In news accounts concerning the upcoming retirement of Pope Benedict XVI and a new papal conclave, one way to check to see if the particular news outlet you are watching had actually checked its facts is if it maintains that the papacy is a 2000 year old institution.
In fact, the overwhelming preponderance of scholarship on the topic – both Roman Catholic and Protestant – affirm that “the papacy” was a late development in the history of the church.
While it is almost universally acknowledged that Peter was an important Apostle, a friend of Jesus of Nazareth and an eyewitness to his life, death, and resurrection, it cannot be said that he was “bishop of Rome” in any meaningful sense, nor can it be said that he had “successors”.
In fact, the Roman Catholic writer Klaus Schatz, in his work “Papal Primacy, From its Origins to the Present”, (the Order of St. Benedict, Inc, Collegeville, MN: A Michael Glazier Book published by The Liturgical Press, 1996), makes the following statement:
It is clear that the Roman primacy was not a given from the outset; it underwent a long process of development whose initial phases extended well into the fifth century (pg 36).
How do we account, then, for the notion that “the papacy extends all the way back to Peter? One key reason given may be termed “pious romance”. As Eamon Duffy says, in his work, “Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes,” (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1997, 2001), though tradition is fairly certain that both Peter and Paul were martyred in Rome during the reign of Nero, nothing else is known, and remaining details, often supplied in the second and third centuries, were “pious romance” – works of fiction that were created to fill in some missing details:
These stories were to be accepted as sober history by some of the greatest minds of the early Church — Origen, Ambrose, Augustine. But they are pious romance, not history, and the fact is that we have no reliable accounts either of Peter’s later life or the manner or place of his death. Neither Peter nor Paul founded the Church at Rome, for there were Christians in the city before either of the Apostles set foot there. Nor can we assume, as Irenaeus did, that the Apostles established there a succession of bishops to carry on their work in the city, for all the indications are that there was no single bishop at Rome for almost a century after the deaths of the Apostles. In fact, wherever we turn, the solid outlines of the Petrine succession at Rome seem to blur and dissolve. (Duffy, pg 2.)
Yet another writer, Daniel William O’Connor “Peter in Rome: the literary, liturgical, and archeological evidence”, (New York and London: Columbia University Press, 1969), describes in this exhaustively detailed work, that the early church was so eager for details that within one hundred years after the deaths of these Apostles, it created the full accounts which are found in the apocryphal Acts of Peter, Paul, and other Apostles.