the Primacy over the Universal Church, and that every Roman Pontiff is the successor of Blessed Peter in this Primacy during his Pontificate.
This Canon was directed against heretics who taught that St. Peter’s special power from Christ died with him and was not passed along to his successors, the Popes.
The English translation of the Canon has the word "line" between “perpetual” and “successors”, while in Latin this word is absent. But in both cases, the meaning of this part of the Canon remains the same - Blessed Peter has perpetual successors in the Primacy over the Universal, i.e. Catholic Church Militant, and the Roman Pontiff is the successor of Blessed Peter in this Primacy.
No matter how long a vacancy of the Holy See lasts between the previous Pope and a new Pope, the perpetual line of the successors is unbroken. In the history of the Catholic Church we find that many times the vacancy of the Holy See lasted from a few days to several years.
It is important to understand that Jesus Christ instituted the Papacy not on the principle of succession in the flesh. Our Lord instituted the Papacy on the principle of the unity in faith and morals between St. Peter’s successors and St. Peter himself. The election of an infidel, a heretic, a schismatic, or a female would be invalid.
"And Jesus answering, said to him: Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-Jona: because flesh and blood hath not revealed it to thee, but my Father who is in Heaven." (St. Matthew 16:17) - By these words Our Lord had excluded a ‘flesh principle’ even before He promised to institute the Papacy.
When someone focuses solely on the succession in ‘flesh and blood’, he thus rejects the heavenly, supernatural essence of the Institution of the Vicar of Christ.
The supernatural character of the Papacy was confirmed by the Vatican Council’s Canon “Concerning the Infallible Teaching of the Roman Pontiff regarding faith or morals.”
Since the Papacy is a supernatural, heavenly Institution, It does not disappear during the periods of vacancy of the Holy See, no matter how long these periods last.
The succession of the Roman Pontiffs is not expressed in a mere mathematical number of Pontiffs, because they are not successors of each other, but rather the Roman Pontiffs are St. Peter’s successors.
“Blessed Peter has a perpetual (line of) successors in the primacy over the universal Church” - the Canon of Vatican Council says.
Therefore, one can conclude that the succession of the Roman Pontiffs was never broken by the physical death of St. Peter or by the physical deaths of his successors. And that is why the Canon of the Vatican Council calls them perpetual successors in the Primacy, which is of the heavenly, supernatural order of faith and morals, not the natural order of ‘flesh and blood’.
Here the quotations follow:
THE DECREES OF THE VATICAN COUNCIL:
“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, 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 ….
“If, then, anyone shall say that it is not by the institution of CHRIST the LORD, or by divine right, that Blessed Peter has a perpetual line of successors in the primacy over the universal Church; or that the Roman Pontiff is not the successor of Blessed Peter in this primacy; let him be anathema.” (1)
ENCHIRIDION SYMBOLORUM DENIFITIONUM ET DECLARATIONUM:
“Si quis ergo dixerit, non esse ex ipsius Christi Domini institutione seu iure divino, ut beatus PETRUS in primatu super universam Ecclesiam habeat perpetuos successores; aut Romanum Pontificem non esse beati PETRI in eodem primate successorem: anathema sit.” (2)
THE PRIMACY OF THE APOSTOLIC SEE VINDICATED
BY FRANCIS PATRICK KENRICK, ARCHBISHOP OF BALTIMORE:
“THIS work first appeared in the year 1837, in the form of letters to the Protestant Episcopal Bishop of Vermont, John Henry Hopkins, in reply to a work on the Church of Rome, addressed by him to the Roman Catholic Hierarchy.” (p. 8)
"The long vacancies which have sometimes occurred in the Roman See, do not interfere with the succession, since, in the general opinion of mankind, they were not so protracted as to destroy the moral connection between the incumbents. Some interval must necessarily elapse between the demise of one Pontiff and the election of his successor. The longest space which has been assigned to a papal interregnum is three years and eight months, after the death of Marcellinus; which computation, however, is generally denied by the learned. The longest actual vacancy was during two years and nine months, on the demise of Clement IV. Either period was not such an interruption in the long series of Pontiffs as to effect a moral separation in its connecting links." (p.238)
"The unbroken succession of the Bishops of Rome is a fact the most unquestionable, established by direct and collateral evidence, and manifest from the continued exercise of the pontifical authority. No difficulties that may be raised in regard to interregnums, rival claimants, or intruders, can create a doubt as to the public exercise of power in every age by the Bishop of Rome as successor of Peter. The continuance of the succession is a moral miracle, which may well be reckoned among the most splendid evidences of Christianity. "The Papacy itself,' says Dr. Nevin, "is a wonder of wonders. There is nothing like it in all history besides." * (* Early Christianity, M. R., Nov., 1851) Dynasties have succeeded one to another; powerful empires and kingdoms have passed away; republics have been destroyed by the conflicting elements within them; yet the See of Peter remains, and an heir of his authority is always found, whether taken from low estate, or of noble parentage. The numberless internal causes of dissolution, and violence from without, do not affect its continuance. The city may be trodden down by the barbarian conqueror, and the Pontiff may perish; but there is a vitality in the See that renders its destruction impossible. (p. 240) (3)
Fr. Martin Stépanich says in his letter:
November 30, 2002
You quote the passage from Vatican Council, Session IV, which states clearly that St. Peter, the first pope, has “perpetual successors in the primacy over the universal Church…”
You, understandably, wonder how it could be that there are still “perpetual successors” of St. Peter if the men who have claimed to be popes in our times have been in reality public heretics, who therefore could not, as heretics, be the true successors of St. Peter.
