Pope Question: You say ‘Roman Bishop’ and ‘Pope’ – what do you mean?

pope clipartI was explaining to someone my upcoming research project into the sources of the earliest collections of papal letters recently, and this question came up. It’s actually a very good question, because it helps clarify what the person with whom you are speaking actually means by the terms. There is a certain kind of Roman Catholic, for example, who would say that not only are ‘Bishop of Rome’ and ‘Pope’ synonymous, the office of the Bishop of Rome has pretty much always been invested with the same authority and whatnot.

My answer was that, for my research, I use the terms interchangeably. However, it is more that I mean ‘Roman Bishop/Bishop of Rome’ when I say ‘Pope’ than that I mean ‘Pope’ when I say ‘Roman Bishop/Bishop of Rome’. That is, I am conscious of a development in the office of the Roman Bishop and his role in ecclesiastical polity that means that ‘Pope’ Siricius (d. 399) and ‘Pope’ Innocent III (d. 1216) and ‘Pope’ Francis do not all have exactly the same job or role in the wider church.

John Moorhead’s 2015 book, The Popes and the Church of Rome in Late Antiquity takes the same tack, although Moorhead eschews the adjective ‘papal’ and noun ‘papacy’, with good reason. I choose not to because they are short words and everyone knows what they mean; instead, I frame my use of pope-related words at the beginning of my work so people know what is going on. Calling Leo ‘Pope’ is perfectly legitimate; therefore, talking of his papacy makes a lot of sense to me — although I can also see Moorhead’s perspective, trying to avoid clouding the issue of how the Roman Bishop’s role developed.

What is a ‘pope’? A ‘pope’ is a papa in Latin — a father. The term is used in the fifth century of bishops beyond the Bishop of Rome, although eventually it becomes restricted to said bishop in its usage. I am fairly certain no one ever legislated the term ‘pope’. It is also used in Eastern churches; hence the current Pope Tawadros II of the Coptic Orthodox Church. At St Sozomen’s Church, Galata, Cyprus, it is painted in a fresco on the exterior of the building; the fresco is of the Council of Nicaea, and the poor fifteenth- (sixteenth-?) century artist knew neither Pope Sylvester’s name nor the fact that he wasn’t even there, so simply painted ‘Papa Romis’ over his head.

It is a title of honour, originally used to esteem the person and activity of spiritual direction of the bishop. Therefore, even though Bishops of Rome in the late 300s and 400s were not the same sort of Pope as Innocent III, they are still Popes — and they still claim a primacy of honour. And Pope Leo the Great, in fact, even claims that all clerical ministry descends from Peter, and therefore Rome.

How the pope, in his role of Bishop of Rome, Metropolitan of Suburbicarian Italy, and holder of a primacy of honour, Patriarch of the western church, comes to be invested with universal jurisdiction and appoints all bishops is a different story. But to call someone ‘pope’ need not imply said jurisdiction or vision of the papal role.

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.

The Rocky authority of St Peter

Yesterday was the Feast of Sts Peter (Rocky) and Paul (Shorty). I wasn’t actually planning on blogging on either of these saints, but then I wrote all about late antique popes a few days ago, and THEN Mark Armitage posted this fantastic piece from St Augustine about the Petrine authority, wherein the good bishop of Hippo makes the point that Petros means ‘rocky’, not ‘rock.’*

So then I got silly and wrote that title.

In the Augustinian piece linked above, St Augustine makes two important points:

  1. Peter is the first among the Apostles. He holds pre-eminence.
  2. That which was entrusted to Peter was, in fact, entrusted to all the Apostles. Entrusting it to Peter was symbolic of the unity and universality of the gifts** given.

People sometimes make much of North African ‘independent-mindedness’ and would see Augustine here as following in his predecessors’ footsteps. Yes, Peter is first among the Apostles. But the keys to heaven, the binding and loosing, are given to the whole Church, not just to him.

They would then chortle in glee at allegedly having undermined the Bishop of Rome.

And we must admit, Blessed Augustine’s vision does not fully match that of Leo I, Bishop of Rome, who acceded to the See of Peter ten years after the sainted Bishop of Hippo passed from this life.

Leo’s argument, found in several letters and sermons, runs that, yes the Apostles were all given these gifts, but through the Petrine ministry. He is anointed first by Christ, his fellow Apostles second. The legitimacy of the apostolic ministry hangs upon their unity, which is bound up in Peter and his confession of Christ as the Son of the Living God in Matthew 16. (This passage is also crucial to Leo’s Christology.)

Leo’s vision plays out in the real world by saying that from Peter’s successor flow all post-apostolic ministry. If people are not in communion with Rome (although the argument would hold for Antioch as easily, something he would not have been unaware of) both structurally and doctrinally, they are not united with the apostolic ministry and with the head of the stream of authority which flows from Rome.

