The primacy of Rome was immediately acknowledged in the early Church; it was only its practical consequences that needed fine-tuning… (formerly “The Historical Context of Papal Authority”)
For the Solemnity of St. Peter and St. Paul on 29 June, the Gospel reading in the Divine Liturgy of the Mass centered on the 16th chapter of the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ according to St. Matthew. The passage recounts Simon song of John’s profession of the Apostles’ faith in Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of the living God”, and Christ’s subsequent commissioning of Simon Peter to become the rock (Aramaic kepha, Greek petros/petra) on which He would build His Church (St. Matthew 16:18); that is, as the viceroy of Christ, Himself the Rock of our salvation.
Anti-papalists object that these words of our Lord did not vest St. Peter with any special role, and in any case, did not extend to his successors, since (they allege) the Roman pope was by no means juridically supreme in the Church, as seen for instance in the Quartodeciman controversy. However, this objection betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of Christian history. For in fact, the theoretical primacy of Rome and her bishop was immediately acknowledged in the early Church; it was only the exact practical consequences of Roman authority that required some juridical fine-tuning, as it were.
As to the first, the theoretical primacy of Rome and its Petrine origin was immediately acknowledged by the earliest Christians. Because of St. Peter’s mandate and authority, the early Church recognized the pre-eminence of Rome, as well as the lesser but still eminent status of the other Petrine sees of Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria–that is, those local churches whose bishops were recognized to be successors of St. Peter.
Indeed, the early Christians acknowledged that, because her continuity of bishops from St. Peter guaranteed continuity of the Apostolic Tradition, Rome had the authority to (passively) establish the standards of orthodoxy in the one true Church. In the words of St. Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, who studied under the Apostle John’s pupil St. Polycarp:
“[W]e do put to confusion all those who… assemble in unauthorized meetings […] by indicating that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul… For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its preeminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere.” (Against Heresies, III, iii)
Therefore, against the belief of hardline anti-papalists that the Roman primacy was nothing but a later political development, we must acknowledge that the special authority of St. Peter and his successors was part of the original Faith of the one true Church, pursuant to the Apostolic Tradition as written down in Scripture and attested by the early Christians.
The practice of the primacy, however, it was more complicated, and we should not make the mistake of thinking that the Papacy immediately exercised its spiritual power in a juridical fashion. Thus, in an earlier post, we noted that–
In the early Church, Rome was accorded a passive primacy (i.e., in “soft” power); hence Irenaeus’ dictum that the whole Church must agree with Rome–“which presides in charity”, according to Ignatius of Antioch. Active primacy (i.e., in “hard” power), however, was another matter; for while Eastern patriarchs like John Chrysostom, Athanasius, etc. would appeal to, and be championed by, Rome when beleaguered by secular and ecclesiastical politics, they would often resist Papal authority in other times.
In other words, while the bishops recognised Rome’s (passively) setting the standards, they did not agree among themselves on what extent Rome had to (actively) enforce the doctrinal standards it (passively) affirmed. Or perhaps it’s better to say that they championed Papal authority when they theorized about it, when it was used against other bishops, and when it was used to protect them; but not when it was used to discipline them. For example, St. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, vigorously defended Papal authority in theory, but resisted it when the Pope ruled against St. Cyprian’s erroneous sacramental theory.
Indeed, not even the authority of metropolitans/archbishops over their areas of jurisdiction was generally acknowledged by local bishops who often resented the check on their authority. The result was widespread tension and disorder among bishops, especially during the Arian heresy of the 4th century AD, which was only partially solved by the use of local and general councils and the growth of patriarchal authority.
The solution that predominated from the 4th to the 11th centuries was the assumption (or perhaps the usurpation) of enforcement powers in the Church by the temporal ruler, especially the Roman, East Roman, Carolingian Roman, and Holy Roman Emperors. Under what the Protestant historian Ernst Troeltsch (in his excellent history of Christian social teaching) called the systems of the imperial Church and the landeskirche or territorial church, emperors and princes freely appointed and deposed bishops, dominated councils, and governed the Church as a department of the State. This was an unsurprising development given 3 considerations:
- First, as the triumph of Christianity made society and Church practically co-extensive, it was only logical that the rulers of society would step in to govern a Church that seemed unwilling to govern herself.
- Second, this was a time when temporal rulers were deemed to have sacral functions as quasi-priests of the nation, with kings like the English Alfred the Great actually assuming the title “Vicar of Christ” without serious opposition.
