Who Was the First Pope?

Today I was asked:

When did the Roman Catholic church appear as it is today?

Here’s my answer:

When the Roman Catholic Church appeared “as it is today” depends on what is meant by “as it is today.”

The first pope who had the kind of power that the popes had in medieval times (and wish they had today) was Pope Gregory the Great (pope from 590 to 604). The eastern “catholic” churches have never acknowledged the authority of the pope, not at any time in history.

Prior to Gregory, there was a buildup of power. Stephen of Rome is probably the first to claim that he had the right to tell other bishops what to do. He was pope around A.D. 250. No other bishop acknowledged that right, however. In fact, the great bishop Cyprian of Carthage (known as St. Cyprian to the Catholic Church) held a council of 87 north African bishops to specifically reject Stephen’s claim.

By the time of the Council of Nicea, A.D. 325, the pope had authority over the churches of Italy. The bishops of Alexandria and Antioch had similar widespread authority, and Canon 6 of Nicea acknowledges this and lends the council’s approval to that authority.

During the fourth century, after the Council of Nicea, Rome was the place to run for bishops being persecuted by Constantius, the emperor Constantine’s sun. That made the church in Rome even more important than it already was.

In the fifth century, the western half of the Roman empire fell. The bishop of Rome was the only important bishop with authority over a large area that was in the western half of the empire. Slowly, through the late fifth and sixth centuries, the bishop gained more and more secular and spiritual authority among the conquerors of Rome, the barbarians known as the Gauls, Franks, and Goths. This is how Pope Gregory gained authority over all of Europe, which the popes maintained (with greater or lesser success) throughout the Middle Ages until the Reformation.

The best source for this history is actually a Catholic historian. He has a teaching series on the medieval papacy that is put out by the Institute for Catholic Culture. The history he teaches is remarkably honest. His name is Dr. Brendon McGuire, and you can get his history of the papacy recording at http://instituteofcatholicculture.org/media.htm#medieval for free. He’s pretty interesting to listen to.

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2 Responses to Who Was the First Pope?

  1. I believe “first among equals” is literally the wording that the patriarchs of the east–and most specifically the patriarch of Constantinople–offered the bishop of Rome when they were going through “the Great Schism” between the 800’s and 1054.

    The issue that created the split was the addition of the “filioque” to the Nicene/Apostles Creed, but that wasn’t really the cause of the split. The cause of the split boils down to the Roman Catholic claim that the bishop of Rome can speak _ex cathedra_, creating dogma on his own authority that applies to all Christians on earth.

    This is really what makes him “the pope” in the eyes of most of us. Is he “God’s vicar” on the earth, as the RCC claims?

    That is what the eastern churches have never acknowledged.

    By eastern churches, I’m referring to the organizational descendants of the major eastern city-churches, such as Antioch and Constantinople (now Istanbul). The church that is the descendant of the church in Alexandria is much harder to determined, since the bishop there was excommunicated in the 5th century, but the organization still exists.

    Admittedly, though, it is high time I learn something about the eastern Catholic churches, which I had never heard of until the last three or four months from your comments and a couple emails. They would be pertinent to this discussion because they would represent eastern churches that got out of communion with the Eastern Orthodox and are in communion with Rome.

    Wikipedia says about them: “They all recognize the central role of the Bishop of Rome within the College of Bishops and his infallibility when speaking ex cathedra.”

    The first part of that, after the third century, is not at debate, not even among the Eastern Orthodox. The last part of that is exactly the debate. I need to find out who these churches are and how many.

    For the record and in my defense, the statement that “the eastern churches have never accepted the claims of the bishop of Rome” is made directly in an answer to a question from the audience by Roman Catholic historian Dr. Brendon McGuire in the lectures that I link in the original post. I did not just come up with that on my own.

  2. Bob Duggan says:

    Hey Shammah,

    If you are celebrating, I wish you a blessed feast of the Nativity. Just a note of clarification: by “eastern catholic”, I take it that you mean what have historically become the “Orthodox” churches (they still call themselves “catholic” according to the Nicene creed) However, there are eastern “Catholic” (note the capital “C”) who are of the same historic fabric as the Orthodox but for one reason or another and beginning from one point in history or another (pre, or post schism) also consider themselves “in union with” (as opposed to “under the authority of” the Pope (the Bishop of Rome). And while the eastern churches have never granted ultimate authority to one bishop, there is I believe, a concensus among most Orthodox that the bishop of Rome, did carry out a unique charism at times which was related to some notion of “primacy” rather than “authority”.

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