Capturing Christianity, Cameron Bertuzzi’s YouTube platform, recently released a 90-minute video called “The STRONGEST Argument Against Catholicism w/ Dr. Jerry Walls.” In it, Bertuzzi sits down with Dr. Jerry Walls, a philosopher at Houston Baptist University, who presents what he views as the best argument against the Catholic claim. There’s actually a lot to like about the video. First, both men seem to be genuinely interested in the truth. Walls calls the question a “family dispute” between Catholics and Protestants, and he’s not afraid to acknowledge those things that he thinks Catholicism gets right. Indeed, Walls (a graduate of Notre Dame) has written a book defending the idea of Purgatory from a Protestant perspective. For his part, Bertuzzi appears to be on his way towards the Catholic Church, and seems to be genuinely trying to sort out the competing claims of Protestantism and Catholicism.
The crux of Walls’ claim goes something like this: Christ establishing the papacy upon Peter is the distinctive claim that Catholicism makes relative to all other forms of Christianity; but this claim is poorly-supported by the evidence of the early Church, where (he claims) there wasn’t even a Bishop of Rome until nearly 200 AD. Walls’ argument is half-right. I’ve actually written a book on this very subject, which is why Word on Fire asked me to respond to his claims. In my book Pope Peter, I argue that “quite simply, if the Catholic Church’s claims about the papacy are true, then everyone should be a Catholic. If they’re not true, then nobody should be a Catholic.” So if Walls has a clear proof that the papacy is false, that really would be the strongest argument against Catholicism. Conversely, if the Catholic claim stands up to scrutiny, Walls, Bertuzzi, and the rest of us should all be Catholic.
So how does Walls’ “STRONGEST argument against Catholicism” hold up? In short, Walls makes three arguments:
- An argument from authority;
- An argument from skepticism; and
- An argument from silence.
Walls gives something of an abbreviated version of his argument to Bertuzzi. To strengthen his position, I’ve supplemented their conversation with a journal article that Walls wrote (and which he mentioned in the conversation) called “‘If Christ be not Raised’; If Peter was not the First Pope: Parallel Cases of Indispensable Doctrinal Foundation.” (Since they’re the same argument by the same author, I’ve interspersed quotes from each throughout this response). With that said, let’s look at each argument in order:
1. The Argument from Authority
There are a lot of places in the Bible in which Jesus seems to treat Peter as the head of the Apostles: the famous scene in which he seems to build the Church upon Peter in Matthew 16:17-19; the time that he says to “let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves” and then calls Peter to serve the other Apostles by strengthening them (Luke 22:26, 32); the multiple fishing miracles and teachings in which Jesus seems to treat Peter as the fisherman, the Church as the net, and the laity as the fish (cf. Luke 5:1-11; Matt. 13:47-50; John 21:1-13); the promise that he will gather the Gentiles into the Church so that there will be “one flock, one shepherd” (John 10:16) followed by his commissioning of Peter (individually) to “feed my lambs,” “tend my sheep,” and “feed my sheep” (John 21:15-17). There are also numerous other places in which Peter is listed first among the Apostles, and even as somehow distinct from the other Apostles (e.g., calling the Twelve “Peter and the Eleven,” [see Acts 2:14]), etc. A Protestant might go about trying to rebut this evidence directly, showing that none of it actually means what it seems to mean. But Walls doesn’t do that. He argues instead that the pope couldn’t be part of an unbroken line of bishops going back to St. Peter, because Rome didn’t even have a bishop until the late second century.
