Why, Peter? A Brief History of the Papacy

By Sarah Levesque (Rated G)

The second in a series about Catholicism.

It’s common knowledge that Catholics believe that the Pope is the head of the Church. Followers of my work may recall that I’ve written another article explaining why we believe that, comparing Faramir from Lord of the Rings to Simon Peter (check out the Autumn 2020 issue or my website to read it). Today, let’s look at history – how did we get from Peter to Pope Francis?

First, let’s have a little review. Peter is the Steward of the Kingdom of God – also known as the Vicar or the Prime Minister – because Jesus gave him the keys to the kingdom:

And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

Matthew 16:18-19

This parallels with Isaiah 22:22, where God is deposing one Steward of Judah and replacing him with a new Steward: “…And I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David. He shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open.” As the keys gave the Lord’s choice the Stewardship of the Kingdom of Judah in Isaiah 22, so the keys gave Peter the Stewardship of the Kingdom of Heaven. And the segment of the Kingdom of Heaven that is on Earth is the Church. As was customary, when the King (that is, Jesus) was away, the Steward (that is, Peter) remained to run the Kingdom.

Now there are some who say that Peter couldn’t possibly be the Pope because he made some big mistakes. After all, immediately after Peter received the keys in Matthew’s gospel, he rebuked Jesus who in reply told him, “Get behind me, Satan!” (Matthew 16:23). But Peter was one of the three that Jesus called to witness His Transfiguration only six days later (see Matthew 17:1ff). He was also one of the three called to further into the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:37). Yes, Peter ran away when the soldiers came (after cutting off a slave’s ear), as did the rest of the disciples, and though he followed Jesus from a distance, he denied Him three times, but he made up for this when Jesus told him “Feed my sheep” three times after His resurrection (John 21:15). This is Jesus’ way of making sure His Church always has a shepherd over it, for human history shows us clearly that leaderless people end up having serious problems. Even the early Israelites fell into disobedience, blasphemy, and slavery when they had no human leader after Joshua’s death but were supposed to be following God as their leader. They continued these sins until God answered their plea for a human leader, a king (see the Book of Judges). “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25). Jesus knew this full well and, wanting His people to do what was right in His eyes rather than their own, He appointed Peter and his successors to lead His Church, sending the Holy Spirit to guide them, as He had said “I will not leave you as orphans” (John 14:18).

Further, if you read through the Acts of the Apostles, Peter speaks for the new Church and acts as the one in charge, preaching and healing. It was Peter who said they needed to choose someone to take the office of Judas Iscariot (Acts 1:15ff), Peter who preached at Pentecost (Acts 2:14ff), Peter who healed the lame man near the temple (Acts 3:6ff). It was Peter who called down the punishment of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5), Peter who was first led to the understanding that all food was clean for Christians and first led to bring the Gentiles into the Church (Acts 10)… the list goes on.

Many people agree that Peter was the head of the apostles but don’t believe he passed his authority down to a successor. Eusebius (d. 339AD), the first chronicler of the Early Church, states in no uncertain terms that, “[a]fter the martyrdom of Paul and of Peter, Linus was the first to obtain the episcopate of the church at Rome” (III.ii). He later says, “Anencletus succeeded him [Linus], and after Anencletus, in the third place from the apostles, Clement received the episcopate. He had seen and conversed with the blessed apostles, and their preaching was still sounding in his ears, and their tradition was still before his eyes” (V.vi). In addition to being named in Eusebius’ history, Linus, Anacletus (also known as Anancletus or simply Cletus), and Clement were all named by Irenaeus (died 202AD) in his work Against Heresies (3:3.3) as well as by Jerome (died 419AD) in his book De Viris Illustribus (15). We still have some work of Clement’s today, though we have none from Linus or Anacletus. After the first Clement came Evaristus, Alexander I, Sixtus I (ironically the seventh pope despite his name meaning ‘sixth’), Telesphorus, and so on, as relayed by Jerome. These first popes typically did not reign for long, for the Church endured persecution off and on for its first three hundred years.

Fast forward to 391AD, 78 years after the end of the Roman Persecution. This was when the Church held its second Ecumenical Council, called the First Council of Constantinople. Among the things discussed was the jurisdiction of each bishop. The ruling on the subject was that the bishop of Alexandria was in charge of Egypt, the bishops of the East only had jurisdiction in the East, likewise for Antioch, the Asian churches, the Pontic churches, and the Thracian churches. Only the bishop of Rome – later called the Pope – received no limitations on his jurisdiction (New Advent, 1st Council of Constantinople).

