Peter and the Eastern Orthodox


Fr. Ray Ryland served as an apologist and chaplain for Catholic Answers from 1994-1998. He was also a contributing editor to This Rock until 2005. He is editor of The Russian Church and the Papacy. This article first appeared in February 1997 in "East and West," a column about the relationship between the Catholic and Orthodox churches which he wrote from 1996-1998.

Modern Eastern ecclesiologists agree with Catholics that the apostles chose successors. But what authority did Jesus give to Peter himself? Catholics and Orthodox Christians are divided over the issue.

Matthew 16:19 tells us that Christ gave Peter both the power of the keys and the power of binding and loosing. The first was given to Peter alone (Mt 16:19), the second also to the other apostles (Mt 18:18). Orthodox apologists claim that these two commissions are identical. Whatever authority Christ gave to Peter, he gave to all the apostles.

If the Orthodox belief is correct, then early Church history should reveal that every bishop, wherever located, exercised the same authority as did the bishop of Rome. Instead, from the first century onward, the successors of Peter exercised authority unlike that of any other bishop.

In the formative centuries, the Roman bishops’ unique authority as final arbiter of faith and morals was never condemned as unwarranted. Even those who opposed certain papal rulings did not deny the authority behind those rulings. Indeed, bishops of churches in the Eastern part of the Empire requested—even begged—the bishop of Rome to banish heresies and settle theological disputes which the bishops themselves could not resolve. These facts constitute the early Church’s tradition about the universal jurisdiction of Peter’s successor.

Papal authority, say the Orthodox, was not established by Christ. It was developed by the popes many centuries later and helped by historical circumstances. Catholics simply read back into the Church’s beginning something which did not then exist. The bishop of Rome, according to the Orthodox, is simply "first among equals" (primus inter pares). They readily concede to him a "primacy of honor," which they say was acknowledged in early centuries. John Meyendorff explains the "honorary primacy" of Rome in early centuries this way: "[Rome’s] numerical importance, its central [geographical] position, and, above all, the unshakable orthodoxy of its bishops justified its primacy."

A Bit of Luck

Other non-Catholic writers have commented on the unwavering fidelity of Rome. In the early centuries, when the woods were full of heretical bishops, the bishops of Rome steadily upheld the true faith. In an attempt to avoid the obvious explanation of this fact, one Protestant author claimed that the Roman bishops’ prestige was due to their extraordinary good fortune. They just happened to come out on the right side in all the theological disputes!

The phrase "primacy of honor" is foreign to the Gospels. It comes, rather, from Byzantine court etiquette. The honor of which Christ spoke is the honor of being servant of all. A Catholic can see in the phrase "primacy of honor" an unintended witness to the pope’s being "servant of the servants of God." And how does he serve and serve uniquely? Through his exercise of papal jurisdiction.

In an example of Orthodox reasoning, Nicolas Afanassieff says the primacy of Peter, as understood by Catholics, would certainly "have become clear and manifest in the course of early Church history" if it were true. The Church’s memory "cannot have failed to preserve what was most important." He claims that early Church history does not show the bishops of Rome exercising universal jurisdiction. Therefore that authority must not have existed.

A Catholic would assert that the Church’s memory did indeed preserve "what is most important" regarding the Church’s structure. He would add that the primacy of Peter is "clear and manifest" in history.

When the Catholic Church teaches that the papacy and its jurisdiction existed from the beginning, what does it mean? Simply this: In its essential features and substance, the papacy of the earliest centuries is identical with the modern papacy. There are great outward differences between them, but those differences are like the differences between the acorn and the oak. They are only differences in stages of normal growth.

Under the Radar

Never forget that from the middle of the first century until the early fourth century, the Church lived under persecution, much of it ferocious. John Henry Cardinal Newman reminds us that "an international bond and a common authority could not be consolidated, were it ever so certainly provided, while persecutions lasted."

Difficulties in communication further hindered the popes’ involvement in the affairs of the churches throughout the Empire. Many times bishops, emperors, or clergy resisted the popes’ rulings and the popes struggled to establish and exercise their authority. Non-Catholics interpret these events as refutations of papal authority, but authority of every kind will always be resisted by some. Resistance does not disprove the legitimacy of authority. In fact, resistance which does not deny the authority itself is a compelling admission of that authority’s legitimacy. Even Paul had to contend and plead for his authority as an apostle. He ordered Timothy to do the same as successor. Their struggles did not mean their authority was illegitimate.