Walls supports this claim principally by citing two Catholic historians, Fr. Robert Eno and Eamon Duffy (a third, Fr. Raymond Brown, appears in his article), and saying that this constitutes a scholarly consensus. Of the three that he cites, Eno views the evidence as inconclusive, but leans against the idea of there being an unbroken line of succession from St. Peter. Duffy is convinced that there isn’t an unbroken line from St. Peter, but he is a historian of the fifteenth to seventeenth century, not of the early Church, and his arguments are heavily reliant on that third scholar, Fr. Raymond Brown. As far as I can tell, Brown is the only one who both has expertise in the area and rejects the Catholic claim to apostolic succession. Walls treats Duffy and Brown as if they were independent sources, and cites the duo/trio as evidence of a scholarly “consensus”:
So again, I emphasize, I’m citing the Roman Catholic historians. Now that’s pretty telling. And again, so far as I’m aware, this represents the consensus among Catholic historians: that Peter was not the first bishop of Rome, there was not a continuous succession of bishops following Peter, as Vatican I would have it. That is not the case. And as they tell the story, what you have in early Rome are multiple bishops, multiple elders, and the idea is that the city of Rome features what [the German Lutheran scholar] Peter Lampe calls a “fractionated” situation, so you have the Church scattered in different pockets.
Walls thinks that this outweighs the biblical evidence for the papacy, saying “I think they [Catholics] need more than to say, ‘I read my Bible, and when I read my Bible, it seems to me that Jesus is making Peter the pope, and that settles it for me.’” At numerous points, both in his journal article and in his conversation with Bertuzzi, he compares Catholics with young-earth Creationists who hold on to their biblical interpretation at the expense of scholarly evidence to the contrary. But believing in evolution on scientific evidence is a far cry from rejecting apostolic succession simply because Fr. Raymond Brown says so.
It’s worth recognizing that this is simply an argument from authority: Walls isn’t giving any evidence, other than that the scholars he’s hand-picked say what he wants them to say. But as St. Thomas Aquinas notes, “The proof from authority is the weakest form of proof.” (And if Aquinas says it, it must be correct . . . right?). So if we’re going to believe Walls’ appeal to authority, we must have some reason to do so. He offers three possible reasons: first, because they’re historians; second, because they represent the scholarly consensus; and third, because they’re Roman Catholics.
The problem with the first defense is that the arguments in question are not particularly technical: claims are made about how much weight should be given to what certain Church Fathers said (or often, didn’t say). Most of the texts themselves have been translated into English for over a century, and few of the disputes hinge upon esoteric questions of Greek grammar or the like. So this is less like second-guessing a linguist on his translation, and more like second-guessing an umpire calling balls and strikes: he probably knows his field better than you do, but not so much so that you can’t recognize a bad call when you see it. And that’s applicable here: one of the major arguments that Brown relies upon (which we’ll look at in more depth) is that, since St. Ignatius of Antioch frequently mentions bishops in his writings to the churches of Asia Minor, this “insistence” shows that the episcopacy must be some new thing that he is trying to defend; and that since he (allegedly) doesn’t mention bishops in his letter to Rome, the episcopacy must not exist there. You don’t need to be an expert to realize that this is a catch-22: that whether or not Ignatius mentions bishops, this is taken as “proof” that there weren’t bishops before c. 100. Brown knowing Greek and being well-read doesn’t make his argument any stronger.
The problem with the second defense is that the “consensus” mostly consists of other people reading Brown and his coauthor Meier, and repeating their conclusions, without adding any new argument or expertise or scholarship (Duffy is a prime example of this—the passage of his book in question has only one footnote, to a second-century text from Irenaeus that Duffy disagrees with). Since Duffy is reliant on Brown, saying “Duffy and Brown say x” tells us nothing more than “Brown says x.”
The final defense is that these scholars are Catholics. Wouldn’t Catholics have a vested interest in trying to show the truth of Catholic dogma? Such a presupposition seems to me to be a bit naïve concerning the state of Catholic scholarship, and the often-fraught relationship between the Magisterium and certain Catholic scholars. Walls is a graduate of Notre Dame, so it is perhaps worth pointing out that in the 1967 Land O’ Lakes Statement, the heads of several Catholic universities (headed by Notre Dame’s Fr. Hesburgh) issued a sort of declaration of independence, arguing that “the Catholic university must have a true autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical, external to the academic community itself.” Brown, for instance, says that the Virgin Birth and physical Resurrection of Jesus are “doctrines for which there is slender basis in Scripture.” Since he’s a Catholic, are we likewise required to believe that? And if not, on what basis are we compelled to accept his claims about the evidence for the papacy or apostolic succession?
