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Christ to Catholicism


III. Tradition of the Roman Primacy

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

Among the criticisms of the Catholic Church in modern times, perhaps the most trenchant was expressed by the German rationalist, Adolph Harnack, in the course of a series of lectures which he gave at the University of Berlin on The Essence of Christianity. “To contend, as Roman Catholicism does, that Christ founded a kingdom and that this kingdom is the Roman Church is to secularize the Gospel. In the early days, Roman Christians shed their blood because they refused to worship Caesar, and rejected religion of the political kind. Today they do not, indeed, actually pray to an earthly ruler, but they have subjected their souls to the despotic orders of the Roman papal king.” [1]

Needless to say, this attitude towards the papacy is the common possession, in greater or lesser degree, of all Christians who are not united with Rome. But behind it is an implication that bears careful scrutiny. It assumes that the present position of the Catholic Church is a usurpation; that somewhere in the dim past the bishops of Rome arrogated powers never received from Christ, and organized a system of government that grew into a despotism of which there is no counterpart in the history of religion.

In order to meet this objection which lies at the root of anti-Catholicism, it is not enough to know that Christ founded a religious society, or that He made Peter its visible head, or even that Peter exercised a special authority over the rising Christian communities. We must see whether the sequence of Christ, Peter and Rome is only a later development and therefore an arrogant pretence, or a historical fact based on authentic evidence and going back to the earliest days of the Church. The endpoint of our investigation will be the middle of the fourth century, after the Council of Nicea, by which time the Roman See was admittedly recognized as the final arbiter in Christendom in matters of faith and morals.

Clement of Rome to the Corinthians

The epistle of Clement I to the Corinthians has been aptly called the Epiphany of the Roman Primacy. Considered in some quarters as one of the inspired books of the New Testament, the full text is still extant as a manuscript of the fifth century, bound in with the famous Codex Alexandrinus of the Bible. Its date and occasion are fixed by the document itself. As the result of a discord in the church of Corinth, a number of presbyters were deprived of their office. When the Church of Rome heard about the schism, it decided to intervene but was forced to delay because of the persecution then raging. During the first interval of peace, however, in the last days of Domitian or about the year 95 A.D., Clement I wrote to the disputing parties in Greece.

As described in a previous context, the theme of Clement’s letter is an appeal to Christian charity by pointing out the tragic consequences of envy in the history of the human race, beginning with Cain who slew his brother Abel and reaching its climax with the Jews who out of envy condemned Jesus Christ to a shameful death on the cross. But the letter, which runs to sixty-five chapters in the Greek text, is more than a panegyric on charity. It is an exposition on the Church’s hierarchy written in apostolic times and therefore a statement of tradition on the institutional character of Christianity. “The Master,” he said, “commanded us to perform the offerings and divine service not haphazardly or without order, but at fixed times and hours. He himself determined where and by what ministers these ought to be carried out. To the High Priest, special functions have been entrusted; to priests their own place has been assigned, the levites have their duty, lay people are bound by precepts peculiar to laity.” Using biblical terminology, Clement elaborates on the stratified authority in the Christian Church and then sets forth the principle which determines whence the authority is derived. “The Apostles were sent to us as messengers of good news by the Lord Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ was sent by God; Christ, therefore, comes from God, and the Apostles from Christ. These two missions come harmoniously from God’s will.”

Finally he comes to the question at issue and in the light of Christ’s teaching decides that the presbyters at Corinth had been unjustly deposed. “Under instructions from Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Apostles went forth to announce the good news of the coming of the kingdom of God.” Preaching through country and cities, “they tested the first fruits by the Holy Spirit and appointed those as bishops and deacons of the future believers.” But Christ anticipated later difficulties and prepared His Church to meet them. “Our Apostles knew from our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be strife concerning the episcopal office. For this reason, in their perfect fore knowledge, they instituted those of whom we have spoken, and then laid down the rule that after their death other approved men should succeed in their ministry. Those who have been thus instituted by the Apostles, or later on by other eminent men, with approbation of the whole Church, and who have served blamelessly the flock of Christ with humility, tranquility and charity, and who have had good testimony born to them for a long time -- and such men, we judge, cannot justly be deposed from their ministry.” [2]

