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History of the Christian Church, Volume III: Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity. A.D. 311-600.
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§ 64. The Papacy from Leo I to Gregory I. a.d. 461–590.


The first Leo and the first Gregory are the two greatest bishops of Rome in the first six centuries. Between them no important personage appears on the chair of Peter; and in the course of that intervening century the idea and the power of the papacy make no material advance. In truth, they went farther in Leo’s mind than they did in Gregory’s. Leo thought and acted as an absolute monarch; Gregory as first among the patriarchs; but both under the full conviction that they were the successors of Peter.

After the death of Leo, the archdeacon Hilary, who had represented him at the council of Ephesus, was elected to his place, and ruled (461–468) upon his principles, asserting the strict orthodoxy in the East and the authority of the primacy in Gaul.

His successor, Simplicius (468–483), saw the final dissolution of the empire under Romulus Augustulus (476), but, as he takes not the slightest notice of it in his epistles, he seems to have ascribed to it but little importance. The papal power had been rather favored than hindered in its growth by the imbecility of the latest emperors. Now, to a certain extent, it stepped into the imperial vacancy, and the successor of Peter became, in the mind of the Western nations, sole heir of the old Roman imperial succession.

On the fall of the empire the pope became the political subject of the barbarian and heretical (for they were Arian) kings; but these princes, as most of the heathen emperors had done, allowed him, either from policy, or from ignorance or indifference, entire freedom in ecclesiastical affairs. In Italy the Catholics had by far the ascendency in numbers and in culture. And the Arianism of the new rulers was rather an outward profession than an inward conviction. Odoacer, who first assumed the kingdom of Italy (476–493), was tolerant toward the orthodox faith, yet attempted to control the papal election in 483 in the interest of the state, and prohibited, under penalty of the anathema, the alienation of church property by any bishop. Twenty years later a Roman council protested against this intervention of a layman, and pronounced the above prohibition null and void, but itself passed a similar decree against the alienation of church estates.601601   This was the fifth (al. fourth) council under, Symmachus, held in Nov. 502, therefore later than the synodus palmaris. Comp. Hefele, ii. p. 625 sq.

Pope Felix II., or, according to another reckoning,III. (483–492), continued the war of his predecessor against the Monophysitism of the East, rejected the Henoticon of the emperor Zeno, as an unwarrantable intrusion of a layman in matters of faith, and ventured even the excommunication of the bishop Acacius of Constantinople. Acacius replied with a counter anathema, with the support of the other Eastern patriarchs; and the schism between the two churches lasted over thirty years, to the pontificate of Hormisdas.

Gelasius I. (492–496) clearly announced the principle, that the priestly power is above the kingly and the imperial, and that from the decisions of the chair of Peter there is no appeal. Yet from this pope we have, on the other hand, a remarkable testimony against what he pronounces the “sacrilege” of withholding the cup from the laity, the communio sub una specie.

Anastasius II. (496–498) indulged in a milder tone toward Constantinople, and incurred the suspicion of consent to its heresy.602602   . Dante puts him in hell, and Baronius ascribes his sudden death to an evident judgment of God.

His sudden death was followed by a contested papal election, which led to bloody encounters. The Ostrogothic king Theodoric (the Dietrich of Bern in the Niebelungenlied), the conqueror and master of Italy (493–526), and, like Odoacer, an Arian, was called into consultation in this contest, and gave his voice for Symmachus against Laurentius, because Symmachus had received the majority of votes, and had been consecrated first. But the party of Laurentius, not satisfied with this, raised against Symmachus the reproach of gross iniquities, even of adultery and of squandering the church estates. The bloody scenes were renewed, priests were murdered, cloisters were burned, and nuns were insulted. Theodoric, being again called upon by the senate for a decision, summoned a council at Rome, to which Symmachus gave his consent; and a synod, convoked by a heretical king, must decide upon the pope! In the course of the controversy several councils were held in rapid succession, the chronology of which is disputed.603603   Comp. Hefele, ii. p. 615 sqq. The most important was the synodus palmaris,604604   So named from the building in Rome, in which it was held: “A porticu beati Petri Apostoli, quae appellatur ad Palmaria,” as Anastasius says. In the histories of councils it is erroneously given as Synodus III. Many historians, Gieseler among them, place it in the year 503. the fourth council under Symmachus, held in October, 501. It acquitted this pope without investigation, on the presumption that it did not behove the council to pass judgment respecting the successor of St. Peter. In his vindication of this council—for the opposition was not satisfied with it—the deacon Ennodius, afterward bishop of Pavia († 521), gave the first clear expression to the absolutism upon which Leo had already acted: that the Roman bishop is above every human tribunal, and is responsible only to God himself.605605   Libellus apologeticus pro Synodo IV. Romana, in Mansi, viii. 274. This vindication was solemnly adopted by the sixth Roman council under Symmachus, in 503, and made equivalent to a decree of council. Nevertheless, even in the middle age, popes were deposed and set up by emperors and general councils. This is one of the points of dispute between the absolute papal system and the constitutional episcopal system in the Roman church, which was left unsettled even by the council of Trent.