If we can’t accept these claims just on the basis of an appeal to authority, we’ll have to actually look at the arguments. And that leads to the second part of Walls’ case, the argument from skepticism.
2. The Argument from Skepticism
Walls’ argument, in a nutshell, works like this: the Resurrection is foundational to Christianity, and so we should expect it to be historically well-supported, and it is. Papal succession is foundational to Catholicism, and so we should expect it to be historically well-supported, but it isn’t.
There are two major fallacies in this reasoning. First, the question here isn’t whether to accept Christianity or Catholicism. It’s whether, given that you’ve accepted Christianity, you accept the distinctive claims of Catholicism, or Orthodoxy, or any of the various forms of Protestantism. By definition, each of these groups of Christians accept the evidence for the Resurrection but reject the particular claims of each of the other groups. The arguments for Catholicism or Protestantism or Orthodoxy (etc.) are less convincing to the set of Christians than the arguments for Christianity, so if that’s the standard, no one can meet it.
But there’s a second problem with this reasoning as well. Walls treats the historicity of the Resurrection as generally accepted, although he acknowledges “that there are numerous scholars on the other side who are more skeptical, or who strongly deny the resurrection.” But this isn’t some skeptical fringe: secular historians in fact tend to treat the Resurrection as fictional, for the simple reason that it describes a supernatural event. The atheist blogger Bob Seidensticker explains the crux of the problem well:
Christians correctly point out that the historical grounding for the Jesus story has some compelling points. For example, there are not one but four gospel accounts. The time gap from original manuscripts to our oldest complete copies is relatively small. And the number of Bible manuscripts is far greater than those referring to anyone else of that time.
The enormous difficulty, however, is that historians reject miracles—not just in the Bible but consistently in any book that claims to be history.
Remember the story of Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon? The historian Suetonius reported that Julius saw a divine messenger who urged him to cross. This is the same Suetonius that Christians often point to when citing extra-biblical evidence for the historicity of the Jesus story.
It’s a fact of history that Suetonius wrote about the messenger, but this miraculous appearance isn’t actually part of history.
Notice that it isn’t as if historians have some good evidence to the contrary—some other source explaining why Caesar crossed the Rubicon, or why the early Christians believed in the empty tomb and the Resurrection. It’s just a widespread dogmatic, a priori rejection of supernatural claims. Now, I would argue, and I suspect that Walls would agree, that this rejection of the supernatural is actually irrational. It’s contrary to all of the available evidence. But the same is true of the arguments against the early papacy. Here’s the argument from Eamon Duffy that Walls finds so convincing:
The tradition that Peter and Paul had been put to death at the hands of Nero in Rome about the year AD 64 was universally accepted in the second century, and by the end of that century pilgrims to Rome were being shown the ‘trophies’ of the Apostles, their tombs or cenotaphs, Peter’s on the Vatican Hill, and Paul’s on the Via Ostiensis, outside the walls on the road to the coast. Yet on all of this the New Testament is silent. Later legend would fill out the details of Peter’s life and death in Rome—his struggles with the magician and father of heresy, Simon Magus, his miracles, his attempted escape from persecution in Rome, a flight from which he was turned back by a reproachful vision of Christ (the ‘Quo Vadis’ legend), and finally his crucifixion upside down in the Vatican Circus in the time of the Emperor Nero. These stories were to be accepted as sober history by some of the greatest minds of the early Church—Origen, Ambrose, Augustine. But they are pious romance, not history, and the fact is that we have no reliable accounts either of Peter’s later life or of the manner or place of his death.
Duffy acknowledges that Christians of the second century, along with the “greatest minds of the early Church” in the third and fourth century, accepted particular historical claims about Peter, the most important of which is that he died during Nero’s persecution in AD 64, in the city of Rome. As with the Gospel accounts, we’re dealing with a case in which there are multiple corroborating accounts, and who are near in time to the events to which they’re attesting. So how does Duffy disprove these historical claims? He doesn’t bother to make any arguments or give any evidence. Instead, he just dismisses them out of hand as “later legend” and “pious romance, not history.” This is precisely the same dismissiveness with which skeptical scholars reject the Resurrection: it doesn’t matter how many people said it happened, because it just sounds too fantastical to them. In both cases, it’s irrational skepticism: it’s not a skepticism built on the evidence, but a skepticism that refuses to take the evidence seriously.
