Posted 11 June 2003 - 05:41 PM
The evidence of history – when taken as a whole – confirms the primacy of the Pope as head of the Church, from the earliest days of the Apostolic succession.
The evidence of history – when taken as a whole – confirms no such thing.
Observe the following summary from a contemporary historian:On the point – the role of the Papacy in the conversion of Europe – we need some background for, in the early Church prior to Toleration in AD 313, there had been no suggestion that the Bishop of Rome exercised any significant influence, much less authority, outside his own domain. However, when Constantine’s Edict of Toleration (AD 313) granted freedom of belief and worship to Christians, a completely new situation developed which necessitated a radical change in Church policy. For, from that time on, the emperors were Christians; and increasingly, they tended to rule the Church as a kind of Department of State, as if they – rather than thee bishops – were the successors of St Peter and the Apostles.
So, when doctrinal disputes arose among Christians (for example the controversy over the divinity of Christ), it was the Emperor Constantine, not the Bishop of Rome, who called the first “Ecumenical” Council of Christian bishops (a kind of Christian Summit) at Nicaea in AD 325 – oikumene being the Greek word for the “household” of the Church. Among the two hundred bishops who attended, there were only two priests (not even a single bishop) from Rome or its environs, and they played only a minor part in the proceedings.
The same when a later Emperor, Theodosius, called a second Christian Summit (the First Council of Constantinople) in AD 381 – without reference to Rome at all! In effect, the Emperor was now behaving as if he were the Head of the Church – an emperor, moreover, who (as we have seen) had been forced to do public penance by St Ambrose after slaughtering 7,000 innocent people after one of his officers had been assassinated.
This was too much. The following year, Damasus, Bishop of Rome, called a rival Council in Rome; and his successor, Siricius, formulated the first public proclamation of the right and duty of the Bishop of Rome to rule over thee whole of Christendom: “We (the Successors of Peter) carry on our shoulders the burdens of all who are weighed down. Indeed, in Our person the blessed Apostle Peter himself carries these burdens – he who regards us as the heir to his administration… No priest of the Lord is free to ignore the decision of the Apostolic See.”
Gradually, over the next century or so, as the tension increased between the Caesar or Emperor in the East and the Pope or Bishop of Rome in the West, “the Successors of Peter” became ever more adamant in their insistence that they, rather than the eastern emperors, should be the arbiters of all Church affairs. So, in the mid 5th Century, we find Pope Leo I (440-461) calling himself “the Vicar of Peter” – that is, the one who acts in the place of Peter. Not the “Vicar of Christ” – the modern title which gained ascendancy only from the 11th Century onwards – but “the Vicar of Peter” and “the heir to his administration.”
By the end of the 5th Century, still under pressure from the Emperor in Constantinople, a further step was taken in this direction when Pope Gelasius (492-496) formulated the crucial concept of “separate Orders.” In the political or temporal order, he argued, the Emperor holds supreme and universal authority; but in the spiritual order – that is, in the administration of the Church – it is the Bishop of Rome who, as Vicar of St Peter, holds supreme and universal authority. The foundation of all future claims to the Papacy – and the basis of a good deal of the future politics of Church and State – is already inherent in this crucial distinction.
In passing, it is worth nothing that, in a sense, it was only natural that the Church should begin to think in such universal terms. For the Roman Empire into which Christianity had been born was a world-wide empire; and the Romans themselves had a gift for government far surpassing that of the more intellectual but more factious and self-destructive Greeks, whose small, independent City-States had fought interminably among themselves all through Greek history.
So, “not unnaturally, with Christianity spreading all through the Roman Empire, Christians began to think of the Church as a kind of spiritual Empire; and given the unique role of Peter, and the natural Roman gift for government, it was on the cards that the successors of Peter would eventually become the spiritual Emperors of the universal Church, which we call “Christendom” (literally, “the dominion of Christ.”)
Especially, in the persistent climate of controversy that marked those early centuries – notably, the continuing Arian assertion that, while Christ was adopted as Son of God at his baptism, he was not born God, nor was he identical with the Creator. So when, in the midst of one such controversy (in 451), with the Church split into two rival factions, the gifted Pope Leo I spoke out authoritatively saying, “this is the doctrine of the Church” – his words having the authoritative tone of a Roman decree, backed by his claim to be the Successor of St Peter – the Bishop of Rome became increasingly regarded as the guardian of orthodoxy throughout much of Christendom.
