Over the years, I have found a number of Catholics leave the Church on the basis of a historical theory, subscribed to by both Protestants and liberal Catholics, arguing that there was no monarchical episcopate in Rome until the late second century, which would make the papacy, or so some Protestants say, an anachronistic invention.
The major evidence used to buttress this theory is that the New Testament writings do not distinguish between the words “elder” and “bishop,” and indeed, they are used interchangeably. Moreover, in Clement’s epistle to the Church in Corinth, dated circa 96, Clement identifies the Church as a plurality of elders and names no, and neither identifies himself as, a singly bishop of Rome. Moreover, Ignatius epistle to the Romans, dated a decade or so after Clement’s epistle, also does not mention any such bishop (despite making reference to various bishops in other cities in his other epistles).
When one notes, for example, that Irenaeus of Lyons, a student of Polycarp, who was an adolescent when Clement wrote his epistle to the Corinthians, listed the bishops of Rome prior to Clement as Linus and Anacletus, the traditional argument used to counter this evidence is that Irenaeus was “reading back into that era the structure of the Church in his day.” In actuality however, such writers are accusing Irenaeus of fabricating the succession he lists in Rome. Moreover, such authors further accuse Irenaeus of no shortage of ignorance of the time period in which he lived–a rather audacious and pretentious view in my opinion, as writings dated to this period are scant at best, and even scholars often resort to sociological theories and guesswork to determine what was going on during this primitive period of Church history. Thus, for these writers to claim that they understood the structure and hierarchy of the Church in the early period of Irenaeus’ life better than Irenaeus himself warrants serious skepticism.
Moreover, the fact the New Testament uses the words “presbyter,” “bishop,” “elder,” and the like interchangeably would appear to be problematic to the thesis posited by such scholars, for although there is no formal term which describes a monarchical bishop, such a position is found in scripture. James, for example, who was not among the twelve, is designated as monarchical bishop of Jerusalem. Thus, what one finds in Ignatius writings is a semantic evolution–a change in the usage of the word “bishop” to refer to a sole leader of a college of presbyters, and not a change in Church hierarchy. Another issue arises in the fact that Ignatius constantly enjoins the flock to recall and live in accordance with, the traditions handed down to the Church, as conceded by the proponents of the anachronism of the single bishop theory. Yet, despite admitting that Ignatius is quite conservative and in accord with the traditions of the Church, they also claim he is inventing a novel teaching which has no basis in tradition. Again, the inconsistencies are glaring.
There is found a strong reason in Peter’s first epistle to various persecuted Churches in Anatolia as to why neither Ignatius nor Clement identify a bishop of Rome in their epistles. Peter identifies his location as the “Church in Babylon,” and for good reason–this veiled reference to Rome helped protect a Christian community which was constantly under duress, and this only escalated during the interval following the conflagration of Rome under Nero. Given the prominence of the Roman bishop, Ignatius and Clement would have only done themselves and their respective flocks a disservice by naming the bishop of Rome. The fact that many works were falsely attributed to Clement indicates and effectively refutes any arguments made by certain Protestants that he held no prominent position within the Church. Hermas also indicates that Clement had a specialized role within the Roman Church.
I also say this: even if there was no official separation between deacons, priests, and bishops within the early structure of the Church, a prominent elder, who would have acted as papal successor to Peter could have very well have been understood to carry a certain authority not realized by either the college of elders or bishops in neighboring Churches. In that light, this theory would appear to be fairly innocuous to the doctrine of the papacy, which, we have acceded a long time now, developed over the centuries, but has its germ in Christ’s promises to Peter (see Matthew 16:13-19 and John 21:15-17).
What are your thoughts on the monoepiscopate and how it impacts Catholic theology, especially relation to the papacy? I am interested in discussing this issue further.