Newman on the Development of the Papacy

Posted by on September 7, 2009 in Catholicism, Church History, Development | 0 comments

In chapter 4 of his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, John Henry Cardinal Newman takes up the issue of papal supremacy. Surprisingly, Newman argues that the papal office of Peter “would remain a mere letter, till the complication of ecclesiatical matters became the cause of ascertaining it.” The universal jurisdiction of the first pope, in Newman’s words, “slept.” It was a “mysterious privilege, which was not understood, as an unfulfilled prophecy.”

When the Church, then, was thrown upon her own resources, first local disturbances gave exercise to Bishops, and next ecumenical disturbances gave exercise to Popes; and whether communion with the Pope was necessary for Catholicity would not and could not be debated till a suspension of that communion had actually occurred. It is not a greater difficulty that St. Ignatius does not write to the Asian Greeks about Popes, than that St. Paul does not write to the Corinthians about Bishops. And it is a less difficulty that the Papal supremacy was not formally acknowledged in the second century, than that there was no formal acknowledgment on the part of the Church of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity till the fourth. No doctrine is defined till it is violated.

Far from being a universal body characterized by communion with the bishop of Rome, the early church was more decentralized, as Newman’s citation of Barrow shows:

The state of the most primitive Church did not well admit such an universal sovereignty. For that did consist of small bodies incoherently situated, and scattered about in very distant places, and consequently unfit to be modelled into one political society, or to be governed by one head….

In fact, it was the exaltation of the church from the status of an illicit and persecuted religion to one of prominence and favor that precipitated the rise of the papacy:

If the Imperial Power checked the development of Councils, it availed also for keeping back the power of the Papacy. The Creed, the Canon, in like manner, both remained undefined. The Creed, the Canon, the Papacy, Ecumenical Councils, all began to form, as soon as the Empire relaxed its tyrannous oppression of the Church. And as it was natural that her monarchical power should display itself when the Empire became Christian, so was it natural also that further developments of that power should take place when that Empire fell.

This seems to coincide with Lampe’s thesis in From Paul to Valentinus: Christians at Rome in the First Two Centuries that

The fractionation in Rome favored a collegial presbyterial system of governance and prevented for a long time, until the second half of the second century, the development of a monarchical episcopacy in the city…. Before the second half of the second century there was in Rome no monarchical episcopacy for the circles mutually bound in fellowship.

Some important questions arise (but are not begged) from Newman’s position on the development of the papacy, not the least of which is: Is the view that the papacy developed consistent with Vatican I’s statement that “We therefore teach and declare that, according to the testimony of the Gospel, the primacy of jurisdiction over the universal Church of God was immediately and directly promised and given to blessed Peter the Apostle by Christ the Lord” (a dogma that is called “a clear doctrine of Holy Scripture as it has been ever understood by the Catholic Church”)?

Discuss….

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