I had planned on writing a long post on what one scholar of the Papacy, Michael Winter (following Pierre Batiffol), calls the three distinct “zones” of papal power and influence in the ancient Church: Metropolitan Italy, the Western Empire, and the Eastern Empire. But then I found this admirable summary by the patristic scholar, Brian Daley, SJ, posted online in an article called “Structures of Charity: Bishops’ Gatherings and the See of Rome in the Early Church.” And being the lazy (and often very busy) blogger that I am, I thought I would present the pertinent portion of Father Daley’s essay here for discussion.
The exercise of pastoral care and jurisdiction–in however wide or narrow a sense both words are taken–by the bishops of Rome developed rapidly in the two centuries that followed the peace of Constantine. Again, I can hardly do more here than sketch out some of the major lines of that development, as it is related to the growing understanding of the relationship between the popes and local councils in those centuries. However, the readiness of the popes of this period to act outside the local church of Rome, and the self-understanding with which they acted, varied noticeably with regard to the different parts of the Christian world. Language, historical connections between various churches, and the varying acceptance of a Christian imperial ideology in East and West conspired together to introduce variety in the way Roman ecclesiastical leadership was understood and exercised in different parts of the post-Constantinian Empire. One can distinguish at least three “spheres” in which differing degrees of papal influence were exercised: Italy and the adjoining islands, other parts of the Latin-speaking West, and the Eastern churches.
1) The area in which the Roman bishops understandably exercised the strongest influence among their colleagues was Italy itself, along with Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica, and the smaller islands of the Tyrrhenian Sea: the churches Rufinus of Aquileia called the “suburbicariae ecclesiae.” This “super-metropolitan” or (in later language) patriarchal jurisdiction was confirmed by the Council of Nicaea as an “ancient custom,” and guaranteed there to the bishops of Alexandria and Antioch as well as the bishop of Rome. From the mid-fourth century, when the emperors sponsored Arian bishops in Milan and other northern Italian sees, this patriarchal sphere of influence was restricted to Italy south of the Apennines and the islands. Nonetheless, it remained the most clearly defined area of papal authority through the time of Gregory the Great. Within it, fifth- and sixth-century popes took the responsibility, usually through legates, to oversee the administration of vacant sees and to supervise the election of bishops by the local clergy and people. Their consent to each elected candidate in the region was required, and they would usually ordain those approved. The popes also acted as judges of all formal charges brought against Italian bishops. The more assertive among them, such as Innocent I or Leo, even took steps to unify both the orthodoxy and the liturgical practice of the local churches in the region along Roman lines.
2) A wider region in which the bishops of Rome also exercised growing influence in this period was the whole West of the Roman Empire: the Latin-speaking regions of Europe west of the Rhine and south of the Danube, North Africa west of the Libyan desert, and the Balkan region west of Thessalonica. Even in the time of Cyprian, as we have seen, the bishops of Rome were acknowledged to have the right and even the responsibility to involve themselves in disputes in the churches of Gaul and Spain, at least in extraordinary circumstances. The Synod of Arles, summoned by Constantine from all the Western provinces to deal with the Donatist schism in Africa, reported its decisions at length to Silvester, bishop of Rome, who did not attend, so that he could communicate them to the other churches. The Council of Serdica (343), an exclusively Western gathering after the Eastern delegations had withdrawn over a doctrinal dispute, confirmed the right of bishops deposed by local synods to appeal to the bishop of Rome and his synod, who could, if it seemed justified, require the local synod to give the appellant a second hearing. The Western Emperor Gratian gave this arrangement the force of civil law by a decree of 378, and his successor Valentinian III, responding to a dispute between Pope Leo and Hilary, metropolitan of Arles, in 445, simply laid it down for the Western Empire that “whatever the authority of the Apostolic See has sanctioned or shall sanction shall be law for all.”
Since the time of Pope Damasus in the 370s, the bishops of Rome had adopted the curial style of issuing rescripts in response to disciplinary or doctrinal questions from bishops outside Italy, letters that were presumed to have the same legal force as the decisions of local synods. Pope Siricius, in 386, sent to the African bishops nine canons enacted by a Roman synod, one of which required that no bishop be ordained without the knowledge of the Roman see. Presumably, the Africans were expected to observe this procedure in the same way as the Italians. The justification given in Pope Innocent I’s letter to Decentius of Gubbio, is Rome’s historic “priority” in faith: since all the churches in Italy, Gaul, Spain, Africa, Sicily, and the islands were either founded by Peter or by his successors, those churches should be ready to recognize Rome as “the source of their customs (caput institutionum).”
One important means by which the Roman bishops of the fifth and sixth centuries secured their influence in the more distant regions of the West was the appointment of one of the region’s bishops–usually the metropolitan of a major provincial see–as their personal legate or vicar. In 385, Pope Siricius delegated to the bishop of Thessalonica the power of confirming, in his name, all episcopal elections in the imperial prefecture of Illyricum (mainland Greece), always a sensitive border region, linguistically and politically, between East and West. Pope Zosimus (417-18) conferred a similar role–though without the title–on the bishop of Arles for southern Gaul, a practice formalized by Pope Vigilius I in the next century (545). Pope Simplicius commissioned the bishop of Seville as his vicar in Spain in the 470s, and Gregory the Great not only regularly appointed a Sicilian bishop to act as his vicar in the island, but sent his disciple Augustine to Britain in 596, to organize church life there on Roman lines as primate of the English.
