Written by Vladimir Moss



     The fall of Old Rome in 410 created a vacuum in political authority in the West which the Eastern Emperors before Justinian were unable to fill and which the Germanic Arian kings (Ostrogothic, Visigothic, Suedic, Vandal) only partially filled. Into this partial vacuum stepped the Popes… For the Church was the only institution that survived the fall intact; and without the Church there could be no Christian state and no truly Christian civilization. Therefore it was not pride, but necessity, that compelled the Popes to take a prominent political role.      


     “When the Roman Empire collapsed in the West,” writes Sir Steven Runciman, “the Roman Church was left as the repository of Roman traditions and Roman law, as opposed to the customs introduced by the barbarian rulers, but also of learning and education. In the chaos of the invasions, with the former lay governors fleeng or dispossessed, ecclesiastical officers were often called upon to take over the administration of cities and whole districts. Moreover, when orderly government was restored, there were for many centuries few literate men outside of ecclesiastical ranks. Churchmen provided the lawyers and clerks on whom the lay rulers depended. This all tended to give the Roman Church a legal outlook. The Papal chancery was obliged to fill itself with trained lawyers, whose tastes began to dominate theology…[1]


     The question was: how would the Popes relate to New Rome, on the one hand, and to the new western kingdoms that had arisen on the ruins of Old Rome, on the other? 


     Another, closely related question was: how would the Church of Rome relate to the other Churches both of the East and of the West? That the Roman papacy was in some sense the first or most senior of the Churches had been acknowledged in both East and West for centuries. However, the basis and nature of this primacy was understood differently in East and West.


     In the West, Rome was seen as as “the see of Peter”, or “the apostolic see”, on the  basis of the fact that Peter had died and was buried in Rome, and especially on the basis of Christ’s words to him: “Thou art Peter, and on this rock I will build My Church” (Matthew 16.18), which supposedly gave both Peter and the bishops of Rome a pre-eminence over the whole of the Church worldwide (in spite of the fact that, immediately after uttering these words, the Lord gave Peter a fearsome rebuke: «Get thee behind Me, Satan»). Thus Pope Damasus (+384) based his claim “exclusively on his being the direct successor of St. Peter and so the rightful heir of the promises made to him by Christ”.[2]


     Later popes came to have a quasi-mystical belief that the apostle lived and spoke through them; so that just as the Lord had bestowed the apostolate on Peter, so the Roman Popes, acting as his successive reincarnations, as it were, were the source of the episcopate of the whole of the rest of the Church. 


     In the East, on the other hand, the primacy of Rome was recognized on the basis of Rome’s socio-political importance, her status as the capital city of the empire – and no more. When that status passed to the New Rome of Constantinople, the primacy of honour, in eastern eyes, also passed to the New Rome. Apostolic succession was given, not to Peter alone, but to all the apostles. “The remaining apostles,” wrote St. Cyprian of Carthage (who was, of course, a western bishop), “were necessarily also that which Peter was, endowed with an equal partnership both of honour and of power… The episcopate is one, an individual share in which individual bishops hold as owners of a common property.”[3]


     Nor was Peter, strictly spreaking even the Bishop of Rome, but an apostle – and apostles, unlike bishops, do not have territorially defined jurisdictions. The first bishop of Rome was Linus, who was not even ordained by St. Peter, but by St. Paul. Only with the third bishop, Clement, can we talk of a disciple of Peter. Nor was Peter the founder only of the Church of Rome: the Church of Antioch was also founded by him – with St. Paul (a parchment affirming that and signed by both the apostles still exists). In any case, if any Church has the primacy by virtue of the excellency of its founder, it is the Church of Jerusalem, which was by the Lord Himself. And yet neither East nor West considered that Jerusalem, while being undoubtedly “the mother of the Churches”, had the primacy, let alone universal jurisdiction over the others…


     “It is undeniable,” writes Fr. John Meyendorff, that, in the first half of the fifth century, the bishop of Rome enjoyed a strong de facto authority in helping to solve doctrinal and disciplinary disputes. This authority was recognized in some ways both in the East and in the West, but it had not formally been defined in any conciliar decree. Only the canons of the local council of Sardica (343) gave clerics dissatisfied with the disciplinary judgement of their own metropolitans the right to request in Rome the establishment of a new tribunal of neighbouring bishops. According to these canons, the role of Rome was therefore to assure correct procedure within existing structures of local churches, as defined in Nicaea, and not to issue personal judgement. The division of the empire into Eastern and Western parts after Constantine’s death (337) contributed to the pope’s prestige. Alone among the major leaders of the Church, he was out of direct reach of the emperor in Constantinople, and the much weaker Western emperor was not really in a position to control him. In any case in 476, the Western empire collapsed. It is therefore, primarily against imperial interventions in ecclesiastical affairs that Eastern bishops sought and cherished the support of the Roman bishops – which did not prevent St. Basil the Great complaining about the conduct of the pope. That appeals to the pope were primarily caused by such political factors is shown by the fact that letters were usually addressed not only to the Roman pope, but to several major bishops in the West. For instance, in 382, the Eastern bishops gathered in Constantinople wrote a collective letter ‘to the honored and revered brothers and concelebrants Damasus (of Rome), Ambrose (of Milan), Britto, Valerian, Acholius, Anemius, Basil, and the other holy bishops gathered in the great city of Rome’ calling them to unity with the council of 381 and urging them to abandon their support to the small, ‘old Nicaean’ church of Paulinus in Antioch. The Easterners clearly did not consider Rome as the sole and ultimate criterion of communion, but appreciated the pope’s – and his colleagues’ – eventual support in solving the ecclesiastical situation in the East. Similarly, St. John Chrysostom, exiled in 404, appealed not only to pope Innocent, but also to Venerius of Milan and Chromatius of Aquileia. In such appeals, the name of the Roman bishop always appears first, but this obvious sign of priority never excludes the authority of others.”[4]


     And so, continues Meyendorff, “the ecclesiastical authority of some churches, including that of Rome, reflects historical realities, not a divine command. It is conditioned by the orthodox faith of the incumbent, and is controlled by the consensus of the whole Church. This concept does not deny the particular role of the apostle Peter and his martyrdom in Rome; but his ministry is seen, following Cyprian as being fulfilled by each bishop in his community, not by the Roman bishop alone.”[5]




     Nevertheless, it was in the very same year as the Constantinopolitan Council of 382 quoted above that a Roman council under Pope Damasus declared: “Although all Catholic churches throughout the world comprise but one bridal chamber of Christ, nevertheless the holy Roman Church has been set before the other churches not by any synodical decrees but by the evangelical voice of our Lord and Saviour, saying 'Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it; and I will give to you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatsoever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatsoever you shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.'"[6] 


     This, the manifesto, as it were, of “proto-papism”, elicited a reaction in the West, in Gaul and North Africa. Thus while the authority of Pope Innocent I was welcomed in 417 by St. Augustine and other bishops in their struggle against Pelagianism, there was a reaction the next year, when an African council formally forbade “appeals beyond the sea”, that is, to Rome. “Furthermore, writing to pope Celestine in 420, the Africans proclaimed what amounted to a formal denial of any ‘divine’ privilege of Rome. ‘Who will believe,’ they stated, ‘that our God could inspire justice in the iniquiries of one man only (i.e. the pope) and refuse it to innumerable bishops gathered in council?’’’[7] Again, a little later St. Hilary, Archbishop of Arles, disputed the papacy’s jurisdiction over the Gallican see of Besancon. The papacy’s defence of its jurisdiction was harsh: Pope Leo I cast Hilary into prison in Rome for his protest. Hilary died in 449 out of communion with Rome. [8]


