Papal Primacy or Papal Mania?

The pope is so ingrained in the Catholic mind that they can’t imagine their religion without him. I call it pope mania. It is a presuppositional view that makes Catholics see their pope everywhere – in Scripture and history – even though he is absent. It’s like the saying, “Once you are a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

Nowadays, Roman Catholicism has replaced the term “papal” or “papacy” with “Peter’s successor” or “the Petrine ministry” so as to closely identify the pope with apostle Peter.

The snag is that the actual teachings and lifestyle of Peter in Acts and the Epistles feature very little in the Catholic doctrinal system. This is like erecting a huge structure in Peter’s name and dumping his teachings into a nearby pit.

The idea that the pope got from Peter a “full, supreme and universal power over the whole church” – papal primacy – though thrown around, is challengeable on several levels:

i) The idea of a centralized, pyramidal authority is foreign to the New Testament. Jesus said “For one is your master; and all you are brethren” (Matt. 23:8). If Peter was the pope, and his church alone had Christ’s validation, Jesus would have denounced the non-apostles proclaiming His name, but He didn’t (Mk. 9:38).

ii) When the church in Samaria started “the apostles in Jerusalem…sent Peter and John” to them (Acts 8:14). If Peter was a pope, he would have been the Supreme Pontiff of Jerusalem, sending the apostles not being sent by them.

iii) The antagonistic Jews identified apostle Paul as “the man who is teaching everyone everywhere against the people and the law” (Acts 21:28). If Peter was the “Prince of the Apostles,” the enemies of Christ would have majored their attacks at him or make a reference to him.

iv) In the Corinthian church dispute, Paul brings himself, Apollos and Peter on the same footing (1Cor. 1:12). If Peter was exercising supreme authority over the church, Paul would have made this clear. Rather, he said “I consider myself not inferior to the most eminent apostles” (1Cor. 11:5). There was simply no Petrine primacy.

v) Speaking of Peter’s position in the early church, Paul wrote that he was among those “reputed to be pillars” (Gal. 2:9). Notice the plurality (pillars) used. There was not a single pillar in the church, and Peter was reputed so. Why did Paul use this term if everyone believed Christ had given Peter primacy?

vi) When Paul was converted, Christ didn’t send him to Peter to be instructed or have his apostleship legitimised. If Peter was the “Chief Apostle” why did Christ bypass him and instead sent Paul to Ananias? Paul didn’t even consult with any apostle before his missionary journey (Gal. 2:6). Barnabas – not Peter – was the one who confirmed his conversion to the church.

vii) The gathering of the apostles in Jerusalem shows that the NT leadership was a power-sharing, collective one. Both the elders and apostles were present at the council (Acts 15:6, 23). Peter, Paul, Barnabas gave their speeches; James gave the final sentence and the whole church was involved in choosing the delegates (v 25-27). No Petrine primacy there.

viii) The Epistles (Eph. 4:11-12 and 1Cor. 12:28-29, 1, 2 Timothy and Titus) mentioned church offices and ministries, without a single reference to a “Petrine ministry” or “papacy.” This is a strange omission if the papacy was the highest office attainable.

ix) The book of Hebrews talks extensively about authority and the priesthood, yet says nothing about a Petrine ministry. A Catholic scholar says this letter was addressed to a first century congregation in Rome (Raymond Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, Doubleday, 1997, 697). The letter was addressed to the Hebrew Christians – not to a pope or bishop in Rome.

x) It seems Paul had more primacy than Peter. He was the only apostle who publicly rebuked and corrected another apostle (Gal. 2:11); was the first apostle taken to heaven to receive a revelation (2Cor. 12:1-4) and whose teachings had deeper insights that even Peter admitted they were “hard to understand” (2Pet. 3:15).

Early Church History

In his debate with Dave Hunt, Catholic apologist, Karl Keating, tried to prove papal primacy from patristic writings saying:

Clement, writing in the year 96 is exercising that primacy. Here is what happened … The Corinthians in 96 appealed to the bishop of Rome, Clement, to resolve some dispute. He sent them a letter. We still have it.”

Clement was a Roman bishop who sent a letter to the Corinthian church. Catholic scholar, Joseph Kelly, notes that this “was a letter of remonstrance addressed c. 96 to the church at Corinth (where fierce dissensions had broken out and some presbyters had been deposed) which Clement probably drafted as the leading presbyter.”

He never wrote as a pope. His letter was not a papal letter, but a letter from the church at Rome.

Keating claims Clement was “exercising his primacy” but Joseph Kelly points out that: “While Clement’s position as a leading presbyter and spokesman of the Christian community is assured, his letter suggests that the monarchial episcopate had not yet emerged there, and it is therefore impossible to form any precise conception of his constitutional role” (The Concise Dictionary of Early Christianity, 1992, 8).

Clement’s letter showed that a plurality of elders – not a monarchial episcopate – existed in Rome. Throughout his letter he used the plural “we” not “I.”

Keating said: “Now why didn’t they [the Corinthian church] appeal instead to the apostle John who was still alive and living on Patmos, living much close to them – the last apostle alive? Why not to him to settle? Because already they knew the successor of Peter as the primacy in the Church.”

This meretricious argument can only sway the audience of an oral debate. It was a common trend in the early church for letters to be sent e.g Ignatius’ letter to Polycarp, Polycarp’s letter to the Philippian church etc.

There is no jurisdictional or papal authority implied by the sending of Clement’s letter. In fact, the letter was sent in the name of the church of Rome, not the bishop of Rome.

The fact that apostle John didn’t submit to the allegedly higher authority of Roman bishops (Linus, Anacletus, Clement) at that time blows the theory of an early papal primacy into pieces. The earliest church records clearly shows that no one looked up to a pope in Rome to settle their disputes – and why would they, when they had a plurality of leaders? Even in the Shepherd of Hermas (c.150 AD), we read:

“But you yourself will read [my book] to this city [Rome], along with the elders [Gr: presbuteroi] who preside over the church.” (Vis 2.4)

Ignatius (and others) discussed matters of church government and offices in his letters and even wrote a letter to the Roman church, yet he said nothing about a papacy. The martyrdom and persecution accounts of the early church made several references to Christian bishops being killed, but none about the papacy.

The early Christians never mentioned anything suggesting a pope of Rome in their letters to one another. Not a single opponent of the Christian faith noted anything suggesting a papacy. Now, why would early Christians document much about the ideas and customs prevalent in the Roman Empire and yet omit the papacy if it was existing?

Keating: “Irenaeus, in his book Against Heresies [3:3:2] said: ‘With that church, the church of Rome, because of its superior origin all the churches must agree; that is all faithful in the whole world. It is in her that the faithful everywhere have maintained their apostolic tradition.”

His quote doesn’t support papal primacy, unless it is read into the text. Irenaeus believed in Roman primacy, but not papal primacy. Catholic scholar, William La Due, admits that although some people try to find Roman primacy in Ireneaus’ words, “there is so much ambiguity here that one has to be careful of over-reading the evidence.”

He adds: “For him [Irenaeus], it is those churches of apostolic foundation that have the greater claim to authentic teaching and doctrine. Among those, Rome, with its two apostolic founders, certainly holds an important place. However, all of the apostolic churches enjoy what he terms ‘preeminent authority’ in doctrinal matters” (The Chair of St. Peter, 1999, 28).

The Roman primacy Irenaeus believed in was not because of a pope in Rome, but because of the Roman church’s alleged historical link with two apostles, its location in the capital of the Empire and its familiarity with other churches.

Catholic historian, Eamon Duffy, dispels much of the smoke: “Neither Peter nor Paul founded the Church at Rome, for there were Christians in the city before either of the Apostles set foot there. Nor can we assume, as Irenaeus did, that the Apostles established there a succession of bishops…for all the indications are that there was no single bishop at Rome for almost a century after the death of the Apostles” (Saints and Sinners, p. 2)

In his book, Catholicism and Fundamentalism, Keating quotes Cyprian saying:

Would heretics dare to come to the very seat of Peter whence apostolic faith is derived and whither no errors can come” (p. 217)

When Cyprian spoke of the seat of Peter (cathedra Petri), he wasn’t referring to what Catholicism today define it as. Back then, the people believed the “chair of Peter” refers to all the bishops in the world. Cyprian didn’t believe the bishop of Rome had any universal jurisdiction.

Catholic scholar, Robert Eno admits: “it is clear that he [Cyprian] did not see the bishop of Rome as his superior, except by way of honor… in Cyprian’s mind, one theological conclusion he does not draw is that the bishop of Rome has authority which is superior to that of the African bishops” (The Rise of the Papacy, 1990, 59-60).

Cyprian, quoting Mt. 16:18 wrote: “Thence, through the changes of times and successions, the ordering of bishops and the plan of the Church flow onwards; so that the church is founded upon the bishops and evey act of the Church is controlled by these same rulers” (Epistle, XXVI). Notice his reference to a plurality of bishops leading the church.

When Stephen (254-557) attempted to exert supreme authority as Peter’s successor, Cyprian wrote to him opposing his stance. “In his controversy with Bishop Stephen,” says a Professor of church history, “Cyprian expressed the view that any bishop, whether in Rome or elsewhere, was included in Jesus’ message to Peter. Like Tertullian, Cyprian is unwilling to accept the claim of exclusive authority for the bishop of Rome on the basis of Mt. 16:18-19” (John Meyendorff, The Primacy of Peter, 1992, 63).

Keating says in his book: “Augustine of Hippo summed up the ancient attitude when he remarked, ‘Rome has spoken; the case is closed” (p. 217).

It’s doubtful if Mr Keating actually read what he quoted. He cited Sermon, 131, but the text says: “…for already on this matter two councils have sent to the Apostolic See, whence also rescripts [reports] have come. The cause is finished, would that the error may terminate likewise.”

Here, Augustine was battling a heresy known as Pelagianism in North Africa, and his sermon was refuting it. Two councils had concluded on the issue and the bishop of Rome had agreed. He wasn’t talking about the authority of the bishop of Rome or hinting that he was infallible.

“Of the eighty or so heresies in the first six centuries,” wrote a Catholic historian, “not one refers to the authority of the Bishop of Rome, not one is settled by the Bishop of Rome… No one attacks the [supreme] authority of the Roman pontiff, because no one has heard of it” (J. H. Ignaz von Dollinger, The Pope and the Council, 1898, 308)

Darwinian Excuses

Countering the myths pop Catholic apologists love to throw around, Jesuit scholar, Klaus Schatz said: “It is clear that Roman Primacy was not given from the outset; it underwent a long process of development whose initial phases extended well into the fifth century” (Papal Primacy, 1996, 36).

This “long process of development” is an euphemism Rome uses for novelties invented later and made to appear ancient. For the first 1000 years, Roman bishops took their decisions together with their synod once or twice yearly. Whenever there was a matter concerning the universal church, it was decided by an ecumenical council – not a pope.

Even when bishop Leo I used Matthew, 16:18 to affirm his primacy over other bishops, he was still subservient to the Council. When he wrote his letter to Flavian in 449, he acknowledged that his treatise could not become a rule of faith till it was confirmed by the bishops.

Popes like Vigilius, Honorius etc were condemned and excommunicated by Councils. Emperors also had the power to depose popes. It was when the popes succeeded the Roman emperors that they began to wield universal authority over the church.

Rome was the only See in the West, while the East had Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem and Constantinople Apostolic Sees. The primacy of the Roman bishop was as a result of the primacy of the Roman church in the Western See. When the bishop of Rome tried to exercise supremacy over the whole church, it resulted in the Great schism between the West (Roman Catholicism) and the East (Eastern Orthodoxy). This is why the latter reject the papacy till date.

Having lost the historical argument behind papal primacy, some scholars of Rome are trying to shift the goalpost. Karl Rahner admits “it is not basically and absolutely necessary that we would have to trace back to an explicit saying of Jesus the more concrete structures of the constitution of the (Catholic) church which the church now declares are always obligatory…we grant her merely the possibility of free and accidental changes depending on the concrete situation in which she finds herself…” (Foundations of the Christian Faith, 332).

“Free and accidental changes”? That sounds like Darwinian superstition, in which a fish evolves to a frog, then becomes a snake and a snake eventually becomes man. This is pure fiction, consequently, the papacy is based on myths and lies.

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