In contemporary Catholic apologetics, there is a huge focus on the Apostle Peter as the rock upon which Christ built His Church, and many point to the fact to that to him was given the keys of the kingdom of heaven which includes the power of binding and loosing. Moreover, this Scriptural commission given to St. Peter to be the chief steward over the whole household of God is then directly applied to the Bishops of Rome in perpetual succession. The Popes of Rome, therefore, as the sole key-holders standing guard at the door of the kingdom, have exclusive rights to determine the criteria of communion or the forfeiture of that communion. And there you have the Catholic Papacy in a material nutshell. However, if this is the only methodology understood by Catholics, there is going to be some traffic with the many Patristic authors who understand the Scriptural commission given to St. Peter to have a more corporate significance rather than simply applicable to one episcopal line, i.e. the Roman episcopal line.
If one reads very closely to the epistles of St. Ignatius of Antioch, St. Cyprian of Carthage, St. Augustine, and St. Leo the Great, one cannot escape the fact that the authors understood the figure of the Bishop, whose office is it to rule, govern, sanctify, and pastor the flock of Jesus Christ entrusted to them, as an organic outgrowth of the office of St. Peter amidst the Apostolic College (St. Ignatius is not explicit with the Petrine connection, but conceptually he must be included in the list). This means that when these authors read Matthew 16, they saw in St. Peter not merely a man standing-for-himself, nor did they see a man standing-in-for the Church of Rome (which hasn’t even existed yet). Rather, they saw in St. Peter a corporate symbol for the entire Church of Christ. Effectively, if St. Peter was given the name “Rock”, if he was given the keys of the kingdom by which to bind and loose, and if he was commissioned to pastor the lambs of Christ, then likewise the whole Church adorns these attributes and prerogatives. In other words, St. Peter was understood to be acting as a corproate personality in which the attributions given to him are all-inclusive for the Church’s priesthood. This is why St. Cyprian can see in the commission of St. Peter’s person the bedrock of the whole Church in that St. Peter’s commission is the archetypical Pastor of the Church’s ministry.
In other words, the Petrine commission to be the rock, the key-holder, and the Pastor of Christ’s flock was understood as the inception or genesis of the New Covenant Priesthood. Everywhere the Gospel would go, therefore, and wherever a Church was planted, the community therein would look back to this Matthean text (16:18-19) and see their own charter for ministerial organization. Thus, the Pastor of the Church, i.e. the Bishop, would be understood to be entering the “Chair of Peter”. As such, the Bishop would be a Peter to his community in that he would be their principle of unity, their rock of stability, their door to heavenly sacraments, the teacher underwhich they must incline their ear, and the ultimate disciplinary judge in practical affairs. The Bishop, or the alter Petrus (another Peter), holds the keys for his local Church, and binding and loosing was normally understood to be a metaphoric language for the Bishop’s absolving a penitent of their sins or his excommunicating a member who forfeited his privilege of the communion of the Saints. Truthfully, one can see the alter Petrus at work from the very beginning of one’s Christian life all the way unto their death. When a Catechumen was given the holy sacrament of Baptism, Chrismation, and Holy Communion, it was the Bishop who was the Apostolic minister, the bearer of theocratic power from Christ, who was the minister. Similarly, when a baptized member needed to be absolved of his post-baptismal sin, or when a baptized member chose to forfeit his baptismal commitment, the alter Petrus would have the power of the keys in either absolving the penitent or banishing the impenitent, respectively. This is why St. Ambrose, in fact, says precisely that ubi Petrus ibi ecclesia, et ibi ecclesia vita eterna, or where Peter is, there is the Church, and where the Church is there is life eternal. The Petrine dimension here far exceeds a limited Roman exclusivity, but is pervasive wherever the Sacraments of Christ are administered under the Holy Spirit by the Apostolic Minister, i.e. the Bishop (alter Petrus).
