Primacy of the Roman Pontiff

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The primacy of the Roman pontiff is the monarchical authority of the bishop of Rome, from the Holy See, over the several Churches that compose the Catholic Church in the Latin and Eastern Rites. It is also termed "papal primacy", [1] "primacy of Peter", [2] or "Roman primacy"; [3] one might encounter "Peter in primacy over the universal Church," [4] "Successor of Peter", [5] and other related expressions. The Eastern Orthodox churches consider that the Bishop of Rome has a primacy of honor that, since the East-West Schism, is no longer in force.


Hierarchical church in first centuries

The Didache, dating from A.D. 70140 [6], [7], states "Appoint for yourselves therefore bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord" (§15). Saint Clement, Pope [8], d. A.D. 101, wrote about the order with which Jesus commanded the affairs of the Church be conducted. The liturgies are "to be celebrated, and not carelessly nor in disorder," and the selection of persons was also "by His supreme will determined" (see Letter of Clement to the Corinthians, ch. 40). Clement emphasized that the relationship between God, Jesus, the apostles, and the orders given to the apostles, are "made in an orderly way". Jurgens states that Clement cites Isaiah 60:17 which in some translations includes "I will make thy visitation peace, and thy overseers justice" (emphasis added). In chapter 43 of the cited "Letter" Clement refers to the way "rivalry ... concerning the priesthood" was resolved by or through Moses, and in chapter 44, that likewise, the apostles "gave instructions, that when these should fall asleep, other approved men should succeed them in their ministry." St. Ignatius of Antioch [9], d. A.D. 107, spoke in "praise of unity" in a Letter to the Ephesians, saying "He, therefore, that does not assemble with the Church, has even by this manifested his pride, and condemned himself. For it is written, 'God resisteth the proud.' Let us be careful, then, not to set ourselves in opposition to the bishop, in order that we may be subject to God" (§5). Stressing the relationship between the Church initiated by Jesus and the hierarchy set in motion by the apostles, Ignatius writes: "we should look upon the bishop even as we would upon the Lord Himself" (§6). Ignatius stresses the hierarchical relationship between God and the bishop more strongly to the Magnesians urging them "to yield him all reverence, having respect to the power of God the Father, ... submitting to him, or rather not to him, but to the Father of Jesus Christ, the bishop of us all" (§3). In §6 he exhorts them to harmony, and in §13 urges them to "[s]tudy ... to be established in the doctrines of the Lord and the apostles, ... with your most admirable bishop...." Thus Ignatius emphasizes unity, obedience, and the hierarchical relationship among the faithful and between the bishop and God. Further elements of the hierarchical relationship are mentioned by St. Clement of Alexandria [10] d. A.D. 217, referring to advice in the "holy books: some for presbyters, some for bishops and deacons" (Jurgens §413), and writing treatises with titles "On the Unity and Excellence of the Church" and "On the Offices of Bishops, Presbyters, Deacons, and Widows." In his Stromateis Clement of Alexandria writes that "according to my opinion, the grades here in the Church, of bishops, presbyters, deacons, are imitations of the angelic glory, and of that economy which, the Scriptures say, awaits those who, following the footsteps of the apostles, have lived in perfection of righteousness according to the Gospel" (Ch. 13). Other references can be adduced to show that earliest belief held that the Church is hierarchical.

Church held to be monarchical

Monarchical means having the nature of a monarch, i.e. "status or power comparable to" "a sole and absolute ruler of a state" (OED). Pope St. Cornelius [11] d. A.D. 253, gave a detailed accounting of the structure of the Church at the time he was pope, and enquired in a seemingly rhetorical way, "[He], then, did not know that there must be one bishop in the Catholic Church. Yet he was not unaware — how could he be? — that in it there are ..." and thence follows the accounting (Denziger §45, Jurgens §546a). This came about because Novatian had made himself antipope; Cornelius was emphasizing the need for recognition of one bishop, one head of the Church. [12] St. Cyprian of Carthage [13] d. A.D. 258 spoke of "one God and one Christ, and one Church, and one Chair founded on Peter by the word of the Lord.... Whoever has gathered elsewhere is scattering" (Jurgens §573). St. Optatus [14] d. A.D. 385, who opposed the Donatists, clearly believed in a "Chair of Peter", calling it a gift of the Church and saying, as summarized by Henry Wace, that "Parmenian must be aware that the episcopal chair was conferred from the beginning on Peter, the chief of the apostles, that unity might be preserved among the rest and no one apostle set up a rival." [15] "You cannot deny that you are aware that in the city of Rome the episcopal chair was given first to Peter; the chair in which Peter sat, the same who was head — that is why he is also called Cephas — of all the Apostles; the one chair in which unity is maintained by all. Neither do other Apostles proceed individually on their own; and anyone who would set up another chair in opposition to that single chair would, by that very fact, be a schismatic and a sinner" (Jurgens §1242). Other references can be adduced to show that earliest belief held that the Church is monarchical.

