The Roots of Roots of Papacy: The Patristic Logic

The Roots of the Papacy: The Patristic Logic

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Erick Ybarra © 2021



Is it true that the Catholic doctrine of the Pope’s universal and immediate jurisdiction and infallible magisterium has its roots in the primitive church? “No,” is the emphatic answer we receive from many sides. Modern Protestant scholarship has reached this conclusion. Eastern Orthodox and Anglican publications have reckoned likewise. Even certain Roman Catholic scholars have been recorded saying as much. Aside from there being plenty of misconceptions, one thing we cannot escape is the difficulty created from the fact that there is hardly a Patristic author who intently devoted his pen to give a robust treatment on ecclesiology, and of ecclesiastical primacy in particular. One might have expected St. Irenaeus of Lyons, with all that he did write about the foundations of the Christian faith, to have gone into the teaching concerning the scope of episcopal authority, jurisdiction, councils, or prerogatives in relation to priests, but we find no detailed commentary. His statements on the authority of the Roman See are undefined enough to postulate several working theories of what he may have thought, none of which necessarily infer the doctrine of the Papacy as described in Pastor Aeternus (1870). Another example is the absence of any treatment on the episcopate in St. Cyril of Jerusalem’s Mystagogical Catecheses. Likewise, St. Ambrose’s 4-volume work De Doctrina Christiana contains no portion dedicated to the nature of the episcopate or church government. Neither in St. John of Damasus’ De Fide Orthodoxa!  If I had to refer to somewhat of a measurable treatment on ecclesiology in the early centuries, I think it would be St. Optatus of Mileve’s 7-volume work Against the Donatists. I would hope, however, that this would not lead someone to say that the Fathers throughout a major chunk of the first millennium did not hold to the divine institution of the Church, its supernatural constitution, or its possession of a Magisterium (Teaching Office), simply because we lack a robust treatise. So also, the lack of a robust treatise on Papal authority should not automatically indicate the lack of its essential acceptance by early Christianity. Nonetheless, we engage in an exceedingly difficult task when trying to piece together what may have been the whole picture of the Church to the ancients. Therefore, it becomes vital to investigate the teaching of the sacred Scriptures, the Fathers, and the overall Tradition handed down, and to decide what kind of ecclesiology most closely lines up with the aforementioned. For my purposes here, I intend to show from these sources the logic that grounded the developing doctrine of the Papacy or the office and primacy of the Bishop of Rome, otherwise uniquely referred to as the office of the Apostolic See in the historical literature.

Since Church history is not reducible to a simple Q&A document, and is rather complex, one is left to build a case from a pool of sources which might yield more than one interpretation and may even form contrary evidence to one’s thesis. Not a single side in the debate over Patristic ecclesiology is free of this complication. Thus, one’s conclusion will follow a task of discovering and arguing what is more likely than not, and what is more implied than anything else. It is for this reason that I am amused when I hear of someone saying something along the lines of the whole early Church being either entirely episcopalian (i.e. equal bishops across the board) or entrenched in ultra-Papalism (bishops as mere mouth-pieces for the Pope). Most scholars, however, are keen to see competing theories in the Church Fathers. With respect to this, many historians have dismissed the idea that one side is right (or more right for that matter, even), and that re-constructing the substance of ancient ecclesial authority is a fool’s errand. I do not share that opinion, however.

My readers know that I am Roman Catholic, and so the cat is out of the bag on where I stand. The goal of this paper is to share a very brief examination of what I have observed as early evidence of the Papacy by the voices of significant Christian Fathers. Though I have explored a wide horizon of literature and scholarship, I am largely indebted to a book by the late Fr. Ludwig Von Hertling, S.J. and his Communio: Church and Papacy in Early Christianity published by Loyola University Press, though it originally made appearance in German in Miscellanea Historiae Pontificiae, vol.7, 1943.  Much of what I write below is based on the structure of this small monograph, and so tremendous credit goes to Fr. Hertling. By way of summary, it commences with explaining the origin of the idea and concept of ekklesia (church) as a communio (communion, and sometimes rendered communicatio), or a divine and human society of persons bonded by visible links, chiefly signified by the share in the one Eucharistic Body of Christ, the latter entailing a common confession of faith, observation of cult, and government of pastors (or Bishops). Fr. Hertling reaches his goal with the concept of a unifying source to maintain episcopal peace, both on the local and universal level, a source which is intrinsic to the Church’s architectural structure, and from which is drawn some concluding implications about the PetrinePapal, and Roman primacy of jurisdiction as well as the prerogative of infallible teaching. So you have a progression from (1) communion from receiving the Lord’s body, (2) the office of Bishop to bring the Eucharist for the people, and then (3) the office of the Pope which ensures one episcopal society.


The Communio – The Supper of the Lord

In the writings of the early Christians, there was a variety of terms which signified the holy Church, and these help us understand something essential about what the Church is. St. Paul tells us that the Church is the gathering of the baptized for worship, particularly to celebrate the Supper of the Lord (1 Cor 11:17). In this celebration, there is a koinonia (Greek for communion or sharing) with the “body” and “blood” of the Lord, and by that koinonia, all the communicants are made into “one body” (1 Cor 10:17). The eating of the body and the drinking of the blood makes the ones digesting them the Church, precisely because the real body of the living Lord is consumed. In his epistle to the Ephesians, St. Paul writes that God the Father had given it to Jesus ” to be head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all” (Eph 1:22). The body of Jesus, then, is the Church, and both He Himself and His body (those who eat him) comprise this fullness.

