Struggling with the Papacy in the early Church

I’m a Protestant who has been wrestling with the idea of Catholicism for a while. I’m getting hung up on the Papacy in the early Church and how it seemed to have developed in scope from limited authority and importance from the 1st and 2nd centuries to central authority towards the 4th and 5th centuries. It bothers me that the Church Fathers quotes in the “Authority of the Pope” tract on this site start out kind of weak and then get stronger in the third century and beyond. Specifically, the history put forth by Hans Kung on this subject I find most unsettling. He seems to describe this development as a series of ruthless power grabs by Rome. I don’t agree with Kung on very much theologically, so I should hope that there is solid evidence to answer his claims.

Please help me out here. I would also really appreciate if someone can point me to further, more in-depth reading on the subject.

Thanks everyone! :thumbsup:

Glad to help with some good links to read -
High Petrine view in the early church -

Please keep in mind that what you see historically is exactly what one might expect. The first recorded use of the term Trinity was in 170 AD, and it wasn’t until 325 that the First Council of Nicaea established the doctrine of the Trinity as orthodoxy and adopted the Nicene Creed, which described Christ as “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance (homoousios) with the Father”

Persecution was rampant of the early church and bishops particularly those of Rome were routinely martyred. It seems perhaps unreasonable to expect a lot of written material emerging during that period of time concerning the papacy. Furthermore, it is important to remember that definitions of papal authority would further emerge just as did the clarifications and definition of the Trinity. We see that same pattern in other matters of faith and morals.

The scant data in the early church does not negate what we see in the words of Jesus, and the testimony of the NT letters concerning the hierarchical structure of the church. Likewise, we see the actions of Peter in the early church and his leadership. Clearly, the primacy of Peter can be identified in the NT even though it is not expressed with the same formality as later references to the papacy would be. As the church grew and definitive writings emerged it is to be expected that we would see greater and greater definition of that which Christ put into place.

I hope this helps.

God bless.

When Pope Victor (c. 189-199) excommunicated the Churches of Asia Minor during the Quartodeciman Easter Controversy, described in Eusebius’ Church History, he acted as though he had universal jurisdiction over the Catholic Church. And, by 210, when the then heretic Tertullian, wrote his treatise On Modesty, the bishop of Rome, citing Petrine authority, had acted as though he had universal jurisdiction over the Catholic Church, as “the bishop of bishops,” by unilaterally granting repentant adulterers reconciliation. So it seems to me that, whether or not all the other bishops of the Catholic Church agreed, the bishop of Rome himself acted as though he had, or thought he had, universal jurisdiction over the Catholic Church from the earliest days of Church history.

Couple of thoughts.

First of all it is interesting to read Clement I’s letter to the Corinthians. In that letter he tells the corinthians to reinstate the leaders they have ousted. He does this from Rome which is 600 miles from Rome in around 80AD. Interestingly enoug John the Apostle was in Ephuses, 200 miles from Rome. It seems Clement had an authority that the early Church did not look to John for. It is interesting that this letter was widely distributed and held in high regard throughout the christian world, though it did not make the canon of scripture.

Second interesting point.
Before the times that you speak of there are anti-popes in Rome. People who claim Peterine authority over the whole Church. Not just the local roman Church. Hippolatus and Novation for instance.

Now why would there be anti-popes claiming such authority if the Early Church didn’t view the Church of Rome with special authority?
. 200NataliusNataliuslater reconciled (see above)Zephyrinus217–235Saint HippolytusHippolytuslater reconciled with Pope Pontian (see above)Callixtus IUrban IPontian251–258NovatianNovatianusfounder of NovatianismCorneliusLucius IStephen ISixtus II355–365Felix II*Felix secundusinstalled by Roman Emperor Constantius IILiberius

I can empathize with your struggles…it was actually my study of the papacy apropos the early Church that largely led to me leaving the RCC. A big problem I encountered was the near universal consensus that there was no monepiscopate in Rome until the mid 2nd cent. I could recommend a few books that specifically analyze the history of the 1st-2nd cent. Roman Christian churches if you’re interested more on that.

About the fact that the tracts “start out weak and then get stronger till the 3rd century”.

Studying history, one must acknowledge what the Church was living during those times. After Christ’s ascension the Church was highly persecuted. Any Christian writing was to be destroyed and Christians were martyred. Many Roman Pontiffs were martyred.