Under Hormisdas (514–523) the Monophysite party in the Greek church was destroyed by the energetic zeal of the orthodox emperor Justin, and in 519 the union of that church with Rome was restored, after a schism of five-and-thirty years.

Theodoric offered no hinderance to the transactions and embassies, and allowed his most distinguished subject to assert his ecclesiastical supremacy over Constantinople. This semi-barbarous and heretical prince was tolerant in general, and very liberal toward the Catholic church; even rising to the principle, which has waited till the modern age for its recognition, that the power of the prince should be restricted to civil government, and should permit no trespass on the conscience of its subjects.” No one,” says he, “shall be forced to believe against his will.”  Yet, toward the close of his reign, on mere political suspicion, he ordered the execution of the celebrated philosopher Boethius, with whom the old Roman literature far more worthily closes, than the Roman empire with Augustulus; and on the same ground he caused the death of the senator Symmachus and the incarceration of Pope John I. (523–526).

Almost the last act of his reign was the nomination of the worthy Felix III. (IV.) to the papal chair, after a protracted struggle of contending parties. With the appointment he issued the order that hereafter, as heretofore, the pope should be elected by clergy and people, but should be confirmed by the temporal prince before assuming his office; and with this understanding the clergy and the city gave their consent to the nomination.

Yet, in spite of this arrangement, in the election of Boniface II. (530–532) and John II. (532–535) the same disgraceful quarrelling and briberies occurred;—a sort of chronic disease in the history of the papacy.

Soon after the death of Theodoric (526) the Gothic empire fell to pieces through internal distraction and imperial weakness. Italy was conquered by Belisarius (535), and, with Africa, again incorporated with the East Roman empire, which renewed under Justinian its ancient splendor, and enjoyed a transient after-summer. And yet this powerful, orthodox emperor was a slave to the intriguing, heretical Theodora, whom he had raised from the theatre to the throne; and Belisarius likewise, his victorious general, was completely under the power of his wife Antonina.

With the conquest of Italy the popes fell into a perilous and unworthy dependence on the emperor at Constantinople, who reverenced, indeed, the Roman chair, but not less that of Constantinople, and in reality sought to use both as tools of his own state-church despotism. Agapetus (535–536) offered fearless resistance to the arbitrary course of Justinian, and successfully protested against the elevation of the Eutychian Anthimus to the patriarchal see of Constantinople. But, by the intrigues of the Monophysite empress, his successor, Pope Silverius (a son of Hormisdas, 536–538), was deposed on the charge of treasonable correspondence with the Goths, and banished to the island of Pandataria, whither the worst heathen emperors used to send the victims of their tyranny, and where in 540 he died—whether a natural or a violent death, we do not know.

Vigilius, a pliant creature of Theodora, ascended the papal chair under the military protection of Belisarius (538–554). The empress had promised him this office and a sum of money, on condition that he nullify the decrees of the council of Chalcedon, and pronounce Anthimus and his friends orthodox. The ambitious and doubled-tongued prelate accepted the condition, and accomplished the deposition, and perhaps the death, of Silverius. In his pontificate occurred the violent controversy of the three chapters and the second general council of Constantinople (553). His administration was an unprincipled vacillation between the dignity and duties of his office and subservience to an alien theological and political influence; between repeated condemnation of the three chapters in behalf of a Eutychianizing spirit, and repeated retraction of that condemnation. In Constantinople, where he resided several years at the instance of the emperor, he suffered much personal persecution, but without the spirit of martyrdom, and without its glory. For example, at least according to Western accounts, he was violently torn from the altar, upon which he was holding with both hands so firmly that the posts of the canopy fell in above him; he was dragged through the streets with a rope around his neck, and cast into a common prison; because he would not submit to the will of Justinian and his council. Yet he yielded at last, through fear of deposition. He obtained permission to return to Rome, but died in Sicily, of the stone, on his way thither (554).

Pelagius I. (554–560), by order of Justinian, whose favor he had previously gained as papal legate at Constantinople, was made successor of Vigilius, but found only two bishops ready to consecrate him. His close connection with the East, and his approval of the fifth ecumenical council, which was regarded as a partial concession to the Eutychian Christology, and, so far, an impeachment of the authority of the council of Chalcedon, alienated many Western bishops, even in Italy, and induced a temporary suspension of their connection with Rome. He issued a letter to the whole Christian world, in which he declared his entire agreement with the first four general councils, and then vindicated the fifth as in no way departing from the Chalcedonian dogma. But only by the military aid of Narses could he secure subjection; and the most refractory bishops, those of Aquileia and Milan, he sent as prisoners to Constantinople.

In these two Justinian-made popes we see how much the power of the Roman hierarchy was indebted to its remoteness from the Byzantine despotism, and how much it was injured by contact with it.

With the descent of the Arian Longobards into Italy, after 668, the popes again became more independent of the Byzantine court. They continued under tribute indeed to the ex-archs in Ravenna, as the representatives of the Greek emperors (from 554), and were obliged to have their election confirmed and their inauguration superintended by them. But the feeble hold of these officials in Italy, and the pressure of the Arian barbarians upon them, greatly favored the popes, who, being the richest proprietors, enjoyed also great political consideration in Italy, and applied their influence to the maintenance of law and order amidst the reigning confusion.

In other respects the administrations of John III. (560–573), Benedict I. (574–578), and Pelagius II. (578–590), are among the darkest and the most sterile in the annals of the papacy.

But with Gregory I. (590–604) a new period begins. Next to Leo I. he was the greatest of the ancient bishops of Rome, and he marks the transition of the patriarchal system into the strict papacy of the middle ages. For several reasons we prefer to place him at the head of the succeeding period. He came, it is true, with more modest claims than Leo, who surpassed him in boldness, energy, and consistency. He even solemnly protested, as his predecessor Pelagius II. had done, against the title of universal bishop, which the Constantinopolitan patriarch, John Jejunator, adopted at a council in 587;606606   Even Justinian repeatedly applied to the patriarch of Constantinople officially the title οἰκομενικὸς πατριάρχης, universalis patriarcha. he declared it an antichristian assumption, in terms which quite remind us of the patriarchal equality, and seem to form a step in recession from the ground of Leo. But when we take his operations in general into view, and remember the rigid consistency of the papacy, which never forgets, we are almost justified in thinking, that this protest was directed not so much against the title itself, as against the bearer of it, and proceeded more from jealousy of a rival at Constantinople, than from sincere humility.607607   Bellarmine disposes of this apparent testimony of one of the greatest and best popes against the system of popery, which has frequently been urged since Calvin by Protestant controversialists, by assuming that the term episcopus universalis is used in two very different senses.“Respondeo,” he says (in his great controversial work, De controversiis christianae fidei, etc., de Romano pontifice, lib. ii. cap. 31), “duobus modis posse intelligi nomen universalis episcopi. Uno modo, ut ille, qui dicitur universalis, intelligatur esse solus episcopus omnium urbium Christianarum, ita ut caeteri non sint episcopi, sed vicarii tantum illius, qui dicitur episcopus universalis, et hoc modo nomen hoc est vere profanum, sacrilegum et antichristianum.... Altero modo dici potest episcopus universalis, qui habet curam totius ecclesiae, sed generalem, ita ut non excludat particulares episcopos. Et hoc modo nomen hoc posse tribui Romano pontifici ex mente Gregorii probatur.” From the same motive the Roman bishops avoided the title of patriarch, as placing them on a level with the Eastern patriarchs, and preferred the title of pope, from a sense of the specific dignity of the chair of Peter. Gregory is said to have been the first to use the humble-proud title: “Servant of the servants of God.”  His successors, notwithstanding his protest, called themselves “the universal bishops” of Christendom. What he had condemned in his oriental colleagues as antichristian arrogance, the later popes considered but the appropriate expression of their official position in the church universal.



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