Sarah Pucciarelli  Papal Primacy

September 5, 2001

The earliest period of the history of the Christian church, that is, from the time of Christ to Constantine the Great can be divided into two phases. The first phase is comprised of those people who received their instruction either from Christ himself or from his disciples.  The advent of the second century marks the beginning of phase two, when the second coming had failed to happen, or at the very least was a long way off and so the Christians set about organizing themselves and finding their own ‘identity’ now that the first believers were dead.  It is in this second phase that there was an attempt to establish a canon of scripture and to construct a lineage back to the first Christians and so give the growing communities a hierarchical order by which to govern themselves.  For the people of the Roman congregation, this meant tracing their lineage back to the Apostle Peter.

The doctrinal tradition of Peter’s importance to Rome can be traced back to the third century at the earliest.  It should be noted that the ‘historical’ evidence for this tradition is tenuous at best and more akin to legend that fact.  There is little to no information on the life of Peter in the New Testament and none from non-Christian writers.  What is known is that Peter was one of the oldest of Christ’s disciples and that he and James, brother of Jesus, led the ‘council of twelve’ of the community in Jerusalem.  Although important decisions were always made by the whole community, it was to the ‘twelve’ that special consideration was afforded because of their relationship to Christ.  It is for this reason that Paul came to Peter and James in Jerusalem, and why they in turn sent representatives to the other communities.  It is also for this same reason that the other communities sent money to Jerusalem and looked to her in matters of teaching and community life.  It was only with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. that the infant Christendom would lose her center and so would look somewhere else for guidance.

            It is fairly certain from Paul’s letter to the Romans that there was a community there about mid-century.  That Paul makes no mention of Peter, if one assumes that there was no rivalry, points to the fact that Peter probably was not in Rome at that time and whether he was active there in later decades is not known either.  It is only around 96 A.D. that evidence of Peter’s activities is found in a letter from the Roman community to the one in Corinth.  However, since the sender is the entire community and not an individual, there was, as yet, no head of the community who would be recognized by the outside world.  What can be said for certain from this letter is that both Peter and Paul worked and died in Rome but how, when and why is not known.  Ignatius of Antioch, writing some years later, also makes no mention of an organized head of the Roman community, but instead refers to the community as a whole.  There have been attempts to find the graves of Peter and Paul which have yielded nothing, except graves that can be dated to the second century and show signs that they were venerated, but who they are is still not known for certain.  However, the tradition of Peter and Paul’s graves lying in Rome was acknowledged fairly early and no other church not even Antioch, where Peter was active, would or could lay claim to them.  In addition, the tradition of Peter’s preeminence among the Apostles was beginning to form in order to legitimize the primacy of the bishop of Rome.

            As Christians gave up waiting for the second coming, it was imperative that they organize their congregation.  Under Callistus I (217? -222) is found the first stirrings of papal ‘monarchy’.  Callistus I, among other things, reduced the number of mortal sins barring an applicant or member from the congregation, while at the same time asserting his right to the general absolution of those sins.  To establish such procedures he appealed to the cathedra of the Roman Church and to Scripture (Mark 13:29), that God will separate the wheat from the chaff.  Though this does not mean he was justified in terms of apostolic succession, it nevertheless demonstrates the monarchical view the bishop of Rome was beginning have of himself and his position.

            How much importance did the Roman congregation have outside Rome?  It had always been somewhat important since Rome was, after all, the center of the empire.  However, it became even more important to the outside world after the destruction of Jerusalem.  More importantly, its preeminence gradually arose from its claim to apostolic succession.  In the beginning this did not mean that the bishops of Rome where the successors of Peter so much as the congregation could trace correct teaching back to the time of the apostles—and so could other communities such as Antioch and Smyrna.  Also, as the letter from the Romans to the Corinthians demonstrates, the apostles central to Rome were Peter and Paul together.  As a result, the two concepts of papal dogma come handed down to us even today, that of the cathedra and the sedes apostolica.  This originally meant that whoever occupied the see followed a particular tradition, in this case of the apostles Peter and Paul.  At first, the concept of cathedra was used loosely without meaning a particular apostle, but by the third century it became increasingly associated with Peter.  There are passages in the writings of Irenaeus, Tertullian and Cyprian, which refer to this special relationship, that Rome held a special place because it had an apostolic tradition that the other communities should look to.  From the time of Cyprian, Rome was seen as special because of the phrase ‘thou art Peter…’ (Matthew 16:18) but that this was dignity of rank not of privilege.  Thus by the fourth century there was a real if not defined recognition of the preeminence of Rome, at least in the Western half of the empire.  It was this recognition that would provide the base upon which the papacy would elevate itself in the years to come.[9]

            In the fourth and fifth centuries, the most significant elements of the doctrine of papal primacy developed. Since Rome encompassed much of the known world, her first task was to unite the city itself under one faith and form and language of worship, that is, bring all the congregations under the supervision of the bishop of Rome.  In order to do this, the bishop of Rome needed the authority that could only come from apostolic succession.  There had existed since the time of Damasus (366-384) a list of Roman bishops with exact, if fabricated, dates for each reign, which stretched back to Peter.  At the end of the fourth century, Rufinus of Aquila translated from the Greek the Clementine Homilies and the Recognitions.  What is important in these two works is that they contained a letter which refers to James, the brother of Jesus, as ‘bishop of bishops’ and also describe how Peter consigned the ‘power of binding and loosing’ to Clement I as his successor.  This then provided the proof required by the bishops of Rome that they possessed the full powers of Peter and by the close of the fourth century the doctrine was put forward that each bishop of Rome possessed the cathedra petri.

            From this then naturally arose the doctrine of the sedes apostolica (apostolic see) which states that every bishop of Rome, as Peter’s successor, possesses the full authority granted to this position.  This power, then, is inviolable on the grounds that it was established by God himself and so not bound to any individual.  Leo I (440-461), with the aid of Roman law, solidified this doctrine by making the bishop of Rome the legal heir of Peter.  Thus, the bishops of Rome saw themselves as the vicars of Peter and through Peter were then the vicars of the entire Christian world. At the same time however, there was an increasing emphasis placed on Paul and so Paul was joined to Peter in iconography.  This then sent the message that Rome derived her authority from both—from Peter, the authority to bind and to loose and from Paul, the authority to instruct the faithful.

            Thus, the evolution of earlier tradition established both Peter and Paul as the forefathers of the bishops of Rome, from whom they received their position as chief shepherd (Peter) and supreme authority on doctrine (Paul). To establish her primacy among the churches of the Western half of the empire, the bishops of Rome relied on a letter written in 416 by Innocent I to the Bishop of Gubbio, to show how subordination to Rome had been established.  Since Peter was the only apostle (no mention of Paul) to have worked in the West, thus the only persons to have established churches in Italy, Spain, Gaul, Sicily, Africa, and the Western islands were bishops appointed by Peter or his successors.  This being the case then, all congregations had to abide by the regulations set in Rome.

            This claim to primacy may have worked in Italy, but not so in the rest of the West.  General upheaval hampered efforts in Gaul, Spain, and North Africa.  However, the bishops of Rome did send letters during this period, though largely ineffectual, but which provided the historical precedent which could be used by later supporters of papal primacy.  These letters were known as ‘decretals’ from at least the time of Siricius (384-399) to Leo I and although they referred to specific cases, nevertheless provided general guidelines to follow.  In later times, these decretals would become canon law.  Thus it was “this attempt to implement the authority of the bishop of Rome, or at least the claim of authority, to lands outside Italy, which allows us to use the word ‘pope’ for bishops starting with Damasus (366-384) or Siricius.”

            As for establishing primacy over the east, it was largely unsuccessful for two reasons:  one, except for Leo I, Roman bishops were theologically unsophisticated compared to their eastern counterparts; and two, major decisions were made at councils at which Rome had little or no representation.[  It was the emphasis on apostolic succession, argued since the mid-fourth century, which had a profound impact on the relationship between East and West.  On the one hand, there was the tradition of Peter as the first bishop of Rome.  Cities in the east could also claim their own Petrine tradition—Antioch had been established by Peter and Alexandria by his pupil Mark.  On the other hand, however, no city in the East could lay claim to Peter’s grave, something which according to established tradition Rome could do.  Also, the Eastern patriarchs acknowledged that Rome held a higher rank but like those before them, they understood that this entitled the Bishop of Rome to a dignity of rank but not to higher authority in doctrine and dogma.  In fact, they considered themselves just as important in their own spheres.  If they had, on occasion, appealed to Rome, it was for support or as a disinterested judge in a dispute, not because of preeminence.

            In conclusion, during these five centuries, the bishops of Rome developed the doctrine of papal primacy which was dependant on the modified understanding of ‘apostolic succession’.  Though Rome was only able to exert her influence over Italy in matters of worship, discipline and jurisdiction, the groundwork was laid for succeeding generations of popes to flex their muscles and extend their reach.  Also, they could claim, at least in theory and even if it was not acknowledged, authority over the Eastern churches and held the same position in the church as a whole as the emperor held in the secular world.