The Role of the Bishop of Rome in the Communion of the Church in the First Millennium

Aghios Nikolaos


First Ecumenical Council11. In the Ravenna document, “The Ecclesiological and Canonical Consequences of the Sacramental Nature of the Church – Ecclesial Communion, Conciliarity and Authority”, Catholics and Orthodox acknowledge the inseparable link between conciliarity and primacy at all levels of the life of the Church:

“Primacy and conciliarity are mutually interdependent. That is why primacy at the different levels of the life of the Church, local, regional and universal, must always be considered in the context of conciliarity, and conciliarity likewise in the context of primacy” (Ravenna document, n. 43).

They also agree that “in the canonical order (taxis) witnessed by the ancient Church”, which was “recognized by all in the era of the undivided Church”, “Rome, as the Church that “presides in love” according to the phrase of St Ignatius of Antioch, occupied the first place in the taxis, and that the bishop of Rome was therefore the protos among the patriarchs’ (nn.  40, 41). The document refers to the active role and prerogatives of the bishop of Rome as “protos among the patriarchs’, “protos of the bishops of the major Sees’ (nn.  41, 42, 44), and it concludes that “the role of the bishop of Rome in the communion of all the Churches’ must be ‘studied in greater depth”. “What is the specific function of the bishop of the “first see” in an ecclesiology of koinonia?” (n. 45)

2. The topic for the next stage of the theological dialogue is therefore: “The Role of the Bishop of Rome in the Communion of the Church in the First Millennium”. The aim is to understand more deeply the role of the bishop of Rome during the period when the Churches of East and West were in communion, notwithstanding certain divergences between them, and so to respond to the above question. 

3. The present text will treat the topic by considering the following four points:

– The Church of Rome, prima sedes;

– The bishop of Rome as successor of Peter;

– The role of the bishop of Rome at times of crisis in the ecclesial communion;

– The influence of non-theological factors.

The Church of Rome, “prima sedes”

4. Catholics and Orthodox agree that, from apostolic times, the Church of Rome has been recognized as the first among the local Churches, both in the East and in the West. The writings of the apostolic fathers clearly testify to this fact. Rome, the capital of the empire, quickly gained renown in the early church as the place of martyrdom of saints Peter and Paul (cf Rev 11:3-12). It occupied a unique place among the local churches and exercised a unique influence. Late in the first century, invoking the example of the martyrs, Peter and Paul, the Church of Rome wrote a long letter to the Church of Corinth, which had ejected its elders (1 Clem. 1, 44), and urged that unity and harmony (homonoia) be restored. The letter was written by Clement, subsequently identified as bishop of Rome (cf Irenaeus, Adv.Haer., 3, 3, 2), though the exact form of leadership in Rome at that time is unclear.

5. Soon afterwards, on his way to martyrdom in Rome, Ignatius of Antioch wrote to the Church of Rome with high esteem, as “worthy of God, worthy of honor, worthy of being called blessed, worthy of success, worthy of purity”. He referred to it as “presiding in the region of the Romans’, and also as “presiding in charity” (“prokathemene tes agapes’; Romans, Salutation). This phrase is interpreted in various ways, but it seems to indicate that Rome had a regional role of seniority and leadership, and that it was distinguished in the essentials of Christianity, namely faith and charity. Ignatius also spoke of Peter and Paul, who preached to the Romans (Romans, 4).

6. Irenaeus emphasized that the Church of Rome was a sure reference point for apostolic teaching. With this Church, founded by Peter and Paul, it was necessary that every Church should agree (convenire), “propter potentiorem principalitatem”, a phrase which can be variously understood as “because of its more imposing origin” or “because of its greater authority” (Adv.Haer., 3, 3, 2). Tertullian also praised the Church of Rome “upon which the apostles [Peter and Paul] poured their whole teaching together with their blood”. Rome was foremost among the apostolic churches and none of the many heretics who went there seeking approval was ever received (cf De Praescrip. 36). The Church of Rome was thus a point of reference both for the “rule of faith” and also in the search for a peaceful resolution of difficulties either within or between certain Churches.

