The Fathers and Saints Testify to Papal Primacy
The Eastern Orthodox and Protestant religions reject papal primacy. In an attempt to discredit the historicity of papal primacy, they misrepresent the Fathers and Saints on the issues leaving out the context, full meaning, and full teaching of each authority. This study will answer, explain, and expound on certain quotes used against papal primacy, plus add quotes to prove papal primacy. The point of this study is to demonstrate how to answer cherry-picked quotes taken out of context and to prove that papal primacy was indeed recognized by the early Church.
One ex-Catholic, now Eastern Orthodox, posted the following quotes with the conclusion reading, “The Patristic witness on this point is so clear we need add nothing more to it –the point is settled – St. Peter did not receive any greater dignity or authority than the other Apostles. Already, the fundamental premise of Roman Catholicism is shaken and the edifice totters –if Peter did not have superior authority, Rome cannot have received it from him either.”
The quotes are below and I will follow with the Catholic answer, which, by the way, has already been answered many times by many other Catholics.
St. Ambrose of Milan: “He (St. Peter), then, who before was silent, to teach us that we ought not to repeat the words of the impious, this one, I say, when he heard, ‘But who do you say I am,’ immediately, not unmindful of his station, exercised his primacy, that is, the primacy of confession, not of honor; the primacy of belief, not of rank. This, then, is Peter, who has replied for the rest of the Apostles; rather, before the rest of men….” (Saint Ambrose, The Sacrament of the Incarnation of Our Lord, IV.32-V.34.)
Every Catholic agrees with St. Ambrose because Peter was not yet pope when he made his confession. Peter wasn’t acting pope until Pentecost.
St. Ambrose fully believed that Peter became the head and foundation of the whole Church. He wrote: “[Christ] made answer: ‘You are Peter, and upon this rock will I build my Church . . .’ Could he not, then, strengthen the faith of the man to whom, acting on his own authority, he gave the kingdom, whom he called the rock, thereby declaring him to be the foundation of the Church [Matt. 16:18]?” (The Faith, 379 A.D.)
“They [the Novatian heretics] have not the succession of Peter, who hold not the chair of Peter, which they rend by wicked schism; and this, too, they do, wickedly denying that sins can be forgiven (by the sacrament of confession) even in the Church, whereas it was said to Peter: ‘I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of Heaven, and whatsoever thou shalt bind on Earth, shall be bound in Heaven, and whatsoever thou shall loose on Earth shall be loosed in Heaven.’” (On Penance, 388 A.D.)
“It is to Peter that He says: ‘You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church’ (Matthew 16:18). Where Peter is, there is the Church. And where the Church, no death is there, but life eternal.” (Commentary on Twelve Psalms of David, 389 A.D.)
St. Cyprian of Carthage: “To all the apostles, after His resurrection, He gives an equal power…the other Apostles also were what Peter was, endued with an equal fellowship both of honor and power…”(On the Unity of the Catholic Church, 4.)
The above quote is incomplete. St. Cyprian says, “It is on one man that He builds the Church; and although He assigns a like power to all the Apostles after His resurrection…nevertheless, in order that unity might be clearly shown, He established by his own authority a source for that unity, which takes its beginning from one man alone. Indeed, the other Apostles were that also which Peter was, being endowed with an equal portion of dignity and power; but the origin is ground in unity, so that it may be made clear there is but one Church of Christ. …If someone does not hold fast to this unity of the Church, can he imagine that he still holds the faith? If he resists and withstands the Church, can he still be confident that he is in the Church…? Most especially must we bishops, who exercise authority in the Church, hold firmly and insist upon this unity, whereby we may demonstrate also that the episcopate itself is one and undivided. Let no one mislead the brotherhood with a lie, let no one corrupt the faith by a faithless perversion of the truth. The episcopate is one, of which each bishop holds his part within the undivided structure.”
In no way does St. Cyprian deny the papacy. Each and every Apostle had apostolic authority over the whole Church. They had jurisdiction over the Church as Peter, which is the equal portion of dignity and power that’s being referred to. The difference with Peter is that he had supreme authority, the final say so to speak, as was demonstrated at the Council of Jerusalem. Peter’s successors maintained full apostolic authority and jurisdiction, hence, the “Apostolic See.” The other sees do not possess jurisdiction over the whole Church.
Another distinction is the power of Orders and the power of Office. A bishop can have one without the other. A layman can possess the jurisdiction of the office of bishop as a bishop-elect but he would not have the power of orders and a consecrated bishop can have the power of orders but not the jurisdiction of an office.
