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Papal authority

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Papal authority

The primacy of the Bishop of Rome is an ecclesiastical doctrine concerning the respect and authority that is due to the Bishop of Rome from other bishops and their sees. Together with the Filioque controversy, differences in interpretation of this doctrine have been and remain the primary causes of schism between the Western and Eastern Orthodox churches.[1] In the Eastern Orthodox Church, some understand the primacy of the Bishop of Rome to be merely one of greater honour, treating him as "primus inter pares" ("first among equals"), without effective power over other churches.[2] Others in the Eastern Church, however, see primacy as power: the expression, manifestation and realization in one bishop of the power of all the bishops and of the unity of the Church.[3] The Roman Catholic Church attributes to the primacy of the Pope "full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered",[4] a power that it attributes also to the entire body of the bishops united with the pope.[5] The power that it attributes to the pope's primatial authority has limitations that are official, legal, dogmatic, and practical,[6][7] and "it is an error to think that every word uttered by the Pope is infallible".[8]

In 2007, representatives of the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church jointly stated that both East and West accept the fact of the Bishop of Rome's primacy at the universal level, but that differences of understanding exist about how the primacy is to be exercised and about its scriptural and theological foundations.[9]

Development of the doctrine

The Roman Catholic Church accepts that "the New Testament texts offer no sufficient basis for papal primacy" and that they contain "no explicit record of a transmission of Peter's leadership".[10] It considers that its doctrine has a developmental history and that its teaching about matters such as the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, and the union of his two natures in a single person developed as the result of drawing out from the original revealed truth consequences that were not obvious at first: "Thanks to the assistance of the Holy Spirit, the understanding of both the realities and the words of the heritage of faith is able to grow in the life of the Church 'through the contemplation and study of believers who ponder these things in their hearts'; it is in particular 'theological research [which] deepens knowledge of revealed truth'".[11] Accordingly, it would be a mistake to expect to find the modern fully developed doctrine of papal primacy in the first centuries, thereby failing to recognize the Church's historical reality.[12] The figure of the pope as leader of the worldwide church developed over time, as the figure of the bishop as leader of the local church seems to have appeared later than in the time of the apostles.[13]

That the Christian scriptures, which contain no cut-and-dried answers to questions such as whether there is forgiveness for post-baptismal sins or whether infants should be baptized, gradually become clearer in the light of events is a view expressed, when considering the doctrine of papal primacy, by Cardinal John Henry Newman, who summed up his thought by saying: "Developments of Christianity are proved to have been in the contemplation of its Divine Author, by an argument parallel to that by which we infer intelligence in the system of the physical world. In whatever sense the need and its supply are a proof of design in the physical creation, in the same do gaps, if the word may be used, which occur in the structure of the original creed of the Church, make it probable that those developments, which grow out of the truths which lie around them, were intended to complete it."[14]

Writers such as Nicholas Afanassieff and Alexander Schmemann have declared that the phrase "presiding in agape", used of the Church of Rome in the letter that Ignatius of Antioch addressed to it in the first years of the 2nd century, contains a definition of that Church's universal primacy;[15] but the Roman Catholic writer Klaus Schatz warns that it would be wrong to read as statements of the developed Roman Catholic teaching on papal primacy this letter and the even earlier First Epistle of Clement (the name of Clement was added only later), in which the Church of Rome intervenes in matters of the Church of Corinth, admonishing it in authoritative tones, even speaking in the name of God.[16] It was only later that the expression of Saint Ignatius could be interpreted as meaning, as agreed by representatives of both the Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox Churches, that "Rome, as the Church that 'presides in love' according to the phrase of St Ignatius of Antioch (To the Romans, Prologue), occupied the first place in the taxis, and that the bishop of Rome was therefore the protos among the patriarchs".[17] The same agreement stated:

In the history of the East and of the West, at least until the ninth century, a series of prerogatives was recognised, always in the context of conciliarity, according to the conditions of the times, for the protos or kephale at each of the established ecclesiastical levels: locally, for the bishop as protos of his diocese with regard to his presbyters and people; regionally, for the protos of each metropolis with regard to the bishops of his province, and for the protos of each of the five patriarchates, with regard to the metropolitans of each circumscription; and universally, for the bishop of Rome as protos among the patriarchs. This distinction of levels does not diminish the sacramental equality of every bishop or the catholicity of each local Church.[18]

Basis of claims to primacy

Peter and Paul

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).[19] 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.[20] This claim to primacy may have been accepted in Italy, but was not so readily accepted in the rest of the West.

