Arts & Books

A scholarly examination of the long, anxious quarrel over St Peter

St Peter Freed by an Angel (1639) by Spanish Tenebrist painter Jusepe de Ribera

The Invention of Peter
by George E Demacopoulos
University of Pennsylvania, £45
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Peter’s association with the city of Rome was much discussed from the earliest days of the Church but, according to George Demacopoulos, it took the popes a long time to take full advantage of this link with the apostolic past. Demacopoulos focuses on the period between Leo the Great (reigned 440-461) and Gregory the Great (590-604). The idea of a direct succession from Peter to the bishops of Rome had certainly existed before this era, but it now took on heightened importance. Mentions of St Peter began to appear with increasing frequency in papal sermons and correspondence. When a theological point had to be made, papal teaching was equated with Peter’s teaching. This was a rich source of legitimacy, and challenges to papal authority could be cast as betrayals of authentic Christian tradition. To disagree with the pope was to disagree with St Peter.

Popes like Leo and Gregory did not overplay their hand, however. They exhibited impressive subtlety when deploying the Petrine trope. This was astute, because not everyone in Christendom was entirely convinced by papal claims. When writing to an Eastern Church leader for the first time, for example, it was risky to hammer home the idea of being Peter’s heir. It was wise to keep one’s powder dry and reserve talk of the Petrine succession for crucial battles. Demacopoulos also makes the interesting point that popes tended to mention the Petrine link when they were in positions of “anxiety or weakness”. This was not uncommon at a time when papal authority, even in the West, was “intermittent and often contested”. There was an obvious logic to invoking the name of Peter when facing challenges in Gaul, North Africa, Sicily or even Rome itself.

Demacopoulos, therefore, sees the expansion of the Petrine idea as, in large part, a defensive mechanism. We often read about the unbroken and inevitable rise of papal power from late antiquity to the Middle Ages, but Demacopoulos argues that the road was decidedly rocky. There was a huge gap between papal aspirations and the historical reality, so a reliable source of rhetorical ammunition came in very handy.

Demacopoulos makes an intriguing case and his research is painstaking. There are outstanding sections on Leo cautiously including Petrine themes in his sermons and Gregory turning to Peter’s shrine and relics as sources of ritualistic legitimisation. Equally enlightening is the analysis of how Petrine themes became embroiled in the chaotic events following the death of Anastasius II in 498 and the squabbles between two rival popes, the deacon Symmachus and the priest Laurentius. Demacopoulos is also very good on how other Christians responded to Petrine claims. When, say, an Eastern Church leader was in a bad mood with Rome, he had little time for talk of papal succession from Peter. When he wanted to flatter Rome, such ideas were suddenly treated seriously and respectfully in official correspondence.

This is all fascinating, though there is a risk of turning the whole story into a tale of wily strategising. It is presumably not unreasonable to suggest that bishops of Rome laid stress on their position as heirs of St Peter because they believed this to be true and that this belief derived from heartfelt devotion. That said, Demacopoulos’s admirable book sheds light on a confusing period in papal history. It is always sobering to remember that the bishops of Rome faced many obstacles and rivals on their journey to primacy. This is what makes their success all the more impressive and, from a Catholic perspective, all the more authentic. Popes had to work hard to become, well, popes rather than merely bishops of what was, back in late antiquity, a faded city. That’s precisely why an epithet like “great” suits people like Leo I and Gregory I.

This article first appeared in The Catholic Herald magazine (5/12/14)