The Problem with Catholic Popes: Linus and the Petrine Succession

The authority of the Catholic pope, the leader of the Church, relies on a line of succession that includes Linus, an early Christian. There is little evidence supporting his existence.

Jun 30, 2024By James Fester, BA History

linus peterine succession catholic popes problem

 

With a history stretching over 2000 years, the Church and its Catholic popes have weathered more than a few scandals that would have toppled any other institution, and yet it has remained standing. Periods like the Spanish Inquisition, the Protestant Reformation, and more recently the ongoing allegations of sexual abuse among the clergy have strained the authority of the church. Yet, to this day it remains one of the world’s oldest and largest religions. This makes it all the more amazing that centuries of tradition and power could be completely overturned as a result of a guy who shares a name with Charlie Brown’s best friend.

 

The Roots of Papal Authority

The Last Supper, by Leonardo Da Vinci, 1495-8, Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

The authority of the high-ranking clergy in the Christian church is built upon the idea of the apostolic succession, an early church doctrine that says bishops’ authority has been passed down in a continuous line that can be traced all the way back to the first apostles of Jesus Christ.

 

Due in large part to the tendency of early Christians to end up imprisoned or dead, it was essential to the stability of the early church that a line of succession be designated and that the authority of each designee was unquestionable. The Roman Catholic Church followed suit but it was also expanded upon with “The Petrine Theory,” a doctrine also known as “the primacy of Peter” that asserts that Jesus Christ bestowed the “keys of the kingdom” to Peter, who became the first pope when Jesus said, “I tell you, you are, Peter, and on this rock, I shall build my church” (Matthew 16:18).

 

To be clear, this interpretation of this particular passage is debated, with other sects of Christianity pointing to other passages that push back against this idea of Peter being the designated heir. In Acts 15, a doctrinal conference held in Jerusalem was chaired not by Peter, but by another disciple, James. Galatians 2:7 also shows that Peter and Paul had a power-sharing structure when it came to recruitment responsibilities and one wasn’t above the other.

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Saint Peter and Saint Paul, by El Greco, 1587-1592, Source: The Hermitage Museum

 

But for the Catholic Church, this idea that all popes can trace their authority in an unbroken line back to the original recognition of Peter who was chosen by Jesus himself, is where they derive much of the authority from. To this day it has been used to claim the mantle of “one true church.” This however begs the question: if there is an interruption or discrepancy in this chain, would it call into question this ecclesiological claim to primacy? Would the implications shake the very foundations of Catholic authority?

 

With that in mind, consider the following question: If Peter was the first pope, who was the second? If you don’t know the answer, don’t feel too bad, because there is virtually nothing known about Linus, the heir of Peter.

 

What Do We Know About Pope Linus? 

Engraving of Saint Linus, by Giovanni Giacomo de Rossi, 1675, Source: The British Museum

 

The most widely accepted story regarding the ascension of Linus to the papacy is that prior to Peter’s martyrdom on Vatican Hill, the leadership of the church was passed to Linus, who would oversee the church of Rome until his own supposed martyrdom in 76 CE. You’ll notice that the details in this tale are scant, to say the least, and that is because evidence of any kind for Linus is also scant.

 

The best documentation regarding Linus comes from the early church historian Irenaeus. In Book III of his work Against Heresies. Irenaeus writes:

 

“The blessed apostles, then, having founded and built up the Church, committed into the hands of Linus the office of the episcopate. Of this Linus, Paul makes mention in the Epistles to Timothy.” 

 

Take a moment to read the above sentence one more time because that short passage is the best, and potentially only, hard evidence of Linus and his nine years as pope that we have available today. Everything else about him is conjecture that is mostly based upon this same passage by Irenaeus. He is said to have been from Tuscany but has a Greek name so there are questions about that. Catholic teachings hold that Linus was baptized by Peter, knew biblical contemporaries like Joseph of Arimathea, and may have been responsible for the practice of women covering their heads while in church. But all of this biographical filler is more based on tradition or conjecture rather than fact.

