Has the Papacy Evolved Over Time?

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


  1. There could be only one authority to mark the decision just as there’s only one Peter who received his keys from the one Christ. (This is similar to how each diocese is it’s own church with one Bishop as head.)

    So in a united church, the one true Church would only have one earthly head. And history has shown the fruits of the faith. To me the fruit that carries the continuation of Christ’s work best is in the Apostolic See of Rome.

  2. It is a prerogative of the dignity of our city [that is, Antioch] that, from the beginning, it received as master the prince of the apostles. In fact, it was a just thing that this city – which was glorified by the name of “Christians” before the rest of the earth – should receive as shepherd the prince of the apostles. When we received him as master, however, we did not keep him forever but rather yielded him to the royal city of Rome. Therefore, we do not hold the body of Peter, but we hold the faith of Peter as we would Peter himself. As a matter of fact, as long as we hold the faith of Peter, we have Peter himself.-St. John Chrysostom, Bishop of Antioch

  3. Also from St. John of Chrysostom

    “Peter, that head of the Apostles, the first in the Church, the friend of Christ, who received the revelation not from man but from the Father….this Peter, and when I say Peter, I mean the unbroken Rock, the unshaken foundation, the great apostle, the first of the disciples, the first called, the first to obey.” (De Eleemos III, 4, vol II, 298[300])

    “Peter the coryphaeus of the choir of apostles, the mouth of the disciples, the foundation of the faith, the base of the confession, the fisherman of the world, who brought back our race form the depth of error to heaven, he who is everywhere fervent and full of boldness, or rather of love than of boldness.” (Hom de decem mille talentis, 3, vol III, 20[4])

    “The first of the apostles, the foundation of the Church, the coryphaeus of the choir of the disciples.” (Ad eos qui scandalizati sunt, 17, vol III, 517[504])

    “The foundation of the Church, the vehement lover of Christ, at once unlearned in speech, and the vanquisher of orators, the man without education who closed the mouth of philosophers, who destroyed the philosophy of the Greeks as though it were a spider’s web, he who ran throughout the world, he who cast his net into the sea, and fished the whole world.” (In illud, Vidi dominum, 3, vol VI, 123[124])

    “Peter, the base, the pillar….” (Hom Quod frequenta conueniendum sit, 5, vol XII, 466[328])

  4. Daniel,

    You asked:
    Why is Peter’s successor in Antioch Eudoius under and not over Peter’s successor in Rome, Linus?

    Here are seven of the reasons that I’m aware of:

    1) Rome is where Peter was crowned with martyrdom. This, I believe, is the most important.

    2) Rome is the Apostolic See, in the sense that it is where both Peter and Paul were martyred: it signifies Jewish-Gentile union in a special way, and thus, the universality, the Catholicism, of the Church.

    3) Being located in Rome was sensible and pragmatic. An ordinary Christian at the time could look at that and say, “Okay, that makes sense.” The USCCB is located here in D.C. It’s logical. (Of course, when Rome ceased to be the capital of the Empire, #3 was used by the Eastern Orthodox to argue that the papacy should have shifted over as well).

    4) All of the other Patriarchates are either Petrine or Roman. The original four were Rome, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria. Jerusalem and Antioch were founded by Peter before he became bishop of Rome. Alexandria was founded by Mark, Peter’s disciple, called his “son” in 1 Peter 5:13. The late comer to the party was Constantinople, which was added because the capital of the Empire was relocated. It’s not Petrine, but it is Roman. Only Rome can lay claim to being Petrine and Roman.

    5) At least some people view Rome as the prophetic choice. For example, in Matthew 21:21, Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done.

    At least one reading of this passage is that it’s a symbol of Peter transplanting the Church (the Mountain of Daniel 2:44-45, and itself a very Christological and Petrine “Rock” image) from Jerusalem to Rome, which is described in Revelation as the Beast from the Sea (Revelation 13:1-10). In other words, God doesn’t just allow His Church to survive the Roman Beast, but stabs the beast in the heart, by claiming the Roman Capital for Christ.

    Some support for this is found in Revelation 18:21, in which Jerusalem’s destruction by the Roman Empire appears to be compared to the fall of Babylon, and throwing a great millstone into the sea. It’s another Jerusalem-Rome connection that uses the imagery of rocks and the sea, only in this case, the sea is victorious.

    Additionally, the prophetic imagery in Daniel 2 would certainly support a Roman-based Church. Having said that, we’re dealing with prophesies whose meanings are not readily apparent. So take #5 with a grain of salt.

    6) The Fathers recognized Rome, and not Antioch or Jerusalem, as being the head of the Church. By itself, this is a reason we should follow suit. This includes, as JS and Brent noted, the esteemed former Bishop of Antioch and Patriarch of Constantinople, St. John Chrysostom.

    7) Only Rome has remained free and unblemished. Every other Patriarchal See fell to Islam, and every other Patriarchal See has had a head that has lead the flock into heresy at some point or another (as even the Orthodox will concede).

