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Papal Supremacy

An Orthodox Tradition Q&A

When I was attending the Divine Liturgy on the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul the other day, I heard the phrase "care of all the Churches" in the Epistle reading. To me, as a former Roman Catholic, this sounded rather strange, since I had been brought up to believe that the Pope, as the successor of St. Peter, had "the care of all the Churches." If St. Paul claims this for himself, does this not invalidate the Roman Catholic arguments for Papal primacy? On the other hand, how do we Orthodox explain the verse in the Gospel reading in which Christ tells St. Peter that He will give him the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven? Does this mean that only St. Peter was given this prerogative? And what about the controversial verse, "Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church"? Was St. Peter himself the foundation of the Church? This is all confusing and seems contradictory. (M.S., CT)

You are quite right with regard to your suspicions about the problems occasioned for the Roman Catholic doctrine of Papal supremacy by St. Pauls comments about his responsibility for the Church. Largely in recognition of this and other challenges to Papism, since the Second Vatican Council Roman Catholic theologians have studiously avoided characterizing the Pope with such exaggerated terms as "the voice of God on earth," as they were wont to do in bygone days. Yet, astonishingly enough, in their efforts to make the doctrine of Papal supremacy more palatable to Orthodox and Protestants, they have tended, of late, to emphasize the Popes alleged "sollicitudo omnium ecclesiarum," as the Latin Vulgate renders the original Greek of II Corinthians 11:28, "he merimna pason ton ekklesion" or "the care of all the Churches." That this statement is from the mouth of St. Paul, describing his own duties, and not a statement by St. Peter, hardly reinforces the notion of Petrine primacy on which the doctrine of Papal supremacy rests. Indeed, if one were to take it as literally as the Papists take Christs statement to St. Peter with regard to his Apostolic prerogatives in the Church, he would of necessity have to attribute to St. Paul the primacy which Roman Catholics give to the former.

In his homily on this Epistle, St. John Chrysostomos expounds on the nature of St. Pauls care for the Churches. He says that this was the heaviest of the burdens with which St. Paul wrestled in his Apostolic ministry: "...His soul too was distracted, and his thoughts divided. For even if nothing from without had assailed him; yet the war within was enough, those waves on waves, that sleet of cares, that war of thoughts." St. John adds that, though it is difficult enough for one to look after a single house, St. Paul had "the care not of a single house, but of cities and peoples and nations and of the whole world" (Homily 12, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. XII [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1978], p. 395). Several Roman Catholic exegetes, in keeping with their misunderstanding of Christs words about the ministry of St. Peter, have misunderstood this all-embracing pastoral care with which St. Paul, as the Apostle to the Nations, was naturally entrusted as an institutional prerogative. In so doing, however, they once more compromise their own arguments. For, if St. Paul was given such care of all the Churches, then primacy in the Church would logically belong, again, not to St. Peter, but to St. Paul and, by implication, to his successors. Clearly, however, St. Paul was not speaking, in the passage under consideration, of an institutional prerogative, as St. John Chrysostomos points out, but of a burden imposed on him by the nature of his ministry.

With regard to the other verse which you cite, St. Theophylact of Ochrid points out that the words, "I will give unto thee,""...were spoken to Peter alone, yet they were given to all the apostles," since Christ also said, Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted." (The Explanation by Blessed Theophylact of the Holy Gospel According to St. Matthew [House Springs, MO: Chrysostom Press, 1994], p. 141.) The second verse to which St. Theophylact refers is St. John 20:23. As the translator rightly observes, the verb "remit" is in the second person plural, and thus refers not to St. Peter alone, but to all of the Apostles. As for the "controversial verse" (St. Matthew 16:18), St. Theophylact, following St. John Chrysostomos and the overwhelming consensus of both Greek and Latin Fathers, interprets the words "this rock" to denote St. Peters confession of faith in the Divinity of Christ, and not the Apostles person. Any other interpretation would, of course, violate the Christocentric nature of the Church and the rather clear Scriptural affirmation that "Christ is the head of the Church" (Ephesians 5:23) and the "head of the Body" (Colossians 1:18).

Let us note, also, that the honor which the Orthodox Church has bestowed on both St. Peter and St. Paul, that is, the title of Protokoryphaioi, i.e., "leaders" or "chiefs" of the Apostles, gives us some insight into what the distinctions between the Disciples of Christ actually mean. They describe functions, responsibilities, cares, and rôles; they do not, however, refer to special privileges, prerogatives, or authority. For, in the final analysis, despite these distinctions, all of the Apostles were equal, just as all of the Bishops of the Orthodox Church—who are their successors—, whether they be simple Bishops or Patriarchs or Œcumenical Patriarchs, are absolute equals. This fact helps to explain both the passage which you cite from II Corinthians and the Gospel passages which Papists have wholly unjustifiably used to support the doctrine of Papal supremacy.

From Orthodox Tradition, Vol. XVII, No. 1 (2000), pp. 28-30.