And in fact, thanks to the last few centuries' worth of historical criticism, and a couple of “historical Jesus” quests, both the life of Jesus and the history of the New Testament have undergone a thorough historical examination, and in the process, have only had their historical reliability enhanced.
On the other hand, what we've been told about the early papacy has fallen away like chaff. Instead of boasts about the papacy being "instituted by Christ" and "immediately and directly" given to Peter and "perpetual successors," now, Joseph Ratzinger has stepped back and said that the papacy "goes back to the Lord and was developed faithfully in the nascent church." (Ratzinger, "Called to Communion," page 72.)
How was it "faithfully developed"?
In the first place, some Catholics will say that it is no contradiction that this "immediate" and "perpetual" power nevertheless had to "develop." But I am writing to individuals who, able to read and think, will easily be able to see the disjunction at this point.
Eamon Duffy, who was President of Magdalene College at Cambridge, and a church historian, wrote the following summary ("Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes")
Irenaeus thought that the Church had been 'founded and organised at Rome by the two glorious Apostles, Peter and Paul,' and that its faith had been reliably passed down to posterity by an unbroken succession of bishops, the first of them chosen and consecrated by the Apostles themselves. He named the bishops who had succeeded the Apostles, in the process providing us with the earliest surviving list of the popes -- Linus, Anacletus, Clement, Evaristus, Alexander, Sixtus, and so on down to Irenaeus' contemporary and friend Eleutherius, Bishop of Rome from AD 174 to 189.In a world where history affirms the life of Christ, the testimony of his resurrection, and in which the New Testament has been affirmed as reliable history, and the movements of Paul and the events in his life pinned down to the very year they happened, this same study of history has washed away the underpinnings of the historical papacy.
All the essential claims of the modern papacy, it might seem, are contained in this Gospel saying about the Rock, and in Irenaeus' account of the apostolic pedigree of the early bishops of Rome. Yet matters are not so simple. The popes trace their commission from Christ through Peter, yet for Irenaeus the authority of the Church at Rome came from its foundation by two Apostles, not one, Peter and Paul, not Peter alone. 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 Vatical 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 by Christ (the 'Quo Vadis' legend), and finally his crucifixion upside down in the Vatican Circus at 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 the manner or place of his death. Neither Peter nor Paul founded the Church at Rome, for there were Christians in the city before either of the Apostles set foot there. Nor can we assume, as Irenaeus did, that the Apostles established there a succession of bishops to carry on their work in the city, for all the indications are that there was no single bishop at Rome for almost a century after the deaths of the Apostles. In fact, wherever we turn, the solid outlines of the Petrine succession at Rome seem to blur and dissolve. (Duffy, pg 2.)
In fact, the city of Rome was very geographically diverse, and throughout the first half of the second century, the Roman church was led by a network of presbyters in a network of house churches. These presbyters fought among themselves as to who was greatest. I've quoted Hermas from "The Shepherd of Hermas as saying, "They had a certain jealousy of one another over questions of preeminence and about some kind of distinction. But they are all fools to be jealous of one another regarding preeminence.”
Roger Collins relates, "The sheer size of Rome would have made it hard for Christians to create a single organizational structure or congregate in one part of the city. Because the earliest Christian groups grew out of the Jewish community, their presence in Rome probably mirrored that of the Jews, with particular concentrations in certain neighborhoods, notably Trastavere. As the new faith began making converts, probably mostly amongst immigrants and across a growing range of social classes, the dispersal of Christians throughout the city intensified. Because of the persecution of Christians by Nero around ad 64, it became prudent to live and meet in small groups, and avoid congregating in public in large numbers. Because they worshiped in rooms dedicated to the purpose in private houses and kept their meetings very discreet creating a clerical hierarchy exercising authority over the different Christian groups in the city proved a slow process." (Roger Collins, "Keepers of the Keys of Heaven, pg. 13)
Indications of this can be found in text produced by Christian writers in Rome in the late first and second centuries. The author of the Epistle of Clement may have been the man of this name later described as the person responsible for drafting communications sent on behalf of the Christians of Rome to other churches. But by the time of Tertullian and Irenaeus, Clement was listed as the second or third bishop of Rome.As I've mentioned, committed Roman Catholics will simply dismiss this historical work as "modernist" or worse, and with the wave of a hand, they will assert, in Newmanesque fashion, that the burden of proof lies with the modern historian to "prove" that there was not simply an unbroken succession from Peter onward. But what I've given you are mere summary treatments of histories that are much more detailed, much more widely respected, and rarely ever contradicted. This is becoming the accepted historical account of the early papacy. Catholics should be asked to make some case about what is actually lacking in this historical research that is to be doubted. (Especially given the clarity that now exists regarding the life of Christ and the testimony of the earliest church.)
This difference of perspective on Clement is telling. The late-second-century authors were probably reporting a tradition that had grown up in Rome in which leading figures amongst the elders of their day were retrospectively turned into bishops, to produce a continuous list of holders of the office stretching back to Peter. Why this happened can be explained, but it would be helpful to ask which of the people named by Irenaeus and Tertullian should be regarded as the first real bishop of the city. Most scholars now agree that the answer would be Anicetus, who comes in tenth on both lists, and whose episcopate likely covered the years 155 to 166.
Not everyone is convinced that what has been called a monarchic bishop, with unquestioned authority over all the Christian clergy in the city, was to be found in Rome even as early as this, and Fabian (236-250) has been proposed as the first bishop of Rome in the full sense. (Collins, 13-14)
Robert Eno, S.S. (Order of Sulpicians, whose mission is to teach Catholic seminarians), in his 1990 work, "The Rise of the Papacy," suggests that:
Such a view is becoming increasingly widespread. The evidence here, as with most subjects of this period, is fragmentary, and the issue can be debated in both ways. But the evidence available seems to point predominantly if not decisively in the direction of a collective leadership. Dogmatic a priori theses should not force us into presuming or requiring something that the evidence leans against. (pg. 26)This historical information is evidence in addition to Scriptural "proofs" (Matthew 16, Luke 22, and John 21) that Roman Catholics provide as "evidence" for the papacy, as described by Robert Reymond, in his “A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith,” pg 818:
Rome’s exegesis of Matthew 16 and its historically developed claim to authoritative primacy in the Christian world simply cannot be demonstrated and sustained from Scripture itself. This claim is surely one of the great hoaxes foisted upon professing Christendom, upon which false base rests the whole papal sacerdotal system.