     Nevertheless, by the middle of the fifth century, the quasi-mystical attitude towards the papal see was entrenched even in the minds of the western emperors, who would suffer much from it centuries later. Thus in 431, during the Third Ecumenical Council, the dowager empress of the West, Galla Placidia, wrote two letters to the Eastern Emperor Theodosius II and his sister Pulcheria. Addressing the emperor as “conqueror and emperor, my forever august son”, as Herrin records, the Western Augusta “regretted that the synod at Ephesus had disturbed the true faith and intimidated Bishop Flavian of Constantinople, because he had appealed to the Apostolic see (Rome). Emphasizing the authority of the bishop of Rome, heir of St. Peter, who holds the keys of heaven, she urged Theodosius to preserve the faith, to protect Flavian and to allow the appeal to be resolved in Rome, in order to ‘maintain the respect due to this great city which is the mistress of all the earth.’ In the second, to Pulcheria, Galla Placidia wrote as one powerful woman to another: ‘So it is appropriate, most holy and venerable daughter Augusta, that piety should prevail. Therefore may your clemency in accordance with the catholic faith, as it always has with us, now in the same way share our objectives.’ These ‘objectives’ were to overturn the decisions taken at Ephesus by holding another universal council in the West, and to refer the issue of Flavian’s position to the Apostolic see of St. Peter: ‘Yield to the primacy of that city which filled the whole world with the domination of its own virtus, and committed the globe to being governed and preserved by our empire.’ This belief in the supremacy of ‘our imperial power’ was matched by the supremacy of St. Peter in the church – a natural coalition.”[9]


     Again, in 445 Placidia’s son, Emperor Valentinian III, declared in his Constitution: “We are convinced that the only defence for us and for our Empire is in the favour of the God of heaven: and in order to deserve this favour it is our first care to support the Christian faith and its venerable religion. Therefore, inasmuch as the pre-eminence of the Apostolic See is assured by the merit of St. Peter, the first of the bishops, by the leading position of the city of Rome and also by the authority of the Holy Synod, let not presumption strive to attempt anything contrary to the authority of that See.” [10]


     It has to be said that the high reputation of the Church of Rome was well-deserved at this time, as Popes Celestine and Leo played important roles in the struggle against the heresies of Nestorianism and Monophysitism during the period of the Third and Fourth Ecumenical Councils (in 431 and 451 respectively). Thus when Nestorius, the new patriarch of Constantinople, preached that Mary was not the Mother of God (Theotokos) but only of the man Jesus, thereby casting doubt on the real union of the Divine and human natures in one Person, St. Celestine accepted Nestorius’ appeal to the Roman see – but supported the Orthodox St. Cyril of Alexandria rather than Nestorius, who was anathematized at the Third Council. Again, when Eutyches and Dioscurus preached the opposite heresy of Monophysitism, which cast doubt on the reality of Christ’s human nature after the resurrection, it was the reading of the Tome of St. Leo at the Fourth Council that was recognized, even by the eastern delegates, as “the voice of Peter”, for it established the Orthodox confession that Christ is one Person in two natures, unconfused but undivided.  


     However, the attitude of Pope Leo, great and holy hierarch though he was, to the other Churches was sometimes not collegiate or conciliar, but hierarchical and authoritarian. We have seen his authoritarian attitude to St. Hilary of Arles; and he gave his legates to the Fourth Ecumenical Council strict instructions that, as legates of the see of St. Peter, they should preside over the Council, and that his Tome should be read at the beginning and be presented as the fully sufficient expression of the Orthodox position, without the need for any further discussion or debate.


     This was not in fact as arrogant as it sounded; for Leo already had a heavenly witness to the truth of his dogmatic position. According to his Life, St. Leo wrote his Tome and then “put it on the tomb of Peter, the chief Apostle. Then he fasted, prayed, and kept vigil, begging the preeminent Apostle, ‘if I, as a man, have in this letter erred in any way or failed to explain the truth fully, do thou, to whom this Church and episcopal throne were entrusted, set it right.’ Forty days later the Apostle appeared while Leo was praying. He said, ‘I have read your letter and corrected it.’ The Pope took the epistle from the blessed Peter’s tomb, opened it, and found that it had been amended by the Apostle’s hand.” [11] Therefore the eastern legates were right to call the Tomos of St. Leo “the voice of Peter”.


