The Papacy: God’s Gift to the Church
by James Akin
I want to begin by telling you a story. It is the story of a good and wise king who lived 3,000 years ago in the middle east. Although this king sometimes made mistakes–including serious ones, for which he was chastised–he still was a devout and pious king whom the Bible describes as a man after God’s own heart (1 Sam. 13:14).
King David pleased God so much that he made a special covenant with him. God promised that he would build a dynasty after him. He would even give David a descendant–a Son–who would be a great deliverer for the people of Israel–the long-awaited Messiah whom God had promised some time earlier, and who now would be the great and glorious Son of David, who would build a kingdom surpassing even David’s.
Now King David, like all kings–especially the good ones–was a very busy guy. He had funds to raise, public works projects to oversee, crimes to punish, legal cases to settle, wars with other nations to fight, foreign diplomacy to conduct, and that is on top of the tasks of an ordinary man, such as eating, sleeping, and raising his family.
He had his plate full, and there was simply no way he could personally administer everything in his household, which included more than a thousand family members and servants. There were supplies to be ordered, meals to be cooked, babies to be burped, children to be put to bed, students to be taught, wives to be clothed, rooms to be cleaned, servants to acquire and replace, floors to be scrubbed, walls to be paneled, accounts to be balanced, vendors to be paid, and hundreds of other tasks.
Because there was no way David could personally oversee those doing these tasks, no way he could give instructions personally to every servant or family member, no way he could reward them if they followed the instructions or punish them if they didn’t, David appointed a group of ministers to handle the overseeing of his house for him. It was these servants who would instruct, reward, and discipline the members of the household in their daily tasks.
But his house was so large, with so many members to oversee, that there was a large number of ministers overseeing them, and whenever you have a large number of people doing something, there are going to be quarrels. Members of one department are going to want things which another department wants for itself. Some will think the children will need to be taught one way, while other will think they need to be taught differently. Some want the daily schedule ordered one way; others want it ordered another. And there needs to be some way to settle these quarrels and keep the overseeing ministers operating as a harmonious group.
So the wise King David arranged for such a method. He appointed one particular minister who would serve as the chief steward of his house, rather like the President today has the White House Chief of Staff. This minister, who was accountable to King David alone, had the task of settling quarrels, keeping ministers in line, and in general keeping the house together and running smoothly.
When the king was away, this meant that the chief steward or chamberlain of the house was in charge. He was the head of the household when the king was away, and was second in command when the king was present.
This arrangement of having one chief minister who could oversee the lesser ministers and keep them from getting into conflicts with each other was so successful that it was used by the later kings of the House of David, and even by the kings of the House of Israel, when that broke away from the Southern Kingdom after Solomon died.
Unfortunately, not all of the occupants of the chamberlain’s office were worthy of their position, and God stripped some of them of their authority. We read of one instance where this happened in Isaiah 22. There a chief steward named Shebna is being stripped of his office, which is then given to a man named Eliakim.
If you read the passage, you will see that Shebna had gotten God mad at him because he had grown accustomed to the pomp and finery of the office, relishing in splendid chariots and such, and had arrogantly carved out a fancy tomb for himself at Jerusalem, when in reality he was going to be sent into exile and die in a foreign land.
God declared that Shebna would be pulled from his office as the king’s chamberlain, and the position would be given to another man. God describes this transfer of power in a very vivid, visual way. He says:
“I will clothe him with your robe, and will bind your girdle on him, and will commit your authority to his hand; and he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. 22 And I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open. 23 And I will fasten him like a peg in a sure place, and he will become a throne of honor to his father’s house.” (Isa. 22:21-23).
Typical of Hebrew prophecy, that uses a lot of powerful imagery, and two of its images–the key of the house of David and the fact that the chamberlain acts as a father to the people of Jerusalem and the house of Judah–are significant to us.
To symbolize his authority, the chamberlain had a special key which he carried in a pouch on his shoulder. This key symbolized the difference between him and the lesser ministers her oversaw. Other ministers could bind and loose–permit and prohibit activity in the household–but the chief steward or chamberlain could bind and lose in the greatest way, so what no one could undo his judgments. No one, except the king himself.
