One Quote from St. Ignatius Converted this Guy to Catholicism?

The Martyrdom of St. Ignatius of Antioch (From Wikimedia Commons)
The Martyrdom of St. Ignatius of Antioch
(From Wikimedia Commons)

I happened upon this article today. Here’s an excerpt:

Like St. Paul before him, St. Ignatius, in his capacity as Bishop of Antioch, is writing with authority against those who break off from the Church founded by Christ.

Anyone, says Ignatius, who walks in heresy—that is, against the teachings of Ignatius and the other appointed Bishops—is, alarmingly, “out of sympathy with the Passion.”

An incredibly stark picture indeed and an incredible demonstration of authority which made one thing very clear to me: Bishops in the Early Church had an authority derived from Christ.

What’s more, breaking from communion with that authoritative structure—striking out on one’s own and dissenting from the Church’s teachings—was expressly condemned in the strongest sense by Ignatius.

Christians would work break off from the Early Church were seen to be “out of sympathy” with Christ and the authoritative structure He put in place.

It was clear.

Read all of “This One Quote Convinced Me to Convert to Catholicism.”

As someone who just finished writing a book on St. Ignatius (due out, God willing, early in 2017, from Ancient Faith Publishing, and titled Bearing God), let me paste in my brief passage which talks precisely about the Roman papacy and St. Ignatius:


…the modern Roman Catholic vision of Church unity being defined by subjection to a worldwide bishop in Rome is not found in Ignatius’s writings. We saw how he described his friend Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna as “one who has God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ as his bishop” (To Polycarp, Salutation). He does not say that Polycarp has the bishop of Rome for his bishop nor even a regional Asian primate (i.e., a senior bishop in his area). Being a bishop, Polycarp’s bishop is God.

With all that Ignatius has to say about the episcopacy and especially about unity, he had the perfect opportunity to insist on a worldwide pontificate for Rome’s bishop. Rome was certainly on his mind, since he was traveling there to be martyred as Peter and Paul had been before him. Yet in his six letters addressed to churches, it is only his letter to Rome in which he does not even mention their bishop (who was probably either St. Evaristus or St. Alexander I). In the other five letters to churches, the bishop is mentioned, and in three of them, the bishop is mentioned by name. When writing to the Roman Christians, he does mention Peter, but equally with Paul as both are apostles who could give them “orders,” while Ignatius himself would never presume to do that (Romans 4:3). In Ignatius’s writings, there is never any special role given to the Roman bishop or the Roman church, nor even to the Apostle Peter.

And when he writes to Rome, he does not ask the Roman bishop to send a bishop to Antioch to replace him. Rather, he makes that request of Polycarp and his church in Smyrna:

It is fitting, Polycarp most blessed by God, to summon a council most fit for God which will appoint someone whom you [plural] regard as especially dear to you and zealous, someone who can be called God’s courier, and will judge him worthy to go to Syria and glorify your zealous love to the glory of God. (To Polycarp 7:2)

He does mention this new vacancy in the Antiochian episcopacy to the Romans, but he says that it now “has God for its shepherd instead of me. Only Jesus Christ will be its bishop—and your love” (Romans 9:1).

This absence of support in Ignatius for the modern papacy does not itself constitute a full argument against papal supremacy (since, as I believe, Ignatius had no need to argue against any such thing). But it is at least a worthwhile data point in considering whether that dogma of the Roman Catholic Church finds support in the early Church.


Bearing God isn’t a work of apologetics (it’s a reading of Ignatius’s letters with an eye toward how they apply to us), but I did think this issue was worth a few paragraphs. I’m a little mystified as to how this fellow read what he did and came away deciding to be a Roman Catholic. It seems that, for him, talk about bishops, schism, heresy and the Eucharist was only associated with Rome.

The Orthodox do have a few things to say about that stuff, too.

32 comments:

  1. So then, he intended for all of these many break offs? The thousands? At what point does the loose coalition end, and a myriad of splinter groups begin?

  2. Fr Damick,

    As a Catholic, I cringe when those on my side try to squeeze out evidence for Papal primacy out of instances like this. But I will say that St. Ignatius does give us the following :

    (1) Unity with Christ is contingent upon eating the Bread of God
    (2) Eating the bread of God is contingent upon partaking of the Altar
    (3) Partaking of the altar is contingent upon communion with the Bishop

    But St. Ignatius does answer this question:

    (1) Who is a bishop?

