Peter and Succession | by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
Peter and Succession | by Cardinal
To Communion: Understanding the Church Today
note: This is the second half of a chapter titled "The Primacy of Peter
and Unity of the Church." The first half examines the status of Peter in
the New Testament and the commission logion contained in Matthew 16:17-19.
The principle of succession in general
That the primacy of Peter is recognizable in all the major strands of the
New Testament is incontestable.
The real difficulty arises when we come to the second question: Can the
idea of a Petrine succession be justified? Even more difficult is the third
question that is bound up with it: Can the Petrine succession of Rome be
Concerning the first question, we must first of all note that there is no
explicit statement regarding the Petrine succession in the New Testament.
This is not surprising, since neither the Gospels nor the chief Pauline
epistles address the problem of a postapostolic Churchwhich, by the
way, must be mentioned as a sign of the Gospels' fidelity to tradition.
Indirectly, however, this problem can be detected in the Gospels once we
admit the principle of form critical method according to which only what
was considered in the respective spheres of tradition as somehow meaningful
for the present was preserved in writing as such. This would mean, for example,
that toward the end of the first century, when Peter was long dead, John
regarded the former's primacy, not as a thing of the past, but as a present
reality for the Church.
For many even believethough perhaps with a
little too much imaginationthat they have good grounds for interpreting
the "competition" between Peter and the beloved disciple as an echo of
the tensions between Rome's claim to primacy and the sense of dignity
possessed by the Churches of Asia Minor. This would certainly be a very
early and, in addition, inner-biblical proof that Rome was seen as continuing
the Petrine line; but we should in no case rely on such uncertain hypotheses.
The fundamental idea, however, does seem to me correct, namely, that the
traditions of the New Testament never reflect an interest of purely historical
curiosity but are bearers of present reality and in that sense constantly
rescue things from the mere past, without blurring the special status
of the origin.
Moreover, even scholars who deny the principle itself have propounded
hypotheses of succession. 0. Cullmann, for example, objects in a very
clear-cut fashion to the idea of succession, yet he believes that he can
Show that Peter was replaced by James and that this latter assumed the
primacy of the erstwhile first apostle. Bultmann believes that he is correct
in concluding from the mention of the three pillars in Galatians 2:9 that
the course of development led away from a personal to a collegial leadership
and that a college entered upon the succession of Peter. 
We have no need to discuss these hypotheses and
others like them; their foundation is weak enough. Nevertheless, they
do show that it is impossible to avoid the idea of succession once the
word transmitted in Scripture is considered to be a sphere open to the
future. In those writings of the New Testament that stand on the cusp
of the second generation or else already belong to it-especially in the
Acts of the Apostles and in the Pastoral Lettersthe principle of
succession does in fact take on concrete shape.
The Protestant notion that the "succession" consists
solely in the word as such, but not in any "structures", is proved to
be anachronistic in light of what in actual fact is the form of tradition
in the New Testament. The word is tied to the witness, who guarantees
it an unambiguous sense, which it does not possess as a mere word floating
in isolation. But the witness is not an individual who stands independently
on his own. He is no more a wit ness by virtue of himself and of his own
powers of memory than Peter can be the rock by his own strength. He is
not a witness as "flesh and blood" but as one who is linked to the Pneuma,
the Paraclete who authenticates the truth and opens up the memory and,
in his turn, binds the witness to Christ. For the Paraclete does not speak
of himself, but he takes from "what is his" (that is, from what is Christ's:
Jn 16: 13).
This binding of the witness to the Pneuma and to his mode of being-"not
of himself, but what he hears" -is called "sacrament" in the language
of the Church. Sacrament designates a threefold knot-word, witness, Holy
Spirit and Christ-which describes the essential structure of succession
in the New Testament. We can infer with certainty from the testimony of
the Pastoral Letters and of the Acts of the Apostles that the apostolic
generation already gave to this interconnection of person and word in
the believed presence of the Spirit and of Christ the form of the laying
on of hands.
