Benedict and St. Peter: A Post by George E. Demacopoulos

In this post George E. Demacopoulos, author of  The Invention of Peter: Apostolic Discourse and Papal Authority in Late Antiquity, looks at a neglected aspect of Pope Benedict XVI's retirement.

Benedict and St. Peter

Pope Benedict XVI surprised the Christian world  when he announced that he would resign as bishop of Rome, head of the
Roman Catholic Church.  The move is
virtually unprecedented—while several popes in history left office prior to
their death, those men were forced from office, almost always against their
will.  In some cases, ex-pontiffs became bishops
of other cities as a consolation prize. 
But Pope Benedict’s decision to retire and yet remain in residence at
the Vatican likely opens a Pandora’s box of canonical and theoretical questions
concerning the singular grace of authority that is understood to accompany the
office of the See of Rome by virtue of its connection St. Peter, “prince of the

Despite the media frenzy that has ensued in the wake of the
resignation—not to mention the one that will erupt if the next pontiff is
selected from the Global South—there is one significant aspect of the pontiff’s
statement that has received nary a media blip, but conveys the core conundrum
that advocates of papal singularity now face. 
Four times in the very brief statement outlining his decision to resign,
Pope Benedict referred to the special relationship between his office and St.
Peter the Apostle, whose privileged position in the apostolic community is
believed by Roman Catholics to transfer mystically to the bishops of Rome, upon
their assumption of the office.

The Invention of PeterSince the fifth century, the basic argument for papal
preeminence has run something like a syllogism: 
(1) Jesus Christ appointed the Apostle Peter as the head of the Church;
(2) Peter was the first bishop of Rome; therefore (3) subsequent bishops of
Rome “inherit” Peter’s ministry and, therefore, his authority.  While most of us are familiar with the claim
that the Roman bishop is “Peter’s heir,” many are less familiar with the long
history by which the connection between Peter, Rome, and the Roman See came to
be.  It is a complicated story full of
political intrigue, theological debate, and a great deal of rhetorical
invention.  Indeed, if there is any
consistent theme in the development of the papal/Peter connection it is that
each escalation of the claims of papal preeminence that emerged in the
formative period between 350 and600 CE was precipitated by a domestic or
international embarrassment for the bishop of Rome.  For most of late antiquity, the iterations of
papal authority via Peter always reflected aspirations for ecclesiastical prestige
rather than actual authority or respect.

And that is the part of the story we can reconstruct on the
basis of historical sources explicitly connecting Peter to the Roman See, which
begin to emerge in the fourth century. 
Earlier sources provide so many competing narratives about the end of
Peter’s life that it is impossible to say with any assurance what Christians in
the earliest centuries thought about him—they almost certainly did not think
that he passed on his unique authority to those Roman bishops who came later.  But in the modern world we are so accustomed
to the narrative of Petrine succession that we typically fail to recall that the
New Testament never actually states that Peter even went to Rome, let alone
established its episcopate.

And while I believe that Pope Benedict has demonstrated real
humility in his acknowledgment that he does not have the physical strength to
carry on the task of Peter’s ministry, the very idea that he could resign poses
something of a challenge to the notion that the bishop of Rome is somehow
different from the rest of us.  In other
words, if in assuming the papal office, the candidate is mystically graced to
become the Vicar of Peter, prince of the Apostles, such that he alone has the
authority to bind and loose sin (a frequent medieval assertion), can such a
person actually “retire” from that state of grace?  If he is only retiring from the
responsibility of active ministry, but retains the state of grace, how can his
successor be understood to also possess it,  with fifteen hundred years of rhetorical
precedent to suggest that only one man inherits Peter’s principium?  While I believe
that Pope Benedict has acted heroically in his recognition of personal
limitation, he has unwittingly called into question the very theory that
underpins the belief that the bishop of Rome has a singular claim on the legacy
of St. Peter.

George E. Demacopoulos is Associate Professor of Theology and Codirector of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center at Fordham University. The Invention of Peter: Apostolic Discourse and Papal Authority in Late Antiquity is scheduled for release in June 2013

Forthcoming Events