Another word which speaks to the same reality is the English word fellowship (coming from the same koinonia); God has called all the baptized into the “fellowship of His Son Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 1:9). Further, according to Fr. Hertling, the Latin Vulgate translates koinonia into societas. This very passage just cited from the epistle to the Corinthians uses societas to render what other English translations call “fellowship”: vocati estis in societatem filii eius Jesu Christi.[1] As Fr. Hertling goes on to explain, another synonym for koinonia was the Latin pax (eirene in Greek), which is most often translated “peace,” and in certain places the two words are combined: communio et pax, koinonia kai eirene (communion and peace).[2] This usage of peace is not as we think today in terms of an absence of war or the state of tranquility. Rather, as Fr. Hertling explains, the early Christians saw this pax as the alliance of the Christian society as well as one’s good standing in it.[3] If one has this pax, he is a member of the Church in good standing. Thus, Tertullian says heretics are not “admitted to peaceful relations and communion by such churches as are in any way connected with apostles.”[4]

Another term reviewed by Fr. Hertling is agape (charity/love). St. Athanasius wrote about bishops who were united with himself in “agape kai Eirene (love and peace).[5]  When Pope St. Julius I had restored St. Athanasius to his place in good standing with the Church, he wrote that he restored him to “communion and charity.”[6]  Of course this does not mean that St. Athanasius was personally hostile towards Julius prior to. It just means that by confirming one in the visible order and society of Christians, one is confirmed as a partaker of the agape which is peace of the true Church. All these terms, pax, communion, eirene, agape, and charity are utilized in countless places to refer to that visible bond of unity which exists among the faithful and signify the unity of the one true Church. But if, as we saw from St. Paul, the source of the visible communio is in the sacred body and blood of Christ, then we at the same time acknowledge its real roots are in the Lord’s Supper. Hence, the Church’s unity is, in the first place, essentially Eucharistic.



These conceptual images carry on into the literature of the post-Apostolic times and from them we get the more complex notion of how the reality of communio, the Lord’s body, and the ekklesia are intricately tied to and dependent upon the nature and function of the office of Bishop. The Eucharist and the Bishop go hand-in-hand, says St. Ignatius:

“Take heed, then, to have but one Eucharist For there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup to [show forth ] the unity of His blood; one altar; as there is one bishop….that so, whatsoever you do, you may do it according to the will of God.”[7]

The singularity of the Eucharist and the altar is parallel to the singularity of the Bishop, and it shows that such oneness in the Bishop was chiefly ordered to the administration of the Eucharist that St. Paul spoke of, and, consequently, our participation in Jesus Christ (i.e. the communio), which is the fundamental reality of the Church. Indeed, it was the Bishop who gave visibility to all these realities. Knowing that membership in the communio was essential for partaking in the mystery of Christ, it became a serious matter to know the visible criterion of Church membership. That criterion was the Bishop. This is what grounded the early imperative of being sure to maintain the unity of one’s Bishop. St. Ignatius writes:

“Wherefore, as children of light and truth, flee from division and wicked doctrines; but where the shepherd is, there follow as sheep. For there are many wolves that appear worthy of credit, who, by means of a pernicious pleasure, carry captive those that are running towards God; but in your unity they shall have no place…. Keep yourselves from those evil plants which Jesus Christ does not tend, because they are not the planting of the Father. Not that I have found any division among you, but exceeding purity. For as many as are of God and of Jesus Christ are also with the bishop. And as many as shall, in the exercise of repentance, return into the unity of the Church, these, too, shall belong to God, that they may live according to Jesus Christ. Do not err, my brethren. If any man follows him that makes a schism in the Church, he shall not inherit the kingdom of God. If anyone walks according to a strange opinion, he agrees not with the passion of Christ.”[8]

See how the Bishop’s unity signifies the unity of God and the same unity which, when violates, created a schism. But what does one do when it is a Bishop who founds a schism? Are we to follow him? What criterion is there to know for sure a Bishop is authentic, lest he pretend that he can demand unconditional recognition? The crucial question here is how do we know a particular Bishop is really a true Bishop presiding over the people of God with full legitimacy in the eyes of God?


Criteria for Church Membership – Letters of Communion

According to Fr. Hertling, letters of communion (also called “letters of peace” – litterae pacis)[9] would be another important sign of one’s validation that he was in communion with good standing with the Church. They were given to traveling Christians who would carry them as validating their status as a catholic in the communio, or the letter would serve to show which Bishop the traveler belonged to, enabling or disabling access to the Eucharist at churches abroad. Pretty soon Bishops would have a list of names of Bishops who were registered in the communion that would be kept in the Church as a documented catalogue, and by this it was known who was in communion with the holy Church and who was not.[10] Who it was that shared the same creed, same cult, same discipline, and the same episcopal order. Therefore, on the election of new Bishops, a letter notifying nearby churches would go out so that they can re-new the stored list of names. These letters of communion were the practical way of keeping tabs on the “who” and “where” of holy mother church. Again, for the purpose of visibility.[11] Bishops not on these lists were not known, and therefore not verified from a broad view.



This brings us to the point which is directly consequential from this need of knowing which Bishops are wholly united to the Church in good standing, namely, the relationship between the communio and authority. Who says whether a Bishop in good standing with the unam sanctam of holy mother Church?  Does the communio rely on some authority for its authentic visible manifestation? What happens when there is a competition between Bishops? When we venture to speak on the matter of ex-communication, or the cancelling of one’s membership in the communion, we most definitely have entered the sphere of authority, whether we like it or not. How so? On the local level, a member of the church could be banned by the Bishop and be given a penitential process whereupon successful completion they could return to partake at the altar. This entails an authoritative intervention.  But sometimes these ex-communications were between Bishops and Churches, and so the “list of names” was modified to remove the name of the ex-communicated bishop, and thus two “churches” might possibly be in schism, as did happen again and again.[12] But the idea of 2 different churches was thought impossible, since the essential visible unity of the Church would not allow it. With a Bishop at odds with another Bishop, it signified that they had a warring Altar between one another, and since Christ is one, the Altar of Christ is also one. Therefore, Bishops must be in peace and communion to retain the spiritual unity of Christ. When and where this was suspended, or abrogated, you had a schism, and schism evacuates the gift of salvation.

