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Graham Osborne

Looking at the office of the Pope in the early Church

Voices Oct 9, 2017

Marco Zoppo's painting "Saint Peter" (c. 1468) depicts Peter as an old man holding the Keys of Heaven and the Gospel. Graham Osborne writes, Jesus appointed "Peter as the head of his Church in an authoritative, perpetual office."

Do we see the office of Pope in the early Church? How does it play a roll in Christian unity?

In 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 resounding yes.

For 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 him.

Similarly, 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 Apostolic tradition.”

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?”

This 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.

Currently, 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?

It 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).

If 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.

Jesus 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 in process.

A 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.