A reader e-mailed me to ask me to write about whether and how the papacy evolved over time. The short answer is that the papacy has evolved, and will continue to evolve, but that the bedrock principle of papal primacy is one that’s unchanging.
To explain what I mean, let me start by pointing to the Christian family. The Biblical model for what families should look like is laid out succinctly in St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. In it, he explains that children should be subject to their parents (Ephesians 6:1), that the father is the head of the family, and head over his wife (Eph. 5:23), and that “wives should submit to their husbands in everything.” (Eph. 5:24). The husband and father’s headship should be one of Christlike service, not arrogating power: husbands are instructed to “love your wives, just as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up for Her” (Eph. 5:25), and to “love their wives as their own bodies” (Eph. 5:28).
In a similar way, the laity are like children, and we’re called to those placed in positions of authority over us (Hebrews 13:17). So the Church hierarchy, and particularly, the episcopacy, is in a position similar to what parents experience in a family. We see this expressed in various ways throughout Scripture (see, e.g., 1 Peter 5:13 and 1 Corinthians 4:15). But even between parents, one stands out as the head: the father. And we see this applied to the Church in the choice of St. Peter (Mt. 16:17-19). But as with families, episcopal leadership and particularly papal headship should be one of Christlike service, not arrogating power. Jesus Christ lays this out clearly in Luke 22:24-32,
Also a dispute arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest. Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves. You are those who have stood by me in my trials. And I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.“Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you [plural] as wheat. But I have prayed for you [singular], Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”
We can see at once that Jesus is saying that leadership in the Church should be expressed through selfless service to others, and then proceeds to call Simon Peter uniquely to this ministry. That is, St. Peter is called to minister to the other Apostles in the way that the Apostles minister to the Church. He’s to be the Servant of the Servants of God (Servus Servorum Dei). So we can see from this both the Biblical foundation of the papacy, and what the papacy ought to look like. From this, we can conclude that the Scriptural model is one of the pope occupying within the Church a position similar to that occupied by a dad in a family.
Put in this way, it should be clear that some amount of evolution is permissible and even good. After all, not every father heads his family in the same way. For starters, there are good and bad fathers, just as there are good and bad popes. The father’s headship of his family isn’t contingent upon how well he models Christ’s love for the Church: we’re bound to follow him either way. Likewise, the pope’s headship of the Church isn’t contingent upon how well he models Christian service and humility: we’re bound to follow him either way (neither Ephesians 6:1 nor Hebrews 13:17 contain an “if you want to” exception).
But even amongst good dads, you’ll find some who are assertive decision-makers, and some that are contemplative, and want to talk things over with the wife (and even the kids) before deciding on things. A good dad knows which decisions should be left up to his wife and kids: he doesn’t lord over his household like a micromanaging dictator. This is important, because I think that many Protestants expect the papacy to operate this way, since that’s the caricature sometimes presented. The papacy has never operated this way, and will never operate this way. In a Church of over a billion Catholics, it’s literally impossible to micromanage.
Certainly, we have seen the papacy possess more central authority in the last millennium than in the first millennium. There are two reasons: first, technology has improved. Before, it would have been impossible for the pope to make many of the day-to-day (or even month-to-month) decisions facing a particular diocese, since it took days to get from Rome to various outposts of the Church. More things were left up to the local diocese because there was just not other choice. Second, the pope was supported by the other four patriarchs: Antioch, Jerusalem, Constantinople, and Alexandria. When they broke off in the Great Schism, much of the management and governance of the Church fell back to Rome.
There’s no reason that these changes couldn’t change back: just read Pope John Paul II’s letter Ut Unum Sint, where he spells out (much more eloquently than I can) the possible role of the papacy in a reunited Church