Most of us Protestants tend to just ignore these arguments, or take it as far as St Augustine goes. But I can assure you that Augustine would have accepted the authority of Rome in most areas, even if his exegesis differed from Leo’s. And he would have seen Donatist and Arian Christianity, both present in North Africa upon his death, as being out of step with the rest of the Church and therefore exercising illegitimate ministry.

Is Rome the essential part of the puzzle for Augustine? I think the question would have been absurd in the fifth century. If you are out of communion with one part of the Church, you are out of communion with the rest. Fifth-century debates about authority were not about whether one must be in communion with Rome to be legitimate but about how the pre-eminence of the Petrine see played out its authority in practice, and what on earth to do with Constantinople.

The pain of schism was not simply that Donatists were out of step with Rome but that their fellowship with the Church Catholic was severed. The pain of schism was not just that Timothy Aelurus (‘the Cat’) in Alexandria did not keep the Bishop of Rome in the diptychs, but that his fellowship with the Church Catholic was severed.

Today, we live day in and day out with the pain of schism. It’s not simply that Rome and Constantinople had different visions of the Petrine ministry; it’s not simply that the Syrian Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox, and Armenian Apostolic Churches had a squabble with the rest of us over a point of doctrine; it’s not simply that Anglicans and Lutherans have a different vision from the Church of Rome of what national church structures should look like —

— it’s that we are all out of fellowship with one another. We live with the pain and brokenness of not being able to walk up to one another, to a Catholic or Lutheran or Eastern Orthodox or Syrian Orthodox brother or sister and break bread and enter into the depths of the mystical communion that lies at the heart of the Church’s daily sacramental life.

Leo and Augustine, however they envisioned that Petrine ministry acting out on the fifth-century stage, must be standing before the Throne of Grace daily interceding for us to find a way back together.

*Paulus is a Latin cognomen literally meaning ‘small’. Who knows what Paul’s real stature was? He was certainly a giant in theology.

**Accidentally typed ‘gits’ the first time. Ha.

Saint of the Week: Leo the Great

In the year AD 440, the Archdeacon of Rome was away in Gaul on a diplomatic mission.  While he was there, the Bishop of Rome, St. Sixtus III, passed away.  Despite the fact that he wasn’t there, the powers that be in Rome elected the absent Archdeacon as Bishop.  They waited patiently for his return.  He thanked them for this patience in his accession speech.  This archdeacon was Leo I, the Great.

I have chosen Pope St. Leo the Great (c. 400-461; see my review of Leo the Great as well) because he is a big part of my life right now, and hopefully this state of affairs will continue for the next three and a half years.  I have also chosen him because tomorrow is Christmas, the Feast of the Nativity of Christ, the day we remember the coming of God as a man approximately 2000 years ago, and St. Leo was a theologian of the Incarnation.

We have scant knowledge about Leo before his election to the papacy.  We know that he was Archdeacon in the 430’s when he commissioned my friend John Cassian (this post gives a list of my major posts about Cassian) to write On the Incarnation of the Lord Against Nestorius (my thochts on that here).  He may also have been involved in the Roman See’s actions concerning the Pelagian Controversy.  The fact that he commissioned Cassian’s anti-Nestorian work lets us know that in the decade before his rise to the throne of Peter, St. Leo was involved in the Christological controversies sparked in the East by Nestorius in 428.

Thus, he was already a student of theology by the time he became pope.  As Bishop of Rome, he changed the previously un-preachy* nature of the Roman episcopacy (taking his cue from our friend St. Ambrose) and began a cycle of preaching that followed the church year, with at least fifteen occasions throughout the year, including the Advent fast, the Nativity, Lent, the Pasch, ultimately Pentecost, the Feast of St. Laurence, the anniversary of his elevation to the Roman See, and other liturgical moments (see the CCEL for translations of a number of these).

These sermons are explications of the feasts/fasts and the theological underpinnings of the remembrance at hand.  In his Advent and Christmas sermons, St. Leo explicates in wondrous beauty the necessity and nature of the Incarnation — a birth “wondrously singular and singularly wondrous” — for our salvation from sin, death, and the devil.  The peroration, or conclusion, of each sermon exhorts the people of Rome to virtuous action; he wants to help them see that being a Christian is the same as being a good Roman.  He also takes aim at heretics in his sermons, at times Manichees, who had a presence in Rome, at times Eutyches, at times Nestorius.

If you read these sermons, and I encourage you to, you see that St. Leo was a theologian with a pastor’s heart.  No, actually, he was a pastor with a theologian’s insight.  He demonstrated for the edification of his congregation the theology and action necessary for a healthy Christian life.  He also emphasized strongly, contra the now-deceased Bishop of Hippo Regius, the will of God to save all mankind.  The question of how it therefore comes about that God happens not to save all mankind is not fully treated in Leo’s corpus.

