The Primacy of Rome:

Definition of Terms:

  • Primacy: a preeminence and special authority derived from the Apostle Peter given by Christ 
  • Pentarchy:  Five Patriarchates who held significant authority and influence in the early Church.

The Primacy of Rome refers to the historical and theological concept that asserts the preeminence of the Bishop of Rome, also known as the Pope, as holding a special authority derived from the Apostle Peter. The Primacy of Rome has little to do with the city of Rome itself, but rather refers to the Primacy of Peter, who is considered the first bishop of Rome and the leader of the early Christian community. Although Peter was a bishop of other cities previous to Rome, the bishops of Antioch and Jerusalem cannot claim to have succeeded St. Peter, because St. Peter was still active after leaving those cities.

In the early Church, the concept of the Primacy of Rome developed gradually, but can be seen and demonstrated even from the Church’s infancy. The New Testament contains numerous indications of Peter’s prominent role among the apostles (see Peter & the Papacy). Early Christian writings, such as the letters of Ignatius of Antioch and Irenaeus of Lyon, also emphasize the authority of the Church in Rome. Clement of Rome, who was considered to be a successor to Peter as Bishop of Rome, wrote a letter to the Corinthians in 96 C.E. in which he seems to have no doubts that he has the authority to intervene in the dispute in Corinth. Over time, the bishops of Rome began to exercise their authority more explicitly. They played a crucial role in resolving disputes and offering guidance to other churches. The Roman bishops’ leadership and doctrinal authority were recognized and sought after, particularly in matters of faith and unity as evidenced by the Letter to Pope Soter from Dionysius of Corinth. Following the Decian persecution, Cyprian of Carthage asked Pope Stephen I (254-257) to resolve a dispute among the bishops of Gaul as to whether those who had lapsed could be reconciled and readmitted to the Christian community. Cyprian stressed the Petrine primacy as well as the unity of the Church and the importance of being in communion with the bishops.  In 376, Jerome asked Pope Damasus I to settle a dispute as to who, among three rival claimants, was the legitimate Patriarch of Antioch.

By 250 C.E., Cyprian of Carthage had no hesitation to refer to Rome as the Chair of Peter and the principle Church. The Chair of Peter is closely linked to the Primacy of Rome. The ‘Chair’ of Peter derives from a Greek word καθέδρα [kathédra], meaning “seat”. The term appears in early Christian literature in the phrase cathedrae apostolorum, indicating authority derived directly from the apostles (Tertullian, “De Praescriptione Haereticorum: XXXVI”). It was intended to indicate a seat of authority, as when Jesus says that “the scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice” (Matt. 23:2-3). The Latin word for chair, cathedra, is the original root for cathedral, the seat of the bishop’s authority in his diocese.

The Council of Nicaea in 325 CE would further acknowledge the special honor accorded to the Church in Rome. Later Councils, such as the Council of Chalcedon in 451, would ascribe places of honor to other patriarchs that held important roles in the early Church. These became known as the Pentarchy, or the Five Patriarchates. These patriarchates held significant authority and influence in the Christian world, both ecclesiastically and politically. The five patriarchates of the Pentarchy were:

  1. Rome: The Bishop of Rome, also known as the Pope, held a prominent position and was regarded as the first among equals. Rome was considered the See of Peter and held a special place of honor.
  2. Constantinople: As the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, Constantinople became a significant center of power. The Bishop of Constantinople, known as the Patriarch, gained increasing influence and was recognized as the second among equals.
  3. Alexandria: The Bishop of Alexandria, known as the Pope of Alexandria, had historical significance due to the city’s early prominence and its association with figures like Mark the Evangelist. Alexandria was considered the third in rank among the patriarchates.
  4. Antioch: The Bishop of Antioch, known as the Patriarch of Antioch, held a respected position due to the historical and biblical significance of the city. Antioch was recognized as the fourth in rank.
  5. Jerusalem: The Bishop of Jerusalem, known as the Patriarch of Jerusalem, held a unique place as the bishop of the city where Jesus Christ was crucified and resurrected. Jerusalem was considered the fifth and final patriarchate in the Pentarchy.

The Pentarchy served as a framework for the ecclesiastical organization of the early Christian Church in the Byzantine Empire. However, the dynamics and relative positions of these patriarchates were not always fixed and underwent changes throughout history, influenced by political, theological, and jurisdictional factors. Only the Church in Rome can claim to have been recognized from the beginning and universally as having a place of primacy and authority over other churches.

The Orthodox Church, which contends that the bishop of Rome is simply “first among equals” (primus inter pares), still readily concedes to him a “primacy of honor,” which they say was acknowledged in early centuries. There were many times that bishops or emperors or clergy resisted the popes’ rulings in the early Church; a prime example would be the Quartodeciman Controversy. Non-Catholics often interpret these events as refutations of papal authority, but resistance of authority does not indicate a lack of authority, nor does it disprove the legitimacy of authority. In fact, resistance which does not deny the authority itself is a compelling admission of that authority’s legitimacy. An interesting case for this is Tertullian, who would leave the Catholic Church in the third century while still admitting that the Pope held the keys of St Peter.

return to top ⇑

The Historical Development of Doctine:

Bible Verses:

Matthew 16:16-19:

”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 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”


return to top ⇑

Church Father Quotes:

Clement of Rome
“The Church of God which sojourns in Rome to the Church of God which sojourns in Corinth, to those who are called and sanctified by the will of God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Grace and peace from almighty God be multiplied unto you through Jesus Christ. Owing to the sudden and repeated calamities and misfortunes which have befallen us, we must acknowledge that we have been somewhat tardy in turning our attention to the matters in dispute among you, beloved” (Epistle to the Corinthians, circa A.D. 80]).

“Accept our counsel and you will have nothing to regret. . . . If anyone disobeys the things which have been said by him [Jesus] through us, let them know that they will involve themselves in no small danger. We, however, shall be innocent of this sin and will pray with entreaty and supplication that the Creator of all may keep unharmed the number of his elect.” (ibid. 58:2, 59:1).

“You will afford us joy and gladness if, being obedient to the things which we have written through the Holy Spirit, you will root out the wicked passion of jealousy, in accord with the plea for peace and concord which we have made in this letter” (ibid. 63:2).


Ignatius of Antioch
“You [the See of Rome] have envied no one, but others have you taught. I desire only that what you have enjoined in your instructions may remain in force” (Epistle to the Romans 3:1 [A.D. 110]).


“Therefore shall you write two little books and send one to Clement [Bishop of Rome] and one to Grapte. Clement shall then send it to the cities abroad, because that is his duty, and Grapte shall instruct the widows and the orphans. But you shall read it in this city along with the presbyters who are in charge of the Church” (Vision 2:4:3 [circa A.D. 140]).


“For from the beginning it has been your custom to do good to all the brethren in various ways and to send contributions to all the churches in every city. . . Thus custom your blessed Bishop Soter has not only preserved, but is augmenting, by furnishing an abundance of supplies to the saints and by urging with consoling words, as a loving father his children, the brethren who are journeying” (Epistle to Soter [Bishop of Rome] 4:23:9 [inter AD. 166-174]).

“Today we have observed the Lord’s holy day, in which we have read your letter [in church]. Whenever we do read it, we shall be able to profit thereby, as also we do when we read the earlier letter written to us by Clement” (ibid. 4:23:11).


“The blessed apostles [Peter and Paul], having founded and built up the church [of Rome], they handed over the office of the episcopate to Linus. Paul makes mention of this Linus in the epistle to Timothy [2 Tim. 4:21]. To him succeeded Anencletus, and after him, in the third place from the apostles, Clement was chosen for the episcopate. He had seen the blessed apostles and was acquainted with them. It might be said that he still heard the echoes of the preaching of the apostles and had their traditions before his eyes. And not only he, for there were many still remaining who had been instructed by the apostles. In the time of Clement, no small dissension having arisen among the brethren in Corinth, the Church in Rome sent a very strong letter to the Corinthians, exhorting them to peace and renewing their faith. . . To this Clement, Evaristus succeeded. . . and now, in the twelfth place after the apostles, the lot of the episcopate [of Rome] has fallen to Eleutherus. In this order, and by the teaching of the apostles handed down in the Church, the preaching of the truth has come down to us” (Against Heresies 3:3:3 [inter AD. 180-190]).

“But since it would be too long to enumerate in such a volume as this the succession of all the churches, we shall confound all those who, in whatever manner, whether through self-satisfaction or vainglory, or through blindness and wicked opinion, assemble other than where it is proper, by pointing out here the successions of the bishops qf the greatest and most ancient church known to all, founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul, that church which has the tradition and the faith which comes down to us after having been announced to men by the apostles. With that church, because of its superior origin, all the churches must agree, that is, all the faithful in the whole world, and it is in her that the faithful everywhere have maintained the apostolic tradition” (ibid. 3:3:2).


“With a false bishop appointed for themselves by heretics, they dare even to set sail and carry letters from schismatics and b.asphemers to the Chair of Peter and to the principal church [at Rome], in which sacerdotal unity has its source” (Epistle to Cornelius [Bishop of Rome] 59:14 [A.D. 252]).


“In the city of Rome the episcopal chair was given first to Peter, the chair in which Peter sat, the same who was head – that is why he is also called Cephas – of all the apostles, the one chair in which unity is maintained by all. Neither do the apostles proceed individually on their own, and anyone who would [presume to] set up another chair in opposition to that single chair would, by that very fact, be a schismatic and a sinner. . . .Recall, then, the origins of your chair, those of you who wish to claim for yourselves the title of holy Church” (The Schism of the Donatists 2:2 [circa A.D. 367]).


“If the very order of episcopal succession is to be considered, how much more surely, truly, and safely do we number them [the bishops of Rome] from Peter himself, to whom, as to one representing the whole Church, the Lord said, ‘Upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not conquer it.’ Peter was succeeded by Linus, Linus by Clement . . . In this order of succession a Donatist bishop is not to be found” (Epistle to Generosus 53:1:2 [A.D. 400]).

“[On this matter of the Pelagians] two councils have already been sent to the Apostolic See [the Bishop of Rome], and from there rescripts too have come. The matter is at an end; would that the error too might be at an end!” (Sermons 131:10 [inter A.D. 391-430]).


Innocent I
“If cases of greater importance are to be heard, they are, as the synod decrees and as happy custom requires, after episcopal judgment, to be referred to the Apostolic See” (Epistle to Victricius[Bishop of Rouen] 2:3:6 [A.D. 404]).


Peter Chrysologus
“We exhort you in every respect, honorable brother, to heed obediently what has been written by the most blessed Pope of the city of Rome, for blessed Peter, who lives and presides in his own see, provides the truth of the faith to those who seek it. For we, by reason of our pursuit of peace and faith, cannot try these cases on the faith without the consent of the Bishop of the city of Rome” (Epistle to Eutyches 25:2 [A.D. 449]).

return to top ⇑

Non-Catholic Quotes:

John Henry Newman, Anglican Bishop who converted to Catholicism;

[…] developments of Christianity are proved to have been in the contemplation of its Divine Author, by an argument parallel to that by which we infer intelligence in the system of the physical world. In whatever sense the need and its supply are a proof of design in the visible creation, in the same do the gaps, if the word may be used, which occur in the structure of the original creed of the Church, make it probable that those developments, which grow out of the truths which lie around them, were intended to fill them up.” Newman 1888, p. 63, quoted in Misner (1976, p. 72)

Alexander Schmemann, Orthodox priest & theologian;

It is impossible to deny that, even before the appearance of local primacies, the Church from the first days of her existence possessed an ecumenical center of unity and agreement. In the apostolic and Judeo-Christian period, it was the Church of Jerusalem, and later the Church of Rome – presiding in agape, according to St. Ignatius of Antioch. This formula, and the definition of the universal primacy contained in it, have been aptly analyzed by Fr Afanassieff and we need not repeat his argument here. Neither can we quote here all testimonies of the fathers and the councils unanimously acknowledging Rome as the senior church and the center of ecumenical agreement. It is only for the sake of biased polemics that one can ignore these testimonies, their consensus and significance.”  –Schmemann, Alexander. “The idea of primacy in Orthodox ecclesiology”. In Meyendorff (1995). Meyendorff, John, ed. (1995) [1963]. The primacy of Peter: essays in ecclesiology and the early church (reprinted and rev. ed.). Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

Non-Catholic academic historians James T. Shotwell and Louise Ropes Loomis;

“Unquestionably, the Roman church very early developed something like a sense of obligation to the oppressed all over Christendom. … Consequently, there was but one focus of authority. By the year 252, there seem to have been one hundred bishops in central and southern Italy but outside Rome there was nothing to set one bishop above another. All were on a level together, citizens of Italy, accustomed to look to Rome for direction in every detail of public life. The Roman bishop had the right not only to ordain but even, on occasion, to select bishops for Italian churches. … To Christians of the Occident, the Roman church was the sole, direct link with the age of the New Testament and its bishop was the one prelate in their part of the world in whose voice they discerned echoes of the apostles’ speech. The Roman bishop spoke always as the guardian of an authoritative tradition, second to none. Even when the eastern churches insisted that their traditions were older and quite as sacred, if not more so, the voice in the West, unaccustomed to rivalry at home, spoke on regardless of protest or denunciation at a distance.” -Shotwell, James T.; Loomis, Louise Ropes (1927). The See of Peter. Records of civilization, sources and studies. New York: Columbia University Press. p 217-220

return to top ⇑