Because he had such authority, he served as a father figure for the people of the kingdom. A father, biblical culture and biblical imagery, is someone who is able to effectively defend and provide for one. That is why the Old Testament is so strong in its declarations that one must stand up to defend fatherless when their rights are violated. You must defend them because, since they have no father, they don’t have anybody to efficaciously defend and provide for them.
Anyone who was thus put in a position where he defended and provided was thus a father figure–including the king’s chamberlain. If one’s rights were being violated or one was in great need, one could go to the chamberlain and obtain protection and provisions from him, either immediately, by his authority alone, or by getting him to appeal to the king on your behalf. Thus the chamberlain was a father figure for the people of the kingdom.
Now why are those important lessons for us? Because today, for us, there is also a chamberlain for the people of God. When the time came for the Messiah to appear–great David’s Greater Son, the one who fulfilled God’s covenant with David, who himself is the new and perfect David–he did something very similar in setting up his kingdom.
The new kingdom would not be a merely national enterprise, like the old kingdom, but an international one which would include people of many nations. This made it an even bigger organization, which would need an even greater organizational structure. And so, to govern the members of his household, the New David, like the First David, appointed ministers. We call them apostles and bishops and priests and deacons, but that is who they are–Christ’s ministers, who oversee his household.
And as before, whenever you have a bunch of ministers, there are going to be conflicts that need to be settled, and for that you need a central authority–a chief minister who has charge over the others. If you don’t have a central authority to settle disputes, you will have chaos and the household will disintegrate into multiple competing sects. So when Jesus, the Son of David, went about setting up his kingdom and appointing its first ministers, he wisely set up a chief minister.
From the very beginning of his interaction with this man whom he would appoint, Jesus marked him specially, giving him a special, personal name. He did this in John 1:42, where we read that Andrew:
“He brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him, and said, ‘So you are Simon the son of John? You shall be called Cephas’ (which means Peter).”
So when Jesus met the man that he would make his chief steward–a man known as Simon bar-Jonah or Simon, the son of John–he have him a new name to specially mark him–the Aramaic word “Cephas” or, more properly, “Kepha,” which was later translated as “Peter” when the Church began to move into Gentile, Greek-speaking circles.
This new name was very significant since this was not an ordinary name. People at this time were not named “Kepha.” The word just means “Rock,” and it probably sounded almost as strange to their ears to give someone the nickname “Rock” we it would to ours. It would have sounded strange to Peter’s ears, and he would naturally wonder, “I just met this man. Why does he say I’m going to be called ‘Rock’ from now on? What does he have in store for me?”
Well, Peter would eventually find out. As Jesus gathered a group of disciples around him, Peter became their natural, de facto leader, and eventually Jesus chose to formalize this relationship, making Peter the official leader of the disciples. We read of that in Matthew 16, in the famous passage where Christ asks the disciples who people say he is. They indicate that the people aren’t sure and give various guesses at the identity of Christ. Then Jesus asks them who they–the disciples–think he is, and Peter answers correctly: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God,” prompting Jesus to reply:
“Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matt. 16:17-19)
Now this passage was very central to my own conversion. For years I had said to myself the standard Protestant thing that the rock Jesus is referring to in this passage was not Peter but the revelation that Jesus was the Messiah. However, one day I was reading this passage and something struck me that I had never noticed before. Eventually I noticed a whole bunch of things about this text which require that Peter be the rock Jesus is talking about, and I’d like to share just two of them with you today.
If you look at the structure of what Jesus says, he makes three statements, all of them directed to Peter. The first one begins “Blessed are you…” The second one begins, “You are Peter…” and the third one begins “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven…”
What I initially noticed is that in this passage Jesus is blessing Peter. Just look at the first and the third statements he makes. “Blessed are you he says…” “I will give you the keys to the kingdom…” I know I would feel pretty blessed in Jesus was saying things like that to me, and I’m sure you would, too. This is significant, because if the first and the third statements Jesus makes are beatitudes upon Peter, then the middle one, the one sandwiched right in between them, is going to be a beatitude, too. This means that when Jesus says,
“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it.”