All the evidence indicates that Clement was religiously obeyed and the men reinstated in their dignities. But the significance of this first recorded intervention by the Roman Pontiff transcends its immediate function of pacifying a Christian community. Whether Corinth appealed to Rome or Clement on his own decided to step in does not matter. Although John the Apostle was still alive, it was not John but the Bishop of Rome who intervened. Moreover the distance from Corinth precludes the possibility that Clement had only local jurisdiction over the Greek city. His intervention concerned the settlement of a dispute involving bishops who were at least mediately chosen by the Apostles. Yet he enters without apology, in the full consciousness of a right which the whole argument of his letter declares is derived from Jesus Christ; and he makes a decision to restore peace in a diocese that was bound to him only by the ties of a common faith.

Shortly after Clement wrote his epistle to the Corinthians, the Bishop of Antioch (Ignatius Theophorus) was taken prisoner during the persecution of Trajan and carried by short stages to the city of Rome for execution. While stopping at Smyrna in August, 107, he addressed a memorable letter to the Roman Church in terms that illustrates the correlative side to the exercise of papal authority, namely, the preeminent respect which the Holy See enjoyed in the eyes of the hierarchy at the turn of the first century. “Ignatius,” the martyr introduces himself, “to the Church beloved and enlightened by the will of Him who has willed all things which are according to the love of Jesus Christ, our God, which also has the presidency in the country of the land of the Romans; you are worthy of God, worthy of honor, worthy of blessing, worthy of praise, worthy of success, worthy in holiness, and holding the chief place in the brotherhood.” This presidency was more than merely honorary. Since the Church of Rome had been taught by the very words of Peter and Paul, she had a right to guide others in the ways of the Lord. “You have never deceived anyone; you have taught others. I desire that what you prescribe by your teaching may remain incontested.” [3]

Easter Controversy

During the latter half of the second century, a concerted effort was made to unify the ritual customs of the Church. Differences in external observance might lead to more serious divergence touching on matters of faith. Consequently, when the aged Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, made a voyage to Rome in 154 A.D. to confer with pope Anicetus on a uniform date for Easter, the problem involved was deeper than appears on the surface. Oriental Christians commemorated Easter on the 14th Nisan, whatever the day of the week. The Romans observed it on the Sunday which followed the 14th Nisan. Behind this diversity of dates lay also a diversity of rites and feasts. For the Asiatics Easter meant the day of the Lord’s death. They fasted on that day, even if it fell on a Sunday and broke bread only in the evening, when the solemnity ended with the Eucharist and the agape. Among the Romans, however, three days were devoted to celebrating the memory of the death and Resurrection of Christ, Friday through Sunday; the first two days for mourning and fasting, and the vigil between Saturday and Sunday as a prelude to the Resurrection which they commemorated on Sunday.

Eusebius has left us a record of the touching scene in which Polycarp, a man of more than eighty years and a follower of John the Apostle, conferred with the younger Anicetus in order to reach some agreement. But “Anicetus could not persuade Polycarp to forego the observance of what he had always kept with John, the disciple of our Lord, and with the other Apostles whom he had known. Polycarp, on the other hand, could not persuade Anicetus to follow his practice, for the latter told him he had to remain faithful to the custom of the presbyters who had preceded him.” [4] Although unable to convince Polycarp that he ought to follow the Roman custom, Anicetus showed his good will by allowing the Bishop of Smyrna to celebrate Easter in a church of Rome for the Orientals in that community.

Polycarp died a martyr the following year, and with him passed the principal defender against the Judaizing spirit which had plagued the Eastern churches since the time of the Apostles. Capitalizing on the omission of celebrating the Lord’s Resurrection on Easter Sunday, certain leaders drew the people first into adding Mosaic customs and gradually into substituting them for the Christian ritual. The priest Blastus even succeeded in organizing a schismatic church in the heart of Rome, where the Jewish colony had always been strong.

At this juncture, Pope Victor I (189-199) took concerted action. He requested the holding of provincial synods. Everywhere except in Asia, the bishops “decided that the mystery of the Resurrection of the Savior from the dead should be celebrated on no other day than the Sunday, and that only on that day was the Paschal fast to end.” [5] Eusebius tells us that letters were received from the bishops of Palestine and Pontus, of Edessa, Corinth, Gaul and others. All were unanimous, as were also the bishops resident in Rome. But the Asiatics would not submit. Instead they had Polycrates, Bishop of Ephesus, write an insubordinate letter to Rome declaring they had convoked a synod as requested by Victor but their decision was not to go along with the western tradition regarding East. “We ought to obey God rather than men.” They concluded.

Irritated by their recalcitrance, Victor decided to carry out his threats and excommunicate the Christian communities of all Asia as heretics. Fortunately, however, a number of bishops pleaded for a more conciliatory attitude towards churches that were so venerable and constituted one of the chief centers of Christianity. St. Ireneus, Bishop of Lyons, wrote in the name of his brethren in Gaul and pointed out what a mistake it would be to condemn the Orientals for adhering to an ancient tradition. Better to follow the tolerant attitude of his predecessor, Anicetus, and permit the Easterners to continue as before. In spite of appearances to the contrary, “the differences regarding the fast enhances the unanimity of our faith.” [6]

The pope accepted this prudent advice and refrained from condemning the churches of Asia, judging that the danger from Judaizers was less pressing than the risk of having a large part of Christendom break away from the unity of Rome. Events justified the decision because by the time of the Council of Nicea (325 A.D.) the celebration of Easter on Sunday was accepted by the Asiatic churches, with the exception of a small minority that was generally considered heretical.

Tertullian and Montanism

One of the strangest heresies which the Roman See had to combat began as a movement of religious enthusiasm, similar to the revivals in modern Protestantism. Along with the genuine prophetic spirits that were found in the early Church, there arose pseudo-prophets who claimed to be inspired by the Holy Spirit and presumed to teach the people independently of ecclesiastical authority. Thus a certain Phrygian convert, Montanus, shortly after his baptism received the gift of prophecy and attracted a large following, notably of women, who began to prophesy with him. Before long the Montanists announced a new revelation that went beyond the religion of Christ. At the Last Supper, Jesus foretold the coming of the Paraclete; these promises were now being realized. Montanus was the Paraclete even as Christ was the Son of God, who, according to Montanus, would soon return to earth and found a New Jerusalem. In preparation for the imminent parousia, severe fasting and penance became obligatory; marriage was discouraged or openly denounced; and such moral rigorism was preached that certain grave sins were denied sacramental absolution. At least three grave crimes were declared to be unremissible by the Church and should be left only to the mercy of God, namely, idolatry, murder and adultery. It was this feature of Montanist teaching that evoked a solemn condemnation by the Roman Pontiff and provoked one of the most eloquent diatribes against the papacy that has come down to us from patristic times.

Alarmed by the pretensions of the Montanists and their denial of the Church’s power to remit certain sins, Pope Callistus I issued a statement of protest, declaring the traditional doctrine. By this time the Montanists had attracted to their ranks the great polemic apologist Tertullian who until then had used his undoubted talents in the service of the Church. Now he came out with a treatise against the pope who, he charged, presumed to reconcile fornicators and adulterers against the contrary injunctions of the Scriptures, especially in the Old Law. Tertullian’s work On Modesty is dated about 217 A.D. and to this day remains an arsenal for critics of the Roman Primacy, who find a kindred spirit in this caustic African lawyer.

He opens the attack with a eulogy of Christian modesty which, he says, “has already grown so obsolete that it is not the abjuration but the moderation of the appetites which modesty is believed to be.” More tragic still, this virtue is now suffering violence “and being shaken to its very foundations” by the laxity of the Bishop of Rome. “An edict has been published, and a preemptory one, too. The Pontifex Maximus, that is, the bishop of bishops, has issued a decree. “I remit to such as have ‘done penance, the sins of adultery and fornication.’ O edict that cannot be called ‘approved’! Where shall this liberality be posted up? On the very spot, I suppose, directly where the appetites are indulged. That is the place for publishing such a penance, where the sin itself makes its home. But this decree is read in church and there proclaimed aloud to the people, although the Church is a virgin. Away, away with such displays from the bride of Christ.” [7]

Not satisfied with a rhetorical denunciation, Tertullian challenges the pope’s right to judgment in the internal forum. “You arrogate to yourself that vast power of forgiveness of sins, although what you have is only the duty of maintaining discipline, not the headship of an empire but of a ministry.” The power of the keys conferred upon Peter did not pass on to his successors in the ministry but ‘belongs to spiritual men, whether apostle or prophet,’ like the Montanists who are filled with the Holy Ghost. “The Church, indeed, will forgive sins, but only the Church of the Spirit, through the voice of a spiritual man, not the Church that is merely a collection of bishops.” [8]

Tertullian remained obdurate to his death and died separated from Roman unity, after “wandering,” in the words of St. Augustine, “like a vagabond and outlaw exiled without a mother and without the faith.” [9] His followers of the Spirit-Church soon dwindled in numbers and by the fifth century had only one basilica which they gave up to the Catholics, following their own conversion after a colloquy with Augustine.

The Montanists interlude, therefore, is an unparalleled example of how widely the Roman pontiffs interpreted their primacy, as including not only external questions of discipline but the deepest issues between the Christian souls and God. When Tertullian was faced with the papal manifesto, he had the option either submitting or rationalizing his rebellion. He chose the latter and then resorted to a device which the Reformers in the sixteenth century found useful to explain their breach with Rome, by denying the visible character of the Church of Christ. Tertullian’s subsequent history as an outcast and the general rejection of Montanism as a heretical sect testify that the Bishops of Rome not only professed the primacy but exercised it to bind the conscience of the Christian world. [10]

By contrast with Tertullian who preferred to follow his own willful dreams, a contemporary genius in the East also ran afoul of ecclesiastical authorities but reacted in quite a different way. In 231 A.D., Origen was tried and condemned for insubordination, self-mutilation and heterodoxy by a synod of eastern bishops under the presidency of Demetrius of Alexandria. Universally respected as the greatest Christian teacher and scholar of the day, his condemnation was more than locally important. Other bishops in Asia and Greece immediately protested and made him welcome into their own communions. As a result, Pontianus, the Bishop of Rome, called a synod of his own to review the case and ratified the sentence passed at Alexandria. Shortly after Pontianus died, Origen wrote an explanation and defense to his successor, Pope Fabian, as recorded by St. Jerome. “In the letter which Origen wrote to Fabianus, he professes his penitence for writing such things (as he was accused of saying) and lays the blame of indiscretion on Ambrosius,” a wealthy friend of Origen who provided him with means to write and copyists. [11] Although pursued by his critics to the day of his death--out of envy, we are told--Origen, unlike Tertullian, never questioned papal authority even when it cost him so much. He paid it the tribute of sincere acknowledgment and humble apology.

St. Cyprian and the Rebaptism of Heretics

The defection of Tertullian offers a clear case of resistance to papal authority and consequent lapse into heresy. Less clear and freighted with historical problems still to be solved is the attitude of St. Cyprian, disciple of Tertullian and martyr for the faith in the persecution of Valerian. His ambiguous position prompted Harnack to say that “Cyprian, by his combination of episcopalianism and enthusiasm, became, so to speak, the first Pope, and much time had to elapse before he had a successor.” [12]

Cyprian entered the Church only ten years before his death in 257 A.D. and within two years of his conversion was elected bishop of Carthage in Northern Africa. A professional rhetorician before baptism, he dedicated his talents to preserve the Church’s unity under the double impact of internal jealousy and external persecution. Both factors contributed heavily to his prolific writings; 81 extant letters and several treatises, especially The Unity of the Catholic Church, the first defensive exposition of the indivisible character of Christianity.