This is clear from the writings of St. Ignatius (already cited), but also St. Cyprian of Carthage (250-57). The fathers would describe this as the attempt to set up another Chair [of Peter], another altar, another Eucharist, and another Priesthood [even]. But, in true reality, there was only one of these, and that rule of singularity was divinely fixed. The breaking of this was an event of schism, and it would would have caused the removal of a Bishop’s name from the Diptycha , which was the tablet having the list of names. This removal was effectively removing Eucharistic communion, and therefore an official break from membership in the Christian society. Often enough, the dispute has two sides,[13] and in many cases the dispute was resolved. In other cases, this was not so resolved, and thus, as mentioned, a schism was created. And this is where the various criteria of unity come to the fore.

The most obvious sign, reports Fr. Hertling, was holding to what most Bishops believed, particularly those churches which had Apostles as their founders. This common tradition would serve to be the go-to resolution of a problem. If most of churches believed X, then this would suffice to invalidate the minority viewpoint of not-X [or beyond]. Sometimes the Holy Scriptures would be so clear that little to no debate would be had, and the heretics incriminated themselves by a denial of common Christian teaching or practice. However, in those instances where unity was under the threat of a major fragmentation, or when an already existing schism was understood as crystallized, there was a need to surmount criteria that was more simple and specific.

What more could be said? Here it will be important to go back to the concept of the “list of names” described above, as derived from Fr. Hertling’s study.[14] This list would include the visible network of bishops who were deemed “in the communion,” and thus a perfect sharing in the same body of the Lord. For those who are in the IT field, you know how computers on a network operate. All the computers can receive access to the shared network through being attached via cable (or wireless connection) to a single switch that sends data from a server. In ecclesiology, each Bishop is a computer on a network, and so if you can successfully ping from one computer to another, then you know you are on that network and connected to all the rest connected to the same network. Each computer (Bishop) enjoys connection to all other computers (Bishops) through the switch, and the switch is the source of their unity or connection. But the most relevant aspect of this analogy is the fact that each computer receives what all computers can receive from the source, the file server through a switch. When a computer became disconnected from the switch, it lost connection to all other computers. Therefore, being broken off from the source was a definitive breakage from inter-connectivity, or the communio. And this rule of the parts being unified in a source will be key to understanding what the roots of the Papal authority, for if a switch determines a computer’s connectivity to a network, the Papal Office will be analogized with the switch to determine which Bishops enjoy communio with the true Church.


Parts Unified in Their Source

Space would not permit the use of too many analogies, but I can explain with just a couple more. For those who are gardeners, each branch of a tree can yield fruit, but all are connected via the trunk to a single root. It is the root which unifies the parts. Sunrays are many, but they are all one light sourced in one sun. For the general audience, if you have a fountain source of a water-stream which starts a river, and which eventually breaks down into smaller streams, all the individual streams are connected into one shared stream through a common connection to the river, which itself goes back to the single source. These analogies would be used to show how the many Bishops of the Church can prove their unity with the true Church by their being united to the source of the Episcopate itself, which will be said to be the Office of St. Peter. This comes out quite clear already in 3rd century Bishop St. Cyprian of Carthage. He writes in his On the Unity of the Church:

“And this unity we ought firmly to hold and assert, especially those of us that are bishops who preside in the Church, that we may also prove the episcopate itself to be one and undivided. Let no one deceive the brotherhood by a falsehood;  let no one corrupt the truth of the faith by perfidious prevarication. The episcopate is one, each part of which is held by each one for the whole. The Church also is one, which is spread abroad far and wide into a multitude by an increase of fruitfulness. As there are many rays of the sun, but one light; and many branches of a tree, but one strength based in its tenacious root; and since from one spring flow many streams, although the multiplicity seems diffused in the liberality of an overflowing abundance, yet the unity is still preserved in the source. Separate a ray of the sun from its body of light, its unity does not allow a division of light; break a branch from a tree—when broken, it will not be able to bud; cut off the stream from its fountain, and that which is cut off dries up. Thus also the Church, shone over with the light of the Lord, sheds forth her rays over the whole world, yet it is one light which is everywhere diffused, nor is the unity of the body separated. Her fruitful abundance spreads her branches over the whole world. She broadly expands her rivers, liberally flowing, yet her head is one, her source one; and she is one mother, plentiful in the results of fruitfulness: from her womb we are born, by her milk we are nourished, by her spirit we are animated.”[15]

Here Cyprian teaches us that the unity of the Church is in the “source,” and that insofar as one breaks from that source, one breaks from that unity.  Going back to the analogy of the network, if a particular computer’s connection to the source [switch] were cut off, then it is cut off from the entirety of the network, and vice versa. The idea is plainly delivered in 4th paragraph of the same Treatise on Unity by Cyprian:

“The Lord speaks to Peter, saying, ‘I say unto you, that you are Peter; and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatsoever you shall bind on earth shall be bound also in heaven, and whatsoever you shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.’ And again to the same He says, after His resurrection, ‘Feed my sheep.’ And although to all the apostles, after His resurrection, He gives an equal power, and says, ‘As the Father has sent me, even so send I you: Receive the Holy Ghost: Whosoever sins you remit, they shall be remitted unto him; and whosoever sins you retain, they shall be retained;’  yet, that He might set forth unity, he founded one chair; he has arranged by His authority the origin of that unity, as beginning from one [Peter]. Assuredly the rest of the apostles were also the same as was Peter, endowed with a like partnership both of honor and power; but the beginning proceeds from unity, and primacy is given to Peter, that one Church of Christ and one chair may be shown.…He who opposes and resists the Church, he deserts the chair of Peter on whom the Church is founded….”