Primacy of Peter the apostle

Because of its association with the supposed position of Peter among the Apostles, the function that within the Roman Catholic Church is exercised by the Bishop of Rome among the Bishops as a whole is referred to as the Petrine function, and is generally believed to be of divine institution, in the sense that the historical and sociological factors that influenced its development are seen as guided by the Holy Spirit. Not all Roman Catholic theologians see a special providential providence as responsible for the result, but most see the papacy, regardless of its origin, as now essential to the Church's structure.[21]

The presence of Peter in Rome, not explicitly affirmed in but consistent with the New Testament, is explicitly affirmed by Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Irenaeus of Lyon and other early Christian writers, and no other city has ever claimed to be the place of his death.[22][23] The same witnesses imply that Peter was the virtual founder of the Church of Rome,[22] though not its founder in the sense of initiating a Christian community there.[24] They also speak of Peter as the one who initiated its episcopal succession,[22] but speak of Linus as the first "bishop", while it is commonly held today that the Christians in Rome did not act a single united community under a single leader until some time in the 2nd century.[24]

Classic Roman Catholic tradition maintained that the universal primacy of the bishop of Rome was divinely instituted by Jesus Christ. This was derived from the Petrine texts, and from the gospel accounts of Matthew (16:17‑19), Luke (22:32) and John (21:15‑17) according to the Roman tradition, they all refer not simply to the historical Peter, but to his successors to the end of time. Today, scriptural scholars of all traditions agree that we can discern in the New Testament an early tradition which attributes a special position to Peter among Christ's twelve apostles. The Church built its identity on them as witnesses, and responsibility for pastoral leadership was not restricted to Peter. In Matthew 16:19, Peter is explicitly commissioned to "bind and loose"; later, in Matthew 18:18, Christ directly promises all the disciples that they will do the same. Similarly, the foundation upon which the Church is built is related to Peter in Matthew 16:16, and to the whole apostolic body elsewhere in the New Testament (cf. Eph. 2:10).[25]

Role of Paul in the founding of the Church of Rome

Irenaeus of Lyon (AD 189) believed that Peter and Paul had been the founders of the Church in Rome and had appointed Pope Linus to the office of the episcopate, the beginning of the Apostolic succession of the Roman see.[26] Although the introduction of Christianity was not due to them, "the arrival, ministries and especially the martyrdoms of Peter and Paul were the seminal events which really constituted the Church of Rome. It was from their time, and not before, that an orderly and meetly ordained succession of Bishops originated."[27]

Historical development

Main article: Historical development of the doctrine of Papal Primacy

While the doctrine of the primacy of the Bishop of Rome, in the form in which it is upheld today in the Roman Catholic Church, developed over the course of centuries often in reaction to challenges made against exercises of authority by popes, writers both of East and West declare that from a very early period the Church of Rome was looked to as the centre of reference for the whole Church. Thus Alexander Schmemann wrote:

It is impossible to deny that, even before the appearance of local primacies, the Church from the first days of her existence possessed an ecumenical center of unity and agreement. In the apostolic and Judeo-Christian period, it was the Church of Jerusalem, and later the Church of Rome – presiding in agape, according to St. Ignatius of Antioch. This formula and the definition of the universal primacy contained in it have been aptly analyzed by Fr Afanassieff and we need not repeat his argument here. Neither can we quote here all testimonies of the fathers and the councils unanimously acknowledging Rome as the senior church and the center of ecumenical agreement. It is only for the sake of biased polemics that one can ignore these testimonies, their consensus and significance."[15]

In the West, Ludwig Ott wrote:

The doctrine of the primacy of the Roman Bishops, like other Church teachings and instructions, has gone through a development. Thus the establishment of the primacy recorded in the Gospels has been gradually more clearly recognized and its implications developed. Clear recognition of the consciousness of the Primacy of the Roman Bishops, and of the recognition of the Primacy by the other churches appear at the end of the 1st century…St. Ignatius elevated the Roman community over all the communities using in his epistle a solemn form of address. Twice he says of it that it is the presiding community, which expresses a relationship of superiority and inferiority.[28]

In later times, theories of various kinds were advanced, most notably that of an analogy with the position of Saint Peter among the twelve Apostles, to explain the fact of this generally recognized presiding or primatial position of the Church of Rome. The Church of Rome also appealed to it as justification for certain actions that it took in relation to other Churches, actions that often met with resistance.

