The recent trip of Roman Catholic Pope Benedict XVI to Turkey, with all the surrounding controversy that the event managed to generate, brought to the center of attention some of the most pivotal issues of history that have shaped and are shaping our Western world. Based on the fact that the Pope’s trip to Turkey represented a rare journey by a Pope to a Muslim country, the issue of Islam and the West seemed to have received the greatest interest.
But it is well-known that the idea of the Pope’s trip to Turkey was originally planned as a visit with Patriarch Bartholomew I, the Archbishop of the Orthodox Christian Church in Istanbul, a city which before its conquest by Turks in 1453 was the Greek city of Constantinople. This city was originally named as such after the Roman Emperor Constantine, the first Christian emperor of the Roman Empire, had made it the empire’s new capital in the year 330, taking over this distinction which had previously belonged to Rome. As such, the Pope’s journey to visit the Orthodox Patriarch was originally designed to further an ongoing intention of the Catholic Church to heal and to undo as much as possible historical missteps that Roman Catholicism has taken from its early beginnings. These missteps represent major blunders in Catholic history out of which emerged the great divisions that exist today in Christianity throughout the world.
In my opinion, what can be called the Father of all major Catholic blunders relating to the breakup of Christianity’s original unity really began in the 5th century of Christian history when the Catholic Bishop of Rome at the time, known as Pope Leo “the Great,” became the first major Christian leader to assert unilaterally the divisive conclusion that every Bishop of Rome, the first of whom was believed, without clear historical proof, to have been Peter, one of the twelve Apostles of Christ, was the Supreme head of the Church everywhere and of all true Christians. This is the Roman Catholic doctrine which came to be known as the doctrine of “Papal Supremacy.”
Had all Christians at the time believed Leo’s 5th century conclusion that the Pope (or Bishop of Rome) had supremacy over the Church and over Christians everywhere, the first major division in Christianity, that between the Western (or Catholic) branch based in Rome and the Eastern (or Orthodox) branch based in Constantinople at the time, might not have occurred.
But the problem for Leo was that his unprecedented doctrine of “Papal Supremacy” was totally rejected by Eastern Orthodox Christianity of his time, which looked upon such a doctrine as a scripturally unjustified conclusion and innovation. Yet, it was in this spirit of papal supremacy that Leo’s doctrine encouraged, that in the year 1054, the head of a papal legation to Constantinople excommunicated, and declared in effect as heretical, the Eastern Orthodox Church, which had no less historical primacy than the Catholic Church. It is this insult and the split in Christianity that it caused, not to mention the historical disputes over doctrine that were involved, that the Papacy is now trying to humbly overcome in an effort to realize the unity lost.
It is worthy of note that the Pope’s efforts to foster unity does not apparently involve an explicit abdication of the Roman Catholic doctrine of “Papal Supremacy.” Instead, it seems more a matter of not expecting Christian leaders outside of Catholicism to take the doctrine seriously.
In any case, it is the issue of the Roman Catholic Church and its major blunder in creating disunity within Christianity-which this Church, in effect, is now admitting-and not an issue of Islam and the West, that constitutes the theme of this article. But as a disclaimer, let it be known that in setting this goal there is not here intent on my part, latent or otherwise, to critique for the sake of critiquing. The intent rather is to inform for the sake of attaining a clearer understanding of those forces that have in the past and continue now to shape our world.
But in an effort to show well-deserved respect to Christian Catholics everywhere and to their tender human sensibilities, I want here up front to assure all Catholics that while this article involves a critique of Roman Catholicism based on verifiable history, it is a critique directed at the religious system itself and particularly in how it evolved historically. In other words, I make a sharp distinction between this system itself and Catholic people living now. As such, one may say that the Catholic system is analogous to a shell or covering while the people, its adherents, are its contents. My focus is on the shell, not on its contents. The shell is centuries old and lives on while the contents are temporal, transitory and thereby ever changing and passing. I myself, prior to my twenties, was a Roman Catholic.