Popes such as Anacletus, Telesphorus, Hygnius, Pius I, Anicetus, Soter, Eleuterus, Callixtus I, Cornelius, Caius, Stephen I and others were martyred according to tradition.

2 Examples:

Pope Sixtus II was one of the first victims of a persecution, being beheaded on an August 6, 258 A.D. He was martyred along with six deacons— Januarius, Vincentius, Magnus, Stephanus, Felicissimus and Agapitus. The persecution was under Emperor Valentian.

Another example is that of Pope Fabian. Emperor Decius, who ruled from 249 to 251 AD, persecuted Christians in the Roman Empire, but starting January in the year 250, he ordered all citizens to perform a religious sacrifice in the presence of commissioners, or else face death. Many Christians refused and were martyred, including the pope, St Fabian, on January 20, while others partook in the sacrifices in order to save their own lives.

As you can see Papacy didn’t have it easy back in those days. Roman emperors persecuted all Christians, so of course you will find many more sources beginning from the 300s with the Edict of Milan (year 311 if im right…) with the conversion of Emperor Constantine (which happened apparently by a vision he got from God) ended the persecution of Christians. The Church then was able to breath. The Head (the Pope) then was able to exercise his authority freely without worrying about any Emperor persecuting him. In fact that is why the bible was compiled in the year 382 under Pope Damascus. Precisely because the church authority now had the time to gather and do councils. The first council of Nicaea (325) was precisely a bit after the persecution ended. Because Christians were then tolerated.

Now, before the 300s, we do have some sources which do support papal authority. To me, Irenaeus is by far the best source because of the year he wrote his famous “Against Heresies”.

You could check the 200 quotes I compiled (under my sig). Though they are a small part of an entire universe of writings you can find. Please keep researching, and remember to pray to find answers (this is the best thing you can do).

Hmm also I forgot to post Irenaeus’ writing:
St Irenaues wrote:

“Since, however, it would be very tedious, in such a volume as this, to reckon up the successions of all the Churches, we do put to confusion all those who, in whatever manner, whether by an evil self-pleasing, by vainglory, or by blindness and perverse opinion, assemble in unauthorized meetings; [we do this, I say,] by indicating that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its preeminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere.” (Adversus Heresies Book 3, Chapter 3).

Lets look at this quote from Irenaeus. For Irenaeus, Rome is the very great and very ancient and universally known church founded and organized, by the 2 most glorious apostles (Peter and Paul).

He continues and says “for it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church”. On account of its preeminent authority.

Lets look at the definition of the word preeminent on 3 different dictionaries.
1- pre·em·i·nent or pre-em·i·nent. Superior to or notable above all others; outstanding.

2- eminent above or before others; superior; surpassing

3- Exceeding others in quality or rank; of outstanding excellence, extremely notable or important. [from 15th c.]

To sum it up, Rome has Superior (Preeminent) Authority, and in this Church we find ourselves with the head of the Universal Church.

The next paragraph, Irenaeus, goes on with the succession of the Popes until his time (Eleutherius 13th Bishop of Rome, reigned 174/175 – 189 A.D.), ending the paragraph: “And this is most abundant proof that there is one and the same vivifying faith, which has been preserved in the Church from the apostles until now, and handed down in truth.”

St. Irenaeus says every Church must agree with the Church of Rome, not almost every Church. Not only the Churches in or near Rome, he said every…

Ireneaus’ writings on Rome are quite problematic, actually. We know that Peter and Paul didn’t found the Church in Rome because Paul was writing to Roman Christians in 58 CE, years before Peter ever arrived there, and obviously, before Paul himself did :stuck_out_tongue: . Not to mention other Roman references to Christians being in Rome long before Peter traveled to Rome.

Further, we know there was no monepiscopate in Rome until the mid-2nd century, so, Ireneaus’ list of Roman bishops is anachronistic. He’s probably found what he took to be the more important Christian leaders in Rome through the ages and called them by the title which Christians of his own time were familiar with.

These points, especially the latter one, are substantially argued for by Peter Lampe (et al).

Rather, Pope Victor attempted to excommunicate the Churches of Asia Minor (that is the English equivalent of the word Eusebius uses). And for that attempt, Victor was called on the carpet by his western bishops, including St. Irenaeus, and was defied by the East.

ECF Reader #1
I’m getting hung up on the Papacy in the early Church and how it seemed to have developed in scope from limited authority and importance from the 1st and 2nd centuries to central authority towards the 4th and 5th centuries.

