By Will Deatherage, Executive Director
Time after time, throughout the earliest ecumenical councils, Rome’s position won out, even though Rome was hardly a political powerhouse after the rise of Constantinople. Between Monophysitism, Nestorianism, Monothelitism, iconoclasm, and others, the Roman positions ultimately defeated heresies at every turn. Some, myself included, argue that this is because Rome, having been replaced by Constantinople as the capital of the empire, was free from being tainted by the pervasive political influence that eastern bishops had to deal with. But, heading into the second millennium, that would change, as the papacy accumulated immense political power and wealth.
“Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, popes, dreams, and aspirations, welcome to another episode of Clarifying Catholicism! You’re watching part six of a series on the teaching authority of the Catholic Church. Most of this information is from Francis Sullivan’s Magisterium: Teaching Authority in the Catholic Church. So, if you’d like an in-depth dive into these topics, make sure to pick up a copy of his book. To see the rest of the videos in this series, click the playlist in the description. Without further ado, onto the show!”
Phew! We’ve sure covered a lot of ground in this short series, so far. Instead of recapping everything we’ve gone over so far, let me summarize last episode in terminology we’ve accumulated throughout the series. Last episode, we talked about precisely how bishops, as successors of the Apostles to whose care Jesus entrusted the Church, exercise their teaching authority. And we recall that this teaching authority does not come from a source of arrogance, as if the bishops were placed on some higher plain of existence above everyone else, rather it comes from a massive responsibility Jesus gave His Apostles, since not everybody has time in the world to devote their lives to studying revelation and analyzing ethical issues. And how do bishops exercise this authority? Well, on an individual level they teach people living in their territories, or dioceses, the Gospel message that was handed down to them, but they aren’t allowed to teach infallibly on their own, since Christ gave that power to a community, rather than just one bishop on his own. So, bishops teach infallibly when they all agree on the same teachings, which is called the universal ordinary magisterium and when they gather at councils to settle questions or clarify doctrines that come from revelation. We also pointed out how only teachings that are explicitly defined infallibly are considered infallibly taught. Furthermore, infallibly defined teachings always strive to clarify divinely revealed truths; if it looks like they are defining something outside of revelation, such as historical events that probably never happened, it is probably because these definitions are actually trying to argue for something else that is actually connected to revelation.
I’ve mentioned a couple of times that the consensus of the opinions of bishops, both inside and outside of ecumenical councils, is important because it is the bishops as a collective who succeed the apostles. This means that no single bishop has the status of an infallible teacher. That is, except for one. This is the third method by which the bishops teach infallibly, though it also has its requirements, which I will delve into at a later point. For now, let’s answer a very important question: how can one bishop, especially after we’ve established how Apostolic succession extends to all of the bishops, has so much power? Although I do plan on making a series about Klaus Schatz’s phenomenal primer, Papal Primacy, let’s briefly go through the history of our friend, the Roman bishop, or the pope.
Around the year 185, the bishop of Lyon, Irenaeus, wrote about how an indicator of legitimate Church teaching was its acceptance in communities founded by Apostles, especially the one in which the two greatest Apostles, Peter and Paul, preached and died: Rome. This sentiment was echoed by several other prominent early Christian writers. Though the bishop of Rome, at the time, didn’t have a formal administrative authority over other bishops, he enjoyed the status as a bastion of orthodoxy. Basically, if your local church’s teachings conflicted with those of Rome, they were probably doing something wrong. In fact, when two dioceses disagreed on something theologically, they often appealed to Rome, even if they were far away geographically from the city.
Now, an immediate glance at the first few ecumenical councils seems to paint a picture that the papacy wasn’t very involved in early Christian doctrine. This was certainly the case for Nicaea, held in 325, in which the only role Rome played involved sending representatives who signed off on its teachings. There weren’t even any Roman representatives at Constantinople I, held in 381, at all. The pope signed off on it remotely. The next few councils, specifically Ephesus in 431, Chalcedon in 451, and Constantinople III in the late 600s, however, revealed an interesting pattern.
A theological dispute would divide Eastern churches against each other. The Eastern emperors would usually support the side that was eventually declared heretical. The brave theologians and bishops who defied their own emperors would then appeal to the pope for his support. The pope would then call a regional council and condemn the heretical position that the emperor had supported. Eventually, a new emperor would come into power who was either more sympathetic to the Roman position or just sought peace in his empire. The emperors would call a council, which papal legates would attend. Even though the pope and his western bishops and theologians had already settled the theological question, the Eastern bishops would insist on having a full discussion among all bishops about the issue. Somehow, though, the bishops would inevitably just so happen to reach the very same theological conclusions that Rome had held at the very beginning. Then the council would formally condemn the heretical position and affirm the Roman one.
