Archive Early Church Fathers Ecclesiastical Polity Reformed Irenicism Sacred Doctrine Steven Wedgeworth

The Leadership of the Catholic Church: Now vs. Then (Pt. 6)

It’s time to bring our series on the identity and government of the church to a conclusion. You can find the previous installments here:

Part 1: The Crisis of Rome and Its Claims of Ultimate Authority

Part 2: Church Origins and Officers in the New Testament 

Part 3: Bishop-Elders and Bishops in the Late First and Early Second Century (Didache, 1 Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, and Hermas) 

Part 4: The Second Century Development of Bishops and Succession (Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and various bishops’s lists compared)

Part 5: Third Century Bishops and the Need for Councils (Tertullian, Hippolytus, Cyprian, and Augustine’s reception of Cyprian)

The Argument of This Series

I began this series with a rather direct appeal to Roman Catholics to use the latest occasion of crisis within their church to reconsider whether or not the Roman Catholic claims about its own authority are actually true. The effects of the current sexual abuse crisis and its cover-up by church authorities are an example of the oppressive burden these Roman Catholic claims place upon believers. Even when its members believe they are in danger from their own church, they cannot leave and join another Christian denomination. And even if the worst possibilities all come true, they cannot do anything to remove a pope or even the bishops (without the pope’s cooperation). This last point was one that Jonathan V. Last drew special attention to in a recent article. To further illustrate the present moment in history, there have been two more bombshell reports of massive institutional abuse since I began this series, one in Germany and another in the Netherlands. Several more US states have opened investigations. All signs point to more reports like the ones which have already been released.

My argument is not that people should leave the Roman Catholic Church simply because it is bad. My argument is that since the Roman Catholic Church has been particularly harmful on such a large scale for such a large time, and that since it places such an incredibly high burden upon its adherents, they should critically examine its foundational claims in order to be sure that Rome is who she says she is. If not, then it would be irresponsible to remain a member at this time. I have then given strong evidence that Rome’s claim that Jesus founded a singular monarchical bishop in and through Peter, who then stands over all other congregations, is false.

This series has not argued that Roman Catholics should necessarily become Presbyterians or any other particular denomination. I think they should use this opportunity to see that they are indeed free to leave Rome, and then they should make an informed and responsible decision about where to go. There are very good reasons to become a Protestant of the traditional magisterial variety, but that argument will have to be made at another time. And I think that it is the sort of decision that people should make slowly and with the utmost care.

A Recap of Rome’s Claims of Plenary Authority

The theology of the Roman Catholic Church is actually quite large. It contains many subtle distinctions, and it has proven capable of developing in creative ways. I have limited myself to one primary set of claims, what Rome says about the leadership of the whole church. I gave a historical survey of those claims in the second half of this post. A few are worth repeating. The Fourth Lateran Council said that Jesus himself gave the bishop of Rome “a primacy of ordinary power over all other churches.” Unam Sanctam declared that Jesus gave “Peter and the successor of Peter” a headship over the entire Christian people. The Council of Florence repeats this and states, “the head of the whole church and the father and teacher of all Christians, and to him was committed in blessed Peter the full power of tending, ruling and governing the whole church.” The Council of Trent clarifies that the leadership of the church is hierarchical and that the ordination of the clergy does not require the consent of the people.

The First Vatican Council made the most detailed declaration of this claim, when it said:

the Roman church possesses a pre-eminence of ordinary power over every other church, and that this jurisdictional power of the Roman pontiff is both episcopal and immediate. Both clergy and faithful, of whatever rite and dignity, both singly and collectively, are bound to submit to this power by the duty of hierarchical subordination and true obedience, and this not only in matters concerning faith and morals, but also in those which regard the discipline and government of the church throughout the world. (Session 4, Chapter 3, Point 2)

In that statement, the Vatican claims that 1) the Roman church holds “ordinary power over every other church,” 2) that this power is held by the Roman pontiff and can be said to be immediate, and 3) both clergy and faithful must submit to the bishop of Rome in matters of faith, morals, discipline, and government. Thus, we see a clear claim to singular universal authority over all other churches.

I did not cover the Second Vatican Council in my original post, but it reaffirms Vatican I, saying:

This Sacred Council, following closely in the footsteps of the First Vatican Council, with that Council teaches and declares that Jesus Christ, the eternal Shepherd, established His holy Church, having sent forth the apostles as He Himself had been sent by the Father; and He willed that their successors, namely the bishops, should be shepherds in His Church even to the consummation of the world. And in order that the episcopate itself might be one and undivided, He placed Blessed Peter over the other apostles, and instituted in him a permanent and visible source and foundation of unity of faith and communion. And all this teaching about the institution, the perpetuity, the meaning and reason for the sacred primacy of the Roman Pontiff and of his infallible magisterium, this Sacred Council again proposes to be firmly believed by all the faithful. (Lumen Gentium, chapt. 3, paragraph 18)

So we see the claims to Roman authority clearly maintained. It is a matter of irreformable doctrine for the Roman Catholic Church. It is also a foundational claim. It explains why the bishop of Rome can have authority over all other churches, all other clergymen, and all other Christians. It claims that Jesus gave this particular authority to Peter who then conferred it upon a specific episcopal office.

The Evidence Against the Roman Claims

The evidence I have supplied is of two categories. The first category is an argument from silence, the fact that the essential Roman Catholic claims are not present in either the New Testament or the first three centuries of the church. Arguments from silence can be valuable, as extraordinary arguments ought to require a preponderance of evidence in their favor. Still, arguments from silence are not definitive arguments, and they will not be sufficient if there are contested pieces of evidence offered. So I also demonstrated that positive claims are made in both the New Testament and the church of the first three centuries which contradict current Roman Catholic claims. I will list these positive claims now.

20 Counterarguments Against An Original Papacy:

1 The Book of Acts shows a twelve-fold collegium acting in consensus.

2 The Apostle Paul is called and ordained independently from this original apostolic collegium, denies that his authority derives from there, and claims to have a parallel vocation and authority to that of Peter (see especially Gal. 2:8).

3 The Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 shows a conciliar model of church authority with James holding the position of council president.

4 Paul selected successors directly and ordained them to ministerial positions without subordinating himself or them to any higher ecclesiastical authority (see his relationship with Timothy).

5 Bishops and elders are the same office in the New Testament, and they are local church officers (Acts 20:17; Titus 1:5, 7; 1 Peter 5:2).

6 Paul left a group of bishops in charge of the church at Ephesus (Acts 20:17, 28).

7 With the exception of the letters of Ignatius, all of the post-Biblical 1st century literature continues to use the names “bishop” and “elder” for the same office.

8 The First Epistle of Clement says that bishops are appointed “with the consent of the whole church” (1 Clement 44:2). This will later be repeated by Hippolytus of Rome (Apostolic Tradition part 1, section 2.1-5) and Cyprian (Epistle 51.8, 67.5).

9 Ignatius does speak of a bishop standing over the rest of the elders, but his bishop is still a local pastoral figure, one who is instructed to be present at baptisms and eucharists, to oversee weddings, and to know “all men by name” (Letter to Polycarp 4.2).

10 Ignatius gives some reason to think that his position on the bishop was understood as a historical innovation in his own day, and he says that he was taught his view through a charismatic revelation (Letter to the Philadelphians 7:1-2).

11 Both Ignatius and Polycarp deny that they exert the same kind of authority as the apostles (Ignatius, Letter to the Romans 4:3; Polycarp, Letter to the Philippians 3:1-2).

12 Writing around the end of the 2nd century, Irenaeus still calls “bishops” by the name of “presbyters,” though he indicates that the bishop stands over the presbyters in a leading capacity.

13 Irenaeus is the first to argue that the church of Rome was founded by Peter, but he actually argues that it was founded by both Peter and Paul (Against Heresies, 3.3.2).

14 Lists of bishops and their successors began to be written around the end of the 2nd century, but an important contradiction arises as to who Peter ordained as his immediate successor. Irenaeus states that Peter first ordained Linus as his successor and that Linus was followed by Cletus who was then followed by Clement (Against Heresies 3.3.3). Tertullian, writing not long after Irenaeus, states that Peter ordained Clement as his successor (Prescription Against Heretics 32). This gave rise to conflicting lists of bishops which Epiphanius, writing in the fourth century, harmonizes by saying that Peter ordained multiple bishops over the same churches at the same time (Panarion, Book 1, Section 2, 27.6.1-6). Thus when evidence begins to arise for a singular episcopal leader at Rome, it is soon accompanied by contradictory evidence.