The important thing here is to understand just what kind of “perpetual succession” in the papacy Our Lord established.
Did Our Lord intend that there should be a pope on the Chair of Peter every single moment of the Church’s existence and every single moment of the papacy’s existence?
You will immediately realize that, no, Our Lord very obviously did not establish that kind of “perpetual succession” of popes. You know that, all through the centuries of the Church’s existence, popes have been dying and that there then followed an interval, after the death of each pope, when there was no “perpetual successor,” no pope, occupying the Chair of Peter. That Chair became vacant for a while whenever a pope died. This has happened more than 260 times since the death of the first pope.
But you also know that the death of a pope did not mean the end of the “perpetual succession” of popes after Peter.
You understand now that “no pope” does not mean “no papacy.” A vacant Chair of Peter after the death of a pope does not mean a permanent vacancy of that Chair. A temporary vacancy of the Chair of Peter does not mean the end of the “perpetual successors in the primacy over the universal Church.”
Even though Our Lord, had He so willed it, could have seen to it that, the moment one pope died, another man would automatically succeed him as pope, He nevertheless did not do it that way.
Our Lord did it the way we have always known it to be, that is, He allowed for an interval, or interruption, of undesignated duration, to follow upon the death of each pope.
That interruption of succession of popes has, most of the time, lasted several weeks, or a month or so, but there have been times when the interruption lasted longer than that, considerably longer.
Our Lord did not specify just how long that interruption was allowed to last before a new pope was to be elected. And He did not declare that, if the delay in electing a new pope lasted too long, the “perpetual succession” was then terminated, so that it would then have to be said that “the papacy is no more.”
Nor did the Church ever specify the length or duration of the vacancy of the Chair of Peter to be allowed after the death of a pope.
So it is clear that the present vacancy of the Chair of Peter, brought on by public heresy, despite the fact that it has lasted some 40 years or so, does not mean that the “perpetual succession” of popes after St. Peter has come to an end.
What we must realize here is that the papacy, and with it the “perpetual succession” of popes is a Divine institution, not a human institution. Therefore, man cannot put an end to the papacy, no matter how long God may allow heresy to prevail at the papal headquarters in Rome.
Only God could, if He so willed, terminate the papacy. But He willed not do so, because He has made His will known to His Church that there will be “perpetual successors” in the papal primacy that was first entrusted to St. Peter.
We naturally feel distressed that the vacancy of the Chair of Peter has lasted so long, and we are unable to see the end of that vacancy in sight. But we do realize that the restoration of the Catholic Faith, and with it the return of a true Catholic Pope to the Papal Chair, will come when God wills it and in the way He wills it.
If it seems to us, as of now, that there are no qualified, genuinely Catholic electors, who could elect a new and truly Catholic Pope, God can, for example, bring about the conversion of enough Cardinals to the traditional Catholic Faith, who would then proceed to elect a new Catholic Pope.
God can intervene in whatever way it may please Him, in order to restore everything as He originally willed it to be in His Holy Church.
Nothing is impossible with God.
Note: Father Stépanich is a Franciscan priest who was ordained in 1941 and who holds a Doctorate in Sacred Theology from the Catholic University. He has never offered the New Mass and over the years has carried on an extensive apostolate of correspondence with Catholics who resist the Vatican II errors. (4)
The quotations from the Holy Scripture taken from: THE HOLY BIBLE PUBLISHED WITH THE APPROBATION OF THE CATHOLIC ARCHBISHOPS AND BISHOPS OF IRELAND. The Douay Version of the Old Testament of 1609, and with the Rhemish Version of the New Testament of 1582, Given at Dublin, May 4th, 1857.
(1) THE DECREES OF THE VATICAN COUNCIL
Edited WITH AN INTRODUCTION
by the REV. VINCENT McNABB, O.P.
NEW YORK, CINCINNATI, CHICAGO
BENZIGER BROTHERS Printers to the Holy Apostolic See 1907
Imprimi potest FR LAURENTIUS SHAPCOTE, O.P., S.T.L. Prior Provincialis
Imprimi potest + GULIELMUS Episcopus Arindelensis Virarius Generalis
Westmonasteril die 19 Oct. 1906
First Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Christ. pp. 36-39
(2) HENR. DENZINGER ET CLEM. BANNWART S.J.
ENCHIRIDION SYMBOLORUM DENIFITIONUM ET DECLARATIONUM
DE REBUS FIDEI ET MORUM
EDITIO DECIMA QUARTA ET QUINTA QUAM
QUAM PARAVIT IOANNES BAPT. UMBERG S.J.
Fribugri Brisgoviae MCMXXII
HERDER & Co.
TYPOGRAPHI EDITORES PONTIFICI
BEROLINI, CAROLSRUHAE, COLONIAE, MONACHII, VINDOBONAE, LONDINI S. LUDOVICI MO.
Imprimi potest: Bern. Bley. S.J. Praep. Prov. Germ. Inf.
Coloniae, die 4 Ianuarii 1922
Imprimatur: Dr. Mutz, Vic. Gen.
Fribugri Brisgoviae, die 1 Februarii 1922
Typis Herderianis Fribugri Brisgoviae,
Printed in Germany
(3) THE PRIMACY OF THE APOSTOLIC SEE VINDICATED
BY FRANCIS PATRICK KENRICK, ARCHBISHOP OF BALTIMORE
SEVENTH REVISED EDITION
PUBLISHED BY JOHN MURPHY & CO.
182 BALTIMORE STREET.
pp. 8, 238, 240.
(4) An Objection to Sedevacantism: 'Perpetual Successors' to Peter
By Fr. Martin Stépanich