7. The bishop of Rome was occasionally in disagreement with other bishops. Regarding the dating of Easter, Anicetus of Rome and Polycarp of Smyrna failed to agree in 154 AD but maintained eucharistic communion.  Forty years later, bishop Victor of Rome ordered synods to be held to settle the matter – an interesting early instance of synodality and indeed of popes encouraging synods – and excommunicated Polycrates of Ephesus and the bishops of Asia when their synod refused to adopt the Roman line. Victor was rebuked by Irenaeus for this severity and it seems that he revoked his sentence and that communion was preserved. In the mid-3rd century, a major conflict arose regarding whether those baptised by heretics should be re-baptized when received into the Church. Recalling local tradition, Cyprian of Carthage and the bishops of north Africa, supported by synods around the eastern bishop Firmilian of Caesarea, maintained that such people should be re-baptized, whereas bishop Stephen of Rome, with reference to Roman tradition and indeed to Peter and Paul (Cyprian, Ep. 75, 6, 2), said that they should not. Communion between Stephen and Cyprian was severely impaired but not formally broken.  The early centuries thus show that the views and decisions of the bishops of Rome were sometimes challenged by fellow bishops. They also show the vigorous synodal life of the early Church. The many African synods at this time, for instance, and Cyprian’s frequent correspondence with Stephen and especially with his predecessor, Cornelius, manifest an intense collegial spirit (cf Cyprian, Ep. 55, 6, 1-2).

8. All the Churches of East and West believed that the Church of Rome held first place (i.e. primacy) among the Churches. This primacy resulted from several factors:

the foundation of this Church by Peter and Paul and the sense of their living presence there; the martyrdom in Rome of these two foremost apostles (koryphes) and the location of their tombs (tropaia) in the city; and the fact that Rome was the capital of the Empire and the centre of communication.

9. The early centuries show the fundamental and inseparable link between the primacy of the see of Rome and the primacy of its bishop: each bishop represents, personifies and expresses his see (cf. Ignatius of Antioch, Smyrnaeans 8; Cyprian, Ep. 66, 8). Indeed, it would be impossible to speak of the primacy of a bishop without referring to his see. From the second half of the second century, it was taught that the continuity of the apostolic tradition was signified and expressed by the succession of bishops in the sees founded by the apostles. Both East and West have continued to maintain that the primacy of the see precedes the primacy of its bishop and is the source of the latter.

10. Cyprian believed that the unity of the episcopate and of the Church was symbolized in the person of Peter, to whom primacy was given, and in his chair, and that all bishops held this charge in common (“in solidum”; De unit. ecc., 4-5). Peter’s chair was thus to be found in every see, but especially in Rome. Those who came to Rome came “to the chair of Peter, to the primordial church, the very source of episcopal unity” (Ep. 59, 14, 1).

11. The primacy of the see of Rome came to be expressed in various concepts: cathedra Petri, sedes apostolica, prima sedes. However, the saying of Pope Gelasius: “The first see is judged by no–one” (“Prima sedes a nemine iudicatur”; cf. Ep. 4, PL 58, 28B; Ep. 13, PL 59, 64A), which afterwards was applied in an ecclesial context and became contentious between East and West, originally meant simply that the Pope could not be judged by the Emperor.

12. The Eastern and Western traditions recognized a certain “honor” (timi) of the first among the patriarchal sees which was not purely honorific (Council of Nicaea, can. 6; Council of Constantinople, can. 3; and Council of Chalcedon, can. 28). It entailed an “authority” (exousia; cf Ravenna document, n. 12), which nevertheless was “without domination, without physical or moral coercion” (Ravenna document, n. 14). Although in the first millennium Ecumenical Councils were called by the emperor, no council could be recognized as ecumenical without it having the consent of the pope, given either beforehand or afterwards. This can be seen as an application at the universal level of the life of the Church of the principle enunciated in Apostolic Canon 34: “The bishops of each province (ethnos) must recognize the one who is first (protos) amongst them, and consider him to be their head (kephale), and not do anything important without his consent (gnome); each bishop may only do what concerns his own diocese (paroikia) and its dependent territories. But the first (protos) cannot do anything without the consent of all. For in this way concord (homonoia) will prevail, and God will be praised through the Lord in the Holy Spirit” (cf Ravenna document, n. 24). At all levels in the life of the Church, primacy and conciliarity are interdependent.

13. The Emperor Justinian (527-65) fixed the rank of the five major sees, Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, in imperial law (Novellae 131, 2; cf 109 praef.; 123, 3), thus constituting what became known as the Pentarchy. The bishop of Rome was seen as the first in the order (taxis), without however the Petrine tradition being mentioned. 

