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History of the Christian Church, Volume III: Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity. A.D. 311-600.
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§ 57. The Rival Patriarchs of Old and New Rome.


Thus at the close of the fourth century we see the Catholic church of the Graeco-Roman empire under the oligarchy of five coordinate and independent patriarchs, four in the East and one in the West. But the analogy of the political constitution, and the tendency toward a visible, tangible representation of the unity of the church, which had lain at the bottom of the development of the hierarchy from the very beginnings of the episcopate, pressed beyond oligarchy to monarchy; especially in the West. Now that the empire was geographically and politically severed into East and West, which, after the death of Theodosius, in 395, had their several emperors, and were never permanently reunited, we can but expect in like manner a double head in the hierarchy. This we find in the two patriarchs of old Rome and New Rome; the one representing the Western or Latin church, the other the Eastern or Greek. Their power and their relation to each other we must now more carefully observe.

The organization of the church in the East being so largely influenced by the political constitution, the bishop of the imperial capital could not fail to become the most powerful of the four oriental patriarchs. By the second and fourth ecumenical councils, as we have already seen, his actual preëminence was ratified by ecclesiastical sanction, and he was designated to the foremost dignity.521521   Τὰ πρεσβεῖα τῆς τιμῆς... διὰ τὸ εἷναι αὐτὴν [i.e. Constantinople] νέαν Ῥώμην. Comp. § 56. From Justinian I. he further received supreme appellate jurisdiction, and the honorary title of ecumenical patriarch, which he still continues to bear.522522   The title οἰκομενικὸς πατριάρχης, universalisepiscopus, had before been used in flattery by oriental patriarchs, and the later Roman bishops bore it, in spite of the protest of Gregory I., without scruple. The statement of popes Gregory I. and Leo IX., that the council of Chalcedon conferred on the Roman bishop Leo the title of universal episcopus, and that he rejected it, is erroneous. No trace of it can be found either in the Acts of the councils or in the epistles of Leo. In the Acts, Leo is styled ὁ ἁγιώτατος καὶ μακαριώτατος ἀρχιεπίσκοπος τῆς μεγάλης καὶ πρεσβυτέρασ Ῥώμης; which, however, in the Latin Acts sent by Leo to the Gallican bishops, was thus enlarged: “Sanctus et beatissimus Papa, caput universalis ecclesiae, Leo.” The papal legates at Chalcedon subscribed themselves: Vicarii apostolici universalis ecclesiae papae, which the Greeks translated: τῆς οἰκουμενικῆς ἐκκλησίας ἐπισκόπου. Hence probably arose the error of Gregory I. The popes wished to be papae universalis ecclesiae, not episcopi or patriarchae universales; no doubt because the latter designation put them on a level with the Eastern patriarchs. Comp. Gieseler, i. 2, p. 192, not. 20, and p. 228, not. 72; and Hefele, ii. 525 sq. He ordained the other patriarchs, not seldom decided their deposition or institution by his influence, and used every occasion to interfere in their affairs, and assert his supreme authority, though the popes and their delegates at the imperial court incessantly protested. The patriarchates of Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria were distracted and weakened in the course of the fifth and sixth centuries by the tedious monophysite controversies, and subsequently, after the year 622, were reduced to but a shadow by the Mohammedan conquests. The patriarchate of Constantinople, on the contrary, made important advances southwest and north; till, in its flourishing period, between the eighth and tenth centuries, it embraced, besides its original diocese, Calabria, Sicily, and all the provinces of Illyricum, the Bulgarians, and Russia. Though often visited with destructive earthquakes and conflagrations, and besieged by Persians, Arabians, Hungarians, Russians, Latins, and Turks, Constantinople maintained itself to the middle of the fifteenth century as the seat of the Byzantine empire and centre of the Greek church. The patriarch of Constantinople, however, remained virtually only primus inter pares, and has never exercised a papal supremacy over his colleagues in the East, like that of the pope over the metropolitans of the West; still less has he arrogated, like his rival in ancient Rome, the sole dominion of the entire church. Toward the bishop of Rome he claimed only equality of rights and coordinate dignity.

