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Religion Library: Roman Catholicism


Written by: Christopher Bellitto

The bishop of Rome demanded, asserted, and increasingly achieved recognition not only of his unique prestige as Peter's successor (primacy) but also of his jurisdictional supremacy. Callistus I (217-222) was the first bishop of Rome to specifically invoke Peter's authority explicitly. Stephen I (254-257), who sparred with Cyprian, used the phrase cathedra Petri (Peter's seat or chair) to describe his Roman position. The Emperor Constantine's favoring of the bishop of Rome in the early 4th century only strengthened what we might now call "papal" claims. Julius I (337-352) angrily rebuked bishops gathered in Antioch who didn't recognize the need for his approval of their actions. Damasus I (366-384) wrote to bishops as "sons" instead of the customary "brothers." Siricius (384-399) intervened directly and unilaterally in episcopal matters in Gaul and Spain, treating bishops there as his inferiors and borrowing Roman imperial models for his documents.

These bishops of Rome acknowledged that local bishops had responsibility for their own church and therefore for their part of the universal (katholikos) Church, but only Peter's successor had the mandate to oversee the entire Church. In this vein, Innocent I (401-417) claimed that nothing done by the clergy anywhere could be considered settled without his approval. Leo I (440-461) adopted the Roman pagan title of pontifex maximus (chief priest; literally "great bridge builder"), took control of a Church council when he refused to accept a particular canon approved at the Council of Chalcedon, and continually invoked Peter's princely authority in his sermons. Gregory I (590-604) tried to marry his role as local civil ruler with his job as chief pastor, calling himself servant of the servants of God and taking a keen interest in evangelizing northern Europe and Britain. We may identify these bishops of Rome as the founders of the papacy, at least in a more medieval and modern sense.

Study Questions:
     1.    When was the Church formed? How?
     2.    What is monepiscopacy? What does it entail?
     3.    Why were bishops violently killed at Christianity’s inception?
     4.    Name three early Roman bishops that supported papal prerogatives and describe their work.


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