 

Irenaeus of Lyon stained glass, photo by Gérald Gambier, Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

Adding to this confusion is the fact that Iraneus wrote of Linus more than 100 years after his papacy had ended–meaning that this great chronicler of the church and its history never met Linus or anyone who actually knew him. This might be why there is no consensus on the dates of his reign, and why other early chroniclers of the church, such as Tertullian, assert that he actually came later in the order of succession.

 

And if this isn’t all positively confusing enough, there is a school of thought that Linus wasn’t even pope at all but was actually ordained a bishop by Peter, and that Clement I, the supposed fourth pope, was actually the immediate successor to Peter. This assertion actually carries some weight as we have writing from Clement I in the New Testament, the first writing sample to come from a successor to Peter. This theory is further supported by Jerome, an early church theologian, who indicated as much in his seminal work On Illustrious Men, a collection of biographies of early Christian figures. Most of his contemporaries, whom he refers to as “the Latins” considered Clement to be number two.

 

Why Is There So Little Known About Linus and Other Early Catholic Popes?

Crucifixion of Saint Peter, by Caravaggio, c.1600, Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

To say the evidence supporting the reign of Linus and his appointment to the office is sketchy is an understatement, and any information about precisely when or how he inherited leadership from Peter is non-existent. There are no sources that explain how he was selected or how authority was passed to him, begging the question of whether or not he was even the official heir or if he existed at all.

 

And yet, this dearth of information is not at all surprising, especially considering the times in which Linus lived. During Christianity’s early years, Christians were sometimes hunted down and executed mercilessly. In one of the most famous examples of persecution, Emperor Nero tried to divert blame from himself and onto the followers of Christ for their supposed role in the Great Fire of 64 CE. During this persecution, Christians were rounded up and their torture was made into a spectator sport with leaders like Peter being brutally executed. In the case of Peter, Christian tradition indicates that he was crucified upside-down.

 

Vatican Flag, by Goren_tek-en, Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

It’s safe to say that there wasn’t much interest in creating checklists or documentary evidence that could be used to streamline the rounding up of the early church fathers, which is in large part why most historical documents like those of Irenaeus and Tertullian came much later after Christianity had established itself as a mainstream religion and one could more safely name names. But both of these men, like many of the corroborating authors of church history and lore, had ulterior motives for establishing a timeline; the stomping out of heresy, or any competing Christian tradition that contradicted Catholic teachings or threatened their supremacy. Their purpose was almost always less about documenting history and more about building an airtight case for their sect to retain its title as “the one church” and if a little creative license was needed in order to do so that was fine because the ends justified the means.

 

If people were to ask, “So who exactly was Linus?” you would show them the list you’ve created, point to an obscure reference to a man of the same name in the unimpeachable Holy Bible, and share a couple of anecdotes about church traditions he started involving head coverings, and that is generally good enough for any doubters. This theory may indeed just be that, but we have to remember the bias of early documentarians of the church when evaluating the validity of their claims, especially when supporting evidence is completely absent and what evidence there is, they authored themselves.

 

Christ Handing the Keys to St. Peter, by Pietro Perugino, 1481-82, Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

While the lack of evidence is understandable, it presents a serious issue that Catholic leaders have glossed over for centuries by taking a lot of what is believed regarding Linus “on faith.” The ramifications of a missing second pope would upend thousands of years of Catholic authority. Without Linus, there is no apostolic succession, no connection between Peter and any pope after him, and ultimately, no papal authority.

 

This is probably why we have yet to see–and probably never will see–another pope take the name, Linus. It would invite a dive into the history of the name by historians and the faithful alike, and would probably result in some pretty uncomfortable questions when the public realizes just how shallow the pool turns out to be. And keep in mind, we only discussed Linus in this article, but many of the same issues swirl around his supposed successor the third pope (Anacletus, or Cletus depending on who you ask) as well as many other early popes. It is enough to make you say, “good grief.”

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By James FesterBA HistoryJames Fester is an educator, community historian, and author passionate about storytelling and experiential learning. His experience includes classroom teaching, educator development, authoring books, and writing content for numerous history periodicals and travel apps. He is a National Park Service volunteer who collaborates on educational programs for national parks and historic monuments highlighting the history and culture of our public lands. His writing has been featured in publications like National Geographic and TED-Ed. He has also written and published two books and is working on a third focused on place-based learning. He currently resides in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota.