QUESTION 17: OF THE POWER OF THE KEYS
We must now consider the power of the ministers of this sacrament, which
power depends on the keys. As to this matter, in the first place we shall
treat of the keys, secondly, of excommunication, thirdly, of indulgences,
since these two things are connected with the power of the keys. The
first of these considerations will be fourfold: (1) the nature and
meaning of the keys. (2) the use of the keys; (3) the ministers of the
keys; (4) those on whom the use of the keys can be exercised.
Under the first head there are three points of inquiry:
(1) Whether there ought to be keys in the Church?
(2) Whether the key is the power of binding and loosing, etc.?
(3) Whether there are two keys or only one?
Article 1: Whether there should be keys in the Church?
Objection 1: It would seem that there is no necessity for keys in the Church.
For there is no need for keys that one may enter a house the door of
which is open. But it is written (Apoc. 4:1): "I looked and behold a door
was opened in heaven," which door is Christ, for He said of Himself (Jn. 10:7): "I am the door." Therefore the Church needs no keys for the
entrance into heaven.
Objection 2: Further, a key is needed for opening and shutting. But this
belongs to Christ alone, "Who openeth and no man shutteth, shutteth and
no man openeth" (Apoc. 3:7). Therefore the Church has no keys in the
hands of her ministers.
Objection 3: Further, hell is opened to whomever heaven is closed, and vice
versa. Therefore whoever has the keys of heaven, has the keys of hell.
But the Church is not said to have the keys of hell. Therefore neither
has she the keys of heaven.
On the contrary, It is written (Mt. 16:19): "To thee will I give the
keys of the kingdom of heaven."
Further, every dispenser should have the keys of the things that he
dispenses. But the ministers of the Church are the dispensers of the
divine mysteries, as appears from 1 Cor. 4:1. Therefore they ought to
have the keys.
I answer that, In material things a key is an instrument for opening a
door. Now the door of the kingdom is closed to us through sin, both as to
the stain and as to the debt of punishment. Wherefore the power of
removing this obstacle is called a key. Now this power is in the Divine
Trinity by authority; hence some say that God has the key of "authority."
But Christ Man had the power to remove the above obstacle, through the
merit of His Passion, which also is said to open the door; hence some say
that He has the keys of "excellence." And since "the sacraments of which
the Church is built, flowed from the side of Christ while He lay asleep
on the cross" [*Augustine, Enarr. in Ps. 138], the efficacy of the
Passion abides in the sacraments of the Church. Wherefore a certain power
for the removal of the aforesaid obstacle is bestowed on the ministers of
the Church, who are the dispensers of the sacraments, not by their own,
but by a Divine power and by the Passion of Christ. This power is called
metaphorically the Church's key, and is the key of "ministry."
Reply to Objection 1: The door of heaven, considered in itself, is ever open, but
it is said to be closed to someone, on account of some obstacle against
entering therein, which is in himself. The obstacle which the entire
human nature inherited from the sin of the first man was removed by
Christ's Passion; hence, after the Passion, John saw an opened door in
heaven. Yet that door still remains closed to this or that man, on
account of the original sin which he has contracted, or the actual sin
which he has committed: hence we need the sacraments and the keys of the
Reply to Objection 2: This refers to His closing Limbo, so that thenceforth no
one should go there, and to His opening of Paradise, the obstacle of
nature being removed by His Passion.
Reply to Objection 3: The key whereby hell is opened and closed, is the power of
bestowing grace, whereby hell is opened to man, so that he is taken out
from sin which is the door of hell, and closed, so that by the help of
grace man should no more fall into sin. Now the power of bestowing grace
belongs to God alone, wherefore He kept this key to Himself. But the key
of the kingdom is also the power to remit the debt of temporal
punishment, which debt prevents man from entering the kingdom
Consequently the key of the kingdom can be given to man rather than the
key of hell, for they are not the same, as is clear from what has been
said. For a man may be set free from hell by the remission of the debt of
eternal punishment, without being at once admitted to the kingdom, on
account of his yet owing a debt of temporal punishment.
It may also be replied, as some state, that the key of heaven is also
the key of hell, since if one is opened to a man, the other, for that
very reason, is closed to him, but it takes its name from the better of
Article 2: Whether the key is the power of binding and loosing, etc.?