So the real question is not why the Resurrection is better attested than the papacy. Of course the Resurrection is more important, and so it’s hardly surprising that the early Christians spoke more about Jesus rising from the dead than about the juridical primacy of the Roman See. The real question is why Walls rejects irrational skepticism in regards to the Resurrection, but accepts it in regards to St. Peter’s successors.
3. The Argument from Silence
If you insist on dismissing all of the early Christian witnesses to the papacy as believing in “pious romance,” you’re left with nothing, because nobody in the early Church actually argues against the papacy, or says that Peter didn’t die in Rome, or that there wasn’t an unbroken line of bishops after him. Walls views this resultant silence as a point in his favor. In both his article and his conversation with Bertuzzi, Walls makes much of the fact that St. Ignatius of Antioch doesn’t mention the Bishop of Rome in his letter to the Romans. When Bertuzzi points out that this seems to just be an argument from silence, Walls replies:
How so? I’m not sure I’m getting you. So he mentions bishops in every other letter, he’s almost obsessed with the authority of the bishop. There’s like 40-some references scattered throughout these letters. But when he writes to Rome, where supposedly the bishop of bishops lives, he doesn’t mention a bishop.
Of course, that is the definition of an argument from silence (and Walls even calls it such in footnote 25 of his journal article). Walls appears to be basing this claim off of both Eno and Duffy, the latter of whom says that Ignatius of Antioch “wrote a series of letters to other churches, largely consisting of appeals to them to unite round their bishops. His letter to the Roman church, however, says nothing whatever about bishops, a strong indication that the office had not yet emerged at Rome.” So Walls’ whole argument comes down to the idea that
- We would expect Ignatius to mention bishops in his letter to the Romans;
- Ignatius says “nothing whatever about bishops” in this letter;
- Therefore, there must have not have been a bishop in Rome at the time that Ignatius wrote (c. 107 AD).
The problems with this argument (besides that it is, Walls’ protests notwithstanding, a weak argument from silence) are that (1) and (2) are actually false.
Ignatius’ seven letters are written on his way from Antioch (the city over which he was bishop) to Rome (the city in which he was martyred), and were written somewhere around AD 107. En route to martyrdom, Ignatius passed through the Roman provinces of Asia Minor and Thracia (present-day Turkey and Greece). Five of his letters are to the Christians in these provinces: to the churches of Ephesus, Magnesia, Tralles, Philadelphia, and Smyrna, along with a sixth to St. Polycarp, Ignatius’ friend and the bishop of Smyrna. As bishop of one of the oldest and most important sees in Christendom (see Acts 11:26), Ignatius leaves instructions in these places, encouraging them to obey their bishops, and greeting the bishop, presbyters, and deacons in each city.
But Ignatius’ seventh letter is to the Romans, and it is markedly different in tone. One reason for this may be that he did not feel it appropriate to leave instructions to “the Church which is beloved and enlightened by the will of Him that wills all things which are according to the love of Jesus Christ our God, which also presides in the place of the region of the Romans, worthy of God, worthy of honor, worthy of the highest happiness, worthy of praise, worthy of obtaining her every desire, worthy of being deemed holy, and which presides over love, is named from Christ, and from the Father.” Ignatius says of the Roman Church, “you have never envied any one; you have taught others.” Had Ignatius left instructions to this church, Walls might have used that to argue that the Bishop of Rome must not have been above the Bishop of Antioch in any ways.
But the other, more obvious reason that Ignatius’ letter to the Romans sounds different is that he is on his way to be martyred in their presence, and he is writing to them to ask them not to intervene to try to prevent his martyrdom, and to pray for the church in Syria that he is to leave behind. In other words, unlike the other six letters, this letter isn’t about Church governance. It’s Ignatius setting his final affairs in order as he approaches certain death.
