“O happy Rome, stained purple with the precious blood of so many princes!
You excel all the beauty of the world, not by your own glory,
but by the merits of the saints whose throats you cut with bloody swords.”
– Aurea Luce, an early Latin hymn for the Solemnity of Ss. Peter and Paul
For today’s Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, a feast closely tied to the Church of Rome, I’ve got three mostly-unrelated Rome-themed mini-posts: on (I) the necessity of being united with the Roman Church, (II) the Roman Church not being the Seat of the Antichrist, and (III) an exciting new Rome-based Catholic podcast.
I. The Necessity and Indestructibility of the Roman Church
To begin, consider this question: In the first century, would you have considered it optional to be part of the visible Church headed by the Apostles, or no? To be part of that Church would require being in union with the Roman Church, headed by St. Peter and praised by St. Paul.
St. Peter wrote 1 Peter from Rome, which is why he includes this cryptic greeting: “She who is at Babylon, who is likewise chosen, sends you greetings; and so does my son Mark” (1 Peter 5:13). “Babylon” was one of the names used by the early Christians to refer to the city of Rome (much more on that in Part II). So the Roman Church, at this time, had St. Peter at the helm, writing on their behalf.
Meanwhile, St. Paul had not yet arrived, but writes ahead, praising the the Roman Christians (Romans 1:7-10):
To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world. For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing I mention you always in my prayers, asking that somehow by God’s will I may now at last succeed in coming to you.
Indeed, St. Luke tells us that Paul and his companions eventually made it to Rome (Acts 28:14), and that Paul “lived there two whole years at his own expense, and welcomed all who came to him, preaching the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ quite openly and unhindered” (Acts 28:30-31). So not only were Peter and Paul in Rome, but so were two of the Evangelists: Mark (1 Peter 5:13) and Luke (Acts 28:14). The Church in that city was already world-famous in the Apostolic age for its faith.
So that’s the situation in the first century. What about the second century? St. Ignatius of Antioch, a disciple of the Apostle John, refers to it as:
the Church which is beloved and enlightened by the will of Him that wills all things which are according to the love of Jesus Christ our God, which also presides in the place of the region of the Romans, worthy of God, worthy of honour, worthy of the highest happiness, worthy of praise, worthy of obtaining her every desire, worthy of being deemed holy, and which presides over love, is named from Christ, and from the Father, which I also salute in the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father.
That’s from c. 107, while Ignatius is on his way to Rome to be martyred. Rome’s primacy is still well-established.
Towards of the end of the second century, St. Irenaeus of Lyons points to Apostolic Tradition and Apostolic Succession as the sure-fire way of avoiding heresy, explaining:
It is within the power of all, therefore, in every Church, who may wish to see the truth, to contemplate clearly the tradition of the apostles manifested throughout the whole world; and we are in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted bishops in the Churches, and [to demonstrate] the succession of these men to our own times; those who neither taught nor knew of anything like what these [heretics] rave about.
But since it would be “very tedious” to list every bishop of every Church, Irenaeus deems it sufficient to show:
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.
And then he does just what he promised to do: he lists every Bishop of Rome, from the time of Peter and Paul down to Pope Eleutherius (Irenaeus’ contemporary, the thirteenth pope, counting St. Peter), concluding:
In this order, and by this succession, the ecclesiastical tradition from the apostles, and the preaching of the truth, have come down to us. 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.
A similar list is given in the fourth century, as part of St. Optatus of Milevis’ argument against the Donatists, although Optatus’ list goes all the way to Siricius (the thirty-eighth pope). Optatus also says:
So we have proved that the Catholic Church is the Church which is spread throughout the world. [….] You cannot then deny that you do know that upon Peter first in the City of Rome was bestowed the Episcopal Cathedra, on which sat Peter, the Head of all the Apostles (for which reason he was called Cephas), that, in this one Cathedra, unity should be preserved by all, lest the other Apostles might claim—-each for himself—-separate Cathedras, so that he who should set up a second Cathedra against the unique Cathedra would already be a schismatic and a sinner.
This is very similar to argument that St. John Chrysostom, perhaps the most famous of the Eastern Church Fathers, was making at around the same time. It comes in his exegesis of John 21:19, in which he answers the objection that St. James was Bishop of Jerusalem by saying that Peter was entrusted with the entire world:
“And when He had spoken this, He says, Follow Me.” Here again He alludes to his tender carefulness, and to his being very closely attached to Himself. And if any should say, “How then did James receive the chair at Jerusalem?” I would make this reply, that He appointed Peter teacher, not of the chair, but of the world.
