The 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.
I’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.
In my last post, I was discussing the construction of ‘Christendom’ in Europe, the role the emperors played in that, and then about the dismemberment of the Western Roman Empire. I probably sound like a catastrophist in that, but I can assure you I am neither a catastrophist nor a continuitist. And if those words mean little or nothing to you, be glad.
The Bishop of Rome
Pope Leo the Great (r. 440-461) was not unaware that Valentinian III’s empire was being slowly dismembered. As an acolyte, back in the good ol’ days, he’d visited North Africa on a papal embassy. But by the time he was pope, North Africa was not part of the Roman Empire. Increasingly, neither was Spain nor Gaul. It had been 30 years since the legions left Britain.
But here’s what Leo did, and here’s one reason why we should think him Great. He kept the church running. In his letter to the bishops of Mauretania Caesariensis (present-day Algeria), he told them that invasion and persecution were no excuse; ecclesiastical order and canons had to be upheld.
Now, this may sound like Leo being a hardass. And really, to a degree it is. Leo can be; it must be admitted. Nonetheless, it is something more. It is Leo saying that the life of the Church can continue, that order can be maintained, even when the Empire is no longer there to keep order.
Leo would also temper the canons with mercy and then hope that the local church could make its own rulings in many cases. And what he did in North Africa, he did in northern Italy (irregularities and problems resulting from Hunnic attacks), southern Gaul (irregularities and problems arising from Visigothic attacks), and Spain (irregularities and problems arising from Alans, Vandals, Sueves, and Visigoths; including a resurgence of Manichees and Priscillianists).
Leo created a network of bishops in the West who listened to him, sought his advice, and tried to implement it, not only in his jurisdiction as Metropolitan Bishop of Southern Italy, and not only as a court of final appeal, but in other aspects of the liturgical feasts, the doctrine, and the organisation of the church throughout Gaul, northern Italy, the Balkans, North Africa and, to a degree, Spain (the one letter to Spain may be spurious).
This vision of the Bishop of Rome being a figure to rally behind, being someone to help keep order, regardless of who ruled you, who ruled him, and what those rulers’ religion was, was one succeeding Bishops of Rome would take up. It was also something that helped provide religious and cultural cohesion even as political cohesion eroded.
Before going further, I admit that if the popes and bishops hadn’t done it, someone else might have. The cultural capital of the West was far from gone. In that sense, I am not a catastrophist — everything did not suddenly descend into utter chaos with the ‘fall’ of Rome. A lot of taxation continued, local church councils continued, the monastic project continued, evangelisation continued.
Nevertheless, the Bishops of Rome were actively engaged in creating networks of authority that could rally behind the image of Roma Aeterna, Roma Invicta, even after 476 when no emperor was left. Susan Wessel, in Leo the Great and the Spiritual Rebuilding of a Universal Rome, argues that Leo is the one who really gets the ball rolling. She’s probably right.
And why Leo? Well, his papacy was extraordinarily long. Furthermore, he was involved in the great theological crisis of his day, and spent all of his papacy in the intellectual vacuum left in the West by Augustine’s passing, and most of it in the similar vacuum left by Cyril of Alexandria. As a result, he’s our first pope with lots of sermons and letters and theology and canon law flowing out from Rome. The following popes would continue this, working towards a united western church with a united western culture.
Since it was the popes, bishops, and monks, rather than the Roman aristocrats and their successors (although they often patronised the popes, bishops and monks!!), who really worked to create some semblance of cultural unity across the post-Roman kingdoms, this strikes me as a determining factor on how Europe is distinctively Christendom even after the Empire ceases to be, and so ceases to be God’s vehicle for the transmission of the Gospel.
Most famously on this blog, we see this activity in Pope Gregory the Great (saint of the week here) sending Augustine of Canterbury (saint of the week here) on his evangelistic mission to Britain. He also wrote his Book of Pastoral Care that was such a hit, the Emperor Maurice in Constantinople had it translated into Greek and distributed throughout. We have over 500 letters from Gregory the Great as well as numerous other theological works and a major liturgical work under his name.
Another saint of the week, Boniface, was also commissioned by the popes of his day in the 700s. They were funding missionaries and supporting local bishops. The western church’s network of influence thus involved the founding of monasteries and the building of late Roman and Romanesque cathedrals.
That is to say, the Church, guided by the two Great Popes, sought to maintain a semblance of order as the Empire fragmented. Furthermore, through fostering learning in the monasteries such as that at Lérins and, later, those following Benedict’s footsteps or way off in the Isles, in the oft turbulent (but never completely darkened) years that came, the Church kept western literary culture alive, giving us Columba and his poetry (saint of the week here), Bede (saint of the week here), Alcuin, Caesarius of Arles, and many, many more.
So, could you please bring Charlemagne into this?
