The Bishops of Rome

Whenever I look at the institutional Catholic church, as represented by the Vatican establishment and local bishops around he world, at its centralised, totalitarian power structures, its despotic control of speech, and self-selecting methods of appointment and promotion, its wealth, flamboyance and ceremonial, I wonder how the small band of early Christians, so utterly different in culture, ethos and practice, could ever have developed into what we know today as the Roman Catholic church?

“All the believers continued together in close fellowship and shared their belongings with one another. They would sell their property and possessions, and distribute the money among all, according to what each one needed. Day after day they met as a group in the temple, and they had their meal together in their homes, eating with glad and humble hearts.”

-Acts 2: 44-46

This passage is well known, and clearly refers to a small group of people sharing possessions, as is feasible when a small group share strong beliefs. But what happened later? How did the sharing of possessions extend to the trickier issue of decision-taking? Later in Acts, we read, in connection with the journey of Paul & Barnabas to Antioch:

“Then the apostles and the elders, together with the whole church, decided to choose some men from the whole church and send them to Antioch with Paul & Barnabas.”

-Acts 15:22

To me, that sounds pretty much like joint decision taking, as well as a simple sharing of possessions. We have at least a superficial dramatic contrast between the earliest church, and the modern power structure we have today. This may, of course, have been inevitable. It is clearly impossible for a church the size that we have today, to literally live together and share all possessions in common (although some religious orders make a determined effort to do just that). Perhaps a democratic church is also simply no longer possible, given its size.

Still, I don’t like obvious contradictions, and for a long time have wanted to know more about how this one developed. Reading Eamonn Duffy’s splendid history of the papacy, “Saints and Sinners”, has given me that opportunity. I have now completed a first reading, sufficient to provide at least room for some initial reflection. More detailed consideration will come after a further, slower reading and more careful analysis.

The first burning question I had was settled within the first few pages. The official Catholic position is that the papacy was founded by Christ himself, and with an unbroken line following down 2000 years, the Catholic Church has a clear and incontrovertible status as the one true church. Further, since the popes stand in the direct line of succession, they are effectively Christ’s spokesmen on earth, so that the Lord could not allow popes to be in serious error on matters of teaching. (Anybody seriously ready to stand by that second proposition after reading this, or any other history of the papacy, should watch their cheque books. There could be any number of people ready to sell them the Brooklyn Bridge). The response to the first proposition is easy: bollocks.

Duffy makes clear, right at the outset, that although the traditional view is that Peter and Paul were the first Popes and martyred in Rome, there is no historical evidence for this. He does not deny this, just states “not proven”. Far more damning, is the clear evidence that they could not have been popes, or even bishops of Rome, for the very simple reason that the office simply did not exist. In the very beginning, Rome was just one of a number of Christian communities spread across many cities of the Mediterranean. In each of these cities, the local churches were independent of each other, each led by their own elders, or “presbyters.” In some of these cities, there began to emerge the office of a “bishop” as leader among the presbyters but Rome was late in starting the practice, and even where they did appear, in some cases there were more than just one bishop to a city.

There was clearly no bishop of Rome until at least after 107 AD, and even by the middle of the 2nd century, Amicetus, the first of the early “popes” to be known in the historical record, referred to his predecessors as “presbyters”, and not as bishops.

The picture presented by the official Catholic version, of an unbroken line of popes in undisputed authority over the church, is just like so much of Vatican claims: remarkably economical with the historical truth.

Looking back over the full 2000 year story, the overriding impression that I have is one of a constant struggle over ever-expanding power, a struggle waged between the popes and temporal power over their respective domains, struggles to secure papal office, a gigantic (unresolved) struggle with the Eastern churches for undisputed primacy, struggles with the cardinals and bishops over the limits of papal authority against local jurisdictions, and often struggles with the Vatican staff itself, attempting to preserve their own way of doing things against brief reforming interludes. Bureaucratic inertia and fiefdoms, it seems, outlive the human spans of single reforming bishops.

To my disappointment, I see very little evidence of the long –term success of reform movements. There have been many reforming popes: most notably perhaps a wave of important reformers early in the second millennium, the counter-reformation which attempted (too late) to implement the reforms they could not commit to before Luther made his mark, and most recently the invigorating breath of Vatican II.

Latterly, we have seen the reaction set in, with determined efforts by the curia, and then by John Paul II and Benedict XVI to undo those parts of V2 reforms (but not all) that they disapproved of. One observation about Benedict’s resistance in particular that has stuck with me, is an observation that Benedict felt the Council showed too much complacency with the world outside, and was not sufficiently rooted in Christology, in particular. This is an observation that intrigues me: what aspects of Christ’s example and message does Benedict think the church should be emphasising more than it does? I don’t suppose it is the bit about paying scrupulous attention to the letter of religious law. Christ was well known for His rejection of religious legal literalists, and for placing love and service ahead of religious scruples. I haven’t yet read of Benedict telling us to give the catechism on sexuality, or canon law, less importance than the primacy of love.

This would be unbearably depressing, were it not for a compensating sense of the modern church that I have, not discussed by Duffy: that of a theologically more educated, more assertive laity (and religious sisters). Even as it is seeking to regain and extend the control it had before the Council, the Vatican has to deal with an uncomfortable fact which was not an issue earlier: in a democratic, educated and electronic age, asserting a claim to control is a lot easier than actually achieving it. They cannot put the genie of lay participation back in the bottle, they can not put the toothpaste back in the tube.

I hope to bring you more detailed observations, and summaries, of the rise of papal power later.


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