Therefore, it would hardly be surprising were Ignatius not to mention bishops. But in fact, Ignatius does mentions bishops in his letter to the Romans, twice. He remarks on how “God has deemed me, the bishop of Syria, worthy to be sent for from the east unto the west.” And Ignatius’ request for prayers for the church in Syria only makes sense if the Romans know that there is only one bishop per church, for he writes to them about how Antioch “now has God for its shepherd, instead of me,” and how “Jesus Christ alone will oversee it” in his absence. So Walls’ argument from silence is actually built on two fallacies: first, that we would expect Ignatius’ letter to the Romans to sound like all of his other letters; and second, that the letter to the Romans never mentions bishops.
Ignatius is the only direct evidence that Walls spends any significant time on, but he briefly throws out several other possible leads:
Other witnesses, who were writing about the Church of Rome, you’ve got Clement, who lived in the late 90s, I’ve already mentioned Ignatius, the Shepherd of Hermas, and then you’ve got Justin Martyr, who lived in the later part of the second century. All of these people were observers of the Church of Rome, all of them were participants in the Church of Rome, all of them describe the leadership of Rome in this same sort of way: as multiple persons, and again, there’s often an interchange between “elders” and “bishops,” they use those terms more or less interchangeably, so you don’t have any kind of a clear sense with most of them of anything like a bishop. You’ve got all of these witnesses there, but there’s not a single exception among these people that would support the traditional papal theology.
This is riddled with errors and exaggerations, as well as some telling omissions. For instance, here’s the First Apology of St. Justin Martyr. You’ll see that he never mentions bishops or elders at any point (much less conflating the two), because he’s arguing about the truth of Christianity over paganism, not describing the structure of the Church.
As for the Shepherd of Hermas, it’s a mystical vision, not a description of the local church of Rome. In it, the author mentions “apostles, bishops, teachers, and deacons, who have lived in godly purity, and have acted as bishops and teachers and deacons chastely and reverently to the elect of God,” as well as “the presbyters who preside over the Church.” Assuming that these presbyters are the same as bishops, and that there are multiple bishops per city, just begs the question. And it also ignores the historical context: the Muratorian fragment, a biblical canon from around the year 170 explains that the Shepherd of Hermas isn’t considered Scripture because “Hermas wrote the Shepherd very recently, in our times, in the city of Rome, while bishop Pius, his brother, was occupying the [episcopal] chair of the church of the city of Rome.” The author uses this detail, not to prove that Pius I was Bishop of Rome from 142 to 157, but simply to explain when the book was written, and by whom. But it is ample evidence that there was a bishop of Rome at the time that Shepherd of Hermas was written (Hermas’ own brother), and well before Justin Martyr wrote the First Apology in c. 160.
That leaves Walls with exactly one argument: that since Clement doesn’t explicitly say that he’s the Bishop of Rome in his letter dating to c. 96 AD, therefore he wasn’t, and there must have been a plurality of bishops. To hold to this position, you have to ignore the fact that several other (seemingly independent) ancient sources all tell us that Clement was the Bishop of Rome: St. Irenaeus says so in c. 180, Tertullian treats it as well known history in c. 200, Eusebius (265-339) talks about it in his discussion of the history of the popes in Book III of Church History, and St. Jerome mentions it in his biographical sketch of the life of Clement. But you also have to ignore a bigger question: given that the Apostle John is still alive in 96 AD, why are the Corinthians writing to Rome to settle an internal church dispute? If Clement is the pope, the Corinthians’ decision makes sense. But if he’s not, they’re just writing to a slightly-bigger and slightly-less ancient local church on the other side of the Empire instead of to an Apostle, and the decision is baffling.
But What’s the Evidence for the Papacy?
