The idea that the papal claims stem from the time of Constantine can be held only by those wishing to remain in ignorance. One can find, on Catholic websites florilegia (collections of quotations) which show us that from the earliest times there was an acknowledgement of Rome’s special place. But in fairness, one ought to acknowledge that, as with everything run by humans, the Papacy has developed over time; in passing, one might note that no other Institution has lasted as long as the Papacy.
In Leo the Great’s day it could take months, even years, for information to feed through to parts of the Church, and the notion that the Pope could control the appointment of every bishop would have been an absurdity. It was only when medieval monarch such as Henry II tried to assert their right to control appointments to bishoprics that it became necessary for the Popes to protect the autonomy of the Church. However one parses Matthew 22:1, it is impossible to read it as meaning that Caesar has the right to appoint the successors to the Apostles.
In the very early Church, Rome had a primacy of honour because it was universally acknowledged as the site of the tombs of Saints Peter and Paul; those closer to those events in time lacked the doubts proclaimed so loudly by modern American Evangelicals. The ancients Sees of Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem were also recognised as having special jurisdiction over their regions, something the new Imperial capital, Constantinople, sought to claim from 381 onwards. The rise of Ialm left only Rome and Constantinople. The Great Schism of 1054 was simply a way of expressing something that was already a reality before that date, which is that the Church at Constantinople did not wish to acknowledge what it had back in 451, namely that Peter spoke through the Pope.
One of the delights of theological discussion in this area is that it reveals something which some Orthodox are reluctant to acknowledge – namely that their claim never to have changed anything is untrue; one of the others is that it forces Catholics into acrobatics over the filioque clause where the plain truth is that the Orthodox are correct, it was added to the Creed. Anyone wishing for sense of this can read Aidan Nichols’ Rome and the Eastern Churches. A Study in Schism (Edinburgh 1991) – living proof that it is possible to write about this topic from a confessional point of view and not sound like you are carrying on the old feud. If anyone knows a work of equal sensitivity from the Orthodox side, I’d be grateful and glad to read it.
The question boils down to whether a primacy of honour leaves the Pope in a position analogous to that of a constitutional monarch – a position of great honour but no real power. However attractive the idea of applying the sort of developmental model which we see in the secular world to the Papacy, it will not quite wash. On points of doctrine and dogma someone needs to decide.
That is not, however, to say there is no room for progress. There is often too great a delay in appointing to bishoprics – in my own diocese it took nearly two years to get a new bishop (and excellent he is and well worth the wait). If, as some hold, this is so the Pope can find a bishop who suits him, one can only wonder how long that process takes? We didn’t have vacancies this long before the Reformation (except during the interdict of King John’s reign), and to have them in this era seems unnecessary. A return to the earlier practice of allowing local churches to take such decisions would be the act of a self-confident successor of St Peter who did as Peter did. If Peter’s successor wants to exercise Peter’s charism, he could do worse than to study how Peter used it.
The office develops, and it guides the Church founded by Christ on its long journey through time. It has survived Attilla the Hun, Mohammed, bad popes, the Reformation, Napoleon, the French Revolution and Stalin. “How many divisions has the Pope?” was Stalin’s famous question to Churchill; the answer is given by history. Where now is Stalinism and what did all his earthly power avail against the spiritual warfare of Pope St John Paul II?