Dear Father Angelo,
I would like to ask you one last thing: the Bible talks about the organization of the Church as episcopal-synodal, namely made up of Bishops elected by the apostles, who in turn elect presbyters and deacons.
There are presbyters in every town (parishes), whereas Bishops carry out their task within a larger territory (diocese) and are subject to no-one except for the Synod or Assembly of Bishops in a given area (that we can identify with various patriarchates) presided over by the Bishop of the most important diocese of the area (the Patriarch).
But the Bible never mentions an infallible and supreme Universal Bishop; rather, it talks about a primus inter pares. This can be inferred from the Gospel according to Matthew, 18:15–17. Even the Church Fathers never made many statements describing the Popes as infallible. Besides Saint Ambrose, who uttered the well-known words “Ubi Petrus ibi Ecclesia, ubi Ecclesia ibi Christus”, they have mainly talked about the Popes as firsts among equals. We should also take into consideration that at Saint Ambrose’s times there were many schismatical and heretical sects (For instance Arianism) against which Saint Ambrose used to fight. These sects were obviously not in communion with the Roman bishop, while Ambrose was.
Moreover, there have been heretical Popes such as Liberius or Honorius I who was later excommunicated by his successor. In conclusion, until the Middle Ages the Church had an episcopal-synodal structure and it was not until the year 1000 that the Pope started to lay claim to the exclusive right of ordaining bishops.
Finally, the Bishop of Alexandria is a successor of Peter as well, but he does not have the same powers that the Bishop of Rome has.
I apologise for my long letter, but I am a Catholic, my family is Catholic, I love the Catholic Church because she introduced me to Christ and Healthy Doctrine, therefore I would like to continue being Catholic. Nonetheless, lately I have been having all these doubts about the Papacy, hence I have drawn nearer to the Orthodox Christian Church that holds fast to the doctrine of the Church Fathers and of the first Councils and boasts a 2000-year-long history just like the Catholic Church. I do not mean to be an apostate and a schismatic: this is why I have turned to you to ask for clarifications, because you are a Dominican who is sure to be very well informed about the doctrine and history of the Church. I never speak to nobody about these ideas of mine, because I do not wish to raise doubts about Catholicism in other people. You are my last hope to remain a Catholic!
The priest’s answer
1. In addition to the testimonies deriving from the Divine Revelation (Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition), there are also the testimonies of the history of the ancient Church. These are precious, too, because they attest that the same way of thinking existed since the beginning.
2. Even Harnack, a Protestant rationalist theologian and historian, has acknowledged that “no other community made a more brilliant entrance into Church history than did that of Rome by the so-called First Epistle of Clement” (Adolph HARNACK, History of Dogma, translated from the third German edition by Neil Buchanan, Roberts Brothers, Boston 1897, v. II, p. 155). Harnack points out that: “one cannot help concluding that the Roman bishop has the power of appointing and deposing not merely presbyters and deacons, but also bishops. […] Other communities may be deprived of their bishops by an order from Rome, and a bishop (chosen in Rome) may be sent them”. (Ibidem, p. 162, n.1). When the patriarch of Alexandria Dionysius, notwithstanding his authority, was rebuked by Pope Dionysius, “no objection was taken to this proceeding” (Ibidem, p. 165, n.3). Moreover, “in the case of Origen’s condemnation the decision of Rome seems to have been of special importance” (Ibidem, p. 164, n. 3).
3. Saint Ambrose’s famous statement: “Ubi Petrus ibi Ecclesia” (where there is Peter, there is the Church) is not an isolated assertion; there are many others. For instance, Saint Cyprian writes: “there is One God, and One Christ, and one Church, and one chair founded by the word of the Lord on the Rock”. (The Epistles of Saint Cyprian, bishop of Carthage and Martyr, James Parker and Co., Oxford et alibi 1868, Epistle XLIII, p. 96; in Latin: “una Ecclesia et cathedra una super Petrum Domini voce fondata”).
4. Saint Jerome frequently reaffirms that “the Lord has founded the Church upon the apostle Peter” (Cfr. Ep. 41:2)
5. Saint Augustine writes that: “in the Roman Church, the supremacy of an apostolic chair has always flourished (Ep. 43:7; in Latin: “in qua semper apostolicae cathedrae viguit principatus”). Besides, he states that the Roman Church owns the highest authority (culmen auctoritatis obtinuit) and that denying her first place would be the greatest self-destructive impiety and arrogance (cfr. De Utilitate Credendi, 17:35). The famous assertion: “Roma locuta est, causa finita est” (Rome has spoken, the cause is finished) is Saint Augustine’s.
6. But also the Greek Fathers (Saint Gregory of Nyssa, John Chrysostom, Saint Gregory of Nazianzus) agree upon the supremacy of the Roman Church.
Saint Gregory of Nazianzus maintains that the Roman Church, because of her religious power, is at the head of the whole world (Cfr. Carm.2, sect.11)
Theodoret of Cyrrhus writes to the roman presbyter Renatus that that holy see (i.e. Rome) has precedence over all churches in the world (Cfr. Ep. 116).
7. The Orthodox Churches that separated themselves from Rome are characterized by being either autocephalous (namely they are self-headed) or acephalous (they do not have a church that is superior to them also in government). The reasons for this separation are mainly political ones.
8. You could also read the answer published (in Italian, t.n.) on the 28th of May 2011, entitled: “I would like to ask whether the Pope is really a necessary figure”.
9. Single bishops’ faith can fail, but Peter’s cannot. What happened in the High Middle Ages should be contextualized in the historical period: the struggle for power among noble families. Unfortunately, the history of the Church is tainted by these shadows: ubi homines, ibi miseriae (where there are men, there are meannesses). Every epoch has its own meannesses and the Church, that lives among men and is made up of men, is affected by them.
Thank you for your feelings of esteem for the Order of Saint Dominic. I assure you the prayers you asked me and I bless you.