This comes out even more so for our purposes when Cyprian described the see of Rome in the following terms:

“After such things as these, moreover, they still dare — a false bishop having been appointed for them by, heretics— to set sail and to bear letters from schismatic and profane persons to the throne of Peter, and to the chief church whence priestly unity takes its source; and not to consider that these were the Romans whose faith was praised in the preaching of the apostle, to whom faithlessness could have no access.”[16]

In other words, the unity of the priesthood (i.e. unity of the Church), has its source in the Roman church, which is the “chief church” (ecclesiam principalem). The word “principalem” signifies the meaning of “first” or “original”. St. Cpyrian is referring to Rome as the original Church, or the Church which is the origin of all others. But such a thing needs more explanation, since everyone knows that the Church of Jerusalem was the original Church. We will return to this question further below but suffice it to say for now that St. Cyprian assigns to the Episcopate of Rome the identity of “source” (unde unitas sacerdotalis exorta est). For the Cyprianic analogies to be maintained where all the corporate parts are unified in their source, it must be that all Churches, in some way, are shown united in the source. It boggles the mind, therefore, how he was willing to disobey the order of Pope St. Stephen on forbidding rebaptism, but then be willing to contest Pope St. Stephen I during the controversy over heretical baptism. What I can say here is that St. Cyprian himself did not break communion with the Pope, though he did not entirely heed the threats of excommunication from Rome. On may wonder. Whatever one might say of his actions against Stephen, he still wrote what he wrote, and we can hardly toss it all out as immaterial. Especially when this dictum “unity is preserved in its source” gets picked up by later Saints to argue forcefully that Rome’s Episcopate, being St. Peter’s original, has authority over all the Bishops of the world.

St. Optatus’ work Against the Donatists enters into the very same logic as Cyprian only he is more explicit on the relation of the source of unity, St. Peter, and how this is correlated to the Roman Episcopate as source. St. Optatus is a forgotten Saint, but he was known to be an exemplary theologian. One pre-eminent theologian of the 6th century West, St. Fulgentius of Ruspe (465-527), puts St. Optatus on the same level of Sts. Augustine and Ambrose as expositors of the saving deposit of faith.[17] St. Augustine himself put St. Optatus on the same level as St. Cyprian and describe his writings as a “great booty of gold and silver.”[18] In other words, he is tremendously credible. In his work Against the Donatists, he addresses the polemical work to Parmenian, a Donatist himself, accusing him of having separated from the one true episcopate because of his severance from Peter’s chair in Rome. He writes:

“You cannot then deny that you do know that upon Peter first in the City of Rome  was bestowed the episcopal Cathedra, on which sat Peter, the Head of all the Apostles (for which reason he was called Cephas),  that, 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… Well then, on the one Cathedra, which is the first of the endowments, Peter was the first to sit… To Peter succeeded Linus, to Linus succeeded Clement, to Clement Anacletus, to Anacletus Evaristus, to Evaristus  Sixtus, to Sixtus Telesphorus… to Julius Liberius, to Liberius Damasus, to Damasus Siricius, who to-day is our colleague, with whom ‘the whole world,’  through the intercourse of letters of peace, agrees with us in one bond of communion. Now do you show the origin of your Cathedra, you who wish to claim the Holy Church for yourselves!”[19]

Here, Optatus teaches us that the unity of the Church is preserved in the chair given to Peter and his successors. This is precisely what Cyprian had said. This would mean that the episcopal network has a shared single source of origin, this Chair of Peter at Rome. Being united to one Bishop who is in communion with Peter’s chair, then, was sufficient to prove one was united to all Bishops and Churches, i.e. Siricius, with whom “the whole world” is in communion. Now, Optatus and Cyprian are not alone. St. Augustine (AD 396-401) wrote:

“…A faggot [broken branch] that is cut off from the vine retains its shape. But what use is that shape, if it is not living from the root? Come, brothers, if you wish to be engrafted in the vine. It is grievous when we see you thus lying cut off. Number the priests even from that seat of Peter. And in that order of fathers see who to whom succeeded: that is the rock which the proud gates of hades do not conquer. All who rejoice in peace, only judge truly.”[20]

St. Ambrose of Milan ( AD 337-397)  wrote to the Emperor Gratian, urging him to see to it that no disturbance should strike “the Roman Church, the Head of the whole Roman world… for from thence flow all the rights of venerable Communion to all persons.[21] The “rights” of “communion” flow to everyone from Rome evokes the imagery of the network switch that unites all the computers of a network together. A “flow” outward signifies an origin from which the right of communion flows outward to, and thus is evoked the concept of source, and one coming from Rome to all. St. Jerome (AD 347-420) writes to Pope St. Damasus :

“I address the successor of the fisherman [Peter] and the disciple of the cross. I want to follow no one but Christ and therefore I am united in communion with your holiness, that is, with the see of Peter. I know that the Church is built on this rock. Whoever eats the lamb outside this house commits sacrilege… He that gathers not with you scatters.”[22]