This understanding of the Petrine commission from Holy Scripture may come as a bit of a shock to some Catholic apologists. However, we must realize that it is an altogether safe understanding of the passage as the statements below illustrate very clearly that the Church Fathers, and those of the West no less, understand precisely what I’ve summarized above. Here is a small florilegium to that point:
St. Cyprian of Carthage: “Our Lord, whose precepts and admonitions we ought to observe, describing the honour of a bishop and the order of His Church, speaks in the Gospel, and says to Peter: ‘I say unto you, That you are Peter, and upon this rock will I build my Church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto you the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever you shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.’ Thence, through the changes of times and successions, the ordering of bishops and the plan of the Church flow onwards; so that the Church is founded upon the bishops, and every act of the Church is controlled by these same rulers.” (Epistle 26)
St. Ambrose of Milan: “And this confession is indeed rightly made by them, for they have not the succession of Peter, who hold not the chair of Peter, which they rend by wicked schism; and this, too, they do, wickedly denying that sins can be forgiven even in the Church, whereas it was said to Peter: ‘I will give unto you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatsoever you shall bind on earth shall be bound also in heaven, and whatsoever you shall loose on earth shall be loosed also in heaven.'” (On Repentance, 7)
St. Augustine: “But what follows? ‘For the poor you have always with you, but me ye will not have always.’ We can certainly understand, ‘poor you have always’; what He has thus said is true. When were the poor wanting in the Church? ‘But me ye will not have always’; what does He mean by this? How are we to understand, ‘Me ye will not have always’? Don’t be alarmed: it was addressed to Judas. Why, then, did He not say, ‘you will have’, but, ‘ye will have’? Because Judas is not here a unit. One wicked man represents the whole body of the wicked; in the same way as Peter, the whole body of the good, yea, the body of the Church, but in respect to the good. For if in Peter’s case there were no sacramental symbol of the Church, the Lord would not have said to him, ‘I will give unto you the keys of the kingdom of heaven: whatsoever you shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven; and whatsoever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven.’ If this was said only to Peter, it gives no ground of action to the Church. But if such is the case also in the Church, that what is bound on earth is bound in heaven, and what is loosed on earth is loosed in heaven, — for when the Church excommunicates, the excommunicated person is bound in heaven; when one is reconciled by the Church, the person so reconciled is loosed in heaven: — if such, then, is the case in the Church, Peter, in receiving the keys, represented the holy Church. If, then, in the person of Peter were represented the good in the Church, and in Judas’ person were represented the bad in the Church, then to these latter was it said, ‘But me ye will not have always’. But what means the ‘not always’; and what, ‘the always’? If you are good, if you belong to the body represented by Peter, you have Christ both now and hereafter: now by faith, by sign, by the sacrament of baptism, by the bread and wine of the altar.” (Tractate 50 on th Gospel of John)
St. Augustine: “And because, even while walking in Him, they are not exempt from sins, which creep in through the infirmities of this life, He has given them the salutary remedies of alms whereby their prayers might be aided when He taught them to say, ‘Forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors.’ So does the Church act in blessed hope through this troublous life; and this Church symbolized in its generality, was personified in the Apostle Peter, on account of the primacy of his apostleship. For, as regards his proper personality, he was by nature one man, by grace one Christian, by still more abounding grace one, and yet also, the first apostle; but when it was said to him, ‘I will give unto you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatsoever you shall bind on earth, shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever you shall loose on earth, shall be loosed in heaven’, he represented the universal Church, which in this world is shaken by various temptations, that come upon it like torrents of rain, floods and tempests, and falls not, because it is founded upon a rock (petra), from which Peter received his name. For petra (rock) is not derived from Peter, but Peter from petra; just as Christ is not called so from the Christian, but the Christian from Christ. For on this very account the Lord said, ‘On this rock will I build my Church, because Peter had said, You are the Christ, the Son of the living God’. On this rock, therefore, He said, which you have confessed, I will build my Church. For the Rock (Petra) was Christ; and on this foundation was Peter himself also built. ‘For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Christ Jesus’. The Church, therefore, which is founded in Christ received from Him the keys of the kingdom of heaven in the person of Peter, that is to say, the power of binding and loosing sins. For what the Church is essentially in Christ, such representatively is Peter in the rock (petra); and in this representation Christ is to be understood as the Rock, Peter as the Church. This Church, accordingly, which Peter represented, so long as it lives amidst evil, by loving and following Christ is delivered from evil.” (Tractate 124)
St. Leo the Great: ” ‘I will give to thee the keys… loosed in heaven.’ The right of this power did indeed pass on to the other apostles, and the order of this decree passed on to all the chiefs of the Church; but not in vain was that which was imparted to all entrusted to one. Therefore this is commended to Peter separately, because all the rulers of the Church are invested with the fiture of Peter. The privilege therefore of Peter remains, wherever judgement is passed from his equity… So then in Peter the strength of all is fortified, and the help of divine grace is so ordered that the stability which through Christ is given to peter, through Peter is conveyed to the apostles.” (Sermon 4; cit. E. Giles, Documents Illustrating Papal Authority AD 96-454)
Very clearly stated by these pre-eminent Latin Fathers of the West is the fact that St. Peter and his Matthean commission (Mt. 16) as well as his authoritative prerogatives are far more expansive than the oft misunderstood Peter-to-Rome exclusivity. In fact, so expansive is this Petrine typology that it typifies the entire New Covenant priesthood (I expanded on this point back in June of 2019 here and here). Now, by this point some Anglicans and Orthodox might be interested to know how, upon knowing this, someone can then subscribe in belief to the doctrine of the Papacy as held by the Catholic Church. Side by side, a Catholic at this point might be curious, upon knowing this, why he or she should even subscribe to such a belief, given the Petrine-commonality across the spectrum of the universal Church. It would be a great opportunity to write extensively on this from a Patristic point of view, but I will here restrict myself to minor gloss on how the above material does not negate the Papacy, a doctrine which encloses the Petrine commission as pertaining to the exclusive rights of the Bishop of Rome as St. Peter’s unique successor. Do the Fathers above cited have anything else to say about the Petrine commission which graduates beyond the boundary of the sacramental Priesthood? This is the crux of the matter. I here provide another florilegium that speaks in this direction (I have touched upon this extra-sacramental theme of the Petrine commission back in May of 2017 here, Augustine of 2017 here, and November of 2017 here; but please note I may have shifted on particular points since then, though I’m not aware of any shifts. Also, please note the citations are translations from secondary sources, these are not mine. I have to put the time aside to get the details and insert them, but I can assure you they are from scholarly and reliable sources.)
