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The papacy is a medieval Roman invention. The early Church knew nothing of a “supreme pontiff.” Other bishops didn’t regard the bishop of Rome as having special authority to operate the way modern popes do.
Archbishop Fulton Sheen once said, “It is easy to find truth; it is hard to face it, and harder still to follow it.” This is certainly true for some when it comes to facing the historical evidence for the papacy in the early Church. The hard-core purveyors of pope fiction refuse to believe that the papacy was established by Christ. But if the equivalent of the modern a Roman invention of the eighth or ninth century, how do we explain the fact that for the preceding 700 years, the bishops of Rome were regarded (and regarded themselves) as having a special, unique authority and responsibility for the whole Church? Here are a few of the hundreds of examples that could be given.
The earliest account we have of a bishop of Rome exercising authority in another diocese comes from St. Clement’s Epistle to the Corinthians. It was written by Clement, bishop of Rome, around the year A.D. 80. In it he responds to the Corinthians’ plea for his intervention. The entire letter is written in a fatherly, kind way but it, is also clear that Clement was quite aware he had a special authority. Two key phrases stand our as testimony of this: “But if any disobey the words spoken by Him [Christ] through us, let them know that they will involve themselves in sin and no small danger”; and “For you will give us joy and gladness if, obedient to what we have written through the Holy Spirit, you root out the lawless anger of your jealousy” (59, 63). Clearly, this early bishop of Rome wrote as one who expected his words to be obeyed.
Pope Victor I (reigned 189-199) worked to settle a dispute among the bishops of the East and West over when to celebrate Easter – known as the Quartodeciman controversy. The other bishops recognized his unique authority when they followed his directive to convene local and regional synods to deliberate on the issue. Most of the bishops decided to adopt his proposal that the whole Church celebrate Easter on the first Sunday after Passover. Those who didn’t, he threatened with excommunication. The fact that no bishop in the world — not a single one — disputed his authority as bishop of Rome to carry out such an excommunication is a powerful piece of evidence that the early Church recognized the unique authority of the bishop of Rome.
Shortly before his death in A.D. 200, St. Irenaeus of Lyons wrote to Pope Victor asking him to relent and allow the Eastern bishops to maintain their celebration of Easter according to the Hebrew lunar calendar, evidence that he recognized the pope’s authority to threaten excommunication. Pope Victor did not in fact relent, but it’s important to note that St. Irenaeus, like most of the bishops, submitted to the pope’s ruling. After all, it was Irenaeus who wrote of the Church at Rome: “For with this church, because of its superior origin, all the churches must agree; that is, all the faithful in the whole world, for in her the apostolic tradition has always been preserved for the benefit of the faithful everywhere” (Against Heresies 3:3).
Around the year 220, Pope Callistus wrote, “Callistus, archbishop of the Church Catholic in the city of Rome, to Benedictus, our brother and bishop, greetings in the Lord. By the love of the brotherhood we are bound, and by our apostolic rule we are constrained, to give answer to the inquiries of the brethren, according to what the Lord has given us, and to furnish them with the authority of the seal of the apostles” (First Epistle 1). Clearly he was well aware of his special role and authority in settling problems in the Church, even in other dioceses.
Later, the same pope wrote a letter to all the bishops of Gaul, saying, “Callistus to our most dearly beloved brethren, all the bishops settled throughout Gaul … We beg you not to permit anything to be done in those parts contrary to the apostolic statutes; but, supported by our authority, you should stop what is injurious, and prohibit what is unlawful…. Observe this law, which has been laid down by the apostles and fathers, and our predecessors, and has been ratified by us … We have replied to your interrogations shortly, because your letter found us burdened overmuch, and preoccupied with other judgments” (Second Epistle, To All the Bishops of Gaul 2, 6).
In the year 382, Pope Damasus wrote about his authority as bishop of Rome, anchoring it to the fact that he was the successor of St. Peter, He said the Church at Rome “has been placed at the forefront, not by the conciliar decision of other churches, but has received the primacy by the evangelistic voice of our Lord and Savior Who says, ‘You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it; and I will give to you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you shall have bound on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you shall have loosed on earth shall be loosed in heaven’ . . . The first See, therefore, is that of Peter the Apostle, that of the Roman Church, which has neither stain nor blemish” (Decree of Pope Damasus 2-3).
In A.D, 404, St. John Chrysostom wrote to Pope Innocent, “I beseech your Charity to rouse yourself and have compassion, and do everything so as to put a stop to the mischief at this point” (First Epistle to Pope Innocent 1). Note that Chrysostom, the archbishop of Constantinople, a powerful diocese, recognized the need to appeal to the bishop of Rome to resolve a controversy.
Many other examples of the primacy of the bishop of Rome in the early Church could be added. Even from the earliest years, the bishop of Rome had – and everyone recognized that he had – a special authority in the Church. Those who say the papacy is a “medieval Roman invention,” are either ignorant of history or dishonest.
By Patrick Madrid (Envoy Magazine, March/April 1998, p.27)