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How Did the Roman Catholic Papacy Develop?

B. A. Johnson is an avid student of history. He endeavors to provide detailed and carefully documented histories of the Christian church.

Development of Papacy

Development of Papacy


One of the most significant developments in the Church's annals is that of the Papacy; that is, the centralization of ecclesiastical power under the authority of a single man: the pope.

When the Western Roman Empire collapsed, the Bishops of Rome provided a source of authority that shaped and unified the nations arising in its place. They established emperors, cowed kings, and at times, wielded a power that could rival any other in the west – perhaps in the world. But this immense power and prestige was the product of a long development; in this article, we will consider how the Bishop of Rome eventually became the Bishop of Bishops.

The First Bishop of Rome

It is unclear exactly when a monarchal episcopate (a Bishopric) developed in Rome. Bishops lists of the various important cities and regions did not develop until the second century, and those which address the Roman See often conflict. Although they invariably describe the first Bishop of Rome as directly succeeding the apostles, this should not be accepted without some hesitation, as these lists largely were developed as the Church as a whole sought to unite against heretical sects by demonstrating that all the churches could trace their teachings, scriptures, and leaderships directly to an apostolic foundation1.

In fact, there is no clear indication of a monarchal episcopate in Rome until the mid-second century2. A late first century letter sent from the church in Rome to the church in Corinth gives no indication that an individual Bishop had penned or dictated it, rather it refers to its authors in the plural “we,” and remains otherwise anonymous. Only from later authors have we come to know this work as the epistle of Clement of Rome3. Similarly Ignatius of Antioch, writing to the Church of Rome in the first decade of the second century, makes no mention of any bishop at all despite his passionate exhortations to other churches to be in obedience to their own Bishops in his other epistles – bishops who he names and commends4.

Similarly, the famed “Shephard of Hermas,” written in Rome likely sometime in the early second century, refers to those men presiding over that church in the plural, “Elders.”10

Conflicting Bishops lists alongside this glaring lack of any mention of a Roman bishop have led some to conclude that the church in Rome was led by a council of elders, not a single bishop, perhaps as late as the early/mid second century when Pius the first was appointed c. 143A.D.2.

Early Development of Roman Authority

Regardless of exactly when a Roman monarchal episcopate developed, the stature of Rome as the Royal City translated into a not inconsiderable prestige for the Roman Bishop5, although the bishops of larger and equally ancient churches in the east such as those at Antioch and Alexandria could easily surpass it. Indeed, throughout the first few centuries, the most renowned and influential figures were largely all eastern bishops. Those bishops in the west who held such high esteem among the churches were primarily North African bishops which came to represent the theological leadership in the West1. Overshadowed as it was, how did the Roman See become so influential? The answer is threefold; the Church in Rome became a seat of power by its organization, isolation of the west from the east, and the power vacuum left in the wake of the fall of the Western Roman Empire.


As we already mentioned, Rome’s status as the Royal City already lent status to the Bishop of that city, but this in itself was not enough to establish the value of the Roman Bishop against the more glamorous contributions of men such as Origen, Tertullian, and Cyprian. The Church of Rome was not a center of theological study and development, rather it was a church focused on the practical aspects of the faith – how to apply the faith to maintain order, unity, and purity in the church6. This was not particularly flashy, but it did create a culture within the Roman church that sought unity and uniformity and as the west became increasingly isolated from the east, it established Rome as a center, particularly in the west, for resolving conflict and schism. Of course, this was not always the case, and the North African bishops in particular vehemently rejected a number of Roman decisions when they were advanced in such a way as to seem like edicts rather than suggestions7, but the Church of Rome’s emphasis on structure and practical application did lay the groundwork for its eventual ascension to primacy.


Rome’s primary competitors lay in the east. Although in the west the theological center would be concentrated in North Africa, but Alexandria was the center of learning in the Empire1 and Antioch was as the center of the most densely Christian territories6. In the fourth century, Constantine reunified the Roman Empire, but rather than establishing himself in Rome, he moved the capitol of the Empire to Constantinople in Asia Minor. With the acceptance of Christianity, the prestige of bishops was magnified, but now Rome’s greatest claim to authority had been stripped away, and it was now the Patriarch of Constantinople, not the Bishop of Rome, who led the church in the Royal City (and had the Emperor’s ear). In the 4th century, the Bishop of Constantinople even began to claim primacy over the whole church8!

The growing power of a single Bishop in the east would almost certainly have proved fatal to the growing power of the Roman church if the west had not already begun to grow increasingly isolated. This isolation largely stemmed from two sources (aside from simple geography); theological and linguistic differences.

Even from the early part of the second century, the Bishops of the east and west had begun to encounter differences. Perhaps the best example of this can be found in disputes over the celebration of Easter. In the east, most bishops held that Easter ought to be celebrated according to the Jewish calendar, while the Western Church, already removed from its Jewish routes, had grown accustomed to celebrating Easter by the Julian calendar and on the first day of the week. The dispute led Bishop Polycarp of Smyrna to go to Rome to attempt to settle the matter with then Bishop Anicetus. Ultimately neither was swayed, but they agreed to celebrate Easter according to their own separate customs. Despite this initial ability to set aside such minor differences, later generations reawakened the debate. As the Patriarch of Constantinople accumulated increasing power, the political implications of these debates was stirred, fueling further schism which ultimately would lead to the Great Schism of 1054.

The second factor promoting the isolation of the west was the resurgence of regional languages. Prior to the late second century, the universal Lingua Franca was Greek, but by around 180A.D., Latin was beginning to make its way into the liturgies and manuscripts of the western churches from North Africa, to Rome, to Gaul and Britannia. By the third century, Greek had been largely dispensed with in readings and liturgies of the Western churches and the west had become a thoroughly Latinized church in contrast to the Greek speaking east6.

This isolation left the Eastern and Western Churches to develop somewhat independently, but most importantly it allowed the Bishop of Rome to maintain his traditional prestige as head of the Royal See even as the Bishop of Constantinople claimed increasingly greater authorities in the east. As the Western churches spoke, read, and worshipped in Latin, they were not likely to look for clarifications and instructions from a Greek Bishop.

r centuries the Roman Empire had been the light of civilization, unity, and peace in the west, but in the fifth century its borders finally collapsed.

r centuries the Roman Empire had been the light of civilization, unity, and peace in the west, but in the fifth century its borders finally collapsed.

The Fall of the Western Roman Empire

Ultimately it was the fall of the Western Empire that changed the Roman See from influential Bishop to Spiritual and Temporal authority over the West. For centuries the Roman Empire had been the light of civilization, unity, and peace in the west, but in the fifth century its borders finally collapsed, and in 476 A.D., the last Western Emperor was deposed. Where once Roman provinces had stood, now barbarians from the north, east, and south established their own kingdoms; the western world was fractured.

But in the church a remembrance of that ancient unity and civilization still remained. The western churches were accustomed to communicating with one another, linked by a bond of faith that transcended borders. Many churchmen could read and write, and with the rise of monastic orders, churches and monasteries became repositories for ancient learning that might otherwise have been lost or destroyed. All that was needed was an authority who could unify the nations and peoples and see that justice and order were maintained.

In Rome, shortly before the final collapse of 476, the secular leadership was in disarray. The end was near, and everyone knew it. As a horde of Huns, led by a seemingly undefeatable general named Attila bore down on Rome, all hope had been lost. But rather than consigning the city to its fate, the Roman Bishop – Leo I – went out to meet the Hunnic king and somehow convinced him to spare the city and return into the east. This would not be the last time Leo acted as negotiator on behalf of the city of Rome, nor was Leo the last bishop of Rome to carry out this role.

Around the start of the 7th century, Gregory I was elected to the Roman See. By this time the whole region had largely been forsaken by any true secular leadership. There was no one to govern the region or see that shipments of food were administrated. The aqueducts that had brought water to the city were broken as were the walls which had proved no protection at all against many invaders. Gregory was a caring man and an able administrator, and in this vacuum, he found himself to have not only been appointed Bishop (against his will), but also inadvertently appointed as the secular ruler of Rome and the surrounding areas1.

Up to the 8th century, the emperor of the Eastern Empire still held a great deal of authority in the Western church.

Up to the 8th century, the emperor of the Eastern Empire still held a great deal of authority in the Western church.

A New and Holy Emperor

Up to the 8th century, the emperor of the Eastern Empire still held a great deal of authority in the Western church. It was customary to procure his approval over any important appointment – even the appointment to the Roman See – and ultimately the military might of the Eastern Empire was relied upon to defend Rome from further invasions. But the Eastern Empire’s power in the west was weakening, largely due to the rise of Islam which was overtaking all of North Africa and threatening Constantinople itself.

With no other alternative, the Bishop of Rome turned to the Franks for protection. In 732 a Frankish king named Charles Martel (“The Hammer”) checked the Muslim invasion at Tours, driving them back into Spain. A Frankish king invaded Italy to drive out the Lombards who threatened Rome and granted large territories to the Roman See. Finally, Charles Martel’s grandson, Charles the Great (Charlemagne) began the work of uniting vast stretches of what are now France, Germany and Italy under his rule. On Christmas day in the year 800A.D. Leo III crowned him as Emperor1.

The west not had found its strength without the aid of the east. Charlemagne’s Empire would eventually be broken up among his grandchildren. As new kingdoms were formed under the rule of his successors, these kings knew that the great Emperor Charlemagne had carved out his Empire by the sword, but ultimately he had only been granted legitimacy by the authority of one man – and that man was the Bishop of Rome.

Developments in the Spiritual Authority of the Roman See

The first “Pope”** in a more modern sense was Leo I who turned away Attila the Hun c.452 A.D.1. Leo I believed that Jesus had founded the only true church upon the apostle Peter, and Peter had appointed the first bishop of Rome as the first of an unbroken line of successors leading to himself. Prior to Leo there had, of course, been Bishops of Rome (and Constantinople) who sought to establish themselves as heads of the whole church, but prior to this point such attempts had been vehemently rebuffed. Tertullian had mocked Bishop Praexis of Rome, and Cyrpain had passionately renounced any bishop that would set himself up as greater than another. Indeed, even Leo I did not procure his place as “Bishop of Bishops*” universally and so pass it along to his successor, as later Gregory I rejected the primacy of the Patriarch of Constantinople by observing that even in Rome the Bishops did not claim to be sole authority over all the Bishops8.

Nevertheless, as the power and authority of the Roman See grew, so too did its ability to claim primacy over the western church. As political and theological differences between the east and west intensified, it gave greater grounds for the Roman Bishop to claim that the only true church was that which was unified under his authority. The power of the Roman See was increased in the 9th century, largely by the use of forged documents known as the “False Decretals,” and it was also in this time that the term “Pope” – which means “father” – began to be applied more specifically to the Roman Bishop. In the 11th century, Gregory VII made this convention official by decreeing that the term should be used of the head of the Roman church solely9.

Although the authority of the Popes would be tried and challenged in the centuries to come, as the western world crawled out from the dark age that followed the fall of the Western Empire, it was united under the auspices of the Papacy.


* One of several titles which Tertullian used to mock Praexis and which ironically have become titles of honor for the Roman Catholic Pope. See Tertullian, “Against Praexis”

1. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Vol. 1

2. Kelly, cited from Dr. James White,

3. I Clement, The Early Christian Fathers, Richardson Translation

4. The Letters of Ignatius, The Early Christian Fathers, Richardson Translation

5. cf. The 28th canon of Chalcedon, and Gregory the Great in the Registrum Epistolarium, book 5, letter 20

6. Aland and Aland, the Text of the New Testament.

7. cf. Tertullian’s “Against Praexis,” and Cyprian from “The Seventh Council of Carthage.”

8. Gregory the Great, Registrum Epistolarium, book 5, letter 20

9. Dr. James White,

10. Shephard of Hermas, Vision 2, 4:3


B A Johnson (author) on April 21, 2018:

Oh most definitely they were quite slow! And you are right, we could go on endlessly over that verse, but could I offer a suggestion and you can weigh if it has any merit?

Paul, in Galatians 1:8 said even if he or an angel from heaven preached a gospel contrary to the one he had already preached to them, that one should be accursed. Further on, in chapter 2, he describes how he was forced to oppose Peter who was yielding to Judaizing pressures and so led others astray by his actions.

Assume Peter was appointed head of the church, and his successors since have continued to hold the keys of the kingdom solely. Even as the first head of the church, Peter led others astray and had to be corrected. So read through Paul’s exposition of the gospel in Galatians (starts in chapter 2) and consider if that is the same gospel delivered by the Roman Church. If it is not the same gospel, that doesn’t prove or disprove the primacy of Peter, or an apostolic succession, it simply demonstrates that Peter’s successors are very human, just as he was, and it is no sin to correct them, just as Paul corrected Peter. It would however be a sin to accept a different gospel from them than the one Paul delivered to the Galatians.

Bede from Minnesota on April 21, 2018:

Would you agree that the Apostles were rather slow on certain issues? How many times did Jesus tell them that He must suffer, die, and rise again? They tended to forget, and so it doesn’t surprise me that they still argued.

Regarding Mt 16:18, we could go back and forth, endlessly. However, it seems significant that Jesus gave Peter the “keys of the Kingdom.” Clearly, he’s giving an exclusive role to him that he doesn’t give to the others. Also, Jesus most likely spoke Aramaic, not Greek to Peter, “You are Kepha, and on this kepha, I will build my church.”

In the lists of the Apostles, Peter is always first, Judas is always last. Coincidence?

B A Johnson (author) on April 21, 2018:

If Jesus' statement in Matt 16:18 had settled in the disciples minds that Peter was now the greatest, why did they argue this very point later on in chapter 18?

This is also paralleled in Luke 9, where Peter's profession takes place in verse 20 and they argue over who is the greatest in verse 46, to which Jesus replies that the least among them will be the greatest. He never suggests Peter is the greatest.

The "rock" in Matt 16:18 is the profession that Jesus is the Christ and son of the living God in verse 17

Bede from Minnesota on April 21, 2018:

Christ is assuredly the head of the Mystical Body, which is the Church. However, the invisible Head needs to operate through a visible means. He “provided” for this, by way of a hierarchy. Even the Apostles fought among themselves as to who was the greatest, until Jesus put Peter in charge: “I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock (petra) I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it.” Mt 16:18

B A Johnson (author) on April 21, 2018:

You could, but that would require both scriptural and historical support. Would not passages such as Ephesians 4:11-16 and Colossians 1:18 place Christ as the appointed head over the church rather than the occupant of the Roman See?

Bede from Minnesota on April 21, 2018:

May I suggest a fourth reason why the Roman See became so influential? The appointment of one shepherd over the flock accords so well with the Providence of God. Consider this: What happens when there’s more than one queen in a beehive? Trouble.