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Did St. Cyprian Teach Papal Supremacy?

john c. pontrello

August 25, 2019


Roman apologists are notorious for proof texting when trying to prove the Vatican I version of the papacy during the first millennium.  Recently a Sedevacantist tried this with St. Cyprian of Carthage and the saints’ most noted work, De Catholicae Ecclesiae Unitate.  The controversial section of the saint’s treatise is chapter 4.  First, it is important to know that two versions of this chapter exist.  According to Don Chapman, up until he published his work in 1902, scholars had the sequence out of order.  The version cited most often by Sedevacantists in support of “Papism” is the first version not the second.  Why does this matter?  It matters because St. Cyprian revised the original.

It would be of little value to cite Orthodox or Protestant sources against the papist position that Cyprian acknowledge universal jurisdiction of the bishop of Rome because Catholics would reject them out of hand.  What is needed is a reliable unbiased Roman source because nothing disproves Roman Catholicism more effectively than Roman Catholicism. 

William A. Jurgens

In Jurgens’ three volume set “The Faith of the Early Fathers” Volume 1, he supports the work of Dom Chapman in 1902:

“Cyprian’s revised version, his second edition, is actually the longer; but it has omitted those phrases of the original version which were extremely favorable to the Roman claims of the primacy. According to this latter view, Cyprian’s choice of words in the original form of the work would have been read in Rome as recognition of the universal authority over the whole Church, which Rome claimed.  Cyprian, indeed, recognized that the bishop of Rome held some kind of a special and primatial position: but he had not thought of it as implying a universal jurisdiction.”

It is important to note that Jurgens was a Roman Catholic priest, historian, and translator of patristic works.  So here we have a world renowned Roman Catholic scholar correcting the misuse of the Cyprian text to support universal jurisdiction of the Roman Pontiff.  Jurgens goes on to quote Maurice Bevenot S.J.:


“At Rome, where there were no doubts about its bishops authority over the whole Church, Cyprian’s original text could not fail to be read as a recognition of that fact.  If in the course of the Baptism controversy this was, as it were, thrown in his teeth, he will have exclaimed, quite truthfully: But I never meant that!! – and so he “toned it down” in his revised version.  He did not, then, repudiate what he had formerly held.  He had never held that the Pope possessed universal jurisdiction.  But he never denied it either; in truth he had never asked himself the question where the final authority in the Church might be…”

According to these Catholic historians, the first version (if in fact Cyprian were really its author) was misunderstood by papal supremacists in his own time to advance their cause and the saint decided that a revised edition was necessary to quell papal ambitions.  In other words, the saint recognized how his words were being used out of context.


Bevenot continues with evolution of dogma:

“If the foregoing reconstruction is correct, we have in Cyprian’s De ecclesiae Catholicae unitate a good example of what a dogma can look like while still in an early stage of development.  The reality (in this case, the Primacy of Rome) is there all the time: it may be recognized by some; by others it may even be denied, and that though much of what they say or do unconsciously implies it…Cyprian is a standing example of what we mean when we speak of the Papal Primacy being “implicit” in the early Church.”


Roman Primacy is not denied by Orthodox Christians.  What is denied is papal supremacy and infallibility neither of which can honestly be proof texted out of St. Cyprian’s treatise.  Even in two versions of chapter 4 he never once speaks of Peter's authority over the Apostles.  In fact he speaks against it.  The saint writes "Certainly the rest of the apostles were that which Peter also was, endued with equal partnership both of honour and office."


I have to point out that when Sedevacantists attempt to quote from fathers of the Church they usually cut off their noses to spite their faces.  I don’t believe there are many works they can cite that when read in entirety (beyond their proof texts) that do not condemn Sedevacantism to some degree.  In this case, Cyprian's entire treatise is on the unity of the Church, to which Sedes and other trads stand in contradiction.  Therefore, if the papal interpretation of Cyprian's treatise were correct then the saint condemns Sedes for their schism from the chair of Peter. 


In conclusion, two Catholic historians admitted that Cyprian’s work does not support universal jurisdiction of the Roman Pontiff.  Will Sedevacantists continue proof-texting St. Cyprian anyways?  Sure they will.  But if they were wise they’d try not to draw too much attention to him.     



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