Age-Old Book Offers Unusual View Of Early Popes

The ancient Liber Pontificalis (Book of Pontiffs) gives brief lives of the first 108 holders of the see of Rome. Only recently has this important work been translated into English, allowing those of us whose Latin is less than fluent to browse at will. The fourth pope listed is Clement, known to history as Clement of Rome and the author of an epistle, addressed to the Corinthians, that is used by Catholic apologists to show the early exercise of papal authority. It seems that the Corinthians had called on Clement to settle a dispute (the poor Corinthians were still troubled, long decades after Paul had tried to straighten them out, apparently with insufficient success). The last surviving Apostle, John, lived much closer to them and would have been the logical adjudicator, but they didn't write to him. They wrote to the successor of the chief apostle, and Pope Clement replied in tones of authority. The Liber Pontificalis gives only 20 lines about Clement, including the curious note that “on St. Peter's instruction he undertook the pontificate for governing the Church, as the cathedra had been handed down and entrusted to him by Jesus Christ…. Hence Linus and Cletus are recorded before him because they were ordained bishops to provide the sacerdotal ministry by the Prince of Apostles himself.”

For clarification of this peculiar passage, I flipped back a page to the life of Peter. “He ordained two bishops, Linus and Cletus, to be present in Rome to provide the entire sacerdotal ministry for the people and for visitors.”

Today we would call Linus and Cletus auxiliary bishops. They seem to have been given most of the sacramental duties, while Peter oversaw the Church as a whole. “Peter himself was free to pray and preach, to teach the people” (suggesting perhaps that the sacramental duties of a bishop tended to limit his leisure for prayer and for homiletics?).

Then comes a curious point: In addition to praying, preaching, and teaching, Peter seems to have been noted for his public debates. “He held many debates with Simon Magus, both before the Emperor Nero and before the people, because Simon was using magical tricks and deceptions to scatter those whom Peter had gathered into Christ's faith. When their disputes had lasted a long time, Simon was struck down by God's will.”

In addition to praying, preaching, and teaching, Peter seems to have been noted for his public debates.

Nero, later the first great persecutor of the Church, thus knew Simon Magus and Peter and amused himself by watching the magician joust with the fisherman from Galilee. But Nero's champion “was struck down by God's will.” Did this embitter Nero against the Christians? We aren't told, but it is a fair surmise. Recall that Pharaoh's opinion of the Israelites was not improved when he saw his priests bested by Moses.

The next sentence of the life of the first Pope records that Peter “consecrated St. Clement as bishop and entrusted the cathedra and the whole management of the Church to him, saying: ‘As the power of government, that of binding and loosing, was handed to me by my Lord Jesus Christ, so I entrust it to you; ordain those who are to deal with various cases and execute the Church's affairs; do not be caught up in the cares of the world but ensure you are completely free for prayer and preaching to the people.’ After making this arrangement he was crowned with martyrdom along with Paul in the 38th year after the Lord suffered.”

Do not misinterpret what is going on here. No pope can make another man his successor; the most he can do is make him a bishop, which is what Peter did to Linus, Cletus, and Clement. It is unclear what force should be given to the clause “after making this arrangement,” but I take it to mean that Clement was consecrated not long before Peter's death.

He appears to have been Peter's recommendation for pope, but that choice could not be made until the papal see fell vacant and thus would be made by the living, not by Peter. Since Linus and Cletus had been ordained some years earlier to assist Peter in the administration of the see of Rome, and since each had paid his dues, so to speak, it must have seemed proper to the clergy of Rome to allow each in turn to serve as chief bishop of the imperial capital.

Thus Linus became the second pope, holding the see for 11 years, and Cletus the third, holding it for 12. Next came Peter's personal favorite, Clement, who was pope for nine years. The Liber Pontificalis closes its lives of Linus and Cletus by noting that each was buried “close to St. Peter's body on the Vatican [Hill].” Unexpectedly, Clement, Peter's favorite, died in Rome but ended up being buried in Greece.

Karl Keating is founding director of Catholic Answers.

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