Ante-Nicene period

Rome's role as arbiter

Nicholas Afanassieff writes:

This passage in Irenaeus [from Against Heresies 3:4:1] illuminates the meaning of his remarks about the Church of Rome: if there are disputes in a local church, that church should have recourse to the Roman Church, for there is contained the Tradition which is preserved by all the churches. Rome's vocation [in the pre-Nicene period] consisted in playing the part of arbiter, settling contentious issues by witnessing to the truth or falsity of whatever doctrine was put before them. Rome was truly the centre where all converged if they wanted their doctrine to be accepted by the conscience of the Church. They could not count upon success except on one condition -- that the Church of Rome had received their doctrine -- and refusal from Rome predetermined the attitude the other churches would adopt. There are numerous cases of this recourse to Rome...[29]

Quartodeciman controversy

Main article: Quartodecimanism

Towards the end of the 2nd century, Victor, a bishop of Rome, attempted to resolve the Quartodeciman controversy by excommunicating churches in the Roman province of Asia. This incident is cited by some Orthodox Christians as the first example of overreaching by the Bishop of Rome and resistance of such by Eastern churches. Laurent Cleenewerck suggests that this could be argued to be the first fissure between the Eastern and Western churches.[30]

The Quartodeciman controversy arose because Christians in the Roman province of Asia (Western Anatolia) celebrated Easter at the spring full moon, like the Jewish Passover, while the churches in the rest of the world observed the practice of celebrating it on the following Sunday ("the day of the resurrection of our Saviour")[31]

In 155, Anicetus, Bishop of Rome presided over a church council at Rome that was attended by a number of bishops including Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna. Although the council failed to reach agreement on the issue, ecclesiastical communion was preserved.[32] A generation later, synods of bishops in Palestine, Pontus and Osrhoene in the east, and in Rome and Gaul in the west, unanimously declared that the celebration should be exclusively on Sunday.[31] In 193, Victor, Bishop of Rome, presided over a council in Rome and subsequently sent a letter about the matter to Polycrates of Ephesus and the churches of the Roman province of Asia.[32] In the same year, Polycrates presided over a council at Ephesus attended by several bishops throughout that province, which rejected Victor's authority and kept the province's paschal tradition.[32] Thereupon, Victor attempted to cut off Polycrates and the others who took this stance from the common unity, but later reversed his decision after bishops that included Saint Irenaeus, Bishop of Lugdunum in Gaul, interceded, recommending that Victor adopt the more tolerant stance of his predecessor, Anicetus.[33][34]

Despite Victor's failure to carry out his intent to excommunicate the Asian churches, many Catholic apologists point to this episode as evidence of papal primacy and authority in the early Church, citing the fact that none of the bishops challenged his right to excommunicate but rather questioned the wisdom and charity of doing so.[30] Orthodox apologists argue that Victor had to relent in the end and note that the Eastern Churches never granted Victor presidency over anything other than the Church of Rome.[35] Cleenewerck points out that Eusebius of Caesarea simply refers to Victor one of the "rulers of the Churches", not the ruler of a yet unknown or unformed 'universal Church.'[30] Ultimately, the Quartodeciman controversy not resolved by papal authority; it was only finally resolved by an ecumenical council, the First Council of Nicaea .[35]

The rejection of Bishop Anicetus' position on the Quartodeciman, by Polycarp and later Polycrates' letter to Pope Victor I has been used by Orthodox theologians as proof against the argument that the Churches in Asia Minor accepted papal primacy or the teaching of papal supremacy.[35]

Stephen I

The first bishop to claim primacy in writing was Pope Stephen I (254-257).[36] The timing of the claim is significant, for it was made during the worst of the tumults of the third century. There were several persecutions during this century which hit the Church of Rome hard; Stephen himself and his immediate successor Pope Sixtus II were martyred. Cyprian of Carthage(d.258) stressed the Petrine primacy as well as the unity of the Church and the importance of being in communion with the bishops.[37] For him, "the Bishop of Rome is the direct heir of Peter, whereas the others are heirs only indirectly", and he insisted that "the Church of Rome is the root and matrix of the Catholic Church".[38] Pope Damasus I (366-384) was the first pope to claim that the primacy of the Church of Rome rested on Peter alone, and the first to refer to the Roman church as "the Apostolic See" (the see of the Apostle Peter). To uphold its primacy, the prestige of the city itself was no longer sufficient, but in the doctrine of apostolic succession (from Peter) the popes had an unassailable position.[39]

After the Edict of Milan

After the Edict of Milan granted Christianity legal status, Emperor Constantine the Great enriched the Church of Rome with large buildings such as the Lateran Basilica and Lateran Palace and the Basilica of Saint Peter, and with endowments.[40] The First Council of Nicaea gave approval to a church arrangement whereby the bishops of an imperial province were headed by the bishop (known as the "metropolitan") of the principal city.[41] This added to the power of the bishops of important cities.