You see here that these Fathers are teaching us that the Roman Episcopate is the source of episcopal unity and is the “rock” or foundation upon which the Church’s legitimate unity rests upon. This is all based upon the fact that St. Peter, to whom Christ singled out as the “rock” of the Church, the key-holder of God’s Kingdom, and the Chairman of unity, established his full station in the presidential office of the Roman Church. It is there that this “source of unity” continues onward into the post-Apostolic Church. Saintly Popes claimed this. Pope St. Innocent (AD 401-417) replying to a request for a book of regulations of orthodox practice by a certain Victricius says “..this book of regulations to be carefully introduced to neighboring peoples and bishops as a model….with the aid of the holy Apostle Peter, through whom both the apostolate and episcopate in Christ took their beginning.”[23] Once again, the “apostolate and episcopate” have their “beginning” from St. Peter, and therefore he is the source, or rather, his Chair is the source, and that Chair is in Rome. Just like rays of a sun took their beginning from the sun, just like the streams of water took their beginning from a font, and just like tree branches took their beginning from the root of the tree, so also the Episcopal government of the Church has its beginning or genesis in St. Peter.


       Petrine Source – Papal Jurisdiction

The question to ask next is whether Rome’s attribute of being this source has any bearing on the question of authority between other Bishops? Simply being the “beginning” of the Episcopate may not automatically give off the sense of a binding authority over the whole Episcopate. However, we find that the early Popes understood that the themes of “source” and “authority” work as cause to effect. In other words, because the Roman Episcopate was the “beginning” (arche) of the episcopal ministry, it retains a place of authority in directing and signifying the unity of the Episcopate both in the past, present, and in the future to come. In a reply to a letter from a synod of Carthage (417), Pope Innocent writes, “For you decided that it was proper to refer to our judgment, knowing what is due to the apostolic see, since all we who are set in this place desire to follow the very apostle from whom the very episcopate and whole authority of this name as emerged.[24] In his reply to the Council of Mileve, he writes that “answers to questions always flow through all provinces from the apostolic spring,”[25] and that “especially as often as questions of faith are to be ventilated, I think all our brothers and fellow bishops ought to refer to none but Peter, that is to the author of their name and office…”[26] So you see here that Pope Innocent clearly understood that Peter is the root of the episcopal organism, and that an ongoing function of that root is retained by the Church of Rome, and that this function includes one of authority. By the exercise of binding and coercive authority, the Pope exercises a power of unification which requires the ability to bind the corporate plurality of subjects to a singular point on doctrine or discipline. Nothing else makes sense of the statements made by these Popes. And so, we see here that the “beginning” of the episcopate has a function which is not stuck in the past, but is an ever-present function throughout the life of the episcopal organism. This has enormous consequences, as we shall see further below.

As we move forward into the 5th century, we see this Cyprianic logic of a Petrine source being the principle of unity as it pertains to the question of authority. Pope St. Boniface I (AD 422) wrote the following statement:

“The structure (institutio) of the universal church took its origin from the honor given to Peter. All rule [Episcopal government] in the Church consists in this, that from Peter, as from a fountainhead, the discipline of the whole Church has been derived as this church grows and expands…. It is certain that this church is related to the churches spread over the whole world as the head to its members. Whoever cuts himself off from this church places himself outside the Christian religion, since he no longer remains part of its structure (institutio). I hear that certain bishops want to set aside the apostolic constitution of the church and are attempting to introduce innovations against Christ’s own commands. They seek to separate themselves from communion with the Apostolic See, or , more precisely, from its authority [potestate separare].”[27]

This motif is unmistakable in the letter of Pope St. Zosimus (418) to Aurelius, the Archbishop of Carthage and Primate of Africa, who presided over a Council in Carthage:

“Although the tradition of the Fathers has assigned so great an authority to the Apostolic See, that no one may venture to call in question its judgment, and has maintained this always by its canons and rules, and though Ecclesiastical discipline, as shown in the current of its laws, pays the reverence which it owes to the name of Peter, from whom likewise itself descends: for canonical antiquity, by the judgment of all, hath willed the power of this Apostle to be so great, from the very promise of Christ our God, that he can loose what is bound, and bind what is loosed; and an equal power is given to those who enjoy, with his consent, the inheritance of his See; for he has a care as well for all Churches, as especially for this, where he sat: nor does her permit any blast to shake a privilege or a sentence, to which he has given the form and immovable foundation of his own name, and which, without danger to themselves, none may rashly attack: Peter then, being a head of such authority, and the zeal of all our ancestors having further confirmed this, so that the Roman Church is established by all human as well as divine laws and discipline—whose place you are not ignorant that we rule and hold the power of his name—rather, most dear brethren, you know it, and as Bishops are bound to know it; such then, I say, being our authority, that no one can question our sentence, we have done nothing which we have not of our own accord referred in our letters to your knowledge.”[28]

Pope St. Leo the Great (400-461) wrote:

“The dispensation of the truth therefore abides, and the blessed Peter, preserving in the strength of the rock, which he has received, has not abandoned the helm of the Church which he undertook to control. For he was ordained before the rest in such a way that from his being called the rock, from his being pronounced the foundation, from his being constituted doorkeeper (Key-holder) of the kingdom of heaven, from his authority as umpire to bind and loose, whose judgments shall retain their validity in heaven — from all these mystical titles we might know the nature of his association with Christ. And still today he more fully and effectually performs what is entrusted to him and with him, through whom he has been glorified. And so if anything is rightly done and rightly decreed by us, if anything is won from the mercy of God by our daily supplications, it is of his work and merit whose power lives and whose authority prevails in his See[29]

Pope Vigilius (538) wrote the following in a letter to a certain Profuturus of Braga:[30]

