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The Epiphany of the Roman Primacy

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 (Matt. 16:19), the second also to the other apostles (Matt. 18:18). Orthodox apologists claim that these two commissions to Peter are in fact identical. Whatever authority Christ gave to Peter, he gave to all the apostles.

If the Orthodox belief is correct, then our study of 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’ exercise of unique authority as final arbiter of faith and morals was never condemned as unwarranted. Even those who vehemently opposed certain papal rulings did not deny the authority behind those rulings.

In many instances 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 the successor of Peter.

Papal authority, say the Orthodox, was not established by Christ. It was developed by the popes many centuries later. Historical circumstances helped them establish their jurisdiction. 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.”

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 his attempt to avoid the obvious explanation of this fact, one Protestant author has 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 terms “honorary primacy” or “primacy of honor” are foreign to the Gospels. They come rather from Byzantine court etiquette. The honor of which Christ spoke is the honor of being servant of all. A Catholic can see in this 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.

Here is 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. That fact corroborates and illumines the Catholic Church’s interpretation of biblical material bearing on Petrine primacy. Eastern apologists who consistently ignore this history suffer from what has been called a “collective amnesia” with regard to the many exercises of papal primacy in early centuries.

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, in its substance, the papacy of the earliest centuries is identical with the papacy of modern times. There are great outward differences between the first-century papacy and the twentieth-century papacy, but those differences are like the differences between the acorn and the oak. They are only differences in stages of normal growth.

Anyone who has attended a class reunion decades after graduation has been embarrassed by failing to recognize old friends. Yet we know those outwardly-changed persons are still the persons they once were. So it is with the papacy.

Never forget that from the middle of the first century until early fourth century, the Church lived under persecution, much of it ferocious. 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 in early centuries further hindered the popes’ involvement in the affairs of the churches throughout the Empire. Many times bishops or emperors or clergy resisted the popes’ rulings. Non-Catholics interpret these events as refutations of papal authority, but authority of whatever 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.

Unquestionably, the popes did struggle to establish and exercise their authority. Anti-papal apologists argue that the struggles themselves negate papal legitimacy. Not so. Paul had to contend and plead for his authority as an apostle. He ordered Timothy to do the same for his authority as successor. Their struggles did not mean their authority was illegitimate.

Non-Catholic critics of papal primacy assert that papal primacy was created by the exaggerated claims the popes made for their office. Those critics insist on ruling 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 nineteen 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 wrote and acted “in circumstances which rendered any exhibition of a centralising power a matter of almost certain death.” Most of the popes of the third century, for example, were martyrs. In that century “no pope sat on the throne with any fair prospect of dying the common death of ordinary men.”

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 pope “does not bear definitions with his head at all times, ready to flash out at a moment’s notice; their possibility and their materials lie in the circumstances of the Church.” The charism of infallibility guarantees only that the pope will be preserved from error when and if he is led to make a definition.

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 repeatedly invoke one sentence from the letter of 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. 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 of the Church, especially at Rome, under Nero and Domitian, had prevented the Church of 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, Clement, speaks with the voice of Christ. He concludes by saying he has sent three legates to Corinth to investigate the situation. 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? That Clement apologizes for 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. According to early testimony, at that time he was 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. How did they respond to Clement’s intervention? They held Clement’s letter in almost as high esteem as they did sacred Scripture. Eusebius tells us that seventy 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, as Easterners claim, 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 so readily created but could not overcome.


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