    So one could use Ignatius to try and justify a schism, but we know that this would be to no avail. Later documentary evidence would prove to Catholic interpreters that communion with Rome was especially necessary for the mark of Catholicity.

  3. The primacy of the Bishop of Rome as the “first among equals” was really a non-issue until the institution of Charlemagne as a new Roman emperor in the 9th century. This was a time of great division in the Church. Rome and Byzantium were at odds theologically and missiologically. Charlemagne expanded the Roman realm in the West, while the likes of Cyril and Methodius pushed the Church’s mission to the Slavs until it all culminated in the events of 1054. To suggest that the primacy of Rome was present in the theology of Ignatius is a stretch.

  4. Fr. Andrew,

    I’ve recently been reading a few articles from theologians of the EP and they are really stressing the necessity of being in communion WITH (rather than subjection TO) a universal, or world-wide primus. Take the quote below as an example:

    “When I was a seminarian in Athens, I was taught that, unlike the Roman Church, the highest authority in the Orthodox Church— the one authority with absolute power to decide dogmatic and canonical matters— is an interpersonal (and thus impersonal) body: the ecumenical council. By asserting such a claim, the Orthodox present a not-so-implicit critique against papal primacy, which is often caricatured as a centralized, imperialistic, and therefore totalitarian and oppressive ecclesiology. In opposition to such a structure, the Orthodox take pride in what they consider a more democratic structure. They give, however, little or no thought to the fact that the synod as a manifold body presupposes the office of the One— that is, the one primus who, although inter pares as far as his sacramental faculty is concerned, remains nevertheless unequal in his primacy…There is no either/ or distinction between conciliarity and primacy. No council is conceivable without a primus. Philosophically speaking, the emphasis on primacy conforms with the idea that the ‘one’ (in this case, the primus) is both logically, ontologically, and “chronologically” prior to the ‘many’ (the synod)…

    Ecclesiologically too, then, the principle of unity for all and each of the three levels of ecclesial structure must be a person, a primus. Here, I invoke the unambiguous witness of the metropolitan Elpidophoros (Lambriniadis) of Bursa, who, as the Chief-Secretary of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, delivered an important speech at the Chapel of the Holy Cross Theological School in Brookline, saying the following: ‘Let me add that the refusal to recognize primacy within the Orthodox Church, a primacy that necessarily cannot but be embodied by a primus (that is by a bishop who has the prerogative of being the first among his fellow bishops) constitutes nothing less than heresy. It cannot be accepted, as often it is said, that unity among the Orthodox Churches is safeguarded either by a common norm of faith and worship or by the Ecumenical Council as an institution. Both of these factors are impersonal while in our Orthodox theology the principle of unity is always a person’…

    The denial of the need for investing a particular person with the ministry of universal primacy is tantamount tantamount to the way that some Orthodox scholars have attempted to interpret the primacy of Peter in Matt 16: 18– 19 as referring not to Peter’s person, but to his confession. We witness here the same error of de-personalization that we see in the attempts to assign primacy based on the rule of faith, the common rite, or the Ecumenical Synod, to name only a few examples.”

    Manoussakis, John Panteleimon (2015-03-04). For the Unity of All: Contributions to the Theological Dialogue between East and West (Kindle Locations 815-822, 833-836, 883-892, 912-916). Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.

    If I’m reading Fr. John and others correctly, this sounds like a modified version of “the modern Roman Catholic vision of Church unity being defined by subjection to a worldwide bishop”. If we to belong to the Church, according to this paradigm, one must be in communion with his local bishop, metropolitan and most importantly with the universal primus. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew (a person and not even the office), therefore, is the guarantor of Orthodox unity. This definitely runs counter, or is at least out of balance, to popular taught and held Orthodox ecclesiology. What is your opinion of a single person (primus) as the highest authority and expression of unity in the Church?

    1. I have no problem with primacy, even a primacy with a certain authority. The problem is when it is absolutized such that communion with one man is a necessary element of catholicity.

      The Orthodox refuse Rome’s absolutization of that primacy (among other reasons) because of people like Honorius, Pope of Rome. We should likewise refuse it because of people like Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople.

      1. Fr Andrew Damick,

        Correct me if I am wrong with understanding your point of view in this post above.

        It seems you are making the following equation

        Absolutization upon X = communion with X is necessary for Catholicity

        What would be X in the above for the Orthodox Churches? In other words, what have the Orthodox absolutized?

        Thank you

          1. Fr Andrew Damick

            But surely, if the equation I drew above, which was drawn from your own statement above (please, let me know if I’ve misunderstood you), is correct, then there might not be 1 thing which is absolutized, but there must be a sum of 2 or more things. If this is denied, then it would appear that you are saying the the Orthodox do not have to do anything to be in communion with the Katholikos.

          2. But your equation wasn’t actually drawn from what I said. My statement was a criticism of absolutization, not an endorsement of substituting one absolute for another.

            Also, I wasn’t using “katholikos” as an object. It’s simply the Greek basis for “catholic,” which is about wholeness, not about a single, sufficient criterion.

            Catholicity isn’t the result of a “sum” of anything.

      2. Fr Andrew Damick,

        Ok, so I will withdraw the use of the equation.

        What then must human beings be in order to be in full communion with the one true Church?

          1. Faith in the Holy Trinity, the Cross and One Holy Church in Christ, communion with an “assured” or “valid” bishop in Apostolic Succesion, communion with the Saints in the Orthodox faith, participation in the Mysteries, love of the brethren, love of truth, deeds of repentance, etc, etc, etc, etc.

      3. That one must be in communion with a universal primus to be catholic is indeed a necessary element in this mode of thought. I was taught that St. Ignatius’ ecclesiology: bishop + clergy + people = Catholic Church was our fundamental ecclesiology, and that bishops in council guided by the Spirit was one of our highest sources of authority. St. Justin Popovic demonstrates the teaching I received:

        “…the Orthodox Church, in its nature and its dogmatically unchanging constitution is episcopal and centred in the bishops. For the bishop and the faithful gathered around him are the expression and manifestation of the Church as the Body of Christ, especially in the Holy Liturgy: the Church is Apostolic and Catholic only by virtue of its bishops, insofar as they are the heads of true ecclesiastical units, the dioceses. At the same time, the other, historically later and variable forms of church organisation of the Orthodox Church: the metropolias, archdioceses, patriarchates, pentarchias, autocephalies, autonomies, etc., however many there may be or shall be, cannot have and do not have a determining and decisive significance in the conciliar system of the Orthodox Church. Furthermore, they may constitute an obstacle in the correct functioning of the conciliar principle if they obstruct and reject the episcopal character and structure of the Church and of the Churches. Here, undoubtedly, is to be found the primary difference between Orthodox and papal ecclesiology.”

        This recent emphasis on a primus is vexing. Who was the primus that guaranteed the Apostolic Council in Acts? The Apostles said “The Holy Spirit and us” about themselves in council, not the Holy Spirit and the Primus. I also want to know just find it really strange.

  5. The Catholic Church does not compare the absolute criteria for communion with the Church with mathematics. Our Lord Jesus made something absolute when he said “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mark 16). Entrance into the Church via baptism, is necessary per Jesus Christ our Lord. Not every thing that has a *must* in it should be compared with the obsession with the rational methodology of the West.

    1. Eric,

      If I understand your argument correctly, then I think that you misunderstood part of what Fr. Andrew was saying.

      Of course it is true that in certain cases, something is absolutely required. Let’s grant your argument above that belief is necessary. As I understand it, belief means some combination of intellectual assent, trust, and commitment. I do not know that we could get a checklist that meets the following standards:

      a) Every item on the list is clear, transparent, and easily identifiable.
      b) Anyone who meets all the items on the list counts as believing.
      c) Anyone who does not meet all the items on this does not count as believing.

      (The term that we use in philosophy is “necessary and sufficient conditions”.)

      I think that Fr. Andrew is leaving open the possibility that we could say that certain things are necessary and/or sufficient. These claims would provide some further clarity. However, they would not get us to the level of sharp clarity that we would get from the kind of checklist that I describe. Some of the terms will make things clear, but still leave us with a good number of cases where we can not easily tell if the criteria have been met.

  6. I wonder if the author of the article has ever come across the 34th apostolic canon. Maybe that’s all it would take for him to convert to Orthodoxy!

  7. If I were to come into Orthodoxy, it would be because of Eucharistic theology, and Asceticism.

    Right now, in Rome, the fact that there’s even an idea among “bishops” and “priests” that sodomites and adulterers should be allowed to communion infuriates me.

    There is also some wishy-washy notion of asceticism in the Catholic Church, as there has NEVER been a development in ascetical theology in the Catholic world, outside self-flagellation, now viewed as “Medieval” and “Backwards.”

    I don’t know anything about St. Ignatius or St. Polycarp; in fact, it may very well be that anyone who quotes them might either misinterpret, misunderstood, or forged whatever they said in the same way some Orthodox people like to accuse any apology for the Papacy taken from patristic sources as either “mistranslated from the Greek” or “Forged for underhanded political reasons.” So I cannot rely on the Church Fathers solely in order to believe in Our Lord and His Church, whichever, Orthodox or Catholic, she may be, but on Christ, and a tangible witness to Him. I am so, so, so tired of internet debates and reading Patristics, because I feel they don’t take me anywhere.

  8. I am a former Roman Catholic, now Orthodox Christian, who came into the Church because of this very issue. Having a very traditionalist background forced me to look deeper into history to try and figure out how the modern crisis in the RCC could possibly have happened.

    What I found was that:

    ” We teach and declare that, according to the gospel evidence, a primacy of jurisdiction over the whole Church of God was immediately and directly promised to the blessed apostle Peter and conferred on him by Christ the lord.”

    “….the holy Apostolic See and the Roman Pontiff hold a world-wide primacy, and that the Roman Pontiff is the successor of blessed Peter, the prince of the apostles, true vicar of Christ, head of the whole Church and father and teacher of all Christian people. To him, in blessed Peter, full power has been given by our lord Jesus Christ to tend, rule and govern the universal Church. All this is to be found in the acts of the ecumenical councils and the sacred canons.”

    ” Wherefore we teach and declare that, by divine ordinance, the Roman Church possesses a pre-eminence of ordinary power over every other Church, and that this jurisdictional power of the Roman Pontiff is both episcopal and immediate. Both clergy and faithful, of whatever rite and dignity, both singly and collectively, are bound to submit to this power by the duty of hierarchical subordination and true obedience, and this not only in matters concerning faith and morals, but also in those which regard the discipline and government of the Church throughout the world.”

    “Since the Roman Pontiff, by the divine right of the apostolic primacy, governs the whole Church, we likewise teach and declare that he is the supreme judge of the faithful [52] , and that in all cases which fall under ecclesiastical jurisdiction recourse may be had to his judgment [53] . The sentence of the Apostolic See (than which there is no higher authority) is not subject to revision by anyone, nor may anyone lawfully pass judgment thereupon[54]. And so they stray from the genuine path of truth who maintain that it is lawful to appeal from the judgments of the Roman pontiffs to an ecumenical council as if this were an authority superior to the Roman Pontiff.”

    have absolutely no support in the life of the Church for the first many centuries of Her existence. How the RCC went from Matt 16:18 to the dogmatic proclamations of Vatican I in 1870 is astounding.

    * All quotes above are from Pastor Aeternus

    1. Hi, Steven:

      I too am a convert from Roman Catholicism to Orthodoxy. I too, believe it or not, was also a die-hard Latin Mass traditionalist, so I can easily understand where you’re coming from. You said this one profound statement: “How the RCC went from Matt 16:18 to the dogmatic proclamation of Vatican I in 1870 is astounding” (2nd to last paragraph). Actually, the answer is complex, but can be summed up in a fairly simple way:

      The threefold papal claim; i.e., universal jurisdiction, supremacy, and infallibility, is something that developed slowly over the course of many centuries, with its beginnings in the mid-9th century and reaching full fruition in the Great Schism of 1054. In essence, Rome’s drift away from communion with Orthodoxy happened very gradually and in several stages, reaching its apex in the 15th century, right before the Protestant Reformation, which was a direct result of the abuses, both political and spiritual, of the Roman Papacy. The papacy entered into a state of decline after the Reformation, but, due to maintaining an anti-Reformationist mindset, never corrected itself or returned to what it had been during the First Millennium of the Undivided Catholic Church.

      People may not realize it, but beliefs, no matter how nuanced, can have profound effects on how things turn out. Having said that, this explains why Roman Catholicism is in such an abysmal state of affairs. In essence, the “crisis of faith” that severely afflicts the Roman Catholic Church from within can be traced back to the developments concerning the Roman Papacy and the effects that this has had upon the episcopacy and ecclesiology.

  9. For all his insistence on the authority of the bishop in the local Church, Ignatius appears to know nothing of a bishop at Rome

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