Pope Siricius’ immediate predecessor was Pope Damasus, to whom St. Jerome wrote these words (in 376 A.D.):
Since the East, shattered as it is by the long-standing feuds, subsisting between its peoples, is bit by bit tearing into shreds the seamless vest of the Lord, […] I think it my duty to consult the chair of Peter, and to turn to a church whose faith has been praised by Paul. [….]
Yet, though your greatness terrifies me, your kindness attracts me. From the priest I demand the safe-keeping of the victim, from the shepherd the protection due to the sheep. Away with all that is overweening; let the state of Roman majesty withdraw. My words are spoken to the successor of the fisherman, to the disciple of the cross. As I follow no leader save Christ, so I communicate with none but your blessedness, that is with the chair of Peter. For this, I know, is the rock on which the church is built! [Matthew 16:18] This is the house where alone the paschal lamb can be rightly eaten. [Exodus 12:22] This is the ark of Noah, and he who is not found in it shall perish when the flood prevails. [Genesis 7:23] But since by reason of my sins I have betaken myself to this desert which lies between Syria and the uncivilized waste, I cannot, owing to the great distance between us, always ask of your sanctity the holy thing of the Lord. Consequently I here follow the Egyptian confessors who share your faith, and anchor my frail craft under the shadow of their great argosies. I know nothing of Vitalis; I reject Meletius; I have nothing to do with Paulinus. He that gathers not with you scatters; [Matthew 12:30] he that is not of Christ is of Antichrist.
In the span of time that we’ve briefly considered here, a lot has changed: the New Testament was written, Christianity was persecuted, legalized, persecuted again, legalized again, and made the official religion of the Roman Empire. The First Council of Nicaea has met, the doctrines on the Trinity and the dual natures of Christ have been greatly clarified, and the Church continues to grow and spread.
But throughout this all, from the very beginning, we see a prominent place for the Church of Rome, revered for her faith and honored for her authority. And the early Christians spoke of union with this Church as critically important. Given this, if you’re going to claim that, one day, Rome slipped into error (even heresy and apostasy!), you need to seriously reckon with St. Edmund Campion’s questions:
When then did Rome lose this faith so highly celebrated? when did she cease to be what she was before? at what time, under what Pontiff, by what way, by what compulsion, by what increments, did a foreign religion come to pervade city and world? What outcries, what disturbances, what lamentations did it provoke? Were all mankind all over the rest of the world lulled to sleep, while Rome, Rome I say, was forging new Sacraments, a new Sacrifice, new religious dogma? Has there been found no historian, neither Greek nor Latin, neither far nor near, to fling out in his chronicles even an obscure hint of so remarkable a proceeding?
II. Is “Rome” the Antichrist?
We’ve just seen Saint Jerome claim that those who break from the pope are siding with division and the Antichrist rather than unity and Christ. But what to make of the Reformation, in which Martin Luther taught that the pope was the Antichrist? Should that view be taken seriously?
While it’s no longer a common belief within Protestantism, this view was once widespread. It’s still held by some Protestants: for example, Michele Bachmann found herself in the midst of a mini-scandal when it was revealed that her denomination, the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, still claims this, and you can also find it within some Evangelical and Fundamentalist circles.
Near the heart of this claim is a bit of very important exegesis. As GotQuestions points out, the theory that the pope is the Antichrist turns largely on Revelation 17:9:
The speculation about the Pope possibly being the Antichrist revolves primarily around Revelation 17:9. Describing the evil end-times system symbolized by a woman riding a beast, Revelation 17:9 declares, “This calls for a mind with wisdom. The seven heads are seven hills on which the woman sits.” In ancient times, the city of Rome was known as “the city on seven hills” because there are seven prominent hills that surround the city. So, the thinking goes, we can know that it is somehow connected with Rome. So, if the evil end-times system is somehow associated with Rome – it does not take much thought to see a potential connection with the Roman Catholic Church, which is centered in Rome. Numerous passages in the Bible describe an “Antichrist” who will lead the anti-Christ movement in the end times (Daniel 9:27; 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4; Revelation 13:5-8). So, if the end-times evil world system is centered in Rome and led by an individual – the Pope is a likely candidate.