As far as the power of Orders is concerned, all bishops have the same power. The power of the office concerns jurisdiction. The pope has full and supreme jurisdiction. All bishops are subject to the pope.
If we take a look at St. Cyprian’s original letter, we see that Peter’s office carries a certain type of dignity and power unlike any other office in the Church:
“The Lord says to Peter: ‘I say to you,’ he says, ‘that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell will not overcome it. And to you I will give the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever things you bind on earth shall be bound also in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth, they shall be loosed also in heaven’… On him he builds the Church, and to him he gives the command to feed the sheep, and although he assigns a like power to all the apostles, yet he founded a single chair, and he established by his own authority a source and an intrinsic reason for that unity. Indeed, the others were also what Peter was; but a primacy is given to Peter, whereby it is made clear that there is but one Church and one chair. So too, all are shepherds, and the flock is shown to be one, fed by all the apostles in single-minded accord. If someone does not hold fast to this unity of Peter, can he imagine that he still holds the faith? If he deserts the chair of Peter upon whom the Church was built, can he still be confident that he is in the Church?” (The Unity of the Catholic Church, first edition 251 AD.)
St. Cyprian never rejected his original letter.
St. Isidore of Seville: “The other Apostles were made equal with Peter in a fellowship of dignity and power.”(De Ecclesiasticus, II.5, M.P.L., Vol. 83, Col. 781-782.)
Again, each Apostle had the same jurisdiction over the Church as Peter, which is the equal portion of dignity and power that’s being referred to. However, the context of St. Isidore’s writing was about the episcopacy or the power of orders. The other Apostles were made equal in fellowship of dignity and power as Peter as far as being a bishop is concerned. The papal office is another and distinct office in the Church and it can be occupied by a mere layman such as Pope Hadrian V who was never even a priest. St. Isidore wasn’t referring to Peter’s Chair as Pope but rather his rank as bishop.
We can easily prove that St. Isidore recognized papal primacy. His older brother St. Leander was first made Bishop of Seville. He was a close friend of Pope St. Gregory the Great, who sent him the pallium.
The Catholic encyclopedia explains what the pallium is and what it symbolizes http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11427a.htm
Pope St. Gregory used his authority over other bishops and councils. It was clear that he was the head of the Church. His letters also indicate his authority as head of the Church.
It’s true that Pope St. Gregory rejected the title “universal bishop” in the sense that it necessarily meant there are no other bishops. He explained this point in Book 9, Letter 68.
In this very letter, Pope St. Gregory was using his supreme authority as pope to condemn the Bishop of Constantinople.
In Book 3, Letter 30, Pope St. Gregory declares, “Inasmuch as it is manifest that the Apostolic See is, by the ordering of God, set over all Churches, there is, among our manifold cares, special demand for our attention, when our decision is awaited with a view to the consecration of a bishop. . . . you are to cause him to be consecrated by his own bishops, as ancient usage requires, with the assent of our authority, and the help of the Lord; to the end that through the observance of such custom both the Apostolic See may retain the power belonging to it, and at the same time may not diminish the rights which it has conceded to others.”
In Book 9, Letter 12, Pope St. Gregory declared, “For as to what they say about the Church of Constantinople, who can doubt that it is subject to the Apostolic See, as both the most pious lord the emperor and our brother the bishop of that city continually acknowledge?”
If any bishop denied papal primacy, Pope St. Gregory would have set him straight.
When St. Leander died, his brother St. Isidore became Bishop of Seville. Again, St. Gregory the Great showed his apostolic authority by sending him the pallium, which St. Isidore accepted.
St. Isidore never denied papal primacy. In fact, he recognized it by his actions. Not only that, but all of St. Isidore’s writings are promoted by the popes themselves.
St. Bede: “Although it may seem that this power of loosing and binding was given by the Lord only to Peter, we must nevertheless know without any doubt that it was given to the other Apostles, as Christ Himself testified when, after the triumph of His Passion and Resurrection, He appeared to them and breathed upon them, and said to them all, ‘Receive ye the Holy Spirit: if ye forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven to them; if ye retain the sins of any, they are retained [Jn. 20:22, 23].
