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.

Advertisements

Pope Questions

pope clipartI’ve decided to run a little series of posts called ‘Pope Questions.’  These are responses to questions that people invariably ask me in conversations about my work. Some of them are meant to clarify issues about who exactly Leo is, others are more specific to my own feelings concerning popes. The answers I’ll give here will not be the ones I gave in the moment — or, if basically the same, not verbatim.

Expect to see the following questions answered:

  • Is Leo one of the bad popes?
  • Why study Leo the Great?
  • What makes Leo Great?
  • What other popes are ‘the Great’?
  • Are all popes saints?
  • Who is the first pope?
  • It must be difficult for you to study a pope since you are a Protestant.
  • Who is your favourite pope?
  • What do you think of the current pope?
  • Is the Vatican hiding something in the Archive? What would happen if they made it all public?
  • Is that [Gregory the Great] the Gregory who went to war against Hungary?

Feel free to ask your own questions, of course!

I will not answer whether Leo was a Medici pope — I assume that person misheard the century ‘fifth’ as ‘fifteenth’. Or had Medicis on the brain. Or both. Nor will I answer if the Fall of the Roman Empire was near in time to the Reformation; I fear that person had little knowledge of European history.

Also, expect Montly Popes as of March, but not Weekly Saints. Too hard to keep up the saints.

Pope of the Month: St. Peter ‘Prince of the Apostles’

Because I need to review my papal history and the development of the office and role of the Bishop of Rome up to Leo the Great and beyond, today I bring to you a new feature on my blog: Amidst the weekly saints, once a month we shall focus our attention upon one Bishop of Rome. We shall go chronologically from Peter onwards, looking at many (but not all) men who have been the heads of the Christian community in that city.

Given how many popes are colourful characters, it shall prove an interesting ride!

St. Peter the Apostle

St. Peter, along with his apostolic comrade St. Paul, has already been Saint of the Week here. He is a logical starting point for a discussion of papal history; the Liber Pontificalis seems to think so, as would have Pope Leo I amidst others.

Yet as soon as we look at St. Peter as a Pope, we are confronted with the questions, ‘What is a Pope? How long has there been a Pope?’

Well, the word Pope comes from the word Papa and was in olden days used of all of the ‘Patriarchs’ of the Church — that is to say, the bishops of the major cities who had jurisdiction over large geographical areas. That is why the Patriarch of the Coptic Church is ‘Pope’ Shenouda — not because he believes that he has universal jurisdiction but because he is the head Bishop of the Coptic Church.

The various roles of these Patriarchs have grown, developed, and changed over time. So when one asks, ‘What is a Pope?’ in reference to Rome, one must respond, ‘The Bishop of Rome,’ and then inquire further as to whether the question refers to the current Bishop of Rome or Innocent III or Gregory the Great or Leo the Great or Damasus or Clement or Peter.

Of course, Peter was not a Patriarch.

Peter was an Apostle.

And it seems, from what we gather in Acts, that Peter was a sort of ‘head’ Apostle, and we see in the Gospels that Peter was part of the inner circle of disciples gathered around Jesus. Of course, as an Apostle, he was still a man, and we do learn from Paul’s letter to the Galatians that Peter was open to rebuke.

Still, he seems to have been a if not the leading man of the Apostles, and was involved in the Church’s foundations in Jerusalem, Antioch, and beyond.

According to tradition, indeed, St. Peter was the first ‘bishop’ of Antioch. What we mean by bishop at this point in time is debatable. D H Williams, writing for a low-church Baptist-type audience, styles these very early Apostolic and sub-Apostolic bishops as pastors.

This is, in essence, what every bishop is meant to be. He is the shepherd of the flock in a particular city — in the earliest days of the church, this flock would have been smaller than elsewhere. It stands to reason that if you had an Apostle, someone who had walked with the Lord and heard His very words, someone commissioned by the Lord and anointed by the Holy Spirit, if you had such a person in your community, this person would have assumed a position of leadership.

Like a pastor. Or a bishop.

Thus, Peter was the first Bishop of Antioch, where the disciples were first called Christians. The Liber Pontificalis says he was bishop there for seven years before joining the mission of Rome. This tradition is sensible if you ask me — many of the apostles had gone on missions to various eastern cities, and Antioch’s church seemed fairly well-established. Rome was the largest, greatest city in the world, the centre of law and politics. For an Apostle to join the Christian mission there seems very strategic, really.

And, once there, since he was a leading man amongst the Twelve, Peter would have assumed a position of leadership amongst the fledgling, persecuted Church in the City, passing along his remembrances of the Lord, helping organise the growing band of believers there.

Tradition (preserved in the Liber Pontificalis and no doubt elsewhere) tells us that St. Mark was his disciple, and that the Gospel of Mark, from which the other synoptic Gospels derive, is based upon the teachings and remembrances of St. Peter.

The dangers of life as a clergyman have always been many, none moreso than in Rome during the reign of Nero (d. 68). Under the reign of this madman (I toss the historian’s caution to the wind!), many Christians were persecuted — thrown to wild animals whilst wrapped in the skins of dead beasts (Christian burritos!), set alight like torches, crucified, beheaded.

St. Peter gained the martyr’s crown under Nero. Tradition tells us that he was crucified upside down, not considering himself worthy of the death of the Saviour. The place of Peter’s martyrdom? Vatican Hill, Rome.