Continuation of the Primacy in the Papal Succession

Author: Pedro Rodriguez

2. The successor of Peter: perpetuity of the primacy in the bishop of Rome

As regards this point the dogmatic teaching of the Church runs as follows: 'It is according to the institution of Christ our Lord himself, that is, by divine law, that St. Peter has perpetual successors in the primacy over the whole Church' and that 'the Roman Pontiff is the successor of St. Peter in that primacy.'[26]

A. The Principle of Succession

What we saw earlier for the hierarchy if the Church in general we see again but this time applied to the Pope, namely, on the one hand the principle of succession as a truth of faith, and, on the other, the fact of the succession as it is found in the bishop of Rome. When speaking of the primacy of peter, Vatican I appealed to the texts of Holy Scripture which established it. Now, when speaking of the succession, the Council, and in this it will be followed almost a century later by Vatican II,[27] proceeds not directly from Sacred Scripture but from the principle of indefectibility and perpetuity in the Church. Since by the will of Christ the Church has to last until the end of time so too must the principle and foundation of unity given by Christ last.

And so theology finds the succession in the primacy of Peter affirmed implicitly in the word of Christ to Simon (Matthew 16:16-18 & John 21:15ff).

Tradition gives the all important argument, namely the consciousness that the Church has always held that the primacy was preserved in the person of the bishop of Rome. As an example of this Tradition these words spoken by the Pope's legate at the Council of Ephesus in 431 will suffice: 'No one doubts; in fact, it is obvious to all ages that the holy and most blessed Peter, head and prince of the apostles, the pillar of faith, and the foundation of the Catholic Church received the keys of the kingdom from our Lord Jesus Christ, the savior and redeemer of the human race. Nor does anyone doubt that the power of forgiving and retaining sins was also given to this same Peter who, in his successors, lives and exercises judgement even to this time and forever.'[28]

As far back as the second century St. Irenaeus of Lyons, when studying the criteria for sound teaching had recourse to the apostolic succession and in particular 'to the great church, the oldest and best known of all, founded and established in Rome by the glorious apostles Peter and Paul ... All other churches ought to be in agreement with this church because of her more powerful authority ... for in her is preserved the tradition which comes from the apostles.'[29]

B. The succession and the plans of God

The truth is that it would have been very comfortable, from the point of view of theological argumentation, if the text from St. Matthew which is so often quoted ran along these lines: 'And to you and your successors I give the keys of the kingdom of heaven ....' The same could be said about other important texts on the hierarchical constitution of the Church in general, e.g. 'Go, therefore, you and your successors, make disciples of all the nations ... as my Father has sent me so I send you and your successors ....'

But it is easy to see that this way of speaking would be foreign to the way Jesus refers to his work of redemption and to his Church, for he speaks in a prophetic and symbolic way. It has been said, not without a dash of humor, that it is a good thing that the Gospel of St. Matthew has not named the successors of Peter, for if it had, there would surely be people to see this as one more reason to reject the authenticity of the gospel itself.

Perhaps the most striking element in the context of this gospel for understanding the silence of jesus about the succession in the apostolic college is his constant decision to keep hidden from the apostles and from the rest of men, the 'day of the Lord,' the parousia, the end point of salvation history whose imminence he always leaves open: 'Stay awake, because you do not know either the day or the hour' (Matthew 25:13).


[26] Dz. 3058 (1825)
[27] Cf. reference no.12
[28] D 112 and Dz. 3056 (1824)
[29] St. Irenaeus, _Adversus haereses_, III, 3, 2


Reprinted from Catholic Position Papers

September, 1981 -- Japan Edition
Seido Foundation for the
Advancement of Education
12-6 Funado-Cho, Ashiya Japan