St. Bede’s interpretation of Matt. 16:19 is a different perspective from his contemporaries, but it doesn’t deny Peter’s primacy in authority. Bede is interpreting the binding and loosing in Matt. 16 with the same binding and loosing in Jn. 20, which is about binding and loosing of sins. All priests have the same power as bishops in binding and loosing of sins. However, Bede didn’t hold that priests and bishops have the same authority. He writes, “In my nineteenth year I was admitted to the diaconate, in my thirtieth to the priest, both by the hands of the most reverend Bishop John (St. John of Beverley), and at the bidding of Abbot Ceolfrid.” Bishops ordain priests and consecrate bishops but priests don’t have the power to do either. Thus they have different powers. St. Bede is not denying the authority of Peter as the head of the Church.
St. Cyril of Alexandria: “One therefore is Christ both Son and Lord, not as if a man had attained only such a conjunction with God as consists in a unity of dignity alone or of authority. For it is not equality of dignity which unites natures; for then Peter and John, who were of equal dignity with each other, being both Apostles and holy disciples would have been one, and yet the two are not one….”(St. Cyril, 2nd Epistle to Nestorius.)
St. Cyril is making a point. He’s not denying Peter’s authority as pope. In fact, he made this statement at the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD, after he appealed to Pope St. Celestine I to settle the matter against Nestorius, the Patriarch of Constantinople. The result was the Third Ecumenical Council at Ephesus in 431 AD, which condemned Nestorius. In the Acts of the Council, session 3, it’s declared:
“Philip the presbyter and legate of the Apostolic See said: ‘There is no doubt, and in fact it has been known in all ages, that the holy and most blessed Peter, prince and head of the apostles, pillar of the faith, and foundation of the Catholic Church, received the keys of the kingdom from our Lord Jesus Christ, the Savior and Redeemer of the human race, and that to him was given the power of loosing and binding sins: who down even to today and forever both lives and judges in his successors. The holy and most blessed pope Celestine, according to due order, is his successor and holds his place, and us he sent to supply his place in this holy synod.’”
The great council of the East witnesses to the Catholic dogma that Peter and his successors are “head of the apostles, pillar of the faith, and foundation of the Catholic Church.”
St. Cyril, Bishop of Jerusalem (d. 386) is another Eastern Father who tells us that only Peter has the keys and is the chief of the apostles:
[Simon Magus] so deceived the city of Rome that Claudius erected a statue of him. . . . While the error was extending itself, Peter and Paul arrived, a noble pair and the rulers of the Church, and they set the error aright. . . . They launched the weapon of their like-mindedness in prayer against the Magus, and struck him down to earth. It was marvelous enough, and yet no marvel at all, for Peter was there—he that carries about the keys of heaven. …In the power of the same Holy Spirit, Peter, both the chief of the apostles and the keeper of the keys of the kingdom of heaven, in the name of Christ healed Aeneas the paralytic at Lydda, which is now called Diospolis; and at Joppa he raised the beneficent Tabitha from the dead.” (Catechetical Lectures [350 AD] 6:14 and 17:27).
St. John Chrysostom, according the Eastern Orthodox, “has not recognized in the Church any dignity superior to the apostolate in general.”
“Of all spiritual magistratures,” he says, “the greatest is the apostolate. How do we know this? Because the apostle precedes all others. As the consul is the first of civil magistrates, so is the apostle the first of spiritual magistrates. St. Paul himself, when he enumerates these dignities, places at their head the prerogatives of the apostolate. What does he say? ‘And God has set some in the church; first, apostles; secondarily, prophets; thirdly, teachers.’ Do you observe the summit of these dignities? Do you mark that the apostle is at the apex of the hierarchy–no one before, none above him. For he says: ‘First, apostles.’ And not only is the apostolate the first of all dignities, but also the root and foundation thereof.” (Homily upon the Utility of Reading Holy Scripture; cited in Abbe Guettee, The Papacy.)
[NOTE: Since being an Apostle is the highest rulership in the church, the root and foundation, then there is no office for St. Peter to have higher than the other Apostles –and note that St. Paul says, God set some, that is, a plural number, in the church, first apostles –again a plural number, yet a Papal Petrine primacy demands that the highest rank be singular.]
The argument fails to make proper distinctions. St. John Chrysostom is commenting on I Cor. 12:28-30, which reads,
“And God indeed hath set some in the church; first apostles, secondly prophets, thirdly doctors: after that miracles: then the graces of healings, helps, governments, kinds of tongues, interpretations of speeches. 29. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all doctors? 30. Are all workers of miracles? Have all the grace of healing?”