To its worthy credit, the intention of the Pope and the Catholic Church to seek the healing of the major Christian divisions in the world today is in a real sense actually a tremendous act of humility on the part of Catholicism. In effect, it is like saying, “We have made inexcusable historical errors which caused needless divisions in the Christian faith worldwide and we are willing to do all we can to make things right in an attempt to turn back the clock to the unity that Christianity had in the beginning of its history.” Indeed, such a desire on the part of the Pope and Catholicism is not only an act of supreme humility but a mission and intent that is simply astounding in the massive breadth of its envisioned scope. How massive is it? We will now turn to get a basic view of it.
The whole idea of turning the Catholic Church around to bring it more in line and in unity with the other major divisions of Christianity, namely, Protestantism and the Eastern Orthodox Church, began most concretely with the reign of Pope John XXIII, an Italian Pope, born in 1881 as Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli and passing away in 1963. It has been said, even by Catholic historians, that virtually all of the work of Pope John XXIII was to “update the church,” which, in effect, is a historic admission that up to John XXIII, the Catholic Church had been operating by rules, beliefs and doctrines evolved in its past that could no longer be considered good for the Church or effectively be made to apply. In this respect, one major problem the Church was facing was that too many thoughtful, intelligent Catholics were rejecting the traditional rules and many were leaving the Church altogether.
The tool used to start the Catholic movement of updating is also known as Pope John XXIII’s greatest achievement. This was the event of calling together the Catholic “Second Vatican Council” (widely referred to as “Vatican II”), which met between 1962 and 1965. Councils, such as Vatican II, are gatherings of major leaders of the Catholic Church worldwide that Popes in the past have called in critical times of Church history to assist him in deciding strategic policies for the Church. In the case of Vatican II, radical changes in the Church came out of its deliberations.
But unless we know how far behind or “out-of-date” the Catholic Church was before Vatican II, we will fail to see the immense significance of the reforms Vatican II began within the Church. With this in mind, we now turn to take a brief excursion into Roman Catholic history and the past errors that the Church has in effect admitted, which beginning with Vatican II as the major turning point, it is now seeking to rectify.
EARLY CHRISTIANITY AND THE RISE OF THE PAPACY
Christianity as a religious movement began within the Jews as a totally Jewish phenomenon in Palestine when that region was under the political and military control of the ancient Roman Empire. Non-Jews, otherwise known as “Gentiles,” had then absolutely nothing to do with Christianity. As such, Christianity in the beginning was as much a thoroughly Jewish thing as is the modern political movement among Jews that the world knows as “Zionism,” a movement which at first began for establishing the modern State of Israel and now exists to support it.
Jesus, who declared himself to be the Jewish “Messiah,” the ultimate leader of the Jews, who God through his Jewish prophets had promised would someday appear, was thoroughly a Jew who could trace his ancestral lineage to the Hebrew King David. Being of the lineage of David, the Messiah was to be the one who, according to Jewish prophecy, would come and lead the Jews in reestablishing the lost kingdom of David forever. Jesus in his claim to be the Messiah came to be known and referred to as “Christ” due to the fact that the common language of his time was Greek and “Christ” is the Greek rendition of the Jewish word “Messiah.”
Jesus was such a powerful and compelling teacher that his doctrines, which he based on the Jewish sacred scripture of his time (now known as the “Old Testament” in the Christian bible), spread very quickly among a minority of his fellow Jews. Soon, there emerged among these early Christian Jews two classes of believers or followers of Christ. The first class consisted of twelve “Apostles.” These Apostles were a specially called and chosen few to whom Christ gave collectively the highest authority and responsibility above all other of his followers as well as the privilege of being the most close and most intimate to himself. Christ resisted any movement in any of his Apostles that who would seek superiority over the others. One of Christ’s Apostles was Peter, mentioned above. The second class of believers were all those disciples or followers of Christ who were not Apostles.
As the Jewish Messiah that he considered himself to be, Jesus saw his mission as being one primarily to announce to his fellow Jews that he was their promised king in the lineage of David. While many Jews were being persuaded of this, especially because of the miracles Jesus performed in their midst, virtually all of the Jewish leaders of his time were antagonized to anger by the claims of Jesus. The most incendiary of these claims was not simply the claim Jesus made that he was the promised Messiah who was to come to save the Jews and the whole world from death and the judgment of sin but also that he was, in human form, equal to God the Father in power, authority and nature. Such claims, coupled with the fact that Jesus was persuading so many Jews, based on how he interpreted to them the Jewish Scriptures, caused key leaders among the Jews to plot to kill him as an intolerable blasphemer. Eventually, through a miscarriage of justice and with the reluctant help of the Roman authorities, they succeeded in having him executed by the Roman authority.
Immediately after the execution of Christ, his followers were disheartened and in much despair. But after many of them saw Christ resurrected from the dead, according to their recorded testimony, they were energized to the point that nothing could stop them from spreading Christ’s teachings throughout the world. With Jerusalem as its first center, Christianity then spread to Jews who were dispersed within the Roman Empire and beyond. This included a westward spread from Jerusalem in Palestine to Egypt, where Alexandria became a second major Christian center next to Jerusalem. Eventually, this Jewish religion made a huge cultural leap when through the phenomenal work of Saul of Tarsus, a former Jewish rabbi whose Roman name was “Paul,” the teachings of Christ spread east and north to two main Gentile cultures of the time. The first of these cultures was Greek, in whose language the Christian sacred scriptures, the New Testament, were originally written. The second culture was Roman, whose language was Latin.
The movement of Christianity among the Gentiles was first most heavily concentrated in the direction of the Greeks, with Antioch and Constantinople becoming major centers of Greek Christianity in the East. Finally, Christianity reached Italy with its high concentration of Roman culture and Rome became the center of this Western or Latin Christianity. It was from this Western or Roman Christianity that the Papacy and Roman Catholicism arose.
It is important to note that while these two different Gentile cultures were receiving the same Christianity at about the same time and as such had this in common, culturally there existed from the beginning a different outlook, history, tradition and temperament between them. Significant was the fact that the Latin Romans could take pride in being masters of the civilized world of the time while the Greeks took pride in the fact that the Romans had borrowed much from Greek culture and that the Christian Scriptures were written in Greek.
In passing we may note that, organizationally, there arose in Christianity and its development among the Gentiles positions of leadership centered in “Bishops” of the major Christian centers. There were, for example, bishops of Jerusalem, of Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, Rome, and so on. These leaders were essentially “overseers” for the purpose of leading the church in doctrinal matters and maintaining ultimate discipline. In Eastern or Greek Christianity, such bishops eventually came to be known as “patriarchs.”
A further separation of the two Gentile cultures began after 330 when Emperor Constantine moved the empire’s capital from Rome in Italy to Constantinople in what was Greece at the time. Thus, Constantinople became known as “the New Rome.” Needless to say, this meant more for the Greeks to take pride in and a deficit for the Romans. It is with this historic backdrop in mind that we see how early Christianity, which was really a Jewish religion to begin with, fell into the camps of two Gentile cultures which looked at each other with a definite sense of rivalry.
After the first great Jewish rebellion against Roman rule broke out in Palestine in the Christian year 66 and was crushed by the Romans in 73, and the second rebellion of the Jews under the leadership of Simon Bar Kokhba (132-135 CE) was also crushed, Jewish Christianity with Jerusalem as its center faded away and disappeared. In the year 70, the Romans had already destroyed the last Jewish temple in what is now old Jerusalem and forced a great dispersion of Jews who were in Palestine. It was at this point in history that Jewish Christianity virtually became in its totality a Gentile religion shared by Greeks and Romans. As Christianity in its infancy had its center in Jerusalem and Jewish culture, now among the Gentiles it had two centers which came to be known as the Roman West, from which Roman Catholicism arose, having Rome as its center and the Bishop of Rome as the Pope, and the Greek East where the Eastern Orthodox Church developed around its center in Constantinople after 330.
At about the time of Leo the Great in mid 5th century, the Roman Empire in the West was already experiencing repeated barbarian invasions from the north.
In the year 410, one such invasion had reached Rome itself and the city was sacked. But historians mark the year 476 as the year that the Western or Latin Roman Empire came to an end. The event that marks this occasion is when Odoacer, a leader from the stock of barbarian tribes, deposed the existing emperor at the time and took over as king of the Empire. The Eastern Greek Empire, which came to be known as the Byzantine Empire based in Constantinople, continued to exist for another thousand years, eventually meeting its own demise through Moslem conquests from the south. The name “Byzantine” comes from the name “Byzantium,” which was the ancient name of Constantinople.
The Western Roman Empire came to an end, but in that ending, Western Christianity survived, and the Western Christian church with the Bishop of Rome as its head became the guardian of whatever was left of Roman civilization, order and justice. It was in this manner that the historical ingredients became ripe for the rise of an “Imperial Papacy” patterned after the Roman Empire that Western Christianity virtually replaced. It was here that Pope Leo the Great and his doctrine of Papal Supremacy became the right man at the right time, for he was alive as Pope at just precisely these times of great upheaval and transition.
It is with this history as a backdrop that the English political philosopher, Thomas Hobbes (1588 – 1679) said in his classic work “Leviathan” that the Papacy, the office and authority of the Roman Catholic Pope as chief representative of the Roman faith, “is no other than the ghost of the deceased Roman empire, sitting crowned upon the grave thereof.”
Hobbes’ summary assessment of Roman Catholicism, centered as it is on the Papacy, is a most concise description of a well-known historical fact. It is the fact that the institution we now know as the Papacy, representing the determining head of what Roman Catholicism is, originally emerged in the West as a religio-political system that modeled itself, not after anything substantial found in the Christian sacred Scriptures, the Bible’s New Testament, but after the human political system or structure of the pagan Roman Empire, which the Papacy gradually replaced after Roman persecution of Christianity ended with the “Edict of Milan” in 313 A.D. and Christianity had become an accepted religion in the Empire.
What essentially happened was that the Papacy evolved as the successor to the office of the Roman emperor as the Roman Empire declined and finally ceased to exist. Even the crown that the Pope puts on and the so-called “Papal Throne” on which the Pope sits to receive obeisance and the kiss on the hand from underlings is a human carry-over from the rituals of Roman emperors. In addition, the Pope’s title of “Supreme Pontiff” meaning “High Priest,” is a carry-over from the title held by pagan emperors as designated High Priests of ancient pagan cults of Rome. None of this finds support or justification whatever in the Christian Supreme Authority which is the New Testament. Peter, one of the intimate apostles of Jesus Christ, who is reputed in Catholicism to have been the first Pope, never knew or authorized such a practice. For that matter, there is no clear or historically indisputable evidence that Peter ever was or ever claimed to be a Pope exercising lordship over all Christians. Such a claim first arose as an authoritative and fully developed assertion over two centuries after his death.
As already indicated, the claim of the Pope’s lordship over all Christians was first asserted as binding authority around the middle of the 5th century by Pope Leo “the Great,” who was also Bishop of Rome. While there had been others before Leo who had expressed a similar belief, Leo was the first to assert as binding authority in the Church his belief that Christ designated Peter, one of his apostles, to be the one on whom the Christian church would be built and, as head of the Church, to have authority over all Christians. Based on the traditional Catholic belief that Peter came to Rome and became the first bishop there before he died, Leo went on to reason that all the bishops of Rome that had succeeded Peter after his death, inherited in “Apostolic Succession” all the authority of Peter, which included the lordship of all Christians. In fact, the Pope even came to be seen literally as being the actual representative or “Vicar of Christ” on earth.
As Bishop of Rome, Leo used his own reasoning to set himself up doctrinally and authoritatively as the first Roman Catholic Pope in the full modern sense. In “The Story of Christianity,” this observation was made by the Christian historian, Justo Gonzalez, when he noted that “in Leo’s writings one finds all the traditional arguments [including those based on Peter] that would repeatedly be mustered in favor of papal authority.”
For very important reasons, I consider Leo’s conclusion the major divisive blunder committed by the Papacy and Roman Catholicism. For one thing, the conclusion was made unilaterally, not considering or consulting the opinion of the other major branch of Christianity in the East. Secondly, it was an act of supreme arrogance in that it asserted for the Pope a position of such supremacy in Christianity that even Peter never claimed for himself and was never recognized as such by his peers. This spirit of arrogance eventually led to the papal assertion in a year 1075 paper called “Dictatus Papae,” that the power of the Pope was absolute, that all secular forces owed him submission, and that he had the power to depose emperors and kings. Eventually also, it led in 1870 to the declaration that when speaking out of the authority of his office, the Pope was infallible in matters of faith and morals. Finally, it led to the reinforcement of the unfounded belief that salvation could only be attained through Roman Catholicism and that all non-Catholics were heretics. It is from this high and lofty pedestal of Catholic arrogance and elitism that the Pope is now seeking to bring himself and the Roman Catholic Church down to the level of all other Christians whom the Catholic Church has offended, persecuted and put to death as heretics throughout its past history.
With regard to Christian disunity, in spite of their cultural differences and the fact that each operated from different centers, the Eastern and Western branches of Gentile Christianity sought in the beginning to cooperate as much as possible in matters that affected the vital interests of their common faith. However, there was what appeared as inevitable an increasing separation that eventually led in the year 1054 to the total breakup of the two great branches of Christianity. In my opinion, I believe what gave the original and ongoing impetus to propel the separation was Pope Leo the Great’s conclusion, drawn from a certain passage in the New Testament, that the Roman Bishop as Pope was the Supreme head of all Christians and of the Church everywhere.
Pope Leo’s doctrine of Papal Supremacy gave rise to a long line of imperial and monarchical Popes in Roman Catholicism that not only alienated the Eastern Church into a breakaway branch from the West but also encouraged such arrogance and corruption in the Papacy that it became the major factor in instigating the Protestant Reformation. This Protestant movement, which actually began most dramatically within the Catholic Church itself through the acts of the German Augustinian monk, Martin Luther, was a movement to reform perceived abuses within the Church, abuses which had the approval of the Roman Pope.
One major abuse that Martin Luther challenged was the selling of what the Catholic Church called “indulgences.” This was the practice of paying money to the church in the guise of donations to lessen the amount of time departed loved ones had to suffer for their sins in “purgatory” before becoming sufficiently “purified” to move on to heaven. Included in the doctrine of Papal Supremacy was the belief that the Pope had the authority from Peter to remove the liability of judgment resulting from sin. Given all this, it is important that we examine for ourselves the biblical text on which Leo the Great based his conclusion of Papal Supremacy, seen here as the Father of all blunders.
Christian disunity was really not caused by certain groups breaking away from an original union with the Roman Western Church. Instead, it was a case of the Western Church separating itself by claiming, unilaterally and without indisputable justification, that it was uniquely above all others in power and authority. So the whole idea behind the entire complexity of what has been in the past the separatist and elitist Roman Catholic system has been chiefly and preeminently made to rest on Leo the Great’s interpretation of one solitary passage found in the New Testament. So let’s have a critical look at just what it is that Leo saw in this passage, found in the biblical book of Matthew. In the biblical passage at issue, which for convenience here we may refer to as the “Peter passage,” we read of Jesus asking questions to his disciples. Peter, referred to as “Simon Peter,” was one among the others who were present. This is what was said:
“When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, saying, ‘Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?’ So they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter answered and said, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Mt. 16:13-19 NKJV).
If it is true that all this power was given uniquely to Peter alone, then surely Peter was one powerful man to have this and Roman Catholicism may here have solid evidence to support the claims of Leo the Great in the 5th century, namely, that the Pope has Supreme Power over the entire Christian Church. But a critical examination of Leo’s rationale and an analysis of the text in this passage, compared with other New Testament text and certain chronological events of history raises very serious doubt that Leo the Great, and all others who believed as he did, had the correct interpretation of the passage. If this is proven to be the case, then the Church of Rome and the Papacy stands on the mere human assumption and opinion of one man and a belief which can only be sustained by a very expansive and facile credulity. So let’s examine the “Peter passage.”
According to the Christian historian, Justo Gonzalez, viewing this passage, Leo the Great became “convinced that Jesus had made Peter and his [papal] successors the rock on which the [Christian] church was to be built, and that therefore the Bishop of Rome [the Pope], [presumed to be] Peter’s direct successor, is the [Supreme] head of the [Christian] church.”
An immediate critical question that arises is why did it take over two centuries after Peter had passed away for someone to come up with this interpretation? If Peter himself had understood that in the power and authority he received from Christ was included an authority that elevated him in supremacy above all others in the Christian church, why did the Popes prior to Leo had not been told of this?
Secondly, if Peter was the first Pope and the Rock whom Jesus referred to, as Roman Catholicism says he was, why do we find the Apostle Paul reprimanding Peter for being a coward? Peter as Pope is supposed to have supreme authority over all Christians. This includes Paul. So why do we find Paul at a higher level scolding Peter the Supreme Pope? Following, in his own words, is how Paul scolded Peter (both of then being Christian Jews) over a racial issue between Jews and Gentiles, whom the Jews looked upon as detested outcasts to be avoided:
“Now when Peter had come to Antioch, I withstood him to his face, because he was to be blamed; for before certain [Jewish] men came from James, he would eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing those who were of the circumcision [the Jews]. And the rest of the [Christian] Jews [who were with Peter] also played the hypocrite with him” (Gal. 2:11-13).
Having said all the above, we come back with our starting assessment of Roman Catholicism. Now that we have seen its historical roots, we can say quite definitively that Roman Catholicism actually began as a Christianized version and continuation of the Roman Empire with the Pope as a Christianized version of the Roman Emperor, even though no clear and compelling justification whatever can be found in the New Testament for such a development. The “papal development,” in other words, was not in the nature of what is essential to basic New Testament Christianity. The development of the papacy and the Roman Catholic system was instead a Machiavellian outcome of certain Roman cultural and political forces which were existing realities of those early times. But we must again focus on the “Peter passage” quoted above.
From an independent (i.e., non-Catholic) point of view, I have found the most balanced and fair commentary on the Peter passage to be that of the Protestant biblical scholar, Frederick Dale Bruner. The typical Protestant interpretation of the Peter passage has generally been that the “rock” Jesus referred to when he said “on this rock I will build my church” was not in reference to Peter as being the rock but to Jesus himself as the true rock. But Bruner seems to think, and I agree, that this is not a natural and therefore likely correct interpretation of the passage. As a help to understanding this point of view, he points to events that could easily be seen as a fulfillment of what Jesus predicted of Peter. He expresses this view as follows:
“There can be no profitable denying that Jesus honors the actual person of Peter here and makes him leader in the church. And according to the history and theology of the Book of acts it was in fact Peter who opened the gates of the kingdom [i.e., the Christian message to the world] to the Jews at the Jewish Pentecost of Acts 2, and to the gentiles at the Gentile Pentecost of Acts 10, (and in between it was Peter, with John, who opened the doors of the kingdom to the Samaritans at the Samaritan Pentecost of Acts 8). Peter was really made into somebody and something by Jesus, and we ought not take away what Jesus gave.”
Thus, in effect, Bruner points out that Pope Leo the Great could have found in the New Testament itself (i.e., in the book of Acts) the correct interpretation of what Jesus was talking about when he said of Peter that “on this rock I will build my church.” Instead, Leo incorrectly supposed that this meant Peter, and all the Bishops of Rome after him, were designated by Christ to be the actual foundation of Christianity and of the Church and that therefore all the Popes have been and are the Supreme Authority over all the Christian Church and over all Christians everywhere. Jesus never gave as much as a hint that whatever honor he bestowed on Peter was meant to be something that could be passed on as an inheritance to others that would follow. This is pure unsubstantiated human opinion that can have a footing only on credulity and wishful thinking.
To further reinforce this point, we find in another New Testament passage that Peter is not uniquely the only one associated with the foundation of the Church. For example, in the New Testament book of Ephesians, the Christian Apostle Paul is addressing Christians who are spoken of as part of a structure or building that has been built, a metaphor signifying the building of the Church: “Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens….having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone” (Eph. 2:19). Here, it is the apostles (plural) and the prophets, and Jesus Christ himself, not just Peter, who are explicitly confirmed as being the ones on which the Church is being built.
