The Primacy of the Catholic Church

“Jesus answering, said to him….thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt 16:17-18 DRB).

There are, of course, essential doctrines from the early Church which both Catholics and Protestants share, e.g. the Trinity, deity of Christ, obedience to Christ and the scriptures etc.  But Protestants have removed the sacramentalist and liturgical characteristics and focused on the evangelical doctrines alone.  And in order to support their position they’ve removed those books (apocrypha) from the bible which contradict their theology, and spiritualised others.  So, in Protestantism, we have a truncated and corrupted version of Christianity and the Church, far different to that of the ancient Church.  But where did Protestants get their authority to make such changes?  For the first 1500 years of its existence the whole Church believed the doctrines and practices that Protestants removed.

I don’t argue that the Catholic Church was not corrupt in the period leading up to the Reformation, but there were during that time voices within calling for reform.  These voices were suppressed and silenced but the desire for reform grew.  Even Martin Luther initially only intended to discuss issues within the confines of the Church and in submission to its authority; and Erasmus, while scathing in his denunciations of the greed and corruption of the priesthood, never left the Catholic Church.

Jesus warned that a house divided against itself cannot stand (Matt 12:25).  And St Paul warned “But if you bite and devour one another; take heed you be not consumed one of another” (Gal 5:15).  Protestants are forced to justify the unbiblical and ludicrous situation they find themselves in by saying the church needs to be continually reforming itself.  This is a tacit admission that their system doesn’t work and that there is need of an authority to oversee the whole Church. 

The primacy of the Catholic Church

Jesus himself said “….thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.  And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven.  And whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven” (Matt 16:18-19). 

The early Church acknowledged that the church at Rome had the primacy and that the bishop of Rome was the successor of Peter, and that he had authority over all bishops, in accordance with Jesus’ choosing Peter as head of the visible Church.  For example, Pope Clement, 3rd after Peter, and whom Paul mentions in Philippians ch 4:3, wrote to the church at Corinth concerning a matter of schism in their church.  He wrote with the authority of the Roman church and exhorted them to resolve the conflict.  This was the first of such letters we know of in which Roman authority over another church is exercised.

Ignatius, bishop of Antioch (lived 30-107), wrote of the primacy of the Church of Rome: “….the Church which is beloved and enlightened by the will of Him that willeth all things which are according to the love of Jesus Christ our God, which also presides in the place of the region of the Romans, worthy of God, worthy of honour, worthy of the highest happiness, worthy of praise, worthy of obtaining her every desire, worthy of being deemed holy, and which presides over love, named from Christ, and from the Father…” (Introduction to Ep to the Romans; ch iii).

Cyprian (200-258 AD) wrote, “For first of all the Lord gave that power to Peter, upon whom He built the Church, and whence He appointed and showed the source of unity – the power, namely, that whatsoever he loosed on earth should be loosed in heaven” (“The Epistles of Cyprian – Epistle LXXII: To Jubaianus, Concerning the Baptism of Heretics”; Ante Nicene Fathers Vol 5, chap 7, p 381).

And we should point out the obvious, that Jesus didn’t leave us a book, he left us his Church.  He didn’t say “I will give you a book that will contain all you need to know, and which will be your only authority”; he said “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt 16:18).  And St Paul wrote: “….the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth (1 Tim 3:15).  Thus, the Church, by virtue of the activity of Christ in building her, and by the statement here of St. Paul, is infallible in its preservation and explanation of the Scriptures as handed down to us from bishop down to bishop,  i.e. by Apostolic Succession.

The Church was established and growing and courageously facing persecution and martyrdom without having the New Testament as we know it (although the NT documents were in circulation, along with other edifying documents, but also with corrupted copies of NT documents, and pseudo gospels, acts and epistles teaching Gnostic heresy); but they had the teaching of the Church handed down by the succession of bishops, and also contained in formulae like the Apostles’ Creed (see also examples in 1 Cor 15:3-8; 1 Tim 3:16), the liturgies, and in Tradition (2 Thess 2:14; 3:6).  Their authority was not “scripture alone” but the Rule of Faith as found in Scripture and Tradition as taught by the Apostles and the Church.   

The authority of the Catholic Church

St Francis de Sales went to the Chablais region in France, which had a population of about 72,000 people, about 60 years after it had become Protestant through the enforcement of the Reformed Faith on the people by the Calvinists.  He wrote a series of tracts which he distributed throughout the district.  Consequently, after about 4 years almost the entire population had returned to the Catholic Church.  This quote is from one of his tracts:

“To say that the whole of Christendom has failed, that the whole [Catholic] Church has erred, and all truth disappeared, – what is this but to say that Our Lord has abandoned his Church, has broken the sacred tie of marriage he had contracted with her?  And to put forward a new Church, – is it not to attempt to thrust upon this sacred and holy Husband a second wife?  This is what the ministers [i.e. the Reformers] of the pretended church have undertaken; this is what they boast of having done; this has been the aim of their discourses, their designs, their writings” (St Francis de Sales “The Catholic Controversy” publ. Tan Books 1989, page 12).

Tertullian of Carthage (155-220 AD) wrote: “….that which saves us is faith, and not arguing on Scriptures.  Reasoning proceeds from curiosity….curiosity must yield to faith, and the glory of the knowledge of salvation….To know nothing contrary to the rule which the Church gives us, is to know all things” (“The Prescription against Heretics” Tertullian). 

And Augustine of Hippo (354-530) famously said: “I would not accept the Gospel, but for the authority of the Catholic Church” (Augustine “Epis. Cont. Fund. c.v, n.6).

Irenaeus (120-202) presents Scripture, Tradition, and Apostolic Succession as proof that the Catholic Church is the sole depository of Apostolic Doctrine.  He writes “Since therefore we have such proofs, it is not necessary to seek the truth among others which it is easy to obtain from the Church; since the apostles, like a rich man [depositing his money] in a bank, lodged in her hands most copiously all things pertaining to truth; so that every man, whosoever will, can draw from her the water of life.  For she is the entrance to life; all others are thieves and robbers.  On this account are we bound to avoid them [i.e. the heretics], but to make choice of the things pertaining to the Church with the utmost diligence, and to lay hold of the tradition of the truth.  For how stands the case?  Suppose there arise a dispute relative to some important question among us, should we not have recourse to the most ancient Churches with which the apostles held constant intercourse, and learn from them what is certain and clear in regard to the present question?  For how should it be if the apostles themselves had not left us writings?  Would it not be necessary, [in that case] to follow the course of the tradition which they handed down to those to whom they did commit the Churches? (“Against Heresies” Book III chap iv.1).

Irenaeus also scathingly denounces the sin of schism, a sin which the Reformers chose not to admit, justifying themselves by claiming that the Catholic Church is the antichrist (and therefore they were not separating from the church which Jesus built); and at the same time denouncing every church and Christian who had a different interpretation of scripture to them.  Almost prophetically, Irenaeus wrote:

“He [God] shall also judge those who give rise to schisms, who are destitute of the love of God, and who look to their own special advantage rather than to the unity of the Church; and who for trifling reasons, or any kind of reason which occurs to them, cut in pieces and divide the great and glorious body of Christ, and so far as in them lies, [positively] destroy it, – men who prate of peace while they give rise to war, and do in truth strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.  For no reformation of so great importance can be effected by them, as will compensate for the mischief arising from their schism” (Bk IV chap xxxiii.7).

“Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity: Like the precious ointment on the head, that ran down upon the beard, the beard of Aaron” (Ps 133:1-2 DRB).

Scripture from: Douay Rheims Bible, published by Baronius Press, London, 2010.