The Petrine succession in Rome
In opposition to the New Testament pattern of succession described above,
which withdraws the word from human manipulation precisely by binding
witnesses into its service, there arose very early on an intellectual
and anti-institutional model known historically by the name of Gnosis,
which made the free interpretation and speculative development of the
word its principle. Before long the appeal to individual witnesses no
longer sufficed to counter the intellectual claim advanced by this tendency.
It became necessary to have fixed points by which to orient the testimony
itself, and these were found in the so-called apostolic sees, that is,
in those where the apostles had been active. The apostolic sees became
the reference point of true communio. But among these sees there was in
turnquite clearly in Irenaeus of Lyonsa decisive criterion
that recapitulated all others: the Church of Rome, where Peter and Paul
suffered martyrdom. It was with this Church that every community had to
agree; Rome was the standard of the authentic apostolic tradition as a
Moreover, Eusebius of Caesarea organized the first version of his ecclesiastical
history in accord with the same principle. It was to be a written record
of the continuity of apostolic succession, which was concentrated in the
three Petrine sees Rome, Antioch and Alexandria-among which Rome, as the
site of Peter's martyrdom, was in turn preeminent and truly normative.
This leads us to a very fundamental observation.  The Roman primacy,
or, rather, the acknowledgement of Rome as the criterion of the right
apostolic faith, is older than the canon of the New Testament, than "Scripture".
We must be on our guard here against an almost inevitable
illusion. "Scripture" is more recent than "the scriptures" of which it
is composed. It was still a long time before the existence of the individual
writings resulted in the "New Testament" as Scripture, as the Bible. The
assembling of the writings into a single Scripture is more properly speaking
the work of tradition, a work that began in the second century but came
to a kind of conclusion only in the fourth or fifth century. Harnack,
a witness who cannot be suspected of pro-Roman bias, has remarked in this
regard that it was only at the end of the second century, in Rome, that
a canon of the "books of the New Testament" won recognition by the criterion
of apostolicity-catholicity, a criterion to which the other Churches also
gradually subscribed "for the sake of its intrinsic value and on the strength
of the authority of the Roman Church".
We can therefore say that Scripture became Scripture
through the tradition, which precisely in this process included the potentior
principalitasthe preeminent original authorityof the Roman
see as a constitutive element.
Two points emerge clearly from what has just been First, the principle
of tradition in its sacramental form-apostolic successionplayed
a constitutive role in the existence and continuance of the Church. Without
this principle, it is impossible to conceive of a New Testament at all,
so that we are caught in a contradiction when we affirm the one while
wanting to deny the other. Furthermore, we have seen that in Rome the
traditional series of bishops was from the very beginning recorded as
a line of successors.
We can add that Rome and Antioch were conscious
of succeeding to the mission of Peter and that early on Alexandria was
admitted into the circle of Petrine sees as the city where Peter's disciple
Mark had been active. Having said all that, the site of Peter's martyrdom
nonetheless appears clearly as the chief bearer of his supreme authority
and plays a preeminent role in the formation of tradition which is constitutive
of the Church-and thus in the genesis of the New Testament as Bible; Rome
is one of the indispensable internal and external- conditions of its possibility.
It would be exciting to trace the influence on this process of the idea
that the mission of Jerusalem had passed over to Rome, which explains
why at first Jerusalem was not only not a "patriarchal see" but not even
a metropolis: Jerusalem was now located in Rome, and since Peter's departure
from that city, its primacy had been transferred to the capital of the
pagan world. 
But to consider this in detail would lead us too far afield for the moment.
The essential point, in my opinion, has already become plain: the martyrdom
of Peter in Rome fixes the place where his function continues. The awareness
of this fact can be detected as early as the first century in the Letter
of Clement, even though it developed but slowly in all its particulars.
We shall break off at this point, for the chief goal of our considerations
has been attained. We have seen that the New Testament as a whole strikingly
demonstrates the primacy of Peter; we have seen that the formative development
of tradition and of the Church supposed the continuation of Peter's authority
in Rome as an intrinsic condition. The Roman primacy is not an invention
of the popes, but an essential element of ecclesial unity that goes back
to the Lord and was developed faithfully in the nascent Church.