    God bless,


  5. I don’t understand how this works at all. If Peter was martyred in Antartica, would Linus be the prince of the apostles? Why or why not? Why is the location of martyrdom the best case for a Roman Bishop to be the Vicar of God over another Petrine Bishop?

    And I don’t understand the heresy angle. Do we know truth because it came from the pope or do we know who is pope by who is speaking truth? It would seem that only one of those can be true to avoid circular reasoning?

    Is that clear as mud? LOL, sorry. I’m not the typical RCIA candidate. Too many years at the PCUSA have made me a theological trainwreck.

    I’m on my phone, so I’ll check out those Scriptures later, but in the meantime is any reference to Babylon (Rome’s codename) in Revelation a positive reference?

  6. I am on my way to conversion to the Catholic church, but last weekend, I met my protestant pastor face-to-face. (I believed I owed him one because I had been a member for over five years and he performed my marriage and baptized my child.) I told him that it was apostolic succession that brought me to the Catholic Church. We should disregard those who are outside the true vine and in schism.

    He appealed to scripture. I cited Matthew 16:18, but the pastor responded that Christ also says to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan.” On that note, he asked me why I should trust Peter as the Pope?

    He also cited the council of Jerusalem and stated that James spoke with more authority than Peter at that council.

    He also brought up instances where the Catholic church has declared more than one person pope at the same time.

    He was also concerned that the Pope could overturn Scripture at any time.

    Sorry, I’m new. Are these all strawmen built by Protestants? Even if he somehow could convince me that Catholicism was “wrong”, there’s no way he could convince me that a particular sect of Protestantism was the “right one”. At the end of the day, he told me to follow my interpretation.

  7. Sola Scriptura by definition compares difficult Scriptures with those where the meaning is more clear.

    If it requires other Scriptures, then the Canon issue must be resolved before you resolve any other theological issues.

    There is not a single case known to history of any church or any sect for over a thousand years after Christ that used the exact Protestant Canon.

    The Protestant interpretation of any Scripture is a nonstarter.

  8. Daniel,

    I think all of the above comments are helpful, but I can see how you might still be left wondering “how” this all really works.

    Partly, as a Catholic I accept that history did not leave us a very detailed record. I know this is very different coming at it from opposite sides. As a Catholic – someone who believes the Catholic Church is what it claims to be – it is easy for me to think “one way or another Peter and the Apostles and the early Christians decided that is the way it should be – Peter’s office belongs in Rome.” All the comments above support that this was a reasonable decision. I can certainly see that coming from a sola scriptura anti-authoritarian perspective the lack of documentation is vexing.

    I’d like to share one beautiful collection of facts that I love to reflect on. Both Paul and Peter were martyred in Rome. Peter certainly at Nero’s circus, actually the site of St. Peter’s square. Peter’s tomb is directly under the alter at St. Peter’s. Paul’s tomb was elsewhere, but archaeologists in the 1970’s found Paul’s head near Peter’s tomb (as had been rumored historically). In a very real sense the Catholic Church has always seen herself as founded on both Peter and Paul. We celebrate the feast of Peter and Paul – not just Peter. You will find a long list of Parishes named Sts Peter and Paul.

    I know, only a straw to grasp at if you are looking for an air tight argument to convince a Protestant from evidence. It is spiritual nectar to one who has come to love the Church.

    God Bless.

  9. Daniel,

    As to why Peter’s successor as Prince of the Apostles is found in Rome, not Antioch, the fact that Peter was martyred in Rome is decisive. When Peter left Antioch he left Eudoius as Bishop, but Peter still remained Prince of the Apostles and the sole head of the universal Church. In other words Peter was still “over” Eudoius.

    When Peter was executed in Rome, he left Linus as successor BOTH as Bishop of Rome and as sole head of the Universal Church. This line of succession has continued to the present day and is the basis for ultimate authority in the Church.

  10. Because it wasn’t until Peter’s death that the role as head of the Catholic Church was left open.

    The alternative is to imagine that upon Peter’s death, one man would succeed him as Bishop of Rome, and someone else would succeed him as head of the Church. But on what basis would the office be split in two in such a way?

  11. But Joe, that happens in Martial Arts all of the time. I see your point. I also see how it would make sense to send the authority to the one who was in the role as his successor the longest.

    Again, I believe your position. I just want to have the strongest case.

  12. I just saw this thread for the first time, and I wanted to add something. When I was in Rome in 2010, I got a chance to go on the Scavi tour under St. Peter’s Basilica, where I was able to see and pray at the tomb of St. Peter. Archaeologists, after painstaking scientific research, are extremely confident that, whether or not the bones are still there, this was Peter’s tomb. The amount of evidence is considered to be insurmountable. There’s just something about being there that solidifies the Petrine ministry as being Roman. There’s more to it than could ever be found in a proof-text. When you’re there, you know.

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