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Can We Save the Catholic Church?

Язык: Английский
Год издания: 2019 год
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Rome, even papal Rome, was not built in a day. There is no doubt that, from early on, the Church located in the city of Rome, the capital of the Roman empire, and widely renowned for its efficient organization, effective charitable activities and numerous martyrs, played an important role. As a refuge of orthodoxy against Gnosticism and other heresies, it played a key role in formulating the baptismal creed, in limiting the canon of the works included in the New Testament, and, last but not least, as the city with the graves of the two chief apostles, St Peter and St Paul, in developing the tradition of apostolic succession.

But on a closer look, which of these elements can be verified historically? There is no word in the New Testament of St Peter himself ever having visited Rome. Nor is there any unequivocal reference to an immediate successor to St Peter (in Rome of all places). According to the writings of St Matthew, it was St Peter’s personal faith in Christ and not that of his successors that was and remains the ‘rock’, the eternal foundation, on which Jesus built his Church (Matthew 16:18).

On the other hand, the First Epistle of Clement, dating from AD 96, and the letters of Ignatius of Antioch, written around the transition from the first to the second century, do explicitly state that Peter stayed in Rome and they testify to his martyrdom there. This tradition is therefore very old and, significantly, there are no rival witnesses to contradict it. Even in Antioch, while there is ample evidence in the Acts of the Apostles that St Peter stayed there for a lengthy period of time, no one has ever claimed that the grave of St Peter is located there. As yet, at least, it has not been possible to verify archaeologically whether the grave of St Peter lies underneath the current Vatican basilica, although there are significant indications. More importantly, however, there are no reliable early witnesses that St Peter, an uneducated Galilean fisherman called Simon, who stands in sharp contrast to St Paul, a Roman citizen fluent in Greek, ever functioned as the ‘overseer’ or epískopos (the term from which the word ‘bishop’ derives) of the Church in Rome. He was clearly the spokesman for the circle of disciples around Jesus before Jesus’ death and resurrection, and he continued to exercise this function for some time afterwards, as long as the circle of disciples remained together in Jerusalem and later in Antioch and the surrounding regions. But there is no evidence of his exercising such a function from the city of Rome; under no circumstances can he be called ‘Prince of the Apostles’ in any modern sense of the term ‘prince’. The evidence, on the contrary, indicates that the monarchical episcopacy was introduced only at a relatively late date in the city of Rome, probably shortly after the beginning of the second century, at least thirty years after Peter’s martyrdom. However, already in around the year 160 monuments were raised to Peter and Paul, both of whom were presumably martyred during Nero’s persecution of Christians in Rome around AD 64 to 68. It was the graves of the two chief apostles that served, in the first centuries, as the principal justification for the claim to a limited primacy accorded to the church of Rome, although not yet to the bishop of the city.

But does that make Rome ‘the mother of all churches’ as is proclaimed in the pretentious inscription adorning the basilica of St John Lateran, the original cathedral church of the Diocese of Rome: ‘Caput et mater omnium ecclesiarum urbis et orbis’ (‘Head and mother of all the churches of the city and of the earth’)? By no means! The head and mother church of early Christianity was incontestably Jerusalem, not Rome. And to this day there still exist any number of churches in the East such as Antioch, Ephesus, Thessalonica, Corinth and others that were founded by apostles completely independently of Rome and its bishop. To this day, these churches insist on their apostolic origin and heritage.

There can be no question, during the first centuries, of the diocese of Rome and its bishop enjoying any jurisdictional primacy over the whole Church, or even of a biblically based claim to primacy without any jurisdictional authority. The Petrine promise of the Gospel of St Matthew (16:18), which, from the middle of the first millennium, has customarily been cited as the biblical justification for the papal claim to primacy – ‘You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church’ – and which ostentatiously adorns the interior of St Peter’s Basilica in enormous black letters on a golden background, finds no corroborating mention in any of the other Gospels. And, with one exception, these words were never quoted, in full at least, in any of the Christian writings before the middle of the third century – the exception being a text by the controversial church father Tertullian who quoted the passage not with reference to Rome and its bishop but with reference to St Peter. It was only in the middle of the third century that Bishop Stephen of Rome (254–7) cited the promise made to Peter to assert his authority in quarrels with bishops in Spain, the Province of Africa and Asia Minor. But he met with vigorous opposition led by Bishop Cyprian of Carthage, who rejected not only Stephen’s decisions and the theology behind them, but also his claims to possess the better apostolic tradition and to exercise jurisdiction over other churches. As it happens, Stephen’s positions on the readmission of lapsed Christians to the sacraments and the validity of baptism performed by heretical and excommunicated priests eventually prevailed, but not by virtue of any decisive papal authority over the other churches. On the contrary, the idea that one church could exercise authority over all the others was generally rejected by bishops and theologians outside of the Roman sphere for centuries to come.

