The fact that the Roman church held in some sense a privileged position in the early centuries is rarely contested today. In any case, it was the first see (prima sedes). Thus, the real question is what this undeniable primacy meant and how it is related to the later forms of papal primacy. So far we have sought to understand this primacy as the focal point of the communio. Before we tackle the question of the connection between this and the later papal primacy, we should examine briefly other elements in the early Church that could have led to the early emergence of Rome’s preeminence.
One totally inadequate explanation is that the Roman primacy emerged from a chain of literary documents as proposed in the work of Erich Caspar. In his reconstruction, the first step was Tertullian’s phrase “every church which is akin to Peter” (omnem ecclesiam Petri propinquam), [On Purity, 21. PL 2, 1079] by which the church of Rome was for the first time set in relation to Peter the Apostle. Cyprian then took the next step and was the first to designate the Roman see as chair of Peter [Letter 59, 14. CSEL III/2, 683]. He also applied the text of Matthew 16:18 for the first time to the church of Rome. Pope Stephen, in a stroke of genius, took over Cyprian ‘s deduction and in the baptismal controversy turned Cyprian’s weapon against him. Caspar claims to find this documented in the letter of Firmilian, in which Firmilian is supposedly bewildered by the unexpected turn of events [See Firmilian’s letter, given among the letters of St. Cyprian, Letter 75, 17. CSEL III/2, 821]. Although the rest of Christendom took no note of these maneuvers, Caspar sees these literary texts as responsible for firmly establishing the doctrine of the Roman primacy in the Church.
This explanation, however, is totaIly implausible. In an important critique of Caspar, Karl Adam pointedly observed:
The great question which repeatedly arises with regard to Caspar’s work is whether strict historical method allows the isolation of the earliest extant witnesses and defenders unreflected but very living faith in the Roman pnmacy. In this way, the first written evidence becomes not merely the theological interpretation of the faith, but actually the sole creator of the Church’s doctrine of the primacy. Thus the doctrine itself comes to be presented as a merely literary product.
In the Church, as elsewhere, theoretical formulations usually follow facts and events. Institutionalization is not the result of argumentation. Furthermore, in the Church it has always been extremely difficult to introduce radically new ideas without immediately arousing protests from all sides.
Another, historically far more plausible, explanation is that which derives the privileged position of Rome within the Church from the eminence of the city as capital of the Empire. The civil importance of a city was, from the beginning, a significant factor contributing to the prestige and significance of its episcopal see. But the fact that Rome was the imperial capital only explains why Rome was chosen as the center of the Church instead of Jerusalem, the original center, or some other city such as Antioch. Who made this choice, and who planned the transfer from Jerusalem to Rome, whether the apostles, or Peter and Paul, or Peter alone, is not important here. The point would simply be that the center was established at Rome consciously and deliberately because Rome was the capital, and not as the result of blind evolution. Institutions do not ordinarily just develop, but are deliberately created.
If the special position of the bishop of Rome, however, had simply developed from the fact that Rome was the capital city, his eminence would have been of a different
kind. In this hypothesis, the bishop of Rome would have become a miniature emperor and the administrative element would have been prominent in his government of the Church. But in Christian antiquity there is no trace of a central administration conducting ecclesiastical affairs. The early popes were not heads of a bureaucracy, as the emperors had become.
Also, the prestige of th e bishops of Constantinople, from the fourth century on, was due in part to the fact that Constantinople had become the imperial capital. But their
position in the universal Church was notably different from that of the bishop of Rome. In Constantinople the bishop was the head and apex of the pyramid of ecclesiastical hierarchy, just as the emperor was over the civil hierarchy. But the bishop of Constantinople was never considered to be the focal point and source of vitality in the sacramental unity of the communio.
Finally, the personal element always played a subordinate role in the history of the Roman primacy. One has to trace the list of the popes down to St. Leo the Great (died 461) before a really towering figure emerges. None of the Roman bishops can really be compared with their contemporaries in the episcopate like Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp, Irenaeus, Cyprian, Dionysius of Alexandria Athanasius, Basil, John Chrysostom, or Augustine.
Therefore, if we are to give any explanation of the historical phenomenon of Rome’s preeminence in the early Church, there is nothing left but to affirm that it was rooted in the nature of the Church itself. In some way the privileged position of the Apostle Peter, and his function as the rock, must have passed to the bishops of Rome. This is the one hypothesis that makes intelligible how the church of Rome became the focal point in the communio, from which “the rights of the treasured communio” (Ambrose) go forth into all the other churches.
The more the historical data forces us to recognize the actual preeminence of the bishop of Rome among the other bishops of the early Church, the more surprising it is that this very fundamental aspect of the Church was so little discussed by the earliest theological writers. If we consult the traditional pre-Nicene texts witnessing to the Roman primacy, we find texts speaking of Peter, of his sojourn in Rome, and of his martyrdom; the list of the popes compiled by Irenaeus; historical notes on the Easter controversy; and Hippolytus’ words about Callistus. In all this, however, there is no theoretical discussion of the pnmacy of the Roman bishop. The only writing that even treats the theology of the Church is Cyprian’s work, The Unity of the Catholic Church.
This treatise speaks exte nsively of the primacy of Peter and the unity of the Church is traced to Peter’s function as the rock. But the bishop of Rome is never mentioned. One inevitably asks how it was possible for a theologian to write even so short a treatise on the Catholic Church without once mentioning the pope. C. A. Kellner long ago pointed out that Cyprian’s work is a polemical treatise dealing primarily with the Novatian schism. In a time of controversy over just who was the legitimate pope, Cyprian could hardly use communion with the pope as the touchstone of the legitimacy of the other bishops. Even if this were an adequate solution, our question remains unanswered. How was it that for centuries no theologian made a clear and unmistakable statement that the bishop of Rome was the true and rightful head of the whole Catholic Church?
The scholarly Nicholas Cardinal Marini did exhaustive research on the doctrine of the primacy in the thought of St. John Chrysostom and came to the conclusion that Chrysostom undoubtedly taught a true primacy of the Apostle Peter. But in no place does Chrysostom state that this primacy passed on to specific successors. Chrysostom does not deny this, and from his premises one can easily conclude that this must be the case. Chrysostom himself, however, does not draw this conclusion. The one passage that might possibly refer to the primacy comes in his treatise on the priesthood: “Why did Christ shed his blood? To redeem the flock which he entrusted to Peter and to his successors” [The Priesthood, II, 1. PG 48, 632]. But the successors or, as Chrysostom puts it, those “after him,” could be all the bishops. He does not say that they are the Roman bishops.
How was such a thing possible at the end of the fourth century, when the claims of the Roman bishop to a primacy – and the actual exercise of some kind of primacy – were well known? How could one writing at this time and even remotely dealing with Peter and the question of jurisdiction in the Church pass over this fundamental question in silence? Chrysostom, it seems, could hardly avoid taking some kind of stand either for or against it.
In resolving this question we must guard against the error into which so many historians fall. In fact, those who speak most of development often seem least capable of imagining any stage in theological history short of that of complete development.
What occurred here in the theology of the primacy can be observed as well in almost all areas of Catholic doctrine. Individual elements of a truth can be clearly traced back to the remotest times, but we see that it took long centuries for these elements to be brought together and formulated in propositions and abstract theses. Theological elaboration of the traditional faith was carried on very unevenly. The earliest theology dealt almost exclusively with trinitarian and christological doctrine. In the fourth century questions were raised about original sin, the redemption, and grace. Argument and speculation followed, and the result was a new formulation of these saving truths. A still longer time elapsed before a theology of the sacraments developed. In Christian antiquity and in the early Middle Ages, baptism, penance, the Eucharist, and holy orders played an important part in the lives of Christians, but these rites did not even bear the collective name “sacraments.” We can trace belief in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist back to the earliest times, but a thousand years went by before the concept of transubstantiation was forged. Theological reflection on the nature of the Church , on its teaching office and organization, developed still later; parts of it came only at the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century. Nonetheless, during this whole era there was a living Church that was organized and actually teaching. This Church, furthermore, was an object of faith, as we know from the creeds that affirm among their fundamental articles “the one, holy, and apostolic Church.”
Therefore we should not be surprised that we do not possess a theological treatise on “The Church and the Primacy” from the third or even the sixth or ninth century. Neither do we have a treatise entitled “Sacramental Principles.” The whole theological framework for such a treatise on the Church was missing. This does not mean, though, that the individual elements were not known or believed. If we did possess a list of commonly held ecclesiological theses from the second or third century, it would look something like the following:
- There is only one true Church and outside it one cannot be saved.
- The principal characteristic by which the true Church is recognized is the unity of the communio.
- By Christ’s command, Peter was the head of the apostles and the unity of the Church originates from him.
- The deposit of faith is in later times preserved intact in the churches founded by the apostles, especially in the church of Rome.
- The present bishop of Rome is the successor of the Apostle Peter.
- Communio with the church of Rome is decisive for membership in the Church.
These theses, however, would not have been linked together or even considered to be integral parts of a theological treatise or system. The last two especially would not have been understood as theological propositions, but simply as statements of fact. The conclusion Catholics would naturally draw from these premises – that the Roman bishop has a primacy of teaching and jurisdiction over the whole Church – was not discussed as a theological question and so was never contested on this level. Our conclusion is that the elements of the later theology of the primacy and of its later exercise were present in the earliest years of the Church, but as dispersed fragments upon which one simply did not reflect. Therefore they were not linked in a theological system – which was exactly the situation in most of the other areas of theological teaching at that time.
Here there need be no argument from silence. There is silence about a systematic theological structure but not about the individual elements that are the foundation of the later structure. Neither is there silence about the application of these elements to the practical life of the Church.
To be continued …