I alluded to the biblical evidence above, and would refer you to my book if that piques your interest. But since Walls is focused on the evidence from the first 200 years of Christianity, I’ll do likewise. And the focus is specifically on whether or not Peter had successors as the Bishop of Rome. The most obvious evidence is from St. Irenaeus, who responds to heretical arguments by appealing to apostolic succession, saying “we are in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted bishops in the Churches, and [to demonstrate] the succession of these men to our own times; those who neither taught nor knew of anything like what these [heretics] rave about.” Tertullian likewise says that if any heretics want to claim apostolicity,
Let them exhibit the origins of their churches, let them unroll the list of their bishops, coming down from the beginning by succession in such a way that their first bishop had for his originator and predecessor one of the apostles or apostolic men; one, I mean, who continued with the apostles. For this is how the apostolic churches record their origins.
There’s a third witness to this, as well: one Hegesippus (c. 110-180), a chronicler whose writings are now mostly lost to us. (One additional reason to trust the early Christians over modern skeptics is that the early Christians had access to many primary sources, including both ancient texts and the living witness of the Christians of second-century Rome, that are unavailable to us today). Fragments of Hegesippus’ writings have been preserved by the historian Eusebius, including this detail: “And when I had come to Rome I remained there until Anicetus, whose deacon was Eleutherus. And Anicetus was succeeded by Soter, and he by Eleutherus. In every succession, and in every city that is held which is preached by the law and the prophets and the Lord.” So notice that each of these authorities says that all of the apostolic churches keep lists like this: that fact will become salient in a moment. For now, though, I want to turn back to Irenaeus, who says that Peter and Paul founded Rome, and lists their successors down to his own day (c. 180):
The blessed apostles [Peter and Paul], then, having founded and built up the Church, committed into the hands of Linus the office of the episcopate. […] Eleutherius does now, in the twelfth place from the apostles, hold the inheritance of the episcopate. In this order, and by this succession, the ecclesiastical tradition from the apostles, and the preaching of the truth, have come down to us. And this is most abundant proof that there is one and the same vivifying faith, which has been preserved in the Church from the apostles until now, and handed down in truth.
Given that he could have chosen any of the apostolic churches, why does Irenaeus choose Rome? He explains that it is because “it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its preeminent authority [potiorem principalitatem].”
So how does Walls handle such explicit evidence for apostolic succession and papal authority? By disregarding it as fake, on the authority of the Lutheran scholar Peter Lampe:
Lampe argues that this list “is with highest probability a historical construction from the 180s, when the monarchical episcopacy developed in Rome.” In other words, it anachronistically imports into earlier decades what was emerging in the 180s.
Although Walls repeatedly claims that this is the “consensus” of even Roman Catholic scholars, he’s actually contradicting even the scholars he cites. Duffy says that “there is no sure way to settle on a date by which the office of ruling bishop had emerged in Rome, and so to name the first Pope, but the process was certainly complete by the time of Anicetus in the mid-150s, when Polycarp, the aged Bishop or Smyrna, visited Rome, and he and Anicetus debated amicably the question of the date of Easter.”
But let’s consider what Lampe and Walls’ theory entails. It requires believing that Irenaeus (or someone Irenaeus is reliant upon) is rewriting nearly two hundred years of history about the Church in Rome, the literal center of the Roman Empire, and a place of tremendous importance to the early Church. As St. Paul might say, such changes couldn’t have escaped the notice of the rest of the world’s Christians, “for this was not done in a corner” (cf. Acts 26:26). Nor was it only Rome: every apostolic church made similar claims about apostolic succession. Are all of them lying, or rewriting history? If so, the reliability of Christianity itself is in serious question (since why trust apostolic Christianity if you can’t trust any apostolic Church?). But it’s more baffling than that: Hegesippus talks about being in Rome during the pontificates of Anicetus, Soter, and Eleutherus. Is he also lying about this? And what about the Muratorian fragment, which mentions Pius being the Bishop of Rome, even before Anicetus? That fragment itself dates to 170, and it’s describing the 140s, so both it and the testimony of Hegesippus seem to debunk the idea that this is all a fabrication or anachronism from the 180s. Moreover, in his letter from 96 AD, Clement wrote of how “Christ, therefore, was sent out from God, and the Apostles from Christ; and both these things were done in good order, according to the will of God,” and how the Apostles “appointed their firstfruits to be bishops and deacons over such as should believe, after they had proved them in the Spirit.” Clement doesn’t clarify whether there is one or many bishops per city, but he does show that the structure of the early Church was not something that they invented, but that they received from the Apostles (and ultimately, from Christ).
