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Cyprian Teaches Papal Primacy

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

St. Cyprian (210-258), Bishop of Carthage in Africa and martyr, is one of the earliest and most outspoken defenders of papal primacy. Converted to Christianity in his early thirties, and serving for ten years as bishop of Carthage, he died for the faith during the persecution of Emperor Decius. His name is commemorated in the Roman canon of the Mass.

But Cyprian’s most celebrated work is on The Unity of the Church. What occasioned its publication was the controversy among the bishops on how to deal with Christians who had denied the faith under persecution, and then wanted to be reconciled with the Church. Although severe in demanding adequate penance from the converted apostates, Cyprian did not refuse them reconciliation. In this he was opposed by not a few bishops, but supported by the pope.

It was in this context that he wrote his treatise on the Catholic Church. It is by all odds the classic movement on the role of the Bishop of Rome as the center of visible unity in the Church founded by Christ. Simply stated, Cyprian teaches two things:

  • although Christ wanted His Church to be united, dissension has entered through the wiles of the evil spirit;

  • unity is to be restored by submission to the authority of the pope.

Cyprian explains that we must be on our guard not only against persecution from outside the Church. Our greatest danger is from the devil, sowing seeds of discord within the Church. In Cyprians’ vocabulary, the evil spirit is the Enemy.

“The Enemy, seeing his idols abandoned and his temples and haunts deserted by the ever growing numbers of the faithful, devised a fresh deceit, using the Christian name itself to mislead the unwary. He invented heresies and schisms so as to undermine the faith, to corrupt the truth, to asunder our unity. Those whom he has failed to keep in the blindness of their old ways he beguiles, and leads them up a new road of illusion. He snatches people away from within the Church herself, and while they think that coming close to the light they have not done with the night of the world, he plunges them suddenly into darkness of another kind. They still call themselves Christians after abandoning the Gospel of Christ and the observance of His law; though walking in darkness they think they still enjoy the light.”

So far, a summary of the tactics of the devil, the father of lies and the author of dissension in the Church.

Having described the strategy of the devil in dividing the Mystical Body of Christ, Cyprian then gives what he calls “a matter of fact.” The fact is that Christ did not leave His Church without protection against error or helpless against the snares of the devil.

Christ built His Church on a rock that would insure her stability until the end of time.

At this point, a bit of manuscript history should be given. There are two versions of Cyprian’s explanation of the papal primacy. Both versions are certainly authentic. What follows is a composite of both versions, to bring out how clearly the early Christians saw the successors of Peter as the divinely established guardians against demonic division in the Church.

First Cyprian quotes from the Gospel of St. Matthew, repeating Christ’s words to Peter after the latter’s profession of faith in the Savior’s divinity. “The Lords says to Peter, ‘I say to you, that you are Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not overcome it. I will give to you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And what you shall bind upon earth shall be bound also in heaven, and whatsoever you shall loose on earth shall be loosed also in heaven.’”

Then Cyprian goes on:

“He says to him again after the resurrection, “Feed my sheep.” It is on him that He builds His Church, and to him that He entrusts the sheep to feed. And although He assigns a similar power to all the Apostles, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive any man his sins, they shall be forgiven him; if you retain any man’s sins, they shall be retained.” - yet, in order that the oneness might be unmistakable, He established by His own authority a source for that oneness having its origin in one man alone.”
“A primacy is given to Peter, and it is thus made clear that there is but one Church and one Chair.”
“If a man does not hold to this oneness of Peter, does he imagine that he still holds the truth? If he deserts the Chair of Peter upon whom the Church was built, has he still confidence that he is in the Church?”
“Now this oneness we must hold firmly and insist on—especially we who are bishops and exercise authority in the Church—so as to demonstrate that the episcopal power is one and undivided too. Let none mislead the brethren with a lie, let none corrupt the true content of the faith by a faithless perversion of the truth.”

In the seventeen centuries since Cyprian wrote these words, his name has been a stumbling block to those who quiver at his uncompromising faith. But Cyprian’s witness is a tower of strength for those who, like him, believe in the papal primacy.

Vol. 16 - #1, October 1989, p. 16

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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