At this point many Eastern Orthodox and Protestants would object, saying that the Councils actually suggest the opposite, namely that the Bishop of Rome did not have the authority Catholics claim. One of the leading examples appealed to is the 6th Canon of the Council of Nicaea, which says (quoting only the most relevant portion):
The ancient customs of Egypt, Libya and Pentapolis shall be maintained, according to which the bishop of Alexandria has authority over all these places since a similar custom exists with reference to the bishop of Rome. Similarly in Antioch and the other provinces the prerogatives of the churches are to be preserved.Now there is some slightly different translations of certain terms of this canon, but this rendering is generally accepted. Reading this canon for the first time, many get the impression the Bishop of Rome is simply one bishop among others with no unique authority, directly undermining the notion of Papal Supremacy. This is the common take on this passage by Eastern Orthodox and Protestants.
The problem the Protestant is in is that even if their rendering were correct, the fact remains that this canon clearly teaches the Bishop of Rome has some high ranking authority, with the bishops of Alexandria and Antioch on some sort of equal footing. In other words, the early Church (as testified by this most important Council) was clearly one of a hierarchy of bishops, including very high ranking bishops - something totally incompatible with Protestantism. The only thing the Protestant can do is to ignore this Council and embrace an inconsistency of accepting the Council as orthodox Christianity but ignoring all the history and details of the Council (including the canons). This is indeed why many Protestants have no problem brushing off Nicaea or any other Council in favor of "Scripture Alone" (i.e. as soon as a "difficulty" arises, any part of any Council can be dispensed with).
But there is yet another detail here that is plain upon even a surface reading, and that is that this is a custom/tradition. Now if Nicaea took place in 325AD, it is no leap of faith to suggest this custom/tradition extended back at least 2-3 generations of Christians (if not further, as Catholics and Eastern Orthodox would suggest), meaning this custom goes back easily 75-100 years (again, if not further, which there's no reason to deny). This means there was an acknowledged bishop of Rome, with this authority, easily dating back to 225AD. Now if the last Apostle (St John) died around 90AD, and any given Protestant is going to suggest the Papacy is an apostate invention, then this means Christianity had to have gone apostate in under 150 years.
While the Eastern Orthodox would not deny the Bishop of Rome Traditionally had high authority (as many historical Christian testimonies prove), even being the "first among equals" (an uninspired and fictitious phrase invented by anti-Papal advocates) when it came to the (three) Patriarchs (i.e. Rome, Alexandria, Antioch), there still leaves the issue of whether this canon suggests Primacy or rather Roman subordination to this Council (and equal authority among Bishops). That the Bishop of Rome is looked to as a "standard" here in this canon is itself good evidence that the Bishop of Rome was not merely "first among equals" with no true superior authority. But that's only granting the anti-Papal interpretation of the canon!
What is the Catholic interpretation of this canon?
To answer that question, Catholics have made the following argument, masterfully stated in this article. Here is the essence of the argument:
- To render Canon 6 along the lines of: "Let the Bishop of Alexandria rule this jurisdiction since the Bishop of Rome is also a Patriarch [with his own separate jurisdiction]" is nonsense; it's the non-sequitur fallacy: it doesn't follow nor fit with the (territorial) claims being made in regards to Alexandria.
- The only reading that makes sense is something along the lines of: "Let the Bishop of Alexandria rule this jurisdiction since it is the tradition of the Pope to grant Alexandria this jurisdiction." This directly connects to the first clause, and the reasoning and force of the argument is that the authority to which it is appealing to (i.e. Rome) is sufficient to settle the matter.
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I just found another great piece of evidence to supply to this argument. In the Second Ecumenical Council (i.e. Constantinople 1), about 50 years after Nicaea, here is what was said in Canon 2:
Diocesan bishops are not to intrude in churches beyond their own boundaries nor are they to confuse the churches: but in accordance with the canons, the bishop of Alexandria is to administer affairs in Egypt only; the bishops of the East are to manage the East alone (whilst safeguarding the privileges granted to the church of the Antiochenes in the Nicene canons); and the bishops of the Asian diocese are to manage only Asian affairs; and those in Pontus only the affairs of Pontus; and those in Thrace only Thracian affairs. Unless invited bishops are not to go outside their diocese to perform an ordination or any other ecclesiastical business. If the letter of the canon about dioceses is kept, it is clear that the provincial synod will manage affairs in each province, as was decreed at Nicaea. But the churches of God among barbarian peoples must be administered in accordance with the custom in force at the time of the fathers.
This Canon is most certainly calling to mind Canon 6 of Nicaea. Yet notice that there is no mention of Rome among the two giants of Alexandria and Antioch. This strongly supports the claim that Rome has no boundaries, and thus Canon 6 was indeed not putting Rome as on par with Alexandria and Antioch.
And to drive this point even further home, notice what Canon 3 of Constantinople 1 says:
Because it is new Rome, the bishop of Constantinople is to enjoy the privileges of honour after the bishop of Rome.
So here Rome is mentioned, and it clearly is shown to be the head, as even the man-made See of Constantinople (with no ancient customs and no apostolic roots) is said to be in second rank.
In short, these two Councils did not dare to infringe upon the rights and prerogatives of Rome.