He is saying something that magnifies or builds up Peter. That’s a very important insight, because in order to make the rock something other than Peter, people who dispute the papacy have tried to say Jesus is doing the opposite of blessing Peter in this passage, that he is diminishing him. They claim, as I did before I was a Catholic, that what Jesus is really saying in this passage is, “I tell you truly, Peter, you are a little stone, a little, tiny insignificant thing, but on this great Rock of the Revelation of My Identity, I will be building my Church.”
But when you set that phrase in the context of the two beatitudes Jesus pronounces on Peter before and after it, the resulting construction makes no sense. Jesus would be saying, “Blessed are you Simon bar-Jonah! (You insignificant little thing, you.) Here are the keys to the kingdom of heaven!”
That just doesn’t scan, and so I had to conclude that Peter was the rock on which Jesus would build his Church.
One of the other things I noticed about this passage, and the second thing I wanted to share with you about it tonight, is that each of the three statements Jesus makes to Peter has two parts, and the latter half of each statement explains the meaning of the first.
So when Jesus makes the first statement and says, “Blessed are you Simon bar-Jonah…” the meaning of that–the reason Peter is blessed–is explained by the second half of the statement “…for flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.”
Similarly, when Jesus makes the third statement and says, “I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven…” the meaning of that–part of what it means to have the keys–is clarified in the second half of the statement, when he says, “…and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
That means that when he makes the second statement and begins “I tell you, you are Peter…” the meaning of that–what it means to be Peter–is clarified by the second half of the statement “…and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.”
There are also a whole bunch of other reasons why Peter must be the rock to whom Jesus is referring in this passage. For example, notice that this passage pictures Jesus as being separate from the Church he builds, not part of it, and so not its foundation in this passage–a point which I discovered when reading an Evangelical Protestant commentator on this passage. But the two reasons I have shown you were instrumental in my conversion, and that is why I wanted to share them.
You see, once I realized that Jesus was making Peter the rock on which the Church would be built, this meant that once Jesus ascended to heaven, Peter would be left in charge. He would be the head apostle, the leader of the earthly Church, and, as I realized, the leader of the earthly Church is a pretty good description of the office of the pope. When I realized that Peter was indeed the rock being talked about in this passage, I had to concede that the Catholics were right and that Peter really was the first pope. I didn’t yet know if Jesus meant there to be any other popes, but I knew Catholics were right to describe Peter as pope.
This is something that became even clearer to me when I began to study the Old Testament background to this passage, for in it Jesus uses the very important symbol of the keys. Now if you read the Old Testament, there are only two places where keys are even mentioned. One is in Judges 3, and it is not theologically significant, for it just records that after one of the Judges of Israel had slain a foreign king, that king’s servants took a key and opened the door to the room in which their master lay slain.
But the other passage in which a key is mentioned is the one we looked at before–Isaiah 22–where the key was the symbol of authority for the chief minister of the house of David. Because this is the only other passage in the Old Testament and the only one where the key is used as a symbol, Isaiah 22 must therefore be the symbolic background to Matthew 16, which means that Jesus, the New David, is making Peter the chamberlain of the house of the New David. Peter is going to be the chief steward, under Jesus the king. That is what this passage is saying to us.
