Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The nonexistent early papacy

For several years now, for those of you who don’t know me, my name has been associated with a particular message, which, in a nutshell, can be found at this Beggars All link: This Bridge Should Be Illuminated.

The gist of this message is that, while Vatican I and much of what followed [see Adrian Fortescue] was involved with proving that the early church believed everything about the papacy that Vatican I defined, there was another strain of historical study that was coming to far different conclusions.

Summarizing, Vatican I said:
• Jesus directly and immediately instituted the papacy at Matthew 16:18
• That “that to this day and for ever [Peter] lives and presides and exercises judgment in his successors the bishops of the Holy Roman See, which he founded and consecrated with his blood.
• Therefore whoever succeeds to the chair of Peter obtains by the institution of Christ himself, the primacy of Peter over the whole Church.
• “If anyone says that it is not by the institution of Christ the Lord himself (that is to say, by divine law) that blessed Peter should have perpetual successors in the primacy over the whole Church; or that the Roman Pontiff is not the successor of blessed Peter in this primacy: let him be anathema.”
Christ the Lord Himself instituted the “office” of the papacy. This is a historical declaration made right within the dogmatic statement of a council. In fact, it has always been the practice of Rome to claim this aspect of “history” as a part of their dogma.

On the other hand, this second strain of historical research that I have been writing about was finding many things that contradicted outright this “history” that had long been one of the building blocks of the papacy:
• Peter did not “found” the church at Rome; it’s possible, even likely, that he visited there and was martyred there, but his role there was extremely limited
• Because the geographic scope of ancient Rome was so large and diverse, the earliest “church” at Rome was really a network of house churches, each perhaps with its own elder or elders in charge.
• The “episcopacy” evolved over the first two centuries; by the end of the second century, a fairly stable governmental structure was in place. But this was not “of divine institution”.
• There was not a single “bishop” overseeing the “entire church” [the network of churches] in Rome until late in the second century.
This is the gist of the problem. The Vatican I/Adrian Fortescue “story” did not bear up under historical scrutiny.

But what’s happening now, in these “ecumenical” discussions I have been reporting on, is that Roman Catholic theologians and other theologians have “without dispute” accepted the current historical understanding [which does not mesh with the dogmatic Vatican I account] and are working to “develop” “theologies” that will support the papacy while allowing for the change of criteria for its “historical” foundations.

Over the next few days and weeks I’d like to take a little bit of time and explicate this second strain of historical research, and to explain exactly what it is that all of these individuals are agreeing on; it’s easy to see how this is a challenge to the Roman dogmas on the papacy, and why some theologians believe Vatican I needs to be “re-received” and reinterpreted.


  1. Let me tack on: I noticed you stopped at the end of the second century, when a monoepiscopate began to exist in Rome.

    The papacy's claims, of course, are much more grand than just the rule of Rome. The papacy claims universal jurisdiction. That claim is even more easily shown to be historically false.

  2. Hi TF, you are right; a full-blown papacy didn't exist until the fifth century, and as Archbishop Minnerath has kindly noted for us, the Eastern church never accepted it.

    My hope is to go into a lot of the details -- there are far more than any one person could hope to get his head around.

    But the gist of it is that the history of it contradicts what the official and more-or-less official statements have been for centuries.

  3. Given the non-acceptance by the East, it is probably fair to say that a full-blown papacy didn't exist until at least the 11th century, and even then the dogma of papal infallibility was in the works.

    Even as late as Newman, there was serious doubt over the papal infallibility position. What Rome has today is not what Rome had at the time of the Reformation, which was not like the bishop of Rome's patriarchate before the Great Schism, and that patriarchate (arising and growing in power) does not go back to the apostolic era.

  4. Based upon my impression thus far on a cursory reading of the material cited (kudos John!), the most probable explanation is that the house-church paradigm was the reality for the first one to two centuries of the church. This was gradually replaced (3rd / 4th century) by district (of Rome) organization headed by multiple bishops which was finally (c. 5th century) usurped using an "Imperial Government" model based upon Christianity becoming the official religion under a monarchical bishop of Rome filling the void through the 4th & 5th centuries left by moving the political capital to Byzantium. During this "development" the connected classes simply mapped their waning influence from the political to the ascendent religious realm.

    Among the examples of Imperial influence in the RCC are Canon Law, the papacy (Caesar in "apostolic robes"), and the Inquisition which was an Imperial Roman court institution.

  5. Thanks EA!

    Roman Catholics like to use the word "development" (they have no choice now), but the process of it is nothing like they might have imagined.