First Millennium Petrine ministry

The teachings of the Fathers show that the Church has always affirmed the primacy and supremacy of the bishop of Rome.

As I followed on television the pastoral visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the United States in April 2008, I was reminded of an observation made by a friend of mine during our vacation together the previous Christmas. My friend, marveling at the power of the teaching of Pope Benedict in his first two encyclicals, said that it seemed to him that Benedict was using his pontificate to teach “like Leo and Gregory,” the “great” popes, who lived in the fifth and seventh centuries, respectively. He likened the style and method of our Holy Father to that of the Fathers of the Church, those ancient bishops who taught orthodox doctrine in a learned yet simple way in their liturgical homilies. I was intrigued by the claim, yet unaware of its potency until a second reading of Benedict’s first two encyclicals revealed for me that this observation was right on the mark. Indeed, Pope Benedict has adopted a style very much inspired by the concrete imagery and liturgical mystagogy employed by the ancient Fathers.

This insight prompted me to recall Pope John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical, Ut Unum Sint, in which he invited “Church leaders and their theologians to engage with [him] in a patient and fraternal dialogue on [the exercise of the Petrine ministry], a dialogue in which, leaving useless controversies behind, we could listen to one another, keeping before us only the will of Christ for his Church.”1 In making this bold gesture, he no doubt had in mind “the unity which, in spite of everything, was experienced in the first millennium and in a certain sense now serves as a kind of model.”2 Then the power of the insight into Benedict became clear: In making his own the style of the Successors of Peter from the first millennium (his decision to wear the ancient style of the pallium and to use the miter in his coat of arms are not insignificant here), perhaps Pope Benedict XVI sees the modus vivendi of the Church of the first millennium as a great possibility for unity between East and West in the third millennium.

This is an intriguing and explosive possibility, one that may have great implications for the future of the Christian Church. However, if we are to truly follow Benedict in this regard, we must understand where he is coming from. In other words, the first-millennium practice of the Petrine ministry must be understood according to the first-millennium theology of the Petrine ministry. It is precisely that which we will explore in this article. It will be our task to show that the theology of the Petrine ministry of the first millennium—indeed, of the Fathers of the Church—is entirely consonant with the Church’s teaching on the papacy today, that the Church has nothing to fear in considering an exercise of the papacy that takes as its point of departure the life of the Church in the first millennium.

We begin our exploration of the patristic theology of the Petrine ministry with the Against the Donatists of St. Optatus. From Optatus, we first receive the ecclesiological foundation of the Petrine ministry: the primacy of the universal Church over the particular Church.3 Optatus demonstrates the primacy of the universal Church over the particular Church by appealing to the fact that the Church exists in various localities in such a way that the one Church is incarnated in various particular cities.4 Optatus declares that this one Church is to be realized in every part of the world, and that the various incarnations of the Church in the various particular localities are to be seen as parts of the one ecclesial whole. “Yet you are proud to be alone and separated from ‘all peoples,’ though to them this command was given; and you maintain that you, who are not in any part of the whole, are yet yourselves alone the whole.”5 This primacy of the universal Church over the particular is so pronounced that, if the heretics in question do not wish to be part of the universal Church, then they ought not even give praise to God. In Optatus’ ecclesiology, only the one universal Church can give God proper praise. “…Should you also praise him, together with all, or (since you have refused to be with all), in your isolation, hold your tongues.”6 Such is the gravity of maintaining the primacy of the universal Church, that he who cuts himself off from the universal ought not even praise God. It is very important to understand that the patristic theology of Peter’s ministry stems from the Fathers’ understanding of the Church, of her nature and of her mission.

In the context of this ecclesiology, Optatus then sets forth his theology of the Petrine ministry. In so doing, he strikes what we will see is the dominant chord in the patristic theology of the papacy: it is the cathedra of Peter upon which has been bestowed the gift of unity in truth for this one universal Church of Christ. “You cannot then deny that you do know that upon Peter first in the City of Rome was bestowed the Episcopal Cathedra….”7 Peter’s cathedra—his Teacher’s Chair—then is the original cathedra of the one universal Church, which then takes flesh in the various localities in which human beings live. But all these other localities, which have real cathedrae as well, on account of the presence of the apostles and their successors, are always to be in union with the one original cathedra of Peter. Of that cathedra, Optatus writes, “…In this one Cathedra, unity should be preserved by all, lest the other Apostles might claim—each for himself—separate Cathedras, so that he who should set up a second Cathedra against the unique Cathedra would already be a schismatic and a sinner.”8 For Optatus, Peter’s ministry of unity is a ministry that serves the Church’s unity in truth. This is why the cathedra, from which Peter teaches with authority, is so important.