In the letters, we see Leo as a pastor’s pastor, as a pontifical statesman, and as a controversial theologian.  He answered letters, for example, from bishops who had congregants from North Africa who weren’t sure if they had been baptised Catholic or schismatic.  His answer was that it was being baptised into the threefold Name of the Most Holy Trinity that counted, not the baptiser.  He answered questions about Priscillianism for a bishop in Spain.

He also tried to impose his will, to a degree, on the bishops of Illyricum.  Most strikingly, he tried to impose his will on the Bishops of Gaul.  He largely succeeded, diminishing to a degree the see of Arles under Hilary, demonstrating the power of the Bishop of Rome in disputes.  He saw the Pope as the universal court of appeal for the Church, a man who could intervene in the affairs of other dioceses beyond his own metropolitan zone in order to maintain and restore order.

In the year 444, St. Cyril of Alexandria passed away.  St. Cyril had been the theologian of the Incarnation par excellence throughout Leo’s career.  He had spearheaded the offensive against Nestorius and had largely engineered the outcome of the First Council of Ephesus.  With St. Cyril dead, the mantle of Christologian passed to St. Leo.  But was he up to the task?

St. Leo’s time came in 449 when he received a letter from an Archimandrite (a senior abbot) named Eutyches, whom a local synod in Constantinople had deemed a heretic.  Eutyches was appealing to Leo.  Soon Leo also received a letter from Flavian, Bishop of Constantinople, explaining to Leo the circumstances of Eutyches’ trial.  Leo responded to Flavian on June 13 with his famous Tome, letter 28.

This document is the piece of writing for which St. Leo is most famous for.  In this letter, Leo has in his sights both Nestorius as Leo understood him and Eutyches.  The former, as far as Leo was concerned, denied Christ’s divinity; the latter, Christ’s humanity.  The Tome is a text of balance and duality.  Leo sets forth for his reader the balance and duality within Christ of the human and divine natures.  He strikes a balance that seeks to avoid the perceived pitfalls of Eutychianism and Nestorianism.  God the Word took on flesh, he became fully human without the stain of sin, the lowliness not diminishing the glory.  This was necessary for our salvation.  Christ was and is a living paradox.

That same year, 449, saw the calling of a second general council in Ephesus.  This council was engineered by Dioscorus, episcopal successor to St. Cyril in Alexandria, to rehabilitate Eutyches and hold aloft a one-nature Christology, an incipient Monophysite understanding of Christ’s nature.  Leo, as was the wont of Rome’s bishop, sent delegates.  They were to read aloud the Tome, Leo being convinced that all the Church needed was to read his account of the Incarnation and then all this controversy would end.  These delegates were steamrolled by Dioscorus and not allowed to speak.  Bishop Flavian received blows that may have led to his death shortly thereafter.  He was replaced by a supporter of Dioscorus.

Leo called Second Ephesus a Latrocinium, a den of pirates.  He wrote letters to Emperor Theodosius II trying to convince him to change his mind and overturn the decisions of the council.  He wrote letters to Pulcheria Augusta, the Emperor’s sister, enlisting her help to convince her brother.  Theodosius would not be convinced.

And then, in 450, he fell off his horse and died.  His sister married a nonentity named Marcian and became Empress.

In 451, the Council of Chalcedon occurred.  This time, Leo’s Tome, along with three letters of St. Cyril, was read out and approved by the Council — albeit, not unanimously, with protests coming from some of the Illyrian, Palestinian, and Egyptian delegates.

It seems, as Bernard Green has argued,** that Leo didn’t really know what Nestorianism was until after Chalcedon.  Seeing what the objections to the Tome were, he quickly adjusted certain passages and clarified his thinking.  Thus, his letter 124 to the monks of Palestine is more representative of the mature thought of St. Leo and would be a better testimony to his thought for the generations to come.

Leo spent the years from 451 to 465 maintaining his preaching practice in Rome, keeping order in his Metropolitan, clarifying what the Tome was supposed to say, and keeping Attila the Hun from sacking Rome (this last may not be true, but it colourful nonetheless).

He was one of the good popes.  He was also one of the first strong steps down the road to the papacy’s claims to universal jurisdiction.  We cannot have Innocent III (1160-1216) without Leo I.  He produced, ultimately, a clear, lucid theology that dealt with the problems of Eutyches and Nestorius while synthesising the teaching of the great western theologians Augustine, Ambrose, and Hilary of Poitiers with a dash of Cyril of Alexandria.  He truly deserves the appellation “the Great”, being one of only two such popes along with Gregory I.

*I was going to make up the word un-kerygmatic, but then I figured that if I’m going to neologise, why not at least make a word people will understand?

**See The Soteriology of Leo the Great, pp. 227-247.