14. Under Pope Gregory I (590-604), a dispute which had already started under Pope Pelagius II (579-590) over the title “Ecumenical Patriarch” for the patriarch of Constantinople continued. Different understandings, in East and West, gave rise to the dispute. Gregory saw in the title an intolerable presumption and violation of the canonical rights of the other sees in the East, whereas in the East the title was understood as an expression of major rights in the patriarchate. Later, Rome accepted the title. Gregory said that he personally refused the title “universal pope”, being honored instead simply when each bishop received the honor that was his due (“my honor is the honor of my brothers’, Ep. 8, 29). He called himself the ‘servant of the servants of God” (servus servorum dei).

15. Charlemagne’s coronation in 800 by Pope Leo III marked the beginning of a new era in the history of papal claims. A further factor leading to differences between East and West was the emergence of the False Decretals (c. 850), which aimed towards strengthening Roman authority in order to protect the bishops. The Decretals played an enormous role in the following centuries, as popes gradually started to act in the spirit of the Decretals, which declared, for instance, that all major issues (causae maiores), especially the deposition of bishops and metropolitans, were the ultimate responsibility of the bishop of Rome, and that all councils and synods received their legal authority through being confirmed by the Roman see. The patriarchs of Constantinople did not accept such a view, which was contrary to the principle of synodality. Though the Decretals, in fact, did not refer to the East, at a later stage, in the second millennium, they were applied to the East by Western figures. Despite such increasing tensions, in the year 1000 Christians in both the West and the East were still conscious of belonging to a single undivided Church.

The bishop of Rome as successor of Peter

16. The early emphasis on the link of the see of Rome with both Peter and Paul gradually developed in the West into a more specific link between the bishop of Rome and the apostle Peter. Pope Stephen (mid-3rd century) was the first to apply Mt 16:18 (“you are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church”) to his own office. The Council of Constantinople in 381 specified that Constantinople should have the second place after Rome:

“Because it is New Rome, the bishop of Constantinople is to enjoy seniority of honor after the bishop of Rome” (canon 3).

The criterion invoked by the Council for the ordering of sees was thus not apostolic foundation but the status of the city in the civil organization of the Roman Empire. A different criterion for the ordering of major sees was invoked by the synod convened at Rome in 382 under the presidency of Pope Damasus (cf Decretum Gelasianum 3). Here three chief sees were mentioned, Rome, Alexandria and Antioch, and nothing was said about Constantinople. It was stated that the Roman Church was given first place because of Christ’s words to Peter (Mt 16:18), and because of its foundation by Peter and Paul. The second place was assigned to Alexandria, founded by Peter’s disciple Mark, and the third to Antioch, where Peter resided before moving to Rome. This idea of the three Petrine sees was repeated by popes in the fifth century, such as Boniface, Leo and Gelasius. By 381-2, then, two distinct criteria for determining the ecclesial rank of a Church had emerged, the first assuming that the latter should correspond to the civil rank of the city in question, and the second appealing to apostolic, and more specifically to Petrine, origin.

17. The Petrine idea was significantly developed and deepened by Pope Leo (440-461). He made a sharp distinction between the Petrine ministry itself and the person exercising the ministry, whom he saw as an unworthy heir (haeres) of St Peter (Serm. 3, 4). Being heir, the pope becomes “apostolicus” and he inherits also the “consortium” of the indivisible unity between Christ and Peter (Serm. 5, 4; 4, 2). As a consequence, it is his duty to care for all the Churches (cf 2Cor 11:28; Ep. 120, 4). The precedence of Peter is founded on the fact that Christ entrusted his sheep to him and only to him (John 21:17; cf Serm. 83). The bishop of Rome guards the privileged tradition of the Church of Rome, the tradition of St Peter (cf. Ep. 9; Serm. 96, 3). Leo saw himself as “the guardian of catholic faith and of the constitutions of the Fathers” (Ep. 114), obliged to promote respect and observance of the councils.

