The theory of the Pope’s deriving influence from being in the imperial capital is, in fact, no more able to explain the papal authority than the previous charge of usurpation. The third theory, that of evolution, is the one which has the greatest intrinsic merits, and, at the present time, the greatest measure of support outside Catholic circles. It has, moreover, the distinction of being exemplified in at least one department of papal history, that of the temporal power. The acquisition of political and military power by the mediaeval popes does not stem from the essence of the church as instituted by Christ. It came about, according to the most satisfactory theory to be advanced, by an evolutionary process according to simple historical factors. Whether the same can be said of the spiritual authority is a different matter altogether. The best-known champion of the evolutionary explanation was the distinguished German scholar Harnack, who attempted to account for the authority of the Roman bishops without reference to the institution of that power by Christ. Howevever, a close examination of the history of the early papacy reveals that a purely evolutionary theory creates greater difficulties than it solves.
In the first place it is difficult to account for the apparent regression of the Roman authority in the transition from St. Peter to the early popes if the only forces in operation were those of progressive evolution. The theory is equally out of accord with the explanations given by the early witnesses. Many popes (who were in the best position to know the truth), and other writers, state clearly that the popes inherited power from St. Peter. On the other hand, no early writer suggested that there had been a gradual assumption of power by the once quite ordinary bishops of Rome. It is possible that all these witnesses were ignorant, or liars, but it remains difficult to accept such a view. A more serious difficulty for the school of evolution is the rate of progress which is to be seen in the rise to power of the papacy. Although Harnack ascribed the ‘papal era’ to the fifth century, he had to admit that pre-eminence had been achieved by about the middle of the third, and its cases were ready before the end of the second. Thus in the primitive history of the church the superiority of the Roman church appears on the scene so early that it must have risen by means of revolution if the explanation is to be confined to the interplay of merely human influences between erstwhile equal-ranking bishops. It is, moreover, alleged that the Roman church was able to supply a norm and a service of centralization. One is naturally led to ask why it should have fallen to the Roman church to provide such a service for the whole church. Any one of a dozen Eastern sees was better able to take the lead in ecclesiastical affairs. Jerusalem, as the parent community, had an unequalled prestige in the infant church. Antioch, too, had a unique distinction in being the cradle of gentile Christianity. Throughout the whole of the infancy of the church the East was superior in numerical strength, intellectual development and ecclesiastical organization. If it were simply a question of the rise to power of one church on its acquired merits, it is certain that one of the Eastern sees would have assumed the leadership.
Two more characteristics of the early church’s progress are relevant to the present considerations and their import is even more decisive than the preceding observations. The first of these concerns the general organizational trend of the fifth century, which far from being conducive to the production of a papacy, was, in fact, a tendency towards regional autonomy. In the East it was the time of the definitive emergence of the patriarchates and the establishment of the heretical Nestorian and Monophysite churches. In the West, too, though less developed than in the East, this same tendency was at work, most notably in the case of Africa, which possessed a considerable amount of local autonomy. It is wellnigh impossible to concede that these same forces of evolution should have produced at the same time just the opposite effect, namely a unifying movement culminating in a centralized authority. The second characteristic of the fifth century, this time the nature of the popes’ interventions, also tells decisively against the theory of the evolution of the papacy. The events of the fifth century present the remarkable enigma of an authority whose power had been obscured in the East for almost a century regaining recognition by intervening only in matter of the utmost importance. If the popes had proceeded from lesser to greater matters there might be some ground for alleging a purely human acquisition of power. In fact, though, they are seen to concern themselves almost exclusively with such questions as the deposition of patriarchs or the approbation of general councils. All this was carried out at a time when the Eastern bishops were employing every possible means to further the interests of their own sees. Such a situation cannot be explained by the laws of historical evolution, but demands the activity of some decisive influence shaping the destiny of the papacy independently of the normal pattern which historical evolition would demand.
To be continued …