15 Tertullian says that contradictory traditions should be prejudged as false (Prescription Against Heretics 21, 28). He says that the rule of faith for proving something to be “apostolic” is that it agrees with the whole church.

16 Tertullian argues that Rome has a position of primacy because Peter and Paul were martyred there (Prescription Against Heretics 36, Against Marcion 4.5). Later in Tertullian’s life, he explicitly rejected the claim that Rome inherited Peter’s apostolic power (On Modesty, chapt 21).

17 Cyprian argues that all bishops equally possess the episcopal authority of Peter (Epistle 26.1 ANF citation, Unity of the Church 4).

18 Cyprian argues that distant church courts should not overturn the judgments of local church courts (Epistle 51.14, ANF citation).

19 Cyprian argues that church-wide consent is the highest authority and that even the bishop of Rome should submit to the judgment of the whole church, which is discerned through councils (Epistle 30.1; 51.4-5, 8 ANF citation).

20 Augustine, writing about 150 years later, restates Cyprian’s position on the authority of councils and says that writing of a bishop (even the bishop of Rome) cannot require another bishop to change his practice. Only a plenary council can resolve disputes over tradition (On Baptism 2.3.4).

In short, the positive evidence shows a developing post-biblical tradition where bishops arise from within a college of elders. They initially hold a congregational office and then rise to a regional jurisdiction. These bishops are selected by the people in their area, are ordained by their fellow bishops (and sometimes presbyters), and hold equal authority with one another. There is no evidence for any sort of Roman primacy in the first century, and as evidence does arise, it exhibits contradictions and only claims for Rome a position of seniority and esteem. Rome’s bishops do not originally have a juridical authority over other bishops, and when they attempt to exert that kind of authority, they are challenged and appeals are made to the higher authority of a council.

Why This Matters

The combined absence of positive proof and presence of contradictory evidence demonstrates that any claim for an original monoepiscopal jurisdiction at the church of Rome over all other Christian churches is false. This simply was not how the churches of the first several centuries actually existed, nor how they understood themselves. The history also confirms our understanding of the New Testament (which is also the broader consensus reading), that such a polity was also not instituted by the original apostles and was therefore not ordained and established by Jesus.

There are a few ways that someone might attempt to rebut this argument. The first and only legitimate way would be to actually refute the evidence. This cannot be honestly done, and so other responses are given instead. One common one is to simply say that the question is difficult to determine and church history so complicated that only spiritually-protected experts (in the form of certain kinds of clergy) can be trusted to solve. This assumes the very thing that is under dispute– that certain clergy are indeed the proper interpreters– but it also forfeits claims to objectivity. If everyone is trapped in such ignorance, then no one can be expected to reasonably “know” that Rome’s claims are true. Instead, they must submit to an appeal to authority, a kind of intellectual coercion. In this case, it would not even be a leap of faith, covering uncertain middle ground. Instead what would actually be required is Ignatius of Loyola’s infamous claim that “what I see as white is black, if the hierarchic Church defines it thus” (Spiritual Exercises 365).

A different response that is also rather common is the claim that certain doctrines can develop over time. They may not have been explicitly present in earlier years, but some seminal notion was present in earlier times which then grew in understanding and came to be applied in new ways. These sorts of arguments can sometimes be helpful enough, but they are always difficult to demonstrate and tend to be highly subjective. In the case of the church’s founding form, however, we can say at least two things. First, Rome does not claim that its doctrine of papal authority developed in this way. Instead, it claims that Jesus founded the church with a monoepiscopal government and gave plenary jurisdiction to the Apostle Peter, and it claims that the whole church has always known and confessed this. In other words, it makes historical claims–claims which we have shown are false. Secondly, any “development” on this doctrine would have to accept contradictions along the way, as various elements of the doctrine are actually rejected by certain key patristic writers. Cyprian and Augustine both clearly defend a conciliar model of universal church government. No credible appeal can be made to a universal apostolic tradition, nor could the Roman Catholic doctrine said to be “unchanged.” Thus, again, Rome’s current claims are contradicted.

