Do we see the office of Pope in the early Church? How does it play a roll in Christian unity?
past columns, I looked at the overwhelming scriptural evidence
attesting to Jesus appointing Peter as the head of his Church in an
authoritative, perpetual office. But do we actually see the existence
of this office in the first centuries of the Church? The answer is a
example, around 80 AD the Church in Corinth was experiencing serious
difficulties that it could not resolve. The Church appealed to Pope Clement
in Rome, even though St. John the Apostle was still alive and living
much closer. Clement wrote them a powerfully authoritative letter, which we still have, calling the Corinthians to obedience to
in 190 AD, St. Irenaeus wrote: “
the successions of the bishops of the greatest and most ancient
Church known to all, founded and organized at Rome … with this
Church, because of its superior origin, all the Churches must agree …
and it is in her that the faithful everywhere have maintained the
St. Cyprian, the martyred Bishop of Carthage (250 AD), also answers our
question with stunning clarity:
“It is on him (Peter) that he (Jesus) builds the Church … he founded a single chair, thus
establishing by his own authority the source and hallmark of the churches’ oneness … a primacy is given to Peter and it is thus
made clear that there is but one Church and one chair … If a man
does not hold fast to this oneness of Peter, does he imagine that he
still holds the faith? If he deserts the Chair of Peter upon whom the
Church was built, has he still confidence that he is in the Church?”
is powerful testimony from the early Church, not only to the papacy,
but also to the unity it fosters. And this “oneness” has
particular relevance to the situation we find ourselves in today too.
depending on how you count them, there are between 9,000 and 60,000
different Christian denominations. Jesus and the writings of the
early Church both emphasize a doctrinal oneness, yet Christianity has
shattered into thousands of different sects, all teaching
significantly different and contradictory things.
Some people contend that these doctrinal differences are small, but many of the
issues are very serious – of eternal significance. For example, are
we saved by faith alone, or are grace-inspired good works necessary
too? Is divorce and remarriage permissible or not? Can you lose your
salvation or not? Is abortion, euthanasia, or an active homosexual
lifestyle permissible or not? And the list goes on.
In Matthew 28, Jesus gave his great evangelizing commission: “Go … make disciples of all nations … teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” Given today’s religious climate, exactly how can we know with certainty ALL that Jesus commanded? If he commanded it, he must have made provisions for it to happen. But how?
is through the office of the papacy that we can know with certainty
what Jesus taught. It is through this office that Jesus guides the
Church, making sure it teaches only what he left it, nothing more,
and guarding it from teaching error by the gift of the Holy Spirit he
promised it in John 14 to 16 and others. (See my Sept. 11 article on papal infallibility).
you doubt this, consider the fact that in some 2,000 years of
doctrinal pronouncements, the Catholic Church has never – not even
once – contradicted itself in its official doctrinal teachings
on faith and morals. Compare that with the 60,000-plus different
denominations we see out there today – all with different and
contradictory teachings – and you can’t help but see there is
something remarkable, even miraculous, about the Catholic Church.
Now some might respond: what about scandals and those bad Popes in the past? We have to remember that personal sin is involved here, and not the teaching authority of the Church. The Church has never maintained that the Pope would be without sin, only that he would never teach error when officially declaring doctrines on faith and morals.
picks 12 and one is Judas. We should expect some weeds with the
wheat. But of the 266 Popes we’ve had, only five or six have been real
scoundrels. Thankfully those taught little or nothing. Most have been
good holy men, and 97 of them have either been declared saints or are
final consideration again concerns perhaps the most important role of
Christianity in the world today: the call to evangelize. In John 17,
Jesus prays for unity. And not just the
“we-all-love-Jesus-good-enough-let’s-agree-to-disagree” kind of
unity. No, he twice prays for “perfect” unity in his followers,
the same unity he has with the Father. Why? “That
the world may know that you sent me, and that you loved them even as
you loved me” (John 17:20-23).
Do you think the world sees Christian unity today? Sadly, it sees anything but. Unity of teaching will be a first step, and this unity will come through following “all” that Jesus commanded. This is primarily why Jesus left us the office of Pope, guarded by the Holy Spirit: to be a source of doctrinal certainty and unity for the whole world.