The bishops of Rome sent letters which, though largely ineffectual, provided historical precedents which were subsequently used by supporters of papal primacy. These letters were known as ‘decretals’ from at least the time of Siricius (384-399) to Leo I provided general guidelines to follow which later would become incorporated into canon law.[42]

Bishop of Rome becomes "Rector of the whole Church"

The power of the Bishop of Rome increased as the power of the Emperors gradually diminshed and the imperial authorities tried to bolster their waning power with religious support. Edicts of the Emperor Theodosius II and of Valentinian III proclaimed the Roman bishop as "Rector of the whole Church".[43] The Emperor Justinian, who was living in the East in Constantinople, in the 6th century published a similar decree. These proclamations did not create the office of the pope.

First Council of Constantinople and its context

The event that is often considered to have been the first conflict between Rome and Constantinople was triggered by the elevation of the see of Constantinople to a position of honour, second only to Rome on the grounds that, as capital of the eastern Roman empire, it was now the "New Rome". This was promulgated by the third canon of the First Council of Constantinople (381) which decreed: "The Bishop of Constantinople, however, shall have the prerogative of honour after the Bishop of Rome because Constantinople is New Rome."[44] It has been asserted by many that a synod held by Pope Damasus I in the following year 382 protested against this raising of the bishop of the new imperial capital, just fifty years old, to a status higher than that of the bishops of Alexandria and Antioch, and stated that the primacy of the Roman see was established by no gathering of bishops but by Christ himself.[45][note 1] Thomas Shahan says that, according to Photius too, Pope Damasus approved the council, but he adds that, if any part of the council were approved by this pope, it could have been only its revision of the Nicene Creed, as was the case also when Gregory the Great recognized it as one of the four general councils, but only in its dogmatic utterances.[47] In Roman Catholic doctrine no council, regardless of who summoned it or who presided over it, is ecumenical unless it is confirmed or at least recognized as such by the pope.[48]

The increasing involvement of Eastern emperors in church matters and the advancement of the see of Constantinopolis over the sees of Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem led successive bishops of Rome to attempt a sharper definition of their ecclesial position vis-a-vis the other bishops.Pope Gelasius (492-496) stated:

"The see of blessed Peter the Apostle has the right to unbind what has been bound by sentences of any pontiffs whatever, in that it has the right to judge the whole church. Neither is it lawful for anyone to judge its judgment, seeing that canons have willed that it might be appealed to from any part of the world, but that no one may be allowed to appeal from it."[53]

Relationship with bishops of other cities

Rome was not the only city that could claim a special role in Christ's Church. Jerusalem had the prestige of being the city of Christ's death and resurrection, and an important church council was held there in the 1st century. Antioch was the place where Jesus' followers were first called "Christians" {7} (as well as "Catholic")[54] and, with Alexandria, was an important early center of Christian thought. It is important to note, however, that the three main apostolic sees of the early Church (i.e. Antioch, Alexandria, and Rome) were directly related to Peter. Prior to holding the position of Bishop of Rome, Peter was the Bishop of Antioch. And his disciple, St. Mark the Evangelist, founded the church in Alexandria. Constantinople became highly important after Constantine moved his capital there in 330 AD.

As early as the 2nd century, the bishop of Rome began to claim his supremacy over all other bishops, and some church fathers also made this claim for him.

Leo I

The doctrine of the sedes apostolica (apostolic see) asserts that every bishop of Rome, as Peter’s successor, possesses the full authority granted to this position and that this power is inviolable on the grounds that it was established by God himself and so not bound to any individual. Pope Leo I (440-461), with the aid of Roman law, solidified this doctrine by making the bishop of Rome the legal heir of Peter. Leo argued that the apostle Peter continued to speak to the Christian community through his successors as bishop of Rome.[55]

From Gregory I to Clement V

The historical and juridical development of the "primacy of the Roman Pontiff" from Pope Gregory I (590-604) to Pope Clement V (1305–1314) was a dogmatic evolution in fidelity of the depositum fidei (deposit of faith).[56]

Council of Reims (1049)

The Council of Reims, called by Pope Leo IX in 1049, adopted a dogmatic declaration about the primacy of the Roman Pontiff as Successor of Peter: "declaratum est quod solus Romanae sedis pontifex universalis Ecclesiae Primas esset et Apostolicus" (literal translation is "it was declared that only the bishop/pontiff of the see of Rome is the primate of the universal Church and apostolic").[57]

East-West Schism

Main article: East-West Schism

The dispute about the authority of Roman bishops reached a climax in the year 1054,[58] when the legate of Pope Leo IX excommunicated Patriarch of Constantinople Michael I Cerularius. The pope had, however, died before the legate issued this excommunication, depriving the legate of its authority and thereby rendering the excommunication technically invalid. Similarly, a ceremony of excommunication of the pope then performed by Michael I was equally invalid, as one cannot be posthumously excommunicated. This event resulted in the schism of the Greek-rite and Latin-rite Churches.[59] It did not have the effect of excommunicating the adherents of the respective Churches. however, as the tit-for-tat excommunications, even had they been valid, would have applied to the named persons only.