“To no one well or ill informed is it doubtful that the Roman Church is the foundation and the mould of the Churches (fundamentum et forma sit ecclesiarum), from which no one of right belief is ignorant that all Churches have derived their beginning. Since, though the election of all the Apostles was equal, yet a pre-eminence over the rest was granted to blessed Peter, whence he is also called Cephas, being the head and beginning of all the Apostles: and what hath gone before in the head, must follow in the members. Wherefore the holy Roman Church, through his merit consecrated by the Lord’s voice and established by the authority of the holy Fathers, holds the Primacy over all Churches, to which as well the highest concerns of Bishops, their causes, and complaints, as the greater questions of the Churches, are ever to be referred, as to the head. For he who knows himself to be set over others, should not object to one being placed over himself. For the Church itself, which is the first, has bestowed its authority on the rest of the Churches with this condition, that they be called to a part of its solicitude, not to the fulness of its power. Whence the causes of all Bishops who appeal to the Apostolic See, and the proceedings in all greater causes, are known to be reserved to that holy See; especially as in all these its decision must always be awaited: and if any Bishops attempts to resist this course, let him know that he will give account to that holy See not without endangering his own rank.”[31]

When a certain Saint of both Catholic and Orthodox veneration, St. Boniface (675-754 AD), Apostle to the Germans, wrote certain inquiries to Pope St. Gregory II (also venerated by both Catholics and Orthodox), the latter responded with the following in a letter dated to Nov. 22, 726 AD:

“In this same letter you inserted several paragraphs of inquiries as to the faith and teaching of this Holy and Apostolic Roman Church. And this was well donefor the blessed apostle Peter stands as the fountain head of the Apostolate and the Episcopate. And to you who consult us about ecclesiastical matters we show what decision you have to take according to the teaching of apostolic tradition, and we do this not as if by our own personal authority, but by the grace of Him who opens the mouth of the dumb and makes eloquent the tongues of infants.”[32]

No one could mistake, then, that what you have is this concept of episcopal unity and communio, first emerging in St. Ignatius, Petrinized by the corpus of St. Cyprian, getting augmented by St. Optatus to show forth the center of communion in St. Peter’s Chair in Rome, and later is used to assert governmental authority over other Bishops for the sake of ecclesiastical unity. This is the basic architectural logic of Papal ecclesiology.


The Keys of the Kingdom

From the testimony of these Saints, the early tradition of St. Peter as the “source” of the Episcopal priesthood had certain other entailments when it comes to its function in the life of the Church. In particular, St. Peter’s chair of presidency being left to the Roman Episcopate entails that the latter retains this influence of being the foundation or rock of unity for all Bishops, and that this further entailed the possession of authority in matters of faith and discipline, an authority which is jurisdictional and binding. If it is true that the Roman church is the source of communion, then that would mean that the Bishop of the Roman church has the authority to determine who is in that communio and who is not, precisely because it is the source that can determine whether an associate remains connected to the whole or is ejected from the whole.  The Pope then is empowered to determine the terms and conditions of that communio. This is why Papal power is best described with the imagery of the Keys of the Kingdom. Keys are used to lock or unlock doors, and thus the Key-holder decides who is included or excluded. The imagery is of the ancient gatekeeper who is called to include or exclude. Fr. Hertling conclusively summarizes how the role of being the root of communion and Papal authority intersect with the imagery of the keys:

“The focal point [i.e. source of unity] of the communio is the church of Rome along with its Bishop. But since the communio has a sacramental-juridical structure , its center and focal point has a truly sacral authority. One excluded from the communio by the Roman bishop is no longer a member of the Church, and one whom he admits to communion becomes thereby a member of the Church. Each local bishop can also grant or refuse communio, but only so far as he speaks for the universal Church. Therefore he himself must be in communion with the Church, ultimately with the Roman church at the center of the communio. The Bishop of Rome , however, does not need to derive his power from his communion with others, since he is himself the originating source of the whole. This is precisely what is meant by the fullness of Papal power. It is exactly what our Lord conferred on Peter, when he used the completely apt metaphor of the keys of the kingdom of heaven… To belong to him [the Pope], to be incorporated into the organism [of the Church], depends on his will. And this is what is indicated by the metaphor of the keys of the kingdom. The possibility of taking juridical action is therefore a derived consequence—although a necessary one—from the authority of the rock. If the Pope holds the keys to the whole, and if it depends upon him who shall and who shall not be in the communio, then he can set conditions of communion and exclusion. He can even issue orders concerning matters of lesser importance in the affairs of the Church. But his authority is not exclusively shown in giving orders. He is not simply the superior of the bishops and the faithful in the way a general is over his officers and soldiers. The position of the Pope is best described — although still imperfectly — by the analogy of head and members.”[33]

This symbolism of the Keys entailing the authority to unlock and lock to permit membership or exclude membership has a direct implication towards the doctrine of Papal infallibility. If it is true that St. Peter is the source of Apostolic and Episcopal unity, if it is true that the source entails binding authority that can exercise a power of unification to the mass of membership, if it is true that the Roman Bishop, because he occupies the Petrine Episcopate (par excellence), has the chief rule of the Keys by which he ultimately decides the terms and conditions of membership or excommunication, then this sort of theoretic architecture of the Church certainly lends in the direction that God must protect the doctrinal judgments of the Pope when he seeks to issue a teaching that reaches all souls of the Church. This was the logic of Bishop Vincent Gasser whose relatio document read aloud during the Council of Vatican 1: “But if the Pontiff should fall into an error of faith, the Church would dissolve, deprived of her bond of unity… ‘If this Roman See could fall and be no longer the See of truth, but of error and pestilence, then the Catholic Church would not have the bond of a society and would be schismatic and scattered—which in fact is impossible.’”[34] Gasser goes on: “how would the Roman Pontiff be able to fulfill this office which was divinely and especially given to him if he did not have a special authority which all others—even the bishops whether dispersed throughout the world or gathered together—should recognize as unassailable [unchallengeable]?” This illustrates how just this ancient and Patristic conception of St. Peter and the occupant of his throne being the “source” or “principle” of episcopal and ecclesiastical unity entails, necessarily, the prerogative to teach doctrine that cannot err.