And lest you think that is something I am just making up out of pro-Catholic bias–something I certainly did not have when I figured all of this out as a Protestant–I would like to share with you a brief excerpt from the writings of F. F. Bruce, who is arguably the most important Evangelical Protestant Bible scholar of the twentieth century. In his section on this saying in his book, The Hard Sayings of Jesus, Bruce comments on this phrase and writes:
“And what about the ‘keys of the kingdom’? The keys of a royal or noble establishment were entrusted to the chief steward or major domo; he carried them on his shoulder in earlier times, and there they served as a badge of the authority entrusted to him. About 700 B.C. an oracle from God announced that this authority in the royal palace in Jerusalem was to be conferred on a man called Eliakim: ‘I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open’ (Isa. 22:22). So in the new community which Jesus was about to build, Peter would be, so to speak, chief steward. In the early chapters of Acts Peter is seen exercising this responsibility in the primitive church. He acts as chairman of the group of disciples in Jerusalem even before the coming of the Spirit at the first Christian Pentecost (Acts 1:15-26); on the day of Pentecost it is he who preaches the gospel so effectively that three thousand hearers believe the message and are incorporated in the church (Acts 2:14-41); some time later it is he who first preaches the gospel to a Gentile audience and thus ‘opens a door of faiths to Gentiles as well as Jews (Acts 10:34-48).”
So you see here, someone who is not a Catholic and who does not believe in the papacy, and who is one of the greatest Bible scholars of this century, respected even by liberal Bible critics who despised his Evangelical faith, was able to admit that in this passage Jesus is commissioning Peter to be the chief steward of the house of the New David, meaning that while Jesus the King is away in heaven, Peter is in charge in the Church on earth. In other words, Peter is the pope.
Because he is the chief minister of the house of the New David, because he bears the keys of the New Kingdom, he is also a father to those of us in the Church. He in no way infringes on God’s Fatherhood–for God is the Ultimate One who defends and provides for us–but, following the Old Testament parallel, the chamberlain of Christ’s house is “a father to those in Jerusalem and of the House of Judah” so to speak. He is someone who–within the Church–we look to for the defense of our ecclesiastical rights and to provide for our spiritual nourishment.
The pope is an especially great gift to the Church because he is able to step in and solve problems when they arise. Every group of men needs someone who can do this. This is true of religious groups as well, and it is true even in non-Catholic Churches. Even though a typical Protestant congregation may be ruled by a deacon board or a board of elders, there is still one person–the pastor–who can step in and settle disputes. In Eastern Orthodox churches, the bishop plays that role. And what is true on the small scale is true on the large as well. Thus, for example, the Southern Baptist Convention has a president who is elected. Similarly, the Eastern Orthodox have patriarchs who are able to settle disputes between bishops in their areas.
What these men recognize–correctly–is the need of every group to have a personal, immediate head who can step in when situations of crisis and dispute arise. And they thus recognize the wisdom of Christ in appointing Peter to oversee the Church as a whole.
However, what is often not recognized is the strength which the man at the top needs to have. Even if there is a nominal person in charge, if he is only a figurehead or has little real authority, he will not be able to serve effectively to hold the group together. This is, not to in any way disparage our non-Catholic brothers, why the Eastern Orthodox communion is so fragmented and divided into a set of autonomous churches which are engaged in conflicts. The system of patriarchs is not sufficient to knit the union together effectively because the patriarchs do not have sufficient authority to settle disputes, and because the patriarchs have disputes among themselves with no one to adjudicate.
It is also the reason, again not to in any way disparage our non-Catholic brothers, why there are literally thousands of different Protestant denominations. Without the influence of the patriarchs to hold things together, the Protestant communion has been fragmented even further into very small administrative units which, regrettably, are often in conflict with each other.
Sometimes congregations will split over very insignificant things. I remember one church I attended went through a crisis when some people in the group thought the building fund was being misapplied. In another one I went to on occasion, the pastor commented about how when the new church was built, some people got mad and stopped coming because they didn’t like the color of the carpet that was selected. These are very minor things to occasion church splits, but they happen regularly. If you go into Evangelical bookstores and look at the books for pastors, you will find numerous books on how to prevent, manage, and clean up after a church split.
Things like that never happen in Catholic communities. Sure, people may get mad over the color of the carpet or how the building fund is managed, but the parish never splits in two with two resulting churches. That never happens in the Catholic Church because we have leaders with effective authority and they can prevent tiny matters like that from growing into huge crises. That is also why Catholic churches are so much larger than Protestant ones. The typical Protestant church has less than a hundred members; while the typical Catholic one has several hundred families in it. Why? Because Catholic churches don’t split. That’s why there may be only one or two Catholic parishes in some smaller communities, yet the same community may have dozens of non-Catholic churches.