Post-schism period

Second Council of Lyon

Pope Gregory X convoked the Second Council of Lyon (1274) to act on a pledge by Byzantine emperor Michael VIII to reunite the Eastern church with the West.[60] Wishing to end the Great Schism that divided Rome and Constantinople, Gregory X had sent an embassy to Michael VIII Palaeologus, who had reconquered Constantinople, putting an end to the remnants of the Latin Empire in the East.

On 29 June (the Feast of Peter & Paul, the patronal feast of popes), Gregory X celebrated a Mass in St John's Church, where both sides took part. The council declared that the Roman church possessed “the supreme and full primacy and authority over the universal Catholic Church.”

The council was seemingly a success, but did not provide a lasting solution to the schism; the Emperor was anxious to heal the schism, but the Eastern clergy proved to be obstinate. Patriarch Joseph of Constantinople abdicated, and was replaced by John Bekkos, a convert to the cause of union. In spite of a sustained campaign by Bekkos to defend the union intellectually, and vigorous and brutal repression of opponents by Michael, the vast majority of Byzantine Christians remained implacably opposed to union with the Latin "heretics". Michael's death in December 1282 put an end to the union of Lyon. His son and successor Andronicus II repudiated the union, and Bekkos was forced to abdicate, being eventually exiled and imprisoned until his death in 1297. He is to this day reviled by many in the Eastern Church as a traitor to Orthodoxy. Thus the primacy of the Pope remains an issue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches.


The primacy of the Roman Pontiff was again challenged in 1517 when Martin Luther began preaching against several practices in the Catholic Church, including some itinerant friars' abuses involving indulgences. When Pope Leo X refused to support Luther’s position, Luther claimed belief in an "invisible church" and called the pope the Antichrist.

Luther’s rejection of the primacy of the Roman Pontiff led to the start of the Protestant Reformation, during which numerous Protestant sects broke away from the Roman Catholic Church. The Anglican Church also broke away from the Catholic Church at this time, although for reasons different than Martin Luther and the Protestants.

First Vatican Council

The doctrine of papal primacy was further developed in 1870 at the First Vatican Council, where ultramontanism achieved victory over conciliarism with the pronouncement of papal infallibility (the ability of the pope to define dogmas free from error ex cathedra) and of papal supremacy, i.e., supreme, full, immediate, and universal ordinary jurisdiction of the pope.

The most substantial body of defined doctrine on the subject is found in Pastor aeternus, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Christ of Vatican Council I. This document declares that “in the disposition of God the Roman church holds the preeminence of ordinary power over all the other churches.” This council also affirmed the dogma of papal infallibility, deciding that the “infallibility” of the Christian community extended to the pope himself, at least when speaking on matters of faith.

Vatican I defined a twofold Primacy of Peter — one in papal teaching on faith and morals (the charism of infallibility), and the other a primacy of jurisdiction involving government and discipline of the Church — submission to both being necessary to Catholic faith and salvation.[61]

Vatican I rejected the ideas that papal decrees have "no force or value unless confirmed by an order of the secular power" and that the pope’s decisions can be appealed to an ecumenical council "as to an authority higher than the Roman Pontiff."

Paul Collins argues that "(the doctrine of papal primacy as formulated by the First Vatican Council) has led to the exercise of untrammelled papal power and has become a major stumbling block in ecumenical relationships with the Orthodox (who consider the definition to be heresy) and Protestants."[62]

Forced to break off prematurely by secular political developments in 1870, Vatican I left behind it a somewhat unbalanced ecclesiology. "In theology the question of papal primacy was so much in the foreground that the Church appeared essentially as a centrally directed institution which one was dogged in defending but which only encountered one externally,"[63]

Second Vatican Council

At the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965) the debate on papal primacy and authority re-emerged, and in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium, the Roman Catholic Church's teaching on the authority of the pope, bishops and councils was further elaborated. Vatican II sought to correct the unbalanced ecclesiology left behind by Vatican I. The result is the body of teaching about the papacy and episcopacy contained in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium.

Vatican II reaffirmed everything Vatican I taught about papal primacy and infallibility, but it added important points about bishops. Bishops, it says, are not "vicars of the Roman Pontiff." Rather, in governing their local churches they are "vicars and legates of Christ".[64] Together, they form a body, a "college," whose head is the pope. This episcopal college is responsible for the well-being of the Universal Church. Here in a nutshell are the basic elements of the Council’s much-discussed communio ecclesiology, which affirms the importance of local churches and the doctrine of collegiality.