At the time of writing, the Church was plagued with two schismatical factions, one in Rome where the priest Novatian made himself anti-pope to St. Cornelius, and the other in Carthage where the deacon Felicissimus was elected Cyprian’s rival in the episcopate. Aware of the danger to souls and the scandal which this produced, Cyprian wrote in all directions, to the pope and anti-pope, to the dissidents and his own people, pleading for unity and describing it in terms of the Roman See. Thus in a letter to Pope Cornelius, he denounced the factious envoys who were sent from Carthage to present their case in Rome. “After all this (perpetrated at home), with a pseudo-bishop besides, ordained for them by heretics, they dare to set sail and carry letters from schismatic and blasphemous persons to the See of Peter, to the leading church, whence the unity of the priesthood took its rise, forgetting that those are the same Romans whose faith was publicly commended by the Apostle and whom perfidy cannot touch.” [13]

These and like statements should be proof enough that Cyprian recognized the Roman Primacy except for a disputed chapter in his treatise De Catholicae Ecclesiae Unitate. Two versions of the chapter have come down to us, with a textual difference that created one of the most celebrated problems of the patristic age. In context, Cyprian is describing how the Enemy leads the unwary into schism “because they do not look back to the origins of (the Christian) realities, because they do not look for their source nor keep to the teaching of their heavenly Master.” The evidence that Christ wanted the Church to be one, he says, “is simple and convincing, being summed up in the fact that the Lord said to Peter: I say to thee that thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church.” He goes on to explain what this means, and here the matter becomes controversial. One set of manuscripts gives a short explanation of about a hundred words, in which the primacy is explicitly affirmed; another gives a longer interpretation where the point is ambiguous, as may be seen from the following parallel selections: [14]

First Version: Although He assigns a like power to all the Apostles, yet He founded a single See, thus establishing by His own authority the source and hallmark of unity. No doubt the others were all that Peter was, but a primacy was given to Peter, in order to show that there is but one Church and one See…If a man does not hold fast to this unity of Peter, does he imagine that he still holds the faith?
Second Version: Although He assigns a like power to all the Apostles after the Resurrection…yet, in order that the unity might be unmistakable, He established by His own authority a source for that unity having its origin in one man alone. No doubt the other Apostles were all that Peter was, endowed with equal dignity and power, but the start comes from him alone, to show that the Church of Christ is one…If a man does not hold fast to this unity of the Church, does he imagine he still holds the faith ?

On examination we see that the first version differs vitally from the second on several points. It specifies that the Church has only one See (Cathedra), that the primacy was given to Peter, that the See of Peter is both the source and hallmark of the Church’s unity, and that adherence to the unity of Peter is essential for the true faith.

What are we to make of the difference? Till fifty years ago, non-Catholic critics simply dismissed the “primacy” text as a fraud. “Singular, hateful, and in its time effective, has been this forgery as a Papal aggression upon history and literature,” was the judgment of the late Edward White Benson, Archbishop of Canterbury. [15] In the meantime, however, years of patient study of the manuscripts reveal that both versions go back to the third century. So that even if the “primacy” text is not the original, the changes were made around the time of St. Cyprian. And the current trend is to attribute the interpolation and the first draft to Cyprian himself; which calls for an explanation that sheds further light on the exercise of papal authority in the Ante-Nicene Church.

During Cyprian’s tenure of office, the question arose of whether heretics who had been baptized with water and in the name of the Trinity, but in their sect, should be rebaptized on entering the Catholic Church. Cyprian and several Councils of Carthage decided on rebaptism. On hearing of the decision, Pope Stephen I sent to Carthage a severe and preemptory letter, declaring that “If any come to us from the heretics, from whatever sect, let there be no innovation, but let only the tradition be followed, by imposing hands on them to receive them to penance,” without repeating baptism. [16] Cyprian was indignant, calling the pope’s decision “foolish and imprudent.” Other African bishops were less restrained. “He who concedes to heretics the baptism of the Church, is he not a Judas towards the Spouse of Christ?” [17] It was at this point that Cyprian is believed to have changed the original draft of the De Unitate, by softening the primacy text in such a way that it could not be used against him in his quarrel with Rome. This is the judgment of many Catholic and protestant scholars. [18] There is no evidence that Cyprian was formally excommunicated. He died a martyr before his conflict with the pope reached its logical climax. In the Council of Arles (314 A.D.), the Roman tradition was upheld and confirmed by Sylvester I, arguing, as did Stephen, that “the majesty of the Name” invoked at every baptism in which the right form is used, carries with it the full sacramental reality. [19]

Christological Heresies

In the closing words of his last epistle, St. Peter had warned the Christians to “be on your guard lest, carried away by the error of the foolish, you fall away from your own steadfastness. But grow in grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.” [20] Faithful to this tradition, the Roman Pontiffs were ever concerned to protect from heretical dilution the Church’s belief in the dual nature of her Founder, who was equal to the Father as God and like to ourselves as man. If they had done nothing else for three centuries than stood firm against those who wished to “separate Christ,” this alone would vindicate their succession to the man who first professed that Jesus of Nazareth was the “Son of the Living God.”

Gnosticism, Ireneus, and Rome. As a form of rationalist speculation, Gnosticism began its attack on Christianity in the apostolic age. By the end of the second century it had grown into a formidable religious movement, with clergy, churches and even scriptures of its own. Twelve of the twenty apocryphal gospels circulating before the year 300 are known to be of Gnostic origin. [21] Its basic errors were an absolute dualism between body and soul, which meant a contempt for the body that led either to immorality or to rigid asceticism; and, as a consequence, a denial of the Incarnation by postulating a temporary union between the divine being and a human person, or even a phantom. Practically all the Christian writers before Nicea refuted these aberrations: Ignatius of Antioch, Justin the Martyr, Hippolytus and Tertullian. But the one outstanding because of his appeal to the Roman tradition was St. Ireneus, Bishop of Lyons and disciple of Polycarp, the follower of St. John the Apostle.

His work, Against the Heretics, written about 180 A.D., is so strikingly clear that the Vatican Council used it as supporting evidence for defining the Roman primacy. [22] After reviewing the Gnostic “hallucinations,” Ireneus concludes they must be heretical because they conflict with the Church’s teachings as concretized in the See of Rome. “We will put to confusion,” he says, “all persons who, whether from waywardness or vainglory or blindness or perversity of mind, combine wrongfully together in any way, by pointing to tradition, derived from the Apostles, of that great and illustrious church founded and organized at Rome by the two glorious Apostles, Peter and Paul, and to the faith declared to mankind and handed down to our own time through its bishops in their succession. With this church, on account of its preeminent authority, every church must be in agreement, that is, the faithful everywhere, among whom the tradition of the Apostles has been continuously preserved by those everywhere.” [23] Even if potentior principalitas is translated “commanding position,” instead of “preeminent authority,” as some Protestants prefer, the substance of this uncompromising testimony is not changed.

Modalism and Tritheism. Allied to the Gnostic errors by its denial of the Incarnation, another school of theorists rationalized the divinity of Christ by explaining the Trinity as only three modes by which God manifests Himself to the world: by His power as the Father, by His wisdom as the Son and by His love as the Holy Spirit. Modalism is a generic name for three heresies that differed in accidentals but advanced the same radical notion about the Trinity. In the West it was known as Sabellianism, after its chief leader, Sabellius; in the East its followers were called Patripassionistis because they believed that the Father suffered on the cross. Tertullian nicknamed them Monarchians, since they professed only one divine principle and ended by saying that Christ was a mere man or that He was true God, but became Incarnate along with the Father.

As in the Gnostic peril so now the orthodox writers stood up in defense of three Persons in One God, of whom only the Second assumed human nature. Among the apologists was Dionysius, Bishop of Alexandria, who was unjustly accused in Rome of holding that the Son of God is not of the same substance as the Father but only a creature. Pope Dionysius (259-268) informed his namesake in Africa of the accusation. The latter immediately replied with a book of Refutation and Defense, protesting against the calumny. But along with his letter to Alexandria, Pope Dionysius published a statement on the Trinity and Incarnation that is of the highest importance in showing the exercise of sovereign teaching authority by the Bishop of Rome, almost a century before the first general council at Nicea.