In addition, we have noted that Christ also said to Peter, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” On these words, and following the logic of Leo on which Papal Supremacy is based, the Pope is said to also have inherited from Peter not only supremacy over the Church but the power to condemn to hell or to forgive sin and open heaven. This is the so-called “power of the keys” that the Pope supposedly has. But whatever Christ meant by his words, we now know from the New Testament itself that the power he bestowed on Peter was not uniquely given to Peter alone but to others as well. We read for example the following passage where Jesus is speaking to a group of his followers whom he commissioned as missionaries to proclaim his teachings:
“Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Whereas the original “Peter passage” quoted above was quoted from Matthew 16:19, this second passage comes from Matthew 18:18 on a different occasion, and is addressed by Jesus not to Peter only but to a group of Jesus’ followers. Based on this finding, we see that the so-called “power of the keys” was an authority that was not uniquely given to Peter alone as Catholic doctrine would have us believe and as Pope Leo the Great so hastily concluded.
The actual “power of the keys” is the authority that the Christian message has in bringing salvation from condemnation through faith or condemnation through unbelief, and this power is possessed by any of Christ’s followers who bring the message to others. This is why the power was given not to Peter alone but to all others as well whom Jesus commissioned to go forth to teach and declare the good news of salvation.
In summary and conclusion, we have seen that, historically, the rise of the Catholic papacy in the West, after the death of Christ and of his Apostles, did not even at its beginning receive the unanimous support of all Christian leaders throughout all of Christianity of that early period of formation. There was from early times a drifting apart of an Eastern half of Christianity centered in Greece and a Western half centered in Rome. Along with tensions over other doctrines, the Eastern (or Orthodox) Church never accepted the papal doctrine that one man (the Bishop of Rome or Catholic Pope) could claim to have received universal authority-ultimately from Christ-and could, without clear and compelling New Testament support, assert that authority over all other Christian bishops and Christians everywhere, boldly demanding submission as to Christ himself. Eventually, the tension over doctrinal matters between the two branches of Christianity came to a decisive crisis in what is called the Great Schism of 1054 A.D. when the Eastern Church separated itself from the Church of Rome and went its separate way.
A similar cleavage as that of the Eastern Church from the Church of Rome, and for the same reason of what Eastern Church saw in the Papacy as non-congruence with the primary Christian authority in the New Testament took place a few centuries later. This happened when the Protestant Reformation arose from within the ranks of the Roman Church itself. For example, the leading Protestant reformer, Martin Luther, was a German, Roman Catholic monk in the Augustinian order. As with the Eastern Church, Catholic reformers such as Martin Luther also came to reject the Papal claim of universal authority over all Christians, viewing the doctrine as non-congruent with the Supreme Authority of the New Testament.
This aspect of non-congruence of the Papacy with basic New Testament principles or authority is important to note in view of the fact that it forms the fundamental problem of Roman Catholicism: Viewed merely as a religion based on faith in certain beliefs, Roman Catholicism is an honorable religion like any other religion worthy of respect which seeks peacefully to pursue and live out its faith. But when one historically and objectively considers the Roman Catholic claim to be a “Christian” religion and sees at the same time how it has historically justified its fundamental practices and institutions, grossly ignoring and contradicting as they have fundamental New Testament principles (as shown above), one has to conclude that as a “Christian” religion, Roman Catholicism has been, at least in the past, surely a most corrupted form.
Yet, notwithstanding its past, I personally consider Roman Catholicism to be an important Christian voice in the world today. So I am happy that there is finally an effort on the part of the Papacy and Catholicism to acknowledge the legitimacy of non-Catholic Christian groups and to seek reconciliation with them. On the other hand, the big question that will remain is whether the Papacy will ever explicitly renounce its historic belief of Papal and Christian religious Supremacy. Without this, I cannot see how a genuine egalitarian union can ever emerge between Catholicism and the other Christian groups that post-Vatican II Popes have been seeking to attract.
[tags]John Garrison, pope trip to Turkey, Roman Catholicism and Islam, eNewsChannels columns[/tags]