This understanding of Peter’s see as the one that preserves unity follows upon the understanding that the bishops of the world are in a real relation to the bishop of Rome, whereas the bishop of Rome is only in a logical relation to the bishops of the world.9 Optatus sets this teaching forth when he declares that the pope at the time of his writing “is our colleague, with whom the whole world, through the intercourse of letters of peace, agrees with us in one bond of communion.”10 In other words, it is the bishop of Rome who provides the unity that the College of Bishops enjoys. The communion of the Church is the “communion of Peter.”11 This “providing” of unity flows from Peter’s place in the Apostolic College, in which he “deserved to be placed over all the Apostles, and alone received the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, which he was to communicate to the rest.”12 It is precisely in this sense that it can be said that the bishops are in real relation to the pope, and not vice versa. It is Peter who communicates the “keys”—the authority—to the College of the Apostles. In the context of apostolic succession, it is the pope who communicates the authority to the College of Bishops. This authority of the bishop of Rome is finally ordered to the salvation of the world, as “Peter received the saving Keys.”13 In addition, this authority is so sacred that to make “war against the Chair of Peter” is to engage in “audacious sacrilege.”14 The ministry of Peter in the Church—the authority of the bishop of Rome—is the “pattern of unity,” “the way in which unity is to be retained or procured”15 in the life of the one universal Church, which is present in various localities. This theology of Optatus would fly in the face of an Eastern-Orthodox theology of the papacy as “first among equals.” The pope is indeed one with all the bishops of the world in the College of Bishops, and, in that sense, is always their equal. But he is not just first among them; he is the constitutive element of the college itself. Where he is, there is the college.

No study of patristic theology would be complete without consulting the contributions of St. Augustine and St. John Chrysostom, the great Doctor of the West and the great Doctor of the East. Indeed, in Bernini’s great bronze of the Chair of Peter in St. Peter’s Basilica, Augustine and Chrysostom are two of the four Fathers of the Church who are depicted holding up the Cathedra Petri as it is revealed as the source of the divine life given by the Holy Spirit. In the work of St. Augustine (of “Roma locuta, causa finita” fame), the primacy of Peter—“the first of all the apostles”16—is set in evidence in a sermon he preached on the Gospel of John. After the Resurrection, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, Jesus, Augustine tells us, “entrusted [Peter] with the care of his flock.”17 Thus, “Peter represents the unity of all the shepherds or pastors of the Church,”18 which is to say that the pastors of the Church are one in Peter. We see here that distinctive patristic idea of the Petrine ministry as the ministry of unity. Augustine, however, introduces into the theology of the Petrine ministry a distinctively Christological aspect. He tells us, “The Rock made Rocky Peter true; for the Rock was Christ.”19 Peter is the Rock only because Christ is the Rock. Peter is Christ’s vicar; where Peter is, there is Christ. This Christological dimension marks a unique contribution of St. Augustine to the patristic theology of the Petrine ministry.

In St. John Chrysostom, bishop of Constantinople and Eastern theologian par excellence, we see a Father from the East giving testimony to the Petrine supremacy and primacy. St. John situates the Petrine ministry in the context of faith and love. Speaking of the famous passage from the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 16, in which Jesus gives Peter the keys to the kingdom, St. John writes: “Peter himself did not receive this name for his miracles, but for his zeal and his sincere love…with a sincere confession he demonstrated his faith.”20 That is to say that unity with Peter is fundamentally unity in faith. “We conserve with Peter his faith: retaining the faith of Peter, we have Peter himself.”21 We preserve this unity in faith with Peter by our unity in faith with his successor, in whom we encounter St. Peter himself.”22 In the pope, we have “the spirit and the power” of Peter.23 The teaching of St. John is a powerful witness to the first-millennium belief of the Christian East in the primacy of Peter and in the continued role of the Successor of Peter as the external principle of unity in the Church.

We come, at last, to the great Doctor of the Petrine Ministry, the aforementioned St. Leo the Great, who himself served as the Successor of St. Peter and who did much to help the Church clarify her understanding of the ministry of the Pontifex Maximus. In the teaching of Leo, all that has been said so far is presumed and expanded upon in a robust proclamation of the supremacy and primacy of the Successor of St. Peter in the life of the Church. With respect to Leo’s thought, we do well to focus on his understanding of the pope as the representative of Peter, and then to consider his account of Peter’s unique place in the New Covenant.

For Leo, the deep identity of the pope as alter Petrus is evidenced in his teaching that reverence for the pope is reverence for Peter: “…the entire Church, which receives Peter in the one who occupies his see…”24 In the Roman see, Leo assures us, “[Peter’s] power lives on and his authority reigns supreme.”25 In fact, the identification between the pope and St. Peter is so strong for Leo that in the person of the pope, “blessed Peter does not relinquish his government of the Church.”26 He says to his flock, of St. Peter: “Regard him as present in the lowliness of my person. Honor him…. His dignity does not fade even in an unworthy heir.”27 Indeed, Leo insists, “If through us anything is done correctly or anything managed correctly, it must be attributed to [Peter’s] works, to his guidance.”28 For Leo, the pope makes Peter present to the Church throughout the ages in such a way that, in his Petrine ministry, he can be said to act in persona Petri, as the ministerial priest acts in persona Christi when he confects the Eucharist or absolves sins. Such a sacramental understanding of the Petrine ministry would ring true in the ears of an Eastern Christian, for whom ecclesiastical authority is always rooted in the sacramental character of the bishop, given in Holy Orders.

The importance of Peter’s presence in the Church throughout the ages is brought into relief when one considers the “Petrine theology” of St. Leo. In other words, Leo helps us understand why it is so important for Peter to remain present and active in the life of the Church. For Leo, Peter represents the living faith of the Church. Meditating on the sixteenth chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel, Leo declares of Peter: “He was ordained before the others so that, when he is called rock, declared foundation, installed as doorkeeper for the kingdom of heaven, appointed arbiter of binding and loosing (with his definitive judgments retaining force even in heaven), we might know through the very mysteries of these appellations what sort of fellowship he had with Christ.”29 Peter’s charism, then, flows from his confession, which contains the “mysteries of these appellations” given to him by Christ. Since the confession of Peter was inspired by God, Leo tells us, “it has risen above all the uncertainties of human thinking and has received the strength of a rock that cannot be shaken by any pounding.”30 In short, Peter is the beneficiary of divine assistance in matters of faith, and thus becomes our rock, our sure foundation for knowing Divine Revelation.

Moving to a more practical level, Leo teaches that Peter’s jurisdiction in governing the flock is universal. “Yet out of the whole world Peter alone has been chosen to be put in charge of the universal convocation of peoples as well as every apostle and all the Fathers of the Church.”31 We see here also the idea of Peter’s supremacy over the apostles. While also being a member of the Apostolic College, he is the conditio sine qua non of the same college. “If [Christ] wanted other leaders to share something with [Peter], whatever [Christ] did not refuse entirely to these others he never gave unless it was through [Peter].”32 Peter is “first in dignity among the apostles” as he was the “first to confess the Lord.”33 In his confession of faith, Peter receives his prominence. We are given here an echo of the teaching of Chrysostom, who also connected Peter’s ministry with his confession of faith. Leo puts on the lips of Jesus: “Just as my Father has manifested my divinity to you, so I make known to you your own prominence.”34 This prominence, of course, is the dignity of the one who is the Vicar of Christ: “What belongs properly to [Christ’s] own power [Peter] shares with [Christ] by participation.”35 Yet Peter’s prominence, Leo reminds us, always takes place within the collegiality of the Apostolic Band: “The right to use this power was conveyed to the other apostles as well. What was laid down by this decree went for all the leaders of the Church. Yet not without purpose is it handed over to one, though made known to all.”36 In other words, “the firmness given to Peter through Christ is conferred upon the apostles through Peter.”37 This is the precise foundation for the authority of Peter in the New Covenant. Leo has captured at once here both Peter’s supremacy and his unity with the College of Bishops. Affirmed here are both primacy and collegiality, the pillars of the teaching of the Second Vatican Council on the Petrine ministry. In this sense, Leo gives us a theology of the Petrine ministry that is already open to ecumenism, even as it affirms with boldness the supremacy and primacy and necessity of the Petrine ministry in the Christian Church.

