A question you will sometimes hear when debating Protestants on the role of the Pope in the Church is “Why Rome?” In other words, even if Peter himself did have primacy (which just about every Protestant will deny), why does the bishop of Rome have that primacy now? After all, Jerusalem was clearly the center of the Christian church at the beginning (and Peter was the leader of that community before going off on missionary trips) and Peter was also the bishop of Antioch before he went to Rome, so why does not one of those two have primacy in the Church? Why did the leader of the Roman church receive his primacy?
Some Catholics might argue that this is simply what the Christians decided when Peter died, or even before he died. But I don’t think it was that simple, nor do I think that is how God usually works in this world. As I have written before, the Church’s understanding of God and His works develops over time, and I think the primacy of Rome was no exception. Over time, many factors came into consideration in the Church’s deepening understanding of Rome’s place in the universal Church. Here are a few of the factors:
The martyrdom of Peter and Paul in Rome
The first, and most important, reason Rome gained primacy in the early Church was that it was the location of the martyrdom of the apostles Peter and Paul. Martyrdom was central to the faith of the early church, and the places where martyrdoms occurred were considered sacred places. Thus, the location where the two greatest apostles died was considered of supreme importance in the Church. Irenaeus in the 2nd century said that the church in Rome was “founded” by Peter and Paul even though everyone knew that there was a church there before either of those two arrived. But their deaths there established them as the “founders” (by their blood) of that local church, and the leaders in that church gained their authority.
Thus, this sacred connection to Peter and Paul “transferred” their privileges to the church in Rome. Peter clearly has been given a unique – and authoritative – role in the Church by Jesus (according to Matthew 16:17-19, Luke 22:31-32 and John 21:15-17), and his death in Rome cements Rome’s position as the church which receives that primacy. Furthermore, Paul’s death there also grants Rome Paul’s mission to preach the Gospel to the whole world. (Note: the pope was most commonly seen as the successor of BOTH Peter and Paul in the early church, not just Peter. The death of both of these apostles bestowed both of their missions on that church). All the other factors listed below find their foundation in this most important factor; in other words, if Peter and Paul had not died in Rome, it is highly unlikely that Rome would be the primacy see of the Church.
Rome’s reputation for orthodoxy
During the first centuries of Christianity, Rome had a great reputation for orthodoxy. While bishops of other great Christian cities such as Alexandria or Antioch or Constantinople fell into heresy, it was known in the early Church that never was heresy embraced in Rome. This reputation grew over the centuries, and many saw it as a special protection granted to the church of Peter and Paul. Rome could be counted on, when other churches embraced heresy, to always teach the True Faith.
Rome’s charity to other churches
Another reason for Rome’s primacy was due to its role in charity in the early Church. As a “rich” local church, it was known to help other local churches throughout the empire when in need. Ignatius of Antioch in the early 2nd century said that the church in Rome “presides in love,” which many scholars believe references their great charity towards the rest of the Church. This charity, of course, would also give them a certain prestige within the universal Church and link those churches to Rome in an intimate fashion.
The destruction of Jerusalem
In 70A.D. Jerusalem was destroyed by the Roman armies, and then in 135A.D. it was wiped out again by the Romans. These two events not only removed the Jewish population there, it removed any real Christian presence there as well. For all intents and purposes, there was no church in Jerusalem after 135 A.D., so its bishop could not have any real authority over the universal Church.
Rome was the capital of the Roman Empire
Another reason for Rome’s preeminence is the fact of it being the capital of the Roman Empire. This was more important in the East, but it was a factor in the Roman church’s rise, nonetheless. Many Christians saw the Roman Empire as the boundaries of the Christian world, and the capital of that Empire was seen as the “capital” of the Christian world as well. This was not the common view in the West, who saw Rome’s prerogatives in a more spiritual light, but it was an influential view in the East.
Some might see the above as proof that there is no “real” reason for Rome to be the primary church in Christendom. After all, Peter and Paul just happened to die in Rome, which just happened to be a conservative church and therefore not in danger of falling into heresy, and which just happened to be a rich church and could therefore help others, and which just happened to not be destroyed by the Roman armies, and which just happened to be the capital of the Empire. But to a Catholic, that would be like saying that the Roman emperor just happened to hold a census when Mary was pregnant with Jesus, thus leading to the fulfillment of Scripture that the Christ would be born in Bethlehem. God works through the reality of our human world, and so nothing in salvation history “just happens.” All of the factors listed above allowed Christians to better understand the role that God wanted for the church in Rome in the universal Church.
Note: today, most Catholics and Orthodox would agree in general with what I have written above, although of course they would disagree with exactly how Rome’s primacy should be practiced in today’s Church.
This is an edited version of a post I originally wrote on a Protestant apologetics forum.