The title “vicar of Christ” has a long and complex history. Various scriptural passages indicate how the disciples, especially the apostles, represent Jesus and his authority on earth, standing in his place or acting in his person (Matt 18:18-20, 25:31-46, Luke 10:16, John 20:22-23, etc.). Special emphasis can be seen on St. Peter’s role to shepherd Christ’s flock in the scriptural witness (Matt 16:13-20, Luke 22:31, John 21:15-19, Acts 15:6-11, etc.). Yet, the earliest literal use of “vicarius Christi,” in the late second/early third century by African writer Tertullian is for the Holy Spirit (Prescription against Heretics, 28; cf. On the Veiling of Virgins, 1).

The idea of representing Christ or standing for Christ developed in various ways for Christians, especially in the martyrs, ascetics, teachers, and clergy of the early Church. The Bishop of Rome, in particular, was identified with several titles evoking Christ’s representation and the succession of Peter, Christ’s premier apostolic vicar. In the Middle Ages, Pope Innocent III (d. 1216) firmly opted for the “vicar of Christ” over the “vicar of St. Peter” as his papal title. Although it bears an awesome meaning, “vicar of Christ” is more modest than what the Dominican mystic St. Catherine of Siena in the fourteenth century liked to call the Pope: “sweet Christ on earth.” For St. Catherine, Christ is the mad lover who acted as if he were drunk with wine in his love for us. St. Catherine experienced that sweetness in the Pope.

While many came to believe that the “vicar of Christ” was an exclusive title of the Pope, Vatican II called bishops “vicars and ambassadors of Christ” (Lumen Gentium 27). This expansion of applying the title, returning to a broader understanding than simply for the papacy, continued in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The Catechism, in fact, employs the title in three ways. The Supreme Pontiff is the “vicar of Christ” (CCC 882), the bishop is “Christ’s vicar” (CCC 1560; cf. CCC 894), and the conscience is “the aboriginal vicar of Christ” (CCC 1778).

The Catechism borrows “the aboriginal vicar of Christ” from Blessed John Henry Newman’s Letter to the Duke of Norfolk. Newman wrote this work in 1875 to correct the misunderstandings propagated by the longtime British statesman W.E. Gladstone concerning the First Vatican Council. The Letter’s fifth section deals with conscience. Newman calls it “the voice of God in the nature and heart of man.” Vatican II says something similar: “Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his depths” (Gaudium et Spes 16). Conscience should not be confused with self-will, which is the modern counterfeit to conscience. Newman explains:

“Conscience has rights because it has duties; but in this age, with a large portion of the public, it is the very right and freedom of conscience to dispense with conscience, to ignore a Lawgiver and Judge, to be independent of unseen obligations. It becomes a license to take up any or no religion, to take up this or that and let it go again, to go to church, to go to chapel, to boast of being above all religions and to be an impartial critic of each of them. Conscience is a stern monitor, but in this century it has been superseded by a counterfeit, which the eighteen centuries prior to it never heard of, and could not have mistaken for it, if they had. It is the right of self-will.”

Again, Newman’s context is to defend Catholic teaching from a leading politician’s allegation that the Catholic Church threatens one’s conscience. Today, we have a threat being implemented by the American government against the conscience of those who object to providing so-called health services that include contraceptives and abortifacients. The U.S. Bishops have been united, and supported by Pope Benedict, in protecting the aboriginal vicar of Christ against government intrusion.

God works through this profound gift of the conscience he has given to us, just as he works through the mediation of the apostles and their successors. Those who think that all in America should simply obey Obama’s Health and Human Services mandate, despite the objections from the three kinds of vicars of Christ (conscience, the bishops, and the Pope) should ask themselves if they do not see what it means to have Christ at work through his vicars. At the end of Matthew’s account of the Gospel, our Lord says, “And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Matt 28:20). He is present with us in various ways, including through these vicars, and his presence manifests his love. He is still the mad lover, drunk with wine to save each one of us in the sanctuary of our hearts.
Father Andrew lives at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. where he is the Master of Students for the 50 student brothers of the Province of St. Joseph. He prays for the ND freshmen he taught who are now seniors. He can be reached at