In this long contest between the two leading patriarchs of Christendom, the patriarch of Rome at last carried the day. The monarchical tendency of the hierarchy was much stronger in the West than in the East, and was urging a universal monarchy in the church.

The patriarch of Constantinople enjoyed indeed the favor of the emperor, and all the benefit of the imperial residence. New Rome was most beautifully and most advantageously situated for a metropolis of government, of commerce, and of culture, on the bridge between two continents; and it formed a powerful bulwark against the barbarian conquests. It was never desecrated by an idol temple, but was founded a Christian city. It fostered the sciences and arts, at a time when the West was whelmed by the wild waves of barbarism; it preserved the knowledge of the Greek language and literature through the middle ages; and after the invasion of the Turks it kindled by its fugitive scholars the enthusiasm of classic studies in the Latin church, till Greece rose from the dead with the New Testament in her hand, and held the torch for the Reformation.

But the Roman patriarch had yet greater advantages. In him were united, as even the Greek historian Theodoret concedes,523523   Epist. 113, to Pope Leo I. all the outward and the inward, the political and the spiritual conditions of the highest eminence.

In the first place, his authority rested on an ecclesiastical and spiritual basis, reaching back, as public opinion granted, through an unbroken succession, to Peter the apostle; while Constantinople was in no sense an apostolica sedes, but had a purely political origin, though, by transfer, and in a measure by usurpation, it had possessed itself of the metropolitan rights of Ephesus524524   That the apostle Andrew brought the gospel to the ancient Byzantium, is an entirely unreliable legend of later times. Hence the popes after Leo appealed almost exclusively to the divine origin of their dignity, and to the primacy of the prince of the apostles over the whole church.

Then, too, considered even in a political point of view, old Rome had a far longer and grander imperial tradition to show, and was identified in memory with the bloom of the empire; while New Rome marked the beginning of its decline. When the Western empire fell into the hands of the barbarians, the Roman bishop was the only surviving heir of this imperial past, or, in the well-known dictum of Hobbes, “the ghost of the deceased Roman empire, sitting crowned upon the grave thereof.”

Again, the very remoteness of Rome from the imperial court was favorable to the development of a hierarchy independent of all political influence and intrigue; while the bishop of Constantinople had to purchase the political advantages of the residence at the cost of ecclesiastical freedom. The tradition of the donatio Constantini, though a fabrication of the eighth century, has thus much truth: that the transfer of the imperial residence to the East broke the way for the temporal power and the political independence of the papacy.

Further, amidst the great trinitarian and christological controversies of the Nicene and post-Nicene age, the popes maintained the powerful prestige of almost undeviating ecumenical orthodoxy and doctrinal stability;525525   One exception is the brief pontificate of the Arian, Felix II, whom the emperor Constantius, in 355, forcibly enthroned during the exile of Liberius, and who is regarded by some as an illegitimate anti-pope. The accounts respecting him are, however, very conflicting, and so are the opinions of even Roman Catholic historians. Liberius also, in 357, lapsed for a short time into Arianism that he might be recalled from exile. Another and later exception is Pope Honorius, whom even the sixth ecumenical council of Constantinople, 681, anathematized for Monothelite heresy. while the see of Constantinople, with its Grecian spirit of theological restlessness and disputation, was sullied with the Arian, the Nestorian, the Monophysite, and other heresies, and was in general, even in matters of faith, dependent on the changing humors of the court. Hence even contending parties in the East were accustomed to seek counsel and protection from the Roman chair, and oftentimes gave that see the coveted opportunity to put the weight of its decision into the scale. This occasional practice then formed a welcome basis for a theory of jurisdiction. The Roma locuta est assumed the character of a supreme and final judgment. Rome learned much and forgot nothing. She knew how to turn every circumstances with consummate administrative tact, to her own advantage.

Finally, though the Greek church, down to the fourth ecumenical council, was unquestionably the main theatre of church history and the chief seat of theological learning, yet, according to the universal law of history, “Westward the star of empire takes its way,” the Latin church, and consequently the Roman patriarchate, already had the future to itself. While the Eastern patriarchates were facilitating by internal quarrels and disorder the conquests of the false prophet, Rome was boldly and victoriously striking westward, and winning the barbarian tribes of Europe to the religion of the cross.



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