Report #1-Schimmelpfennig-papal power within the church

18 September 2001

Jeff Hoerl

  There was no “papacy” before at least 130.  Peter’s actions in Rome are uncertain, and there was no one bishop in Rome.  By the middle of the third century the beginnings of a hierarchy were set up, and by 220 Callistus I saw the bishopric as “monarchial”--exemplified by his definition of mortal sins the number of which he trimmed back -- but not yet based on apostolic succession.  Schimmelpfennig hesitates to comment with certainty, but at the time of Constantine, he says that the Roman congregation was important and respected because it was the center of the empire, but even those who greatly respected the bishop of Rome, such as Irenaeus of Lyon, would criticize Pope Victor for trying to set the date of Easter.  The concept of apostolic succession was being worked out, as the importance to Rome of Peter AND Paul shows, and while some congregations might appeal to Rome for intervention in conflicts, there were also appeals to other imperial cities—Carthage, Antioch, Alexandria.  Whenever Roman bishops “tried to intervene in everyday Christian affairs, they were able to prevail only when their claims were recognized as justifiably essential.” (14)  There was a “vaguely defined” preeminence given to Rome in the Western empire, but “demands for special privileges” by Roman bishops were “criticized or rejected.”

            For the bishop of Rome, the first century of Late Antiquity was spent “bringing to the various congregations a single form of worship and creed under the supervision of the Roman bishop.” (17)  By the end of the fourth century, the doctrine was put forth that all bishops of Rome possessed Peter’s chair.  Combined with apostolic succession, the theory that the Bishop of Rome possessed the full power granted to Peter emerged, and Leo I made them the heirs of St. Peter in canon law.  “The ritual prominence given to Peter and Paul was only possible, as were other liturgical changes, because the bishop was able to bring the clerics and the various parishes of the city under his undisputed supervision.” (27)  Yet the pope’s ability to exert influence, even over the church, had limits.  Presbyters, together with their bishop, formed synods to decide doctrine, and the church as a whole never could have called the major councils without the empire.  (30,34)  Even near the end of the fourth century, emperors held the right to decide cases in which the bishop was involved.  (36)

            The pope held power within the church by the fifth century—but only in theory.  Leo I had Valentinian III sanction authority of the Roman bishop over the western empire in 445, and at the end of the century, Gelasius began to create the “two powers” doctrine, while claiming, “humbly yet unequivocally, the highest authority in the church for the bishop of Rome, ’whom the highest deity chose to stand above all priests.’” (37)  By 500, the popes had concocted (forged) the formula, from Roman law, that no one may judge a superior, and the pope had no superior. (38)  The papacy was claiming rights over all (at least all western) churches, but reality was far behind.  If “the subjugation of suburbicarian Italy to Rome remained unchanged during the whole epoch, then the influence of the bishop of Rome in areas of the Western empire outside of this province largely depended on political changes” (40)  Until the mid-sixth century, “not all parties recognized Rome’s direct authority to supervise congregations in Northern Italy.” (41)  Rome might attempt to intervene in Gaul, Africa, or other regions, or get the East to recognize their claims, but the practical effect was slight.  Only the letters, ignored in their day, would come to be important, when used as defense for plenitudo potestas and other theories, often taken well out of context. 

            The papacy, did not fare well during the eighth century, either in the East, where Gregory I had to argue against the “universal” claims of Constantinople, or in the West and Africa, where, despite veneration of Peter, the pope was seen as a heretic through the Three Chapters controversy..  For this period, “to put it succinctly, the papacy had power where it had territory,” (71) it could only “forcefully intervene in spiritual matters in those areas where it possessed territory.” (72)  Although the period saw the first papally privileged monastery (Columba’s Bobbio-71) it is not known how effective the privilege was.  The mission to England turned out, unexpectedly, to be the most significant event for papal supremacy—despite stiff Irish competition, “England was the first area outside of Italy in which church law and liturgy were patterned after Rome, and whose bishops and monks turned to Rome more than those of other regions did for moral edification and justice,” (76).  This was an important development, as English missionaries converted parts of Germany.  The “Donation of Constantine.” was also created in the eighth century.

            The papacy turned West in the eighth century, tying its fortunes to that of the Franks.  They became dependent on the Franks, but “to be sure, this dependence did not prevent the papacy from gaining, first during Pepin’s reign, and later even stronger under Charles, a great influence on the liturgy, laws and organization of the Frankish church.” (87)  Charlemagne kept the right to rule the church on earth, and treated the pope as “not much more than the highest bishop” (90) in his empire—though the papacy still saw him as its deputy.  As the power of the Carolingians fractured, the Roman bishopric became a prize to noble Roman families, and event slike the trial of Formoses did not exactly enhance the prestige of the papacy.  Involvement in politics often hurt the Papacy’s influence in the Church itself, but political instability helped in France and Spain, where the pope successfully intervened through his legates.  The pope’s power within the church was fairly limited to Carolingian lands, but the use of papal privileges (still questioned in 1007—126), legates, and control of the emerging canonization process would all be put to use by later popes.

            To the reforming popes, “reforming the church also meant strengthening the papacy.” (130), the only way they believed reform of the whole church could be achieved

“The Western church, which now was understood as the universal church <the East was brushed off, finally as heretics> was placed under the pope, at least in theory.  The pope had plenitudo potestatis and could not be deposed.  Since he was the supreme judge and only lawgiver, ecclesiastical law was changed by decrees of contemporary popes, and the popes were able to intervene in the structure of the church.  The latter was evident not only in dispensations, or in the exemptions of monasteries, bishoprics, or churches, but also in the establishing, dividing or merging of bishoprics or ecclesiastical provinces.” (149)

The Gregorian reformers often used the decretals of past popes to justify their claims..  The activities of legates, the college of cardinals, and the curia all helped the pope, but as the papacy began to be more international, it would alienate the city of Rome.

            The era after the Gregorian  reforms saw the popes gaining power, “even if their success was minimal at the beginning, it was nevertheless clear that the papacy was now acknowledged in all Catholic lands as the highest church authority in matters of law and doctrine.” (168)  The pope’s practical ability to lead the church was still most effective with its allies—now France—but councils called by papal legates became more acceptable as time went on.  The pope had gained the ability to make many appointments, but these were always subject to bargains with the secular powers, as after the Concordat of Worms. Pilgrimage and crusade would enhance the power of the papacy, bringing wealth and prestige and the ability to grant charters and dispensations to its door.

            Papal claims to power, spiritual and religious, came to its highest point with Unam Sanctam  in 1302.  The ideal of papal supremacy, as defined by GregoryVII in his Dictatus Papae, was in his day more of a wish list.  From Gregory’s pontificate to the fourteenth century, however, the papacy made good on some of these claims as opportunity presented itself.  Now dogma, the supreme power of the pope was in reality still limited, even within the church, as the pope ran up against stronger “national” leaders and “national” churches, which would not allow a strong international organization to hamper “national” unity.  The pope’s power within the church would not diminish as dramatically as it would in the secular world, but the basic ingredients of papal control of the Catholic Church had come from medieval precedence, and the papacy would never again hold quite the same level of prestige as it did in the thirteenth century.