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The Petrine Principal

The New Testament bears ample testimony to the ancient faith of the Roman Christians. Rome marks the final destination of the Acts of the Apostles. Rome was the postal address of the first of St. Paul’s canonical letters.

And the ancient Romans treasured their heritage. They knew, with unerring Christian instinct, what the African Tertullian would say so eloquently in the third century: The blood of the martyrs is seed. If that is so, the Romans were blessed indeed to count among their martyrs the apostles Peter and Paul.

There is no legal document — not even a forged one — that names the successors of St. Peter as title-holders to the Church, bearers of the keys. But the ancient Christians required no other proof than the Scriptures and the apostolic tradition.

Writing probably in 69 A.D. (and surely no later than 96), St. Clement of Rome, the third successor of Peter, remonstrated the faraway congregation in Corinth, in Greece. Clement could do this because he spoke with Peter’s authority, which was granted by Christ Himself. As he concluded his letter, he urged the Corinthians to “render obedience unto the things written by us through the Holy Spirit.” And they did. A century later, the Greek church still hallowed Clement’s letter, as did other churches that counted it among the canonical scriptures and proclaimed its words in the liturgy.

Obedience to Christ in the person of His vicar: This is the common testimony of the Fathers. When the saints of East and West saw danger, they appealed to the pope. We find such pleas in the letters of St. Irenaeus (second century), St. Basil the Great (fourth century), St. John Chrysostom (early fifth century), and St. Cyril of Alexandria (mid-fifth century).

One and all, these were men with an encyclopedic knowledge of the Scriptures. So when they wished for an action that bore the authority of Jesus Christ, they knew where to send their petition. Sometimes they were disappointed by the papal response, but they maintained their faith in the papal office.

In the year 376, the greatest Scripture scholar in the ancient world, St. Jerome, addressed Pope St. Damasus I with a torrent of biblical seals of the papacy: “I speak with the successor of the fisherman and disciple of the cross. Following none but Christ as my primate, I am united in communion with Your Beatitude — that is, with the chair of Peter. Upon that Rock I know the Church is built. Whosoever eats a lamb outside this house is profane. Whoever is not in Noah’s ark will perish when the flood prevails.”

To be a Christian was — then as now — to obey Jesus Christ in the holy Scriptures. Thus, to be a Christian was to obey Jesus Christ in his vicar, the pope.

This was not just the teaching of churchmen who had a vested interested in papal power. It was the faith of the congregations.

The Roman people passed down many traditions of Peter’s ministry in their city. According to one story, during his imprisonment, the apostle preached to his jailers, who begged him for baptism. Finding insufficient water, Peter prayed and a pure spring bubbled up into the cell. Today we may see a most ancient testimony to this story on the walls of the Catacomb of Commodilla. There, the early Christians portrayed Peter as a new Moses, striking a rock wall and drawing forth water.

But, again, reverence for the papacy wasn’t just a Roman thing. A plate found in Montenegro depicts the prison baptism. A coffin in Arles, France, made around the same time, shows Christ handing on the Law to Peter.

Christ gave His Law to Peter with the grace of state. Peter passed it on to Linus, Linus to Cletus, Cletus to Clement, as John Paul passed it on to Benedict last year, while the whole world was watching.

8 thoughts on “The Petrine Principal

  1. One of my favorite citations is from Ireneaus.

    “But since it would be too long to enumerate in such a volume as this the succession of all the churches, we shall confound all those who, in whatever manner, whether through self-satisfaction or vainglory, or through blindness and wicked opinion, assemble other than where it is proper, by pointing out here the successions of the bishops of the greatest and most ancient church known to all, founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul, that church which has the tradition and the faith which comes down to us after having been announced to men by the apostles. With that church, because of its superior origin, all the churches must agree, that is, all the faithful in the whole world, and it is in her that the faithful everywhere have maintained the apostolic tradition” (Against Heresies 3:3:2 [A.D. 189]).

  2. When Dominic Unger turned in his manuscript for the first Ancient Christian Writers’ volume of Irenaeus, that Petrine passage was buttressed by a 100-page footnote! That’s how carried away Father Dominic was with his passion for the Petrine office, and for Irenaeus’s testimony. The editors, however, told him that there’s no such thing as a 100-page footnote. So he published it as a monograph: “St. Irenaeus and the Roman Primacy” — still a great read.

  3. Father Dominic’s fellow Capuchin, Father Ronald Lawler, could, to his last days on earth, recite the Irenaeus passage from memory in Latin.

  4. regarding the Petrine Office.
    Could I recomend Father Puller’s ‘The See of Rome and the Primitive Saints.”

    Interesting and Informative”

  5. If the “first among equals” status of the Bishop of Rome were really to be conflated with the pretensions of Peter’s successor to absolute rule of every other Bishop and diocese, there would have been no need for the many church councils over the years, including the Council of Nicaea. It’s nonsensical to claim that the view of the Pope’s role by every priest of the church was the same as the Pope’s own view of it in the 11th Century. Were that so, the priests of the eastern empire would have accepted unhesitatingly the Pope’s excommunication of the Patriarch of Constantinople, and there would have been no East/West Schism of 1084. The Corinthian church which “hallowed St. Peter’s letter” a century later, nonetheless ended up part of the Eastern Orthodox Church. One cannot simply ignore the decision (which still stands) of the eastern dioceses to obey their own bishops rather than the Pope when one sets forth what those Christians’ attitudes, in fact, were. Did they revere the descendant of St. Peter? Certainly. Did they consider him (and not Jesus Christ) the head of Christ’s church on earth? Certainly not. Their refusal to do so is an historical fact.

  6. It would help the author’s credibility to have clarified the use of the word “principal” to avoid confusion with the traditional context of “principle.”

  7. When puns are explained, they die.

  8. Posted this to my page – good stuff – really good stuff! Years ago, at a training seminar for speaking/teaching, a really great Bible teacher taught me something that sounds strange but really says it all – “Know your stuff, know who you are stuffin’ and stuff’em in Style.” You really do that, Mike. I always feel wiser after I read your ‘stuff’.

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