The Precedent for Papal Supremacy
Whereas the second century Church focused most of its attention upon heresies, the third century Church began to see open corruption in the Church, particularly beginning with the Church in Rome. Interestingly enough, this corruption manifested immediately after Bishop Victor put the Roman Church on the path toward its claim of sovereignty over the other bishops in the Church.
If you recall, I have taken note of Philip Schaff's view that the Papacy had evolved in three steps represented by Ignatius, Irenaeus, and Cyprian. Schaff credits Cyprian with solidifying the view that Church membership was necessary for salvation, saying that it led to the final step—that salvation was possible only when in fellowship with the Roman Church.
Obviously, Cyprian would not have made that final leap, for he himself was a critic of the Roman bishops on various issues, as Schaff himself acknowledges. It was left to others to attribute salvation to the word of the Roman pontiff. As I said, the precedent for that view actually began fifty years earlier with Victor.
Let me quote Joseph McCabe for a moment. McCabe went to seminary to become a Roman Catholic priest back in the 1890's, but soon was so disillusioned that he left the seminary and the Church and became an avowed atheist. He could not take the hypocrisy and immorality at the school. Anyway, he wrote many books opposing Catholicism, including A History of the Popes in 1939.
I have found that it is always helpful to read opposing viewpoints, because each side digs out facts that the other side would rather suppress. In reading both sides, we tend to get more of the truth, even if each side uses the facts according to their own particular biases. McCabe writes on p. 39,
“The Bishop of Carthage and head of the African Church at the time was Cyprian, one of the most esteemed of the Latin Fathers. Because he somewhere acknowledges that the Roman is ‘the principle Church’ and ‘the source of sacerdotal unity,’ Catholic apologists unanimously quote him as one who recognized the Pope's supremacy. Yet we still have the lengthy letters which Cyprian wrote to Cornelius and his successor, and in these Cyprian, from first to last, scornfully repudiates the Roman claim to have any sort of authority in Africa.”
You see, Zephyrinus and especially his successor, Callistus (218-222), had lowered the moral standards for fellowship in the Church. This steady decline was greatly resisted by the other “holiness” bishops, including Cyprian. Cyprian excommunicated certain corrupt priests under him, and refused to allow them to be reinstated in the ministry. But those priests went to Rome to appeal their case to Cornelius, the “grace” bishop, who was much more lenient. Cyprian writes to the bishop of Rome to give his side of the story. McCabe writes of this on page 40,
“He assures Cornelius [Roman bishop, 251-253] that the priests who have appealed to him are 'a band of desperadoes' whom he had very properly excommunicated. He describes ‘the pseudo-bishop’ who accompanies them as ‘an embezzler of money entrusted to him, the violator of virgins, the destroyer and corruptor of many marriages.’ They have appealed to Rome only because, since the days of Callistus, absolution is cheap there, and the Pope had no right to listen to them. ‘For,’ he says, (Ep. 14), ‘it is decreed by all of us, and is equally fair and just, that the case of every man should be judged where the crime was committed.’
“A few years later Cyprian sent a contemptuous letter (Ep. LXVII) to the successor of Cornelius, Pope Stephen. The Bishop of Arles has joined the Novatianists, and the other bishops of Gaul have appealed to the Pope to condemn him. Another proof of recognition of Papal supremacy, says the apologist. Yet it is plainly stated in Cyprian's letter that the bishops of Gaul have appealed equally to Carthage and Rome, and Cyprian is scolding the Pope because he has not done his part. ‘We who hold the balance in governing the Church’ is Cyprian's description of himself and the Roman Bishop. Pope Stephen, another pompous mediocrity, threatens anathemas, and Cyprian gathers his eighty African bishops in council; and they sent (Ep. LXXII) as disdainful a reply to the Pope's claim as any Protestant would make today. They wrote: —
“ ‘We judge no man, and we cut off no man for differing from us. None of us regards himself as the Bishop of Bishops or seeks by tyrannical threats to compel his colleagues to obey him.’
“Cyprian, the greatest Christian leader of the third century, head of one of the chief branches of the Church and more famous for learning and piety than any Pope in four centuries, wrote pages in this vein; and Rome retorted by calling him ‘a false Christ’ and ‘false Apostle’ and refused hospitality to his envoys. Yet I do not know a single Catholic writer who does not claim that Cyprian recognized the supremacy of the Pope!”
That is quite an indictment. It is no wonder that many have sought to conceal these Cyprian epistles.