In a key passage about collegiality, Vatican II teaches: "The order of bishops is the successor to the college of the apostles in their role as teachers and pastors, and in it the apostolic college is perpetuated. Together with their head, the Supreme Pontiff, and never apart from him, they have supreme and full authority over the Universal Church; but this power cannot be exercised without the agreement of the Roman Pontiff".[65] Much of the present discussion of papal primacy is concerned with exploring the implications of this passage.

21st century

Relation with other Christian denominations

In the document Responses to some questions regarding certain aspects of the doctrine on the Church of 29 June 2007 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith reiterated that, in the view of the Roman Catholic Church, the Christian communities born out of the Protestant Reformation and which lack apostolic succession in the sacrament of orders are not "Churches" in the proper sense. The Eastern Christian Church that are not in communion with Rome, such as the Eastern Orthodox Church, Oriental Orthodoxy and the Assyrian Church of the East, are Churches in the proper sense and sister Churches of the Catholic particular Churches, but since communion with the Roman Pontiff is one of the internal constitutive principles of a particular Church, they lack something in their condition, while on the other hand the existing division means that the fullness of universality that is proper to the Church governed by the successor of St Peter and the bishops in communion with him is not now realised in history.[66]

Efforts at reconciliation

Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission

The Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) statement of Venice (1976) states that the ministry of the bishop of Rome among his brother bishops was "interpreted" as Christ's will for his Church; its Importance was compared "by analogy" to the position of Peter among the apostles.

Unlike many other Churches of the Reformation, the Anglican Church has never abandoned a possible role for the Roman primacy, so long as the ministry of the Bishop of Rome is rightly understood, interpreted, and implemented. The ministry of the Bishop of Rome should not be an obstacle, but rather should function as a possible instrument of ultimate Christian unity. Orthodox Anglicanism today acknowledges that the ministry of the papacy is evolving rapidly and could someday be received by the Anglican Church as means tending toward the reconciliation of all Churches. A de facto recognition of the historic papal ministry already exists within the Anglican Communion, which has consistently maintained throughout her history that the Roman Pontiff possesses a station of primus inter pares, ‘first amongst equals,’ a primacy of honour and reverence, though not of jurisdiction or personal infallibility.[67]

"Communion with the bishop of Rome does not imply submission to an authority which would stifle the distinctive features of the local churches. The purpose of the episcopal function of the bishop of Rome is to promote Christian fellowship in faithfulness to the teaching of the apostles."[68]

Joint worship service with the Archbishop of Canterbury

At a joint service during the first official visit of the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, to the Vatican, Runcie appealed to Anglicans to consider accepting papal primacy in a reunified church. At the same time, Pope John Paul II stressed that his office must be more than a figurehead.[69]

Ut Unum Sint

In Ut Unum Sint, John Paul II asked the ‘pastors and theologians’ of ‘our Churches’ – i.e., the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church – to come up with suggestions about how the primacy could be exercised in ways that would unite rather than divide.[70]

Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue

In October 2007, the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue, a joint commission of Orthodox and Catholic theologians, agreed that the pope has primacy among all bishops of the Church, something which has been universally acknowledged by both churches since the First Council of Constantinople in 381 (when they were still one Church) though disagreements about the extent of his authority still continue.

The document "draws an analogy among the three levels of communion: local, regional, and universal, each of which appropriately has a 'first' with the role of fostering communion, in order to ground the rationale of why the universal level must also have a primacy. It articulates the principle that primacy and conciliarity are interdependent and mutually necessary."[71] Speaking of "fraternal relations between bishops" during the first millennium, it states that "these relations, among the bishops themselves, between the bishops and their respective protoi (firsts), and also among the protoi themselves in the canonical order (taxis) witnessed by the ancient Church, nourished and consolidated ecclesial communion. It notes that both sides agree "that Rome, as the church that 'presides in love' according to the phrase of St Ignatius of Antioch, occupied the first place in the taxis (order) and that the bishop of Rome was, therefore, the protos (first) among the patriarchs. They disagree, however, on the interpretation of the historical evidence from this era regarding the prerogatives of the bishop of Rome as protos, a matter that was already understood in different ways in the first millennium";[72] and "while the fact of primacy at the universal level is accepted by both East and West, there are differences of understanding with regard to the manner in which it is to be exercised, and also with regard to its scriptural and theological foundations".[73][74]

