Today, as part of our teaching regarding the Reformation, begun in 1517, we took up the broad question of Church authority: “How did the Roman Catholic Church come to wield the level of authority it did in the day of Martin Luther?” Related to this issue there were other questions as well: “When and where did the early church go wrong?” Also, “Why is the Church called the “Roman Catholic Church?” Etc.
Since a majority of the questions I received related to the authority of the Roman Catholic Church, I thought it would be helpful to take a run at the answering this issue over several posts. The following is an overview of spiritual concentration of power starting at (roughly) 461 A.D. and culminated with the megalomaniac that was Pope Boniface the VIII in 1303. So this post will concern itself with a ramping up to the leadership of Pope Leo “the Great” starting at 366 A.D. It was throughout this period (366-461 A.D.) that some critical events occurred that would change the Church from being a spiritually nurturing entity to slowly having power centered in one man (the Pope) and, thereby, committing blatant spiritual malpractice.
The following are some key developments.
Damasus I (366-384)
An important early figure in the rise of the papacy is Damasus I. During his reign as bishop of Rome, Damasus contended against the heresies of Apollinarianism and Arianism, presiding over two Roman synods in 368 and 369 and sending his legates to the important Council of Constantinople in 381, all of which condemned these and other heresies. This was a very good thing. He also commissioned the Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible, which became the standard translation used by the church throughout the Middle Ages. Again, honorable and helpful. However, it is with Damasus we see the first leaning toward a centrality of power since Damasus was the first to declare himself the “Apostolic See.” Although this term will come to mean much more than was intended by Damasus, we do see the foreshadowing of the wrongful use of this term in the writing of St. Jerome, Damasus’ secretary and the translator of the Vulgate.
As I follow no leader save Christ, so I communicate with none save your Beatitude, that is, with the chair of Peter. For this, I know, is the Rock on which the Church is built. This is Noah’s ark, and he who is not found in it shall perish when the flood overwhelms all. …
In 381, during Damasus’ reign, the Council of Constantinople granted the bishop of Constantinople “primacy of honor next after the Bishop of Rome.” Now we can see not just a person beginning to grow in significant power, but also we see the city of Rome growing in its prestige. Both are slight leanings toward laying a foundation for, eventually, an apostate Roman Catholic Church.
Siricius was the first to apply the term “Pope” to himself and the first to issue a formal decretal – a ruling with binding legal precedent – on disputes in the Church. It remains the Catholic view today that “in all his decrees the pope speaks with the consciousness of his supreme ecclesiastical authority and of his pastoral care over all the churches.” So, it is at this time, we see a galvanized authority regarding the power of the Pope over the entire church.
Innocent I (402-416)
During Innocent’s pontificate, the Emperor Honorius moved the capital of the Western Empire from Rome to Ravenna, in northwest Italy, in 402. When this occurred, Rome ceased to be a strong political center (it would not regain its political strength until the rise of the papal states in the 8th century). Taking advantage of this weakness and the absence of a strong emperor, Alaric and the Visigoths sacked Rome in 410. The lack of political power of the pope made the barbarian invasion much easier.
However, Innocent did grow in power through advancing the idea of the supremacy of the pope by introducing the concept of “primacy of jurisdiction.” Replying to African bishops who had appealed to the Pope to support them against Pelagianism (refer to our Oct. 26.08 teaching), Innocent wrote:
…nothing which was done even in the most remote and distant provinces should be taken as finally settled unless it came to the notice of this See, that any just pronouncement might be confirmed by all the authority of this See, and that the other churches might from thence gather what they should teach.
Pope Leo the Great (440-461)
Leo I has been called “the master builder of the papacy.” He is considered by many to be the first pope in the modern sense of the term, for he put the idea of primacy of jurisdiction fully into practice. Leo was ideal for the task; by all accounts he was a good man, highly disciplined, and a true Christian as far as we can tell. However, the critical issue of power was to be his downfall.
Note: I say downfall with a clear understanding, in hindsight, of how his action led to a further concentration of power. However, let’s remember these men were doing what they thought was right in a very hostile world. The clash of culture, desire to serve God, and personal ambition along with a lack of Biblical accountability created a perfect storm that continued to fuel the fire of ecclesiastical power.
Leo took the title pontifex maximus,” which had been used by the Roman emperors in reference to the state cult. In his writings appeared all the traditional arguments for papal authority, including the idea that Jesus had made Peter and his successors the rock on which the church would be built, and that the bishop of Rome is the successor of Peter. Several important events for the development of the papacy occurred during Pope Leo’s reign. In 445, Emperor Valentinian said the Bishop of Rome was the law for all. In 451, Pope Leo convened the important Council of Chalcedon although that job had traditionally been reserved for emperors.
But most important of all, Pope Leo was instrumental in saving Rome from Attila the Hun. In 452, the Huns had taken a nearby Italian city, the road to Rome was open to them, the Western emperor was weak in character and resources, and the East gave no indications it would help. It seemed certain the Huns would sack Rome, but Leo left Rome and marched to meet Attila himself. We do not know what was said between the two men – legend has it that Attila saw Saints Peter and Paul marching with Leo and threatening the barbarian. Notice the mystic connection of Peter and Paul with Pope Leo? This “legend” (more likely a rumor not corrected over time) fanned the flames of the Pope’s prestige. In any case, Attila decided not to attack Rome. He turned to the north instead, and died shortly thereafter. Three years later, Pope Leo saved Rome from the Vandals. However, this time he couldn’t stop them from invading, but he led negotiations with the Vandal leader and prevented the burning of the city. Again, the Pope is seen as a victor where all civil protectors were absent.
Now the “perfect storm” of ecclesiastical authority as well as political prestige were mixed in such a way that the leader of the Roman Catholic Church would forever hold sway in the hearts and minds of the people. The Pope was now truly “the Vicar of Christ.”