By the third Ecumenical Council in 431 – the Council of Ephesus – the 43rd Bishop of Rome, Celestine I, was in office. He had held a local synod that condemned a heretic named Nestorius, a decision that was upheld in the third Ecumenical Council which, as part of its proceedings, read the letter written to the Council from Celestine I. During the third session of the Ecumenical Council, the following was recorded in the official Acts:

Philip the presbyter and legate of the Apostolic See said: There is no doubt, and in fact, it has been known in all ages, that the holy and most blessed Peter, prince (ἔξαρχος) and head of the Apostles, pillar of the faith, and foundation (θεμέλιος) of the Catholic Church, received the keys of the kingdom from our Lord Jesus Christ, the Saviour and Redeemer of the human race, and that to him was given the power of loosing and binding sins: who down even to today and forever both lives and judges in his successors. The holy and most blessed pope Cœlestine, according to due order, is his successor and holds his place, and us he sent to supply his place in this holy synod, which the most humane and Christian Emperors have commanded to assemble, bearing in mind and continually watching over the Catholic faith. For they both have kept and are now keeping intact the apostolic doctrine handed down to them from their most pious and humane grandfathers and fathers of holy memory down to the present time, etc.

New Advent, Council of Ephesus, Session III

Philip had been sent by the Pope as a papal legate – someone who could speak for the Pope – for all the Archbishops were either supposed to attend or send representatives, and the Pope was no exception. Nobody disputed what Philip said, and it’s interesting to note the last line of the excerpt – that both the Pope and the Emperor were keeping intact the apostolic doctrine handed down from those who came before. This does not refer simply to Scripture, though that is certainly a factor, but to all of the traditions of the Apostles.

During this time – that is, throughout the 400s – Rome was troubled by Germanic invaders. Constantinople had already supplanted Rome as the civil capital, which would cause various problems in both the religious and secular realm. In 476, Rome fell completely to the invaders (Pennock p76). During this turmoil and after, the Pope was the only stable leader of the West, and the office gained secular importance as well as religious importance.

Fifty years after the third Ecumenical Council, the fourth Ecumenical Council – the Council of Chalcedon – was held. During this council, the ruling of the third Ecumenical Council regarding bishops was confirmed, with the addition of the following:

From what has been done and brought forward on each side, we perceive that the primacy of all (πρὸ πάντων τὰ πρωτεῖα) and the chief honour (τὴν ἐξαίρετον τιμὴν) according to the canons, is to be kept for the most God-beloved archbishop of Old Rome, but that the most reverend archbishop of the royal city Constantinople, which is new Rome, is to enjoy the honour of the same primacy…

New Advent, Council of Chalcedon, Session XVI

In short, they wanted the bishop of Constantinople to have the same power as the bishop of Rome, the Pope. The day after this was decided, the Papal Legates, who had been absent, protested this last addition, saying “Let our opposition be placed in the minutes, and pray let us know clearly what we are to report to that most apostolic bishop who is the ruler of the whole church, so that he may be able to take action with regard to the indignity done to his See and to the setting at naught of the canons” (ibid). For they realized that declaring the archbishop of Constantinople to be above the other bishops save that of Rome would be an issue, and so it became, as the other clerics did not listen to the appeal of the Pope’s representatives.

During the proceedings of the sixth Ecumenical Council – the Third Council of Constantinople held from 680-681 – the question came up of whether a Pope could be heretical. The main issue that the council wrestled with was Monothelitism, and they scrutinized letters written by many prominent people, including the late Pope Honorius. Upon finding a letter from Honorius to one Sergius (condemned as a heretic at the same council) that contained heresy, the council was obliged to condemn the letter as heretical. The Introductory Note to this council given by the New Advent editors summarizes the outcome saying,

But the high, magnificent, yet true expressions, which St. [Pope] Agatho had used of his See, namely, that resting on the promise of the Lord it had never turned aside from the path of truth, and that its Pontiffs, the predecessors of Agatho, who were charged in the person of Peter to strengthen their brethren, had ever discharged that office, this the Fathers of the Council hear and receive. But not the less they examine the matter, they inquire into the decrees of Roman Pontiffs, and, after inquiry held, approve Agatho’s decrees, condemn those of Honorius: a certain proof that they did not understand Agatho’s expressions as if it were necessary to receive without discussion every decree of Roman Pontiffs even de fide, inasmuch as they are subjected to the supreme and final examination of a General Council: but as if these expressions taken as a whole, in their total, hold good in the full and complete succession of Peter, as we have often said, and in its proper place shall say at greater length.

