The network of the communio, as we have seen it in Christian antiquity, appears at first to allow for no church to be subordinate or superior to any other church. In fact, in certain circumstances, each bishop could presume to express the will of the universal Church. Each bishop could excommunicate any other bishop and thereby separate him from universal communion. Within the communio all are equal. No one has rights or powers which the others do not possess in the same degree. At first sight, therefore, the system of communio seems to exclude any special prerogative for the see of Rome.
At the end of the second century we can observe the initial formation of metropolitan groupings among the bishops of the same civil province. The first traces of this are the synods that Victor of Rome called just before A.D. 200 in an attempt to settle the controversy over the celebration of Easter. On this occasion the future metropolitan sees made their appearance in some regions. By the fourth century, organized ecclesiastical provinces, as they were later called, were fully developed.
Historical studies treating this development, up to the institution of the patriarchates, invariably lead to the negative conclusion that the primacy of the Roman church was not a product of this process of organization. It was not the case that the hierarchy of the Church grew up like a pyramid, with the bishop of Rome at the apex over bishops, metropolitans, primates, and patriarchs. On the contrary, the overdevelopment of the metropolitan system actually obscured , for a while and to some extent, the prerogatives of the Roman see. Nonetheless, at least from the fifth or sixth century onward, these Roman prerogatives are an undeniable fact. Since they did not arise out of the metropolitan organizations, we must look elsewhere for their origin.
Was it actually true that the primitive conception of ecclesial communio left no place for the Roman primacy? We shall see that the ancient communio not only had a place for the Roman primacy, but that such a system itself led to the primacy of Rome by logical necessity. For a bishop to show that he belonged to the communio of the Church, it was sufficient for him to be in communion with any other church of the communio. In a passage quoted above, Optatus of Milevis said, “If you have one of them, then through that one you are in communion with the other angels [bishops] and through the angels with the churches, . . . and through the churches with us” [The Donatist Schism, II, 6. PL 11,959]. Therefore it was sufficient if one was in communion with the bishop of Gubbio, or Calama, or Cyzicus; for if one of them belonged to the universal communion, through him one would be in communion with the whole Church. But if it became doubtful whether the bishop of Cyzicus belonged to the communio; communion with him was no longer of value. The bishop of Cyzicus must first show that he really belonged to the communion of the whole Church. From this we see the practical need of a criterion by which one could discover whether an individual bishop belonged to the communio or not.
The simplest criterion was that of a large number of bishops. If one were in communion with hundreds of other bishops all over the world, then one’s communion would be genuine, even if an individual bishop might refuse to grant communion. This impressive and easily understood criterion was often used, especially among the Greeks. St. Athanasius, St. Basil, and others, often reel off names from across the whole Roman Empire to show that they are in the true communio of the Church. No one asked precisely how many constituted a majority, since it was not a question of counting heads but simply of showing that one had an overwhelming majority.
Another criterion was union with the ancient churches founded by the apostles themselves. This criterion was often applied in Africa against the Donatists. Since there were several hundred Donatist bishops in Africa in the fifth century, the criterion of the overwhelming majority was not so impressive. Augustine therefore challenged the Donatists to direct their reproaches not just against the bishop of Carthage or of Rome, “but also against the churches of Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, Thessalonica, Colossae, and Philippi, to whom as you know, the Apostle Paul wrote; or against the church of Jerusalem where the Apostle James was the first bishop; or against that of Antioch, where the disciples were first called Christians.” [Against Cresconius, II, 37, 46. PL 43, 494]
Such a criterion had already been employed by earlier ecclesiastical writers against Gnostics and other early heretics, when the issue was less the unity of the Church than the inviolate character of the deposit of faith. Thus Irenaeus said, “When differences arise in any question, must we not have recourse to the most ancient churches where the apostles lived and learn from them a sure answer to the question at issue?” [Adversus Hereses, III, 4, 1. PG 7, 855]. And Tertullian wrote:
It is clear that all teaching agreeing with that of the apostolic churches, from which the faith took its origin as from a mother, is to be judged true. For there can be no doubt that these churches received it from the apostles, the apostles from Christ, and Christ from God . . . We are in communion with the apostolic churches and our teaching must differ in no way from theirs. That is the testimony of truth. [The Prescription of Heretics, 21. PL 2, 38]
Such criteria were easily applicable in situations where a certain amount of information and agreement was shared by both sides. In such cases there was no need of recourse to an ultimate criterion and no need to explain just how a particular church over which there was no dispute had come to belong within the communio. But when such an ultimate explanation was given, one inevitably came to speak of communion with Rome.
Optatus wrote about the Roman bishopric, “Siricius succeeded Damasus and is now our colleague. Through him the whole world is one with us in the same communio through exchange of letters of communion” [The Donatist Schism, II, 3. PL 11, 949]. Optatus speaks here of the commercium formatorum … to make clear to the Donatists through this institution that the decisive list of bishops is the one kept by the Roman church. A church in communion with Rome is in communion with the whole Catholic Church. In principle, of course, this would be said of any rightful church as Optatus himself said in the passage we cited about the “angels” of the churches. To prove membership in the universal communio, it was enough for a particular church to show it was in communion with some other church that in its turn was in communion with the others. This, of course, could begin a chain of demonstration – but this ended with communio with Rome. When Optatus wrote that through the church of Rome he was in communion with the whole world, he knew quite well that not a few churches were then not in communion with Rome. Still, he spoke of “the whole world.” Communio with Rome was simply the communion and a church not sharing that communion was simply not acknowledged.
St. Augustine, in describing the time of Cyprian a century and a half earlier, wrote:
[Carthage] had a bishop of no small authority, who had no need to fear having a great number of enemies, because he knew he was linked by letters of communion both with the Roman church, where the authority (principatus) of the Apostolic See always flourished, and with the other lands, from which the gospel had come to Africa. [Letter 42, 3, 7. PL 33, 163]
The same notion was expressed by Pope Boniface I (418–422), a contemporary of Augustine:
The structure (institutio) of the universal Church took its origin from the honor given to Peter. All rule in the Church consists in this, that from Peter, as from a fountainhead, the discipline of the whole Church has been derived as this church grows and expands … It is certain that this church is related to the churches spread over the whole world as the head to its members. Whoever cuts himself off from this church places himself outside the Christian religion, since he no longer remains part of its structure. I hear that certain bishops want to set aside the apostolic constitution of the Church and are attempting to introduce innovations against Christ’s own commands. They seek to separate themselves from communion with the Apostolic See, or, more precisely, from its authority! [Letter 14, 1. PL 20, 777]
The Protestant historian E. Caspar called this passage the first concise statement of a vision of church structure and development showing the characteristic papal stamp. But, in fact, the idea that the Roman church was the head of the communio was widely held at this time and is much older than the beginning of the fifth century.
In the year 381, St. Ambrose urged the Emperors Gratian and Valentinian to take steps “that the Roman church, the head of the whole Roman world and the sacred apostolic faith, be not disturbed, since from it there goes forth to all the others the rights of the treasured communio.” [Letter 11, 4. PL 16, 986]
After a long journey eastward, St. Jerome wrote to Pope Damasus:
I address the successor of the fisherman and of the disciple of the cross. I want to follow no one but Christ and therefore I am united in communion with your Holiness, that is, with the see of Peter. I know that the Church is built on this rock. Whoever eats of the Lamb outside this house commits sacrilege. [Letter 15, 2. PL 22, 355]
And he continues,
Having migrated because of my sins to this wilderness on the border between Syria and lands outside civilization I am not. able to receive the holy body of the Lord from your Holiness. I attach myself here to your colleagues, the Egyptian confessors … I have not met Vitalis, I reject Meletius, and I know nothing of Paulinus. He who does not gather with you, scatters; he who does not belong to Christ, belongs to the Antichrist. [ibid.]
Jerome refers here to the schism then dividing the patriarchate of Antioch, in which he was living. He knew he was obliged to decide in favor of one of the three competing bishops, but he did not know how to resolve the problem of their conflicting claims. Therefore he simply affirms that he is in communion with Rome, which is the ultimate point at question.
These testimonies are clearly earlier than the time of Boniface I, but still from the fourth century. We have no need to suppose, however, that this conception emerged during this century. It was just as clear for Cyprian in the third century, who wrote to Pope Cornelius shortly after the latter’s election that he was striving “to bring all our colleagues to recognize and hold to you and your communion, that is, to the unity and charity of the Catholic Church” [Letter 48, 3. CSEL III/2, 607]. Here communio with the Roman bishop is identical with belonging to the Catholic Church. This identification (communicationem tuam id est catholicae ecclesiae unitatem) could not be made so simply regarding any other church, not even Alexandria or Carthage, even though Cyprian was well aware of the important place Carthage – and he himself as its bishop – occupied in the whole Church.
On another occasion Cyprian wrote to the same Cornelius with reference to the African schismatics: “Worst of all, they have elected a pseudo-bishop from among the heretics and they dare to set sail [for Rome] to approach the chair of Peter and the primary church from which is born (exorta est) the unity of the priesthood. They dare to bring this church letters from schismatics and sacrilegious people, not reflecting that even the Apostle Paul praised the faith of the Romans, among whom unbelief can make no entry” [Letter 59, 14. CSEL III/2, 683]. When Cyprian speaks of the unitas sacerdotalis, he means the community of bishops, the communio episcoporum, which originates from Rome. He cannot have meant this historically, since Rome was not the first missionary center. Historically, the Church began from Jerusalem. Cyprian’s exorta est must therefore be a present perfect referring to the once-for-all and ever renewed origin from Rome of the communio linking the bishops. Rome is thus the focal point of the communio, not as the geographical center but as the center of its power and legitimacy.
The same conception emerges from Tertullian’s account of the Montanists’ separation from the Church. According to him, the decisive moment came when the bishop of Rome, under the influence of Praxeas, revoked the letters of communion that had been issued and perhaps already sent to the churches of Asia and Phrygia [Against Praxeas, 1. PL 2, 178]. Tertullian’s account may have been historically inaccurate, but the main thing, the principle, is clear: membership in the Church stands or falls through communion with Rome.
This is the principalitas of the Roman church spoken of by Irenaeus even before Tertullian. “With this church because of its special preeminence, all the other churches must agree.” [Adversus Hereses, III, 3, 2. PG 7, 849]. Obviously, the literal text here (ad hanc ecclesiam convenire) does not mean that all ought to go to Rome, but that they should be in accord with Rome, or – as we would now say – that they must be in communion with Rome. Perhaps Irenaeus’ original Greek text had koinonein where the Latin reads convenire. Granted that Irenaeus is speaking here of agreement in faith; still, this is itself one aspect of ecclesial communio. In any case, the meaning of the passage remains the same: Rome is the central church – or the center of the Church.
We can also interpret in exactly the same sense the much-discussed words written by Ignatius of Antioch, the disciple of the apostles, about seventy years before Irenaeus. He called the church at Rome, “the one presiding in charity” [“Prokathemene tes agapes,” Epistle to the Romans, I. The Apostolic Fathers 1, 120]. Some see here a metaphor which likens the Roman church to a bishop who presides at the celebration of the love feast, the agape of the early Church. Others would translate it as “president of the brotherhood of love.” To us it seems more likely that agape is here simply a synonym for koinonia or communio. We saw how the language of early Christianity often joined communio, koinonia, pax, eirene, and agape in combination or used them interchangeably as synonyms. Thus Ignatius could well be referring to the same preeminence of the church at Rome that for Irenaeus was the normative focus of unity. Ignatius sees the Roman church presiding over the communio as the head and the center of its sacramental unity.
Even the pagans knew that a true Christian was one in communion with the bishop of Rome. When Paul of Samosata, bishop of Antioch, was deposed by a synod for heresy, he refused submission and would not hand over the church and the bishop’s house to the new bishop. The case came before Emperor Aurelian (270-273) and, as Eusebius wrote, “He decided the case quite correctly, decreeing that the house was to be handed over to the one who receives letters from the head of the Christian religion in Italy and the bishop of Rome” [Ecclesiastical History, VII, 30. PG 20, 720].
The fact that Eusebius calls this decision “quite correct” is evidence for his understanding of the Church. This text is of special value since elsewhere in Eusebius there is practically no indication of how he conceived the Roman primacy. He frequently speaks of the bishops of Rome and even records the whole line of Roman episcopal succession, but the general impression is that he regarded Rome as
simply one of the principal churches – no different from Antioch or Jerusalem. But the text on the emperor’s decision raises the issue of the ultimate criterion of membership in the communio. Even though Antioch was an apostolic church and was in fact older than Rome, Eusebius says that it is “quite correct” to base the decision on communion with Rome.
When Athanasius was deposed by the Synod of Tyre in 355, he traveled to Rome to have Pope Julius confirm his communion with the Roman church. Bishop Marcellus of Ancyra did the same when he was deposed about the same time. Athanasius related that Julius and the bishops united with him “judged in our favor the question of the communio and bond of charity” [Apology Against the Arians, 20. PG 25 , 281]. The verb used here (kuroun) refers to an authoritative confirmation. One could speak of Athanasius’ action as the lodging of an appeal. But it is not precisely as if he went from one tribunal where he had lost his case to a higher court in search of an overruling. Instead, he wanted to have declared before the whole world that he was in communion with Rome and therefore that no one could convict him of crime. The verdict of the Synod of Tyre was not simply overruled, but was shown to be be impossible and ineffective from the start, which is something much more than a successful appeal to a higher court.
Especially the Christians of the eastern part of thee Empire repeatedly emphasized their communion with Rome. Only this explains the remarkable convergence of eastern teachers of every kind in Rome, which is noticeable even in the second century. The list begins with Marcion, Cerdon, Valentinus, Heracleon, and other early Gnostics. Then came Hegesippus, Justin, and Tatian, who were succeeded by the elder and the younger Theodotus and their followers. Still later there were Proclus and Praxeas, and finally Origen himself. This point has been made often and there is no need to expand on it once again here. Some of these teachers came to Rome for purposes of study. Like Hegesippus and Origen, they wished to become familiar with the apostolic tradition of the Roman church. But most of them wanted to teach in Rome, even though the Christian community of Rome was not particularly favorable
terrain for the complicated lectures and often exotic ideas propounded by these visitors from the East. Rome’s attraction was simply that of the center of Christianity. Communio with Rome was for them of such great value that some, like Marcion and Valentinus, made strenuous efforts to maintain it in spite of repeated measures taken against them.
To be continued …