On the 2018 Easter Vigil, I became a Catholic Christian. After many years of intense theological debate and challenging my stubbornness to believe, my faith journey finally culminated that evening in our city’s cathedral. As with most converts, one of my major hurdles before entering the Catholic Church was the papacy.
Specifically, I can remember a conversation I had with a good friend while at lunch a few years ago. As we sat and discussed theology and culture, I mentioned that Protestantism had utterly failed at having a unified message and ambassador on many vital cultural and doctrinal issues in our modern world. With conflicting teachings on sexual ethics, the dignity of life, and orthodox Christian essentials, I observed that Protestantism was quickly plummeting into oblivion. For this reason, I wished there was a central figure to save the face of my religion. “Maybe someone like the pope but not exactly him. He has too much power and I think that’s troubling,” I moaned. I wanted to have the image of the pope, but not his authority.
Regarding the claims of the Catholic Church, my Protestant beliefs hinged on a theory called the “great apostasy.” The famous Evangelical reference book, The Popular Encyclopedia of Apologetics, describes the great apostasy as, “When Constantine offered Christians a truce by making Christianity the official religion of the empire, they accepted. This was hailed as a great victory for Christianity, but ironically it was the beginning of a downward spiral into an obsession of power. Soon after the wedding of church and state by Constantine in 313, Christian leaders began to build an institutional structure that consolidated its power in Rome.” Consequently, this belief taught that the papacy originated with this treaty and an institutional head became the figure of this agreement.
Everything I had ever heard and read from Protestant pastors and scholars was that Christianity was compromised early on. Christianity evolved into an idolatrous and power-hungry force which was known as the “Roman Catholic Church.” There was a strong emphasis on “Roman” because anti-Catholic sentiments require distancing what the early Church called the “Catholic Church” from the corrupted counterfeit headquartered in Rome.
A Dive into History
I knew that if I was to ever become Catholic, I had to break down this barrier—the notion of a corrupted early Church. Many Catholics are familiar with the popular quote by St. John Henry Newman, “To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.” I knew that I had to investigate the truth of this quote before seriously considering Catholicism. Also, I had to investigate sources prior to Constantine that demonstrated the authority of the Roman Church. I realized that if I could find a doctrinal precedent that supported papal leadership, that would be pivotal to strengthening the case for the Catholic Church.
One key source I discovered was Against Heresies, by the second-century Church father St. Irenaeus. He was one of Western Europe’s foremost theologians and had trained under St. Polycarp, a disciple of the apostle John in present-day Turkey. In this ancient Christian text, Irenaeus described Pope Victor’s dispute with the churches of Asia Minor on the correct date for celebrating Easter. In response to Pope Victor’s authoritative decision to excommunicate these churches because of their hesitancy to agree to a unified liturgical calendar, he stated:
“Since, however, it would be very tedious, in such a volume as this, to reckon up the successions of all the Churches, we do put to confusion all those who, in whatever manner, whether by an evil self-pleasing, by vainglory, or by blindness and perverse opinion, assemble in unauthorized meetings; [we do this, I say,] by indicating that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its preeminent authority” (3:3:2).
St. Irenaeus clearly shows that the churches scattered across the world must agree with the Roman Church due to its authority, based on its being founded and organized by Sts. Peter and Paul. This document also has numerous references that clearly show that Peter had a special place of honor among the apostles. Scholars estimate Irenaeus wrote his letter around 180 or 190 AD, so the primacy of the Church in Rome was clearly evident prior to Constantine.
Moreover, Irenaeus declared, “every Church should agree with this Church,” which indicates that all other Christian Churches were required to submit to the supremacy of the Roman Church. Many Protestants argue that Peter never went to Rome, and that the idea that he established a See there is a fabricated attempt to justify Roman authority. Yes as we can see from Irenaeus’ work, the prominence and apostolic foundation of the Church of Rome was an accepted fact in the early Church.
During my conversion journey, I was surprised to discover the Catholic Church’s claim that nothing in Sacred Tradition contradicts the Bible. Yet the Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms the preeminent office of Peter. Specifically, it states “Simon Peter holds the first place in the college of the Twelve; Jesus entrusted a unique mission to him” (CCC 552). Where did the Catechism derive such an idea? I was surprised to learn that its basis was found in the holy pages of Sacred Scripture!
When Peter and Jesus initially meet, our Savior reveals his unique leadership position to Peter through a miraculous catch in Lk 5:1-11. In this account, Peter is with a few disciples fishing. They have no success on the lake but after following Jesus’ command, they catch a boatload of fish. Peter falls to his knees out of fear, but Jesus singles out Peter as a would-be “fisher of men.” After Jesus’ resurrection, he would confirm this role specifically to Peter and designate him as the leader, caretaker, and protector of his flock (Jn 21:15-17).
Also, in John 21, Jesus notices Peter and two other disciples fishing. Immediately, Peter leaves the boat and meets Jesus on the shore. Jesus tells the disciples to provide some fish they have caught, and Peter drags the net full of large fish ashore. This catch is an allegory for Peter’s role as the preeminent apostle. These actions by Peter demonstrate how he is the one in charge of keeping the faithful (the fish) united together in the Church (the net). Most importantly, “Even though there were so many, the net was not torn” (Jn 21:11). His authority is what binds and gathers the people of God together and brings them collectively to Christ.
What Are We to Do?
As a Catholic, I take pride in knowing that in all the various expressions of Christianity, the papacy is the teaching that distinguishes the Catholic Church from all the others. No other Christian group can claim the Chair of Peter. That is a remarkable claim, and it is supported by historical and biblical evidence. Since Jesus wanted his Church to have longevity, creating an institution without a clear leader and source of unity would be disastrous for maintaining continuity for his teachings. Without a visible head, there would be no one to maintain order, dispute heresies, or resolve schisms. From the early days after the Resurrection of Jesus Christ to today with Pope Francis, the Catholic Church has remained unified through communion with Saint Peter and his successors. I am totally grateful that God helped me recognize that Peter is the Rock and the Prince of the Apostles.
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