The Bible is giving a general outline of authority and other positions in the Church. St. John Chrysostom is pointing to the fact that the Apostles are higher than all the other parts of the Church. The Apostles are also bishops but the other bishops don’t have the jurisdiction of the Apostles. Again, some bishops have more authority than other bishops because of the power of an office. St. John Chyrsostom is not dealing with the papal office which is about a specific office among the Apostles. He explains Peter’s Office in other writings. For instance,
“Peter, that head of the Apostles, the first in the Church, the friend of Christ, who received the revelation not from man but from the Father….this Peter, and when I say Peter, I mean the unbroken Rock, the unshaken foundation, the great apostle, the first of the disciples, the first called, the first to obey.” (De Eleemos III, 4, vol II, 298, taken from Dom John Chapman)
This is one of many teachings from St. John Chrysostom on papal primacy. To argue that this great saint didn’t recognize papal primacy is absurd.
Whenever we see a quote from a Father or saint about Peter’s relationship with others, pay attention to the context and in what sense he’s referring to.
The following additional quotes support papal primacy.
“Not long afterwards the illustrious Anastasius succeeded to the Pontificate. Rome did not merit to possess him long, lest the world’s head should be severed under such a bishop [when Alaric took Rome, AD 410]. Nay, he was taken away, lest he should essay by his prayers to bend the sentence once decided, as the Lord said to Jeremias: ‘Pray not for this people.’ … You say, what has this to do with the illustrious Marcella? She was the cause of the heretic’s condemnation, by producing witnesses’…” (Ep 127, c. x, 958 taken from Dom John Chapman’s Studies on the Early Papacy and originally from the “Dublin Review” (January 1898). Dom John Chapman OSB (25 April 1865 – 7 November 1933)
St. Theodore the Studite to Pope St. Leo III:
“To the most holy and great father of fathers, to our lord Leo, apostolic pope, Theodore, the most humble priest and abbot of the Studion….
Since it is to the great Peter that Christ our God gave the keys of the kingdom of heaven and entrusted the dignity of chief of the flock , it is to Peter, that is to say, his successor, that one ought to submit every innovation which is made in the Catholic Church by those who turn aside from the truth. That is what we humble and lowly monks have learnt from the ancient fathers. Therefore, a new teaching having arisen recently in the midst of our Church here, we believed we ought, first through the medium of one of our fathers, the most holy archimandrite Ephiphanius, and then by this simple letter, to submit it to the angel of your supreme beatitude. There has been held, o Ruler divine of all rulers, a synod of prevaricators, as says the prophet Jeremiah, a council of adulterers. These men have not been content to conspire in favor of the priest who blessed the adulterous marriage and to receive him into communion, but, to merit the name of perfect heretic, have excommunicated in a second synod all those who do not cleave to their error, or rather the Church catholic herself…I borrow now the cry of the coryphaeus of the Apostles, calling Christ to his succor when the waves of the sea were risen up, and I say to your blessedness who are the Representative of Christ, ‘O first shepherd of the Church which is under heaven’, save us now, we perish. Imitate the Christ your master, stretch out your hand to your Church as he stretched out his hand to Peter. Peter began to sink in the waves, while our Church is still once more submerged in the depths of heresy. Emulate, we beg you, the great Pope whose name you bear, and just as he on the appearance of the Eutychian heresy, stood erect spiritually as a lion with his dogmatic letters, so in your turn (I dare to say it because of your name) roar divinely, or rather send forth your thunders against the present heresy. For if they, usurping an authority which does not belong to them, have dared to convene a heretical council, while those who, following ancient custom, have not even the right of convoking an orthodox one without your knowledge, it seems absolutely necessary, we dare to say it to you, that your divine primacy should call together a lawful council, so that the Catholic dogma may drive away heresy and that neither your primacy may be anathematized with all the orthodox by these new voices without authority, nor that wills evilly disposed may find in this adulterous council an excuse for being involved in sin. It is in order to obey your divine authority as chief pastor that we have set forth these things as it befitted our nothingness, we the least members of the Church. For the rest we beg your holiness to count us among your sheep and to enlighten and to strengthen us by your holy prayers… It is of myself, a humble fishermen held in prison, that I write to you this letter, because my father and companion the monk, as well as my brother the Archbishop of Thessaloniki, are imprisoned in other islands. But they say the same things as I, and with me prostrate themselves at the sacred feet of your blessedness” (Patrologia Graeca 99, 1017 – Epistle 1)
The list of quotes could go on and on proving that papal primacy was recognized by the whole Church. Eastern Orthodoxy and Protestantism doesn’t have a leg to stand on. They are man-made traditions that nullify the Word of God (Mark 7:13).