Ravenna and the Roman primacy

How is it that no other bishop but the Roman bishop ever claimed a universal primacy in the Church?

After two decades of modest progress, the Joint International Catholic-Orthodox Theological Commission, meeting in Ravenna, Italy, October 8-14, 2007, issued a study document on ecclesial communion, conciliarity and authority1 that acknowledged the Roman primacy in the universal Church as a historical fact, but called for an extensive study and clarification of its basis and nature, issues hotly debated for centuries.

My purpose here is to outline the conflicting positions on the basis and nature of the Roman primacy as these issues are presented generally by leaders and scholars of the two Church communions, including Anglicans, and to suggest how these mutually opposed positions may be brought closer together, followed by a personal reflection.

The Catholic position

Some may be surprised to learn that Orthodox leaders and theologians, together with classical Anglicans, do not dispute the historical fact of Rome’s universal primacy from the earliest Christian centuries; but they differ radically with the Catholic Church regarding the basis and nature of this primacy, arguing, in some cases, that because of heresy it has been lost.

The Catholic Church has insisted from time immemorial—and, indeed, has dogmatized this conviction—that our Lord Jesus Christ gave the ministerial leadership of his Church to Peter and intended this office (like the Church itself) to continue permanently and, by the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to continue in the leadership or episcopate of the Roman Church, in the city where Peter (with Paul) exercised Church leadership and where both Peter and Paul were martyred, and in which was the capital and center of the Church’s first principal missionary field—namely, the Roman Empire.

This leadership derived from Peter, the chief apostle, was first exercised, then specified and later defined by the Church itself in the course of history, as a leadership of real and final authority to be invoked when needed for the good and, above all, for the unity of all the churches. This authority was spiritual, doctrinal and governmental—and in all cases decisive. Vatican Council I, reaffirmed by Vatican II, described the office as episcopal, ordinary and immediate; namely, that the Roman bishop has the same authority within the whole Church that a diocesan bishop has within his own diocese, that this universal authority inheres in the Roman bishop’s office and that it can be exercised independently (canonically speaking) and personally without need for recourse to any other authority. Inherent also in this office of the Roman bishop is the charism to teach inerrantly under precise conditions specified by the conciliar definition.

The Catholic teaching on the Roman primacy is thus clear, precise, forthright and, for many, overwhelming.2 It is accompanied by a long list of supportive testimonies from Scripture, the apostolic and post-apostolic Church, the patristic age and subsequent centuries.3

The Orthodox and Anglican position

The Orthodox and the Anglicans generally have no dogmatic position on these issues; but they nonetheless have a long tradition of firmly rejecting the Catholic position. They have evaluated the factual and historical Roman primacy as, variously, 1) an office inconsistent with the nature of the Church as a Eucharistic communion of local churches all of which are equally the Church, where primacy on all levels is exercised only in a conciliar context; 2) an office needed in the universal Church and one that was perhaps providentially initiated but that was actually conferred upon the Roman See and its bishop by the other ancient local churches, as witnessed by ecumenical or other councils such as Nicaea (325), Sardica (342), Constantinople I (381) and Chalcedon (451).4

This designation of Rome as having the universal primacy came, it is maintained, by reason of Rome’s position at the center of the world in which the Church was then planted and growing—the Roman Empire. The city and its Church also enjoyed the unique heritage of the two apostles Peter and Paul both having ministered there and been martyred there; and, as the centuries followed, it boasted a Church whose authority grew tremendously in the religious and political circumstance of the times and, also, it is said, by arrogating authority to itself within the communion of churches.

Such commentators view the legitimate original Roman primacy of leadership—in the sense of a norm of faith and practice—as having evolved or devolved into a “papalism” or “papal supremacy,” terms and phrases that signify a kind of distortion or wrongful aggrandizement of the original office, which was Peter’s or was conferred on the Roman See by its ancient sister churches. The Roman primacy became, in this perspective, a supreme, monarchical and dictatorial office analogous to an oppressive secular power.

Thus, though universal primacy may have emerged in the Church because of a need for such leadership, the kind of primacy that factually developed rather quickly, asserting its foundation in the indemonstrable claim of the Lord’s gift to Peter, had, in any case, evolved into an objectionable papal supremacy that ever since has become a stone of stumbling for Christians who do not admit it.5

A resolution?

How are these conflicting positions to be harmonized? Clearly, the path of resolution will be neither easy nor short. In 1995, however, Pope John Paul II (in Ut Unum Sint)6 invited the leaders and theologians of all the Christian church communities (a sparse response) to join him in a dialogue as to how the Roman primacy, its essential mission preserved, may best be exercised in our time. This dialogue was not to obscure, however, the basis and nature of this primacy.