There was, however, one very notable exception to this, which was Constantinople II, held in 553. During this council, the Eastern Emperor, who was sympathetic to a heresy known as Monophysitism, forcibly brought Pope Vigilius, who was adamantly against the heresy, to Constantinople and imprisoned him. After that didn’t work, the emperor had Vigilius excommunicated by the other dioceses. The emperor, however, realized that without the pope’s blessing, the council would not have been seen by many as legitimate, so he pressured the poor pope until he reluctantly agreed with its teachings. Luckily, the end result of the council was much softer in tone; it did not affirm Monophysitism but instead condemned some authors whose writings were against the heresy. It’s a much longer, complex story, and you can learn more about it in my ecumenical councils series, but it demonstrates how even emperors who were hostile to Rome recognized how crucial it was to gain Roman approval.
Now, perhaps the most pronounced display of an appeal to papal authority was in the Second Council of Nicaea in 787. The Eastern emperors and their advisors, once again, supported another heresy, iconoclasm. This one was particularly brutal, since it condemned the portrayal of Jesus and the saints in art and led to the destruction of so many precious works of art. Rome, of course, was asked to intervene, and eventually the Eastern emperors and their advisors reversed their position.
It is notable that throughout most of these controversies, the pope cited his authority as the successor of Peter and Paul as reason enough for being correct. Now, even though the Eastern bishops did not accept this reasoning as valid, they did, ultimately, accept the fact that he was correct about the doctrine in question at the end. Time after time, throughout the earliest ecumenical councils, Rome’s position won out, even though Rome was hardly a political powerhouse after the rise of Constantinople. Between Monophysitism, Nestorianism, Monothelitism, iconoclasm, and others, the Roman positions ultimately defeated heresies at every turn. Some, myself included, argue that this is because Rome, having been replaced by Constantinople as the capital of the empire, was free from being tainted by the pervasive political influence that eastern bishops had to deal with. But, heading into the second millennium, that would change, as the papacy accumulated immense political power and wealth.
With such immense political power came much corruption among and political games between Western bishops. Usually, these were addressed through councils that curbed abuses by consolidating Rome’s authority over the dioceses so that any rogue or evil bishops would have to answer immediately to the pope. Thus, the expansion of the papacy’s power was not for the sake of power itself; it was for the sake of keeping bishops in each diocese in check. By the time we hit the high Middle Ages, Thomas Aquinas supported the idea that popes had the authority to make infallible doctrinal pronouncements, though such a practice was ordinarily done during a council. This notion that popes may define things infallibly when acting in accordance with councils was a pretty standard theological position for a while. Once bishops controlled by secular rulers in the 1700s and 1800s began rebelling against the pope and trying to hold illicit councils of their own, though, it was clear that the Church needed to do something to preserve Her influence from any and all political actors trying to entice bishops against the bishop of Rome. This is why the First Vatican Council defined that a pope can teach infallibly without needing to be ratified by the bishops when he is speaking ex cathedra, or from the seat of Peter. No, not a literal seat; I mean when he invokes his authority as the successor of Peter to infallibly teach something. Such an event has only happened twice: when Pope Pius IX declared the Immaculate Conception to be a dogma in 1854 and when Pope Pius XII declared the Assumption of Mary to be a doctrine in 1950. There is a check on this ability, though. If a pope is in a state of heresy or schism, which has, indeed happen in the past, he cannot speak ex cathedra.
Okay, so hopefully we can see now the historical reasons of why the papacy needed more power. At first it was a line of defense against Eastern rulers who were too influenced by power and politics to make rational theological decisions. But once Western bishops became tainted by power, themselves, in the second millennium, someone needed to serve as judge, jury, and even executioner when they acted out of line.
Why the successor of Peter, though? Remember that passage we cited at the beginning of this series that we continue to invoke as evidence for the Church’s indefectibility? “Upon this rock I will build my Church and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.” While Jesus was speaking to all of His Apostles, it is no coincidence that he used the word rock, kefas, which is Peter’s name in Aramaic. The fact that Jesus even asked Peter to change his name from Simon to Peter, meaning rock, is already significant, but there are countless passages in the bible in which Jesus singles Peter out for special mention. It is undoubtedly true that in Acts of the Apostles, Peter serves as the leader of the Apostles. And just as the role of bishops and priests as successors of the apostles was not immediately clear in the earliest days of Christianity but developed to address the Church’s needs, the same could be said about the role of the chief apostle and the chief bishop. And just as it took thousands of years to realize that calculus could be derived from algebra, it, too, took the Church thousands of years to realize the authorities of the pope. So, in this series we’ve talked about where the Church receives Her authority from and which institutional mechanisms She uses to exercise Her authority to its fullest extent. We’ve identified some of the conditions by which bishops and the pope teach infallibly, so I think it’s time to pull everything we’ve covered together into a concise methodology. That will be our task next episode. Until then, have a great day and God bless you.