Thus, Rome enjoyed no jurisdictional primacy during the first centuries, and that is understandable, because jurisdictional primacy belonged to the emperor alone. As pontifex maximus, the emperor enjoyed a monopoly on legislation that extended even to church matters (ius in sacris). After the Christianization of the Roman empire in the fourth century and for many centuries to come, it was the emperor who exercised the highest legal authority in the Church as in the State. He was the highest administrative instance with supervisory authority that extended even to the Roman community and its bishops. Without previously consulting any bishops, much less the bishop of Rome, Constantine, also known as Constantine the Great, convened the First Ecumenical Council in 325 at his new residency in Nicaea, east of Byzantium/Constantinople, and he issued laws, professions of faith and other prescriptions regulating the order of the Church. He confirmed the decisions made at the Council of Nicaea and enforced them throughout the empire. He also revamped the organization of the Church to conform to that of the empire, with the bishoprics of each civil province being placed under the authority of the ‘metropolitan’ bishop ruling in the provincial capital city.

Roughly four centuries after Constantine, a document was forged based on legends invented in the fifth century, bearing the title Donation of Constantine. According to this forgery – widely accepted at face value in the West for centuries – Constantine, in 315 or 317, conferred on Pope Sylvester and his successors explicit supremacy over the ancient patriarchal sees of Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople and Jerusalem, as well as over ‘all the churches of God in the whole earth’. In addition to administrative rights over estates owned by individual churches throughout the empire, it gave the pope authority over the city of Rome and over the whole Western part of the Roman empire, implying a right to appoint and depose civil rulers there. Finally it gave him the right to various imperial insignia. Although this forgery soon found its way into collections of canon law, surprisingly, it was cited in support of papal claims only from the middle of the eleventh century on, particularly in the struggles of the popes with the Holy Roman emperors and with other secular leaders. It is the prime example of a whole series of far-reaching forgeries, which, even when they did not originate in Roman circles, were used effectively to justify and promote the ascendancy of the Roman see and its bishop to a position of monarchic primacy in the West. In the East, however, where the Eastern Roman emperor continued to rule, this process of papal self-inflation was met only with incomprehension and incredulity.

First Diagnosis

The fact that, during the course of the first Christian centuries, first the church in the city of Rome as a whole, and then only later, and gradually, its bishop came to enjoy a central position in the Church is incontestable. From the history of the rise of Rome and its bishop to leadership in the Church, we can learn to appreciate how a papal ministry of service to the unity of the Church centred in Rome and founded on the traditions of the two chief apostles, St Peter and St Paul, could still benefit Christendom in the twenty-first century, provided that the role played by this centre is exercised in the spirit of the Gospel. But there is nothing in the New Testament or in the early history of the Church that supports a claim to domination or jurisdictional primacy by either the Apostle Peter or the church in Rome, and much less by its bishop. In fact, as we shall see later, most often the exercise of this claim promoted neither unity nor harmonious interaction, but increased dissension and even led to schism. In the twenty-first century there is even less likelihood that any claim to primacy in a jurisdictional sense will find acceptance in Christendom. Nor does the constant repetition and pompous celebration of the Roman ideology of primacy and power help when the claim itself is built on sand. The only thing that might help to restore the credibility of this institution is a frank, self-critical reflection on the humble and often fallible role played by the biblical figure of Peter and on the unpretentious services performed by the early Roman church, in the form of what Ignatius of Antioch, in his Letter to the Church of Rome, written probably around AD 110, called a ‘primacy of love’. In short, the Church needs a Petrine ministry, not a Petrine primacy.

