A reader has a question about the primacy of the Roman Church

A reader has a question about the primacy of the Roman Church December 2, 2017

He writes:

I’m a not-yet-Catholic (Anglican, in fact) trying to determine the truth of the teachings that separate us. I can’t discover anywhere a satisfactory answer to this question and would appreciate your help:
If Peter was in fact the head of the apostles, why should the papal seat and succession be based in Rome as opposed to any other city where Peter set up ministry and appointed a bishop (Antioch etc)? The fact of his (and Paul’s) being martyred there doesn’t seem particularly significant in relation to the succession of office. It seems, rather, that any number of bishops whom Peter consecrated would have had equal claim as his successor
I appreciate any light you can shed on the matter, especially if there are any early Fathers you can point me to who address the question.
Thanks, and peace

I’m not too much use here but, FWIW, here’s what has always seemed fairly obvious. Rome became the Petrine Seat for two basic reasons: Peter was martyred there and Rome was the natural capital of the world anyway. This seems to have been simply assumed by guys like Irenaeus (writing late second century).

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.

What is notable about Irenaeus is that, though he lives in Lyons, he is, in fact, an Eastern Father hailing from Asia Minor and reflecting the faith of the Eastern Church of his time. And he’s not alone. The consensus of the early Church is that both the death of the Peter and Paul there and it’s natural pre-eminence culturally, socially, and politically have conferred on it a primacy uniquely associated with Peter.

I see no particular reason to question that. There just is not a place where the Church said, “No. Antioch is the primary Church among the patriarchates. Whether or no that is a problem in logic, it simply never seems to have occurred to the ancient Church to make it a problem in practice. Irenaeus not only makes the statement above but (and this is really significant I think) he takes its for granted that his audience will say, “No duh” not “What? This is news! What is he talking about?!”

One of the core ideas I came to believe very early is that when an ancient Christian author teaches something with the clear assumption that his audience knows bloody well that he means and evinces not a trace of talking as though he needs to persuade them of it–and we in fact find his words generate no controversy in that audience–it’s not because all of ancient christendom all lost their mind in the same way. It’s because this is, in fact, the generally accepted Tradition. Irenaeus speaks this way of the Church of Rome because this was the No Duh belief of the Church east and west, north and south, across a dozen different languages, tribes and tongues.

By the way, I think you underestimate the significance of Peter and Paul shedding blood at Rome to the ancient Christian mind. I think it had huge significance. The fathers speak of the tombs of the apostles as “trophies”. The shedding of apostolic blood is precisely what the book of Revelation speaks as the means by which the great dragon who is the devil and Satan is defeated: “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brethren has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death. (Rev 12:10-11).” I think the early Church could hardly help but see that blood as, supremely, the “seed of Christians” inseminating the very heart of whole cosmic world order and turning it into the heart of the Church. This is much more than a mere question of a succession of bureaucrat. This is about the symbolic conquest of the world. So it doesn’t surprise me one bit that Irenaeus speaks so casually and matter-of-factly about Roman primacy.

That’s how it has always seemed to me, anyway.

Hope this helps! Best wishes!

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