As the popes are doing their thing, post-Roman politics continue apace. Visigothic Spain stabilises. The Franks, beginning with Clovis I (r. 481-511; his wife, Clotilda, was saint of the week here), began conquering more and more of Gaul and all the neighbouring territory, beyond the boundaries of the Empire That Had Been. The Eastern Empire (‘Byzantines’) had regained North Africa, a few bits of Spain, and Italy by the mid-500s. In the late 500s, they lost Northern Italy to the Lombards who invaded.
The Frankish realms are interesting from a political perspective because the Frankish royal houses did not establish a game of ‘one son gets it all’, so the territory would move between powerful kings with everything, powerful kings dividing it amongst themselves, powerful kings fighting it out, weak kings with ostensibly everything but ruled by the Mayor of the Palace, the Mayor of the Palace becoming the new king (Carolingians), and then the whole thing doing its thing again.
There are some great names in Frankish history: Pippin the Short, Charles the Bald, Hincmar, Lothar, Charles the Hammer Martel, and Charles the Great, who in many languages has melded his name with his honorific as:
Whew. Skipped a lot. That probably really didn’t help you at all. If you really are sincerely interested in Early Mediaeval political history, I recommend Chris Wickham, The Inheritance of Rome, and check out chapters 5, 6, and 16 for the Franks and the Mediterranean in this period. And then read the whole book, which also includes culture. Wickham is a fabulous historian.
So, back to Charlemagne (r. 768-814).
Charlemagne is one of those strong, united Carolingians. He pushes the boundaries of his kingdom into Spain and expands into further bits of what is now Germany, maybe even Austria (the geography gets me confused sometimes). He also added Italy. Looks a lot like the Later Roman Empire …
And so, on Christmas Day, 800, he and Pope Leo III (r. 795-816) staged an elaborate ceremony in Rome where the Eternal City’s new Holy Roman Emperor was crowned:
The significance of this Leo is that his patronising of bishops and emperors goes far beyond his fifth-century predecessor. Whereas Leo the Great acknowledged the legitimacy of Valentinian III, Petronius Maximus, Avitus, and Majorian in the West, as well as Theodosius III, Marcian, and Leo I in the East, and enlisted their help in pursuing his papal goals, Leo III helped make Charlemagne Emperor.
And so crown and mitre were intertwined. The Middle Ages are being forged in that ceremony. And Christendom is moving beyond a cultural network that helps keep monasteries and missionaries and art and culture flowing. It is moving itself deeper into the power politics of its age.
… and we, today, are witnessing Christianity moving out of the power politics of our age.
By and large, these fourth-century canonical documents show us a concern in the Church for the behaviour of ambitious bishops. Bishops are restricted from being translated to different cities. Restrictions are placed on the elevation of small towns to bishoprics. Bishops are not allowed to treat church wealth as their own; neither are their heirs allowed to inherit church property. People aren’t allowed to enlist secular authority to get their hands on a bishopric.
Alongside the bishops, the other clergy are a concern. They can’t just up and run off into another diocese whenever they feel like it, for example. And they will be deposed for a variety of issues.
What we see in the fourth century then, as councils are gathering and people are forging documents in the apostles’ names, is a church that has a bit of disorder but which, now that it is emerging from hiding, hopes now to gain more order and curtail abuses, since things can now more easily come to the light of day.
Amidst interesting observations like that, I found the Apostolic Canons good fun at times. For example:
Canon XXVII. (XXVIII.)
If a bishop, presbyter, or deacon shall strike any of the faithful who have sinned, or of the unbelievers who have done wrong, with the intention of frightening them, we command that he be deposed. For our Lord has by no means taught us to do so, but, on the contrary, when he was smitten he smote not again, when he was reviled he reviled not again, when he suffered he threatened not.
My brother, when I posted this on Facebook a while ago, asked what would happen if a clergyman struck someone intending to do violence. Nothing, unless the person died, it seems:
If any clergyman shall strike anyone in a contest, and kill him with one blow, let him be deposed for his violence. If a layman do so, let him be excommunicated.
I am particularly struck by the emphasis on ‘kill him with one blow.’
Of course, violence is not the only concern. So is dining out:
If any of the clergy be found eating in a tavern, let him be excommunicated, unless he has been constrained by necessity, on a journey, to lodge in an inn.
We also get a sense of the general failings of ordinary clergy as less-than-shining beacons of good sense, sensitivity, and goodness:
If any of the clergy mock the lame, or the deaf, or the blind, or him who is infirm in his legs, let him be excommunicated.In like manner any of the laity.
Finally, the issue of passing on church property as inheritance. While celibacy for deacons, presbyters, and bishops was the norm in the Roman Church since an early date, the universal application and legislation of the rule during the Gregorian Reforms of the latter half of the 11th century was due in part to the issue of inheritance. Bishops and presbyters were acting like ‘feudal’ lords and passing on church property to their sons.
A bishop must not, out of favour to a brother or a son, or any other relation, ordain whom he will to the episcopal dignity; for it is not right to make heirs of the bishopric, giving the things of God to human affections. Neither is it fitting to subject the Church of God to heirs. But if anyone shall do so let the ordination be void, and the ordainer himself be punished with excommunication.