Do you not know of the unlimited authority and importance from the words of Christ Himself?
Jesus specifically entrusts Peter with His authority and confers infallibility:
All four promises to Peter alone:
“You are Peter and on this rock I will build My Church.” (Mt 16:18)
“The gates of hell will not prevail against it.”(Mt 16:18)
“I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of heaven." ( Mt 16:19)
“Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven.” (Mt 16:19)

Sole authority to Peter:
“Strengthen your brethren.” (Lk 22:32)
“Feed My sheep.”(Jn 21:17).

Already, Peter had exercised his supreme authority in the upper room before Pentecost to have Judas’ place filled. At the first Apostolic Council of Jerusalem Peter settled the heated discussion over circumcising the gentiles and “the whole assembly fell silent” (Acts 15:7-12). Paul made sure that his ministry to the gentiles was recognised by, Peter (Gal 1:I8).

The third successor of St Peter, Clement, wrote to the Catholics of Corinth in A.D. 95: “If any man should be disobedient unto the words spoken by God through us, let them understand that they will entangle themselves in no slight transgression and danger… Render obedience to the things written by us through the Holy Spirit.” (I Clem. ad Cor. 59,1).

About Pope Victor I’s declaration by edict, about the year 200, that any local Church that failed to conform with Rome was excluded from the union with the one Church by heresy, none other than the radical protestant Adolph von Harnack admitted that Victor I was “recognised, in his capacity of bishop of Rome, as the special guardian of the ‘common unity’… " (See And On This Rock, p 118, 1987, Trinity Communications, Fr Stanley L Jaki).

Harnack asked: “How would Victor have ventured on such an edict – though indeed he had not the power of enforcing it in every case – unless the special prerogative of Rome to determine the conditions of the ‘common unity’ in the vital questions of faith had been an acknowledged and well-established fact?”


The apostles were a collegial community, under Peter. “By the end of the apostolic age, the bishops of the Catholic Church began meeting together on a regional basis, and with the first ecumenical council at Nicaea in 325, this co-operative activity reached worldwide proportions.” (Fr John A Hardon, S.J., The Catholic Catechism, Doubleday, 1975, p 320-321). The teaching of Ecumenical Councils has to be approved by Christ’s Supreme Vicar.

by Fr Brian W. Harrison

Ireneaus’ writings are not problematic at all. The dating scholars may give to Paul’s writings may be inaccurate. We cannot be certain of all dates of all events in early Christianity. But what you can be certain is that there are many writings surrounding papacy which do give us an idea of what early Christians believed. One of them is that Peter and Paul did found the Church of Rome. This is not something only Irenaeus writes about. Ill give some examples.

You cannot deny that you are aware that in the city of Rome the episcopal chair was given first to Peter; the chair in which Peter sat, the same who was head—that is why he is also called Cephas ‘Rock’]—of all the apostles; the one chair in which unity is maintained by all" (The Schism of the Donatists 2:2 [A.D. 367]).

-St. Optatus

“At Rome the first apostles and bishops were Peter and Paul, then Linus [2nd Bishop of Rome], then Cletus [3rd], then Clement [4th], the contemporary of Peter and Paul” (Medicine Chest Against All Heresies 27:6 [A.D. 375]).

-Epiphanius of Salamis

“It is recorded that Paul was beheaded in Rome itself, and Peter, likewise, was crucified, during the reign [of the Emperor Nero]. The account is confirmed by the names of Peter and Paul over the cemeteries there, which remain to the present time. And it is confirmed also by a stalwart man of the Church, Gaius by name, who lived in the time of Zephyrinus, bishop of Rome. This Gaius, in a written disputation with Proclus, the leader of the sect of Cataphrygians, says this of the places in which the remains of the aforementioned apostles were deposited: ‘I can point out the trophies of the apostles. For if you are willing to go to the Vatican or to the Ostian Way, you will find the trophies of those who founded this Church’” (Disputation with Proclus [A.D. 198] in Eusebius, Church History 2:25:5).


In the present day Peter is currently burried in the Vatican and Paul in the Ostian way.

No. He didn’t just grab what he thought were important christian leaders. He listed the Successors of Saint Peter who was the first Bishop of Rome. Which not only Irenaeus writes about.

“Paul testifies that Crescens was sent to Gaul [2 Tim. 4:10], but Linus [2nd Pope], whom he mentions in the Second Epistle to Timothy [2 Tim. 4:21] as his companion at Rome, was Peter’s successor in the episcopate of the church there, as has already been shown.” (Church History 3:4:9–10 [A.D. 312]).

