Anyone who has dealt with the ancient sources would probably agree with our description of the communio and the position of Rome as its focal point. But the real question is still to be asked, and it is here that opinions differ sharply. Is this central position of the Roman bishops in the Church in fact an earlier form of the papal primacy as later understood in canon law and dogma? Is it not at most a germ from which in the course of time the later primacy could grow? Or is it not like a tree onto which so many alien branches have been grafted that it comes to bear fruits not anticipated in the original seed? St. Ambrose affirms that “the rights of the treasured communio” flowed forth from the Roman church to all the other churches. Let us grant that this was a common opinion. We know that the bishop of Rome, Damasus, had at that time a lively correspondence with the other churches. Jerome related that while he was in Rome Damasus commissioned him to answer questions posed by both eastern and western synods. But can one really say that Damasus was ruling the whole Church in the manner of later popes?
Let us once more recall the premises. The early Church did not consist merely of a collection of bishops sharing the same attitudes. It was not just the arithmetical sum of all believers, but a multitude firmly bound together by the tie of a sacramental-juridical communio. Strictly speaking, this communio is what constitutes the Una Sancta, the one and holy Church. The focal paint of the communio is the church of Rome along with its bishop. But since the communio is a sacramental-juridical structure, its center and focal point has a truly sacral authority. One excluded from the communio by the Roman bishop is no longer a member of the Church, and one whom he admits to communion becomes thereby a member of the Church. Each local bishop can also grant or refuse communio, but only so far as he speaks for the universal Church. Therefore he himself must be in communion with the Church ultimately with the Roman church at the center of the communio. The bishop of Rome, however, does not need to derive his power from his communion with others, since he is himself the originating source of the whole. This is precisely what is meant by the fullness of papal power. It is exactly what our Lord conferred on Peter, when he used the completely apt metaphor of the keys of the kingdom of heaven.
Paradoxical as it may seem, the basic function of the pope in the Church is not his performance of certain official actions, but simply that he be present. Although we hear often of the bark guided by Peter at the helm, Christ’s own image was of another kind, when he spoke of the rock on which the Church is built. Here it is the pope who gives the Church its unity and makes it a living organism. Without him it would be simply an aggregation of people who share a common mentality. True, these equals could create an organization and choose a president. But this would be something quite different from the historical Church. It is not Peter who is built upon the Church, but the Church upon Peter. Primarily, this is a static role. To be the unifying principle of the Church, the pope need not perform official action. Still, he is not a lifeless rock or an abstract principle of unity. To belong to him, to be incorporated into the organism, depends on his will. And this is what is indicated by the metaphor of the keys of the kingdom.
The possibility of taking juridical action is therefore a derived consequence – although a necessary one – from the authority of the rock. If the pope holds the keys to the whole, and if it depends upon him who shall and who shall not be in the communio, then he can set conditions of communion and exclusion. He can even issue orders concerning matters of lesser importance in the affairs of the Church. But his authority is not exclusively shown in giving orders. He is not simply the superior of the bishops and the faithful in the way a general is over his officers and soldiers.
The position of the pope is still best described – although still imperfectly – by the analogy of the head and the members. The image is flawed, in that an organism manifests reciprocal interaction, with the members depending for life on the head and the head depending on the members. But the center of the communio does not owe his focal position to the other members of the communio. His position has not been granted him by the members, it does not depend up on their cooperation, and they cannot take it away from him. Still, the image of the organism is right in showing the kind of authority exercised by the head. One can say that in the organism the head gives orders to the members, but the life of the whole is much more than simply the issuing and receiving of commands. The head and the members act as a single unit. Normally, orders – commands given in the face of opposition – are not given in the organism. In fact, only in the extraordinary case when differences arise do we think of the head and the members as distinct factors in the organism. Similarly, we should not look for the authority of the Roman bishops only in those cases in which he acts against opposition. Many years may pass without this being needed, but he still remains the focal point and juridical center from which the rights of the communio flow into all the other churches.
Moreover, the Roman bishops of the first centuries did not function simply as static principles of unity without ever performing acts of government. In fact, the first tangible event in the history of the Church after the death of the Apostle Peter is the letter in which Clement, bishop of Rome, intervened in the affairs of the church of Corinth. Possibly at this time the bishop of Smyrna could have intervened in Corinth with equal success; but then again it cannot be purely accidental that the bishop of Rome always did the things that other bishops, perhaps, could also have done.
At least from the second century onward, people in all quarters noted carefully the attitude of the bishop of Rome in questions of faith and discipline. Foreign theologians came to Rome to learn and gain disciples there. The bishop
of Smyrna came to Rome to win its bishop’s support for the Asian way of dating Easter. The church of Lyons asked the bishop of Rome to judge the Montanists favorably, but Praxeas came from Asia Minor to argue for a negative judgment. With respect to all th ese persons and movements, Rome’s bishop did not act as a theologian or a teacher, but as a judge. He excommunicated a whole series of teachers of heretical systems and doctrines. To counter Marcion’s attempt to do away with half the books in the canon of Scripture, the church at Rome drafted what was probably an official index of the canonical books, as preserved in the so-called Muratorian Fragment. The views of the bishop of Smyrna on the date of Easter were rebuffed. Admittedly, in any of these instances it cannot be shown th at other bishops could not have performed similar acts. When the bishop of Rome expelled the presbyters Florinus and Blastus from his presbyterate during the second century because of heresy, this was no more than any other bishop could have done. But the total number of cases involving action from Rome is far greater than that for any other bishop or church. Our historical study must keep to what in fact did happen, and not to what perhaps could have happened.
In dealing with the Easter controversy, Pope Victor ordered th at synods be held concurrently throughout the whole world and he was ready to expel an entire province from the communio because of its opposition – a measure unheard of in those times. His action stirred discontent in many places, but no one questioned his right to act as he did. Even this case can be judged in different ways, but one cannot eventually avoid the question whether the exponent of such authority can be called anything else but the head of the Church.
In the dispute over reconciling persons guilty of the unpardonable sins, the attitude of Popes Callistus and Cornelius was in the end, without any formal legislation, decisive for the practice and teaching of the whole Church despite vigorous resistance from many sides. The same procedure was repeated in the controversy over the validity of heretical baptism. On other occasions we find the bishop of Rome excluding whole provinces from the communio for opposing him, without his own position being in any way shaken. Pope Stephen intervened authoritatively and effectively when there were disturbances in the Spanish church, while refusing to intervene in a similar situation in the church of Gaul, although much pressure was put on him to do so. These two cases are also open to different interpretations – with this one exception, namely, that Stephen was less than certain about his own authority and rights.
Pope Dionysius required Dionysius of Alexandria, bishop of the most important episcopal see of the East, to answer charges that he was teaching dangerous doctrine. And the bishop of Alexandria proved very eager to defend himself before the pope. Earlier, the greatest living theologian of the time, Origen of Alexandria, came before Pope Fabian with the same eagerness. Here, too, one can construct hypothetical cases in which other bishops might have taken similar action. If Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, had criticized the teaching of the bishop of Antioch, for example, the latter might well have replied to him just as Dionysius of Alexandria replied to Pope Dionysius, but this would not have led to the conclusion that Cyprian had a primacy over the whole Church. It can be no accident that such acts, which could conceivably have occurred elsewhere, were actually repeated frequently in Rome.
One might also invert the question and ask just what the earliest bishops of Rome should have done to show future
historians more clearly that they were heads of the Church? Dispute more, command more, issue more general regulations, excommunicate more people, install and depose more bishops? Certainly, the list of such actions that the Roman bishops undertook in the first three centuries outside their local area is not very long, and some of these acts were no more than any other important bishop could have undertaken – such as sending alms to Arabia, Corinth, or Cappadocia. But one must ask whether the picture would be any different if the list were longer. For even the little we do know is enough to show that the bishops of Rome occupied a position of real preeminence, even in the juridical sphere. They were well aware of their position in the Catholic communio and the other bishops accepted this as a matter of course.