The gift of Christian unity can be given only by the Holy Spirit. For this reason, Pope John Paul II, in Ut Unum Sint, and Pope Benedict XVI, in his theological, pre-papal writings on ecumenism, insist on the priority of “spiritual ecumenism” in this common task of all Christians.38 However, we can and we must consider in what ways the human aspect of the life of the Church can be more properly reformed so as to serve best the renewal of Christian unity. Perhaps this has been part of the inspiration of Pope Benedict as he engages in his “patristic” papacy. For our part, this desire for unity has been the reason that we have set forth this patristic theology of the Petrine ministry. The teaching of the Fathers shows us that the Church, even when East and West were one, has always affirmed the primacy and supremacy of the bishop of Rome, Peter’s successor, as the sure guarantor of Christian unity. That same teaching gives us a foundation and an inspiration upon which we can reflect with a view toward the new ways that the Petrine ministry can be exercised in the third millennium so as to create a greater opening to the reunion of East and West. We can only do our part by remaining open to the work of the Spirit. For the gift of real unity between East and West, in the communion given by the ministry of Peter, we can only pray.

  1. Pope John Paul II, Ut Unum Sint, 96. 
  2. Ibid., 55. 
  3. For a more robust treatment of this foundational ecclesiological truth, see Joseph Ratzinger, Called to Communion, 75-103. On page 86, Ratzinger actually refers to Optatus as a patristic source for this truth. He also quotes Augustine’s Contra Cresconium
  4. Against the Donatists, 58. 
  5. Ibid., 62-63 (emphasis original). 
  6. Ibid., 64. 
  7. Ibid., 66 (emphasis original). 
  8. Ibid., 67. 
  9. This distinction between real relation and logical relation is taken from the theology and metaphysics of St. Thomas Aquinas. Father Robert Christian, O.P., in his first-cycle ecclesiology class at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, makes use of this insight of St. Thomas into the relationship between creatures and the Creator to explain, analogously, the relationship between the pope and the College of Bishops. The pope is the sine qua non of the College of Bishops. A bishop is not a member of that college unless he is in union with the pope, and it is thus that he is in real relation to the pope. The pope, however, does not depend on the other bishops for his place in the college, and, as such, is only in a logical relation with them. 
  10. Against the Donatists, 69. 
  11. Ibid., 286. 
  12. Ibid., 284. 
  13. Ibid., 73. This is the basis for a rightly understood theology of sine Petro nulla salus. For this teaching in the Magisterium of the Church, see Pope Boniface VIII, Unam Sanctam (DS, ed. XXXVI, 875). 
  14. Against the Donatists, 73. 
  15. Ibid., 283. 
  16. Sermon 147, 1. 
  17. Ibid., 2. 
  18. Ibid. 
  19. Ibid., 3. 
  20. Discorsi sull’inizio degli Atti degli Apostoli in Proprio dei Santi, 1258. The translation is mine. 
  21. Ibid., 1259. 
  22. Ibid. 
  23. Ibid. 
  24. Sermon 2, 2. 
  25. Sermon 3, 3. 
  26. Ibid. 
  27. Ibid., 4. 
  28. Sermon 4, 4. 
  29. Sermon 3, 3. 
  30. Ibid. 
  31. Sermon 4, 2. 
  32. Ibid. 
  33. Ibid. 
  34. Ibid. 
  35. Ibid. 
  36. Ibid., 3. 
  37. Ibid. 
  38. Cf., for example, Pope John Paul II, Ut Unum Sint, 21. 
Joseph F. Previtali About Joseph F. Previtali

Mr. Joseph F. Previtali is a graduate of Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington (2004), and is currently studying for the priesthood at the Pontifical North American College in Rome. He has been active with the Legion of Mary and has written several articles in various Catholic publications.