- Third, the popular election of bishops (which is being re-proposed today) gradually led to the domination of episcopal elections by the most powerful laity, such as the noble families of Rome and the princes of the various realms.
To be fair, one must say that the territorial church system was not entirely bad for the Church, for many rulers were conscientious, even overzealous, in their care of the Faith in their lands. However, the arrangement resulted in the relative subservience of Church to State, as seen in the tragic career of St. John Chrysostom. Worse, especially in the West, it led to the absorption of ecclesiastical authority into dynastic power and the use of strictly spiritual goods for temporal ends (so that in Rome, the papacy became the plaything of the nobles, who led the Petrine office into the worst corruption in its history). What’s more, all this was inconsistent with the original Christian stress on the distinctly supernatural origin, nature, and mission of the Church vis-à-vis the State; and it amounted in practice to a reversion of Christian ecclesiology to the pre-Christian type of religious government, whereby temporal rulers had full authority to govern the cult of deities.
There therefore grew a widespread desire to correct this situation and restore the Church to her ancient freedom, which in Latin Christendom exploded as the Reform of the 11th century, variously called the Gregorian, Hildebrandine, or Cluniac Reformation or the Investiture Controversy, but which we shall herein call the Latin Revolution. In the course of the Reform, the Church attempted to break free of the State control that had characterized both East and West for centuries, and to remove dynastic control of Church offices, such as by having Popes henceforth elected by the principal Roman clergy. One of the main objectives of what was therefore to unambiguously affirm the active primacy of the Pope as a necessary consequence of his passive authority, so as to limit, and if possible eliminate, the exercise of (active) enforcement authority in the Church by political rulers.
This was a radical change in the whole structure of the State–it was, in fact, the first great ideological revolution in history–and was bitterly resisted as such, for with Church and society being co-extensive, whoever exercised central jurisdiction in the former would a fortiori do so in the latter. It was also resisted within the Church itself, for the bishops and patriarchs had grown accustomed to power structures dominated by the princes, and resented being placed under the direct jurisdiction of a fellow bishop, however pre-eminent. Besides, the established bishops didn’t take kindly to the confrontational tactics of Reformers like Hildebrand (later Pope St. Gregory VII) and Silva-Candida.
Nonetheless, despite massive resistance, the incomplete triumph of the Concordat of 1122, and the imperfection of its leaders, the achievements of the Latin revolution were epochal. In the Church, the Reformers largely liberated the Church in the West from direct State control, and, by stressing Papal primacy, revived an alternative manner of ecclesiastical government other than internal chaos and subservience to princes. Politically, it led to supranational papal leadership, which functioned in Latin Christendom with somewhat the same power and weakness as the UN does in today’s international system. It also strengthened the juridical distinction between Church and State, as well as the tradition of an intelligentsia independent of political power that would distinguish the West from all other civilizations.
However, the Latin Revolution was not without cost. The Reform and the Reaction against it thus nearly tore apart the West; and they led directly to the schism of the East, which the attempted unions of succeeding centuries failed to repair through Eastern hostility and Western stupidity–though the West would still send a Crusade to help the East against Muslim attack as late as 1396. More importantly, perhaps, from a political perspective, the synthesis of the Latin Commonwealth did not sit well with the princes, especially the monarchs of the rising nation-states, who desired to create a monist regime in their states under a regime of absolute royal supremacy.
Therefore the whole history of the West after the 13th century is the story of how the princes used papal weakness and Protestant heresy to erode the rights of the Church and establish absolute royal power; and how, when princely absolutism was established, the bourgeoisie fought to replace royal with popular (i.e., propertied middle class) absolutism; and so on. Each of these movements was intrinsically eager to concentrate power, and was often accompanied by some centralizing ideology like Gallicanism, Liberalism, Socialism et cetera. So it is little wonder that they always targeted the Papacy, for there was a fundamental clash between her authority over the Church and the totalizing jurisdictional claims of the modern State…
This historical sketch will be continued, perhaps, at a later date. We may point out here that we have since witnessed the papacy’s loss of its political independence, amid betrayal by, and perhaps worse, alliance with France; the legislated annihilation of the religious orders, school systems, and social structures of the Church; and the collapse of Christian society. That the Church survived, with the papacy’s ancient authority triumphantly defined amid its gravest defeat–we may say that these manifest our Lord’s promise that the gates of death shall not prevail against His Church, or perhaps His other promise that one who loses his life for the sake of Christ will save it. And so, as one true Church we say:
St. Peter and St. Paul, pray for us, to the greater glory of God!