'In the first three centuries, St. Irenaeus is the only writer who connects the superiority of the Roman Church with doctrine; but he places this superiority, rightly understood, only in its antiquity, its double apostolical origin, and in the circumstance of the pure tradition being guarded and maintained there through the constant concourse of the faithful from all countries. Tertullian, Cyprian, Lactantius, know nothing of special Papal prerogative, or of any higher or supreme right of deciding in matter of doctrine. In the writings of the Greek doctors, Eusebius, St. Athanasius, St. Basil the Great, the two Gregories, and St. Epiphanius, there is not one word of any prerogatives of the Roman bishop. The most copious of the Greek Fathers, St. Chrysostom, is wholly silent on the subject, and so are the two Cyrils; equally silent are the Latins, Hilary, Pacian, Zeno, Lucifer, Sulpicius, and St. Ambrose.
St. Augustine has written more on the Church, its unity and authority, than all the other Fathers put together. Yet, from all his numerous works, filling ten folios, only one sentence, in one letter, can be quoted, where he says that the principality of the Apostolic Chair has always been in Rome—which could, of course, be said then with equal truth of Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria. Any reader of his Pastoral Letter to the separated Donatists on the Unity of the Church, must find it inexplicable...that in these seventy–five chapters there is not a single word on the necessity of communion with Rome as the centre of unity. He urges all sorts of arguments to show that the Donatists are bound to return to the Church, but of the Papal Chair, as one of them, he says not a word.
We have a copious literature on the Christian sects and heresies of the first six centuries—Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Epiphanius, Philastrius, St. Augustine, and, later, Leontius and Timotheus—have left us accounts of them to the number of eighty, but not a single one is reproached with rejecting the Pope’s authority in matters of faith.
All this is intelligible enough, if we look at the patristic interpretation of the words of Christ to St. Peter. Of all the Fathers who interpret these passages in the Gospels (Matt. xvi.18, John xxi.17), not a single one applies them to the Roman bishops as Peter’s successors. How many Fathers have busied themselves with these texts, yet not one of them whose commentaries we possess—Origen, Chrysostom, Hilary, Augustine, Cyril, Theodoret, and those whose interpretations are collected in catenas—has dropped the faintest hint that the primacy of Rome is the consequence of the commission and promise to Peter! Not one of them has explained the rock or foundation on which Christ would build His Church of the office given to Peter to be transmitted to his successors, but they understood by it either Christ Himself, or Peter’s confession of faith in Christ; often both together. Or else they thought Peter was the foundation equally with all the other Apostles, the twelve being together the foundation–stones of the Church (Apoc. xxi.14). The Fathers could the less recognize in the power of the keys, and the power of binding and loosing, any special prerogative or lordship of the Roman bishop, inasmuch as—what is obvious to any one at first sight—they did not regard a power first given to Peter, and afterwards conferred in precisely the same words on all the Apostles, as anything peculiar to him, or hereditary in the line of Roman bishops, and they held the symbol of the keys as meaning just the same as the figurative expression of binding and loosing.'
Johann Joseph Ignaz von Döllinger, writing under the pseudonym Janus, in The Pope and the Council (Boston: Roberts, 1869), pp. 70-74.
von Döllinger(1799-1890) was a Roman Catholic priest and historian who is known today primarily as the spiritual father of the German branch of the Old Catholic movement which arose in protest after the proclamation of papal infallibility at Vatican I in 1870 (although he declined to be consecrated as first bishop of the Bavarian branch of this church, and lived thereafter in somewhat ambiguous relationship with the movement, even after he had been excommuncated from the Roman Catholic Church for refusing to submit to the new dogma.) He is generally acknowledged to be one of the foremost church historians of the 19th century, and lectured in that subject at the University of Munich; he was also awarded honorary doctorates by the Universities of Oxford, Edinburgh and Marburg.
This extract is from a series of letters published pseudonymously by von Döllinger in advance of the Council with the intent of forestalling the pronouced move to defining infallibility as a dogma. Obviously that intention of von Döllinger was frustrated by subsequent events, but the impressive array of historical evidence he mounted in his public letters was never rebutted by Rome, instead it was suppressed on the floor of the Council as dissenting bishops were literally shouted down by the Pope's loyal men. Many of the dissenting bishops subsequently left Rome before the vote was taken, which is why Roman Catholic history books can disingenuously record the vote in favour of the dogma as having the support of 'an overwhelming majority' of the bishops present. In fact there were four hundred and fifty-one votes in favour, less than half of the one thousand and eighty-four bishops with voting rights in the church at large and less than two-thirds of the seven hundred bishops who were in attendance at the commencement of the Council. Eighty-eight bishops voted against the definition, while twenty-six abstained and fifty-five apparently informed the Pope that while they were opposed to the definition, out of loyalty to him they would not vote against it.
von Döllinger kept the world informed of these developments at the Council in his Letters of Quirinus, and in the end he was to be the only dissenter of note who manfully refused to go against his conscience by submitting to a dogma which he knew to have no scriptural or historical basis. Even the fiesty Croatian primate, Bishop Joseph Strossmayr, eventually succumbed, perhaps in order to extract concessions from the Pope for his flock regarding the use of Slavonic in the litrgy.
It should be noted that von Döllinger regarded himself to the end as a loyal Catholic, and furthermore he was an ardent critic of the Reformation, having written a three volume work on the subject. This, we think, only adds weight to what he writes here as being all the more an unprejudiced and accurate review of the lack of historical evidence for papal primacy in the ancient church; von Döllinger certainly had no axe to grind on behalf of the Reformation, he simply could not abide the thought of this anti-historical view of the Papacy being dogmatised. But, as von Döllinger discovered, respect for history has never stood in the way of the progressive self-aggrandisement of the Papacy.