“The Bishop of Rome as Successor of Peter”

Continuing from the recently leaked document from the official Catholic-Orthodox dialogue: The Role of the Bishop of Rome in the Communion of the Church in the First Millennium.

Pope St Leo, Bishop of Rome

The idea of the Bishop of Rome as successor of Peter is not one that is rejected by Orthodox. Orthodox, however, point out that this succession is not unique, as can be read in the document. Petrine origin was noted of Alexandria, Antioch and Rome. I’ve italicized some particular portions of the text that I thought were significant.

Again, the Commission has obviously struggled with competing interpretations in putting this together, especially with regards to the concept of a primacy among other Bishops by the Bishop of Rome as successor of St. Peter.  One wonders what a final document would say?

The bishop of Rome as successor of Peter

16. The early emphasis on the link of the see of Rome with both Peter and Paul gradually developed in the West into a more specific link between the bishop of Rome and the apostle Peter. Pope Stephen (mid-3rd century) was the first to apply Mt 16:18 (“you are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church”) to his own office. The Council of Constantinople in 381 specified that Constantinople should have the second place after Rome: “Because it is New Rome, the bishop of Constantinople is to enjoy seniority of honour after the bishop of Rome” (canon 3). The criterion invoked by the Council for the ordering of sees was thus not apostolic foundation but the status of the city in the civil organisation of the Roman Empire. A different criterion for the ordering of major sees was invoked by the synod convened at Rome in 382 under the presidency of Pope Damasus (cf Decretum Gelasianum 3). Here three chief sees were mentioned, Rome, Alexandria and Antioch, and nothing was said about Constantinople. It was stated that the Roman Church was given first place because of Christ’s words to Peter (Mt 16:18), and because of its foundation by Peter and Paul. The second place was assigned to Alexandria, founded by Peter’s disciple Mark, and the third to Antioch, where Peter resided before moving to Rome. This idea of the three Petrine sees was repeated by popes in the fifth century, such as Boniface, Leo and Gelasius. By 381-2, then, two distinct criteria for determining the ecclesial rank of a Church had emerged, the first assuming that the latter should correspond to the civil rank of the city in question, and the second appealing to apostolic, and more specifically to Petrine, origin.

17. The Petrine idea was significantly developed and deepened by Pope Leo (440-461). He made a sharp distinction between the Petrine ministry itself and the person exercising the ministry, whom he saw as an unworthy heir (haeres) of St Peter (Serm. 3, 4). Being heir, the pope becomes “apostolicus’ and he inherits also the “consortium” of the indivisible unity between Christ and Peter (Serm. 5, 4; 4, 2). As a consequence, it is his duty to care for all the Churches (cf 2Cor 11:28; Ep. 120, 4). The precedence of Peter is founded on the fact that Christ entrusted his sheep to him and only to him (John 21:17; cf Serm. 83). The bishop of Rome guards the privileged tradition of the Church of Rome, the tradition of St Peter (cf. Ep. 9; Serm. 96, 3). Leo saw himself as “the guardian of catholic faith and of the constitutions of the Fathers’ (Ep. 114), obliged to promote respect and observance of the councils.

18. At the fourth Ecumenical Council (451), the reading of the Tome of Leo was followed by the acclamation: “Peter has spoken through Leo”. This, however, was not a formal definition of Petrine succession.  It was a recognition that Leo, the bishop of Rome, had given voice to the faith of Peter, which was particularly found in the Church of Rome. After the same council, the bishops said that Leo was “the mouthpiece unto all of the blessed Peter… imparting the blessedness of his faith unto all” (Epistola concilii Chalcedoniensis ad Leonem papam = Ep. 98 of Leo). Augustine likewise focused on the faith rather than simply the person of Peter when he said that Peter was “figura ecclesiae” (In Jo. 7, 14; Sermo 149, 6) and “typus Ecclesiae” (Sermo 149, 6) in his confession of faith in Christ. It would therefore be an oversimplification to say that the West interprets the “rock” of Mt 16:18 as the person of Peter whereas the East interprets it as Peter’s faith. In the early Church, both East and West, it was the succession of Peter’s faith that was of paramount importance.

19. It is important to bear in mind that all apostolic succession is succession in the apostolic faith, within an individual local Church. From an ecclesiological perspective, it is not possible to conceive a succession among persons independently of or outside of the apostolic faith and a local Church. Thus, to say that Peter speaks through the bishop of Rome means in the first place that the latter expresses the apostolic faith that his Church received from the apostle Peter. It is above all in this sense that the bishop of Rome can be understood as the successor of Peter.

20. In the West, the accent placed on the link between the bishop of Rome and the apostle Peter, particularly from the fourth century onwards, was accompanied by an increasingly more specific reference to Peter’s role within the college of the Apostles. The primacy of the bishop of Rome among the bishops was gradually interpreted as a prerogative that was his because he was successor of Peter, the first of the apostles (cf. Jerome, In Isaiam 14, 53; Leo, Sermo 94, 2; 95, 3). The position of the bishop of Rome among the bishops was understood in terms of the position of Peter among the apostles. In the East, this evolution in the interpretation of the ministry of the bishop of Rome did not occur. Such an interpretation was never explicitly rejected in the East in the first millennium, but the East tended rather to understand each bishop as the successor of all of the apostles, including Peter (cf. Cyprian, De unit. ecc., 4-5; Origen, Comm. in Matt.).

21. In a somewhat similar way, the West did not reject the idea of the Pentarchy (cf. above, n. 13) – indeed it carefully observed the taxis of the five major sees, Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem, around which the five patriarchates of the ancient Church developed (cf. Ravenna document, n. 28). However, the West never gave the same significance to the Pentarchy as a way of governance of the Church as the East did.

22. It is notable that these rather different understandings of the position of the bishop of Rome and the relationship of the major sees in West and East, respectively, based on quite different biblical, theological and canonical interpretations, co-existed for several centuries until the end of the first millennium, without causing a break of communion.


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