St. Cyprian of Carthage: “After such things as these, moreover, they still dare — a false bishop having been appointed for them by, heretics— to set sail and to bear letters from schismatic and profane persons to the throne of Peter, and to the chief church whence priestly unity takes its source; and not to consider that these were the Romans whose faith was praised in the preaching of the apostle, to whom faithlessness could have no access.” (Epistle 54)
Commentary: Some Anglican, Orthodox, and even Catholic commentators have seen in this no unique attribution to the Roman See along the lines of the divine institution in St. Peter vis-à-vis the univeral Church. However, it seems difficult to deny this. St. Cyprian understood the office of Peter to function as a corporate unifier as realized in the singular person of the Bishop. For the same attribution to be stated to the Roman Church as an individuating characteristic that makes it unique to the other Churches would be a direct application of the Matthean passage (Mt 16) to Rome. The late Anglican A. Theodore Wirgman (1846-1917), H.D., D.C.L., a scholar of Magdalene College, Cambridge , and author of The Constitutional Authority of Bishops in the Catholic Church admits that St. Cyprian understands a universalist relation between the See of Peter as source of unity and the whole network of churches in the world, rather than merely to North African and Southern Italy, or the West, as Dr. Kidd had claimed in his Roman Primacy. Wirgman writes:
“S. Cyprian tells Pope Cornelius of the schismatics of his diocese who ‘dare to set sail, and carry letters to the Chair of Peter and to the principal Church whence sacerdotal unity has taken its rise‘ (St. Cyprian, Ep. 54). We cannot well limit the meaning of unde unitas sacerdotalis exorta est to the probable fact that the Bishop of North Africa and Italy traced their Apostolic succession to the Roman see. It implies that the Church of Rome is a centre of unity for the whole Church”. (Chapter II, Note A, page. 90)
St. Augustine: “I suppose that there is no slight to Cyprian in comparing him with Peter in respect to his crown of martyrdom; rather I ought to be afraid lest I am showing disrespect towards Peter. For who can be ignorant that the primacy of his apostleship is to be preferred to any episcopate whatever? But, granting the difference in the dignity of their sees, yet they have the same glory in their martyrdom.” (On Baptism, Against the Donatists, Book II)
In this context, St. Augustine is actually drawing out a principle wherein St. Peter himself was found to be needing correction from St. Paul, but nevertheless St. Augustine here admits that the primacy of St. Peter entails a differentiation of the See of Rome with the See of Carthage, and every other Episcopate in the world. Now, no explicit details of what that unique differentiation entails, but it is nevertheless clear that one exists. The Petrine-commonality that St. Augustine elsewhere speaks of, therefore, cannot be so absolute as to rule out this Petrine-exclusivity for the Roman episcopate.
St. Augustine: Why! A faggot that is cut from the vine retains its shape. But what use is that shape if it is not living from the root? Come, brother, if you wish to be engrafted in the vine. It is grievous when we see you thus lying cut off. Number the bishops from the See of Peter. And, in that order of fathers, see whom succeeded whom. This is the Rock which the proud gates of hades do not conquer. All who rejoice in peace, only judge truly.” (Psalmus Contra Partem Donati; cit. “The Chair of Peter” Called to Communion, Feb. 2011)
Here, St. Augustine recognizes that the See of Peter has the attribute of being the principle of ecclesial unity which is informative and binding upon all bishops anywhere, i.e. the Donatists of North Africa. St. Augustine can’t be referring to the general priesthood which could be, on Donatist grounds, subjective to any episcopal claimant. Rather, St. Augustine refers to the objective standard of the Roman See in whose episcopate, directly from the historical Peter, has this extra-sacramental (though adjoined to it essentially) characteristic.
