St. Cyprian on the Unity of the Catholic Church

Sep 16th, 2010 | By | Category: Blog Posts

Today is the memorial of St. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage in North Africa, from about AD 249 until his martrydom on September 14, 258 under the Emperor Valerian.

St. Cyprian of Carthage

When he was a young man, Cyprian was converted from paganism to the Catholic faith by an elderly priest named Caecilianus, who died shortly thereafter. At the time, Cyprian was wealthy. But he sold all his possessions, gave the money to the poor, and became a catechumen. He was baptized on the Easter Vigil, it is believed, in the year 246. Here in this post I offer some thoughts on a few selections from one of his most important works, De catholicae ecclesiae unitate (On the Unity of the Catholic Church).

St. Cyprian begins his treatise by reminding the Carthaginians to be wary of the wiles of the devil, because the danger facing Christians is not only the persecution that comes from outside the Church, but more subtly by the deceptions that come from within, that is, from persons who seem to be allies and who seem to have the truth. Satan, seeing that his idols have been cast down by the Church, devises a new fraud, and under the very title of the Christian name sets out to deceive the incautious. How does he do this?

[He invents] heresies and schisms, whereby he might subvert the faith, might corrupt the truth, might divide the unity. Those whom he cannot keep in the darkness of the old way, he circumvents and deceives by the error of a new way. He snatches men from the Church itself; and while they seem to themselves to have already approached to the light, and to have escaped the night of the world, he pours over them again, in their unconsciousness, new darkness; so that, although they do not stand firm with the Gospel of Christ, and with the observation and law of Christ, they still call themselves Christians, and, walking in darkness, they think that they have the light, while the adversary is flattering and deceiving, who, according to the apostle’s word, transforms himself into an angel of light, and equips his ministers as if they were the ministers of righteousness, who maintain night instead of day, death for salvation, despair under the offer of hope, perfidy under the pretext of faith, antichrist under the name of Christ; so that, while they feign things like the truth, they make void the truth by their subtlety. (De catholicae ecclesiae unitate, 3)

How then are we to avoid these heresies and schisms? St. Cyprian gives the answer straightaway:

If any one consider and examine these things, there is no need for lengthened discussion and arguments. There is easy proof for faith in a short summary of the truth. The Lord speaks to Peter, saying, I say unto you, that you are Peter; and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatsoever you shall bind on earth shall be bound also in heaven, and whatsoever you shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. And again to the same He says, after His resurrection, Feed my sheep. And although to all the apostles, after His resurrection, He gives an equal power, and says, As the Father has sent me, even so send I you: Receive the Holy Ghost: Whose soever sins you remit, they shall be remitted unto him; and whose soever sins you retain, they shall be retained; (John 20:21) yet, that He might set forth unity, He arranged by His authority the origin of that unity, as beginning from one. Assuredly the rest of the apostles were also the same as was Peter, endowed with a like partnership both of honour and power; but the beginning proceeds from unity. (De catholicae ecclesiae unitate, 4)

St. Cyprian’s answer to the question, “How can we hold on to Christ, so as to avoid heresies and schisms?” is to point to the authority Christ invested in St. Peter, through whom the unity of the Church is established and maintained. According to St. Cyprian, “there is no need for lengthened discussions and arguments.” That is because the way to avoid heresy and schism is not essentially a matter of debate or argument, but of authority. St. Peter, by Christ’s ordination, is the origin or principle of the Church’s visible unity. Though all the Apostles were equal as Apostles, yet there is among them a divinely established order, by which they participate in the unity that comes from above. Christ made St. Peter the rock upon which the visible unity of the Church is ever established and preserved. So long as the faithful cling to unity with St. Peter, they thereby avoid the errors of heresy and schism.

What St. Cyprian says here presupposes not only that St. Peter and his successors enjoy a special divine protection from heresy, but also that St. Peter and his successors serve as the Church’s principium unitatis, i.e. the touchstone by which schism is determined, such that in the event of a schism, it is not question-begging which side “went out” and which side is the “us” from which they went out.1 E.g. “You went out from us, because we’re right. No, you went us from us, because we’re right.” etc. For St. Cyprian, the divinely established means of avoiding both heresy and schism, lies in what Jesus gave uniquely to St. Peter and his successors. This is confirmed in what St. Cyprian writes in one of his letters:

After such things as these, moreover, they still dare — a false bishop having been appointed for them by heretics — to set sail and to bear letters from schismatic and profane persons to the throne of Peter, and to the chief Church whence priestly unity takes its source; and not to consider that these were the Romans whose faith was praised in the preaching of the apostle, to whom faithlessness could have no access. (Epistle 54, 14)

In this excerpt from St. Cyprian’s letter, he again refers to both aspects of St. Peter’s role. St. Peter’s throne [i.e. his cathedra or chair] is located in the chief Church (i.e. Rome) from which priestly unity takes its source. Here St. Cyprian is describing the role of St. Peter and his successors as the Church’s principium unitatis in relation to which schism from the Church is defined.2 The visible source not only in time, but also presently in essence, of the unity enjoyed by the Church’s priests, is St. Peter’s unique authority. But St. Cyprian also points to the infallibility of St. Peter and his successors, when he says of this See, “to whom faithlessness could have no access.” It has to be the case that the magisterial touchstone of orthodoxy is inseparable from the principle of visible unity, otherwise we would potentially be forced to choose between the evil of heresy and the evil of schism. But God would never put us in such a situation. If there is to be a divinely established teaching authority, then it must also be the principle of unity. And if there is to be a principle of unity in the Church, then it must be the locus of divinely established teaching authority.3