In short, the Council carefully studied Pope Agatho’s decree that condemned the heresies in understanding that not every papal decree needs to be taken simply by faith but they must also stand up to tradition, particularly that held by previous popes – the ‘full and complete succession of Peter’. In this light they condemned certain works of Honorius, for they did not stand up to the tradition of his predecessors nor his successor. Yet neither the Church nor the Papacy suffered greatly because of Honorius’ errors, for truth prevailed, as the Lord had promised it would. These errors did not affect papal infallibility, for the pope is only infallible when he “confirms his brethren in the faith he proclaims by a definitive act a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals” (CCC 891).

Back in the late 500s, a trend had swept through Europe where a word was added to the Nicene Creed (officially the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, written in Latin at the Second Council of Nicea and the First Council of Constantinople). This word was Filioque, which means “and the Son” and it was used to denote that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. The addition was eventually brought to the attention of the Pope. In 809, the Pope decreed that this was no mere trend, but a truth that must be acknowledged. Understandably, the Western Church was quick to agree while the Eastern Church regarded the decision as both sudden and heretical and was vehement in its opposition, claiming the Pope had overstepped his bounds (McCrimmon).

Sixty years later, the eighth Ecumenical Council became a big turning point for the Church. Called the Fourth Council of Constantinople, one of the main issues was the Photian Schism. The Byzantine Emperor had illegitimately deposed Bishop Ignatius of Constantinople and replaced him with a man named Photius. While in that office, Photius attempted to depose Pope Nicholas I and condemned the entire Western Church for using the Filioque clause in the creed. The eighth Ecumenical Council convicted Photius of heresy in 869 (New Advent, Fourth Council of Constantinople). Interestingly enough, the Greek Church eventually threw off this ruling, and in 879 held its own council, which they also called the Fourth Council of Constantinople. In this second version, Photius was reinstated as the bishop (Patriarch) of Constantinople, and the Filioque clause of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed was condemned. It seems that at the time, the people were unsure which of the two councils was to be considered trustworthy (Dragas). Today, the Catholic Church promotes the original and condemns Photius as a heretic, while the Orthodox Church promotes the second and venerates Photius as a saint.

The first half of the next millennium was tumultuous for the Papacy. Most of the church authorities, including many of the Popes, had become power-hungry politicians and greedy diplomats or weak yes-men to secular authorities rather than God-fearing truth-seekers and -tellers. Not that this was a novelty; the Church authorities and the secular authorities had already been meddling in each other’s business for centuries. But now anti-popes abounded, morals declined even further, Church teachings and ecclesiastical laws were ignored, and the whole Church was divided by factions, scandal, poor communication, and sheer ignorance. The Devil was winning many battles. Yet during this time, God protected His Church, as He said He would – the Devil did not prevail. Most of these Popes who were elected by money rather than the Holy Spirit did not meddle in doctrine, but left this spiritual side of things to men who were better informed. Consequentially, they made little to no change for the worse. God was truly looking out for His Church.

However, damage was certainly done. When seven successive Popes lived in decadent luxury at Avignon, France instead of in Rome, the people of the Church were left unsure of the primacy of the papacy, and when the successor of St. Peter finally returned to Rome, the French Cardinals quickly set up an anti-pope back in France. With a pope in the ancestral city of Rome and another in the papal palace at Avignon, people of the Roman Church were more confused than before. In previous situations with anti-popes, things tended to work themselves with the death of one of the contenders for Peter’s throne. This time, that was not the case. Urban VI in Rome was succeeded by Boniface IX, followed by Innocent VII and Gregory XII, while in Avignon, Clement VII (Robert of Geneva) was succeeded by Benedict XIII (Pedro de Luna). When a well-meaning but illegitimate council in Pisa announced the dethronement of Gregory XIII and Benedict XIII and the installment of Alexander V (Pietro Philarghi), many people gave up on the papacy altogether. Others turned their backs when Alexander V in Pisa died and was succeeded by Baldassare Cossa as John XXIII. Finally, Cossa called a council in the city of Constance to correct this grave issue, which would later be known as the Great Western Schism. Gregory XII in Rome consented, and the two stepped down (only somewhat willingly). The council also deposed the Avignon contender, and Martin V was instated. The schism lasted from the 1370s to 1418 (New Advent, Western Schism).

From the clean-up of the Great Western Schism (as the event became known) came an idea known as conciliarism – the belief that a council had authority over a Pope. However, this idea was rejected at both the Council of Florence (1431-1439) and later at the Fifth Lateran Council (1512-1517). Both councils affirmed the final authority belonged to the Pope (Papal Encyclicals, Church Councils).

While the Great Western Schism had ended, this was not the end of the unrest and dissension, but merely the beginning. The 1500s and 1600s were particularly problematic, as clerics ignored Church rules and regulations, choosing to do whatever they liked. In the case of prominent officials, this often included putting their civil authority, greed or both above the needs of the Church. Priests were known to father children, sell indulgences, take money from the Church and ignore their parishioners. Humanism and materialism abounded, and thoughts of heaven languished. These problems and more were the seeds of the Protestant Reformation.

As more people fell away from the Church, as Church lands and monies were seized by local and national governments, as the world seemed to fall apart for those who stayed loyal, the Church was doing her best to put herself in order. The Council of Trent (1545-1563) covered a wide range of topics, reaffirming Catholic doctrine in the face of Protestant beliefs and clarifying what was expected of her officials, her clergy, and her laity. The Society of Jesus (Jesuit Order) was formed to take on the evangelizing needs of the Pope, and slowly the world got used to the various new and old denominations of Christianity.

The next Papal event that rocked the world came three hundred years later, during the First Vatican Council (1869-1870). It was during this council – the first since the Council of Trent – that Papal Infallibility was raised from a doctrine (an authoritative teaching that is subject to little or no change) to a dogma (an authoritative teaching that is verified by the Church to be infallible) (see Papal Encyclicals, First Vatican Council, 4th session). To quote Canon 749 §1, “By virtue of his office, the Supreme Pontiff possesses infallibility in teaching when as the supreme pastor and teacher of all the Christian faithful, who strengthens his brothers and sisters in the faith, he proclaims by definitive act that a doctrine of faith or morals is to be held.” Reaching all the way back to the sixth Ecumenical Council in the 600s and further, this dogma reaffirmed that the Pope was infallible when he was speaking ex cathedra – from his official position as the Head of the Church – and confirming a teaching about the faith and morals of the Catholic Church. Interestingly, it seems that this was not even on the original agenda for the council, but was added by petition (New Advent, Vatican Council). Though it sparked intense debate and derision, very few council members were against the actual idea, only against the promulgation of the dogma for various reasons (ibid).

Since the First Vatican Council, the Church has been blessed to have saintly men occupying the Chair of Peter, and while some have certainly raised some eyebrows, few have had the world in an uproar. The Second Vatican Council caused much concern and confusion, of course, but that was not merely one pope, but rather the Catholic Church at large. Benedict XVI and Francis I caused consternation in their decrees on the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, the consequences of which will only be seen in upcoming years or even decades, but it seems unlikely to me that this controversy will be a major event in the eyes of future historians. Still, time will tell.

To conclude, the papacy has had quite the turbulent past. Peter represents the office quite well, with his own tempestuous history. However, despite two thousand years of holy popes and conniving popes, controversial popes and pleasure-seeking popes, weak popes and strong popes, the papacy not only survives but has done a good deal to provide guidance for the Catholic Church and continues to be the office of the steward of the Kingdom of Heaven, as Jesus initiated so long ago. Each of the problems led to a better understanding about what the Church believed and how she was to function. Each doctrine and dogma clarified the faith further. It is fascinating to read the Didache – the earliest Christian text we have – and compare it to our Catholic Church today, for they align just about perfectly. Our beliefs have not changed over two millennia, merely been clarified by the Holy Spirit through the Church, just as Jesus said when He told His disciples, “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (John 14:26).


“The 21 Ecumenical Councils.” New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia,

The Bible, English Standard Version. Bible Gateway. Biblegateway.com

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“Church Councils.” Papal Encyclicals, https://www.papalencyclicals.net/councils

“Code of Canon Law Book III: The Teaching Function of the Church”. Vatican,

“Council of Chalcedon” (overview). New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03555a.htm

“Council of Chalcedon (451AD)” (the official acts), New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia,

“Council of Ephesus (AD 431)” (the official acts). New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia, https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3810.htm

“Decrees of the First Vatican Council.” Papal Encyclicals, https://www.papalencyclicals.net/councils/ecum20.htm

Dragas, Fr. George Dion. “The Eighth Ecumenical Council: Constantinople IV (879/880) and the Condemnation of the Filioque Addition and Doctrine.” Internet Archive.

Eusebius, Church History. Documenta Catholica Omnia, http://www.documentacatholicaomnia.eu/03d/0265-0339,_Eusebius_Caesariensis,_Church_History,_EN.pdf

“First Council of Constantinople” (overview). New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04308a.htm

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“Infallibility: The Pope.” New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia, https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07790a.htm#IIIB

McCrimmon, Benjamin, “The Filioque Controversy: A Brief History.” The Odyssey Online, https://www.theodysseyonline.com/filioque-controversy-history

Pennock, Michael, This Is Our Church. Ave Maria Press. 2007, Print.

“Third Council of Constantinople” (overview). New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04310a.htm

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“Western Schism.” New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia, https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/13539a.htm

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