There is however one other kind of response, made not by apologists but by more “realistic” Roman Catholics. They argue that hardly any Catholics actually believe everything Rome teaches and that it is entirely normal to remain a member of the Roman Catholic Church while disagreeing with some or even many of Rome’s doctrine. This is the most honest response, in its way, and it likely does account for the facts on the ground. But it is a very unsafe way to be a Christian. After all, one’s continued public identification as a Roman Catholic commits them to “theological faith” to the teachings of the church which are said to be infallible, of which the question of papal supremacy is certainly one (Lumen Gentium 25). To not actually do this is to lie. It’s also to consistently live in contradiction with one’s conscience, something Martin Luther famously said is “neither safe nor right.” A lifetime of violated conscience will certainly dull one’s sense of moral integrity, and it may well incline one to pass over any number of other evils in order to keep up the appearances.

This strategy also raises serious spiritual questions. Can a false professor have true faith? I cannot answer this question definitively, but it seems that anyone who is aware that they do not believe the teachings that their church requires them to believe ought to remember the words of St. Paul, “whatever is not of faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23).

In short, if the Roman Catholic Church is not the one and only church founded by Jesus Christ with authority over all other Christian congregations, then no one should assent to what Rome asks. And if they will not truthfully assent to Rome’s faith, then they are morally required not to confess with their lips what they deny in both heart and mind.

Finally, allowing oneself to be truthful with the facts of Christian history will bring liberty. If the Roman Catholic Church is not who she claims to be, then believers currently struggling with the knowledge that the church’s hierarchy is not morally trustworthy are set free from a great spiritual burden. They do not have to continue to go through a corrupt institution to receive the means of salvation. They don’t have to go through that particular church in order to receive Christ. Something formerly said to be impossible is now made possible. They can still be Christians in a different denomination, and they can do so in good conscience.


Some people will necessarily be put off by a direct appeal of this kind. A person’s faith is sacred, or so the modern saying goes. But Christianity actually teaches that what makes a faith sacred is its object. If one has faith in something that is not true or good, then that faith is not necessarily good, even if it is sincere and can inspire the individual to do many other good things.

In the case of Roman Catholicism, the object of faith includes several claims which are not only extraordinary and contrary to history, but which also come with accompanying curses, or anathemas. If a person will not believe what Rome says about the first bishop of the church and the power of the Roman episcopal jurisdiction, then Rome says that that person is under a curse:

Therefore, if anyone says that it is not by the institution of Christ the lord himself (that is to say, by divine law) that blessed Peter should have perpetual successors in the primacy over the whole church; or that the Roman pontiff is not the successor of blessed Peter in this primacy: let him be anathema. (First Vatican Council, Session 4, chapt. 2.5)

This is no benign claim. It has consequences. And it justifies an honest, pastoral, and personal response.

But why now? Why ask people to have this discussion at such a sensitive time? Quite simply, because this is exactly the kind of time people should be asked to discern the truth of Rome’s claims. Clerical abuse and its cover-up is actually not a new thing. Those who have been studying the matter say that a similar and consistent pattern of sexual abuse and cover-up has been going on for nearly a century, during the administrations of various popes and in dozens of countries throughout the world. It’s hard to imagine any time in the near future when more revelations of the same sort won’t be breaking. Further, in the United States, this is at least the second round of such scandals. People here have had 16 years to reckon with this reality. Thus, our current situation truly tests Rome’s claims. One really must “believe in” Rome to remain a Catholic. It is only right that people ask whether or not such a belief is justified, and they should ask that question in sincerity with the full amount of information at their disposal.

This is an entirely earnest proposal. I have been critical of Roman Catholicism many times before. But my heart is not callous on this issue, and this is no intellectual hobbyhorse. Quite the reverse, it is out of a sincere desire to see people freed from spiritual abuse that I have written this series. May God use it to an end which honors Him and brings others spiritual rest in Christ.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the Rector of Christ Church Anglican in South Bend, Indiana. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a founding member of the Davenant Institute.

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