2. Early Assertions of the Roman Claim to Primacy


There was never a ‘Donation of Constantine’. What did happen was that, in AD 330, Emperor Constantine I transferred the imperial capital from ‘old’ Rome on the Tiber to ‘new’ Rome on the banks of the Bosporus, initiating a gradual decline of Roman imperial power in the West and even in the city of Rome itself. This shift of the centre of power towards the East was accompanied and intensified by the movement of Germanic tribes into the growing power vacuum in the West, resulting, in the year 410, in the first sack of the proud ‘eternal city’ of Rome, which had not been conquered since the times of the Roman Republic. Taken together, these two developments created a power vacuum in the West. In the fourth and fifth centuries, certain power-hungry Roman bishops capitalized on this vacuum and used it to expand their authority, aiming at universal primacy in the ecclesiastical sphere and universal sovereignty in the political sphere.

Let us briefly look at the changes that gradually became church law per viam facti (i.e. as a result of concrete actions of individual popes and their supporters). For the most part, they are still contained in canon law today, despite the fact that they lack biblical or theological foundation:

• Rome declared itself to be the general court of appeal for the whole Church (Bishop Julius in the middle of the fourth century based this claim on an erroneous interpretation of the Council of Nicaea in 325).

• The popes and their supporters began to interpret Jesus’ singling out of Peter, and especially the words recorded in Matthew 16:18, in a strictly juridical sense and used them to bolster Roman claims to supremacy. At the same time, they laid claim to the title ‘Apostolic See’ (sedes apostolica) as an exclusive Roman privilege, completely ignoring the existence of other ‘apostolic sees’ in the East (Bishop Damasus in the fourth century).

• The bishop of Rome began to call himself ‘pope’: ‘papa’, from the Greek pappas, was an affectionate honorific for one’s father, and had long since been one of the names used for all bishops in the Eastern part of the Roman empire, but in the West it was now appropriated by the bishop of Rome, who claimed exclusive right to its use. At about the same time, the popes also began to adorn their own decrees (‘statuta’) with the attribute ‘apostolic’, and adopted the style and terminology customarily used in the official civil documents issued by imperial Rome. Thus, inquiries sent to Rome by other bishops were now answered by curt decreta and responsa (Bishop Siricius at the end of the fourth century).

• The popes now demanded that every important matter, after it had been discussed and resolved in a synod of bishops anywhere in the West, must now be submitted to the bishop of Rome for his review and given binding authority by his approval and proclamation (Bishop Innocent at the beginning of the fifth century).

• All further appeals against Roman decisions were barred; judgements passed by the bishop of Rome were to be accepted as final and binding (Bishop Boniface in the fifth century).

And thus began the gradual process of the church in Rome, and particularly its bishop, monopolizing titles and legal rights that had originally belonged to many churches and their bishops or to the civil rulers, a process which continues to the present day. However, it should be noted that, during this early period, all of these historical ‘facts’ remained little more than empty claims. Particularly in Constantinople, where ultimate authority still rested solely with the emperor and where the city of Rome was generally looked down upon as merely the run-down capital of former times, such claims were completely disregarded. Thus, all attempts made by the bishops of Rome in the fourth and fifth centuries to assert and to exercise a divinely ordained, ruling primacy (iurisdictio) extending to the whole of the Church, based on Jesus’ choice of Peter and the promise made to him, had little or no real effect.

Even Augustine, that brilliant contemporary of many of these Roman bishops, who was himself bishop of Hippo Regius in North Africa and by far the most important theologian in the West, and one, moreover, who was positively inclined towards Rome, gave no more credence to the Roman bishops’ claim to universal jurisdictional primacy than did his great North African predecessor, Cyprian, the great bishop of Carthage, 200 years earlier. In Augustine’s final major work, his monumental City of God, the pope plays no role at all. For Augustine, all bishops were essentially equal. Although he regarded Rome as the centre of the empire and of the Church, Augustine gave no encouragement whatsoever to papalism, and he did not believe that Rome could legitimately claim supremacy or jurisdictional primacy over all the churches. For Augustine, the foundation of the Church does not rest on the person of Peter, much less on the persons of his successors, but instead on Christ and belief in Christ – a point that the young Joseph Ratzinger himself quite openly discussed and even defended in his 1953 doctoral dissertation on Augustine. For Augustine, the highest authority of the Church did not rest with the bishop of Rome but instead – in complete agreement with the entire Christian East – in the ecumenical council bringing together the bishops from all over the world. Moreover, not even to such an ecumenical council did Augustine ascribe any infallible authority.
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