The nature and source of ecclesiastical authority is illuminated by the debate and resolution in the second century concerning the Paschal Feast (Easter). The following quotes from Abbe Guettee’s The Papacy, trace this out.
In the second century there existed two equally apostolic traditions for the celebration of the Paschal Feast. Particularly since these appointed different dates for the Feast, the Church sought to derive a single tradition that everyone could follow.
Many Oriental Churches wished to follow the Judaical traditions, preserved by several Apostles, … and to hold it upon the fourteenth day of the March moon; other Eastern Churches, in agreement with the Western Churches, according to an equally Apostolic tradition, celebrated the festival of Easter the Sunday following the fourteenth day of the March moon.
The question in itself considered was of no great importance; and yet it was generally thought that all the Churches should celebrate at one and the same time the great Christian festival, and that some should not be rejoicing over the resurrection of the Saviour, while others were contemplating the mysteries of His death.
How was the question settled? Did the Bishop of Rome interpose his authority and overrule the discussion, as would have been the case had he enjoyed a supreme authority?
Synods and convocations were called, which drew up a decree that was sent by letters to all the churches. Among these, letters are preserved from the Bishop in Cesarea, the Bishop of Jerusalem, the Roman Synod, the Bishops in Pontus, the Churches of Gaul, the faithful in Osrhoene, Bishop of the Corinthians, and many others. In reviewing these actions, Guetee derives three points which together agree that the Bishop of Rome did not act in a Papal capacity.
It is evident that Eusebius speaks of the letter of the Roman synod in the same terms as of the others; he does not attribute it to Bishop Victor (of Rome), but to the assembly of the Roman Clergy; and lastly, he only mentions it in the second place after that of the Bishops of Palestine.
Here is a point irrefragably established; it is that in the matter of Pascha, the Church of Rome discussed and judged the question in the same capacity as the other churches, and that the Bishop of Rome only signed the letter in the name of the synod which represented that Church. The partisans of the Papal authority affirm that it was Victor who commanded the councils to assemble. This assertion is altogether false.
The lack of papal authority is further underscored by the situation involving the Oriental churches. Several Oriental Sees did not conform to the above-mentioned decree. Particularly when Bishop Polycrates of Ephesus and the bishops of his province resisted the decree, Bishop Victor of Rome “excommunicated” them.
(Victor) threatened to separate them from his communion. This did not move Polycrates; he replied vigorously, saying to him particularly: “They who are greater than I have said ‘we ought to obey God rather than men.’ Upon this Victor, the Bishop of the Church of Rome, forthwith endeavoured to cut off the Churches of all Asia, together with the neighboring Churches, as heterodox, from the common unity. And he published abroad by letters, and proclaimed that all the brethren there were wholly excommunicated.” Thus Eusebius.
It is difficult to believe that the partisans of the Roman pretensions can find in these words of Eusebius and in the conduct of Victor any proof in favor of their system. Without much effort, they might find in them a proof to the contrary.
The expression of Eusebius, that “Victor endeavoured,” etc., must first be noticed. It is clear that those who endeavour have not in themselves the power to do that which they have in view, otherwise the act would follow the will. Victor, however, did all he could in order that this excommunication should be recognized-he even pronounced it; but that act remained but an attempt, and had to be ratified by the other Churches in order to be valid. Victor did not have, then, as Bishop of Rome, the power to excommunicate other Churches, since the effect did not follow the sentence which he believed himself entitled to give in the name of the Western Churches, because of the importance of his See.
The Bishops, who would have submitted to his sentence, if they had recognized in him the Head of the Church, invested with universal authority, not only did not obey him, but strongly censured his conduct.
“But this,” adds Eusebius, “was not the opinion of all the Bishops. They immediately exhorted (Victor) on the contrary, to contemplate that course that was calculated to promote peace, unity, and love to one another.”
Thus, instead of believing that unity consisted in union with Victor, the bishops exhorted him to observe better the true notions of unity. Many went even further. (Eusebius continues,) “Among these also was Irenæus, who, in the name of those brethren in Gaul, over whom he presided, wrote an epistle in which he … admonishes Victor not to cut off whole churches of God who observed the tradition of an ancient custom.” … “And when,” adds Eusebius (as an example), “the blessed Polycarp went to Rome in the time of Anicetus, and they had a little deference among themselves likewise respecting other matters, they immediately were reconciled, not disputing much with one another on this head. For neither could Anicetus persuade Polycarp not to observe (the disputed custom), because he had always observed it with John the disciple of our Lord, and the rest of the Apostles with whom he associated; and neither did Polycarp persuade Anicetus to observe, who said that he was bound to maintain the practice of the presbyters before him. Which thing being so, they communed (partook of the eucharist) with each other ….” And thus, though following different usages, all remained in the communion of the Church. …
Thus Victor could not, of his own authority, cut off from the Church, in fact, those whom he had declared excommunicate; the other Bishops resisted him vigorously, and St. Irenæus, the great divine of the age, made war in his letters upon those (things) which Victor had written to provoke the schism.