Unity of government in matters of faith. Unified government is an element of monarchical rule. St. Hegesippus [16] (d. ca. A.D. 180) traced the succession of bishops from St. Peter, stating that "in the case of every succession, and in every city, the state of affairs is in accordance with the teaching of the Law and of the Prophets and of the Lord..." [17], thus associating the succession of bishops with correct teaching. He went on to note that "Thebulis it was who, displeased because he was not made bishop, first began to corrupt her by stealth.... Each of these leaders in his own private and distinct capacity brought in his own private opinion. From these have come false Christs, false prophets, false apostles — men who have split up the one Church into parts through their corrupting doctrines, uttered in disparagement of God and of His Christ...." Very early belief associated succession with truth, rupture with non-succession, and error with both rupture and non-succession. St. Irenaeus of Lyons [18] d. A.D. 202 emphasizes the relationship between faith, government, and harmony, writing that "the Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it. She also believes these points [of doctrine] just as if she had but one soul, and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them, and teaches them, and hands them down, with perfect harmony, as if she possessed only one mouth." Against Heresies, Bk. I, Ch. 10, §2. He also emphasizes the use of the traditional understanding of the apostles to resolve conflicts: "Suppose there arise a dispute relative to some important question among us, should we not have recourse to the most ancient Churches with which the apostles held constant intercourse, and learn from them what is certain and clear in regard to the present question?" (ibid., Bk 3, Ch. 4, §1). Irenaeus warns that God "shall also judge those who give rise to schisms, ... and who look to their own special advantage rather than to the unity of the Church; ... [f]or no reformation of so great importance can be effected by them, as will compensate for the mischief arising from their schism." (ibid., Bk. 4, Ch. 33, §7). St. Cyprian of Carthage in A.D. 252 directly equated Pope St. "Cornelius, our colleague" with the Catholic Church: "...that I should forward to Cornelius, our colleague, a copy of your letter, so that he might ... know immediately that you are in communion with him, that is, with the Catholic Church" (Jurgens §574a).

Primacy of Peter the apostle

Main article: Primacy of Simon Peter.

Early belief in the Church is that Jesus granted Peter jurisdiction over the Church. Focusing on an example of Peter's astuteness, St. Clement of Alexandria, [19] in "Who is the Rich man that is Saved", writes of "the blessed Peter, the chosen, the pre-eminent, the first of the disciples, for whom alone and Himself the Saviour paid tribute, [who] quickly seized and comprehended the saying" (Ch. 21), referring to Mk 10:28. Tertullian, [20] while examining Scriptural teachings, legal precedents, and dogma surrounding monogamy and marriage (post A.D. 213), says of Peter, "Monogamist I am led to presume him by consideration of the Church, which, built upon him..." ("On Monogamy", Ch. 8): his certainty that the Church is built especially upon Peter is such that he simply refers to it in the context of another discussion. In a slightly later text (A.D. 220) "On Modesty", Tertullian writes at length about the significance of Matthew 16:18-19, "On this rock I will build my Church" and similar, emphasizing the singular, not plural, right, and condemning "wholly changing the manifest intention of the Lord, conferring (as that intention did) this (gift) personally upon Peter" (Ch. 21). Origen (ca. A.D. 232) wrote also of "Peter, upon whom is built the Church of Christ" (Jurgens §479a). St. Cyprian of Carthage [21] prepared an essay discussing, inter alia, Mt. 16:18-19, titled "On the Unity of the Church" (A.D. 251) in which he strongly associates primacy, unity, the authority of Jesus, and Peter: "On him He builds the Church, and to him He gives the command to feed the sheep; and although He assigns a like power to all the Apostles, yet He founded a single chair, and He established by His own authority a source and an intrinsic reason for that unity" (Jurgens §555-6). Jurgens gives Cyprian as an example of "Papal Primacy being 'implicit' in the early Church."

Future expansions: How papal primacy was used over time, and how different ecclesial communions and faiths regard the doctrine. And more.

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