All parties to this dialogue would need to commit themselves to a thorough and objective examination of the extant data, beginning with the Scriptures and the very early Church testimonies and those of the Fathers, of the major councils, and of the Eastern and Western Churches’ twenty centuries of mutual relations and doctrinal teaching, distinguishing the various levels of authority in this teaching. A sifting and evaluating of all this material would follow. Joint committees would appropriately pursue these tasks, as well as individual theologians.

True, this task has been done in large measure before. But, today joint committees of scholars are needed to replicate, authenticate and, if need be, correct the work of the past and accomplish new research called for now. Scholars striving equally for objectivity will evaluate evidence differently. Scholarly thoroughness and objectivity will, therefore, not eliminate all differences but will narrow them. Ultimately conclusions from a scientific point of view will need to be drawn in some cases on the basis of the preponderance of evidence and possible alternative interpretations noted.

But scholarship alone—even the most professional and objective—is not enough. Beyond scholarship there is needed prayerful intercession. The Church is not a community of scholars but the Mystical Body of Christ into which we are ingrafted by faith and baptism for the conversion of hearts, the healing of memories and the gift of reconciliation. We must have an intensified dialogue of love and that mutual cooperation which the Church communions have sought with greater or lesser success over these last fifty years. We must seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit for a full reconciliation and we must dearly want it.7

How a Catholic looks at the issues

What do Scripture, history, the Church’s teaching office, reason and experience tell us about what Christ wanted and what was needed for his Church? For Catholics this answer is already definitively provided by the Spirit-guided Magisterium of the Church. But even within this framework of truth definitively taught, there is room (as Pope John Paul II told us in Ut Unum Sint) for a dialogue on how the Roman primacy may best serve the universal Church in our time. Could it be, he suggests at least indirectly, that every exercise of the papacy in the past was not a necessary or desirable exercise of that primacy?

The words Jesus spoke to Peter in conferring and then confirming his special leadership position are striking, stunning and unforgettable: the ambit of this leadership—granting “whatsoever you bind or loose”—is equally extraordinary, especially when spoken singly to Peter in the “rock” passage (Matt.16:18ff). Can it be thought that the continuing Church would not need, the more it grew and diversified throughout the Roman Empire and beyond, such a decisive leadership? How is it that no other bishop but the Roman bishop ever claimed a universal primacy in the Church? Is it credible that we have beheld in the continuing Roman primacy the defacement of our Savior’s original gift to Peter as this office has responded to two thousand years of Church growth? Though Antioch and Alexandria anciently, and Constantinople more latterly, were large and influential sees, no one of these sees made any such claim. Only Constantinople, in its glory time, claimed to hold the place “after Rome.”

Testimonies from the early Church (the first through the third centuries), though relatively few, all support the Roman primacy as it was being exercised at the time. No testimonies dispute it.8 As the Church expanded numerically and geographically, so did the primacy expand in the depth and breadth of its activity, responding to the dynamic inherent in the original gift to Peter and the need for decisive leadership throughout the ecumenical Church.

As with other major doctrines—for example, the christological, Trinitarian and Eucharistic doctrines—the Church needed time to clarify and set the limits of belief. We should expect no differently with the fuller understanding and appreciation of the Roman primacy—its basis and nature—in that trajectory that moves from Clement of Rome’s remonstrance to the Corinthian Church over the deposition of presbyters (A.D. 96) to the actions of Gelasius, Damasus and Leo the Great in the ecumenical Church of their day when at the Council of Chalcedon (A.D. 451) the Fathers exclaimed that Peter was speaking through Leo.

Long before any “patriarchates” existed (late fifth and sixth centuries), before Constantinople had emerged from little Byzantium, been acclaimed as “New Rome” and become rival to “Old Rome,” Rome had enjoyed without question its unique primacy in the universal Church. That leadership was spiritual, doctrinal, administrative, decisive and virtually unopposed. A universal “jurisdiction” can plausibly be traced from Clement of Rome’s remonstrance to the Corinthian Church to the many other interventions in subsequent centuries. The Anglo-Catholic church historian Beresford Kidd concluded in The Roman Primacy to A.D. 461 (p.153) that the developed expression of the primacy had already reached its apogee by the death of Pope Leo the Great in that year.

Whatever was claimed for bishops of Rome or patriarchs after the Constantinian peace, the promise to Peter and his successors and their exercise of this charism already had long been fixed in the life of the Church and acknowledged broadly. That factual primacy may not have entailed the acceptance by all explicitly and at once of the Roman bishop. Some have maintained that Rome had no individual bishop until about A.D. 100, but the positive testimonies predominate. History over-all points to a given primacy that grew by recognition and need, not a fictitious primacy built upon ambition.

Is it credible that other ancient sees conferred the primacy on Rome? Did Antioch, Alexandria or any other ancient see ever claim such a primacy for itself? No cogent ancient testimony establishes such views. No, only the bishop of Rome claimed it and exercised it and was acknowledged to have it. And this primacy has been exercised to this day. Let scholarship bring the evidence of history to light. Then let the dialoguing Church communions reflect upon and discuss how this factual primacy, its basis and nature known, may best be exercised in our time.

We look for the self-heading churches of the Orthodox Communion to consider whether they have now or can achieve without the Roman primacy that unity—beyond faith and sacramental life—in mutual harmony, effective coordination and governance, and united action for mission that surely belongs to that full unity that Christ willed for his Church. Will the Roman primacy by the grace of the Holy Spirit in its renewed exercise for our time bring trust, healing, new evangelistic faith and fervor, and an empowering charism to all the churches everywhere? We think it will.

  1. “Ecclesiological and Canonical Consequences of the Sacramental Nature of the Church: Ecclesial Communion, Conciliarity and Authority,” available from www.vatican.va. 
  2. Definitive Catholic teaching on the Roman primacy is summed up in Schmaus, Michael, Dogma 4: The Church: Its Origins and Structure, New York, Sheed and Ward, 1972, chapters 14-20. 
  3. Testimonies in support of the Roman primacy from the East and the West, A.D. 96-454, are gathered together in Documents Illustrating Papal Authority, A.D. 96-454, edited and introduced by E. Giles, London, SPCK, 1952. Testimonies from the Eastern churches to A.D. 900 are presented in The Eastern Churches and the Papacy, S. Herbert Scott, London, Sheed and Ward, 1928. 
  4. Representative Orthodox positions on the Roman primacy can be found in The Primacy of Peter, by J. Meyendorff, A. Schmemann, N. Afanassieff, and N. Koulomzine, 2 nd ed., London, Bedminster, The Faith Press and American Orthodox Book Service. A survey of positions held by contemporary Orthodox theologians may be found in “Ravenna and Beyond: The Question of the Roman Papacy and the Orthodox Churches in the Literature 1962-2005,” by Adam A.J. DeVille in One in Christ, Vol. 42, No.1, Summer 2008, pp.75-98. Canon 28 of the Council of Chalcedon (451), considered and voted upon by a minority of bishops (ca. 184 out of ca. 600) left in attendance near the council’s end, stated in an obiter dictum that the “Fathers had given the primacy to Rome.” Although the translation of the verb (apodidomi—given or acknowledged as due to) is disputed, it is not clear which Fathers are being referred to, since Nicaea (325) had already acknowledged Rome’s primacy as long in existence. Pope Leo (440-461) in his letters customarily designated Peter and Paul as the Fathers of the Roman Church. And although implored by the council, by the Emperor and by the archbishop of Constantinople to approve canon 28, neither Leo I nor any subsequent bishop of Rome did so, because in confirming Constantinople’s second place after Rome and enlarging that See’s jurisdiction over Roman provinces of Thames, Pontus and Asia it conflicted with the Nicene canons on the rights of Alexandria and Antioch. 
  5. Representative Anglican positions are presented in Kidd, B.J., The Roman Primacy to A. D. 461, London, SPCK, 1936; Stone, Darwell, The Christian Church, London, Rivington, 1905; Moss, C.B., The Christian Faith, London, SPCK, 1963; and Hall, Francis J., Authority: Ecclesiastical and Biblical; New York, Longmans Green 1908 (re-published 1968, American Church Union). Some assumptions, evaluations and conclusions of Dr. Kidd are questioned, evaluated and, in part, rejected by his fellow Anglican, Dom Gregory Dix, in his Jurisdiction in the Early Church: Episcopal and Papal, London, The Church Literature Association, (1938) 1975. 
  6. Relevant sections are found in The Christian Faith in the Doctrinal Documents of the Catholic Church, 7th and enlarged ed., Rev. J. Dupuis, New York, Alba House, 2001, pp.402-09. 
  7. A similar position is advocated by Adam A.J. DeVille, in Ecumenical Trends, Vol. 37, No. 4, April 2008, pp.6/54-7/55. 
  8. Bishop Cyprian of Carthage (d. 258) firmly supported the Roman primacy but at times rejected papal decisions with which he did not agree. 
Msgr. Daniel S. Hamilton About Msgr. Daniel S. Hamilton

Msgr. Daniel S. Hamilton, PhD, a former editor of The Long Island Catholic (1975-1985) and chairman of the Rockville Centre Diocesan Ecumenical Commission (1968-1988), is pastor emeritus of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church, Lindenhurst, New York and consultant to the Anglican Use Society and the Pastoral Provision.