Continuing the series first posted by me on the Catholica Forum.
Questions have been asked here on Catholica and elsewhere about the measure of importance Catholics today place on the truth or otherwise of the Papal claim to Universal Primacy and Apostolic Succession through the Apostle Peter.
All the prerogatives, the titles, the honours, all that the Church has ever claimed for itself hang from this one single thread.
- What could be more important than to determine its truth or otherwise, not only for ourselves but for all our numberless ancestors who believed it absolutely, to the extent that some even died for it?
- What if the Church is not the church of Jesus Christ by divine ordinance?
- What if the Pope is not the Vicar of Christ and Pastor of the universal Church on earth by divine ordinance?
- What if the Bishops are not the successors of the Apostles by divine ordinance?
- What if the Church has never been the recipient of "divinely revealed truths" through the Holy Spirit?
- What if, what if, what if...
I pursue this subject with such vigour because I believe that for every Catholic on earth, indeed every person on earth, nothing could be more fundamentally important. Consider the numberless millions of Catholics in Latin America, Africa, and Asia who believe that the Pope has the divinely ordained right to dictate to them about reproduction. Consider what overpopulation means for the future of this planet.
Having nailed my colours to the mast, I'll continue with our series.
The 1st Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians...
Although it may be quite tedious for readers, I do think it important to deal with what is arguably the most important piece of alleged "evidence" upon which the Papacy relies for its claims to Universal Primacy through an early exercise of authority flowing from Peter's presence in Rome — i.e. the 1st Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians written circa 96-100 AD.
Catholic apologists call upon this Epistle time after time and it was recently given an airing by Pope Benedict XVI himself in this Zenit report from 2007:
"Already in the first century, popes exercised their primacy over the other Churches, Benedict XVI says.
The Holy Father explained this on Wednesday at the general audience, which he dedicated to Pope St. Clement of Rome, the third successor of Peter.
Speaking to some 16,000 people gathered both in Paul VI Hall and St. Peter's Basilica, the Pontiff began a new series of catecheses on the Apostolic Fathers.
Benedict XVI mentioned that Clement's Letter to the Corinthians was given "[a]n almost canonical characteristic."
The letter noted that the Church of Corinth was experiencing severe divisions. "The priests of the community, in fact, had been deposed by some young upstarts," the Holy Father said.
And quoting St. Irenaeus, he explained the context of Clement's letter: "[t]he Church of Rome sent the Corinthians a very important letter to reconcile them in peace to renew their faith and to announce the tradition, a tradition they had so newly received from the apostles."
Benedict XVI continued: "Therefore we could say that [Clement's letter] is a first exercise of a Primate of Rome after the death of St. Peter."
He added that the letter "opened to the Bishop of Rome the possibility for vast intervention on the identity of the Church and its mission." 
Pope Benedict makes two major claims in his address:
- "Pope St Clement of Rome" was the third successor of Peter.
- The 1st Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians proves that in the first century AD, popes already exercised their primacy over other churches.
We have been dealing with Peter's alleged Roman ministry in other commentaries in this series, so we only deal with Claim 1 in the context of this Epistle.
A closer look at the 1st Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians...
Towards the end of the first century AD, an upsurge of factionalism in the congregation at Corinth caused a divisiveness and resentment that resulted in widespread embarrassment to other Christian congregations. The Roman congregation wrote a letter to the Corinthian congregation pleading that they settle their differences reminding them that the essence of the teachings of Jesus was love and humility.
Keep the following points in mind:
- The Epistle is anonymous. Therefore we know nothing about its author. Later tradition asserts it was written by a man named "Clement".
- The author is not named as head of the church in Rome.
- Nowhere does the author assert the primacy of Rome over other churches. On the contrary, the author makes his appeal to the Corinthians on the values of self-abasement, humility and love, as did Jesus in his sermons. "For Christ is with them that are lowly of mind, not with them that exalt themselves over the flock" [1Clem 16:1]
- The author does not appeal to his own authority, or to that of his congregation, but to Rome's and Corinth's mutually recognised authority of scripture, from which he quotes copiously to reinforce his arguments.
- For the writer of I Clement, the presbyteral college form of church government is normative and proper. The restoration of the Corinthian presbyters so that the faithful transmission of apostolic teaching is secured is the most important purpose in writing.
There is a broad consensus among scholars that 1 Clement does not establish the Primacy of the Church in Rome, or the succession of bishops from the Apostle Peter.