It is effective leadership which has allowed the Catholic Church to hang together and grow to its current size. Right now, the Catholic Church includes 18% of the human race. One in six human beings is a Catholic, and the reason for that is the pope. He is the ecumenical center of the Church, the rallying point which holds it together and keeps it from breaking into pieces. And this only shows the wisdom of Christ in endowing the Church with such a leader to function in his absence.
The papacy is a great gift to the Church, and it is the reason why the Church has thrived and prospered as it has, making it the largest Christian group on earth–larger even than all other Christian groups combined. If God had not chosen to bless us with a leader with effective administrative authority, someone with administrative jurisdiction to settle crises in all parts of the Church, that would never have been possible. In order to achieve what Christ’s Church has achieved, it must have someone who, in Christ’s absence, functions with papal primacy.
But not all disputes in the Church are merely administrative. Some are also doctrinal, and these are the more serious ones, not only because doctrinal matters are weightier than mere matters of practice and administration, but because they are also the ones that cause the deepest divisions among people. When people have a deep and fundamental disagreement about doctrine, it makes all other divisions between them pale in comparison.
This means that for the pope to do his job effectively in holding the Church together, there must also be a mechanism by which doctrinal disputes can be settled.
Of course, there is the model of an ecumenical council. This is a biblical model following the holding of the Spirit-directed council of Acts 15, where it was decided that Gentiles could become Christians without having to keep the Mosaic Law. But sometimes a council is not expedient, either because one physically not be called–as was the case during the Roman persecutions–or because the council would be very deeply divided on some question, or because a resolution to the crisis is needed too quickly, before a council could be assembled. In such cases, when an ecumenical council is not practical, God has gifted the pope himself with the ability to definitively settle doctrinal conflicts. Thus he has given him the gift of papal infallibility.
This gift is often misunderstood by people as thinking that the pope is supposed to be sinless, but that clearly wasn’t the case even for Peter himself as Scripture is quite frank about his sins, as it is about the sins of all the figures in its pages. Yet this did not stop Peter from infallibly writing to of the books of Scripture–the two epistles which bear his name, 1 and 2 Peter.
The gift of infallibility is also often misunderstood by people as meaning that, even if the pope isn’t infallible in all he does, he is infallible in all he says. This again is untrue. The object of the pope’s infallibility is matters of faith and morals. He cannot speak infallibly on anything else unless it is something that has a bearing on the teachings of faith and morals (for example, whether a given council really was ecumenical or not). This is what theologians call the secondary object of infallibility. But the pope is not infallible when it comes to matters of science or history or math or interior decorating or anything else unless it pertains to defense of Christian faith and morals.
Not only is his infallibility limited in terms of the topics it applies to, it is also limited in terms of the times it applies to. The overwhelming majority of the things the pope says are not infallible. The only time the pope ever speaks infallibly is when he definitively declares a doctrine to be held by all, when he indicates that this is a definitive, once-for-all decision, that there is no room for debate or alternate interpretations, that this is the bottom line and everyone has to toe it.
This only happens occasionally. Sometimes a pope will be elected who chooses never in his entire term of office to ever issue one infallible statement in all of the encyclicals, bulls, and apostolic letters he writes. Normally, they are only reserved for times of crisis, when some dangerous teaching is being spread in the Church.
So even though the infallible utterance is used infrequently, it is still a very valuable tool and very necessary when these times of doctrinal crisis arise. That is why Christ gave it to the Church, because he promised that the Church would never dogmatically teach heresy.
