In 452 Pope Leo III met Attila the Hun at the gates of Rome. He convinced the feared leader to turn back his forces. In 455 he was again the peacemaker, sent as a delegate after the death of the Emperor to meet Gaiseric of the Vandals. He negogiates a brief sacking but is thus hailed as a hero, having saved Rome for a second time. He is appointed Pontifex Maximus, the supreme priest of the Empire. The Pope had risen to prominence. Over the coming centuries, that prominence would eventually become dominance.

Supreme Pontiff

The origins of the importance of the Papacy stem from Matthew 16 where Jesus assures Peter that he is the “rock” upon which he will build his church. Peter is meant to have ended up in Rome and indeed was joined by Paul there. All the seats of the church were associated with apostles but Rome thus had this double apostleship. Furthermore it was the only seat in the West. All this added together meant that while Rome did not play a dominant role in early church councils, it did have a particular foundational authority (that can be seen as quite distinct from its civic importance).

Questions of the two natures of Christ preoccupied the churches in the 5th and 6th Centuries. Pope Leo referred to the Council at Ephesus as the “robber council” because of its failure to condemn the monophysite heresy. He lobbied for a new council and would eventually prevail at Chalcedon in 451, where his “Tome” would win massive support. At that same council, Rome was accepted as the primary seat amongst the five apostolic cities.

Also in the fifth century, Gelasius advanced his two swords principle that argued that to the church was given moral authority while the civic state had the power of Kings. The church’s authority was concerned with eternal issues while the government was concerned only with the implementation of its civic duties under its raw power. Hence, the church is superior and the Empire must bow to its judgments. In other words, Gelasius manages to subsume the whole order of Creation under the jurisdiction of the church.

The debates raged on into the sixth century. Rome considered the East “too clever to be honest” (Chadwick). Rome was seen as a bulwark in defence of orthodoxy. The Acacian schism stretched from 484 until Justin brought it to an end in 519. To achieve this he used the Formula of Hormsidas written by the Pope. This formula condemned the Acacians and reasserted the Chalcedonian formation. It also said that safety in matters of orthodoxy can only be established by holding fast to the teachings of the Fathers who ultimately have their source in Peter, the rock upon whom the church is built.

While the 6th Century saw the wavering and political machinations of the inappropriately titled Vigilius, by the end of the Century the lustre had been restored to the Papacy.

Pope Gregory the Great rose to power. His influence is formidable. Through Augustine (with the not inconsiderable aid of the Irish monks at Lindisfarne and Iona!!!), he saw the reChristianisation of Britain. He brought unity amongst the North African bishops. He developed ties with Gaul and Spain. He encouraged pilgrimages and he extended Papal authority over the region of Dalmatia. Significantly, he also won an explicit endorsement of Petrine supremacy from Emperor Phocas. But perhaps his most lasting influence is the idea he had as the territory of Europe falling under the spiritual oversight of the Pope. This lay the intellectual framework for the Carolingian Dynasty that would follow him (and the concept of Europe as we have it today is heavily influenced still).

In 732, Charles the Hammerer held back the Muslim advance at Poitiers. This caught the eye of Gregory III who saw in the Franks the solution to his problem with the troublesome Lombards. His successor, Stephen II, convinced Charles’ brother Pepin to ally with him against the Lombards (by recourse to a pious fiction about how Pope Sylvester had granted Gaul to the Franks). The relationship between the Franks and Rome would only strengthen with the next Pope, Adrian. Finally, Leo III would formally crown Pepin’s son Charlemagne Emperor of the Romans in Rome itself on Christmas Day, 800AD. Rome in this sense, literally created the Carolingian Empire. Together these two power bases would exert huge influence over Europe for the years that followed. The Papal rise from prominence to supremacy was complete.

It was not until 1075 that Gregory VII issued his 27 propositions claiming all power unto the Pontiff. It was not until 1870 that Pius IX would declare Papal Infallibility. Upon close inspection it can be seen that in both cases, these decisions were shaped in a large part by cultural, social and political concerns. So it is with the rise of the Papacy between the 5th and 8th Century. Yet perhaps the pinnacle of Petrine supremacy remains that Christmas morning when Charlemagne became Emperor through the coronation of the Bishop of Rome.

Your Correspondent, Hopes this essay isn’t checked for erros