But the New Testament shows us more than the formal aspect of a structure;
it also reveals to us the inward nature of this structure. It does not
merely furnish proof texts, it is a permanent criterion and task. It depicts
the tension between skandalon and rock; in the very disproportion
between man's capacity and God's sovereign disposition, it reveals God
to be the one who truly acts and is present.
If in the course of history the attribution of such
authority to men could repeatedly engender the not entirely unfounded
suspicion of human arrogation of power, not only the promise of the New
Testament but also the trajectory of that history itself prove the opposite.
The men in question are so glaringly, so blatantly unequal to this function
that the very empowerment of man to be the rock makes evident how little
it is they who sustain the Church but God alone who does so, who does
so more in spite of men than through them.
The mystery of the Cross is perhaps nowhere so palpably
present as in the primacy as a reality of Church history. That its center
is forgiveness is both its intrinsic condition and the sign of the distinctive
character of God's power. Every single biblical logion about the primacy
thus remains from generation to generation a signpost and a norm, to which
we must ceaselessly resubmit ourselves. When the Church adheres to these
words in faith, she is not being triumphalistic but humbly recognizing
in wonder and thanksgiving the victory of God over and through human weakness.
Whoever deprives these words of their force for fear of triumphalism or
of human usurpation of authority does not proclaim that God is greater
but diminishes him, since God demonstrates the power of his love, and
thus remains faithful to the law of the history of salvation, precisely
in the paradox of human impotence.
For with the same realism with which we declare today the sins of the
popes and their disproportion to the magnitude of their commission, we
must also acknowledge that Peter has repeatedly stood as the rock against
ideologies, against the dissolution of the word into the plausibilities
of a given time, against subjection to the powers of this world.
When we see this in the facts of history, we are not celebrating men but
praising the Lord, who does not abandon the Church and who desired to
manifest that he is the rock through Peter, the little stumbling stone:
"flesh and blood" do not save, but the Lord saves through those who are
of flesh and blood. To deny this truth is not a plus of faith, not a plus
of humility, but is to shrink from the humility that recognizes God as
he is. Therefore the Petrine promise and its historical embodiment in
Rome remain at the deepest level an ever-renewed motive for joy: the powers
of hell will not prevail against it . . .
 Die Geschichte der synoptischen Tradition, 2d ed. (198 1),
147- 51; cf. Gnilka, 56.
 For an exhaustive account of this point, see V. Twomey, Apostolikos
Thronos (Münster, 1982).
 It is my hope that in the not-too-distant future I will have the opportunity
to develop and substantiate in greater detail the view of the succession
that I attempt to indicate in an extremely condensed form in what follows.
I owe important suggestions to several works by 0. Karrer, especially:
Um die Einheit der Christen. Die Petrusfrage (Frankfurt
am Mainz, 1953); "Apostolische Nachfolge und Primat", in: Feiner, Trütsch
and Böckle, Fragen in der Theologie heute (Freiburg im.Breisgau,
1957), 175-206; "Das Petrusamt in der Frühkirche", in Festgabe
J. Lortz (Baden-Baden, 1958), 507-25; "Die biblische und altkirchliche
Grundlage des Papsttums", in: Lebendiges Zeugnis (1958), 3-24.
Also of importance are some of the papers in the festschrift for 0. Karrer:
Begegnung der Christen, ed. by Roesle-Cullmann (Frankfurt am Mainz,
1959); in particular, K. Hofstetter, "Das Petrusamt in der Kirche des
I. und 2. Jahrhunderts", 361-72.
 Cf. Hofstetter.
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Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, was for over two decades
the Prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith under Pope
John Paul II. He is a renowned theologian and author of numerous books.
A mini-bio and full listing of his books published by Ignatius Press are
available on his IgnatiusInsight.com
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