I have chosen from amongst these scholars the following crucial observations from Peter Lampe's masterful work Christians at Rome in the First Two Centuries: From Paul to Valentinus:
"Before the middle of the second century in Rome, at no time did one single prominent person pass on the tradition: this was done by a plurality of presbyters ... at the time that Rome experiences the development of a monarchical episcopacy, a twelve-member list of names going back to the apostles is constructed ... the presence of a monarchical bearer of tradition is projected back into the past...
"The list of Irenaus [Haer.3.3.3] is with highest probability a historical construction from the 180's when the monarchical episcopacy developed in Rome. Above all, the framwork of "apostolic" twelve members [from Linus to Eleutherus] points in the direction of a fictive construction. The names that were woven into the construction were certainly not freely invented but were borrowed from the tradition of the city of Rome [for example "Clement" or the brother of Hermas, "Pius"]. They had belonged to presbyters of Roman church history. These persons, however, would never have understood themselves as monarchical leaders – especially Pius at the time of Hermas." 
Peter Lampe demonstrates that the purpose of this list was to anchor the then current doctrine with a successive chain of authorities back to the apostles and not to prove a succession of monarchical bishops. Peter Lampe's account makes fascinating reading.
It is important to keep in mind that the historical claims of the Papacy rest entirely on Peter's alleged death in Rome and the mention of both Peter and Paul in Chapter 5 of the Epistle has been put forward at times in support of these claims.
J.B. Lightfoot's translation of Chapter 5
"But, to pass from the examples of ancient days, let us come to those champions who lived nearest to our time. Let us set before us the noble examples which belong to our generation. By reason of jealousy and envy the greatest and most righteous pillars of the Church were persecuted, and contended even unto death. Let us set before our eyes the good Apostles.
"There was Peter who by reason of unrighteous jealousy endured not one but many labors, and thus having borne his testimony went to his appointed place of glory. By reason of jealousy and strife Paul by his example pointed out the prize of patient endurance. After that he had been seven times in bonds, had been driven into exile, had been stoned, had preached in the East and in the West, he won the noble renown which was the reward of his faith, having taught righteousness unto the whole world and having reached the farthest bounds of the West; and when he had borne his testimony before the rulers, so he departed from the world and went unto the holy place, having been found a notable pattern of patient endurance."
In the words "There was Peter who by reason of unrighteous jealousy endured not one but many labors, and thus having borne his testimony went to his appointed place of glory," is found evidence that Peter was martyred in Rome.
Although the apostles are bracketed together, the Epistle makes it as a distinguishing circumstance of Paul that he preached both in the East and West, implying that Peter never was in the West.
Only a determinedly preconceived motive could possibly extract from the First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians one shred of evidence that Peter died in Rome, or that the "Primate of Rome" exercised authority over other churches in the 1st Century. Even Benedict's use of the term "Primate of Rome" is anachronistic as the monarchical episcopate was not in existence at the time of writing, either in Rome or in Corinth.
Despite all evidence to the contrary, the Papacy continues to repeat the age-old mantra of Universal Primacy and Apostolic Succession through the Apostle Peter because Peter was allegedly martyred in Rome:
"In Peter's person, mission and ministry, in his presence and death in Rome attested by the most ancient literary and archaeological tradition - the Church sees a deeper reality essentially related to her own mystery of communion and salvation: "Ubi Petrus, ibi ergo Ecclesia". From the beginning and with increasing clarity, the Church has understood that, just as there is a succession of the Apostles in the ministry of Bishops, so too the ministry of unity entrusted to Peter belongs to the permanent structure of Christ's Church and that this succession is established in the see of his martyrdom."
To be continued...
Note: This Epistle is a sort of poisoned chalice for the Church. On the one hand, as a genuine piece of early correspondence from one Christian community to another, the Church must hang upon this slender thread its monumental claims to Papal Primacy. On the other hand, however, the Epistle reflects none of the Church's superimposed later dogmas. The author refers to "Jesus Christ the High Priest by whom our gifts are offered", and nowhere is Jesus considered to be divine, virgin-born, or part of any "Trinity". Jesus is always presented simply as a man of God.
 Benedict XVI Highlights 1st Century Papal Primacy, Vatican City, March 8, 2007 (Zenit.org)
 Peter Lampe, Christians at Rome in the First Two Centuries: From Paul to Valentinus, Continuum Publishing, 2006, pp 405-406.
 The Primacy of the Successor of Peter in the Mystery of the Church : Reflections of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Prefect. Tarcisio Bertone, Archbishop emeritus of Vercelli, Secretary. Il Primato del Successore di Pietro, Atti del Simposio teologico, Rome, 2-4 December 1996, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, Vatican City, 1998.