While GotQuestions finds it “hard to believe that Pope Francis I is the Antichrist,” evangelicals like Dave Hunt (author of the aptly-named A Woman Rides the Beast) want to believe. Hunt goes from (a) saying that Revelation 17:9 proves that “Babylon” is Rome, to (b) concluding that Vatican City is Mystery Babylon (and the pope is the Antichrist):
Furthermore, she is a city built on seven hills. That specification eliminates ancient Babylon. Only one city has for more than 2000 years been known as the city on seven hills. That city is Rome. The Catholic Encyclopedia states: “It is within the city of Rome, called the city of seven hills, that the entire area of Vatican State proper is now confined.”1
There are, of course, other cities, such as Rio de Janeiro, that were also built on seven hills. Therefore, John provides at least seven more characteristics to limit the identification to Rome alone. We will examine each one in detail in subsequent chapters. However, as a preview of where we are going, we will list them now and discuss each one briefly. As we shall see, there is only one city on the earth which, in both historical and contemporary perspectives, passes every test John gives, including its identification as Mystery Babylon. That city is Rome, and more specifically, Vatican City.
Hunt is making a huge jump here: going from the Book of Revelation’s apparent condemnation of Imperial Rome, to saying that this “more specifically” means Vatican City… even though Vatican City (1) didn’t exist at the time Revelation was written, (2) isn’t the same city… or country, and (3) isn’t built on seven hills.
Hunt tries to bridge this gap by quoting a Catholic Encyclopedia entry for “Rome” saying that Vatican City exists within the ancient city of seven hills. It’s an incredibly convenient quotation, so much so that I looked it up, and found that it was entirely made up. Go read the encyclopedia entry for yourself: it’s available online. Here’s where he says it’s supposed to be.
Besides the fact that Hunt’s evidence is forged, there’s a deeper problem: it’s obviously false. You don’t need to take my word, or Hunt’s, or the Catholic Encyclopedia. You can just look at a map:
This map shows the seven hills of ancient Rome: Aventine, Caelian, Capitoline, Esquiline, Palatine, Quirinal, and Viminal. The city’s ancient limits, the Roman Walls, are shown in red. Outside of the ancient city, across the Tiber, is Vatican Hill. It’s not one of the seven hills.
For Hunt to make his “Rome = Antichrist” exegesis work, he has to add an eighth hill, and then say that this is the hill that Rev. 17:9 really means. In light of this, his statement that Revelation 17:9’s city of seven hills refers to “Rome, and more specifically, Vatican City” would be like me saying that “the Fab Four” refers to the Beatles, and “more specifically,” Mick Jagger. This is why he needs to rely on made-up evidence, because the actual evidence discredits his exegesis.
At the heart of this, and many of the “papal Antichrist” claims, there’s a categorical error. “Rome” is used to describe at least six distinct entities: the local Diocese of Rome (the cathedral of which is St. John Lateran’s, outside of the Vatican), the Latin Church (the Western half of the Catholic Church, as distinct from Eastern Catholicism), the Roman Catholic Church, Vatican City / the Holy See (technically a separate country from Italy), the City of Rome, and the ancient Roman Empire. The pope is the head of the first four of these, and for about a thousand years, also was in charge of the fifth.
Aurea Luce, the hymn I quoted earlier, reminds us that the Christians of Rome were largely killed by Roman authorities. Shortening that to say that “Rome” was persecuted by “Rome” renders the statement incoherent. But that’s just what Hunt has done: throwing all six of these entities together under the label “Rome,” so that Revelation 17:9’s condemnation of the Roman Empire gets treated as a condemnation of the Church of Rome, the very Church that Scripture praises (see Part I). That’s sloppy, conspiratorial exegesis.
III. A Roman Catholic Podcast
Interested in learning more about the Catholic faith? Whether you’re a Catholic who wants to know your faith better, or a non-Catholic interested in Catholicism, I’ve got a new recommendation for you: Catholic Bytes. While quite a few people, myself included, have worked on it, it’s principally the result of the hard work of three people: Fr. George Elliott (Tyler, Texas), Fr. Andrew Mattingly (Kansas City-St. Joseph), and Greg Gerhart (who will be ordained a deacon for the Diocese of Austin on July 11).
The first few episodes were released today: we’ve got Fr. Christopher Seith on striving for greatness, Fr. Richard Hinkley on the divine nature of the Liturgy, and Fr. Conrad Murphy on the miraculous appearance of Our Lady at Guadalupe.
The podcast is designed to be frequent (once or twice a week), short (under 10 minutes), clear (we’ve got multiple reviewers doing quality control), and orthodox. It’s also very Roman, in a certain way. As Fr. Elliott explained, “We make short (5 minute), dynamic podcasts given by different speakers from across Rome, to try to bring the great speakers that we encounter here back to our countries.”