S. Augustine: For if the lineal succession of bishops is to be taken into account, with how much more certainty and benefit to the Church do we reckon back till we reach Peter himself, to whom, as bearing in a figure the whole Church, the Lord said: ‘Upon this rock will I build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it!’ (Matt. 16:18) The successor of Peter was Linus, and his successors in unbroken continuity were these: — Clement, Anacletus, Evaristus, Alexander, Sixtus, Telesphorus, Iginus, Anicetus, Pius, Soter, Eleutherius, Victor, Zephirinus, Calixtus, Urbanus, Pontianus, Antherus, Fabianus, Cornelius, Lucius, Stephanus, Xystus, Dionysius, Felix, Eutychianus, Gaius, Marcellinus, Marcellus, Eusebius, Miltiades, Sylvester, Marcus, Julius, Liberius, Damasus, and Siricius, whose successor is the present Bishop Anastasius. In this order of succession no Donatist bishop is found. But, reversing the natural course of things, the Donatists sent to Rome from Africa an ordained bishop, who, putting himself at the head of a few Africans in the great metropolis, gave some notoriety to the name of “mountain men,” or Cutzupits, by which they were known. Now, even although some traditor had in the course of these centuries, through inadvertence, obtained a place in that order of bishops, reaching from Peter himself to Anastasius, who now occupies that see — this fact would do no harm to the Church and to Christians having no share in the guilt of another; for the Lord, providing against such a case, says, concerning officers in the Church who are wicked: ‘All whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not.’ (Matt. 23:3) Thus the stability of the hope of the faithful is secured, inasmuch as being fixed, not in man, but in the Lord, it never can be swept away by the raging of impious schism; whereas they themselves are swept away who read in the Holy Scriptures the names of churches to which the apostles wrote, and in which they have no bishop. For what could more clearly prove their perversity and their folly, than their saying to their clergy, when they read these letters, “Peace be with you,” at the very time that they are themselves disjoined from the peace of those churches to which the letters were originally written?” (Epistle 53)
St. Leo the Great: “The connection of the whole body makes all alike healthy, all alike beautiful: and this connection requires the unanimity indeed of the whole body, but it especially demands harmony among the priests. And though they have a common dignity, yet they have not uniform rank; inasmuch as even among the blessed Apostles, notwithstanding the similarity of their honourable estate, there was a certain distinction of power, and while the election of them all was equal, yet it was given to one to take the lead of the rest. From which model has arisen a distinction between bishops also, and by an important ordinance it has been provided that every one should not claim everything for himself: but that there should be in each province one whose opinion should have the priority among the brethren: and again that certain whose appointment is in the greater cities should undertake a fuller responsibility, through whom the care of the universal Church should converge towards Peter’s one seat, and nothing anywhere should be separated from its Head” (Letter 14)
St. Leo here articulates that the office of Peter is multi-faceted across all layers of Church government. The Bishop is Peter, the Metropolitan is Peter, the Patrarch is Peter, and the Pope of Rome is Peter. Allow me to take a brief excursus on how this concept, both of the Archepiscopal/Patriarchal dimension and the Roman-universal dimension both as an alter Petrus according to their respective capacities, has roots in Eastern antiquity as well. This conception is understood by Eastern Patristic commentators when they speak about their Patriarch. This, for example, was undoubtedly done at the Council of Dadisho (424) by Christians who were part of what is now referred to as the Church of the East. In the beginning of the 5th century Yazdgert I, Emperor of Persia, enacted that Christians should no longer be persecuted for their faith, and the Persian State therefore recognized that the Christians under its secular care had a certain head, or Catholicos. Eventually, in order to prohibit appeals to other Bishops of the West (i.e. the Churches of the Roman Empire), the Council of Dadisho (424) gave the Petrine rationale in order to enclose its own Church under one head over which there was no superior to give account. The text of the synod decree goes like this:
“For no reason should anyone think or say that the Catholicos of the East may be judged by those who are under him, or by a patriarch like himself; but h shall render judgment upon all who are under him, and his judgment shall be reserved to Christ, who chose him, raised (him) up and placed him at the head of his church, for so it pleased his eternal Lordship that his own all governing Lordship should be entrusted to, and honored in, the primacy of his church.” J.-B. Chabot (ed. & FT), Synodicon orientale ou recueil des synodes nestoriens, Paris 1902; as cited in Mar Bawai Soro, The Church of the East: Apostolic & Orthodox (San Jose: Adiabene Publications, 2007), 269-70.