-Eusebius of Caesarea

“Clement, of whom the apostle Paul writing to the Philippians says ‘With Clement and others of my fellow-workers whose names are written in the book of life,’ the fourth bishop of Rome after Peter, if indeed the second was Linus and the third Anacletus…” (Lives of Illustrious Men 15 [A.D. 396]).

-Eusebius of Caesarea

“In this chair in which he himself had sat, Peter in mighty Rome commanded Linus, the first elected, to sit down. After him, Cletus too accepted the flock of the fold. As his successor, Anacletus was elected by lot. Clement follows him, well-known to apostolic men. After him Evaristus ruled the flock without crime. Alexander, sixth in succession, commends the fold to Sixtus. After his illustrious times were completed, he passed it on to Telesphorus. He was excellent, a faithful martyr . . . " (Poem Against the Marcionites 276–284 – 267 AD).

-Poem Against the Marcionites

You can choose to believe early Christians or Peter Lamper.

Ill choose early Christians.

I find it quite odd that you attempt to cast doubt on the scholarship surrounding the composition of Romans. But, no matter. The dating isn’t what’s important. What is important is that Paul wrote to Roman Christians before he’d been to Rome.

Paul states to the Roman Christians:

“I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that I planned many times to come to you (but have been prevented from doing so until now) in order that I might have a harvest among you, just as I have had among the other Gentiles.” - Rom. 1:13

He couldn’t have founded the church in Rome because he’s writing to Roman Christians before he’d been there.

Further, the only citation you provided that even talks about the founding of the Church at Rome is Gaius. As I showed above, we should disagree with this source. Your other citations don’t speak about the founding of the Roman Church, and contradict each other on the point they do talk about: Optatus thinks Peter was the first bishop, but Epiphanius thinks both Peter and Paul simultaneously reigned as bishops of Rome.

As to your response to the consensus that there was no monepiscopate in Rome until the mid-2nd century, your sources come years after Ireneaus. How could this possibly demonstrate that Ireneaus wasn’t being anachronistic? If anything this just confirms my position: this is exactly what we’d expect to observe.

Also, by the look of your weird citation format I suspect you’re quoting from salza as many Catholics I’ve encountered want to do for some reason. That’s always a read flag for me because so many of his citations are grossly out of context.

Thank you all for your help! This has been extremely helpful.


Thank you for your input. What exactly is your position? Do you believe that Irenaeus and the Fathers of the 2nd, 3rd, 4th centuries and beyond were involved in some sort of conspiracy to falsify Church history?

Such is my struggle. Either Christianity fell in to apostasy very very early and stayed that way for well over a thousand years, or the Church is Catholic.

Oh no, nothing so dramatic. I think these guys ended up doing what many other historians do as well.

For example, Tacitus, one of our best and only reliable Roman historians tells us that Pontius Pilate was a procurator. But, Pilate was no such thing. He was a prefect. It seems then that Tacitus simply called Pontius Pilate by a title that didn’t exist during Pilate’s time but by which he would’ve been known if he’d lived in Tacitus’.

Further, we know that Irenaeus made other historical errors, not through any kind of malice or deceit, but simply through being misinformed. He thought that Jesus was almost 50 years old when he died, and said this is information received from Apostolic Tradition. Check it out here, read paragraphs 4-6.

So, I think they just committed honest errors, and interpreted previous Christian history through anachronistic lenses.

Such is my struggle. Either Christianity fell in to apostasy very very early and stayed that way for well over a thousand years, or the Church is Catholic.

Ah, I suppose I have a more complicated view. For instance, I don’t think what is today known as the ‘Catholic Church’ is really all that old. I think the Christian churches have undergone doctrinal evolution. So, the ‘Catholic Church’ of today is just another denomination, all these denominations having a common ancestor.

Sounds like you may want to avoid reading Hans Kung


Just a quick point on the OP.

The correct answer (in my opinion) to the Protestant complaint that the Pope’s office has changed (implying it is evidence that there never was a Pope in the EC) is, “Of course it has!”

