The pontificate of St. Leo the Great is a convenient point at which to halt an investigation of the history of the early popes. From St. Leo to the present the papacy has changed so little that an inquirer whose experience was confined to the modern popes would have no difficulty in seeing that Leo held the same office in the church as, for instance, Pius XI. An examination of his pontificate shows that he possessed all the characteristics which are now recognized as being of the essence of the papacy. Mgr. Batiffol remarked that he was not, as has been alleged, the first pope, but he was fully a pope. In his pontificate the institution of the papacy can be said to have achieved its term of normal development. It is necessary now to reflect on the history of that institution from Peter to Leo in order to propose a theory which will explain adequately all the relevant facts. In particular it is necessary to account for the prominent position of St. Peter, followed by an apparent regression, and then swift rise to pre-eminence by those who claimed to be his successors.
Four main theories have been suggested to explain the phenomenon. The theories of the usurpation of a power which was never given by Christ, the acquisition of pre-eminence by reason of the civil importance of the imperial capital, straightforward historical evolution, and finally institution by Christ together with the normal development which has attended all Christian doctrines.
The theory of usurpation has in its favour the undeniable fact that this kind of thing was not unknown in the early church. It was this type of ambition which prompted the depositions of Chrysostom and Flavian at the hands of Theophilus and Dioscorus. Similarly the ambitions of the bishops of Constantinople motivated their endeavours to secure for their see the primacy of honour. It is, however, important to bear in mind that the rivalry between the great sees of the church, which was pursued so unscrupulously, was a characteristic which appeared fairly late upon the ecclesiastical scene. The bishoprics were sought by the unscrupulous, and their power was augmented only in the period when they had become sources of wealth and influence. The special authority of Rome is seen to have been a reality before that era. It was during the persecutions, in the time of heroic and unwordly bishops, that the church of Rome occupied the position which at a laterdate many other churches would have liked to possess. By the end of the persecutions, when the sees became desirable to the worldly, and when the great Eastern bishops strove to increase their power, the Bishop of Rome was already in possession of his peculiar authority. In fact, a close examination of the activities of the early Roman bishops yields no satisfactory evidence to substantiate the charge of usurpation. It is principally on account of this lack of historical realism that the theory of usurpation has generally been abandoned at the present time.
The second theory, that of the advancement of the Bishops of Rome thanks to the civil importance of the city, has been popular for a longer period than the suggestion of usurpation. Like its predecessor it has in its favour the fact that it is intrinsically impossible. The political influence of Rome could indeed have promoted its ecclesiastical importance, but on one condition: namely, if there had been any close link between the two institutions. In the East an adequate connexion between church and state did exist after the conversion of the emperor. The sovereigns thenceforward took no small interest in the affairs of the church, thus promoting the cause of the bishop of the capital city. The result for Constantinople was almost unbelievable. In the year 300 there was no thought even of building such a city, yet by the end of the century its bishop was so powerful that his only serious rival in the East was the patriarch of Alexandria. All this, it must be remembered arose as a result of the very real link between the emperor and the bishop of his city. On the other hand, the absence of such a connexion was equally effective in determining the opposite kind of result. In the Middle Ages, when the authority of the popes was secure, Rome might well have been expected to have become the center of the intellectual life of the church. In fact, no such thing happened. Paris, Bologna and other university cities saw the flowering of the sciences, while Rome remained the administrative centre. At first sight this situation might appear somewhat unusual. However, in view of the fact that there is no necessary connexion between the centre of authority and the centre of learning, there is no reason why Rome should have been prominent intellectually.
The contention that the Bishop of Rome benefited from the civil importance of the city stands or falls by the strength of the bonds which united emperor and pope and in the formative period of the latter’s authority. During the Apostolic era the church was not sufficiently developed to have anything like official relations with the civil government. By the time she had become in any way established the mutual attitudes had been determined by the legislation of the state. Persecution was the official policy and the two systems were destined to be estranged from each other for the first three centuries. This state of mutual hostility was further aggravated by the spiritual reaction against paganism and everything that it stood for. In the fervour of their conversion the early Christians developed an attitude of loathing and contempt for the pagan religions, morals, customs, and even the culture which had been bred by non-Christians society. They did not at once separate the good from the bad in pagan civilization, but classed it all as evil. The persecution merely strengthened this hostility, and on Rome, the centre of it all, they bestowed the most derogatory title at their disposal – Babylon, the symbol of all that is abominable in the eyes of God. Early in the third century the school of Alexandria began the task of sifting out what was good in the culture of the pagans with a view to using it in the service of God. In the West, however, the old hostility persisted, so much so that Tertullian did not hesitate to brand civil government as the enemy of God. Although there were degrees of animosity, it is true to say that a state of hostility was the normal attitude of the Church to the government during the period of the persecutions. For this early period it is clear that the Bishop of Rome would gain nothing in the eyes of Christians from his proximity to the seat of the Imperial organization. As a recent writer has expressed it, “There is no single positive piece of evidence from the first three centuries to prove that the respect or submission which Christians showed to Rome, and which the Bishop of Rome frequently presumed upon, was connected with the civil importance of the imperial capital.” [Jalland, The Church and the Papacy]. It should also be noted that no other religion looked to Rome as its centre, not even those which might have been expected to be the most closely allied to the city. Rome did not provide a spiritual centre for Judaism after the fall of Jerusalem, nor for Mithraism, nor, most surprisingly, did it become the focus of the cult of the emperor.
The period of official toleration could have benefited Rome, had the circumstances been other than they were. By the time that Constantine had become actively interested in the affairs of the church Rome had ceased to be the imperial capital. From the time of Diocletian’s transference of the authority to Milan the north of Italy became the centre of gravity of the Western empire. For the next half-century, during the reigns of Constantine and his son Constantius II, the Eastern empire overshadowed the West, and Constantinople, not Rome, became the most important city in the world. Moreover, in the religious policy of these two emperors there was no room for a pope. The Bishop of Constantinople acquired a great power it is true, but only as the servant of the emperors, and the sovereigns themselves wielded much of the universal control which should have been the popes’. The policy of these Christian emperors, together with other factors described elsewhere, had the effect of obscuring the papal authority in the East until the fifth century.
In the West considerable attention had been focused on the imperial rescripts which gave support to the sentences of the Pope’s tribunal. Their effectiveness was confined to giving civil recognition to an already established ecclesiastical authority. They came too late to influence the growth of papal power. In the West the Pope’s position had been long since acknowledged, while the East, being already in a state of political separation, would take little hedd of such provisions in favour of a Western bishop. Their effectiveness, too, was severely limited. The emperors who issued them, mere shadows of their former glory, were not long destined to hold sway in the West. Before long the Roman power would be swept away, leaving the popes strong in the possession of their spiritual authority.
To be continued …