This discussion, invoked by the partisans of Papal pretensions in their favor, falls back upon them with all its weight, and with a force that can not in good faith be contested.
Anicetus did not invoke his authority against Polycarp, nor did Victor against Irenæus and the other Bishops. Polycarp and Irenæus reasoned and wrote as equals of the Bishop of Rome in Episcopal authority, and recognized but one rule-ancient tradition.
We have seen how the Bishop of Rome failed to exert papal authority over the churches concerning the traditions of Easter. Reviewing how these issues were resolved only underscores the view that the principles of unity upon which the Church stood were other than papal.
How were the Churches reunited in a common practice? Eusebius thus relates that happy result, which certainly was not due to the Bishop of Rome:
“The Bishops, indeed, of Palestine (and) Tyre, … having advanced many things respecting the tradition that had been handed down to them by succession from the Apostles, regarding Pascha, at the close of the epistle use the words: ‘We inform you also, that they observe the same day at Alexandria which we also do; for letters have been sent by us to them and from them to us, so that we celebrate the holy season with one mind and at one time.’ “
Nevertheless, many Churches preserved the tradition of the Churches of Smyrna and Ephesus, and were not on that account regarded as schismatics, although Victor had separated himself from their communion.
Guedee offers another argument, saying that while it is true that the Bishop of Rome exerted considerable influence in ecclesistical decisions, it is false to say that this influence amounted to papal authority.
The partisans of the Papal system attach much importance to the influence exercised by the Bishop of Rome in the question of Pascha and some other matters: they transform that influence into authority. This is an untenable paralogism.
It is not to be wondered at that the Bishop of Rome should have enjoyed from the first a high influence in religious questions; for he filled the first See of the West, and as Bishop of the Capital of the Empire, he was the natural link between East and West. It was then understood that the Catholic Church was not exclusively in any country; that the East possessed no more universal authority than the West. This is why certain heretics, born and condemned in the East, sought protection in the West, and above all at Rome, its representative. Thus it is, that even some saints-as Polycarp of Smyrna-went themselves to Rome to confer with the Bishop of that city upon religious questions.
But it is not possible conscientiously to study these facts from reliable documents without eliciting this truth: that the influence of the Bishop of Rome did not arise in an universal authority-that it did not even have its source in an authority recognized by all the Western Churches, but was simply derived from the importance of his See.
Rome was the centre of all communications between different parts of the Empire. The faithful crowded thither from all quarters-for political business or private interests-and thus her testimony as an Apostolic Church was strengthened by the faithful who came thither from all parts of the world, bringing the witness of all the Churches to which they severally belonged.
St. Irenaeus, even when he cited the authority of Rome while he argued against heretics did not vest that authority in any papal figure, but in the fact that the tradition there had been vetted by “ those who are of all countries.”
Such is the sense of a passage of St. Irenæus, of which the Roman theologians have made the strangest misuse. This great theologian, attacking the heretics who sought to corrupt the faithful at Rome, establishes against them the Catholic rule of faith, preserved everywhere and always. “But,” he adds, “as it would be very tedious to enumerate in such a work the succession of all the Churches, we will trace that of the very great and very ancient Church and known of all, which was founded and established at Rome by the two very glorious Apostles, Peter and Paul; which possesses a tradition that comes from the Apostles as much as the Faith declared to men, and which has transmitted it to us through the succession of her Bishops; by that, we confound all those who in any manner whatsoever, either through blindness or bad intention, do not gather where they should; For, every Church, that is to say, the faithful who are from all places, are obliged to go toward that Church, because of the most powerful principality. In this Church, the tradition of the Apostles has been preserved by those who are of all countries.”
Although the endeavors of Pope Victor strove towards the excommunication of Bishop Polycrates, the record proves that the excommunication was not the will of God. One bishop, or even patriarch, does not have the right to excommunicate another bishop, who is his equal, but each transgressing bishop must be judged by the bishops of his own province.
In summary, according to the above, while it is true that in the early Christian centuries the Roman bishopric enjoyed significant influence in Church affairs, this authority rested on the Church itself and the fact that the bishopric was positioned as one of its major centers; the authority was not vested in the post of bishop itself.
The manner in which the tradition for the Paschal Feast was settled is evidence of this.
Among the letters from the various bishoprics of the Church which were sent out to resolve this issue, the letter from the church in Rome was not singular in nature. It was not listed first by Eusebius, and its instruction was described as determined by the “assembly of the Roman Clergy”, not the bishop.”
Then when the Oriental churches resisted the decision of the Church at large, the Bishop of Rome attempted, but was not able to interpose his authority and overrule the discussion, as would have been the case had he enjoyed a supreme authority. The other bishoprics denounced the concept of any bishop possessing unilateral authority.
Finally, when the bishops of the Church at large did resolve the issue of the Paschal Feast, the resolution was contrary to the union that the Roman bishop had sought to form, underscoring again the view that the principles of unity upon which the Church stood were other than papal.