First he condemns those who in their zeal against Modalism went to the opposite extreme of Tritheism, postulating a triple deity. “I must address myself to those who divide, separate and suppress the most sacred dogma of the Church of God, the Monarchy, teaching three powers, or separate hypotheses, and three divinities. For I have learnt that some of those who are catechists and masters among you, and who are, so to speak, diametrically opposed to the opinion of Sabellius, are introducing this other opinion. His blasphemy consists in saying that the Son is the Father, and vice versa; but they preach that there are in a manner three Gods….This is a diabolical doctrine, and not that of those who are true disciples of Christ.” Then he turns to those who would make of Christ a mere creature. “It is a blasphemy,” he declares, “and not an ordinary but a great one, to say that the Lord is in some way the work of hands; for if He became Son, there was a time when He was not. But He always was, for He is in the Father, as He Himself says, and the Son is Logos and Wisdom and Power--for the divine Scriptures, as you know, say that the Christ is all these--and these are the powers of God.” And he concludes, “It is thus that we safeguard the divine Trinity, and at the same time the holy preaching of the Monarchy.” [24]

Here we see the Bishop of Rome invoked to settle a major doctrinal crisis, assuming jurisdiction over the ancient See of Alexandria and demanding an account from one of the most venerated bishops in the Church. Yet no one thinks of appealing against his judgment.

From Ephesus to the Vatican Council

The history of the Roman primacy after the Council of Nicea is not essentially different than before. But as the Church emerged from the catacombs and the number of her members increased, the exercise of papal authority found a wider scope of action; and, it should be added, the theoretical principles on which it was based became clearer and more explicit with the passage of time. After the Plenary Council of Arles in France (314 A.D.) had condemned the Donatists for holding that the validity of a sacrament depends on the spiritual condition of the minister the delegates to the number of forty-six bishops (including three from Britain) submitted their decrees to Pope Sylvester. “We resolved to write first of all to you,” they said, “that our resolutions should be made known to everyone through you before anyone else.” [25] When the Arian hierarchy, led by Eusebius, intrigued against St. Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, Pope Julius rebuked them for want of deference to the Holy See. “Why was nothing written to us,” he asked, “about the Church of Alexandria especially? Did you not know that the custom was this: to write to us first, and thus from here justice would be determined? Therefore, if any such suspicion fell upon the Bishop of Alexandria, the thing to do was to write to this Church.” [26] At the turn of the fourth century, when a heresy arose in France that questioned the traditional canon of the Scriptures, Pope Innocent I commended the Bishop of Toulouse for inquiring of the Apostolic See and drew up a list of the inspired books of the Bible that have remained unquestioned in the Catholic world ever since. [27]

However the capstone of papal jurisdiction was placed at the Council of Ephesus where the bishops of the universal Church were assembled to condemn Nestorius for teaching that Mary was not the Mother of God. Nestorius had been condemned by Pope Celestine I, after proposing to change the word Theotokos (Mother of God) to Christotokos (Mother of Christ) in the papal formula given him to be signed. He appealed to a General Council, which was convoked at Ephesus in 431 A.D., with St. Cyril of Alexandria presenting the letter of papal condemnation and presiding as legate of the Roman See. Before the sessions began, another legate from Rome read an exhortation to the bishops, bidding them execute the decisions of the Sovereign Pontiff. His statement is a landmark in the history of the primacy. “No one doubts,” he declared, “in fact it is obvious to all ages that the holy and most Blessed Peter, head and prince of the Apostles, the pillar of faith, and the foundation of the Catholic Church, received the keys of the kingdom from our Lord Jesus Christ, the Savior and Redeemer of the human race. Nor does anyone doubt that the power of forgiving and retaining sins was also given to this same Peter who, in his successors, lives and exercises judgment even to this time and forever.” [28]

The bishops then proceeded to condemn the heresiarch in a statement that Bossuet considered one of the most solemn ever spoken by the Church. “Nestorius is convicted,” they pronounced. “Bound by the holy canons and by the letter of our Holy Father Celestine, Bishop of Rome, we are reduced to the cruel necessity of declaring this sentence against him: Our Lord Jesus Christ, whom he blasphemed, decides, through this most holy council, that he is deprived of the episcopal dignity, and cut off from every ecclesiastical body.” [29] In final testimony of their acceptance of papal jurisdiction, they incorporated into the acts of the council the full text of Pope Celestine’s letter as an expression of their own mind and will.

Fifteen hundred years later, the Vatican Council went back to the Council of Ephesus as a witness to the unbroken tradition for the Roman Primacy. Quoting the papal legate at Ephesus that “it is obvious to all ages…,” the Vatican assembly found here the link which binds the evidence of the early Church with the proof of subsequent history that “according to the institution of Christ Our Lord Himself, that is, by divine law, St. Peter has perpetual successors in the primacy over the whole Church,” and “the Roman Pontiff is the successor of St. Peter in the same primacy.” [30]

Chapter III - References

  1. Adolph Harnack, Das Wesen des Christentums, Leipzig, 1933, p. 163-164.

  2. St. Clement, "Epistula ad Corinthios," XL-XLIV, MPG 1, 288-296.

  3. St. Ignatius, "Epistula ad Romanos," I-III, MPG 1, 685-688.

  4. Eusebius, Historia Ecclesiastica, V, 24, MPG 20, 485.

  5. Ibid. 491.

  6. Ibid. 507.

  7. Tertullian, "De Pudicitia," cap. 1, Migne, Patrologia Latina,2980-981.

  8. Ibid., 1026 sqq.

  9. St. Augustine, "De Haeresibus," cap. 86, MPL 42, 46-47.

  10. After his death, the writings of Tertullian were read and utilized, but the name of their author wasnot mentioned. The interdict lasted for a century.

  11. St. Jerome, "Epistola ad Pammachium et Oceanum," num. 84, MPL 22, 751.

  12. Adolph Harnack, "Cyprian als Enthusiast," Zeitschrift fur N.T. Wissenschaft, 1902, p. 186.

  13. St. Cyprian, "Epistula 55: (this is Letter 59 in modern editions), MPL 3, 818.

  14. St. Cyprian, "De Catholicae Ecclesiae Unitate," MPL 4, 513-516.

  15. Edward W. Benson, Cyprian, His Life, His Times, His Work, London, 1897, p.219.

  16. St. Stephen I, quoted by Cyprian, "Epistula 74," MPL 3, 1191.

  17. Therapius a Bulla, "Carthaginense Concilium Sub Cypriano Septimum," MPL 3, 1108.

  18. Among others, Maurice Bevenot, S.J., The Dublin Review, 1954, pp. 161-168, 307-315; and Frederick C. Grant, Twentieth Century Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, article "Cyprian," vol. I, 1955, p. 317.

  19. Denzinger, 53.

  20. II Peter 3:17-18.

  21. Among the more famous are the Gospel of the Egyptians which opposed matrimony, the Gospel of St. Thomas with fantastic miracle tales of Christ's infancy, and the Gospel of Matthew which condemned all bodily pleasures as sinful.

  22. Denzinger, 1824-1825.

  23. St. Ireneus, "Adversus Haereses," Lib. III, cap. 3, num. 2, MPG 7, 848.

  24. St. Dionysius, quoted by St. Athanasius in "De Decretis Nicaenae Synodi,"num. 26, MPG 25, 462-466.

  25. Mansi, Concilium Arelatense I, vol. II, col. 469.

  26. St. Julius I, "Epistula ad Antiochenos," MPL 8, 906A.

  27. Mansi, Vita, Epistolae et Decreta Innocentii Papae I, "Epistola ad Exuperim," vol. III, coll. 1038-1041. Along with the list of canonical writings, the pope identified several apocryphal gospels, declaring "they must not only be repudiated but also condemned."

  28. Mansi, Concilium Ephesinum, "Oratio Philippi Legati Romani Pontificis," vol. IV, col. 1295B.

  29. Ibid., "Sententia Depositionis," col. 1211.

  30. Denzinger, 1824-1825.

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