There is no doubt that although there was a papal office from Peter on, it did consolidate more power in later centuries. To that I say, “So what?” The Church is guided by the HS and not the “Bible alone.” Scripture was never intended to be a constitutional document that Church government was to be based strictly on. It is not nearly specific enough to handle such questions, which is why the HS was given for guidance. The US Constitution was written as a governing document, yet our laws and Presidential office have changed dramatically in just 235 years. Why would the office of Peter’s successors be any different than our understanding of the Trinity or Jesus’ human versus divine nature, both of which have come to be more fully understood since the earliest Church?

To me, the thought that such things would be completely stagnant is absurd.

The Papacy would of necessity have to evolve over the centuries, would it not?

The structure of a Church and the interaction with its leader when that Church consisted of hundreds (maybe thousands) of believers centered around Jerusalem and the leadership of Peter and the Apostles would need to be different than one stretching across a geographically disperse empire with a group of bishops who were not apostles, would it not?

There was no need, for example, for the First Council documented in the bible until after there was a dispersed Church.

Does it bother you that this first “change” took place? Why wouldn’t you expect subsequent similar evolutions and formalizations of how the Pope interacted with other church leaders?


The words you bolded do not help your position. This letter can be interpreted in many ways as the entire bible. I as a Catholic know that the bible is not the only source we have. We also have Apostolic tradition which many times help us understand the scriptures. Apostolic Tradition simply cannot be ignored. And it points out to the fact that Paul was also founder of Rome.

Also it is much possible Peter went to Rome first before Paul did.

[In the second] year of the two hundredth and fifth Olympiad [A.D. 42]: The apostle Peter, after he has established the church in Antioch, is sent to Rome, where he remains as a bishop of that city, preaching the gospel for twenty-five years” (The Chronicle [A.D. 303]).

-Eusebius of Caesarea

According to Eusebius Peter went to Rome around the year 42 A.D. The epistle to the Romans according to scholars was written around 55-58 A.D. So I don’t see how it is problematic that Paul writes to an already existing Christian Church knowing Peter went there beforehand. Yet nonetheless Paul is also founder, because his evangelization and martyrdom function as seed for the spreading of the gospel in Rome. You wrote this in the posts above:

Your dating is very problematic. If Eusebius says Peter was Bishop of Rome some 25 years, and Peter died around the year 67 AD, then he couldn’t have gone there until the year 58 A.D… This would only leave a space for him of 9 years to be the Bishop of Rome. But if he did go to to Rome around 42 A.D. as Eusebius states, then do the math and see if he (Peter) could have indeed been Bishop of Rome for 25 years.

According to you, who founded the Church of Rome then? Make an attempt to cite who did.

Provide quotes stating otherwise.

Firstly there are more citations than just Gaius, he served as an example. Optatus says the episcopal chair was given first to Peter and Epiphanius states that at Rome the first apostles and bishops were Peter and Paul. The Poem Against the Marcionites puts Peter as first Bishop. All this suggests they founded the Roman Church. Second, You haven’t given a citation stating other wise. Third I see no other claim of any other founder(s) of the Church of Rome.

Also I don’t see how Optatus contradicts Epiphanius.

You should read the response I made to ECF reader, the Popes weren’t able to govern that easily being under persecution. If you left the RCC because as you stated “I encountered was the near universal consensus that there was no monepiscopate in Rome until the mid 2nd cent” then I must say the reason for your leave was no good reason at all.

You cant expect to find many writings before the 2nd century when Christians weren’t as many and were in persecution. You say you want evidence pre 2nd century as if the 2nd century wasn’t ancient enough. Id say having writings from that time is very good knowing that they hardly even survive for us coming from that time. Im also under the impression that if you don’t see the word “foundation” in a specific quote then its no clear evidence.

“You [Pope Soter] have also, by your very admonition, brought together the planting that was made by Peter and Paul at Rome and at Corinth; for both of them alike planted in our Corinth and taught us; and both alike, teaching similarly in Italy, suffered martyrdom at the same time” (Letter to Pope Soter [A.D. 170], in Eusebius, History of the Church 2:25:8).

-Dionysius of Corinth

“Matthew also issued among the Hebrews a written Gospel in their own language, while Peter and Paul were evangelizing in Rome and laying the foundation of the Church” (Against Heresies, 3, 1:1 [A.D. 189]).


[Simon Peter said to Simon Magus in Rome:] ‘For you now stand in direct opposition to me, who am a firm rock, the foundation of the Church’ [Matt. 16:18]" (Clementine Homilies 17:19 [A.D. 221]).

-Clementine Homilies

Let me guess, these writings aren’t good enough either? Then providing more wouldn’t change your mind.

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit