St. Peter and the Church: part 1

Perhaps the most important misconception one must see when considering the Roman Catholic claims is this idea that the greater the divine role of St. Peter in the Church, the stronger their claims are. In fact the opposite is true. St. Peter’s role is so great that it cannot possibly pertain to Rome alone. St. Peter is an essential part of the foundation of the Church: and though he is capable of withstanding this weight, Rome is not. The primacy of Peter (whatever that may be) and the primacy of Rome (which is also up for discussion) are two very different things.

Whence the idea of the primacy of Rome? One looks at the council of Chalcedon in the fifth century, where Canon 28 grants Rome privilege among the sees for non-theological reasons. The Council “accorded privileges to old Rome, for this city was the seat of the Emperor and Senate…” Therefore it is for imperial considerations that Rome was initially given the place of first among equals.

This understanding was firmly entrenched in Byzantium, so much so that there is little controversy and ink spilled on the topic. Therefore, it was not surprising when we see it surface about six hundred years later when the Emperor’s Alexius Comnenus’ daughter Anna matter-of-factly writes, “The truth is that when power was transferred from Rome to our country and to our Queen of Cities (that would be Constantinople), not to mention the senate and the whole administration, the order of seniority between the thrones was also changed. Henceforth, the emperors bestowed primacy to the throne of Constantinople”. That is to say – that for completely non-doctrinal reasons – primacy was transferred away from Rome, but not away from Peter. While, of course, more could be said of Rome’s historical place and St. Ignatius’ claims of their “preimmanence in love” it remains pertinent and clear that the understanding of Rome’s place was clear and consistently held within most of the Church during the time leading up to the Great Schism.

Because of this non-divine – and thus impermanent nature of primacy – Hadrien IV, a bishop from Ephesus, said in 1155 that “the throne of Constantinople is superior to that of Rome.” In our contemporary context we must wonder what will happen now that Constantinople is being chocked out by Islam. But this question, though sad and sobering, is more logistical than it is dogmatic.

So we can see that the equivocation of Peter with Rome is foreign to the Church’s historical consciousness, but how did it come about? It seems to stem from a simple analogy. Scripture and the Fathers are comfortable calling Peter the “first” of the apostle’s; and as we have seen, councils of the Church along with emperors were comfortable calling the bishop of Rome “first” among equals. Thus the analogy between the role of St. Peter among the apostles and the role of Rome among the ecclesiastical hierarchs comes into view. While this analogy seems apparent – and indeed, is undisputed – one must agree that it does not provide much leverage in terms of argument, and it does not uncover a privileged connection of the see of Rome to Peter, or a clear depiction of Petrine succession. The analogy between whomever is serving as the privileged bishop and the role of the “first” of the apostles provides nothing for the Roman Catholic position.

Leaving aside the troublesome topics of apostolic succession and what the succession of Blessed Peter is; it is worth pointing out some facts about St. Peter’s life that we should keep in mind. First, we don’t know what his role was in the Church in Rome, and it seems very unlikely that he founded it. We certainly know that we wasn’t a bishop there. Linus was Rome’s first bishop, and then Clement, and so forth on down the road. We do know however that he had strong ties to the Church in Jerusalem (of whom St. James was bishop) and to the Church in Antioch. If exclusive claims as the “see of Peter” could be made by a local bishop, these are certainly the cities with the strongest claims, not Rome.

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