Remember: He promised Peter, “I will build my Church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” If the Church ever did dogmatically teach heresy and bind the conscience of believers to believe something that is erroneous, then it would cease to be Jesus’ Church and the gates of hell would indeed have prevailed against it. So there is just no way the Church can ever dogmatically teach error. If it did, the gates of hell would prevail against it and it would cease to be Jesus’ Church, which he himself promised would never happen. It follows, therefore, that whenever the Church does dogmatically teach something and say, “You really must believe this. This is the truth of God,” that the thing must be true. That is why Paul, in 1 Timothy 3:15, refers to the Church as “the pillar and ground of truth.” It is the Church which upholds the truth of God in this world.
And so, just as the pope is the chief shepherd of the Church–the focus of its pastoral authority–he is also the chief teacher of the Church–the focus of its doctrinal authority, and so is capable of making infallible utterances.
This is nothing new in the history of God’s people. If we look at the Old Testament high priest, for example, he had a similar, though not identical revelatory charism. If you look at Exodus 28:30, for example, you find out that the high priest was supposed to wear a special breastpiece, known as the breastpiece of judgment, in which he was to carry two objects known as the urim and thummim. He was then to use the urim and thummim to inquire of God, settle disputes, and obtain directions for the people of God.
In Numbers 27:21, for example, Moses was directed to have Joshua look to the high priest inquire with the urim and thummim concerning when and where the Israelites were to go.
In 1 Samuel 14:41, Saul had the priest use the urim and thummim to inquire concerning who was at fault in a particular situation.
And after the exile, in Ezra 2:63 and Nehemiah 7:65, the governor decides that certain men claiming to be priests but unable to prove the fact are not to be allowed to eat the most holy food in the Temple until there is a high priest who can inquire with urim and thummim to find out if these men really are priests.
So the idea is nothing new that the earthly religious leader of God’s people might have a special charism from God to let him settle disputes. And, of course, whenever God is operating through this charism, the results are infallible, meaning that in certain situations the high priest in the Old Testament had a certain form of infallibility charism.
This charism also operated regardless of whether the high priest in question was a saint or a scoundrel. For example, if you look at John 11:49-52, we read:
“49 But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all; 50 you do not understand that it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish.” 51 He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus should die for the nation, 52 and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.”
Here we have the high priest who disbelieved and put Messiah to death–certainly not a saintly man–issuing a prophecy. And he does not issue it because he is a nice guy and is on God’s good side–for he is about to put God’s Son to death–but, John tells us because he was high priest that year. It is because of the office of high priest that he is able to make this prophecy.
Now that was very significant to me when I was a Protestant. I recognized that here the high priest had a special charism from God that operated independently of his personal quality, simply because of his office. I said to myself, “It is a good thing that the Catholics are wrong about Peter being the rock, because if he were the rock then he would be a New Testament equivalent to the high priest as the earthly leader of the people of God, and we would expect his office to be invested with some similar charism, meaning that the Catholics would have a good case for papal infallibility.”
Later, when I found out Peter was the rock, this made papal infallibility much easier for me to accept. I even pointed it out to Scott Hahn once and later found out he used it in his taped commentary on the Gospel of John.
And it does provide an excellent parallel to papal infallibility. Because they were living in an age when new revelation was still being given, the high priests of the time could receive actual new revelations, while today, since the age of public revelation is closed, the pope no longer does that, but he can still settle dogmatic controversies that arise over revelation that has already been given, just as the high priest could via his charism. In fact, if the Jewish high priests had been more aggressive in using their charism to inquire of the Lord and find out the truth, the Jewish world of Jesus’ day might not have been so theologically divided, with some Jews, such as the Pharisees, asserting the existence of souls and angels and the Messiah, while other Jewish, such as the Sadducees, denied these.
So God provided for his Church excellently by choosing a man to serve as its head while Christ is in heaven, by providing this man with the authority in the Church needed to settle controversies and keep the Church from dissolving into innumerable, competing sects, by giving this man the ability to speak authoritatively in matters of doctrine so that when he solemnly defines something, the Christian can know that he is speaking the truth. In all of these things Christ provided for the needs of the Church most excellently, enabling the Catholic Church to grow and thrive through history.