Historical Inconsistencies

Some of the readers will quickly think of recorded events that pose a challenge to the underlying thesis here presented. Think of the Asiatic Churches that outright denied the legitimate excommunication of Pope St. Victor (180), the willingness of St. Cyprian to defy the demands of Pope St. Stephen (252) on his rebaptism policy, the troubles in Antioch with Flavian versus Roman-recognized Paulinus, the rejection of Papal interference in Africa under the pontificate of Pope Zosimus (A.D. 419), the supposed lapse of Pope Liberius I (A.D. 357), the willingness of the 5th Ecumenical Council to remove Pope Vigilius’s name from the diptycha, and the condemnation of Pope Honorius I by the Council of Constantinople III (AD 681), and most of all, the warring Pontificates of the Great Western schism. I did not intend in this paper to explore all of these scenarios that come up especially in the Catholic and Orthodox dialogue. What can be said is that resistances to Papal authority affords more than one observation than merely that people were willing to thumb their nose at the Pope. In the first place, when there is a resistance, there proves the offense. In other words, if you have situations where clergy are resisting Papal interference, it proves that the Pope was attempting to intervene. And since these resistances to Papal authority stretch back to antiquity, so also does the attempts on the part of the Pope. Therefore, both universal Papal jurisdiction and resistance to said jurisdiction are equally antique phenomena. They are both rooted in the early history of Christianity.

Consequently, one cannot simply give more favor to one of them without discerning which of the two are more favored by the historical evidence. One cannot, simply out of prejudice, give more favor to the  resistance over and against Papal jurisdiction simply because one prefers to do so. In the effort to prove illegitimacy, one must show that Papal jurisdiction was consistently rejected to a degree that the Papal claims are overshadowed by the rejection of them. Although no space is provided here to prove this with considerable persuasiveness, the history of the Church shows that the teaching and claim of a divinely instituted universal primacy of the Bishop of Rome is both rooted in Scripture and Tradition and was lauded by many significant Church Fathers throughout the 1st millennium. When and where resistance was made, there was not always a rejection of this universal primacy, but there was a debate over whether a specific application of that primacy was legitimate or not. That kind of debate continues onward to this very day even within the Catholic Church where the faithful adhere to Pastor Aeternus (1870). At the very least, ones should sincerely appreciate the theme of the Petrinological “source” that the Fathers cited above testify on behalf of the Church’s essential architecture as founded by Jesus Christ. Any Church today lacking this conceptual structure should question how they have passed on the Patristic tradition without retaining it.



By way of consolidating the entire message of this article, largely following the pattern set by the perceptive Fr. Ludwig Hertling, S.J., we can see that the unity of the Christian people is, first and foremost, symbolized in the partaking of the Supper of the Lord. All members of the Church partake of Christ and become one with Him. Secondly, the altar upon which the Eucharist is offered to God is the office of St. Peter, or the Bishop, whose singularity symbolizes the unity of the Church and the priesthood. Bishops showed their legitimacy to offer the Eucharist and administer to the people by their communion with all the Bishops and particularly through the letters of communion. These concepts are all put together in a phenomenal statement by Pope St. Gelasius (492-96):

“Was it that the rest of the holy and blessed Apostles were not clothed with his virtue? Who dare assert this? No, but that, by a Head being constituted, the occasion of schism might be removed, and that the compact bond of the body of Christ, thus uniformly tending, by the fellowship of the most glorious love, to one Head, might be shown to be one; and that there might be one Church faithfully believed in, and one house of the one God and of the one Redeemer, wherein we might be nourished with one bread and one chalice… There were assuredly twelve Apostles, endowed with equal merits and equal dignity; and whereas they all shone equally with spiritual light, yet was it Christ’s will that One amongst them should be the Ruler (prince)…”[35]

When and where there is a rift between Bishops, there is a universal “beginning” of the Episcopate in St. Peter’s historical presidential office stationed in the Roman Episcopate. As such, the Bishop of Rome visualized the standardized communion, and all who are in communion with him are united to the Church. This is found in the idea that the source of the Episcopal unity, much like the root of tree branches, pictures definitely what is united or disunited to the whole.  If a branch is cut off from the root, it is not only severed from its material source, but from the ever-abiding life of the tree. In the same way, the Petrine Chair in Rome is the ever-abiding source of legitimate communion for all Bishops around the world. With this function, the role of authority falls right into place since the Bishop of Rome is equipped with the discretion of what are the terms of being united to the source or not, and what his will determines is definitive. This is symbolized in the power of the Keys, and implies the necessity of divine protection (i.e. Papal infallibility), lest the source of unity fail and become a source of apostasy. This basic Petro-ecclesiological architecture was testified by the voices of many Saints and Doctors and forms the theoretical basis upon which later formulations of Papal primacy were erected. None of this matches the theories of Roman primacy that are today held by the Eastern Orthodox or Anglican bodies. It is not upon the Imperial status of the Roman city, but rather upon the Petrine primacy founded by Jesus Christ and permanently stationed in the Roman Episcopate, and which reaches essentially to the whole world. This Petrine ideology espoused by the Fathers cited also would be quite incompatible with the Orthodox Church because these Fathers understood an essentially organic relationship between the Church’s source of Episcopal unity in St. Peter’s Chair singularly stationed at Rome and the rest of the Episcopal body. Since the Orthodox, nor the Anglicans, claim to sustain this in principle, let alone the physical requirement, it represents an entirely different explanation of universal ecclesiological primacy.