St. Cyprian continues:

Which one Church, also, the Holy Spirit in the Song of Songs designated in the person of our Lord, and says, “My dove, my spotless one, is but one. She is the only one of her mother, elect of her that bare her.” (Song of Songs 6:9) Does he who does not hold this unity of the Church think that he holds the faith? Does he who strives against and resists the Church trust that he is in the Church, when moreover the blessed Apostle Paul teaches the same thing, and sets forth the sacrament of unity, saying, “There is one body and one spirit, one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God?” (Eph 4:4) And this unity we ought firmly to hold and assert, especially those of us that are bishops who preside in the Church, that we may also prove the episcopate itself to be one and undivided. (De catholicae ecclesiae unitate, 4-5)

Here notice that it is possible, according to St. Cyprian, for Christians and even for bishops, to fail to hold to the unity of the Church. If visible unity were only accidental to the Church’s unity, the unity of the Church would be essentially invisible, because there would be no reason why bishops not in communion with each other would not remain fully united to the Church. But if the unity of the Church were essentially invisible, it would make no sense to talk about bishops not holding to the unity of the Church, as something other than apostasy.4

St. Cyprian makes this same idea clear a bit later where he writes:

The spouse of Christ cannot be adulterous; she is uncorrupted and pure. She knows one home; she guards with chaste modesty the sanctity of one couch. She keeps us for God. She appoints the sons whom she has born for the kingdom. Whoever is separated from the Church and is joined to an adulteress, is separated from the promises of the Church; nor can he who forsakes the Church of Christ attain to the rewards of Christ. He is a stranger; he is profane; he is an enemy. He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the Church for his mother. If any one could escape who was outside the ark of Noah, then he also may escape who shall be outside of the Church. The Lord warns, saying, “He who is not with me is against me, and he who gathers not with me scatters.” (Matthew 12:30) He who breaks the peace and the concord of Christ, does so in opposition to Christ; he who gathers elsewhere than in the Church, scatters the Church of Christ. The Lord says, “I and the Father are one; ” (John 10:30) and again it is written of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, “And these three are one.” (1 John 5:7) And does any one believe that this unity which thus comes from the divine strength and coheres in celestial sacraments, can be divided in the Church, and can be separated by the parting asunder of opposing wills? He who does not hold this unity does not hold God’s law, does not hold the faith of the Father and the Son, does not hold life and salvation. (De catholicae ecclesiae unitate, 6)

When St. Cyprian says that the spouse of Christ cannot be adulterous, he is talking about the visible Church. We can see that because when he talks about being “separated from the Church” and “forsaking the Church” he does not mean apostasy. Of course he thinks that those who separate from the Church are thereby separating from the faith. But, what he means by separation from the Church is not conceptually identical to renouncing the Christian faith. Rather, when he writes about “separating from the Church” he is talking about separating from the visible communion of the Church. What St. Cyprian is saying is incompatible with the notion that the Church is an invisible union of all sorts of denominations, each holding various beliefs, and not united in ecclesial government.

For St. Cyprian, the Church’s visible unity cannot be divided:

This sacrament of unity, this bond of a concord inseparably cohering, is set forth where in the Gospel the coat of the Lord Jesus Christ is not at all divided nor cut, but is received as an entire garment, and is possessed as an uninjured and undivided robe by those who cast lots concerning Christ’s garment, who should rather put on Christ. Holy Scripture speaks, saying, “But of the coat, because it was not sewed, but woven from the top throughout, they said one to another, Let us not rend it, but cast lots whose it shall be.” (John 19:23-24) That coat bore with it an unity that came down from the top, that is, that came from heaven and the Father, which was not to be at all rent by the receiver and the possessor, but without separation we obtain a whole and substantial entireness. He cannot possess the garment of Christ who parts and divides the Church of Christ. On the other hand, again, when at Solomon’s death his kingdom and people were divided, Abijah the prophet, meeting Jeroboam the king in the field, divided his garment into twelve sections, saying, “Take you ten pieces; for thus says the Lord, Behold, I will rend the kingdom out of the hand of Solomon, and I will give ten sceptres unto you; and two sceptres shall be unto him for my servant David’s sake, and for Jerusalem, the city which I have chosen to place my name there.” (1 Kings 11:31) As the twelve tribes of Israel were divided, the prophet Abijah rent his garment. But because Christ’s people cannot be rent, His robe, woven and united throughout, is not divided by those who possess it; undivided, united, connected, it shows the coherent concord of our people who put on Christ. By the sacrament and sign of His garment, He has declared the unity of the Church. (De catholicae ecclesiae unitate, 7)

When some people hear that the unity of the Church cannot be divided, they conclude that this must mean that even though the Church is visibly divided into many fragments, its invisible unity remains yet intact. In this way, they spiritualize the Church’s essential unity into something invisible. But that idea is foreign to St. Cyprian. For St. Cyprian, the unity of the Church is essentially visible. The divinely established ecclesial unity that cannot be lost is not only unity of faith, and unity of sacraments, but also unity of visible government. The Church can no more possibly lose unity of government than she can lose unity of faith, or unity of sacraments. Separating from the Church’s faith does not diminish the unity of the Church’s faith; it diminishes one’s own participation in that unity. Likewise, separation from the Church’s government does not diminish the unity of the Church’s government; it diminishes one’s own participation in that unity. Hence St. Cyprian says:

Who, then, is so wicked and faithless, who is so insane with the madness of discord, that either he should believe that the unity of God can be divided, or should dare to rend it — the garment of the Lord — the Church of Christ? He Himself in His Gospel warns us, and teaches, saying, “And there shall be one flock and one shepherd.” (John 10:16) And does any one believe that in one place there can be either many shepherds or many flocks? The Apostle Paul, moreover, urging upon us this same unity, beseeches and exhorts, saving, “I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no schisms among you; but that you be joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment.” (1 Corinthians 1:10) And again, he says, “Forbearing one another in love, endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (Ephesians 4:3) Do you think that you can stand and live if you withdraw from the Church, building for yourself other homes and a different dwelling, when it is said to Rahab, in whom was prefigured the Church, “Your father, and your mother, and your brethren, and all the house of your father, you shall gather unto you into your house; and it shall come to pass, whosoever shall go abroad beyond the door of your house, his blood shall be upon his own head? ” (Joshua 2:19) Also, the sacrament of the passover contains nothing else in the law of the Exodus than that the lamb which is slain in the figure of Christ should be eaten in one house. God speaks, saying, “In one house shall you eat it; you shall not send its flesh abroad from the house.” (Exodus 12:46) The flesh of Christ, and the holy of the Lord, cannot be sent abroad, nor is there any other home to believers but the one Church. This home, this household of unanimity, the Holy Spirit designates and points out in the Psalms, saying, “God, who makes men to dwell with one mind in a house.” in the house of God, in the Church of Christ, men dwell with one mind, and continue in concord and simplicity. (De catholicae ecclesiae unitate, 8)

Here St. Cyprian shows how those who think they can [visibly] divide the Church by separating from her and forming their own assemblies, are “insane with the madness of discord.” He is speaking of those who think visible unity does not belong to the essence of the Church’s unity. Such persons think “that in one place there can be either many shepherds or many flocks.” By the very fact that they think that in one place there can be either many shepherds or many flocks (each not in communion with the others), it is clear that these persons at least implicitly hold to an invisible-church ecclesiology. There are not saying that all other shepherds are not shepherds at all, or that all other flocks are not flocks at all. They are saying that all these shepherds not in communion with each other, and these flocks not in communion with each other, yet all in the same location, are all still part of the one Church of Christ. St. Cyprian is condemning their position, by showing that though they think they are preserving the Church’s unity (by re-conceptualizing it as an invisible unity), they are dividing themselves from the Church, because the Church’s unity is essentially visible. Those who separate from that visible unity, according to St. Cyprian, are in that respect separating from the Church.

St. Cyprian here quotes the Scripture, “They went forth from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, surely they would have continued with us.” (1 John 2:19)5 Notions of going out and remaining in, make no sense in invisible-church ecclesiology. According to invisible-church ecclesiology, if one goes out from one’s present church or congregation (in the sense of breaking fellowship) and starts a new church congregation, one has in no way separated from the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, so long as one retains faith in Christ. The only way to go out from the Church, according to invisible-church ecclesiology, is to abandon the faith. That is, in invisible-church ecclesiology, going out from the Church is reduced to [self-defined] heresy or apostasy. But for St. Cyprian, to separate from the communion of the bishops in communion with St. Peter’s successor, even if retaining all other Christian beliefs and practices, is to go out from the Church. For St. Cyprian, visible separation from the magisterium of the Church just is separation from the Church. There can be no visible separation from the communion of bishops in communion with the Pope, while retaining full membership within the Church.

Describing those who hold to an invisible-church ecclesiology, he writes:

These are they who of their own accord, without any divine arrangement, set themselves to preside among the daring strangers assembled, who appoint themselves prelates without any law of ordination, who assume to themselves the name of bishop, although no one gives them the episcopate. (De catholicae ecclesiae unitate, 10)

For St. Cyprian, those who reject the divinely established hierarchy, and set themselves up as pastors or bishops, without being authorized by the [visible] Church, have separated themselves from the Church. They seek to justify what they do, by treating the unity of the Church as essentially invisible, and thus as independent of the Church’s visible hierarchy. But for St. Cyprian, one cannot separate from the visible hierarchy of the Church and yet hold onto Christ. The Mystical Body of Christ is not an invisible Body, but a visible Body united under one essentially unified Magisterium. Hence he says, “They cannot dwell with God who would not be of one mind in God’s Church.” (De catholicae ecclesiae unitate, 14)

One common contemporary confusion is the notion that all that is necessary to belong to the visible Church is to go to a local church that has elders, or perhaps to belong to a denomination. But the visibly one Church that Christ founded and that we confess in the Creed is not a local congregation or denomination, but is the universal Church. So the only way to believe that one’s denomination is the visible Church is to believe that one’s denomination is the universal Church that Christ founded. If one believes that Christians of all denominations are all equally members of the Church that Christ founded, even though they differ in matters of faith, in sacraments, and in Church government, then necessarily one believes that the Church itself is invisible, even though its embodied members and local congregations are visible. In order to believe in a visible universal Church, one must believe that not only unity of faith, and unity of sacraments, but also unity of government is essential to the unity Christ established in His Church.6

For St. Cyprian, schism is so serious that we are to avoid those who separate from the Church:

Such a one is to be turned away from and avoided, whosoever he may be, that is separated from the Church. Such a one is perverted and sins, and is condemned of his own self. Does he think that he has Christ, who acts in opposition to Christ’s priests, who separates himself from the company of His clergy and people? He bears arms against the Church, he contends against God’s appointment. An enemy of the altar, a rebel against Christ’s sacrifice, for the faith faithless, for religion profane, a disobedient servant, an impious son, a hostile brother, despising the bishops, and forsaking God’s priests, he dares to set up another altar, to make another prayer with unauthorized words, to profane the truth of the Lord’s offering by false sacrifices, and not to know that he who strives against the appointment of God, is punished on account of the daring of his temerity by divine visitation. (De catholicae ecclesiae unitate, 17)

And if we find ourselves among such schisms, we must separate from them, and re-unite with the Church.7 God calls us to remain in the unity of the Church, and to come out from any schism, lest we perish:

God is one, and Christ is one, and His Church is one, and the faith is one, and the people is joined into a substantial unity of body by the cement of concord. Unity cannot be severed; nor can one body be separated by a division of its structure, nor torn into pieces, with its entrails wrenched asunder by laceration. Whatever has proceeded from the womb cannot live and breathe in its detached condition, but loses the substance of health. (De catholicae ecclesiae unitate, 23)

This is why there is no such thing as being a small ‘c’ catholic, rather than a Catholic. The idea of being a small ‘c’ catholic presupposes that visible unity is not essential to the Church’s unity, and hence that one can simply pick and choose from whichever historical doctrines and traditions that agree with one’s own interpretation of Scripture. The person claiming to be a small ‘c’ catholic is affirming an invisible-church ecclesiology, and thus reducing the faith to an arbitrarily-defined ‘mere Christianity.’ St. Cyprian, however, affirmed that the Church is visibly one, and that this unity cannot be severed by division of its structure. Those who ‘separate’ the Body by schism, only separate themselves from the Body. For St. Cyprian, by Christ’s own doing the Church always retains her visible unity.

  1. “They went forth from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, surely they would have continued with us.” (1 John 2:19) []
  2. See CCC 2089. []
  3. See also St. Cyprian’s letter to Pope Stephen (AD 254-257) requesting Pope Stephen to excommunicate Marcian, bishop of Arles (because of Marcian’s Novatianism), and to oversee the appointment of a replacement for Marcian of Arles. []
  4. Invisible-church ecclesiology necessarily reduces schism from the Church to apostasy. []
  5. De catholicae ecclesiae unitate, 9 []
  6. See “Why Protestantism has no “Visible Catholic Church”,” and “Christ Founded a Visible Church.” []
  7. Yet if wholesome counsel cannot recall to the way of salvation certain leaders of schisms and originators of dissensions, who abide in blind and obstinate madness, yet do you others, if either taken in simplicity, or induced by error, or deceived by some craftiness of misleading cunning, loose yourselves from the nets of deceit, free your wandering steps from errors, acknowledge the straight way of the heavenly road. The word of the witnessing apostle is: “We command you,” says he, “in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you withdraw yourselves from all brethren that walk disorderly, and not after the tradition that they have received from us.” (2 Thessalonians 3:6) And again he says, “Let no man deceive you with vain words; for because of these things comes the wrath of God upon the children of disobedience. Be not therefore partakers with them.” (Ephesians 5:6) We must withdraw, nay rather must flee, from those who fall away, lest, while any one is associated with those who walk wickedly, and goes on in ways of error and of sin, he himself also, wandering away from the path of the true road, should be found in like guilt. (De catholicae ecclesiae unitate, 23)


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  1. Great post! So much needed and it presents true ecumenism!

  2. Bryan,

    Thanks for your post. Recently, I was discussing the RC view of authority (which I have learned mostly from CtC) with a friend. Given that view, he said, it seems contradictory for the RCC to say that some outside the RCC are Christians. After I explained the distinction between material schism and formal schism, he seemed to at least agree that the RC position on this matter was internally consistent.

    I was reminded of this debate as I read your post, specifically your quote of St. Cyprian, which you introduce by saying: “For St. Cyprian, schism is so serious that we are to avoid those who separate from the Church.” In the quote, St. Cyprian counsels his readers to avoid anyone in schism because “[s]uch a one is perverted and sins, and is condemned of his own self.” This seems both (1) incredibly harsh (and false) if directed to those in material schism and (2) contradictory of the RC position on those in material schism. So too, especially, does the next sentence: “Does he think that he has Christ, who acts in opposition to Christ’s priests, who separates himself from the company of His clergy and people? He bears arms against the Church….”

    Could you comment on how one should read this in light of the material/formal distinction mentioned above? If the above quotes are directed to those in material schism, they seem harsh and contradictory of the current RCC teaching. If the above quotes are directed to those in formal schism, I wonder how many people there are to whom it can be applied. By that I mean–if I understand the meaning of ‘formal schism’ or ‘formal heresy’–it seems hard to believe that there are very many people who fit into those categories. Certainly many of the early reformers wouldn’t fit in the latter category because they adopted the invisible-church view you discuss. If one doesn’t believe the RCC is the true church, or if one doesn’t believe that the church’s authority is essentially visible, how could one be in formal schism from the church?

  3. Hello Ryan,

    St. Cyprian’s admonition to avoid those who separate from the Church is referring to those who have done so culpably. He wrote this treatise in response to the Novatian schism, which began in 251, I believe. St. Cyrian is obviously not addressing the case of persons who were born into a schism, or brought up within a schism. Persons born into a schism are not ipso facto culpable for being in schism (unless they learn of their condition, and choose to remain in schism), and therefore are not morally corrupting, all other things being equal. That does not mean there is no danger in freely associating with such persons, because a weaker member could be negatively influenced by what is unorthodox within the schism, and possibly even led into schism himself. But, the Church recognizes that the moral situation of persons who make or form a schism is not the same as that of those who are born into or raised within a schism. That’s why she says:

    [O]ne cannot charge with the sin of the separation those who at present are born into these communities [that resulted from such separation] and in them are brought up in the faith of Christ, and the Catholic Church accepts them with respect and affection as brothers. (CCC 818)

    Such persons are not in full communion with the Church, but by their baptism they are made participants in the divine nature, and temples of the Holy Spirit.

    As for the degree of culpability in the first generation of Protestants, I would rather not speculate. But forming a schism is not excused by adopting an invisible-church ecclesiology. Schism from the Church becomes conceptually impossible (other than by apostasy) in an invisible-church ecclesiology, but the culpability for forming a schism is not reduced or removed by simply adopting an invisible-church ecclesiology, otherwise anyone who wished to form a schism and do so without sinning could simply adopt an invisible-church ecclesiology. (I know you’re not suggesting that; I’m simply clarifying.)

    (Thanks Andy for your comment!)

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  4. […] was reminded of this experience by reading Bryan Cross’ latest blog post at Called to Communion where he quotes St. Cyprian (3rd century) on the unity of th…. For every one statement made by a Church Father than could possibly be construed as supportive of […]

  5. Well informative post! It is interesting to realize the issues the Early Church had to deal with.

  6. Q. Some persons claim that St. Cyprian believed all bishops sit in St. Peter Chair. Is that true, and if not, why do they believe that?

    A. St. Cyprian nowhere says that all bishops sit in St. Peter’s Chair. But the mistaken notion that he believed that all bishops sit in St. Peter’s Chair comes from something he wrote in Epistle 26:

    Our Lord, whose precepts and admonitions we ought to observe, describing the honour of a bishop and the order of His Church, speaks in the Gospel, and says to Peter: “I say unto you, That you are Peter, and upon this rock will I build my Church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto you the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever you shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Thence, through the changes of times and successions, the ordering of bishops and the plan of the Church flow onwards; so that the Church is founded upon the bishops, and every act of the Church is controlled by these same rulers.

    In this epistle St. Cyprian is writing to the lapsed, explaining that reconciliation with the Church comes only through reconciliation with her bishops. After quoting Matthew 16:18-19, he says that the Church is founded on the bishops. But he isn’t saying that all bishops equally enjoy the authority of the keys given to St. Peter, or that the unity of the Church is not determined through communion with the bishop of Rome. He is speaking of the bishops insofar as they remain in communion with the episcopal successor of St. Peter at Rome, and thus are not in schism from the Church. Insofar as they are not in schism from the bishop of Rome, they participate in that authority which Christ entrusted to St. Peter. As St. Cyprian explains in the quotations I cited in The Chair of St. Peter, the bishop of Rome possesses that authority directly from the succession, not by way of participation in the stewardship of the keys possessed by another contemporary bishop or set of contemporary bishops. So the two statements (i.e. the one in Epistle 26 that the Church is founded on the bishops, and the other in the quotations from St. Cyprian in “The Chair of St. Peter” on the unique authority of the bishop of Rome as successor of St. Peter) are fully compatible. To treat St. Cyprian’s statement in Epistle 26 as a rejection or denial of all the other things he says about the unique authority of the episcopal successor of St. Peter at Rome, would be to misinterpret St. Cyprian, and make him out to be contradicting himself. The bishops of the Catholic Church, whether gathered together in ecumenical council or scattered around the world though remaining in full communion with the episcopal successor of St. Peter in Rome, exercise the power of the keys of the Kingdom, as explain in Chapter III of Lumen Gentium.

  7. Hello, this is my first time commenting on this blog. I have a question regarding Epistle 54. An eastern orthodox christian said that regarding the quote, “and not to consider that these were the Romans whose faith was praised in the preaching of the apostle, to whom faithlessness could have no access” should be properly translated as “These were the Romans, whose faith the Apostles commended, and to whom infamous betrayers of it could not be supposed gainning a favorable access.” He interpretes this passage saying that the Christians in Rome have a strong faith, so it is difficult for heretics to come and perverted it. Therefore, he says that the context is talking about the local Christians in Rome and it does not support a “19th century doctrine of papal infallibility.” How can I respond to that?

  8. Mkvine, (re: #7)

    Here’s the Latin:

    Post ista adhuc insuper pseudopeiscopo sibi ab haereticis constituto nauigare audent et ad Petri cathedram adque ad ecclesiam principalem unde unitas sacerdotalis exorta est ab schismaticis et profanis litteras ferre nec cogitare eos esse Romanos quorum fides apostolo praedicante laudata est, ad quos perfidia habere non possit accessum. (Epistle 59:14)

    And the English can be translated as:

    After such things as these, moreover, a false bishop having been appointed for them by heretics, they still dare to set sail and to the chair of Peter, even to the principal Church from which priestly unity has its source, bear letters from schismatics and profane persons; and not to consider that these are Romans, whose faith is praised in the preaching of the Apostle, to whom [i.e. to the Romans] a breach of faith has no possible access.

    (See here for the New Advent translation.)

    The last phrase “ad quos perfidia habere non possit accessum” should not be translated as “and to whom infamous betrayers of it could not be supposed gainning a favorable access.” As you can see, there is no “be supposed” (or other such epistemic qualifier) in the Latin. Nor is there any Latin term that qualifies the access in question as only “favorable” access. Nor does “perfidia” best translate as “infamous betrayers” as though the referent is persons. The referent is the perfidy itself, i.e. breach of faith — of course this would imply that heretics cannot take over the Church at Rome. St. Cyprian is saying that breaches of faith have no possible access to the community of Christians of Rome. The term ‘quos‘ refers to the persons, not to the faith held by those persons. Regarding your interlocutor’s claim, St. Cyprian does not here say that “it is difficult” for heretics to pervert the faith of the Romans. That claim would be much weaker than what St. Cyprian actually says. He says that breaches of faith have no access to the community of believers at Rome. And if St. Cyprian thought that this applied only to the first century Church at Rome, it would be of no use in his argument regarding the error of those who carried these letters to Rome during his own time. Hence his statement requires that this protection from breaches of faith is something that he believes has continued from the time of St. Paul through the two hundred years to AD 252, when St. Cyprian wrote this letter. It would be very odd to suppose that such a divinely established protection in the Church would last for two hundred years and then cease. If as St. Cyprian believed, it had lasted two hundred years, then we should believe that it is perpetual, and hence still exists.

    That’s because St. Cyprian isn’t claiming that Rome merely happens to have been protected from error. He is making a much stronger claim, namely, that breaches of faith have no possible access to the Church at Rome, and the basis for this protection is the presence in Rome of the chair of Peter from which priestly unity has its source. In other words, for St. Cyprian, it is not merely an historical accident (de facto) that the Church at Rome happens to have avoided heresy from the time of St. Paul until his own time; there is a principled reason (de jure) for the Church at Rome being divinely protected from breaches in faith, and it has to do with the presence in Rome of the Chair of St. Peter, and the divinely established role of St. Peter as the source of unity among all the priests of the universal Church. For St. Cyprian, with the divinely established role of being the source of sacerdotal unity for the whole Church necessarily comes a divine protection from heresy. Christ is presently building His Church upon St. Peter through the Chair by which all the priests of His Church are united into one. And because Christ has given St. Peter this role, Christ has also divinely ensured that faithlessness cannot penetrate that rock. The reason why the faith of the Church at Rome cannot be breached, is because of the Chair of St. Peter, to which the Christians at Rome are subject, not because there is something special about the Roman Christians per se.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  9. Believing in Invisible unity seems to be condemned here,but doesn’t the RC church believe the Orthodox (which are visibly disunited with RC) have true sacraments and are a true church with true Priesthood? Is this believing in Invisible unity?

  10. Bryan (re: #6),

    In an old article, James White defends the position that Cyprian believed ALL bishops possessed the Christ-delegated authority described in Matthew 16. He cites 3 Catholic historians/authors (Quasten, Winter, and Eno) who agree with him. His primary evidence is the Epistle 26 (which you have addressed) and the following words of an African Synod that was led by Cyprian:

    No one among us sets himself up as a bishop of bishops, or by tyranny and terror forces his colleagues to compulsory obedience, seeing that every bishop in the freedom of his liberty and power possesses the right to his own mind and can no more be judged by another than he himself can judge another. We must all await the judgment of our Lord Jesus Christ, who singly and alone has power both to appoint us to the government of his Church and to judge our acts therein (CSEL 3, 1, 436).

    White ends this section of an article with this quip about Karl Keating’s book:

    And yet his book, and his organization, continues to promote the myth that Cyprian was a believer in Papal infallibility. A glowing Roman Catholic myth.

    How would you respond to the case he presents based on Roman Catholic writers and the quote from the African synod?

    John D.

    PS – I hear you are on the road. Will pray for your safe travels during this crazy winter.

  11. Catholic convert here. I too would also like to see a response to the question posed by JohnD. Can anyone here address this objection by James White and AOMIN.

  12. WesleyB,

    When studying Cyprian, one has to take the following care. In the first place, Cyprian definitely believed that the Roman bishop held primacy in the world-wide network of bishops. Secondly, Cyprian, despite what language he attributes to the importance of there not being any baptism outside the Catholic Church, reduced the severity of the disagreement to a matter of difference in discipline, and not something that was worthy of breaking communion (See St. Augustine’s “Against the Donatists” for an explanation on how Cyprian never broken unity with the Church), and third, IF it is true that Cyprian, at one point, espoused a theory of each bishop retaining equal authority, he contradicted himself in a number of places, and/or, his theory was flat out wrong and incapable of dealing with the future threats to the unity of the Church.

    My first point, which stated that Cyprian believed the Roman bishop to hold primacy is justified by the following quotes, and the attending comments beneath:

    “[After quoting Matthew 16:18f; John 21:15ff]…On him [Peter] He builds the Church, and to him He gives the command to feed the sheep; and although He assigned a like power to all the Apostles, yet he founded a single Chair, and He established by His own authority a source and an intrinsic reason for that unity. Indeed, the others were that also which Peter was; but a primacy is given to Peter, whereby it is made clear that there is but one Church and one Chair. So too, all are shepherds, and the flock is shown to be one, fed by all the Apostles in single-minded accord. If someone does not hold fast to this unity of Peter, can he imagine that he still holds the faith? If he desert the chair of Peter upon whom the Church was built, can he still be confident that he is in the Church?” (Cyprian, The Unity of the Catholic Church [first edition] 4, c. AD 251)

    For Cyprian, Unity is only workable when there is a “distinction” among persons or within the group. The “distinction” in this care would require a single person bearing a “distinctive” role which separates himself from the other(s). Unity is represented when 1 person is singled out and in whom there resides a principle unto which all are required to conform to in order to stay “together”. In the above quote, Cyprian understood Peter, the Apostle, to have been “distinctive” from the other Apostles in a very special way, and precisely for the purpose of unity. Therefore, from the very outset, Cyprian could not possibly be coherent, if, at another time, he espoused the view that each person in a group retaining absolutely no “distinctiveness” would be a group retaining a principle for unity. More simply put, if Cyprian did not believe that the Apostolic group (12 apostles) could possess true unity without a single person bearing a “distinctive” quality in which includes a principle of unity (a standard unto all other(s) are obliged to conform to), then it would be inconsistent for Cyprian to believe that the world-wide universal Catholic communion could possess true unity without a similar “distinctive” among the “many” (having absolute equal qualities, in other words).

    On top of this, Cyprian understands the unity of the Apostles to have been predicated upon the establishment of the “single Chair”, which he calls the “source and intrinsic reason for that unity”. Now this is quite interesting. The word “Chair” (Cathedra) includes, in the first place, the role of Judge. When we say that a “bench warrant” has been issued, we have in mind a warrant sent from the “Chair” of the court, who is the judge. It also includes, in the religious sphere, a teaching role. So we have a “Teaching Authority” (Catholics today call this a Magisterium) implied by the reference and use of the word “Chair”. Therefore, within the logic of Cyprian’s treatise on unity, a Teaching Authority, which itself is bound to produce a “source and intrinsic reason” for unity, is the “distinctive” quality required for that unity.

    Notice also that Peter, alone, was given the right to sit on this Chair? Not any of the other Apostles were given the place to sit on this chair. Again, only proving the logic we’ve already covered above. The other 11 Apostles lives and conducted their Apostleship surrounding this Chair, remaining “united” to it by heeding its “Teaching Authority”. That’s plain.

    Now, when it came to the question of what principle of unity exists in each local Church (the local setting), Cyprian emphasized that the individual Bishop was the principle unity for his diocese. So in this sense, there is a “Peter”, or “Head” ,that exists in each diocese. In this way, each bishops partakes of the one Chair in their diocese. This is why Cyprian could say that the “order of bishops” are what the Church is founded upon. For Cyprian, if a Catholic member of a local Church were to separate from his Bishop, he would be separating himself from the Church, and thereby separating himself from Christ. So the Bishop has, in a sense, a principle of unity with Christ, in the local setting. This is what Cyprian’s logic includes in the many places where he sees the Bishops having the role of being the “rock” of the Church. Truly, if you want to be part of God’s household, you must remain on the foundation of that house. If you break from the foundation, you are necessarily disjoined from the household built on top of that foundation.

    Now, when it came to what principle of unity exists for the network of bishops, we have the following quote to receive a hint into Cyprian’s mindset:

    “With a false bishop appointed for themselves by heretics, they dare even to set sail and carry letters from schismatics and blasphemers to the chair of Peter and to the principal Church [at Rome], in which sacerdotal unity has its source; nor did they take thought that these are Romans, whose faith was praised by the preaching Apostle, and among whom it is not possible for perfidy to have entrance.” (Cyprian, Letter 59 (55), 14 to Cornelius of Rome, c. AD 252)

    This “Sacerdotal unity”, which was no doubt the topic of his “Treatise on the Unity of the Church”, and also which no doubt included the “single distinctive” of Peter among the Apostolic group, is here referenced as being “sourced” in the Roman episcopate (the chair of Peter). So we have a parallel in logic which can be drawn from Cyprian’s argument in the “Treatise” (Quoted above) and this pedigree to which he attributes to the Roman Church. It goes something like this. You have two groups, 1) Apostolic Group (12 apostles), and 2) Episcopal group (the order of bishops), and Peter is the “source and intrinsic reason” for unity of Group 1, while Peter’s Chair (church of Rome) is the “source” of unity for Group 2. And since the “intrinsic reason” for unity amongst the Apostolic group included the element of a “Teaching Authority” (Chair), the “source of unity” amongst the Episcopal order must also include the element of a Teaching authority (which is why he calls it the Chair of Peter). This is a plain apologetic for why Cyprian did, in fact, believe the Roman Church held primacy in the Catholic Church.

    A brief word on this reference to the Roman Church as the “source of sacerdotal unity”. Cyprian means that the Roman episcopate retains the principle of unity for the Catholic Church. It does not merely mean that the Church of Rome was the first Church. For goodness sakes, Jerusalem was the first mother Church. No, what Cyprian means is that the Chair of Peter, which happened to be planted in Rome, retains the principle of unity that he believed existed in Peter when Christ established him as the “rock of the Church” in Ceaserea Philipi (quite distant from Rome). To this Ludwig Hertling, S.J. has some insightful comments:

    “When Cyprian speaks of the unitas sacerdotalis (source of sacerdotal unity) he means the community of bishops, the communio episcoporum, which originates from Rome. He cannot have meant this historically, since Rome was not the first missionary center. Historically, the Church began from Jerusalem. Cyprian’s exorta est (source of) must therefore be a present perfect, referring to the once-for-all and ever renewed origin from Rome of the communio linking the bishops. Rome is thus the focal point of the communio, not as the geographical center but as the center of its power and legitimacy” ( Communio: Church and Papacy in Early Christianity, pg 59)

    On the other hand, we know that during the controversy that was had between Africa and Rome concerning the question of whether baptism by heretics was indeed a valid baptism, Cyprian found some pressure to resist Roman authority in the matter. In fact, another African bishop of Ceasarea, named Firmilian, who shared Cyprian’s view that there was no baptismal grace in the heretical churches, gives us the precise claim of the contemporary bishop of Rome as it relates to this concept of a “Teaching authority”. In one of his epistles to Cyprian, he writes:

    “In view of this, I am rightly indignant at the folly of
    Stephen so open and conspicuous. He who so boasts about
    the place of his bishopric and insists that he holds his succession
    from Peter, on whom the foundations of the Church were laid,
    is introducing many other rocks and is building many new
    churches, as long as he supports their baptism with his authority.
    . . . Stephen, who declares that he has the chair of Peter by
    succession, is roused by no zeal against the heretics”

    Therefore, Pope Stephen shared alongside Cyprian this concept of a “distinctive role” for Peter among the Apostles, and within the world-wide Church, a “distinctive” which includes the ability to enforce or impose the requirement of conformity. In fact, Pope Stephen wrote edicts out to the churches proclaiming the threat of excommunication for those bishops who failed to conform. Firmilian states concerning Stephen:

    “For what great strifes and
    dissensions hast thou stirred up throughout the churches of the
    whole world ! And how great a sin hast thou heaped up, when
    thou cuttest thyself off from so many flocks ! For thou didst cut
    thysel fof; be not deceived; for he who has made himself an
    apostate from the communion of the united Church is truly
    the schismatic. For while thou thinkest that all may be excommunicated
    by thee, thou hast excommunicated thyself alone from all”

    There is no doubt that Firmilian did not submit to the claim of Pope Stephen. However, he serves as a witness to the fact that Pope Stephen did in fact legitimize his authority to require absolute conformity in the matter of baptism as well as the power to excommunicate, on the basis of his succession to “Peter’s throne”, the very thing which Cyprian tells us was the “principle, source, and instrinsic reason for unity”. No doubt there is a variety here. Firmilian rejects Stephen’s authority, Cyprian comes to question the tradition that Stephen is pushing while not wishing to break communion, and Stephen explicitly imposes his authority on other dioceses of the world on the basis of his succession to Peter’s chair. So even if we are lost in the fog who whose position is right, one of the options include Stephen’s, which received a stamp of approval in succeeding history.

    And we must also not forget that Rome was considered by both East and West, for the next 300 years (at least), to have never espoused any heretical teaching. So Stephen’s ecclesiology was never condemned by anyone. In fact, the succeeding Popes such as Julius, Damasus, Siricius, Innocent, Zosimus, and Boniface all picked up and explictly taught that Vaticanal definition of the Papacy encoded in 1850.

  13. JohnD (re: #10)

    The argument from authority is just that, an argument from authority. We’ve addressed the weakness of such arguments in our “The Bishops of History and the Catholic Faith.” And I’ve addressed Epistle 26 in comment #6 above. But the statement from the Synod of September, 256, is important as evidence regarding St. Cyprian’s position, and therefore needs to be addressed. The statement needs to be understood in its context, which in this case means in light of the conflict between St. Cyprian and Pope Stephen regarding the re-baptism of heretics. St. Cyprian never broke with the Catholic Church over this issue, as I pointed out in comment #3 of the “Ecclesial Unity and Outdoing Christ” thread. But it is clear that during this controversy the relations between St. Cyprian and Pope Stephen were strained. Pope Stephen was rejecting the position taught by the North African bishops; and they were convinced he was mistaken. It turns out the Pope Stephen was right, and that St. Cyprian was wrong.

    If all we had to go by was the statement from this Synod of 256, then perhaps we would be justified in treating this statement as evidence that St. Cyprian did not hold to a unique, divinely established ecclesial role for the episcopal successor of St. Peter in Rome. Though why a regional council would be engaged in a dispute with this particular bishop in another region would still imply something unique about this bishop. However, the evidence from St. Cyprian’s De catholicae ecclesiae unitate, and his epistle 54 (discussed in the post above), and all the things he says in support of the papacy (see the quotations from St. Cyprian in the third century section of the “Chair of St. Peter” post) cannot be ignored or set aside when considering the Synod of 256. Neither can St. Cyprian’s epistle 66, a letter to Pope Stephen requesting that Pope Stephen excommunicate Marcian, bishop of Arles, and oversee the appointment of a replacement for this Marcian. (See footnote 3 above.)

    What St. Cyprian and the other African bishops were right to guard and defend was the application of the principle of subsidiarity in relation to their individual episcopacies and the oversight of their region. A “bishop of bishops” in a sense that nullified episcopal authority and the principle of subsidiarity would be contrary to the Apostolic Tradition. This is the sense in which St. Gregory the Great later also rejected the phrase, as explained here. But it seems that the Synod of 256 mistakenly used their [true] defense of subsidiarity as a way of justifying their not accepting Pope Stephen’s decision on the re-baptism of heretics. Be that as it may, St. Cyprian’s resistance to Pope Stephen’s authority cannot rightly be used to support the claim that St. Cyprian never held to papal primacy, because his earlier works clearly testify that he did in fact hold papal primacy. At most his resistance to Pope Stephen’s decision shows that when it came to a concrete disagreement with the pope, St. Cyprian backpedaled, and attempted to justify his resistance to Pope Stephen’s decision. Nevertheless, by remaining in communion with the pope, by his martyrdom in September of 258, he demonstrated in the end his faithfulness to Christ and to the Church.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

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