And we find the popes doing all in their power to aid an assist the Church, right from the beginning. In the times of the Roman persecutions, when the Church was an underground organization, the popes were often impeded from fulfilling their functions as swiftly and efficiently as they would be able to when the Church no longer had to operate in secret. But even so, we find them doing all they can.
For example, toward the end of the first century, in the A.D. 90s, we find Pope Clement I writing a letter to the Corinthians–way over in the country of Greece–trying to help them settle an internal dispute in their churches. In fact, we find out by reading Clement’s letter that the Corinthian church had written him specifically appleaing to him to settle their dispute. We know this because at the beginning of his letter he apologizes to them for not being able to write them sooner due to a local persecution by the Roman authorities.
Clement was a man of immense stature in the early Church, and some even though his epistle to the Corinthians should be included in the canon of the New Testament. This, of course, made him a tough act to follow, and not every pope would live up to his high standards of personal holiness and good judgment, but even when popes of this period messed up, we still see them behaving as popes, even under Roman persecution.
For example, about a century after Clement’s time, around A.D. 190, the Church was wracked by a controversy over a matter which we today would consider rather less important. It concerned the proper date for the celebration of Easter. Some Christians were of the opinion that Easter should be celebrated on the same day of the month every year, while others were of the opinion that Easter should always be celebrated on the same day of the week every year–Sunday. The problem is that the same day of the month does not fall on the same day of the week every year, and so the controversy was over whether Easter should be celebrated as a fixed or a movable feast.
The Christians in the provide of Asia Minor thought it should be a fixed feast, while elsewhere it was held that Easter should be a movable feast so that we would always celebrate Christ’s rising from the dead on the Lord’s Day, the day of the week on which he did rise. The controversy grew so heated that at one point Pope Victor I excommunicated the province of Asia Minor for a time.
Protestant early Church historian J.N.D. Kelly explains the situation:
“At his instigation, synods were held both at Rome and at other centers, from Gaul to Mesopotamia, and majority opinion sided with him. The churches of Asia Minor, however, refused to abandon the age-old Quartodeciman custom of observing Eastern on the 14th of Nisan, whatever the day of the week on which it fell. Victor thereupon proclaimed their exclusion from communion, not simply with Rome but with the Church generally” (The Oxford Dictionary of Popes, 12).
Now personally, I think this was a little rash of him. I wouldn’t have excommunicated over such a matter, but even so we see a pope acting with the authority of a pope–having the ability to excommunicate even an entire province of the Church if it refused to accept his judgment. This man clearly had an understanding of the authority he wielded.
And the other writers of his age didn’t challenge him. The French bishop Irenaeus–one of the most important Church Fathers of the second century–urged the pope to rescind his excommunication of Asia Minor, which he did, but he did not challenge Victor’s authority to do so, merely to exercise that authority in a different way. In fact, in Irenaeus’s own writings, in his master work, the book Against Heresies, he describes the Rome as “presiding over the Church in love,” and he gives a succession list of the popes from the beginning down to his own day.
And fortunately, most popes were not nearly as rash as Victor. A final, excellent example of a pope in the early Church who worked for the benefit of the Church he shepherded was Leo I, also known as Leo the Great, who, through skillful negotiation, managed to keep Rome from being sacked by Attila the Hun.
In the 440s, a heresy known as monophysitism broke out. This heresy involved a confusion of Christ’s divine and human natures. In response, Leo wrote a document which is today called The Tome of Leo.. It was sent to the fourth ecumenical council, the Council of Chalcedon, and according to the acts of that council:
“After the reading of the foregoing epistle [The Tome of Leo], the most reverend bishops cried out: ‘This is the faith of the fathers! this is the faith of the Apostles! So we all believe! thus the orthodox believe! Anathema to him who does not thus believe! Peter has spoken thus through Leo! . . . This is the true faith!’” (Acts of the Council, session 2 [A.D. 451]).
In the same way, Catholics can know that when the pope solemnly defines an issue, we too can have confidence in what he has said, and with the fathers of the Council of Chalcedon, we too can say: “This is the faith of the fathers! This is the faith of the apostles! Peter has spoken!”