These Eastern Christians understood the Petrine dimension could apply to their Patriarch, and here they entertain the idea that they could, by way of a synod, enclose to themselves independence and autonomy so as to be shielded from outside interference or reliance on others. Mar Bawai Soro, in his book The Church of the East, which also has the endorsement of Dr. Sebastian Brock and several other notable scholars, also shares the knowledge of a certain historian and canonist of the Church of the East, Mar Abdisho of Soba, who not only was cognizant of the foregoing, but also of the unique Roman Petrine dimension. According to Abdisho’s recollection of certain canons (regardless of their authencitity for the moment), “To Great Rome [authority] was given because the two pillars are laid [in the grave] there, Peter, I say, the head of the Apostles, and Paul, the teacher of the nations. [Rome] is the first see and the head of the patriarchs… as the patriarch has authority to do all he wishes in a fitting manner in such things as are beneath his authority, so the patriarch of Rome has authority over all patriarchs, like the blessed Peter over all the community, for he who is in Rome also keeps the office of Peter in all the church. He who transgresses against these things the ecumenical synod places under anathema.” (Collectio Canonum Synodicorum, Chapter IX, Canon 1 & 8, pages 154-5 & 167, in A. Mai (ed. & LT), Scriptorum veterum nova collection e Vaticanis codicibus, Vol. X (Rome 1838); Eng. Trans. & cit. from Bawai Soro, The Church of the East, 270-71)
The only reason that non-Catholic apologists from the East, generally from both Chalcedonian Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox, find this multi-Petrine dimentionalism as a point to contradict the Catholic doctrine of the Papacy is that they have only encountered Catholic material which speaks about the Petrinity of Rome. When you are consistently told that Peter has only to do with Rome, then this early Patristic material on the Bishop, Archbishop, and Patriarch as alter Petrus seems like evidence against the Catholic narrative, rather than support for it. But with a simple explanation, one can see how this is all reconcilable. The underlying logic of Petrine structure is that a singular head is set over and against (albeit adjoined organically) a corporate mass of members. That kind of structure is multi-layered, of course. So you have this Petrine structure of a singular head over many members in the local church unity, the metropolitan unit, and the patriarchal unit. The Popes of Rome simply claimed that on the universal unit, i.e. the global church, the original historical Peter retains an all embracive position which is not trasferable or shareable with any other Peter in the hierarchical grid.
We saw how St. Cyprian attributes to the Roman See this ministerial function of being a corporate unifier, or the origin thereof, and this would exceed the strict boundary of the New Covenant Priesthood, of which the Bishop is the highest order. The Pope doesn’t get ordained by a sacrament to possess his function as universal and corporate unifier, this comes directly from God by the design of the Episcopal College itself, which nevertheless has all the more to do with the Priesthood essentially (Despite this, we know St. Cyprian himself didn’t connect these dots when rebelling against the order of Pope St. Stephen). We saw how St. Augustine recognized that the historial man, St. Peter, and his occupation of the Episcopal throne in Rome carried not just the local and common significance of the Bishop as the Chair of Peter, but this Chair of Peter had universalizing significance, one which visualizes the principle of episcopal unity. We see how St. Leo the Great understands that the Petrine commission certainly applies to all chiefs (i.e. Bishops) since all carry a figure or type of St. Peter, but then applies this to the distinction between the provincial boundary under the Metropolitan, and then the Metropolitan or Patriarch under the Pope of Rome, i.e. Peter’s one seat. One final thought on this in relation to Eastern Orthodox objections. Many Orthodox point to the common Petrine dimension pervasive in every Church, and attempt to utilize this to either eliminate any divinely instituted Petrine dimension in Rome, or to relegate the Roman Petrinity to something equal with the outstaning establishing of a regional Metropolitan or Patriarch. However, for the Orthodox, they often are satsified to say that the local Church is the whole and complete church, and the sacramental episcopate alone carries the unchangeable Petrine prerogative. This might be sufficient to detail the principle of unity for a local church, but it surely isn’t sufficient to detail the principle of unity for a larger region, and still less the universal Church. For this reason, and for many others, the Church Fathers understood that alongside the sacramental Petrine ministery of the Bishop or High-Priest, there was the adjoined reality of St. Peter’s historical person as standing in a position of universal primacy above and beyond the sacramental boundary, such that his position could be a divinely standardized principle of communion the embraces all the local churches into one body under one head. That is the esse of the logic of the Petrine structure. It seems altogether off-kilter to admit this exists on the local level, but not on the universal level, seeing as the total local churches together still have to make up one body in Christ.