The Catholic Church has an unbroken list of Popes from Peter through Francis I. Was there a time when all, or at least the vast majority of, Christianity recognized them as the supreme authority over all Christianity?

A book I'm reading (Thomas Bokenkotter. A Concise History of the Catholic Church. New York, NY: Doubleday, 2004) said that the church at the Council of Nicaea "knew nothing of the doctrine of papal supremacy." Is this accurate? Where might I find a source to back this up?

Bearing that in mind, I'm looking for something after 325. Wikipedia suggests my answer may lie in the fifth century. I’d like to find a historical answer if at all possible, from a neutral source, but if that isn’t possible, I’d prefer to find a Catholic opinion on the matter.

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    Can you specify which Church you mean? This will change the answer. The Orthodox would say none. Catholics would say Linus, Peter's successor in Rome.
    – bradimus
    Sep 24, 2017 at 22:14
  • @bradimus I've edited. My question may be too broad, I'm just a bit lost in my research and looking for an answer.
    – Zenon
    Sep 24, 2017 at 22:18
  • "To clarify, I am referring to the early church before it was formally recognized by Rome in A.D. 311/313". Recognized as what? Sep 24, 2017 at 22:25
  • The edit helps, but I don't think it changes my comment about the Orthodox and Catholic differing on this point. Catholics would assert the universal jurisdiction of Rome from the beginning. The Orthodox would see Rome as the first among equals, but in no way supreme.
    – bradimus
    Sep 24, 2017 at 22:27
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    If by "the Catholic Church' you mean all those who accept Papal supremacy then the question becomes trivial. On the other hand if you mean has there ever been a time when all who called themselves Christians accepted Papal supremacy then I didn't think so, I wasn't aware of any time Catholics do not think there wre those who disagreed, but Bradimus may well know better.
    – davidlol
    Sep 24, 2017 at 23:32

2 Answers 2



The history of the Roman Catholic Papacy of course is long and convoluted, but we can briefly touch on various events, time markers, and players on the stage during the first 500 years of Christianity that help shape and define the idea.

Let’s start with a definition of Papacy. The Papacy is the office of Pope of the Roman Catholic Church extending from the apostle Peter to the present Pope. As such, the Pope is the supreme head of the whole Church with complete authority over matters of doctrine and practice (faith and morals). The Papacy relies on the ideas of Peter as “rock”, a unique power to “bind and loose”, and possession of the “keys to the kingdom”.

Was there a time when most of Christianity recognized this supreme authority? Kind of, but not really. Sources follow comments.


As mentioned, the Papacy took time to fully develop, but hints of it surfaced within the first generation. Clement of Rome wrote an epistle circa 95 CE that suggests that one "tribe" will have a priestly authority, as Levi did over the other 11 tribes. The power to forgive sins, of course, is the whole point of authority.

In 155 CE, Anicetus of Rome and Polycarp of Smyrna argued over the observance of Passover (aka Easter). In 175 CE, Victor of Rome attempted to excommunicate all of Asia Minor led by Polycrates over the same issue. It was not until the Council of Nicea ruled with Constantine as its guarantee in 325 CE that the Roman view of Easter prevailed. It took the State’s authority to force a certain spiritual authority at this early stage.

Tertullian circa 195 CE follows in the footsteps of those who disagreed with Rome’s budding authority. He first mentions how Rome was usurping the authority given to Peter alone. Cyprian circa 220 CE will quickly follow, but in a positive note of Rome’s authority; that is, it is necessary as a visible unity of the Church. In the next breath, however, Cyprian will maintain the right of the bishops to disagree with heresy wherever it arises, as they did over the validity of heretical baptism.


Evidently it was in Leo the Great, however, when the full Papacy idea had completely blossomed. This was circa 450 CE. This is the time when even Alexandria will fully comply and acknowledge the Easter times of Rome. The argument used was how could Mark, Peter’s successor, teach something in Alexandria that was not taught in Rome? Disagree and there goes one’s claim to being an apostolic church.

Besides, Pope Leo successfully persuaded Attila the Hun from invading. Who could argue God wasn’t on his side?


The doctrine or more loosely the idea of “papal supremacy” residing in Rome predates Nicea. We clearly see Pope Victor of Rome exercising this supremacy, although the rest of the Church disagreed with him. We also understand Tertullian and Cyprian seeing Rome claiming this authority. Again though, while Rome may claim it, the rest of the Church does not completely agree with it. One may claim supreme authority, but that doesn’t mean one checks their brain at the door against heresy.

Yet in Leo the Great, the Papacy is fully known and exercised with at least all of the Church submitting. No doubt individuals would disagree, but the patriarchs of Alexandria, Jerusalem, Constantinople, and Antioch would evidently all submit. Even still there was one exception to this authority who came to be the Oriental Orthodoxy. This was “sub groups” within a couple of the patriarchs. Of course, 500 years later, the Eastern Orthodox will also disagree. 500 years after that, the Protestants also disagree.

Rome clearly believes in its Papacy. It has done so for some 2,000 years as the idea of an “authority” over the whole with binding and loosing powers and the keys to the kingdom surfaces within the first generations after the final apostle’s death and carries through today. The rest of Christendom, however, never really agreed with the view from Rome.


http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11451b.htm https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_papacy http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p123a9p4.htm







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    What is the difference here between agreeing with and submitting to? I don't think it was it true that at the time of Pope Leo that the Eastern patriarchs accepted him as their superior and that he had authority to intervene in the affairs of their sees when not appealed to.
    – Ian
    Sep 26, 2017 at 1:46
  • Thank you for the answer! I'm thinking this is probably the best answer available to us through history as we know it today. I really appreciate the time you put into answering and providing sources.
    – Zenon
    Sep 26, 2017 at 14:53

St Irenaeus of Lyon, in his AD 180 attack on the Gnostics called Adversus Haereses, in Book III, chapter 3, paragraph 2, mentions the special place of the Church of Rome among the others:

  1. Since, however, it would be very tedious, in such a volume as this, to reckon up the successions of all the Churches, we do put to confusion all those who, in whatever manner, whether by an evil self-pleasing, by vainglory, or by blindness and perverse opinion, assemble in unauthorized meetings; [we do this, I say,] by indicating that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its preeminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere.

Later on, in the documents of the Ecumenical Councils, there are the signatures of the attending dignitaries; and in all cases, first comes the signature of the Emperor, as the caller of the first seven Councils. Right after him, comes the signature of the "Pope of Old Rome", and after him the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople; and then the other Patriarchs and Bishops. Even in those Canons which Rome has declined to recognise, like Trullo, the space is there, blank. This is a sign of how in those days, the See of Rome was seen as having priority over the other Sees, even the one of the then-Imperial Capital.

Naturally, our Orthodox brothers argue over the extent of that priority, and they will definitely contest the use of the term Supremacy, but certainly from the deepest antiquity Rome had a special place among the Churches.

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    I'm not sure this demonstrates that papal supremacy was universally accepted_ (leaving aside if that was even Irenaeus's intent).
    – bradimus
    Sep 25, 2017 at 16:26
  • @bradimus Well, definitely the Gnostics disputed that, but as much as one can say that there was an orthodoxy in those days, it recognised Roman priority (though the extent of that priority is something that would be challenged in following Centuries, after the conversion of the Empire).
    – Wtrmute
    Sep 25, 2017 at 17:58

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