Discussions continued in Aghios Nikolaos, Crete (a drafting committee) in September–October 2008, Paphos, Cyprus in October 2009[75] and Vienna, Austria in September 2010.[76] Igumen Filipp Ryabykh, the deputy head of the MP Department for External Church Relations said

"The fact that the Pope of Rome claims universal jurisdiction is simply contrary to Orthodox ecclesiology, which teaches that the Orthodox Church, whilst preserving unity of faith and church order, nevertheless consists of several [autocephalous] Local Churches"[77]
The meeting in Cyprus of a joint drafting committee produced a historical account of "The Role of the Bishop of Rome in the Communion of the Church in the First Millennium",[78] which the Vienna meeting asked to be revised and amplified. This document states that "Catholics and Orthodox agree that, from apostolic times, the Church of Rome has been recognised as the first among the local Churches, both in the East and in the West."[79] Both sides agree that "the primacy of the see precedes the primacy of its bishops and is the source of the latter".[80] While in the West, "the position of the bishop of Rome among the bishops was understood in terms of the position of Peter among the apostles ... the East tended rather to understand each bishop as the successor of all the apostles, including Peter"; but these rather different understandings "co-existed for several centuries until the end of the first millennium, without causing a break of communion".[81]

Opposition to the doctrine

Stephen Ray asserts that "There is little in the history of the Church that has been more heatedly contested than the primacy of Peter and the See of Rome. History is replete with examples of authority spurned, and the history of the Church is no different."[82]

The doctrines of papal primacy and papal supremacy are perhaps the greatest obstacles to ecumenical efforts between the Roman Catholic Church and the other Christian churches. Most Eastern Orthodox Christians, for example, would be quite willing to accord the Bishop of Rome the same respect, deference and authority as is accorded to any Eastern Orthodox patriarch, but resist granting him special authority over all Christians. Many Protestants are quite willing to grant the pope a position of special moral leadership, feel that according to the pope any more formal authority than that would conflict with the Protestant principle of solus Christus, i.e., that there can be no intermediaries between a Christian and God except for Christ.

Protestant view

The topic of the Papacy and its authority is among the main differences between the Catholic Church and many other Christian denominations. The Bible is considered to be the sole authority on Christian doctrine and theology, and that interpretation does not lie solely with one individual (sola scriptura).

It is argued that Matthew 16:18-19 does not support the authority given to Peter and that the keys were given not to Peter alone but to the whole church. Some consider that Jesus was considering the proclamation made by Peter to be the rock and foundation of the faith.[83] Others say that even if Peter is the "rock", it does not support exclusive authority[84] and Peter himself believed Jesus to be the cornerstone of the church (1 Peter 2:7). It is noted that at the Council of Jerusalem James the Just and the Apostle Peter contribute to the decision of the council (Acts 15).

Orthodox view

Main article: Eastern Orthodox opposition to the doctrine of Papal Primacy

The Orthodox church considers the Bishop of Rome to be the primus inter pares ("first among equals").

However, in

It has been argued that Church councils did not consider papal decisions binding. The Third Ecumenical Council was called, even though Pope Celestine I condemned Nestorius as a heretic which Whelton argues shows that the council did not consider the papal condemnation as definitive.[95][96]

Opposition arguments from early church history

  • The church at Rome was founded (or organised) by both Peter and Paul. As no particular charism or primacy attaches to Paul, then it is not from his co-foundation of the church of Rome that the Roman Pontiff claims primacy.
  • As many Sees are of Peter, Peter serves as an archetype of Apostle.
  • Rome had primacy, but it was one of honour, rather than power.
  • Rome is an Apostolic throne, not the Apostolic throne.
  • Each bishop has the right to decide affairs within his local church. In the event of a dispute with another bishop, only a general council may rule on the matter.
  • Church Fathers do not refer to another tier above bishop.
  • Cases which had been decided by Rome were appealed to bishops in other metropolitan areas
  • Cases which had been decided by Rome were appealed to synods of bishops in other metropolitan areas
  • Peter founded many Episcopal sees. There is no difference between the Sees of Peter; all are equal.
  • The Apostles were equal; nothing was withheld from any of the Apostles.
  • The Roman Pontiff is also styled "universal bishop" (Latin: Summus Pontifex Ecclesiae Universalis), but a previous pope condemned the use of such a title by any bishop.
  • Rome (Old Rome) and Constantinople (New Rome) were on the same level.
  • Eastern patriarchs have regarded popes as the leader of the westerners (not of the whole church).
  • Faced with exile, John Chrysostom - the Archbishop of Constantinople - wrote an appeal for help to three western churchmen. While one of these was the bishop of Rome, had Rome exercised primacy at that time, he would not have written to the other two bishops.
  • Ignatius of Antioch notes in his letters to the other Christian churches of the Mediterranean that bishops and presbyters were only representatives of apostles, and could not act as apostles themselves "as Peter and Paul did", despite the fact that Peter founded the church in Antioch as well as in Rome and appointed Ignatius to that position.