18. At the fourth Ecumenical Council (451), the reading of the Tome of Leo was followed by the acclamation: “Peter has spoken through Leo”. This, however, was not a formal definition of Petrine succession.  It was a recognition that Leo, the bishop of Rome, had given voice to the faith of Peter, which was particularly found in the Church of Rome. After the same council, the bishops said that Leo was “the mouthpiece unto all of the blessed Peter… imparting the blessedness of his faith unto all” (Epistola concilii Chalcedoniensis ad Leonem papam = Ep. 98 of Leo). Augustine likewise focused on the faith rather than simply the person of Peter when he said that Peter was “figura ecclesiae” (In Jo. 7, 14; Sermo 149, 6) and “typus Ecclesiae” (Sermo 149, 6) in his confession of faith in Christ. It would therefore be an oversimplification to say that the West interprets the “rock” of Mt 16:18 as the person of Peter whereas the East interprets it as Peter’s faith. In the early Church, both East and West, it was the succession of Peter’s faith that was of paramount importance.

19. It is important to bear in mind that all apostolic succession is succession in the apostolic faith, within an individual local Church. From an ecclesiological perspective, it is not possible to conceive a succession among persons independently of or outside of the apostolic faith and a local Church. Thus, to say that Peter speaks through the bishop of Rome means in the first place that the latter expresses the apostolic faith that his Church received from the apostle Peter. It is above all in this sense that the bishop of Rome can be understood as the successor of Peter.

20. In the West, the accent placed on the link between the bishop of Rome and the apostle Peter, particularly from the fourth century onwards, was accompanied by an increasingly more specific reference to Peter’s role within the college of the Apostles. The primacy of the bishop of Rome among the bishops was gradually interpreted as a prerogative that was his because he was successor of Peter, the first of the apostles (cf. Jerome, In Isaiam 14, 53; Leo, Sermo 94, 2; 95, 3). The position of the bishop of Rome among the bishops was understood in terms of the position of Peter among the apostles. In the East, this evolution in the interpretation of the ministry of the bishop of Rome did not occur. Such an interpretation was never explicitly rejected in the East in the first millennium, but the East tended rather to understand each bishop as the successor of all of the apostles, including Peter (cf. Cyprian, De unit. ecc., 4-5; Origen, Comm. in Matt.).

21. In a somewhat similar way, the West did not reject the idea of the Pentarchy (cf. above, n. 13) – indeed it carefully observed the taxis of the five major sees, Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem, around which the five patriarchates of the ancient Church developed (cf. Ravenna document, n. 28). However, the West never gave the same significance to the Pentarchy as a way of governance of the Church as the East did.

22. It is notable that these rather different understandings of the position of the bishop of Rome and the relationship of the major sees in West and East, respectively, based on quite different biblical, theological and canonical interpretations, co-existed for several centuries until the end of the first millennium, without causing a break of communion.

The role of the bishop of Rome at times of crisis in the ecclesial communion

23. In the first millennium, the Church experienced many times when ecclesial communion was in peril, as, for example, when the definitions of Nicaea were challenged by the condemnation of orthodox bishops at certain councils held in the fourth century in the East, and when the Christological formula of Chalcedon was challenged by monophysitism and the “Henotikon” (which occasioned the Acacian schism) in the fifth century, and then by monoenergism and monothelitism in the seventh century, and also at the time of the iconoclast crisis in the eighth and ninth centuries. Catholics and Orthodox both recognise the importance of the role played by the bishop of Rome at these times.

24. In fact, from the fourth century onwards, there was a growing recognition of Rome as a center to which appeals or requests for help in various circumstances might be directed from the whole Christian world.  In 339-40 Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, made an appeal to Pope Julius. In the words of the Pope, quoted by Athanasius, “He [Athanasius] came not of his own accord, but he was summoned by letter from us” (Athanasius, Apologia contra Arianos 29; cf 20, 33, and 35). Thus it appears that Julius did not simply respond to an appeal from Athanasius, but himself took the initiative in ‘summoning” the bishop of Alexandria. Here, then, the role of the pope seems to have been more than simply appellate.

25. Requests for help made to Rome in moments of crisis were sometimes accompanied by similar requests to other major ecclesiastical sees. John Chrysostom (404), for example, appealed not only to Rome but also to the bishops of Milan and Aquileia. Thus, action taken by the bishop of Rome was intended to be coordinated, in a conciliar spirit, with action by other major sees. Moreover, the initiatives of the bishop of Rome tended generally to be undertaken within the framework of the Roman synod and usually referred to that synod. From this point of view also, they therefore had a conciliar or synodal character. For instance, in correspondence during the Photian dispute, bishops of Rome emphasized that they had taken their decisions in accordance with the rules or canons, and synodically (“regulariter et synodaliter” or “canonice et synodaliter”).

