In our search for authority we have seen that the Scriptures do not interpret themselves, and that Church Councils don’t define themselves. The obvious place to go is the Pope. The Lonely Pilgrim offers a compelling analysis of Matthew 16:18, and I have never had any problem accepting that the verse means what it says; the efforts to explain it away start very later in Church history, and really only when Luther and co. started to need an argument for rejecting the Pope. OK, so why not just stop there? Well there’s the little matter of the Orthodox tradition.
I probably ought to say up front that to me both the Catholic and the Orthodox views of the Papacy smack of special pleading: both selectively report Church history to justify their existing position. That does not mean that I don’t think they both have something in them, but it does mean that there is a good amount of tares in with the wheat.
The Orthodox are happy to accept a primacy of honour. That phrase would do a politician proud, since it can mean whatever its users want it to mean. It is said that that is what the early Church gave to the Bishop of Rome, but what does that mean?
Of course we can go back to Clement’s letters, and we can argue about who Clement was, and whether he was Pope, but let us not forget that the last person sending letters to advice and admonition to Corinth was St. Paul, and no one said he was Pope. But before we get carried away in the other direction, let us not try to make great claims for the so-called Pentarchy either. Jerusalem lost its important very early and never recovered its authority; Antioch’s first bishop was St. Peter, but no one there ever based any claims to general authority on it; Alexandria, which housed a famous theological school, never claimed authority outside of North Africa; and Constantinople was a late-comer which owed its authority solely to the Emperor.
If our understanding of anything has developed, it is the understanding of the position of the Pope. A recent scholarly book by Susan Wessel shows how Leo the Great (Pope 440-41) was the first Pope to make systematic use of the Petrine verses to show that Rome did, indeed, have authority over other Sees. It shows at least one example of that being accepted, at Chalcedon in 451 with Leo’s famous Tome. It is true, as the Orthodox like to claim, that the acceptance of the Tome depended upon Leo teaching what St. Cyril taught, but since that had been dependent upon approval by Pope Celestine, that point might not be quite as effective as is sometimes thought. There can be no doubt that the Fathers at Chalcedon declared that ‘Peter speaks through Leo’ – which, according to taste, means they thought what they said, or that they didn’t. As with the Petrine verse in St. Matthew, when one has to strain to avoid the plain meaning, it may be better not to.
But, to go from that to an acceptance of the claims of the modern Papacy? Is that a developed understanding or a forced one?