Monday, July 21, 2008

Development of Papal Jurisdiction in the Third Century

Previously I discussed hierarchical development in the third century and now wish to follow that discussion up focusing more directly on the bishop of Rome in this particular instance (the dispute over Paul of Samosata).

There was more than one synod held in Antioch over him and the final result was excommunication. While there were many "illustrious" bishops in attendance of the various synods, two in particular were not: Maximus, bishop of Alexandria and Dionysius the bishop of Rome. To them the conclusion of the synod was written:
To Dionysius and Maximus, and to all our fellow-ministers throughout the world, bishops, presbyters, and deacons, and to the whole Catholic Church under heaven.

...{reasons why Paul was a heretic}...

Therefore we have been compelled to excommunicate him, since he sets himself against God, and refuses to obey; and to appoint in his place another bishop for the Catholic Church. By divine direction, as we believe, we have appointed Domnus.
Let us take notice of three things:
  • The fact that a synod of bishops presumed to have authority to depose of another bishop and replace him.
  • The fact that they believed that what they were doing was divinely directed.
  • The fact that they felt the need to report this to Dionysius, Maximus and the rest of the Catholic Church.
Development of Bishop Selection

Today, there is no deposing of or establishing new bishops without direct involvement from Rome. We are confronted here with an episode clearly showing that this was not always the case (and we have plenty more if we need them). Rome's involvement in selection of bishops has been labeled a corruption of hierarchical development by some and an arbitrary addition to necessary Church government by others (even among those who accept the one bishop structure as a genuine development such as the Eastern Orthodox).

Indeed, this entire ordeal seems closer to Eastern Christianity than of Western. Yet three things will need to be pointed out here: first that they did not act alone, Western bishops were in attendance and they did report their actions to the two most preeminent western bishops of Rome and of Alexandria. Finally, while Catholics must admit hierarchical development here and elsewhere, development itself is not necessarily corruption. I will follow up more on this with the third point.

So to return and briefly conclude the point at hand, we have taken note that while Bishops now are appointed by Rome, the early Church had no such practice in place.

Divine Prerogative

The bishops also make it clear that while they are making this decision democratically, it is not merely the solution which pleases the greatest number of people. They have understood their actions as by divine prerogative and even divine direction. We are encountering an underlying theme which often remains hidden amidst early Christian writings and reasonably so since it was most often taken for granted. That is that the Church is under divine protection.

In the past I have discussed Cardinal Newman on the infallibility of the apostles. Almost no one outside of Marcion has ever been able to imagine Christ leaving a group of men to establish the first generation of Christianity without also keeping (divinely) from teaching doctrinal error. The Paraclete had increasingly been understood by the early Fathers as fulfilling this guardian role. The fathers of the Church went right on believing that the Church herself enjoyed the same privilege. As Newman points out, what good is infallibility if it was only available in the first century? The fathers clearly took this point for granted and rested in the conviction that God "would not allow His Church to become an instrument of destruction for the Word".

Thus in summary, the bishops saw their role as divinely appointed.

The Letter to the West

If our present aim is discussion of the development of papal jurisdiction, surely we must ask why the letter wasn't addressed to Dionysius alone (even if we already agree that the papal role in selecting bishops could conceivably develop later without corrupting the hierarchical structure). And again we must ask ourselves, what do we intend to prove or disprove by the question. Assuming we can agree to the various post 3rd century developments of the papacy as potentially legitimate, what is it that could be learned in the fact that the letter was not addressed to Dionysius alone?

Admittedly, if it were addressed to Dionysius alone, we would not receive this as sufficient evidence to submit to the pope's authority. Furthermore, that it was addressed to both does not disprove that the present papacy could have legitimately developed from a period in time at which (given the exact details of this particular situation) it would have been quite customary to address such important matters not only to the bishop of Rome but to her little sister Alexandria (as long as we allow for the possibility that legitimate hierarchical developments exist at all). But if we do not allow that legitimate development of hierarchy is possible at all, then this discussion has already progressed far beyond common ground and is completely futile. For one who does not already assent to God's ability to preserve the integrity of His Church even through significant development of structure and refinement of doctrine, we must begin the conversation at a more primitive starting point.

In short, the only concession I ask of the reader is that God has the ability to protect His Church and even guide her as she grows in wisdom and in stature. If we can admit this, we know it is at least possible (doesn't mean that it's true) that these developments legitimately belong to the deposit of faith thus ruling out any argument which audaciously claims that these developments are ipso facto illegitimate. I for one have encountered no other argument against hierarchical development than this (that they are ipso facto corruptions since they don't align precisely with the 1st century Church or even some arbitrary date). For how could one claim that the modern papacy is an illegitimate corruption of 3rd century hierarchy when the only objective hierarchy agreed upon is that one directly instituted by Christ since it required development from 1st century hierarchy to reach that of the 3rd?

We would then have admitted legitimate hierarchical development from the upper room to the bishops of the Catholic Church by the end of the 1st century, some sort of honorary primacy of Rome beyond that and finally the power of bishops to convene and act authoritatively as the Church. Yet we have no reasons for allowing those developments which would not also allow further developments and in fact, insist upon them. Thus we have chosen an arbitrary point in time at which we say "here is what the Church is supposed to look like" not realizing that the Church stands in front of our very eyes and we don't recognize her because she has continued developing just as she always has.

To be continued when we examine the development of papal jurisdiction particularly in relation to political influence within the Roman empire.

1 comment:

contrarian 78 said...

Thank you for this-we need more investigation of the Church's early times to understand her better in our own times.