To accept any version of Walls’ argument, you would have to believe that (1) the original structure of the Roman church was something like a group of co-equal elders, and (2) at some point [the 180s, according to Lampe and Walls; no later than the 150s, according to Duffy], this apostolically-established structure was superseded or replaced by a single, powerful bishop who became the first pope. We should expect to see evidence of both (1) and (2), but there is literally none. Walls claimed that several figures (Clement, Ignatius, Hermas, and Justin) described (1), but that’s simply false, as shown above. But the absence of evidence of (2) is itself striking. As Michael C. McGuckian, S.J. points out:
A first problem with this scenario is its lack of historical plausibility. The process of canonization of the Scriptures is documented. Different list of books were circulating during the fourth century, and a definitive list was drawn up in the African councils at the end of that century and by Pope Innocent I in 405. This list was in peaceful possession in the Western Church until the Reformation, and it was necessary to reaffirm it at the Council of Trent (DS 1502–03) and at Vatican I (DS 3029). The fact that the Church had a decision to make in regard to the Scriptures is documented and clear.
Of the corresponding process of canonization of the episcopate, there is, on other hand, no trace whatever. The notion of a church choosing its church order is unheard of in Christian tradition until the sixteenth century with the Reformation in Switzerland, and the choice between presbyteral and episcopal government is church-dividing to this day. Is it plausible to suggest that it would not have been equally divisive in the first decades of the Church’s life, and could have taken place without leaving any trace whatever?
There are plenty of areas in which we see development of doctrine, or we see doctrinal fighting within the early Church. But on this particular issue, on whether the local church is governed by a single bishop or a committee of elders, there’s literal unanimity. There is not even a peep of dissension, of one side saying that the other side just made up the episcopacy or the papacy. We see no clear evidence of change, and no one bemoaning (or praising, or even acknowledging) some change in governance structure. Why not? After all, disagreements about governance structure are the cause of schism today (it’s the defining feature distinguishing Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians from one another), and it’s hard to overstate how seriously this question was taken in the first two centuries of the Church. Ignatius wrote about it repeatedly, Clement treated it as apostolically-ordained, Irenaeus points to it to fight heresies, and each apostolic church kept the records to show its succession from the Apostles. Remember, Irenaeus’ entire argument against the heretics was that they were innovators. If they could respond to him by pointing out that his own Church was in the process of innovating a papacy and rewriting its own history, don’t you think that they would?
To conclude, remember that this is the “STRONGEST argument against Catholicism.” It requires rejecting all of the second century evidence for apostolic succession as “pious romance” or worse, and there’s zero positive evidence actually supporting it. In place of that evidence, there’s no evidence pointing in the other direction. Instead, it is supported by little more than blind appeals to authority, relying on skeptical scholars when they cast doubt on the papacy, while ignoring when those same scholars cast doubt on the Virgin Birth or physical Resurrection. And it requires assuming that these twentieth-century skeptics had a better idea of what the Church looked like in Rome in the first and second century than did the actual Christians of the second century (including both Roman Christians and visitors to Rome, like Hegesippus). Moreover, it requires assuming that the Apostles established a Protestant-style church in Rome, but that the Christians got rid of it and replaced it with an episcopal/papal structure, all while paying lip service to the apostolic origins of their structure of governance. It requires assuming this because we see no evidence of the imagined “before” picture, and no evidence of when or why there was a change. As Duffy admits, the proponents of this theory can’t actually point to a first pope, they just have to argue vaguely that there must have been one, and that it must not have been St. Peter . . . even though every ancient source who discusses the question says it was Peter. I agree with Walls that this is precisely the question that we ought to be discussing, but if his case is the strongest argument against Catholicism, it’s hard to see how anyone can resist becoming Catholic.