Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Papacy: “Self-Consciously” Modeled After the 4th Century Roman State

Roman Catholics today like to tell us that “Christ is the head of the church,” but Pope Siricius (384-399), who was the successor of the murderer pope Damasus, “self-consciously … began to model their actions and style as Christian leaders on the procedures of the Roman state. … [Siricius responded to an inquiry from a neighboring bishop in Spain] in the form of a decretal, modeled directly on an imperial rescript, and like the rescripts, providing authoritative rulings which were designed to establish legal precedents on the issues concerned. Siricius commended the [inquiring] Bishop for consulting Rome ‘as to the head of your body’, and instructed to him to pass on ‘the salutary ordinances we have made’ to the bishops of all the surrounding provinces, for ‘no priest of the Lord is free to be ignorant of the statutes of the Apostolic See’” (Duffy 40).

Shotwell and Loomis, who a almost a century ago, compiled virtually all the writings concerning the “early papacy” into a single volume, go into somewhat greater detail:

We see that Siricius, in taking up, as he says, the responsibilities of Damasus, assumes the right to make ordinances for the metropolitans [city bishops] and clergy of the West and classes the statutes of the Apostolic See and the venerable canons of the councils together as laws of which no priest of the Lord may be ignorant. He is writing, one must note, for western churches only, as far as his explicit directions go, but his West includes Spaniards and Gauls and Carthaginians in provinces far beyond Italy.

The decretal itself is more than the instructions of a senior bishop to his junior colleagues on ways to remedy evils in congregations under their authority. In several of its provisions it goes behind the local bishop and metropolitan altogether and establishes relations by its own authority directly with the lesser clergy, monks and laity of these distant regions. The local bishop is for the moment merely the organ of communication between the chief shepherd and the sheep. All priests are to keep the rules or be “plucked from the solid, apostolic rock upon which Christ built the universal Church.” Offenders are “Deposed by authority of the Apostolic See from every ecclesiastical position which they have abused.” (Shotwell and Loomis, “The See of Peter,” New York: Columbia University Press, ©1927, 1955, 1991, pgs 699-700).

This is perhaps the earliest of these epistolae decretales on record. It was contemporary with the time that all that the Eastern bishops, at the council of Constantinople (381), had decreed that “appeals in the cases of bishops should be heard within the bishop’s own province,” as Duffy had said, “a direct rebuttal of Rome’s claim to be the final court of appeal in all such cases (34). The Eastern bishops had no concept at all that the Roman bishop had the right to interfere with or make laws in their regions.

Duffy notes that “the apostolic stability of Rome, its testimony to ancient truth, would now be imagined not simply as the handing on of the ancient paradosis, the tradition, but specifically in the form of lawgiving. Law became a major preoccupation of the Roman church, and the Pope was seen as the Church’s supreme lawgiver. As Pope Innocent I (401-417) wrote to the bishops of Africa, ‘it has been decreed by a divine, not a human authority, that whatever action is taken in any of the provinces, however distant or remote, it should not be brought to a conclusion before it comes to the knowledge of this see, so that every decision may be affirmed by our authority’” (Duffy 40). And of course, nepotism reigned:

Round the papal household there developed a whole clerical culture, staffed by men drawn often from the Roman aristocracy, intensely self-conscious and intensely proud of their own tradition – Jerome dubbed them ‘the senate’. Damasus himself was a product of this world, the son of a senior Roman priest who had himself founded a titulus church. Pope Boniface was the son of a Roman priest, Innocent I was the son of his predecessor as pope, Anastasius I (399-401), and had served his father as a deacon.

But probably the pinnacle of admixture between Roman imperial law and arrogance and usurpation of the nepotism system came in the person of “Pope Leo the Great” (440-461).

More on Leo the Great next time.


  1. Good research and quotes from Duffy. I wish I had time to read all of your articles.

    Even Duffy and others calls them "Pope so and so" in the 300s and 400s, etc.; But they didn't call the one bishop of Rome "The Pope" until later.

    When was that?

    Writing about early history and calling the early bishops "Pope Damasus" and "Pope Leo", etc. seems anachronistic, since all the priests and bishops were called "papa" and we have records of bishops disagreeing with one another over one claiming jurisdictional authority over another. (Cyprian vs. Stephen; John of Constantinople vs. bishop of Rome, Gregory in 601 AD) (and as your quotes about the eastern bishops confirms)

    My understanding is that all priests and ministers were called "papa" (father) in the early days, based on Paul's example of saying he was a spiritual father to Timothy and others. ( 1 Corinthians 4:14-17, 1 Timothy)

    When did they start singling out the bishop of Rome as "The Pope" of all the other "papas"??

  2. I think the worst thing any person who believes in God can say is that he or she has no sin, because then that person is saying that they can not learn anything from God, and that he or she has no need for correction. Even Paul the apostle acknowledged that he was still running the race and was eager to 'press on', and he had an intense revelation and knowledge of God's requirements. I don't believe that anyone gets away with injustice, the Bible clearly stated that we will all be judged according to what we have done, and if any of us think that they can hide from God we are mistaken. Also I as a mature woman realize how quickly the time passes,life is like a puff of smoke, and know that if I would try to do something deliberately that I know is wrong with God then my so called pleasure in it is short lived. Also though I know how loving and long suffering the Lord is, knowing that we are flesh, and this fact alone makes me want to be more like Him. I think my motto would be 'I am on the racecourse and there is no turning back' One last thing I would like to add Tim. Judging by what I see in your posts, if I was your mum I would be proud of you as a son, and would think that any young lady would be pleased to have you as her husband. That is not 'flattery' by the way as I do not believe in it.Read more

  3. There's an interesting few chapters in Martin Loughlin's book 'The Foundations of Public Law' on the relationship between Roman law and the Papacy. Here's a couple of quotations:

    'This latter formulation [of Pope Leo I] was greatly influenced by the Roman law of inheritance, and in particular by the principle of universal succession in accordance with which an heir is vested with the legal status of the deceased...' p. 20

    'But if the ideology of imperial government was strengthened by the use of Christian theology, so also did the authority of Roman law bolster the ideology of papal government. Roman law "offered the most developed techniques whereby unity under the sovereignty of central authority might be ensured; the papacy was the first monarchy to exploit its services, and its lawyers the first to develop a jurisprudence under its guidance."' p. 23

    As something of an aside the extent to which European monarchies (with maybe the exclusion of England due to the common law) became dependent on this fusion of Roman law and papal monarchy is an interesting question; perhaps one of the reasons why Presbyterians have tended towards some form of republicanism.

    And (finally) here's an interesting article from yesterday's Daily Mail by John Cornwell on goings on in the Vatican: