A Patristic Defense of the Primacy of Rome

I now propose to write on the Primacy of Rome in regards to the Eastern Orthodox Church. Now the Orthodox would generally accept Peter to be chief of the apostles, but such authority was not handed on to his successors. In Matthew 16:19, Jesus gave Peter both the keys to the kingdom and the authority of binding and loosing. The first was given to Peter alone (Mt 16:19) and the second also to the other apostles as well. (Mt 18:18) Now Orthodox theologians would say these gifts are the same. The Pope, the Orthodox contend, became prime due to historical circumstances and so forth. The Pope is supposedly the “first among equals” holding a “primacy of honor”, but the supremacy of the Bishop of Rome was not instituted by Christ but came into being centuries later. I propose to defend the Catholic view, that Christ Himself instituted the Papacy as follows.

In the early church, the world was full of heretical bishops, but the bishops of Rome always seemed to keep faith. Now some Orthodox and Protestant theologians would claim that  it was because of this that the Roman Pontiffs became prime. However, the way to have the highest honor about which Christ spoke is to serve others. So the way to serve in a uniquely honorable place is to exercise jurisdiction. Now for the Papacy to be true, its essential features must be present in the Early Church.

Now, of course, from the middle of the first century to the early fourth, the Church was under an intense persecution so it was more difficult for a Pope to get involved in everything. Remember, Paul even had to contend for his authority as an apostle and ordered Timothy to do the same as a bishop. This does not mean their authority was illegitimate. Now, in a time like the Roman persecution, an exhibition of a centralizing power was basically a matter of certain death, so there was only so much Popes could do. Most of the Popes in the Third Century, for instance, were martyrs.

Now some of the Orthodox would contend that if the infallible Church had possessed an automatic, visible organ of infallibility, then doctrinal struggles of the Early Church would be unthinkable. Firstly, papal infallibility is not automatic, but only happens under very specific conditions. This seems to be saying, however, that if the Pope had the charism of infallibility, he would have used it in a certain way. Since he did not, the Pope is not infallible. When it is put that way, it does not make much sense. Also, even if the Pope had dogmatically condemned these things, I doubt heretics would not have for the most part paid attention, just as many Arians existed long after the Council of Nicaea.

So is there any evidence for Popes acting as prime in the Early Church? Yes, there is. For instance, in the late first century, the Corinthians unlawfully deposed some bishops and priests. Now Pope St. Clement I begins with apologizing for the delay. “On account of the sudden and repeated calamities and mischances, brethren, that have come upon us, we suppose that we have the more slowly given heed to the things that are disputed among you, beloved.” Clement then at once addresses the perpetrators of the sedition, “the foul and unholy sedition, alien and foreign to the elect of God, which a few headstrong and self-willed persons have kindled to such a degree of madness, that your venerable and famous name, worthy to be loved of all men, is greatly blasphemed.” (1 Clement 1:1) He then goes on to reprove them for their errors.

Notice that Clement does not need to defend his right to make such a judgment. He simply passes judgment onto those in schism. He then says: “For joy and rejoicing will ye afford us if, becoming obedient to the things that have been written by us, ye put an end, by the suggestion of the Holy Spirit, to the unlawful wrath of your discord, according to the supplication which we have made concerning peace and unity in this epistle.” (1 Clement 63:2) Hence Clement does not fear to say that the Holy Spirit is speaking through him. Clement continues: ”But if some should be disobedient to the things spoken by him through us, let them know that they will entangle themselves in no small transgression and danger.” (1 Clement 59:1) He concludes by saying he sent three envoys, Claudius Ephebus, Valerius Bito, and Fortunatus “that they may the more quickly bring us news of your peace and order.” (1 Clement 65:1) From other sources, we know that schism was healed by Clement’s actions.

Now it is possible that, since Clement apologized for his late reply, the Church of Corinth had asked him to intervene. However, they could not have just wanted any authoritative person to intervene, because John the apostle was still living. St. John would make much more sense to ask because first, he was an apostle who had known Jesus and second because he lived in Ephesus at that time, much closer to Corinth than Rome was. So it seems that they specifically wanted a successor of Peter.

Generally speaking, no local church would ever have authority over another. The Corinthians, however, held this letter and read it at least seventy years afterward according to Eusebius (Church Histories 4:23:11). In other words, they held it in almost as high esteem as they did Scripture.

St. Irenaeus could not be clearer when he said: “But since it would be too long to enumerate in such a volume as this the succession of all the churches, we shall confound all those who, in whatever manner, whether through self-satisfaction or vainglory, or through blindness and wicked opinion, assemble other than where it is proper, by pointing out here the successions of the bishops of the greatest and most ancient church known to all, founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul, that church which has the tradition and the faith which comes down to us after having been announced to men by the apostles. With that church, because of its superior origin, all the churches must agree, that is, all the faithful in the whole world, and it is in her that the faithful everywhere have maintained the apostolic tradition.” (Against Heresies 3:3:2)

Bonum Certamen Certemus

I am the Catholic of Honor

By The Chivalric Catholic

Hello, I am the Catholic Knight or the Catholic of Honor. I conform all my beliefs to the Magisterium founded by Christ and guided by the Holy Spirit. The short explanation of who I am is a teenager with nostalgia for the Middle Ages. I have a love for apologetics, honor, and literature (especially adventures). I believe it is important and honorable to respect my opponents in this. If anything I write is contrary to the Faith (after all, I have no degrees) please write to me and inform me.

4 replies on “A Patristic Defense of the Primacy of Rome”

This is a very important topic and alot of apologetics will eventually boil down to a conversation on papal authority for a lot of groups like orthodox or even protestants. Or the Orthodox might claim Peter did have a special role over the other Apostles but it was not passed down to his successors. If that route is taken, I think this can be answered by saying that if Judas had his Apostleship replaced Peter’s special role would have been.

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Double down on that, I love Eastern Orthodox debates and stuff alot because they can have very robust reasoning. That is one of the best points you just said. West – unity or at least a way to achieve it – Pope Ecumenical Council. East – Some disintegration on views – no real way of getting it back without a Pope because they cannot agree on how to get an Ecumenical council going and agree on its binding terms.

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