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The expression "power of the keys" is derived from Christ's words to St. Peter (in Matthew 16:19). The promise there made finds its explanation in Isaias 22, in which "the key of the house of David " is conferred upon Eliacim, the son of Helcias, as the symbol of plenary authority in the Kingdom of Juda. Christ by employing this expression clearly designed to signify his intention to confer on St. Peter the supreme authority over His Church. For a consideration of the text in its dogmatic bearing, see POPE ; PRIMACY. In the present article our sole purpose is to give a brief historical account of the meaning attached to the expression by ecclesiastical writers.


(1) In the Fathers the references to the promise of Matthew 16:19, are of frequent occurrence. Almost invariably the words of Christ are cited in proof of the Church's power to forgive sins. The application is a natural one, for the promise of the keys is immediately followed by the words: "Whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth", etc. Moreover, the power to confer or to withhold forgiveness might well be viewed as the opening and shutting of the gates of heaven. This interpretation, however, restricts the sense somewhat too narrowly; for the remission of sins is but one of the various ways in which ecclesiastical authority is exercised. We have examples of this use of the term is such passages as August., "De Doctrina Christi", xvii, xviii: "Quid liberatius et misericordius facere potuit. . .nisi ut omnia donaret conversis. . .Has igitur claves dedit Ecclesiae suae ut quae solveret in terra soluta essent in coelo" (How could He [Christ] have shewn greater liberality and greater mercy. . .than by granting full forgiveness to those who should turn from their sins. . .He gave these keys to His Church, therefore, that whatever it should remit on earth should be remitted also in heaven ) (P.L., XXIV, 25; cf. Hilary, "In Matt.", xvi, P.L., IX, 1010).

It is comparatively seldom that the Fathers, when speaking of the power of the keys, make any reference to the supremacy of St. Peter. When they deal with that question, they ordinarily appeal not to the gift of the keys but to his office as the rock on which the Church is founded. In their references to the potestas clavium , they are usually intent on vindicating against the Montanist and Novatian heretics the power inherent in the Church to forgive. Thus St. Augustine in several passages declares that the authority to bind and loose was not a purely personal gift to St. Peter, but was conferred upon him as representing the Church. The whole Church, he urges, exercises the power of forgiving sins. This could not be had the gift been a personal one (tract. 1 in Joan., n. 12, P.L., XXXV, 1763; Serm. ccxcv, in P.L., XXXVIII, 1349). From these passages certain Protestant controversialists have drawn the curious conclusion that the power to forgive sins belongs not to the priesthood but to the collective body of Christians (see Cheetham in "Dict. Christ. Antiq.", s.v.). There is, of course, no suggestion of this meaning. St. Augustine merely signifies that the power to absolve was to be imparted through St. Peter to members of the Church's hierarchy throughout the world.

Some few of the Fathers, however, are careful to note that the bestowal of this power upon St. Peter alone, apart from the other Apostles, denoted his primacy among the twelve (Optatus, "De Schism. Don.", vii, 3, in P.L., XI, 1087). Origen dilates at length on this point, but teaches erroneously that the power conferred upon the Twelve in Matthew 18:18, could only be exercised within certain restrictions of place, while that conferred upon St. Peter in Matthew 16:18, was of universal extent (Comm. in Matt., P.G., XIII, 1179).

(2) Occasionally, though infrequently, Christ's promise is not restricted to signify the power to forgive sins, but is taken in the fuller meaning of the gift of authority over the Church. Thus St. Gregory in his letter to the Emperor Maurice, after quoting Christ's words in Matthew 16:18-19, writes: "Behold he [Peter] received the keys of the kingdom of heaven, the power of binding and loosing is committed to him, the care of the whole Church and its government is given to him [cura ei totius Ecclesiae et principatus committitur (Epist., lib. V, ep. xx, in P.L., LXXVII, 745)]. St. Maximus in a sermon on the feast of Saints Peter and Paul (P.L., LVII, 403) says that to St. Peter was given the key of power ( clavis potentioe ), to St. Paul the key of knowledge ( clavis scientioe ). The idea of a key of knowledge is clearly derived from Christ's words to the Pharisees, Luke 11:52: "You have taken away the key of knowledge." This distinction of the clavis potentioe and clavis scientioe recurs frequently in the medieval writers, though without reference to St. Paul.


By the Scholastic theologians the precise significance of the term was closely analysed.

(1) The view which is now universally accepted is exposed at length by Suárez (De Poenit., disp. xvi). According to him, the phrase as employed by Christ in His promise to St. Peter denotes the gift of ecclesiastical authority in its widest scope. This authority was to be in a sense peculiar to St. Peter and his successors in the chief pastorate; for they alone were to possess it in its fullness. But it was to be exercised in due measure by the other members of the Divinely instituted hierarchy according to their several degrees. Thus understood, the potestas clavium includes

  • the power of order, namely power exercised in regard to sacrifice and sacrament,
  • the power of jurisdiction, and
  • the power to define in questions of faith and morals.

The various powers thus conferred upon the Church were held to belong either to the clavis potentioe or to the clavis scientioe , the latter of these two being understood to signify the power to teach, while the other departments of authority pertained to the clavis potentioe . The distinction is, however, a theological refinement, and is not involved in the expression itself. As Francisco Suárez urges, Christ, when using the plural form, did not intend to indicate that the gift was twofold.

(2) The meaning attached to the term by the older Scholastics was, however, different from this. They followed the patristic tradition, and confined its significance to the judicial authority exercised in the Sacrament of Penance. The power of the keys, St. Thomas tells us ( Summa Theologica Supp:17:2, ad 1um ), is a necessary consequence of the sacerdotal character. It is, in fact, identical in essence with the power to consecrate and to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. The one sacerdotal gift is applied to different ends in the different sacraments. Such, too, appears to be the teaching of Pope John XXII in a well-known passage dealing with this subject (Extravag., tit. xiv, De verborum signif., c. v, Quia quorundam). The definition, "Clavis est specialis potestas ligandi et solvendi qua judex ecclesiasticus dignos recipere et indignos excludere debet a regno" (The keys are a special power of binding and loosing by which the ecclesiastical judge should receive the worthy [into the kingdom of heaven ] and exclude the unworthy therefrom), generally accepted in the Scholastic period (Pet. Lomb., "Sent.", IV, dist. xviii; John XXII , loc. cit.; St. Thomas, loc. cit.), might seem indeed to include jurisdiction in the external as well as in the internal forum. But in point of fact it was not so understood. The distinction between the clavis potentioe and the clavis scientioe was employed here. By the clavis scientioe was understood the priestly authority to interrogate the penitent and thus obtain cognizance of the facts of the case; by the clavis potentioe , the authority to grant or refuse absolution.

The view just exposed is inadmissible as an interpretation of Christ's words. For it is plain that He desired to confer by them some special prerogative on Peter, while, according to this interpretation, the potestas clavium is common to all priests.

(3) Hence there were not wanting theologians who narrowly restricted the scope of the gift, and asserted that it denoted the special prerogatives appertaining to St. Peter and his successors, and these alone. Thus Cardinal Cajetan (Opusc., I, tract. iii, De Rom. Pont., c. v) held that while the power of binding and loosing belonged to all priests, the power of the keys -- authority to open and shut -- was proper to the supreme pontiff ; and that this expression signified his authority to rule the Church, to define dogma, to legislate, and to dispense from laws. A similar opinion would seem to have been held by the Franciscans whose views are rejected by John XXII (loc. cit.). They contended that the popes held a clavis scientioe and a clavis potentioe ; and that, though in the case of the clavis potentioe a decision arrived at might be reversed be a subsequent act, no reversal was possible where the clavis scientioe had been employed.

(4) Macedo in his treatise "De Clavibus Petri" (Rome, 1660), attributes to certain theologians and canonists the opinion that the keys denote the supreme authority in the civil and ecclesiastical spheres, and that Christ conferred upon the pope a direct supremacy over both orders. We have, however, been unable to verify this statement. Indeed the writers who attributed to the pope an indirect authority only, in regard to civil governments, found an argument for their views in this very passage. They pointed out that it was the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and not of the kingdoms of this earth, which Christ bestowed upon His vicar.

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