The Roman Catholic Church from Apostolic times has literally followed the Bible in the establishment of good order in the Church. According to Paul's letters to Timothy and Titus there are three orders to the organization and leadership of the Church (sometimes known as ecclesiastical order or hierarchy): episcopos or bishops, presbyteros or elders, commonly translated priests, and diaconos or deacons.
The first in order and the greatest in authority is the episcopos, the bishop.
Luke, in the Acts of the Apostles, distinguishes the shepherding role of the episcopos/bishop.
The shepherding role of the apostle Peter as episcopos was related by John.
The Roman Catholic Church believes that the twelve apostles were the first episcopes, receiving at the Last Supper their leadership order to serve when Jesus told them "Do this in remembrance of Me."
Peter, as demonstrated in the biblical portrait of him, exercised a leadership role first among the other apostles and early Christians, and then later in Rome before his martyrdom there in 67/68 AD.
Peter's presence in Rome is indicated in his first letter. The name "Babylon" is used here as a cryptic name for the city of Rome, a characteristic of writings done during times of persecution. During Peter's time (witnessed by his own martyrdom) and most New Testament times (witness the Book of Revelation--classic persecution literature), Rome took on the characteristics of the most outstanding example of a world power hostile to God--ancient Babylon.
Clement of Rome (I Clement) and Irenaeus (To the Romans) both attest to Peter's presence and death in Rome.
Paul makes mention of Linus, a Christian at Rome. Irenaeus (Adversus Haereses, 3, 3, 3) tells us that the same Linus was Peter's first successor as bishop of Rome.
Two great historians of the Church, Eusebius of Caesarea, a bishop and historian of the Council of Nicaea, and Augustine, bishop and theologian, preserve for us the list of successors of the bishop of Rome to their own time. They attest to the sense and realization the Church had to the need for historic succession to the Bishop of Rome.
On the following pages is a list the bishops of Rome from Peter to Francis. Historians both secular and ecclesiastical concur with a final list published by the Vatican Library.
The only biblical "claim to fame" of these men is that they are episcopoi, bishops. There is no greater "order" according to the Bible. The Catholic Church teaches this. Other titles are only honorary and organizational.
The Catholic Church has also taken Paul at his word.
The faithful of the Church has always called their ordered leadership "father." In Greek, the language of the early Church, the word for father was pappas; in Latin, the language of the later Church, the word for father was papa.
By the 300's, bishops were sometimes called "pope" a corruption of the word for father. By the 700's the title for affection and respect for the Bishop of Rome exclusively was Pope.
It is not uncommon for enemies and non-believers of Roman Catholicism to create an argument against the succession and therefore validity of the Bishops of Rome as true successors to Peter by proffering the history of the "bad Popes." That argument arises from a basic misunderstanding of Sacred Scripture.
The first response to be made to the so-called argument from the "bad Popes" is admission that many men who held the position of Bishop of Rome were not holy men. Perhaps Peter was the best model for human failure in such a leadership role. He denied Jesus three times after being told he would do so. Some (e.g., Peter, Judas) who are called stumble and fall.
Some (Peter) repent and are saved. Others (Judas) reject that grace. It behooves us to remember that Jesus does not call saints, but sinners.
The moral miracle of the "bad Popes" is that they were worldly men, public sinners, and never functioned as spiritual leaders nor touched or changed the deposit of faith of Christianity.
We are reminded by the Lord even to the present day that the lifestyle of the messenger does not alter the validity of the message. Recall the American TeleEvangelists' scandals in 1987 and 1988.
By Paul Flanagan and Robert Schihl.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture texts are taken from the New American Bible with Revised New Testament and Revised Psalms © 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All Rights Reserved. No part of the New American Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the copyright owner.
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Last Updated: March 14, 2013