Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Power of Early Popes

This is in response to Phil re: my last post on Pope Victor.

We both know this subject (early Church hierarchy / early papal authority) is a very complicated one. So it is extremely difficult for either of us to get our position stated briefly enough for a post of any reasonable length. I'll try to look at this from a 5,000 foot stand point.

It could be said that Catholic historians would like to paint a picture of the early Church as close to the modern Roman Catholic Church as possible whereas their Protestant counterparts envision other ideas for the 'canvas'.

From a starting point, we all agree that the office of the bishop of Rome did eventually become the type of office which we now refer to as 'pope'. Depending on how you like to look at history, all kinds of different dates or date ranges could be given for that transformation. Protestant historian Bruce Shelley places that transformation (the beginning of the papacy as we know it or round abouts) during the reign of Pope St. Leo I (440 - 462 AD). I would say this is stretching it in the favor of Protestants and (as has been said by two others so far) Protestants would say my slant on Pope Victor is stretching it in the opposite direction.

But how can we even hope to speak about whether or not the early bishops of Rome resembled the contemporary office of pope if we aren't even clear on what the contemporary office itself is? This, I find, tends to be a consistent point of breakdown in the communication on the subject. I would highly recommend (not only to Protestants but also to Catholics) this essay on the hierarchal structure of the Catholic Church called "Why Doesn't the Pope Do Something About 'Bad' Bishops?" from This Rock Magazine - H/T Curt Jester. I think many people will find that a lot of the disagreement on the early papal authority stems directly from one or more misconceptions regarding the authority and hierarchical structure of the modern day magisterium.

The Pope is not CEO of the Catholic Church - dividing his power among the bishops. The bishops do not have delegated authority in the Church from the Pope - they have their authority from Christ through Holy Orders. The Pope isn't dictator of the Church either. Those are the types of frameworks that people (Catholics and Protestants) tend to think of the office of the papacy in but aren't terribly helpful when trying to understand the office.

All that being said, looking at the early Church in the most objective light isn't terribly helpful for either Protestants, Catholics or Orthodox Christians. Catholics would like to see Pope Clement writing an encyclical on papal authority, Protestants would like to see at least one of the early Christians advocate something similar to sola scriptura or sola fide and Orthodox Christians would like to see as much emphasis placed on the bishops of Eastern cities as there was on Rome. Each group has a little going their way (but not as much as they would like), but which one has the most? The historical case rests on each person's evaluation of the data. My personal evaluation is that Rome has the most going for it. Second in line would be the Eastern Orthodox and a distant third would be the Protestant position.

The East/West tension is extremely interesting and is a very ancient debate - still left unsettled. The fathers kept for us, tedious records not only the succession of the Roman bishops but also of Jerusalem, Antioch and Alexandria. Although the emphasis on the Roman bishops is greater than the other three combined, at a first glance, this seems to be evidence in favor of the Eastern Orthodox position. But we must ask ourselves why the emphasis on these cities? Yes, they were all important centers for early Christianity as you well know - but why aren't any of the Asian cities listed? Ephesus? Smyrna? Etc...

Why Alexandria? It wasn't even founded by an apostle! It was founded by Mark - the disciple of... St. Peter. Antioch was also started by St. Peter. Nothing needs to be said of Jerusalem. So of the four cities which were closely watched and held to be of great importance in the Christian Church, Rome was by far the greatest focus followed by Alexandria and Antioch whose bishops were both also successors of St. Peter.

You conceded that the bishop of Rome did have extra-ordinary authority but asked the question - did other bishops have that authority as well? It is a fair question. But I don't know of any kind of evidence to support such a position. If you have any patristic writings suggesting such a thing, I would love to see them. But I think we both know, there aren't any in existence - at least nowhere near the kind of support that we would see for Roman authority. The East - West schism is a subject I'm pretty ignorant on so I can't really comment on the mutual excommunications. It is definitely a very puzzling episode for me - it's on my 'to study' list!

Now supposing that we could speak directly with the Church fathers, we could ask them directly about the Roman bishop. Just like any other person, we would get different answers from each. If we asked Augustine, Jerome, Chrysostom and the other late fathers - we both know that their answer would be similar to a modern day Catholic's. But the question is, would the early Fathers answer the same way? I think both of us would answer - probably not.

The reason I say probably not, is because (again) I appeal to the parable of the mustard seed. St. Ignatius of Antioch may not have understood the papacy the same way that Chrysostom or Pope Leo did, but that doesn't detract from the office in the least. It doesn't disprove that it was established by Christ and it shouldn't even lead us in that direction. What sense would it make for Peter to be a pope in the upper room? What need is there to govern differences between the bishops when there are only a couple dozen total Christians on the planet?

But what we see in Scripture is Christ saying that He would build the Church on Peter. We saw Jesus also making metaphoric prophesies concerning the kingdom of God coming with power - we now know that was reference to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. In the same way, we now know that the reference to Christ building His Church on Peter was literally what we see in the Church today - the Church would be protected from error in perpetuity by the see of Peter. We saw that the early Church went to the magisterium circa 49 AD where the Church made an infallible pronouncement on a doctrinal issue. The council was ratified by its head - Peter. The typology of Moses pronouncing judgments infallibly for the Israelites can hardly be missed. Indeed, Jesus said of the Pharisees that we must obey them because they sit on the seat of Moses. Now there is a new Israel - the Church and a new seat - the seat of Peter.

Catholicism makes sense of all of history - leaving nothing unanswered. The historical credibility of the Catholic Church is unparalleled by any sect of any religion on the planet. At least, that's how I interpret the data.


bill bannon said...

This is the "protect the Pope even when he may have been wrong" trend which won't work in the long run because the ordinary person with common sense, educated or not, knows that the Popes should have stepped in long ago and stopped the sex abuse farce which went on for decades even prior to the 1980's.
Your link to the This Rock article was one by a priest who studied classical Greek and Latin not canon law and seems to have simply quoted one canon while ignoring others. He writes:

The bishop is not merely exercising a power "borrowed" from the pope. Canon 381 of the Code of Canon Law states: "In the diocese entrusted to his care, the diocesan bishop has all the ordinary, proper, and immediate power required for the exercise of his pastoral office." The Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church explains:
The pastoral charge . . . is entrusted to [the bishops] fully; nor are they to be regarded as vicars of the Roman pontiff, for they exercise the power that they possess in their own right and are called in the truest sense of the term prelates of the people whom they govern (LG 27).
A bishop, then, should not be thought of as a middle-level executive, carrying out the instructions of his Vatican superiors. Each bishop governs his diocese in and by virtue of his own authority.

Now let's (as fellow non experts with said priest) look at other canons:

Can.331 ... By virtue of his office he (the Pope) possesses supreme, full, immediate, and universal ordinary power in the Church, which he is always able to exercise freely.

Whoops...see "immediate" he could have stepped in and fired Fr. Shanley in 1979 despite the Bishop of Boston when court documents show that the Vatican had an audio tape of that abusive man who spoke at the Man-Boy Love Association in New England on the legitimacy of gay activity.

Can. 333 §1. By virtue of his office, the Roman Pontiff not only possesses power over the universal Church but also obtains the primacy of ordinary power over all particular churches and groups of them.....

Whoops....same message

God did not create the Papacy so that we could turn it into something it is not in the name of loyalty. When children are raped since the early 20th century and it does nothing but increase in incidents decade by decade since then, God wants us to be capable of writing to the Pope and telling him to get off his duff and do something if local bishops will not. John Paul for example entered the papacy after ten years of 500+ alleged incidents and ten years later while he was writing and dealing with Poland, there was another 500+ cases in his first ten years with his doing nothing of an emergency nature to stop such conduct. Why can't anyone say that? Career factors perhaps?

TheGodFearinFiddler said...

Bill - I understand your frustrations and I share them but we're opening a whole new can of worms. I don't disagree in the least that the Pope has supreme authority in the Church - which if you read the original article I linked to was my original point.

Pope Victor in the second century was going to excommunicate not just one bishop but an entire region of bishops in one decisive move. Now thats power!

Still my point is that the Pope is not the summit of the Church with all others merely borrowing power from him and doing his bidding. The bishops are true successors of the apostles themselves and they do the bidding of our Lord Christ.

I agree that the popes should have stepped in and done something about those bishops - as in permanent removal from active duty (they would remain bishops - Holy Orders cannot be reversed). Their action was completely unacceptable and the popes' lack of action was equally unacceptable.

But all bishops and even popes are human and make mistakes - even big ones. Like Augustine said "the floor of hell is paved with the skulls of bad bishops".

Phil S. said...


Good post, but still some fairly sweeping statements. So, I just want to insert a couple comments here and here.

First, on the dating of the onset of the true papacy, I really don't think we can do that. The growth of the power of the Pope was slow and steady, so it is hard to date it. I don't think it is in place in the second or third centuries. I'm inclined to wonder about it any earlier than the seventh century, but that is largely because the Emperors, first of the West than the East were an important counter to papal power. That said, it is no doubt that Pope's of Rome were excercising some degree of ecclesiastical power by about the middle to late fourth century. It just wasn't unchallenged.

This raises an interesting point about imperial vs. papal influence which could be followed up further.

Second, I agree with your definition of the Pope's power, although I note that, even now, he retains ecclesiastical power beyond that of another bishop, especially the power of intervention in doctrinal issues and, in some extreme cases, intervention in other dioceses. It is this power that I have to say that was present in, at least, the other patriarchates by the fourth century. In that case, Rome could be seen as the leader of the five traditional patriarchates, but much of this power division was enforced by imperial pressure and the ecumenical counsils.

For much of the rest, I have to say that we have to come to some kind of recognition of the difference between this kind of ecclesiastical power that we have been discussing and the concept of moral authority (that is, the voice of the Bishop of Rome had influence because it was recognized that he and his church were among the most consistently faithful to orthodoxy)which I have argued was the basis of Rome's authority from as early as St. Clement. Now, the concepts are not unrelated. The moral authority of the Roman church and its bishop did cause them to mediate differences between parties in other churches (as with Clement's first letter) and to allow them to make pronouncements on the orthodoxy of other churches which actually had the weight to catch the attention of, say the Bishop of Lyons or those in the East (as in the Pope Victor letter you cite). That can and is easily misinterpreted as a measure of ecclesiastical power, which simply wasn't there at the time.

Yet, this moral authority does develop into ecclesiastical power in the course of the late patristic and early mediaeval eras as the counterveiling powers of the papacy and the other patriarchates weaken in their influence in the West. It is this ecclesiastical power which worries most Protestants, not the moral authority. It is this aspect which causes me to listen to the Pope today, but which causes me not to give him the degree of authority claimed in the past for Popes on doctrinal issues.