Opposition arguments from Church Councils

  • Not one Ecumenical Council was called by a pope; all were called by Byzantine emperors, All the heresies refuted by the councils emerged in the east as well. Had the teaching of primacy formed part of Holy Tradition, then such power would have been exercised to resolve the many disputes in the early history of the church, And however most of the councils were sent to Rome for the approval of the pope.
  • A general council may overrule decisions of the Roman Pontiff
  • Decisions taken by popes in cases involving against bishops have often been confirmed by ecumenical councils. This indicates that the papal decision itself is not considered binding.

Disagreement with papal directives by Westerners

Disagreements with directives of the popes by groups and high-ranking individuals of Roman Catholic tradition are by no means limited to past centuries. A well-known continuing example is that of the Society of St. Pius X, which acknowledges the primacy of the pope[97] but refuses to accept papal decrees concerning the liturgy, decrees that were opposed also by two cardinals of the Church (see Ottaviani Intervention). In 2005 the Roman Catholic Jesuit Professor John J. Paris disregarded a papal directive on euthanasia as lacking authority.[98] In 2012, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, 60 prominent Catholic theologians put out an official Declaration stating that the papacy at present is overstepping its authority.[99]

Opposition arguments from orthodox doctrine

Catholic Cardinal and theologian Yves Congar stated

"The East never accepted the regular jurisdiction of Rome, nor did it submit to the judgment of Western bishops. Its appeals to Rome for help were not connected with a recognition of the principle of Roman jurisdiction but were based on the view that Rome had the same truth, the same good. The East jealously protected its autonomous way of life. Rome intervened to safeguard the observation of legal rules, to maintain the orthodoxy of faith and to ensure communion between the two parts of the church, the Roman see representing and personifying the West...In according Rome a ‘primacy of honour’, the East avoided basing this primacy on the succession and the still living presence of the apostle Peter. A modus vivendi was achieved which lasted, albeit with crises, down to the middle of the eleventh century."[100]

Orthodox understanding of Catholicity

The test of catholicity is adherence to the authority of Scripture and then by the Holy Tradition of the church. It is not defined by adherence to any particular See. It is the position of the Orthodox Church that it has never accepted the pope as de jure leader of the entire church. All bishops are equal 'as Peter' therefore every church under every bishop (consecrated in apostolic succession) is fully complete (the original meaning of catholic).

Referring to Ignatius of Antioch[101] Carlton says

"Contrary to popular opinion, the word catholic does not mean "universal"; it means "whole, complete, lacking nothing." ...Thus , to confess the Church to be catholic is to say that She possesses the fullness of the Christian faith. To say, however, that Orthodox and Rome constitute two lungs of the same Church is to deny that either Church separately is catholic in any meaningful sense of the term. This is not only contrary to the teaching of Orthodoxy, it is flatly contrary to the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, which considered itself truly catholic"[102]

The church is in the image of the Trinity[103] and reflects the reality of the incarnation.

"The body of Christ must always be equal with itself…The local church which manifests the body of Christ cannot be subsumed into any larger organisation or collectivity which makes it more catholic and more in unity, for the simple reason that the principle of total catholicity and total unity is already intrinsic to it."[104]

Any changes to the understanding of the church would reflect a change in the understanding of the Trinity.

Orthodox rebuttal of Catholic arguments

It is the position of Orthodox Christianity that Roman Catholic arguments in support of the teaching have relied on proofs from Fathers that have either been misinterpreted or so taken out of context as to misrepresent their true intent. It is the position of Orthodox Christianity that a closer examination of those supposed supports would have the effect of either not supporting the argument or have the opposite effect of supporting the counter-argument.

See also

References and notes




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  • Carlton, C., (1999) The Truth: What Every Roman Catholic Should Know about the Orthodox Church, (Regina Orthodox Press; Salisbury, MA).
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  • Webster, W. (1995), The Church of Rome at the Bar of History, (The Banner of Truth Trust; Edinburgh).
  • Whelton, M., (2006) Popes and Patriarchs: An Orthodox Perspective on Roman Catholic Claims, (Concillar Press; Ben Lomond, CA).
  • Whelton, M., (1998) Two Paths: Papal Monarchy - Collegial Tradition, (Regina Orthodox Press; Salisbury, MA).

External links

  • Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, "The Primacy of the Successor of Peter in the Mystery of the Church"
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  • Rise of the Papacy -


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