Some people believe that the office of the pope is a modern invention. The word pope certainly doesn’t appear in the bible, but not every valid word used in modern Christianity is. The words, “trinity”, “rapture”, “bible”, and many other ubiquitous Christian words are not in the bible.
As I’ve written all week, Catholics point to Matthew 16:17-19 when we discuss Peter as the first pope. A simple read of these verses proves that Christ didn’t say, “Peter, you are hereby the pope of the Catholic Church”. As in many cases, we have to look at bible verses in context, which means we have to look at more than just one verse. That is what I’ve done so far in this series. Context also means that you cannot focus on one specific English word, especially when you are talking about 2000 years of lingual changes and translations. Neither Christ, nor the early Christians were speaking English. So when we say the word “pope”, we are using a very modern term. Well, it is modern for a 2000 year old religion.
It became the common title for the bishop of Rome in the 12th century (about 1118), Pope Gregory VII declared that the title of “pope” should be reserved only for the bishop of Rome. Up until that time, it was used for various different bishops, depending on the role they were serving within the Church at a specific time. After Pope Gregory VII clarified its use, it has evolved accordingly over the past 900 years.
But we still need to look at the See of Peter (seat of Peter) in a much broader and historical context to see that our modern use of “pope”, is consistent with Peter’s original position as the chief apostle, shepherd, holder of the keys and original leader of the Church founded by Jesus Christ in Matthew 16:17-19. The title has evolved over time. At different points in history, the See of Peter, chair of Peter, Pontiff Maximus, Supreme Pontiff, Holy Father, etc… were and are common titles used to identify the person who occupies the Chair of Peter.
If you have not read my first three blogs on Peter and the Papacy, I suggest you do so before looking at this one. For this blog, I’m going to look at the Church Fathers, doctors and saints, as they were living and writing in the very earliest years of Christianity and it is their writings that help us see the office of the pope in the first 1,100 years of the Church.
As you probably know, the early years of the Church were extremely difficult for Christians. The Jewish leadership was suspicious and unwelcoming as it tried to discourage the growth of Christianity and the Romans were ruthless, cruel and barbaric in their effort to stamp out what they saw as a sociopolitical movement that threatened the authority and power of Rome. Nonetheless, some writings survived all the turbulence of the times as well as 2000 years of fires, floods and war.
One of the earliest acknowledgments of papal authority is St. Clement , who later became the 4th bishop of Rome (the 4th Pope). St. Clement wrote a letter to the Corinthians in about 70 A.D. (about 3 years after Peter’s crucifixion), in which he replies to an earlier letter that the Church in Corinth had written.
St. Clement’s writing does not say that there is a pope or remind anyone that Peter was the chief apostle, but it is still illuminative for two reasons. First, the Church in Corinth was writing to the Church in Rome, for guidance on an issue of faith. This shows some level of recognition of higher authority. Secondly, St. Clement responds with direction that the Corinthians should be obedient to “the words written by us and through the Holy Spirit…”. St. Clement also wrote about apostolic succession. This is the ability and authority of the apostles to appoint their successors and the understanding that this would continue throughout time, to provide for continual leadership in the Church. Therefore, St. Clement’s letter indicates a centralized authority which is based in Rome as well as apostolic succession and the need to be obedient to the Church in Rome.
In A.D. 110, St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote, in his Letter to the Smyrnaeans, that the bishop should oversee everything done within the Catholic Church. This doesn’t directly reference the See of Peter or papal authority, but it does show the authority of the office of bishop that we still see today.
A number of the early Fathers from about A.D. 170 through the 5th Century explicitly recognized Peter as the rock on which the Church was built. These include Tatian the Syrian, Tertullian, Origen, St. Cyprian of Carthage, Firmilian, and the Council of Ephesus in A.D. 431 from which it is quoted, “There is no doubt, and in fact it has been known in all ages, that the holy and most blessed Peter, prince and head of the apostles, pillar of the faith, and foundation of the Catholic Church, received the keys of the kingdom from our Lord Jesus Christ, the Savior and Redeemer of the human race, and that to him was given the power of loosing and binding sins…”.
From the late 500’s into the very early 600’s, St. Gregory the Great sat in the chair of Peter. As you may know, he is known as one of the greatest saints and leaders in the history of the Catholic Church. “In his dealings with the Churches of the West, Gregory acted invariably on the assumption that all were subject to the jurisdiction of the Roman See. Of the rights claimed or exercised by his predecessors he would not abate one tittle; on the contrary, he did everything in his power to maintain, strengthen, and extend what he regarded as the just prerogatives of the papacy.” (newadvent.org)
In the late 600’s, St. John Damascene, a doctor of the Eastern Church wrote, “This is that firm and immovable faith upon which, as upon the rock whose surname you bear, the Church is founded. Against this the gates of hell, the mouths of heretics, the machines of demons—for they will attack—will not prevail. They will take up arms but they will not conquer.” (Homily on the Transfiguration, M.P.G., Vol. 96, Col. 554-555)
In the early 800’s, St. Theodore of Constantinople wrote to Pope Leo III: “Since to great Peter, Christ our Lord gave the office of Chief Shepherd after entrusting him with the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, to Peter or his successor must of necessity every novelty in the Catholic Church be referred. [Therefore], save us, oh most divine Head of Heads, Chief Shepherd of the Church of Heaven. (Theodore, Bk. I. Ep. 23).
The East/West Schism started to form in the 10th and 11th centuries, but even then, there were no significant Catholic doctors, theologians or leaders who questioned the primacy of Rome or Peter’s position as the chief apostle and the holder of the keys to the Kingdom.
After Gregory VI’s clarification of the proper use of the title of “pope” in the early 1100’s, great minds like St. Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, Saint Robert Bellarmine, etc… who take us through the days of St. Catherine of Siena and the modern age. All of these great minds recognized that Peter was chosen by Christ to guide His Church and most if not all of these people point directly to Matthew 16:17-19, as the initial and unavoidable basis for this belief. We then apply this contextual basis to the primary question and we can see that this belief is biblical, historical and consistent since about A.D. 32, one has to engage in extensive self-deception in order to dispute the Catholic position.