What is papal primacy and where does it come from?

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Chair of St. Peter

Primacy means "first." What makes the pope first in the church? The idea goes back to Peter the Rock, upon whom Jesus chooses to build his church. Peter's at the top of every list of the Twelve and the obvious spokesperson for the bunch. He receives the threefold command to feed the Lord's sheep, and he's the one whose faith must strengthen his brothers, according to the prayer of Jesus. Because Peter and Paul were martyred in Rome, the bishop of that city was early seen as the one who assumed Peter's leadership. Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Dionysius in Corinth, and Tertullian all viewed this authority as the destiny of the one who occupies Peter's Chair in Rome.

Papal primacy is in a constant balancing act with the collegiality of all bishops worldwide. Collegiality too dates back to the early church and doesn't contradict primacy, as Vatican II confirmed. (See Lumen Gentium's concluding explanatory  note.) The first Vatican Council addressed primacy with the now-famous doctrine on papal infallibility. We often forget this Council was interrupted by war in 1870 and that clarifications about the role of the other bishops in preaching, teaching, and governance—already on the agenda—had to wait another century for a second Council to treat them.

Papal primacy hasn't always led to the unity it suggests. Papal power is juridical, not political, meant to judge all matters in light of the gospel. Yet the church has certainly wielded its share of temporal power since Constantine gave Christianity a privileged place in his empire. The bishop of Rome was originally an ecclesial referee: addressing controversial theological questions; mediating conflicts to protect the rights of other bishops; and making the call on excommunications when necessary. Papal judgments expressed the communion of local churches and weren't meant to swallow up all ecclesial power in the room. The authority of local bishops, according to Vatican I, is essential to the life of the church and is not reducible to mere capitulation to the Boss in Rome. Each bishop is the Vicar of Christ in his own territory, not the Pope's local representative.

When Pope Francis talks about wanting to hear from his bishops about how best to shape church leadership in the future, he's working from a papal model that has deep roots in church history. Papal primacy makes him the head of the episcopal college, not a supreme private ruler.

Scriptures: Mark 3:16; Matthew 16:18; Luke 22:32; John 21:15-17; Acts chs. 1–15

Books: Papal Primacy From Its Origins to the Present - Klaus Schatz, SJ             (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1996)

A Service of Love: Papal Primacy, the Eucharist, and Church Unity - Paul McPartlan       (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America, 2013)

Reprinted with permission from PrepareTheWord.com. ©TrueQuest Communications.

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