Pope Question: Was Leo one of the bad popes?

pope clipartThe question of whether Leo was a bad pope is one of the most frequent questions I get. While the answer is short (‘No’), the question itself is revealing. It tells us a few things about the perspective of people today on the papacy.

This is a question I never asked. Perhaps it’s my upbringing, or the years I spent studying the Middle Ages for fun before coming to Late Antique popes for research, or the respect I actually have for the Church of Rome, but it never crossed my mind that a fifth-century pope would even be a candidate for the ranks of ‘bad popes’.

The first thing this question tells me about how people view popes is that the papacy is very frequently seen through the lens of the Reformation and Renaissance, when Bishops of Rome had enormous temporal power as well as mistresses and children. An age when the Bishop of Rome was as likely to be a sleazy, back-stabbing jerk as any secular prince. An age when the church hierarchy was inescapably corrupt, and the top of the pyramid most corrupt of all. Setting aside the question of the accuracy of this characterisation of Renaissance-Reformation popes, this is the image of the pope that people have.

Thus, they project this ‘badness’ back onto earlier ages, and imagine earlier Bishops of Rome as being as likely to be corrupt and as grasping after temporal power.

Second, sometimes the way people discuss popes reveals that they cannot see being Bishop of Rome as a spiritual vocation that a good man might strive towards. Thus, even if they can disassociate Late Antique popes from Early Modern ones, they still imagine that it’s the sort of job a wordly-type of ambitious man guns for. This is the cynicism of our age.

Being Bishop of Rome certainly had its advantages in Late Antiquity. It also, however, came with extraordinary duties and responsibilities with very little in the way of wealth or secular power. The Bishop of Rome was shepherd of the church in the city of Rome where he had liturgical and preaching duties. He was also Metropolitan Bishop of Suburbicarian Italy where he had canon-legal duties and administrative tasks.

Beyond that, he was, or was at least becoming (sometimes through his own connivance, I admit, but sometimes through the activities of those beyond his Italian sphere of influence), the most powerful ecclesiastical leader in the Latin Church, which is not all that glorious at a time when most of that church is beyond the Bishop of Rome’s effective control and in the slow process of being dismembered from the Roman Empire and reconstituted as Barbarian Kingdoms.

If the Roman Episcopacy were the sort of thing to which worldly, ambitious men were drawn for the reasons cynics imagine men become Pope, it is also worthy of note that the first aristocrat to become Bishop of Rome was Felix III (pope, 483-92). One would expect more aristocratic popes much sooner if the job were all that enticing in the temporal sphere.

As I said, the question is itself illuminating.

To answer it more fully, Pope Leo I ‘the Great’ (pope, 440-61) was not a ‘bad’ pope. He had no mistress. Was not a paedophile. Led no armies into battle. Had no ‘nephews’ promoted to high ecclesiastical or secular office. Did not misappropriate church funds for his own use. Did not elaborately furnish the Lateran Palace for his own use.

He did use church funds to restore churches, both their fabric as well as their liturgical goods, damaged in the Vandal sack of 455, though. He did try to use the expanding authority of the Bishop of Rome to see what he felt was good governance and good doctrine established in the Roman world, from Gaul and Spain to Egypt and Palestine. He did go on a diplomatic mission to stop Attila from sacking Rome.

Whatever you may feel about his place in history in other ways, Leo I was certainly not a ‘bad’ pope.

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Leo and Attila

Besides being author of the famous Tome and orchestrator of the Council of Chalcedon in 451, Pope Leo I is most famous for meeting with Attila the Hun and stopping him from sacking Rome. We first hear of this in Prosper of Aquitaine’s Chronicon for 455:

Now Attila, having once more collected his forces which had been scattered in Gaul [at the battle of Chalons], took his way through Pannonia into Italy. . . To the emperor and the senate and Roman people none of all the proposed plans to oppose the enemy seemed so practicable as to send legates to the most savage king and beg for peace. Our most blessed Pope Leo -trusting in the help of God, who never fails the righteous in their trials – undertook the task, accompanied by Avienus, a man of consular rank, and the prefect Trygetius. And the outcome was what his faith had foreseen; for when the king had received the embassy, he was so impressed by the presence of the high priest that he ordered his army to give up warfare and, after he had promised peace, he departed beyond the Danube. (cf. Medieval Sourcebook)

The Liber Pontificalis makes this encounter with Attila pretty much the most important thing in Leo’s pontificate. And why not?

Well, it certainly wasn’t a big deal to Leo, it seems.

Indeed, if it weren’t for the fact that Prosper published the entry for 452 in 455, I would doubt that this ever happened. I would say that Prosper had made it up to glorify his great hero Leo (second only to Augustine for this Augustinian) or that Prosper, way over in Gaul, had been misinformed.

I would say such because the evidence is a bit weak. Leo wrote eight letters in 452 that have come down to us, on 27 January, 22 May, 11 June, and 25 November. He preached an Epiphany sermon (Serm. 37), a Lent sermon (Serm. 45), two Holy Week sermons (Serm. 62 & 63), an Advent sermon (Serm. 19), and a Christmas sermon (Serm. 28). He seems to have been in Rome for much of the year. The trip to meet up with Attila must not have taken up a lot of time.

