Today we honor St. Peter’s coming to Rome, and his officially establishing the Church there. Recently historians and writers of all sorts have been poking holes in our pious beliefs about the Church and the popes. Gary Wills, a respected scholar who never misses Mass on Sunday, published one book with the title “Why I am a Catholic,” and another one called “Papal Sins.” This month he published “Why Priests?”
Wills goes over the false claims Catholics have made in support of papal power. For one thing, around the year 700 someone came across the last will and testament of the Emperor Constantine supposedly signed by him at the time of his death in 337 A.D. In it he willed all of central Italy to the popes as their own kingdom. Seven hundred year later scholars noticed that the supposed will had been written in legal terms that only came into use centuries after Constantine. It has never been shown that the popes had anything to do with the hoax, but they did believe it, and they acted as though they were obliged to act as temporal rulers.
There was another title of power placed on the popes in 500 A.D. when Clovis, the king of the Franks, forced the popes to behave like feudal lords in the Church, even though it went against Jesus saying, “You know how among the Gentiles those who exercise authority lord it over them, making their influence felt. It shall not be that way with you.”
One of the most genuine early documents testifying to the central place in the Church of the bishop of Rome was a letter from 250 A.D. by Cyprian, bishop of Carthage. He wrote that it was God’s plan to establish unity between all the dioceses of the world by their being in union with the bishop of Rome. That is real proof of the Pope’s key place, but even there, Cyprian limited his endorsement by saying Pope Sylvester should not interfere with naming bishops for north Africa.
While not speaking directly about popes, what Paul wrote in Chapter Thirteen of his Letter to the Romans applies to them. He wrote “Let every person be subject to authority, for there is no authority except from God.”
We humans are social animals, but we can only lived peacefully together if we have some authority. In a letter from an Anglican believer to the London Times the man complained about the Church of England that had no final answer for any religious question. The writer said Roman Catholics should thank God for giving them their popes.