26. The procedure to be followed in appeals to Rome was elaborated by the Council of Sardica (342-3, canons 3-5). There it was laid down that a bishop who had been condemned could appeal to the pope, and that the latter, if he deemed it appropriate, might order a retrial, to be conducted by the bishops of the dioceses adjoining that of the condemned bishop. If so requested by the condemned bishop, the pope might also send representatives to assist the bishops of the neighboring dioceses. Though it was originally intended to be an ecumenical council, Sardica was actually a local council held in the West. Its canons were accepted in the East at the Council in Trullo (692).

27. The clearest description of the conditions necessary for a council to be regarded as ecumenical was given by the seventh Ecumenical Council (Nicaea II, 787), the final council to be recognized as ecumenical both in the East and in the West:

– it has to be accepted by the heads (proedroi) of the churches, and they have to be in agreement (symphonia) with it;

– the pope of Rome has to be a “co-operator” or “fellow worker” (synergos) with the council;

– the patriarchs of the East have to be “in agreement” (symphronountes);

– the teaching of the council must be in accord with that of previous ecumenical councils;

– the council must be given its own specific number, so as to be placed in the sequence of councils accepted by the Church as a whole.

Though the role of the pope does receive specific mention here, there are different interpretations of the terms, symphonia, synergos and symphronountes. This matter needs further study.

28. It can be affirmed that in the first millennium the bishop of Rome, as first (protos) among the patriarchs, exercised a role of coordination and stability in questions relating to faith and communion, in fidelity to the tradition and with respect for conciliarity.

The influence of non–theological factors

29. During the first millennium, a number of factors which were not directly theological played a considerable role in relations between the Churches of the East and West, and influenced the understanding and exercise of the primacy of the bishop of Rome. These factors were of various kinds, for instance, political, historical, socio-economic, and cultural.

30. As indications of relevant factors, the following may be stated:

– the terminology, mentality and ideology of the Roman Empire;

– the fluctuations of imperial politics with regard to the life of the Church;

– the transfer of the capital of the Empire to the East;

– the decline and fall of the Roman Empire in the West, and the consequences this had for the political and cultural equilibrium between East and West;

– the progressive cultural distancing between East and West, leading to mutual ignorance, estrangement and misunderstanding;

– the Muslim expansion in the territories of the patriarchates of Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem, as well as in the regions of North Africa and Spain;

– the rise of the Western Empire of Charlemagne;

– the personal influence of certain historical figures.

An awareness of the non–theological factors at work in the relations between Christian East and West and an appreciation of how they have interacted with various theological factors enable a deeper understanding of the life and faith of the Church, and in particular of the diversities that developed between East and West.


31. Throughout the first millennium, East and West were united in certain fundamental theological principles, regarding, for instance, the importance of continuity in the apostolic faith, the interdependence of primacy and conciliarity/synodality at all levels in the life of the Church, and an understanding of authority as “a service (diakonia) of love”, with “the gathering of the whole of humankind into Jesus Christ” as its goal (cf. Ravenna document, nn.  13-14). Though the unity of East and West was troubled at times, the bishops of East and West were unfailingly conscious of belonging to the same Church and of being successors of the apostles in one episcopate. The collegiality of the bishops was expressed in the vigorous synodal life of the Church at all levels, local, regional and universal. At the universal level, the bishop of Rome acted as protos among the heads of the major sees. There are many instances of appeals of various kinds being made to the bishop of Rome in order to promote peace and sustain the Church’s communion in the apostolic faith.

32. The experience of the first millennium profoundly influenced the course of relations between the Churches of the East and the West. Despite growing divergence and temporary schisms during this period, communion was still maintained between West and East. The principle of diversity-in-unity, which was explicitly accepted at the council of Constantinople held in 879-80, has particular significance for the theme of this present stage of our dialogue. Distinct divergences of understanding and interpretation did not prevent East and West from remaining in communion. There was a strong sense of being one Church, and a determination to remain in unity, as one flock with one shepherd (cf. Jn 10:16). The first millennium, which has been examined in this stage of our dialogue, is the common tradition of both our Churches. In its basic theological and ecclesiological principles which have been identified here, this common tradition should serve as the model for the restoration of our full communion.

Joint Coordinating Committee for the Theological Dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church


Print Friendly

Speak Your Mind