These vicars were not meant to usurp the functions of local leadership, or to deprive the local churches of their self-government. As Leo I made clear to Anastasius, his vicar in Illyricum, his role was to see that the canons and traditions of the local church were observed. He was to convoke semi-annual synods, to judge disputes among the metropolitans of the region which they were unable to resolve among themselves, to prevent those metropolitans from unduly dominating church life in their provinces, and to serve as a channel of information to and from the pope. Leo rebukes Anastasius sharply, in a later letter, for being overly authoritarian himself in his oversight of the Illyrian region and for failing to observe the rules of subsidiarity. Still, Leo’s strong sense of a God-given responsibility to be, for the universal communion, “the guardian of the Catholic faith and of the legislation of our ancestors,” led him even to send a special vicar to Mauretania, where the Roman bishops had never exercised the same pastoral supervision as in Europe, to inquire into reports of the uncanonical election of bishops there. For him and for other fifth-century popes, the institution of a personal vicar among regional hierarchies of the Latin West was a concrete way of demanding accountability from local bishops for their canonical practice, and of expressing the universal pastoral oversight that the popes considered theirs by ancient tradition.
3) Much less clearly defined was the claim of the bishops of Rome to a right of pastoral supervision in the churches of the Greek-speaking East. As a rule, the popes of the early post-Constantinian period were far less ready to intervene in doctrinal or disciplinary disputes in the Eastern churches than they were in the West; yet a growing, if cautious, sense of the concrete and worldwide consequences of the Petrine legacy is evident in their correspondence.
This is shown in the willingness of bishops of Rome to receive appeals, in extraordinary cases, from Eastern bishops who had been deposed from their sees by local synods or even by Eastern patriarchs. In 340, Julius I had argued to his brother in the see of Antioch that Athanasius, as bishop of another Apostolic church (Alexandria), should not have been deposed without the consent of all Christian bishops, and that the ancient canons gave Rome the right to be first judge in cases concerning the see of Alexandria. John Chrysostom, under attack from enemies in Constantinople and from the hostile Theophilus of Alexandria, appealed to Pope Innocent I in 404, as well as to the bishops of Aquileia and Milan, to use their influence to get him a fair trial. Innocent responded by protesting vigorously to the Emperor and by refusing to recognize John’s successor. Pope Sixtus III, in 437, informed bishop Proclus of Constantinople that Idduas, the bishop of Smyrna, had appealed to Rome a sentence passed against him at Constantinople, but that he, Sixtus, had endorsed the decision. After the “Robber Synod” of Ephesus in the summer of 449, the three Eastern bishops who had been deposed at that contentious gathering by Dioscorus of Alexandria–Flavian of Constantinople, Eusebius of Dorylaeum, and Theodoret of Cyrrhus–all appealed to Pope Leo to overturn the decision at a synod held under his presidency at Rome, recognizing his “apostolic authority” as holder of the see of Peter. A century and a half later, in 593, Gregory the Great wrote to John the Faster, patriarch of Constantinople, sarcastically rebuking him for feigning ignorance about two disciplined clerics who had subsequently appealed to Rome: “If you do not observe the canons, and wish to overturn the statutes of our ancestors, I do not know who you are!” John eventually wrote to Pope Gregory about the case, and at least one of the clerics was later exonerated by the Roman synod.
These instances, comparatively rare, of appeals to the popes for help, in major disciplinary disputes, by bishops of the Eastern churches, show at least traces of an ancient tradition recognizing the authority of Roman decisions even outside the Latin West. Papal letters from the fourth and fifth century occasionally show a similar willingness to make the Roman voice heard in doctrinal controversies in the East. Anastasius I writes to bishop John of Jerusalem during the dispute in Palestine over Origenism in 400-401, expressing his concern to preserve the gospel faith “among all my peoples” and to stay in touch, by letter, with “the parts of my body in all the various places of the earth.” Celestine I writes to the clergy of Constantinople in August 430, as the Nestorian controversy is gaining momentum: “Since you are our flesh and blood, I am rightly concerned lest the influence of a bad teacher turn your faith, which is proclaimed everywhere, from the path of truth.”
After his own strenuous diplomatic labors in securing the Christological settlement at Chalcedon, Pope Leo writes to Maximus, patriarch of Antioch, congratulating him on victory and thanking him for his readiness to keep Leo informed of the affairs of his church. As bishop of one of the three ancient Apostolic churches, “it is right, after all, that you should be a colleague with the Apostolic See in this concern.” When other bishops of East or West, even the bishops of Antioch or Alexandria, act together to preserve the gospel tradition, they do it, in Leo’s view, as participants in the most fundamental pastoral responsibility of the bishop of Rome, his “care for all the churches.”
In the mid-sixth century, the Emperor Justinian’s determination to unite the Christian world, after almost a century of Christological schism, led him to cultivate cordial relations with a succession of popes, and to affirm strongly their claim to universal pastoral leadership. “Everything that pertains to the state of the churches we hasten to bring to your Holiness’s notice,” he wrote to Pope John II in 533, “because we have always been deeply concerned to preserve the unity of your Apostolic See and the state of the holy churches of God. . . . Therefore we have been eager to subject and unite all the bishops of the entire Eastern region to your Holiness. . . . Nor do we allow any current matter which pertains to the state of the churches, however clear and obvious it may be, not to be brought to your Holiness’ notice, since you are the head of all the holy churches.” Justinian arranged for the visits of three popes to Constantinople, where they were received–sometimes graciously, sometimes violently–as heads of the universal communion of churches. In the end, Justinian treated the popes, too, chiefly as means towards his dream of a reunited Empire. But the rhetoric with which he addressed them, and the legal security, however tenuous, which he gave to their jurisdictional claims simply confirmed a direction of papal self-understanding which had been developing in the Western church for more than a century, and laid the groundwork in civil law for the medieval papacy.