Readings on Authority in the Church: Satis cogitum


Chuck Shunk


October 25, 2022


Satis cogitum (Leo XIII 1896) is an encyclical published by Leo XIII in 1896. I don’t know a lot about the historical context of this encyclical, but according to the Wikipedia article on the encyclical, this encyclical marked the beginning of when Popes began to “offer theological treatments on important topics,” as well as the beginning of “the Church’s participation in ecumenism.”

These claims strike me as inflated . . . I’m guessing there is some truth in these statements but that the wikipedia author is over-interpreting his source material. Anyway, according to wikipedia’s sources ((Gaillardetz 2012) and (Oliver 1999), this encyclical is part of an important turning point in Papal practice.


Rather than do my own summary, in this case I think I should just link to the excellent summary that Fr. Most did, available on EWTN here: Leo XIII ‘Satis Cognitum’. Just to sum up the summary in a single sentence, the encyclical focuses on unity as a necessary mark of Church and the papacy as a necessary component of this unity, which cannot be abstract but must be realized in a concrete organization, i.e. the Church.

Significant Points

I have once again picked out some choice quotes from the encyclical and organized them in this document. I’ve also sorted them into the master quote document, here. Here are some of my own thoughts on the encyclical:

1. Causal flow of the argument

The first half of the encyclical has a very coherent causal flow: “because of this necessary mark of the Church, this had to be, and because of that, this other thing had to be.” It’s very closely arranged and convincing (to me, anyway).

In some cases, this ordering is important, because it highlights the central place of certain realities in the picture Leo is painting. For example, in this passage,

“The heavenly doctrine of Christ, although for the most part committed to writing by divine inspiration, could not unite the minds of men if left to the human intellect alone. It would, for this very reason, be subject to various and contradictory interpretations. This is so, not only because of the nature of the doctrine itself and of the mysteries it involves, but also because of the divergencies of the human mind and of the disturbing element of conflicting passions. From a variety of interpretations a variety of beliefs is necessarily begotten; hence come controversies, dissensions and wranglings such as have arisen in the past, even in the first ages of the Church. . . . Besides Holy Writ it was absolutely necessary to insure this union of men’s minds - to effect and preserve unity of ideas - that there should be another principle.” (Leo XIII 1896, p 7)

right after pointing to unity of faith as essential to the Church, Leo moves to the existence of heresy before moving to the establishment of the Magisterium. This seems to locate the object of the Magisterium in the negative prevention of error, while the positive proclamation of the Gospel is located in “Holy Writ”. But, I also could be reading a bit too much into this single passage.

2. Less emphasis on analogues in human governance

In general, there is less reference to human models of governance in Satis cogitum than in Cajetan. There is this line, however:

Indeed no true and perfect human society can be conceived which is not governed by some supreme authority. (Leo XIII 1896, p10)

I cannot tell from the context whether this quote constitutes Leo XIII taking a side in the governmental debates of the time on the side of monarchy. I think it does not; I believe that this “supreme authority” he references is just the power of governance which is possessed by the ruling principle of any particular perfect human society.

When, in the following paragraph, Leo explains that the “supreme authority” in the case of the Church is the Pope (acting as Christ’s vice-gerent), I think he is describing how Christ specifically decided to institute supreme authority in the Church, rather than claiming that this was the necessary end of a causal chain (as the properties of the Church were that he discussed above). However, he does say that because Christ willed a visible kingdom, “he was obliged” to designate a vice-gerent. Maybe this indicates that he does believe that no perfect society can do without a single ruler at the top of the chain?

If so, I would dispute the truth of that argument.

3. The power of jurisdiction

The primary aspect of this encyclical that struck me was how much it emphasized the power of jurisdiction in discussing the Papacy. This interests me because I am very interested in the different activities of the Magisterium. I think of them in terms of the “triple crown” of the Papacy, and in my mind I divide actions of the Magisterium into three: to teach, to rule, and to sanctify. Consequently, I was interested in this passage from the encyclical:

“For this reason, as the unity of the faith is of necessity required for the unity of the church, inasmuch as it is the body of the faithful, so also for this same unity, inasmuch as the Church is a divinely constituted society, unity of government, which effects and involves unity of communion, is necessary jure divino.” (Leo XIII 1896, 10)

Unity of faith, unity of government and unity of communion seems to me to be another way of talking about the same thing.

I think it is fair to say that of those three, Leo particularly emphasizes the role of ruling when discussing the place of the Pope in the rest of the encyclical. For example, see the following passage:

“It is consequently the office of St. Peter to support the Church, and to guard it in all its strength and indestructible unity. How could he fulfil this office without the power of commanding, forbidding, and judging, which is properly called jurisdiction? It is only by this power of jurisdiction that nations and commonwealths are held together. A primacy of honour and the shadowy right of giving advice and admonition, which is called direction, could never secure to any society of men unity or strength.” (Leo XIII 1896, 12)

I am very interested in this “shadowy right of giving advice and admonition,” because my understanding of the practice of the Popes after Vatican II has been exactly that they have placed a much greater emphasis on “giving advice and admonition”, rather than “commanding, forbidding, and judging”. So now I have some terms to use to distinguish these two things: “jurisdiction” vs. “direction”.

What I think is a problem in the Church today is that you have many people taking the rules for how you are to take proclamations of the Holy Father which were developed back in the day when the Holy Father engaged primarily in “jurisdiction” and applying them to activities of the Holy Father today which fall instead under the category of “direction”. But in this encyclical, at least, we can see which of the two activities was held in more esteem back in Leo’s day, and it is not the same as the practice today. Some caution in applying dictums of the past to practices of the present is therefore in order.

Many other passages further in the encyclical show this emphasis on jurisdiction; I will only touch on a few more. Importantly, Leo’s treatment of Peter’s titles stress rule and authority:

“The meaning of this divine utterance is, that, notwithstanding the wiles and intrigues which they bring to bear against the Church, it can never be that the church committed to the care of Peter shall succumb or in any wise fail.”For the Church, as the edifice of Christ who has wisely built ‘His house upon a rock,’ cannot be conquered by the gates of Hell, which may prevail over any man who shall be off the rock and outside the Church, but shall be powerless against it” (Ibid.) Therefore God confided His Church to Peter so that he might safely guard it with his unconquerable power. He invested him, therefore, with the needful authority; since the right to rule is absolutely required by him who has to guard human society really and effectively.” (Leo XIII 1896, 12)

“In this same sense He says:”Whatsoever thou shall bind upon earth it shall be bound also in Heaven, and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth it shall be loosed also in Heaven.” This metaphorical expression of binding and loosing indicates the power of making laws, of judging and of punishing; and the power is said to be of such amplitude and force that God will ratify whatever is decreed by it.” (Leo XIII 1896, 12)

“These, then, are the duties of a shepherd: to place himself as leader at the head of his flock, to provide proper food for it, to ward off dangers, to guard against insidious foes, to defend it against violence: in a word to rule and govern it.” (Leo XIII 1896, 12)

These three aspects of Peter’s role are emphasized particularly by Leo a little bit later as three ways in which Peter participated in the authority of Christ Himself:

“For this reason Jesus Christ willed that Peter should participate in certain names, signs of great things which properly belong to Himself alone: in order that identity of titles should show identity of power. So He who is Himself”the chief corner-stone in whom all the building being framed together, groweth up in a holy temple in the Lord” (Eph. ii., 21), placed Peter as it were a stone to support the Church. “When he heard `thou art a rock,’ he was ennobled by the announcement. Although he is a rock, not as Christ is a rock, but as Peter is a rock. For Christ is by His very being an immovable rock; Peter only through this rock. Christ imparts His gifts, and is not exhausted….He is a priest, and makes priests. He is a rock, and constitutes a rock” (Hom. de Poenitentia, n. 4 in Appendice opp. S. Basilii). He who is the King of His Church, “Who bath the key of David, who openeth and no man shutteth, who shutteth and no man openeth (Apoc. iii., 7), having delivered the keys to Peter declared him Prince of the Christian commonwealth. So, too, He, the Great Shepherd, who calls Himself”the Good Shepherd,” constitued Peter the pastor “of His lambs and sheep. Feed My lambs, feed My Sheep.” Wherefore Chrysostom says: “He was preeminent among the Apostles: He was the mouthpiece of the Apostles and the head of the Apostolic College….at the same time showing him that henceforth he ought to have confidence, and as it were blotting out his denial, He commits to him the government of his brethren….He saith to him: ‘If thou lovest Me, be over my brethren.’ Finally He who confirms in”every good work and word” (2 Thess. ii., 16) commands Peter “to confirm his brethren.”” (Leo XIII 1896, 12)

We can see, then, that those aspects in which Leo says that Peter participated in things that belonged to Christ alone, were all aspects of authority and rule.

Again, further on, Leo says this:

“[Irenaeus] calls it the chair of Peter because it is occupied by the successor of Peter: he calls it the principal Church, on account of the primacy conferred on Peter himself and his legitimate successors; and the source of unity, because the Roman Church is the efficient cause of unity in the Christian commonwealth.”

Note the phrase, “efficient cause of unity”. I think this phrase is significant because it again emphasizes the jurisdictional office of the Pope more than the teaching office. If someone is a teacher of many people, and they all believe in one thing because that is what that person said, then I think to a certain extent this person is the formal cause of the unity of belief in these many people, in that what all these people believe is specifically what is being taught by this teacher.

In contrast, an efficient cause of unity would be one that actively unites; one that commands belief in a specific set of propositions and separates out those who refuse to agree.

The emphasis on jurisdiction continues throughout the last section of the encyclical as well, which is dedicated to showing that bishops have no jurisdiction outside of communion with the Pope. His discussion of the true authority of bishops is likewise focused on jurisdiction, as can be seen by this passage:

“Nor does it beget any confusion in the administration that Christians are bound to obey a twofold authority. We are prohibited in the first place by Divine Wisdom from entertaining any such thought, since this form of government was constituted by the counsel of God Himself. In the second place we must note that the due order of things and their mutual relations are disturbed if there be a twofold magistracy of the same rank set over a people, neither of which is amenable to the other.” (Leo XIII 1896, 15)

It is not the case that having two teachers necessarily begets confusion. Having two different people in charge begets confusion because you don’t know who to turn to in order to get the last word.


Overall, I see a heavy emphasis on the role of governance in Satis cogitum. It might even be said, given how he is treating the names given to Peter, that he thinks that the office of the Pope has a special relationship to the role of jurisdiction. I could even ask, does Leo even think that the Holy Father has a special teaching role in the Church at all? Or is the primacy of the Pope a matter of governance only (granting as obvious that most acts of governance in a body of faithful is going to be about matters of faith)?

I’m pretty sure the answer to this question is “no”, but I think it is revealing that such an answer is not immediately obvious just from the text of the encyclical alone.


Gaillardetz, Richard R. 2012. When the Magisterium Intervenes: The Magisterium and Theologians in Today’s Church. Liturgical Press.
Leo XIII. 1896. “Satis Cogitum.” Vatican website: encyclical letter.
Oliver, James M. 1999. Ecumenical Associations: Their Canonical Status with Particular Reference to the United States of America. Gregorian Biblical Book Shop.