By this time – by force of circumstance, rather than choice or planning – the Bishop of Rome had also become a political ruler, not just head of the Church in Rome. For when the Emperor Constantine retired to Constantinople, leaving the city of Rome as a backwater, who else would now rule and defend the city, if not the Bishop of Rome? In the words of Professor Nilsson in his history of Imperial Rome; “as the Emperor (from the early 300’s) seldom visited Rome, the bishop had become the foremost man in the city.”
When, for example, Attila and his Huns stormed into Italy in 451, who would go out to negotiate with him? Who would – and did – save the city of Rome from the kind of rape and plunder that befell so many other cities throughout the Empire? Who, if not the Bishop of Rome, the leading citizen in the city? And, in fact, it was this same Pope Leo who confronted Attila – thereby (as the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church points out) “increasing… Papal prestige… in the political sphere… by persuading the Huns to withdraw beyond the Danube (451), and securing concessions when the Vandals took Rome in 452.” This political role of the bishops of Rome would increase tenfold a few centuries later when, in the mid-700’s, the Popes became political rulers of territories stretching north-east from Rome to the environs of Ravenna – these territories henceforth being known as the “Papal States.”
This development stemmed from a troublesome relationship between the Papacy and the Lombards – yet another Germanic tribe, who appear to have been Christians by the time of their arrival in 568, but remained Arians till the mid 7th Century. From the outset, they proceeded to occupy most of northern and central Italy, taking Ravenna, the capital of the Christian (though Arian), kingdom of the Ostrogoths in 571 and, after besieging Rome that same year, imposing a heavy tribute on the people of Rome and its environs in token of subjection. This new and hazardous situation eventually prompted the Pope to appeal for help – no longer to the Eastern emperor who was by then preoccupied with the expansion of Islam, but to Charlemagne’s father, Pippin II, ruler of the Franks.
Pippin agreed to intervene and agreed, moreover, to hand over extensive Lombard territories to the Pope – including the Ducy of Benevento, south of Rome, the Duchy of Spoleto (around Assisi) to the north-east, and even the former Byzantine and subsequently Gothic territories north and south of Ravenna. Two successive Frankish campaigns followed –the first in 754, and the second in 756 (after Rome had been besieged by the Lombards for eight weeks) – the outcome being the birth of the Papal States which would remain intact until the Unification of Italy in 1870. And, as Barraclough points out in The Medieval Papacy, this was a new and momentous development, for “at no time in the whole preceding history of the papacy had there been any suggestion that the bishop of Rome should exercise temporal power, or rule as a king over a territorial state.”
By the time of the Lombard campaigns in the mid 700’s, another political factor was adding further prestige to the Papacy – in spiritual rather than political terms. For, with the rapid expansion of Islam, all through the Middle East and right across North Africa in the century following Mohammed’s death in 634, all the other “Apostolic Sees” (Jerusalem, Antioch and Ephesus), which had originally evangelized by one or other of the apostles, were now in Islamic hands; and this meant that the only surviving Apostolic See in Christendom was Rome. Hence, Rome’s present claim to the title, “The Apostolic See.”
Almost by chance, therefore, from the late 700’s, not only did the popes claim spiritual authority over the whole of Christendom as “Successors of Peter” and bishop of the one and only surviving “Apostolic See”, but they were recognized as the political overlords of about one-fifth of Italy also – this new status of the Papacy being confirmed in the papal coronation of Charlemagne in the year 800.
One of the clearest indications of the new role of the Papacy can be seen in the fact that, before the early 1100’s, not a single General or “Ecumenical” Council of the Church had been summoned by a pope or even held in the capital West: from the early 12th Century onwards, however, there would be frequent Councils; all would be held in the West; and all would be summoned and directed by the pope.
R. W. Southern supplies the details in Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages, as follows: “Between the seventh century and the early twelfth the Councils are few and, from a western point of view, insignificant. They are all held in Byzantine territory (one at Nicaea, in 787, and two in Constantinople, in 680 and 869), and there were no representatives from the West except the papal legates, who played a minor role in the proceedings. The whole picture therefore is one of western inertia and papal impotence… 
In necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritasImagoCredo