Papal primacy

Papal primacy, also known as the primacy of the Bishop of Rome, is an ecclesiastical doctrine concerning the respect and authority that is due to the Pope from other bishops and their Episcopal sees.

English academic and Catholic priest Aidan Nichols wrote that "at root, only one issue of substance divides the Orthodox and the Catholic Churches, and that is the issue of the primacy."[1] The French Orthodox researcher Jean-Claude Larchet wrote that together with the Filioque controversy, differences in interpretation of this doctrine have been and remain the primary causes of schism between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church.[2] In the Eastern Orthodox Churches, some understand the primacy of the Bishop of Rome to be merely one of greater honour, regarding him as primus inter pares ("first among equals"), without effective power over other churches.[3] Other Orthodox Christian theologians, however, view primacy as authoritative power: the expression, manifestation and realization in one bishop of the power of all the bishops and of the unity of the Church.[4]

The Catholic Church attributes to the primacy of the Pope "full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered,"[5] a power that it attributes also to the entire body of the bishops united with the pope.[6] The power that it attributes to the pope's primatial authority has limitations that are official, legal, dogmatic, and practical.[7]

In the Ravenna Document, issued in 2007, representatives of the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church jointly stated that both East and West accept the fact of the Bishop of Rome's primacy at the universal level, but that differences of understanding exist about how the primacy is to be exercised and about its scriptural and theological foundations.[8]

Dogma within Latin and Eastern Catholic Churches

The Catholic dogma of the primacy of the bishop of Rome is codified in both codes of canon law of the Catholic Church – the Latin Church's 1983 Code of Canon Law (1983 CIC) and the Eastern Catholic Churches' 1990 Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches (CCEO). The Second Vatican Council's 1964 dogmatic constitution Lumen gentium (LG) declared that the "pope's power of primacy" is by "virtue of his office, that is as Vicar of Christ and pastor of the whole Church," and is "full, supreme and universal power over the Church" which he "is always free to exercise."[9][10] The primacy of the bishop of Rome, according to John Hardon in Catholic Dictionary, is "primacy of jurisdiction, which means the possession of full and supreme teaching, legislative, and sacerdotal powers in the Catholic Church"; it is authority "not only in faith and morals but Church discipline and in the government of the Church."[11]

In 1983 CIC canon 331, the "bishop of Roman Church" is both the "vicar of Christ" and "pastor of the universal Church on earth."[12] Knut Walf, in New commentary on the Code of Canon Law, notes that this description, "bishop of the Roman Church," is only found in this canon, and the term Roman pontiff is generally used in 1983 CIC.[13] Ernest Caparros' et al. Code of Canon Law Annotated comments that this canon pertains to all individuals and groups of faithful within the Latin Church, of all rites and hierarchical ranks, "not only in matters of faith and morals but also in all that concerns the discipline and government of the Church throughout the whole world."[14] Heinrich Denzinger, Peter Hünermann, et al. Enchiridion symbolorum (DH) states that Christ did not form the Church as several distinct communities,[15] but unified through full communion with the bishop of Rome and profession of the same faith with the bishop of Rome.[16]

The bishop of Rome is the supreme authority of the sui iuris Eastern Catholic Churches.[17] In CCEO canon 45, the bishop of Rome has "by virtue of his office" both "power over the entire Church" and "primacy of ordinary power over all the eparchies and groupings of them" within each of the Eastern Catholic Churches. Through the office "of the supreme pastor of the Church," he is in communion with the other bishops and with the entire Church, and has the right to determines whether to exercise this authority either personally or collegially.[18] This "primacy over the entire Church" includes primacy over Eastern Catholic patriarchs and eparchial bishops,[19] over governance of institutes of consecrated life,[20] and over judicial affairs.[21]

Primacy of the bishop of Rome was also codified in the 1917 Code of Canon Law (1917 CIC) canons 218–221.[22]

Development of the doctrine

The Catholic Church bases its doctrine of papal primacy on the primacy among the apostles that Jesus gave to Peter in Matthew 16:16-19:[23]

Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven

and in John 21:15–17:

Feed my lambs ... Feed my sheep

While acknowledging that "the New Testament contains no explicit record of a transmission of Peter's leadership; nor is the transmission of apostolic authority in general very clear,"[24] it considers that its doctrine has a developmental history and that its teaching about matters such as the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, and the union of his two natures in a single person developed as the result of drawing out from the original revealed truth consequences that were not obvious at first: "Thanks to the assistance of the Holy Spirit, the understanding of both the realities and the words of the heritage of faith is able to grow in the life of the Church 'through the contemplation and study of believers who ponder these things in their hearts'; it is in particular 'theological research [which] deepens knowledge of revealed truth'".[25]

Accordingly, it would be a mistake to expect to find the modern fully developed doctrine of papal primacy in the first centuries, thereby failing to recognize the Church's historical reality.[26] The figure of the pope as leader of the worldwide church developed over time, as the figure of the bishop as leader of the local church seems to have appeared later than in the time of the apostles.[lower-alpha 1]

That the Christian scriptures, which contain no cut-and-dried answers to questions such as whether or not there is forgiveness for post-baptismal sins, and whether or not infants should be baptized, gradually become clearer in the light of events, is a view expressed, when considering the doctrine of papal primacy, by Cardinal John Henry Newman, who summed up his thought by saying:

[...] developments of Christianity are proved to have been in the contemplation of its Divine Author, by an argument parallel to that by which we infer intelligence in the system of the physical world. In whatever sense the need and its supply are a proof of design in the visible creation, in the same do the gaps, if the word may be used, which occur in the structure of the original creed of the Church, make it probable that those developments, which grow out of the truths which lie around them, were intended to fill them up."[28]

Writers such as Nikolay Afanásiev and Alexander Schmemann have written that the phrase "presiding in agape", used of the Church of Rome in the letter that Ignatius of Antioch addressed to it in the early 2nd century, contains a definition of that Church's universal primacy;[29] but the Catholic writer Klaus Schatz warns that it would be wrong to read, as statements of the developed Catholic teaching on papal primacy, this letter and the even earlier First Epistle of Clement (the name of Clement was added only later), in which the Church of Rome intervenes in matters of the Church of Corinth, admonishing it in authoritative tones, even speaking in the name of God.[30] It was only later that the expression of Ignatius of Antioch could be interpreted as meaning, as agreed by representatives of both the Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox Churches, that "Rome, as the Church that 'presides in love' according to the phrase of St Ignatius of Antioch (To the Romans, Prologue), occupied the first place in the taxis, and that the bishop of Rome was therefore the protos among the patriarchs".[31]

The same agreement stated:

In the history of the East and of the West, at least until the ninth century, a series of prerogatives was recognised, always in the context of conciliarity, according to the conditions of the times, for the protos or kephale at each of the established ecclesiastical levels: locally, for the bishop as protos of his diocese with regard to his presbyters and people; regionally, for the protos of each metropolis with regard to the bishops of his province, and for the protos of each of the five patriarchates, with regard to the metropolitans of each circumscription; and universally, for the bishop of Rome as protos among the patriarchs. This distinction of levels does not diminish the sacramental equality of every bishop or the catholicity of each local Church.[32]

Basis of claims to primacy

Peter and Paul

The evolution of earlier tradition established both Peter and Paul as the forefathers of the bishops of Rome, from whom they received their position as chief shepherd (Peter) and supreme authority on doctrine (Paul).[33] To establish her primacy among the churches of the Western half of the empire, the bishops of Rome relied on a letter written in 416 by Innocent I to the Bishop of Gubbio, to show how subordination to Rome had been established. Since Peter was the only apostle (no mention of Paul) to have worked in the West, thus the only persons to have established churches in Italy, Spain, Gaul, Sicily, Africa, and the Western islands were bishops appointed by Peter or his successors. This being the case then, all congregations had to abide by the regulations set in Rome.[34]

Primacy of Peter the apostle

Because of its association with the supposed position of Peter among the Apostles, the function that, within the Catholic Church, is exercised by the Bishop of Rome among the bishops as a whole is referred to as the Petrine function, and is generally believed to be of divine institution, in the sense that the historical and sociological factors that influenced its development are seen as guided by the Holy Spirit. Not all Catholic theologians see a special providential providence as responsible for the result, but most see the papacy, regardless of its origin, as now essential to the Church's structure.[35]

The presence of Peter in Rome, not explicitly affirmed in, but consistent with, the New Testament, is explicitly affirmed by Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Irenaeus of Lyon and other early Christian writers – and no other place has ever claimed to be the location of his death.[36][37] The same witnesses imply that Peter was the virtual founder of the Church of Rome,[36] though not its founder in the sense of initiating a Christian community there.[38] They also speak of Peter as the one who initiated its episcopal succession,[36] but speak of Linus as the first bishop of Rome after Peter, although some hold today that the Christians in Rome did not act a single united community under a single leader until the 2nd century.[38]

Classic Roman Catholic tradition maintained that the universal primacy of the bishop of Rome was divinely instituted by Jesus Christ. This was derived from the Petrine texts, and from the gospel accounts of Matthew (16:17‑19), Luke (22:32) and John (21:15‑17) according to the Roman tradition, they all refer not simply to the historical Peter, but to his successors to the end of time. Today, scriptural scholars of many traditions agree that it is possible to discern in the New Testament an early tradition that attributes a special position to Peter among Christ's twelve apostles. The Church built its identity on them as witnesses, and responsibility for pastoral leadership was not restricted to Peter. In Matthew 16:19, Peter is explicitly commissioned to "bind and loose"; later, in Matthew 18:18, Christ directly promises all the disciples that they will do the same. Similarly, the foundation upon which the Church is built is related to Peter in Matthew 16:16, and to the whole apostolic body elsewhere in the New Testament (cf. Eph. 2:10).[39]

Role of Paul in the founding of the Church of Rome

Irenaeus of Lyon (AD 189) wrote that Peter and Paul had founded the Church in Rome and had appointed Pope Linus to the office of the episcopate, the beginning of the succession of the Roman see.[lower-alpha 2] Although the introduction of Christianity was not due to them, "the arrival, ministries and especially the martyrdoms of Peter and Paul were the seminal events which really constituted the Church of Rome. It was from their time, and not before, that an orderly and meetly ordained succession of Bishops originated."[41]

Historical development

While the doctrine of the primacy of the Bishop of Rome, in the form in which it is upheld today in the Catholic Church, developed over the course of centuries, often in reaction to challenges made against exercises of authority by popes, writers both of East and West declare that from a very early period the Church of Rome was looked to as the centre of reference for the whole Church. Thus Schmemman wrote:

It is impossible to deny that, even before the appearance of local primacies, the Church from the first days of her existence possessed an ecumenical center of unity and agreement. In the apostolic and Judeo-Christian period, it was the Church of Jerusalem, and later the Church of Rome – presiding in agape, according to St. Ignatius of Antioch. This formula, and the definition of the universal primacy contained in it, have been aptly analyzed by Fr Afanassieff and we need not repeat his argument here. Neither can we quote here all testimonies of the fathers and the councils unanimously acknowledging Rome as the senior church and the center of ecumenical agreement. It is only for the sake of biased polemics that one can ignore these testimonies, their consensus and significance.[29]

In the West, Ludwig Ott wrote:

The doctrine of the primacy of the Roman Bishops, like other Church teachings and instructions, has gone through a development. Thus the establishment of the primacy recorded in the Gospels has been gradually more clearly recognized and its implications developed. Clear recognition of the consciousness of the Primacy of the Roman Bishops, and of the recognition of the Primacy by the other churches appear at the end of the 1st century ... St. Ignatius elevated the Roman community over all the communities using in his epistle a solemn form of address. Twice he says of it that it is the presiding community, which expresses a relationship of superiority and inferiority.[42]

In their The See of Peter (1927), non-Catholic academic historians James T. Shotwell and Louise Ropes Loomis, noted the following:

Unquestionably, the Roman church very early developed something like a sense of obligation to the oppressed all over Christendom. ... Consequently, there was but one focus of authority. By the year 252, there seem to have been one hundred bishops in central and southern Italy but outside Rome there was nothing to set one bishop above another. All were on a level together, citizens of Italy, accustomed to look to Rome for direction in every detail of public life. The Roman bishop had the right not only to ordain but even, on occasion, to select bishops for Italian churches. ... To Christians of the Occident, the Roman church was the sole, direct link with the age of the New Testament and its bishop was the one prelate in their part of the world in whose voice they discerned echoes of the apostles' speech. The Roman bishop spoke always as the guardian of an authoritative tradition, second to none. Even when the eastern churches insisted that their traditions were older and quite as sacred, if not more so, the voice in the West, unaccustomed to rivalry at home, spoke on regardless of protest or denunciation at a distance.[43]

In later times, various theories were proposed, most notably an analogy with the position of Peter among the twelve Apostles, to explain the fact of this generally recognized presiding or primatial position of the Church of Rome. The Church of Rome also appealed to it as justification for certain actions that it took in relation to other Churches, actions that often met with resistance.

Ante-Nicene period

Rome's role as arbiter

Nicholas Afanassieff writes:

This passage in Irenaeus [from Against Heresies 3:4:1] illuminates the meaning of his remarks about the Church of Rome: if there are disputes in a local church, that church should have recourse to the Roman Church, for there is contained the Tradition which is preserved by all the churches. Rome's vocation [in the pre-Nicene period] consisted in playing the part of arbiter, settling contentious issues by witnessing to the truth or falsity of whatever doctrine was put before them. Rome was truly the centre where all converged if they wanted their doctrine to be accepted by the conscience of the Church. They could not count upon success except on one condition – that the Church of Rome had received their doctrine – and refusal from Rome predetermined the attitude the other churches would adopt. There are numerous cases of this recourse to Rome ...[44]

Quartodeciman controversy

Towards the end of the 2nd century, Victor, bishop of Rome, attempted to resolve the Quartodeciman controversy by excommunicating churches in the Roman province of Asia. This incident is cited by some Orthodox Christians as the first example of overreaching by the Bishop of Rome and resistance of such by Eastern churches. Laurent Cleenewerck suggests that this could be argued to be the first fissure between the Eastern and Western churches.[45][lower-alpha 3]

The Quartodeciman controversy arose because Christians in the Roman province of Asia (Western Anatolia) celebrated Easter at the spring full moon, like the Jewish Passover, while the churches in the West observed the practice of celebrating it on the following Sunday ("the day of the resurrection of our Saviour").[47]

In 155, Anicetus, bishop of Rome, presided over a church council at Rome that was attended by a number of bishops including Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna. Although the council failed to reach agreement on the issue, ecclesiastical communion was preserved.[48] A generation later, synods of bishops in Palestine, Pontus and Osrhoene in the east, and in Rome and Gaul in the west, unanimously declared that the celebration should be exclusively on Sunday.[47] In 193, Victor, bishop of Rome, presided over a council at Rome and subsequently sent a letter about the matter to Polycrates of Ephesus and the churches of the Roman province of Asia.[48]

In the same year, Polycrates presided over a council at Ephesus attended by several bishops throughout that province, which rejected Victor's authority and kept the province's paschal tradition.[48] Thereupon, Victor attempted to cut off Polycrates and the others who took this stance from the common unity, but later reversed his decision after bishops, that included Irenaeus of Lyon in Gaul, interceded and recommended that Victor adopt the more tolerant stance of his predecessor, Anicetus.[49][lower-alpha 4]</ref>

Despite Victor's failure to carry out his intent to excommunicate the Asian churches, many Catholic apologists point to this episode as evidence of papal primacy and authority in the early Church, citing the fact that none of the bishops challenged his right to excommunicate but rather questioned the wisdom and charity of doing so.[45][lower-alpha 3] Orthodox apologists argue that Victor had to relent in the end and note that the Eastern Churches never granted Victor presidency over anything other than the Church of Rome.[50][lower-alpha 3] Cleenewerck points out that Eusebius refers to Victor one of the "rulers of the Churches", not the ruler of a yet unknown or unformed "universal Church."[45] Ultimately, the Quartodeciman controversy was not resolved by papal authority; it was only finally resolved by an ecumenical council, the First Council of Nicaea.[50][lower-alpha 3]

The rejection of Anicetus' position on the Quartodeciman, by Polycarp and later Polycrates' letter to Pope Victor I has been used by Orthodox theologians as proof against the argument that the Churches in Asia Minor accepted papal primacy or the teaching of papal supremacy.[50]

Stephen I

According to surviving records, Pope Stephen I (254–257) was the first bishop to explicitly claim primacy.[51] The timing of the claim is significant, for it was made during the worst of the tumults of the third century. There were several persecutions during this century which hit the Church of Rome hard; Stephen and his successor Pope Sixtus II were both martyred. Cyprian of Carthage (d. 258) stressed the Petrine primacy as well as the unity of the Church and the importance of being in communion with the bishops.[52] For Cyprian, "the Bishop of Rome is the direct heir of Peter, whereas the others are heirs only indirectly", and he insisted that "the Church of Rome is the root and matrix of the Catholic Church".[53] Pope Damasus I (366–384) was the first pope to claim that the primacy of the Church of Rome rested on Peter alone, and the first to refer to the Roman church as "the Apostolic See" (the see of the Apostle Peter). To uphold its primacy, the prestige of the city itself was no longer sufficient, but in the doctrine of apostolic succession the popes had an unassailable position.[54]

After the Edict of Milan

During the Civil wars of the Tetrarchy, in the 311 Edict of Toleration Galerius, the Augustus in the East, ended the Diocletian persecution of Christianity. Two years later, in 313, Constantine the Great, the Augustus in the West, expanded religious liberty for Christians and returned property confiscated from Christians in his Edict of Milan; he patronized the Church of Rome by constructing large church buildings such as the Lateran Basilica and Lateran Palace and the Old St. Peter's Basilica, and donated endowments.[55] The First Council of Nicaea approved a church arrangement whereby the bishops of an imperial province were headed by the bishop (known as the "metropolitan") of the principal city.[56] This added to the power of the bishops of important cities.


The bishops of Rome sent letters which, though largely ineffectual, provided historical precedents subsequently used by supporters of papal primacy. These letters were known as decretals from at least the time of Siricius (384–399) to Leo I provided general guidelines to follow which later would become incorporated into canon law.[57]

Bishop of Rome becomes "Rector of the whole Church"

The power of the Bishop of Rome increased as the power of the Emperors gradually diminished and the imperial authorities tried to bolster their waning power with religious support. A joint edict of Byzantine Emperor Theodosius II and Roman Emperor Valentinian III proclaimed the bishop of Rome as the "rector of the whole Church".[58][lower-alpha 5] In 545, Byzantine Emperor Justinian I promulgated a similar civil Byzantine law, in Novellae Constitutiones novel 131, which codified that the archbishop of Constantinople "occupies the place next after the holy apostolic seat of ancient Rome".[59]

First Council of Constantinople and its context

The event that is often considered to have been the first conflict between Rome and Constantinople was triggered by the elevation of the see of Constantinople to a position of honour, second only to Rome on the grounds that, as capital of the eastern Roman empire, it was now the "New Rome". This was promulgated in the First Council of Constantinople (381) canon 3 which decreed: "The Bishop of Constantinople, however, shall have the prerogative of honour after the Bishop of Rome because Constantinople is New Rome."[60] It has been asserted by many that the Council of Rome, a synod held by Pope Damasus I in the following year, 382, protested against this raising of the bishop of the new imperial capital, just fifty years old, to a status higher than that of the bishops of Alexandria and Antioch, and stated that the primacy of the Roman see was established by no gathering of bishops but by Christ himself.[61][lower-alpha 6] Thomas Shahan says that, according to Photius too, Pope Damasus approved the council of Constantinople, but he adds that, if any part of the council were approved by this pope, it could have been only its revision of the Nicene Creed, as was the case also when Gregory the Great recognized it as one of the four general councils, but only in its dogmatic utterances.[63] In Catholic doctrine, no council, regardless of who summoned it or who presided over it, is ecumenical unless it is confirmed or at least recognized as such by the pope.[64]

The increasing involvement of Eastern emperors in church matters and the advancement of the see of Constantinople over the sees of Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem led successive bishops of Rome to attempt a sharper definition of their ecclesial position vis-a-vis the other bishops.[65] The first documented use of the description of Saint Peter as first bishop of Rome, rather than as the apostle who commissioned its first bishop, dates from 354, and the phrase "the Apostolic See", which refers to the same apostle, began to be used exclusively of the see of Rome, a usage found also in the Acts of the Council of Chalcedon.[lower-alpha 7] From the time of Pope Damasus, the text of Matthew 16:18 ("You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church") is used to support Roman primacy.[67] Pope Siricius (384–399) began the custom of issuing papal decretals to which was attributed the same authority as that of decisions by synods of bishops.[61][67] Pope Innocent I (401–417) claimed that all major cases should be reserved to the see of Rome[61] and wrote: "All must preserve that which Peter the prince of the apostles delivered to the church at Rome and which it has watched over until now, and nothing may be added or introduced that lacks this authority or that derives its pattern from somewhere else."[67] Pope Boniface I (418–422) stated that the church of Rome stood to the churches throughout the world "as the head to the members",[61] a statement that seems to have been already made by Pope Siricius[61] and was repeated by the delegates of Pope Leo I to the Council of Chalcedon in 451.[lower-alpha 7] In line with the norm of Roman law that a person's legal rights and duties passed to his heir, Pope Leo (440–461) taught that he, as Peter's representative, succeeded to the power and authority of Peter, and he implied that it was through Peter that the other apostles received from Christ strength and stability.[68] Pope Gelasius I (492–496) stated:

The see of blessed Peter the Apostle has the right to unbind what has been bound by sentences of any pontiffs whatever, in that it has the right to judge the whole church. Neither is it lawful for anyone to judge its judgment, seeing that canons have willed that it might be appealed to from any part of the world, but that no one may be allowed to appeal from it.[69]

Relationship with bishops of other cities

Besides Rome, Jerusalem was also held in high prestige in the early Church, both because the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus occurred there, on account of the 1st-century Council of Jerusalem. Followers of Jesus were first referred to as "Christians" (as well as "Catholic")[70] in Antioch and was, together with Alexandria, important in the thought of the early Church. It is important to note, however, that the three main apostolic sees of the early Church (i.e. the See of Antioch, the See of Alexandria, and the See of Rome) were directly related to Peter. Prior to becoming Bishop of Rome, Peter was Bishop of Antioch. Additionally, his disciple Mark founded the church in Alexandria.[71]

As early as the 2nd century, the Bishop of Rome began to claim his supremacy over all other bishops. Some Church Fathers also held this position.

Leo I

The doctrine of the sedes apostolica (apostolic see) asserts that every bishop of Rome, as Peter's successor, possesses the full authority granted to this position and that this power is inviolable on the grounds that it was established by God himself and so not bound to any individual. Pope Leo I (440–461), with the aid of Roman law, solidified this doctrine by making the bishop of Rome the legal heir of Peter. Leo argued that the apostle Peter continued to speak to the Christian community through his successors as bishop of Rome.[72]

From Gregory I to Clement V

The historical and juridical development of the "primacy of the Roman Pontiff" from Pope Gregory I (590–604) to Pope Clement V (1305–1314) was a doctrinal evolution in fidelity of the depositum fidei (deposit of faith).[73]

Council of Reims

In 1049, the Council of Reims, called by Pope Leo IX, adopted a dogmatic declaration about the primacy of the Roman Pontiff as the successor of Peter: "declaratum est quod solus Romanae sedis pontifex universalis Ecclesiae Primas esset et Apostolicus" (literal translation is "it was declared that only the bishop/pontiff of the see of Rome is the primate of the universal Church and apostolic").[74]

East-West Schism

The dispute about the authority of Roman bishops reached a climax in the year 1054,[75] when the legate of Pope Leo IX excommunicated Patriarch of Constantinople Michael I Cerularius. Leo IX had, however, died before the legate issued this excommunication, depriving the legate of its authority and thereby rendering the excommunication technically invalid. Similarly, a ceremony of excommunication of Leo IX then performed by Michael I was equally invalid, since one cannot be posthumously excommunicated. This event led to the schism of the Greek-rite and Latin-rite Churches.[76] In itself, it did not have the effect of excommunicating the adherents of the respective Churches, as the tit-for-tat excommunications, even had they been valid, would have applied to the named persons only.

Post-schism period

Second Council of Lyon (1272–1274)

On 31 March 1272, Pope Gregory X convoked the Second Council of Lyon to act on a pledge by Byzantine emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos to reunite the Eastern church with the West.[77] Wishing to end the East-West Schism that divided Rome and Constantinople, Gregory X had sent an embassy to Michael VIII, who had reconquered Constantinople, putting an end to the remnants of the Latin Empire in the East.

On 29 June 1274 (the Feast of Peter and Paul, the patronal feast of popes), Gregory X celebrated Mass in St John's Church where both sides took part. The council declared that the Roman church possessed "the supreme and full primacy and authority over the universal Catholic Church."

The council was seemingly a success, but did not provide a lasting solution to the schism; the Emperor was anxious to heal the schism, but the Eastern clergy proved to be obstinate. Patriarch Joseph of Constantinople abdicated, and was replaced by John Bekkos, a convert to the cause of union. In spite of a sustained campaign by Bekkos to defend the union intellectually, and vigorous and brutal repression of opponents by Michael, the vast majority of Byzantine Christians remained implacably opposed to union with the Latin "heretics". Michael's death in December 1282 put an end to the union of Lyon. His son and successor Andronikos II Palaiologos repudiated the union, and Bekkos was forced to abdicate, being eventually exiled and imprisoned until his death in 1297. He is to this day reviled by many in the Eastern Church as a traitor to Orthodoxy. Thus the primacy of the Pope remains an issue between the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches.


The primacy of the Pope was again challenged in 1517 when Martin Luther began preaching against several practices in the Catholic Church, including some itinerant friars' abuses involving indulgences. When Pope Leo X refused to support Luther's position, Luther claimed belief in an "invisible church" and called the pope the Antichrist.

Luther's rejection of the primacy of the Pope led to the start of the Protestant Reformation, during which numerous Protestant sects broke away from the Catholic Church. The Church of England also broke away from the Catholic Church at this time, although for reasons different from Martin Luther and the Protestants.

First Vatican Council

The doctrine of papal primacy was further developed in 1870 at the First Vatican Council, where ultramontanism achieved victory over conciliarism with the pronouncement of papal infallibility (the ability of the pope to define dogmas free from error ex cathedra) and of papal supremacy, i.e., supreme, full, immediate, and universal ordinary jurisdiction of the pope.

The First Vatican Council's dogmatic constitution Pastor aeternus declared that "in the disposition of God the Roman church holds the preeminence of ordinary power over all the other churches." This council also affirmed the dogma of papal infallibility, deciding that the "infallibility" of the Christian community extended to the pope himself, at least when speaking on matters of faith.

Vatican I defined a twofold Primacy of Peter — one in papal teaching on faith and morals (the charism of infallibility), and the other a primacy of jurisdiction involving government and discipline of the Church — submission to both being necessary to Catholic faith and salvation.[78]

Vatican I rejected the ideas that papal decrees have "no force or value unless confirmed by an order of the secular power" and that the pope's decisions can be appealed to an ecumenical council "as to an authority higher than the Roman Pontiff."

Paul Collins argues that "(the doctrine of papal primacy as formulated by the First Vatican Council) has led to the exercise of untrammelled papal power and has become a major stumbling block in ecumenical relationships with the Orthodox (who consider the definition to be heresy) and Protestants."[79]

Forced to break off prematurely by secular political developments in 1870, Vatican I left behind it a somewhat unbalanced ecclesiology. "In theology the question of papal primacy was so much in the foreground that the Church appeared essentially as a centrally directed institution which one was dogged in defending but which only encountered one externally", according to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (the later Pope Benedict XVI).[80]

Second Vatican Council

At the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965) the debate on papal primacy and authority re-emerged, and in the dogmatic constitution Lumen gentium, the Catholic Church's teaching on the authority of the pope, bishops and councils was further elaborated. Vatican II sought to correct the unbalanced ecclesiology left behind by Vatican I. The result is the body of teaching about the papacy and episcopacy contained in Lumen gentium.

Vatican II reaffirmed everything Vatican I taught about papal primacy and infallibility, but it added important points about bishops. Bishops, it says, are not "vicars of the Roman Pontiff". Rather, in governing their local churches they are "vicars and legates of Christ".[81] Together, they form a body, a "college", whose head is the pope. This episcopal college is responsible for the well-being of the Universal Church. Here in a nutshell are the basic elements of the Council's much-discussed communio ecclesiology, which affirms the importance of local churches and the doctrine of collegiality.

In a key passage about collegiality, Vatican II teaches: "The order of bishops is the successor to the college of the apostles in their role as teachers and pastors, and in it the apostolic college is perpetuated. Together with their head, the Supreme Pontiff, and never apart from him, they have supreme and full authority over the Universal Church; but this power cannot be exercised without the agreement of the Roman Pontiff".[9] Much of the present discussion of papal primacy is concerned with exploring the implications of this passage.

Vatican II also emphasized the sensus fidelium as the vehicle for the living tradition,[82] with the promise to Peter assuring that the gates of Hades will not prevail against "it", the Church, which is the people who are the living tradition.[83] Therefore infallibility is "a doctrine and order rooted in and reflecting the sensus fidelium."[84] Rahner insists that a Pope's statements depend essentially on his knowledge of what the living tradition maintains. There is no question of revelation but of preservation from error in the exercise of this oversight. This living tradition was gathered from communication with all the Bishops in the two instances where the Pope defined dogmas apart from a Council, the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption.[85][86]

21st century relations with other Christian denominations

In the document Responses to some questions regarding certain aspects of the doctrine on the Church of 29 June 2007 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith reiterated that, in the view of the Catholic Church, the Christian communities born out of the Protestant Reformation and which lack apostolic succession in the sacrament of orders are not "Churches" in the proper sense. The Eastern Christian Churches that are not in communion with Rome, such as the Eastern Orthodox Church, Oriental Orthodoxy and the Assyrian Church of the East, are Churches in the proper sense and sister Churches of the Catholic particular Churches, but since communion with the Pope is one of the internal constitutive principles of a particular Church, they lack something in their condition, while on the other hand the existing division means that the fullness of universality that is proper to the Church governed by the successor of St Peter and the bishops in communion with him is not now realised in history.[87]

Efforts at reconciliation

Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission

The Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) statement of Venice (1976) states that the ministry of the bishop of Rome among his brother bishops was "interpreted" as Christ's will for his Church; its importance was compared "by analogy" to the position of Peter among the apostles.[88]

Unlike many other Churches of the Reformation, the Anglican Church has never abandoned a possible role for the Roman primacy, so long as the ministry of the Bishop of Rome is rightly understood, interpreted, and implemented. The ministry of the Bishop of Rome should not be an obstacle, but rather should function as a possible instrument of ultimate Christian unity. Orthodox Anglicanism today acknowledges that the ministry of the papacy is evolving rapidly and could someday be received by the Anglican Church as means tending toward the reconciliation of all Churches. A de facto recognition of the historic papal ministry already exists within the Anglican Communion, which has consistently maintained throughout her history that the Roman Pontiff possesses a station of primus inter pares, "first amongst equals", a primacy of honour and reverence, though not of jurisdiction or personal infallibility.[89]

Communion with the bishop of Rome does not imply submission to an authority which would stifle the distinctive features of the local churches. The purpose of the episcopal function of the bishop of Rome is to promote Christian fellowship in faithfulness to the teaching of the apostles.[90]

Joint worship service with the Archbishop of Canterbury

At a joint service during the first official visit of the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, to the Vatican, Runcie appealed to Anglicans to consider accepting papal primacy in a reunified church. At the same time, Pope John Paul II stressed that his office must be more than a figurehead.[91]

Ut unum sint

John Paul II invited, in Ut Unum Sint, his 1995 encyclical on commitment to ecumenism, the "pastors and theologians" of Churches and Ecclesial Communities not in full communion with the Catholic Church to suggest how to exercise papal primacy in ways that would unite rather than divide.[92]

Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue

In October 2007, the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue Between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, agreed that the pope has primacy among all bishops of the Church, something which has been universally acknowledged by both churches since the First Council of Constantinople in 381 (when they were still one Church) though disagreements about the extent of his authority still continue.

The document "draws an analogy among the three levels of communion: local, regional, and universal, each of which appropriately has a 'first' with the role of fostering communion, in order to ground the rationale of why the universal level must also have a primacy. It articulates the principle that primacy and conciliarity are interdependent and mutually necessary."[93] Speaking of "fraternal relations between bishops" during the first millennium, it states that "these relations, among the bishops themselves, between the bishops and their respective protoi (firsts), and also among the protoi themselves in the canonical order (taxis) witnessed by the ancient Church, nourished and consolidated ecclesial communion." It notes that both sides agree "that Rome, as the church that 'presides in love' according to the phrase of St Ignatius of Antioch, occupied the first place in the taxis (order) and that the bishop of Rome was, therefore, the protos (first) among the patriarchs. They disagree, however, on the interpretation of the historical evidence from this era regarding the prerogatives of the bishop of Rome as protos, a matter that was already understood in different ways in the first millennium";[94][95][96][97] and "while the fact of primacy at the universal level is accepted by both East and West, there are differences of understanding with regard to the manner in which it is to be exercised, and also with regard to its scriptural and theological foundations".[98][99]

Discussions continued at Aghios Nikolaos, Crete, (a drafting committee) in September–October 2008; at Paphos, Cyprus, in October 2009;[100] and Vienna, Austria in September 2010.[101] Hegumen Filipp Ryabykh, the deputy head of the Russian Orthodox Church Department for External Church Relations said

The fact that the Pope of Rome claims universal jurisdiction is simply contrary to Orthodox ecclesiology, which teaches that the Orthodox Church, whilst preserving unity of faith and church order, nevertheless consists of several [autocephalous] Local Churches[102]

A 2008 draft text on "The Role of the Bishop of Rome in the Communion of the Church in the First Millennium" topic prepared by the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue Between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church was leaked in 2010,[103] which the Vienna meeting asked to be revised and amplified. This document states that "Catholics and Orthodox agree that, from apostolic times, the Church of Rome has been recognised as the first among the local Churches, both in the East and in the West."[104] Both sides agree that "the primacy of the see precedes the primacy of its bishops and is the source of the latter".[105] While in the West, "the position of the bishop of Rome among the bishops was understood in terms of the position of Peter among the apostles ... the East tended rather to understand each bishop as the successor of all the apostles, including Peter"; but these rather different understandings "co-existed for several centuries until the end of the first millennium, without causing a break of communion".[106]

Opposition to the doctrine

American religious author Stephen K. Ray, a Baptist convert to Catholicism, asserts that "There is little in the history of the Church that has been more heatedly contested than the primacy of Peter and the See of Rome. History is replete with examples of authority spurned, and the history of the Church is no different."[107]

The doctrines of papal primacy and papal supremacy are perhaps the greatest obstacles to ecumenical efforts between the Catholic Church and the other Christian churches. Most Eastern Orthodox Christians, for example, would be quite willing to accord the Bishop of Rome the same respect, deference and authority as is accorded to any Eastern Orthodox patriarch, but resist granting him special authority over all Christians. Many Protestants are quite willing to grant the pope a position of special moral leadership, but feel that according any more formal authority to the pope than that would conflict with the Protestant principle of solus Christus, i.e., that there can be no intermediaries between a Christian and God except for Christ.

Protestant view

The topic of the Papacy and its authority is among the main differences between the Catholic Church and many other Christian denominations. The Bible is considered to be the sole authority on Christian doctrine and theology, and that interpretation does not lie solely with one individual (sola scriptura).

It is argued that Matthew 16:18–19 does not support the authority given to Peter and that the keys were given not to Peter alone but to the whole church. Some consider that Jesus was considering the proclamation made by Peter to be the rock and foundation of the faith.[108] Others say that, even if Peter is the "rock", it does not support exclusive authority,[109] and Peter himself believed Jesus to be the cornerstone of the church (1 Peter 2:7). It is noted that at the Council of Jerusalem James the Just and the Apostle Peter contribute to the decision of the council (Acts 15).

Orthodox view

The Orthodox church considers the Bishop of Rome to be the primus inter pares.[110] Many theologians also believe that Peter is the rock referred to by Jesus in Matthew 16:18.[111]

However, in Matthew 16:18 the keys were given not only to Peter but to all the Apostles equally. Such an interpretation, it is claimed,[112] has been accepted by many Church Fathers; Tertullian,[lower-alpha 8] Hilary of Poitiers,[lower-alpha 9] John Chrysostom,[lower-alpha 10] Augustine.[116][lower-alpha 11][118][119][lower-alpha 12]

It has been argued that Church councils did not consider papal decisions binding. The Third Ecumenical Council was called, even though Pope Celestine I condemned Nestorius as a heretic which Michael Whelton, Catholic convert to Orthodoxy, argues shows that the council did not consider the papal condemnation as definitive.[121][122]

Opposition arguments from early church history

  • The Dictatus papae, which some attributed to Pope Gregory VII (11th century), states that "the Roman pontiff alone can with right be called universal". The popes have not on the basis of this right employed the title "universal bishop". Pope Gregory I (6th century) condemned use by the patriarch of Constantinople of this title, and even said that whoever claims it "is, in his elation, the precursor of Antichrist".[123] Gregory I was not in any way denying the universal jurisdiction of the bishop of Rome. John Norman Davidson Kelly wrote that Gregory I, "was indefatigable ... in upholding the Roman primacy, and successfully maintained Rome's appellate jurisdiction in the east. ... Gregory argued that St. Peter's commission [e.g. in Matthew 16:18f] made all churches, Constantinople included, subject to Rome".[124][125] While every bishop is a subject of the sollicitudo omnium Ecclesiarum,[lower-alpha 13] in 1998, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith explained, that "In the case of the Bishop of Rome - Vicar of Christ in the way proper to Peter as Head of the College of Bishops - the sollicitudo omnium Ecclesiarum acquires particular force because it is combined with the full and supreme power in the Church: a truly episcopal power, not only supreme, full and universal, but also immediate, over all pastors and other faithful."[126] Gregory I himself, though he asserted the reality of the primacy of the bishop of his apostolic see, the bishop who carried on the work entrusted to Peter,[127] rejected use of the title "universal bishop", which he called "profane".[128]

Opposition arguments from Church Councils

  • Not one Ecumenical Council was called by a pope; all were called by Byzantine emperors. The Church Fathers' writings and the Ecumenical Councils never speak of any papal election.[129] "Documents of the early church were never dated by a pope, and certainly the early Fathers never had to submit their private interpretations to the imprimatur of the Vatican."[130]
  • The Council of Carthage (419): Saint Augustine and Saint Aurelius in this council condemned Pope Zosimus for interfering with the African Church's jurisdiction by falsifying the text of Canon 5 of the First Council of Nicaea. They further warned Pope Zosimus, and later Pope Celestine I, not to "introduce the empty pride of the world into the Church of Christ" and to "keep their Roman noses out of African affairs".[131][132][133] The Council ruled that no bishop may call himself "Prince of Bishops" or "Supreme Bishop" or any other title which suggests Supremacy(Canon 39). It also ruled that if any of the African clergy dared to appeal to Rome, "the same was ipso facto cast out of the clergy". (Canon 34) [131][134]
  • The Council of Chalcedon (451): The council ruled that the bishops of Rome and Constantinople were on equal footing, enjoying the "same" ecclesiastical honors (Canon 28).[135] Pope Leo I fully approved the canons of this council,[136] that this "Holy, Great and Universal Council" simply addressed the bishop of Rome as "Archbishop Leo".[137][138][139]
  • The Second Council of Constantinople (553): "Pope Vigilius wrote a treatise for home consumption, but the Fifth Ecumenical Council immediately forced this Roman bishop to retract his heretical views, and his successor, Pope Pelagius, officially approved this Eastern decision".[139][140][141]
  • The Third Council of Constantinople (680–681): The Council condemned Pope Honorius posthumously "To Honorius, the heretic, anathema" [142] and informed the then living bishop of Rome that his predecessor "had been officially anathematized by the Catholic Church: as a heretic, as a sinner", and "as one fallen away from the faith".[139][143]
  • Before the East–West Schism all bishops of Rome taught that the Ecumenical Councils were above any individual bishop, so there is "no basis on which to speak of a papacy or even of the rise of the papacy in these days or those that follow".[139]

While the Bishop of Rome struggled for supremacy with the Bishop of Constantinople we find that the Eastern Emperors still maintained tremendous power. Nearly a century after Gregory we find Pope Agatho (678–681) teaching “that Emperor Augustus, as Supreme Pontiff of the Catholic Church, was far better qualified to interpret the Scriptures than the Bishop of Rome: ‘Your Highness is incomparably more able to penetrate the meaning of the Sacred Scriptures than Our Lowliness.’” At this point in time the popes bowed, or even crawled on their knees before the Eastern Emperors, and it was the Emperors who held the title of “Supreme Pontiff.” [139][144]

Disagreement with papal directives by Westerners

Disagreements with directives of the popes by groups and high-ranking individuals of Catholic tradition are by no means limited to past centuries. In 2005 the Catholic Jesuit Professor John J. Paris disregarded a papal directive on euthanasia as lacking authority.[145] In 2012, John Wijngaards and a group of Catholic theologians presented their Catholic Scholars' Declaration on Authority in the Church in which they advocate that the "role of the papacy needs to be clearly re-defined".[146]

Opposition arguments from Orthodox doctrine

Catholic Cardinal and theologian Yves Congar stated

The East never accepted the regular jurisdiction of Rome, nor did it submit to the judgment of Western bishops. Its appeals to Rome for help were not connected with a recognition of the principle of Roman jurisdiction but were based on the view that Rome had the same truth, the same good. The East jealously protected its autonomous way of life. Rome intervened to safeguard the observation of legal rules, to maintain the orthodoxy of faith and to ensure communion between the two parts of the church, the Roman see representing and personifying the West...In according Rome a 'primacy of honour', the East avoided basing this primacy on the succession and the still living presence of the apostle Peter. A modus vivendi was achieved which lasted, albeit with crises, down to the middle of the eleventh century.[147]

Orthodox understanding of Catholicity

The test of catholicity is adherence to the authority of Scripture and then by the Holy Tradition of the church. It is not defined by adherence to any particular See. It is the position of the Orthodox Church that it has never accepted the pope as de jure leader of the entire church. All bishops are equal 'as Peter' therefore every church under every bishop (consecrated in apostolic succession) is fully complete (the original meaning of the word catholic- καθολικισμός, katholikismos, "according to the whole").

Referring to Ignatius of Antioch, in Letter to the Smyrnaeans,[70] -Let Nothing Be Done Without the Bishop. Carlton wrote:

Contrary to popular opinion, the word catholic does not mean "universal"; it means "whole, complete, lacking nothing." ...Thus, to confess the Church to be catholic is to say that She possesses the fullness of the Christian faith. To say, however, that Orthodox and Rome constitute two lungs of the same Church is to deny that either Church separately is catholic in any meaningful sense of the term. This is not only contrary to the teaching of Orthodoxy, it is flatly contrary to the teaching of the Catholic Church, which considered itself truly catholic[148]

The church is in the image of the Trinity and reflects the reality of the incarnation.[149]

"The body of Christ must always be equal with itself...The local church which manifests the body of Christ cannot be subsumed into any larger organisation or collectivity which makes it more catholic and more in unity, for the simple reason that the principle of total catholicity and total unity is already intrinsic to it."[150]

See also


  1. "It is not a greater difficulty that St. Ignatius does not write to the Asian Greeks about Popes, than that St. Paul does not write to the Corinthians about Bishops. [...] No doctrine is defined till it is violated."[27]
  2. the "...Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. ...The blessed apostles, then, having founded and built up the Church, committed into the hands of Linus the office of the episcopate."[40]
  3. One could argue that the Great schism started with Victor, continued with Stephen and remained underground until the ninth century![46]
  4. "But this did not please all the bishops. And they besought him to consider the things of peace, and of neighborly unity and love. Words of theirs are extant, sharply rebuking Victor. Among them was Irenæus, who, sending letters in the name of the brethren in Gaul over whom he presided, maintained that the mystery of the resurrection of the Lord should be observed only on the Lord's day. He fittingly admonishes Victor that he should not cut off whole churches of God which observed the tradition of an ancient custom."<ref name='FOOTNOTEEusebius''Church history''[[s:Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Series II/Volume I/Church History of Eusebius/Book V/Chapter 24|5.24 n. 11]]'>Eusebius & Church history, 5.24 n. 11.
  5. "Rector totius ecclesiæ".[58]
  6. In opposition to this view, Francis Dvornik asserts that not only did Damasus offer "no protest against the elevation of Constantinople", that change in the primacy of the major sees was effected in an "altogether friendly atmosphere". According to Dvornik, "Everyone continued to regard the Bishop of Rome as the first bishop of the Empire, and the head of the church."[62]
  7. "Paschasinus, the most reverend bishop and legate of the Apostolic See, stood up in the midst with his most reverend colleagues and said: We received directions at the hands of the most blessed and apostolic bishop of the Roman city, which is the head of all the churches, ..."[66]
  8. "What, now, (has this to do) with the Church, and your (church), indeed, Psychic? For, in accordance with the person of Peter, it is to spiritual men that this power will correspondently appertain, either to an apostle or else to a prophet."[113]
  9. "This faith it is which is the foundation of the Church; through this faith the gates of hell cannot prevail against her. This is the faith which has the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatsoever this faith shall have loosed or bound on earth shall be loosed or bound in heaven. This faith is the Father's gift by revelation; even the knowledge that we must not imagine a false Christ, a creature made out of nothing, but must confess Him the Son of God, truly possessed of the Divine nature."[114]
  10. "For (John) the Son of thunder, the beloved of Christ, the pillar of the Churches throughout the world, who holds the keys of heaven, who drank the cup of Christ, and was baptized with His baptism, who lay upon his Master's bosom, with much confidence, this man now comes forward to us now"[115]
  11. "...Peter, the first of the apostles, receive the keys of the kingdom of heaven for the binding and loosing of sins; and for the same congregation of saints, in reference to the perfect repose in the bosom of that mysterious life to come did the evangelist John recline on the breast of Christ. For it is not the former alone but the whole Church, that bindeth and looseth sins; nor did the latter alone drink at the fountain of the Lord's breast, to emit again in preaching, of the Word in the beginning, God with God, and those other sublime truths regarding the divinity of Christ, and the Trinity and Unity of the whole Godhead."[117]
  12. "How the Church? Why, to her it was said, "To thee I will give the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatsoever thou shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven, and whatsoever thou shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven."[120]
  13. See Paul the Apostle in 2 Corinthians 11:28 (RSV-CE) and 2 Corinthians 11:28 (Vulgate).[126]



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  • Augustine of Hippo (1887). "On Christian Doctrine/Book I/Chapter 18" . In Schaff, Philip; Wace, Henry (eds.). A select library of the Nicene and post-Nicene fathers of the Christian Church. Series 1. 2 (American ed.). Buffalo: Christian Literature via Wikisource.
  • Augustine of Hippo (1888). "Gospel According to St. John/Part 124" . In Schaff, Philip; Wace, Henry (eds.). A select library of the Nicene and post-Nicene fathers of the Christian Church. Series 1. 7 (American ed.). Buffalo: Christian Literature. Tractate 124 via Wikisource.
  • One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a work now in the public domain: Bachofen, Charles A. (1918). A commentary on the new code of the canon law. 2 (3rd ed.). St. Louis, MO; London: B. Herder book. pp. 207–216. hdl:2027/hvd.ah4gvz. LCCN 19004568. Missing or empty |title= (help)


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