The Papacy: Changing in History, Theology, and Dogma

In previous blog posts, I’ve given some short history about the development and growth of the historical papacy.

The papacy is 1600 years old, not 2000 years old

The Crafting of the 4th Century Roman Church, Doctrine, and Papacy

The Papacy: “Self-Consciously” Modeled After the 4th Century Roman State

“Pope Leo the Great”

When you are talking about the papacy, there are three things to consider:

• The history of it
• The theology behind it
• The doctrine of it

Views of all three of these are changing, and they are changing precisely because we’re learning more about the history of the [nonexistent] early papacy.

Shotwell and Loomis, in the 1927 introduction to their work “The See of Peter” (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, ©1927, 1955, 1991), describe how closely these (especially history and doctrine) are intertwined:

What is the value of tradition as a basis for the papal claims? … although it is safe to say that few traditions are more solidly fixed, and few groups of them so readily fuse, as regards their essential facts, as those which support the Petrine clams of the papacy, this does not finally settle the matter. Indeed it can never be settled, so far as historical evidence is concerned. The Catholic scholar is sure to see more in the argument than the Protestant, because one is predisposed to accept and the other to refuse (pg xxiii).

To be sure, this is the way the discussion has worked over the years. The problem for Roman Catholics, however, is that the history, as we have come to understand it over the last 100 years, and especially the last 50 years, has tended further and further away from Roman accounting of things.

Shotwell and Loomis continue:

With reference to the Petrine doctrine, however, the Catholic attitude is much more than a “pre-disposition to believe.” That doctrine is the fundamental basis of the whole papal structure. It may be summed up in three main claims: They are: first, that Peter was appointed by Christ to be his chief representative and successor and the head of his Church; second, that Peter went to Rome and founded the bishopric there; third, that his successors succeeded to his prerogatives, and to all the authority implied thereby.

I hope to address each of these three “main claims” in the near future. My hope is to show how those claims historically manifested themselves, what the Roman Catholic church has said about them historically and doctrinally over the centuries, how the growth of our historical knowledge has been pushing back on these claims, and how the “doctrines” of the papacy have been evolving in a way that tries (but fails) to take into account the history as we know it.

Shotwell and Loomis continue:

In dealing with these claims we are passing along the border line between history and dogmatic theology. The primacy of Peter and his appointment by Christ to succeed Him as head of the Church are accepted by the Catholic Church as the indubitable word of inspired Gospel, in its only possible meaning. That Peter went to Rome and founded there his See, is just a s definitely what is termed in Catholic theology a dogmatic fact. This has been defined by an eminent Catholic theologian as “historical fact so intimately connected with some great Catholic truths that it would be believed even if time and accident had destroyed all of the original evidence therefor” (pgs xxiii–xxiv).

In a very real sense, this is almost precisely what happened, except: it was not “time and accident” that has destroyed “all the original evidence”, but rather, an increase in our knowledge about how the ancient world functioned.

In an era in which (during the last 200 years) there has been an amazing increase in our understanding of ancient Palestine, the ancient Roman empire, the life, death, and Resurrection of Christ, and the testimonies of the Apostles, one thing is moved in precisely in the opposite direction, and that is, the triple notions that Peter was appointed to succeed Christ as the head of the Church, that Peter went to Rome and founded a bishopric there, and third, that his successors succeeded to his [so-called] prerogatives.

This three-fold assertion is repeated throughout time: according to Shotwell and Loomis:

…the student who has read the records of the Papacy of the Roman Empire is also aware that the famous sermon of Leo on the Petrine supremacy, quoted in so many textbooks, and his assertion of doctrinal authority over the Council of Chalcedon were but repetitions in forcible terms of the claims that were first enunciated by his predecessors two hundred years before (Stephen in ~250 AD), (pg xxvi).

Vatican I makes these same claims, as does Pope Leo XIII, as does Joseph Ratzinger in his work “Called to Communion”. But whereas Leo I, Vatican I, and Leo XIII make these claims in “forcible terms”, Ratzinger in 1991 makes them in somewhat less “forcible” terms, and an official document, produced by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1996, following some of the major historical studies, makes these claims in less forcible terms still.

In fact, it is so much less “forcible” that it very much appears to be a different doctrine.