Non-Catholic critics of papal primacy assert that it was created by the exaggerated claims the popes made for their office. Those critics rule out in advance what the popes say about their office. While papal testimony to the office of Peter is not conclusive proof of papal primacy, serious historical research cannot exclude it on principle. Our Lord necessarily bore witness to himself. In time and space the Catholic Church is the extension of the Incarnation. She also speaks with Christ’s authority. If popes are truly successors to Peter and in charge of the messianic kingdom on earth, they have a duty to proclaim the truth about their office. The popes have fulfilled that duty. By their backgrounds they represent a broad range of ethnic and cultural diversity, yet for 19 centuries they have borne a single, unvarying witness about the papal office.

The earliest exertions of papal authority occurred under conditions of violent persecution. Those popes acted in circumstances which rendered any exhibition of a centralizing power a matter of almost certain death. Most of the popes of the third century, for example, were martyrs.

Non-Catholics misunderstand the Church’s teaching about papal infallibility. Here is an Eastern example: "The dogmatic struggles and doctrinal controversies of the early Church would simply have been unthinkable if the infallible Church had possessed an automatic, visible organ of infallibility."

Note the logic. If the pope had received the charism of infallibility, he would have exercised it in a certain way. But he did not exercise it that way. Therefore, it must not have existed.

There is nothing "automatic" about papal infallibility. The Church has never intimated that the pope can settle any question immediately. The charism of infallibility guarantees only that the pope will be preserved from error when and if he is led to make a definition.

A Schism Is Healed

Eastern Orthodox apologists’ case against Petrine primacy is based almost entirely on their reading of early Church history. For many of the leading Orthodox theologians of this century, that reading is controlled by the theory which they call "Eucharistic ecclesiology" or "local-church ecclesiology." (In Orthodox usage, as in Catholic usage, "local church" designates a diocese, not a local congregation.)

Some Orthodox ecclesiologists invoke one sentence from the letter of St. Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans: "Where the bishop appears, there let the people be, just as where Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church." This, they say, means that the fullness of the Church is found in each local church. No local church can exercise authority over any other local church.

This Orthodox axiom consistently was contradicted by events in early Church history. About A.D. 96, for example, in the pontificate of Clement I, a faction in the Church in Corinth created a schism by ousting some bishops and presbyters. Pope Clement wrote a strongly worded letter to that church. He begins his letter apologizing for his delay "in giving our attention to the subjects of dispute in your community." Vigorous persecution under Nero and Domitian had prevented the Church at Rome from intervening earlier.

Clement immediately addresses the perpetrators of the schism, calling their action "that execrable and godless schism so utterly foreign to the elect of God." He reproves them for presuming to assert authority over successors of the apostles. Their action, he says, is "no small sin." He does not ask for more details in order to make his judgment. He simply passes judgment on the schismatics and orders them to submit to their pastors.

In what one author has called "the epiphany of the Roman primacy," Clement commands the schismatics to be "obedient to what we have written through the Holy Spirit." He warns them, "But should any disobey what has been said by him [Christ] through us, let them understand that they will entangle themselves in transgression and no small danger."

Clement hardly could assert more strongly his assurance that the Holy Spirit is speaking through him and therefore that he speaks with the voice of Christ. He concludes by saying he has sent three legates to Corinth to investigate. From other sources we know the schism was healed by Clement’s action.

Had the Church at Corinth appealed to Clement to settle the schism? Clement’s apology for the delay in intervening suggests it had. The Corinthians were not simply seeking help from some authoritative person. Were that true, they could have appealed to the apostle John, still living and in a city (Ephesus) much closer to Corinth than was Rome. No, they appealed to the successor of Peter. At the end of the first century, Rome’s authority and responsibility for settling such matters was already recognized.

No local church could exercise authority over another local church? The Corinthians never heard of this notion. They held Clement’s letter in almost as high esteem as they did sacred Scripture. Eusebius tells us that 70 years after Clement sent his letter, the Church at Corinth was still reading aloud from it every Sunday during the liturgy.

Petrine authority was not a papal invention to impose a theological straitjacket on the unsuspecting East. No, that authority was always a lifeline to the truth. Again and again by that lifeline Easterners were rescued from the Frankensteinian heresies they created but could not overcome.


Fr. Ray Ryland is chaplain of the Coming Home Network and Catholics United for the Faith. He is the assistant at St. Peter’s Church in Steubenville, Ohio.

This article appeared in Volume 20 Number 5.