The famous xxviii. Canon of Chalcedon has been for many centuries a favourite authority among all those who, whether in the East or in England, are anxious to find support in primitive times for their rejection of the Petrine prerogatives of the Holy See. To a serious student of history, however, it seems an act of no small temerity in an opponent of the Papal claims to appeal to any episode in the history of this Council, for at no period of the Church’s existence is the universal recognition of the Pope’s supremacy more clear. The correspondence of St. Leo with St. Flavian, with the heretic Eutyches, with the Eastern and Western Emperors, and the Empress Pulcheria; the famous letter of St. Peter Chrysologus to Eutyches, the letters of St. Leo to the Council, the attitude of his legates there, the enthusiastic reception by the Council of his epistle to Flavian, the terms of the sentence of deposition on the Alexandrian Patriarch Dioscorus, the Acta of the Council, and its conciliar letters to Pope Leo and the Emperor Marcian, with the correspondence that followed – all these form a testimony to the universal belief in the jus divinum of the Papal supremacy so overwhelming in its force, that it is a matter of amazement that any candid mind should entertain a doubt as to the sentiments of the Church in that age.
But though we have all this, yet, in the opinion of Anglican writers, we ought “to think we have nothing when we see Mardochai the Jew sitting before the King’s gate” – when, that is, the xxviii. canon of the Council tells another story. Even those writers who admit that the canon, having been rejected by the West, has no legal validity as an Ecumenical law, appeal to its as evidence that, in the opinion of a large assembly of bishops, the ecclesiastical pre-eminence of Rome was due only to her secular greatness; and further, that Pope Leo himself, while rejecting the canon, did not deny this assertion. “The Fathers,” says the canon, “properly gave the primacy (hoi pateres eikotes apodedokasi ta presbeia) to the throne of the elder Rome because that was the Imperial City.” The Papal primacy, it is argued, is here based merely upon ecclesiastical consent, and is due to the civil greatness of the capital. This contention has been overthrown, times out of number, by Catholic writers who have shown without difficulty, from the documents already mentioned, how clearly expressed was the belief of the Council in the Petrine prerogatives of the Pope. Even so sturdy an Anglican as the late Canon Bright readily admits (Hist. Ch., p. 414) that “the Council repeatedly refers to the connection of Rome with St. Peter,” and that “the civil greatness of Rome was only one cause of her ecclesiastical precedency.”
It appears to the present writer that, whatever arriere pensee may have been in the minds of Anatolius, the Archbishop of Constantinople, and some of the courtier-bishops who were concerned with him in drawing up the canon, it was most certainly intended to bear an acceptable interpretation to the Pope, St. Leo. Everything depended on their being able to secure his assent to the canon – this they themselves declare – and it is, therefore, certain that they would not have done anything which must inevitably defeat their purpose. Viewed in this light, it is highly significant that the idea expressed in the famous sentence, “hoi pateres apodedokasi k.t.l.,” and to some extent even the wording of that sentence, is that of the Pope St. Leo himself. Shortly and somewhat vaguely it conveyed the Pope’s own well-known teaching as expounded by him in language of great eloquence and beauty a short time before the meeting of the Council. The sentence, therefore, is not only patient of a Catholic interpretation, but, when all the circumstances of the case are considered, could not have been intended by its authors to suggest anything else to the mind of the Pope.
Before dealing with this point, a brief statement of the difficulties attending any other interpretation of this part of the canon is necessary.
The usual Anglican and Greek Orthodox interpretation of the canon is that the Roman primacy was the gift either of the Nicene Fathers or the Fathers generally, and was a matter of mere ecclesiastical arrangement, and not, as Rome teaches, an inheritance from St. Peter. To this view there are four main objections, each one of which appears to be fatal, and in the cumulative force are so beyond all contradiction. First, the statement, thus interpreted is historically false. Secondly, it expressly contradicts the other explicit statements of the council, and renders its letter to Leo absolutely meaningless. Thirdly, the authors of the canon would have defeated their own purpose, for they would have knowingly and wilfully made it impossible for the Pope to ratify the canon, and their success depended, as they themselves assert, on gaining his assent. Fourthly, it makes the attitude of the Pope towards the canon inexplicable. Although one of the strongest champions of the Petrine claims of his see that history can produce, he betrays from the first to last no consciousness that this crucial statement affected, or was meant to affect, the privileges of his chair as the “Cathedra Petri.”
It is impossible within the limits of a short essay to elaborate the argument. It must suffice to illustrate the objections just recited if we indicate briefly the reasons which support them, and which appear to make a Catholic interpretation of the famous words of the canon the only one that does not directly conflict with the admitted facts of the case.
To be continued …