Leo’s episcopate lasted for nine more years after Attila left Italy. Leo wrote many more letters and preached many more sermons that have come down to us. In none of these does he mention an encounter with Attila.

If Prosper is correct about this encounter, what does that say about Leo?

Something good, I reckon.

Review: “Leo the Great” by Bronwen Neil

I’m kind of new to book reviews, and it’s late, but I can’t sleep, so I’m writing this anyway.

Leo the Great by Bronwen Neil is the latest in Routledge’s series The Early Church Fathers.  This series is the sort of thing I like to see scholars producing.  Each volume deals with a different Church Father, giving an introduction to his life, works, and context, along with important selections from his works.  The goal of the series as a whole is to make the Church Fathers more accessible to a wider readership.

Apart from a few occasions when Neil slips and writes things that may be hard to understand for those uninitiated in the worlds of Classics/Late Antiquity and theology/Patristics (usually jargon or allusions; something no doubt inevitable in a book of this sort), this tome fulfills the goal of the series admirably.

Leo the Great was Bishop of Rome from 440-461.  This turbulent time included the Council of Chalcedon, as well as the Second Council of Ephesus, which gained its more common name from this man — latrocinium, or “den of robbers”, because of the heavy-handed tactics used by the Eutychian/Monophysite party at the Council, including the refusal to read his carefully-crafted letter, the so-called “Tome of Leo” or “Tome to Flavian.”

Neil provides us with an introduction to Leo’s life and times, followed by introductions to Leo as pastoral caregiver, theologian and opponent of heresy, heir of St. Peter, and administrator of the wider church.  She then provides a selection of his letters and homilies on those same four themes, each with an individual introduction, some in English for the first time.  The translations are readable and clear, the style appropriate to the genre of each writing, enabling the reader to enter into the thought of Leo the Great, which is what I look for in a translation.

Leo the Great was appropriately called “great” within a hundred years of his death in both East and West.  This stems primarily from his “Tome,” a letter he wrote to Flavian, Archbishop of Constantinople, condemning Eutyches’ teachings and setting forth his doctrine of the twofold nature of Christ, stating that Christ has two natures in one person, one nature being wholly divine, the other being wholly human.  In section 3 of the Tome, Leo writes:

Therefore, with the characteristic of each nature maintained and joined in one person, majesty took up humility, power took up weakness, eternity assumed mortality, and in order to pay off the debt of our condition the inviolable nature was joined to a passible nature, so that, as was fitting for our healing, one and the same mediator of God and humankind, the man Jesus Christ (1 Tim. 2: 5), was both mortal in respect to one and immortal in respect to the other. (p. 98)

Although spurned by the Second Council of Ephesus, this letter was acknowledged at Chalcedon as being the official teaching of the Church and as standard orthodoxy, along with certain of Cyril of Alexandria’s letters.  This letter was the entire reason I read this book.

However, I found other reasons for Leo to have gained the appellation “Great” as I read this volume.  He was, first and foremost, a pastor, the shepherd of the church in Rome.  Writes Neil, “Leo was not writing for his own amusement (or ours!) but for the spiritual edification of his readers.” (16)  His homilies reveal this strongly pastoral character, when exhorting his congregation not to worship the Sun (Homily 27) or encouraging them to fast:

Let us spend on virtue what we take away from luxury; let the abstinence of the faster be the refreshment of the poor. (Homily 13)

In his letters, we see Leo the Administrator.  He sometimes pushes his agenda as “Heir of St. Peter,” being one of the first popes to begin an articulation of the primacy of the Roman see, but tends to be pastoral in these as well.  Priests and bishops would write to him with questions, or he would see the occurrences of abuses in the churches, and he would write to those involved, explaining to them and reinforcing the existing canons of the Church, and, where no canon existed, using the spirit of the canons to give guidance.

Much could be said about Leo, Petrine succession, and Roman primacy in light of this book, both in terms of Leo’s writings and in terms of the attitudes of his contemporaries as laid out in the introduction.  It shall go unsaid, however, in the interests of time and clear thinking.  Suffice it to say that though Leo had a clear notion of the primacy of his see, he also had a strong feeling of the collegiality of all the bishops of the Church, and these two facets played off one another in his administration of the Church and dealings with other clergy.

He also increased the role of the Bishop of Rome in civic and cultural life, a role that would only increase in the coming centuries.  This was the result of the unrest of the times following Alaric’s sack in 410 and the political vacuum caused by the residence of the Western Roman Emperor in Milan or Ravenna.  He missed the Council of Chalcedon because he was too busy going to a meeting with Attila the Hun to convince the barbarian not to sack Rome!

I came to this book seeking great theology.  This I found, especially in Letter 15 about Priscillianism, Letter 28 which is the “Tome to Flavian,” and Letter 124 to the Cyrillian/Eutychian monks of Palestine who’d been causing some violent ruckus following Chalcedon.  I also found much about the order of the church and the life of the average Christian alongside Neil’s information about this great Father of the Church.

Leo the Great is a great book about a great theologian.