[1] Ludwig Hertling, S.J., trans. Jared Wicks, S.J., Communio: Church and Papacy in Early Christianity (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1972), 18.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 18-19.

[4] Prescription against Heretics, 32, (PL 2.45); translated by Peter Holmes. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 3. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight.; [emphasis added].

[5] Hertling, Communio, 21.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Epistle to the Philadelphians, 4; Translated by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight.

[8] Ibid., 2-3; [emphasis added].

[9] Hertling, Communio, 29.

[10] Ibid., 29-30.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 36-42.

[13] Ibid., 41.

[14] Ibid., 50.

[15] On the Unity of the Church, 5; Translated by Robert Ernest Wallis. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 5. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight.

[16] Epistle 54.14; Translated by Robert Ernest Wallis. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 5. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. Latin text: Post ista adhuc pseudoepiscopo sibi ab haereticis constituto nauigare audent, et ad Petri Cathedram adque ad ecclesiam principalem unde unitas sacerdotalis exorta est ab schismaticis et profanis litteras ferre, nec cogitare eos esse Romanos, quorum fides Apostolo praedicante laudata est, ad quos perfidia habere non possit accessum.

[17] Fulgentius: Selected Works, trans. Robert B. Eno, S.S., (Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 1997), 258.

[18] On Christian Doctrine, 40.61, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 1st series, Vol. 2, New Advent

[19] Against the Donatists, Book 2.2; translation Rev. O.R. Vassal-Phillips (London: Longman’s, Green, and Co., 1917),

[20] Psalmus contra Paetem Donati, PL 43.30; trans. E. Giles, Documents Illustrating Papal Authority A.D. 96-454, Doc. 163

[21] Letter 11, To Gratian; The letters of S. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan (London: Oxford, James Parker and Co., 1881),

[22] Letter 15, To Pope Damasus; Translated by W.H. Fremantle, G. Lewis and W.G. Martley. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 6. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1893.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight.

[23] Etsi Tibi Frater – Epistle 2, (PL 10. 468-81); trans. B.J. Kidd, The Roman Primacy to A.D. 461 (London: SPCK, 1936), 78.

[24] Epistle 29, To the Council of Carthage (In requirendis), PL 33.780; Augustine, Epistle 181; trans. E. Giles, Documents Illustrating Papal Authority A.D. 96-454 (London, SPCK, 1952), Doc. 179.

[25] B.J. Kidd translates it “Apostolic source.” See his The Roman Primacy to A.D. 461, 84-85.

[26] Epistle 30, to the Council of Mileve (Inter Caeteras), PL 33.784; Aug. Ep. 182; trans. E. Giles, Documents Illustrating Papal Authority A.D. 96-454, Doc. 180.

[27] Epistle 14, PL 20.777; trans. Hertling, Communio, 56-57.

[28] Epistle 12; trans. Thomas William Allies, The See of Peter: The Rock of the Church, the Source of Jurisdiction, and the Centre of Unity (London: Burns & Lambert, 1850), 90-91.

[29] Sermon 2; Translated by Charles Lett Feltoe. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 12. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1895.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <;.

[30] For a history and explanation of this letter, see Alberto Ferreriro, “Pope Vigilius and Profuturus of Braga: Papal Pastoral Care in the Suevic Kingdom of Gallaecia,” in Epistolae Plenae: The Correspondence of the Bishops of Hispania with the Bishops of Rome (Leiden: Brill, 2020), 260-91.

[31] Mansi 9.32-33; Trans. Thomas William Allies, The See of Peter, 110-11. Latin Text: Nulli vel tenuiter sentienti, vel pleniter sapienti dubium est, quod Ecclesia Romana fundamentum et forma sit Ecclesiarum, a quo omnes ecclesias principium sumpsisse nemo recte credentium ignorat: quoniam licet omnium apostolorum par esset electio, beato tamen Petro concessum est ut ceteris praeemineret; unde et Cephas vocatur, quia caput est et primus omnium apostolorum. Et quod in capite praecessit, in membris sequi necesse est. Quamobrem  sancta Romana Ecclesia eius merito Domini voce consecrate, et sanctorum Patrum auctoritate roborata, primatum tenet omnium Ecclesiarum, ad quam tam summa episcoporum negotia et iudicia atque querelae, quam et maiores ecclesiarum quaestiones, quasi ad caput semper referenda sunt.

[32] Letter 18, The Letters of Saint Boniface, trans. Ephraim Emerton (New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc., 1940), 53.

[33] Hertling, Communion, 71-72; [emphasis added].

[34] Relatio of Bishop Vincent Ferrer Gasser; trans. Rev. James T. O’Connor, The Gift of Infallibility (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2008), 24-25.

[35] Andrea Gallandi, Bibliotheca Veterum Patrum: Antiquorumque Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum, Tomus X, Epistola VIII, part. VIII; Eng. Trans: Butler, S, Norman Dahlgren, Jesus, Peter, & the Keys: A Scriptural Handbook on the Papacy, 267; Colin Lindsay, The Evidence for the Papacy (London: Longmans, 1870), 55-56; [emphasis added].

1 thought on “The Roots of Roots of Papacy: The Patristic Logic

  1. Hi, Erick,   It seems the link to this article is dead.  I look forward to reading the piece, though.                                                                                                                      —Bryan Gesinger

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