Objection 1: It would seem that the key is not the power of binding and
loosing, whereby "the ecclesiastical judge has to admit the worthy to the
kingdom and exclude the unworthy" therefrom, as stated in the text (Sent.
iv, D, 16). For the spiritual power conferred in a sacrament is the same
as the character. But the key and the character do not seem to be the
same, since by the character man is referred to God, whereas by the key
he is referred to his subjects. Therefore the key is not a power.
Objection 2: Further, an ecclesiastical judge is only one who has
jurisdiction, which is not given at the same time as orders. But the keys
are given in the conferring of orders. Therefore there should have been
no mention of the ecclesiastical judge in the definition of the keys.
Objection 3: Further, when a man has something of himself, he needs not to be
reduced to act by some active power. Now a man is admitted to the kingdom
from the very fact that he is worthy. Therefore it does not concern the
power of the keys to admit the worthy to the kingdom.
Objection 4: Further, sinners are unworthy of the kingdom. But the Church
prays for sinners, that they may go to heaven. Therefore she does not
exclude the unworthy, but admits them, so far as she is concerned.
Objection 5: Further, in every ordered series of agents, the last end belongs
to the principal and not to the instrumental agent. But the principal
agent in view of man's salvation is God. Therefore admission to the
kingdom, which is the last end, belongs to Him, and not to those who have
the keys, who are as instrumental or ministerial agents.
I answer that, According to the Philosopher (De Anima ii, text. 33),
"powers are defined from their acts." Wherefore, since the key is a kind
of power, it should be defined from its act or use, and reference to the
act should include its object from which it takes its species, and the
mode of acting whereby the power is shown to be well-ordered. Now the act
of the spiritual power is to open heaven, not absolutely, since it is
already open, as stated above (Article , ad 1), but for this or that man; and
this cannot be done in an orderly manner without due consideration of the
worthiness of the one to be admitted to heaven. Hence the aforesaid
definition of the key gives the genus, viz. "power," the subject of the
power, viz. the "ecclesiastical judge," and the act, viz. "of excluding
or admitting," corresponding to the two acts of a material key which are
to open and shut; the object of which act is referred to in the words
"from the kingdom," and the mode, in the words, "worthy" and "unworthy,"
because account is taken of the worthiness or unworthiness of those on
whom the act is exercised.
Reply to Objection 1: The same power is directed to two things, of which one is
the cause of the other, as heat, in fire, is directed to make a thing hot
and to melt it. And since every grace and remission in a mystical body
comes to it from its head, it seems that it is essentially the same power
whereby a priest can consecrate, and whereby he can loose and bind, if he
has jurisdiction, and that there is only a logical difference, according
as it is referred to different effects, even as fire in one respect is
said to have the power of heating, and in another, the power of melting.
And because the character of the priestly order is nothing else than the
power of exercising that act to which the priestly order is chiefly
ordained (if we maintain that it is the same as a spiritual power),
therefore the character, the power of consecrating, and the power of the
keys are one and the same essentially, but differ logically.
Reply to Objection 2: All spiritual power is conferred by some kind of
consecration. Therefore the key is given together with the order: yet the
use of the key requires due matter, i.e. a people subject through
jurisdiction, so that until he has jurisdiction, the priest has the keys,
but he cannot exercise the act of the keys. And since the key is defined
from its act, its definition contains a reference to jurisdiction.
Reply to Objection 3: A person may be worthy to have something in two ways,
either so as to have a right to possess it, and thus whoever is worthy
has heaven already opened to him---or so that it is meet that he should
receive it, and thus the power of the keys admits those who are worthy,
but to whom heaven is not yet altogether opened.
Reply to Objection 4: Even as God hardens not by imparting malice, but by withholding grace, so a priest is said to exclude, not as though he placed an obstacle to entrance, but because he does not remove an obstacle which is there, since he cannot remove it unless God has already removed it. [*St. Thomas here follows the opinion of Peter Lombard, and replies in the negative. Later in life he altered his opinion. Cf. TP, Question , Article ; TP, Question , Article ; TP, Question , Article .] Hence God is prayed that He may absolve, so that there may be room for the priest's absolution.
Reply to Objection 5: The priest's act does not bear immediately on the kingdom,
but on the sacraments, by means of which man wins to the kingdom.
Article 3: Whether there are two keys or only one?
Objection 1: It would seem that there are not two keys but only one. For one
lock requires but one key. Now the lock for the removal of which the keys
of the Church are required, is sin. Therefore the Church does not require
two keys for one sin.
Objection 2: Further, the keys are given when orders are conferred. But
knowledge is not always due to infusion, but sometimes is acquired, nor
is it possessed by all those who are ordained, and is possessed by some
who are not ordained. Therefore knowledge is not a key, so that there is
but one key, viz. the power of judging.
Objection 3: Further, the power which the priest has over the mystic body of
Christ flows from the power which he has over Christ's true body. Now the
power of consecrating Christ's true body is but one. Therefore the power
which regards Christ's mystic body is but one. But this is a key.
Objection 4: On the other hand, It seems that there are more than two keys.
For just as knowledge and power are requisite for man to act, so is will.
But the knowledge of discretion is reckoned as a key, and so is the power
of judging. Therefore the will to absolve should be counted as a key.
Objection 5: Further, all three Divine Persons remit sins. Now the priest,
through the keys, is the minister for the remission of sins. Therefore he
should have three keys, so that he may be conformed to the Trinity.
I answer that, Whenever an act requires fitness on the part of the
recipient, two things are necessary in the one who has to perform the
act, viz. judgment of the fitness of the recipient, and accomplishment of
the act. Therefore in the act of justice whereby a man is given what he
deserves, there needs to be a judgment in order to discern whether he
deserves to receive. Again, an authority or power is necessary for both
these things, for we cannot give save what we have in our power; nor can
there be judgment, without the right to enforce it, since judgment is
determined to one particular thing, which determination it derives, in
speculative matters, from the first principles which cannot be gainsaid,
and, in practical matters, from the power of command vested in the one
who judges. And since the act of the key requires fitness in the person
on whom it is exercised---because the ecclesiastical judge, by means of
the key, "admits the worthy and excludes the unworthy," as may be seen
from the definition given above (Article )---therefore the judge requires
both judgment of discretion whereby he judges a man to be worthy, and
also the very act of receiving (that man's confession); and for both
these things a certain power or authority is necessary. Accordingly we
may distinguish two keys, the first of which regards the judgment about
the worthiness of the person to be absolved, while the other regards the
These two keys are distinct, not in the essence of authority, since both
belong to the minister by virtue of his office, but in comparison with
their respective acts, one of which presupposes the other.
Reply to Objection 1: One key is ordained immediately to the opening of one lock,
but it is not unfitting that one key should be ordained to the act of
another. Thus it is in the case in point. For it is the second key, which
is the power of binding and loosing, that opens the lock of sin
immediately, but the key of knowledge shows to whom that lock should be
Reply to Objection 2: There are two opinions about the key of knowledge. For some
say that knowledge considered as a habit, acquired or infused, is the key
in this case, and that it is not the principal key, but is called a key
through being subordinate to another key: so that it is not called a key
when the other key is wanting, for instance, in an educated man who is
not a priest. And although priests lack this key at times, through being
without knowledge, acquired or infused, of loosing and binding, yet
sometimes they make use of their natural endeavors, which they who hold
this opinion call a little key, so that although knowledge be not
bestowed together with orders, yet with the conferring of orders the
knowledge becomes a key which it was not before. This seems to have been
the opinion of the Master (Sent. iv, D, 19).
But this does not seem to agree with the words of the Gospel, whereby
the keys are promised to Peter (Mt. 16:19), so that not only one but two
are given in orders. For which reason the other opinion holds that the
key is not knowledge considered as a habit, but the authority to exercise
the act of knowledge, which authority is sometimes without knowledge,
while the knowledge is sometimes present without the authority. This may
be seen even in secular courts, for a secular judge may have the
authority to judge, without having the knowledge of the law, while
another man, on the contrary, has knowledge of the law without having the
authority to judge. And since the act of judging to which a man is bound
through the authority which is vested in him, and not through his habit
of knowledge, cannot be well performed without both of the above, the
authority to judge, which is the key of knowledge, cannot be accepted
without sin by one who lacks knowledge; whereas knowledge void of
authority can be possessed without sin.
Reply to Objection 3: The power of consecrating is directed to only one act of another kind, wherefore it is not numbered among the keys, nor is it multiplied as the power of the keys, which is directed to different acts, although as to the essence of power and authority it is but one, as stated above.
Reply to Objection 4: Everyone is free to will, so that no one needs authority to
will; wherefore will is not reckoned as a key.
Reply to Objection 5: All three Persons remit sins in the same way as one Person,
wherefore there is no need for the priest, who is the minister of the
Trinity, to have three keys: and all the more, since the will, which is
appropriated to the Holy Ghost, requires no key, as stated above (ad 4).