     Nevertheless, the Eastern delegates were also right in believing in Catholicity and conciliarity, and that it was unacceptable to accept the popes’ “imprimatur” as the end of all argument. (After all, few popes had the holiness of St. Leo.) So Leo’s legates were not allowed to preside at the Council, and his Tome was read only at the end, when it was subjected to searching scrutiny. 




     There was another problem. At the fourth session of the Council, the Roman legate Paschalius spoke of Pope Leo as “the bishop of all the churches”. The easterners ignored this, but they could not ignore the westerners’ rejection of Canon 28 of the Council, which gave Constantinople second place after Old Rome on account of her position as the imperial city of the Empire. The Roman legates considered this a “humiliation of the apostolic see” in their presence.[12]


     Was Canon 28 an essentially political decision, or an ecclesiastical decision shaped by political realities? For Rome it did not matter; the distinction was in any case over-subtle. The important thing for her was that her quasi-imperial dignity had been insulted. So Leo refused to accept it. And all his successors followed his lead… From now on, the other Churches, if they wanted to have relations with the Roman Church, would have to deal with her tactfully,  not just as a Church, but as a quasi-empire, which was taking the place of the Roman Empire that was now slowly expiring…


     In any case, St. Leo was too tactful, too Orthodox and too genuinely concerned for the welfare of the Church as a whole, to make a big issue out of Canon 28. While it remained a subject of disagreement between the Eastern and Western Churches, it did not lead to a break in communion. However, as the see of Constantinople grew in power and influence, the Popes renewed their attacks on it. Thus towards the end of the century Pope Gelasius (492-496) saw no reason why Constantinople should be exalted in this way. After all, he wrote to the bishops of Dardania, Constantinople was “not even a metropolis”![13]


     But the Romans were forgetting that even in the Western Church decisions about the status of dioceses belonged to the Emperor.  Thus on June 6, 446, the emperor gave St. Leo the Great a rescript recognizing his authority over all the western provinces, which finally persuaded St. Hilary of Arles to submit to his authority. 


     In the same year, however, St. Leo reproached Archbishop Anastasius of Thessalonica for the way in which he had treated one of his metropolitan bishops and wrote: "The care of the universal Church should converge towards Peter's one seat, and nothing anywhere should be separated from its Head." Leo claimed that while the Bishop of Rome had “the plenitude of power”, plenitudo potestatis, other bishops had only part of it, pars sollicitudinis.[14]


     Now the West had always been anxious to stress the independence of the Church in relation to the Empire. This was quite natural in view of the fact that the Roman Church had suffered so many martydoms at the hands of the pagan Roman emperors; after centuries of persecution, she valued her spiritual freedom. But this meant that, while she did not reject the friendship of her former enemy, she needed to define their relationship very clearly: the Divine and the eternal must not be confused with the merely human and ephemeral. 


     St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan (+397), which in his time had become the political capital of the West, had made a good first attempt at clarity on this point when writing to Emperor Theodosius I: “The tribute that belongs to Caesar is not to be denied. The Church, however, is God’s, and it must not be pledged to Caesar; for God’s temple cannot be a right of Caesar. That this is said with sentiments of respect for the emperor no man can deny. And what is more full of respect than that the emperor be styled a son of the Church? And when he is called such, he is called such without sin, because it is a compliment to be called such. For the emperor is in the Church, not over the Church, and far from refusing the Church’s help, a good emperor seeks it.”[15]


     Although St. Theodosius was definitely “a good emperor”, Ambrose reproached him with great boldness when he sinned. In 390 the emperor ordered troops to retaliate when a mob killed the governor of Thessalonica. 7000 were killed. St. Ambrose excommunicated the emperor, who accepted his penance with tears and great humility. The outcome of this confrontation was good for both Church and State. For the Church had demonstrated her spiritual freedom and her courage in defending what was God’s, while the State had demonstrated true Christian humility and wisdom in submitting the actions of Caesar to the spiritual judgement of the Church.


     But the outcome was less good in other cases, when the emperor behaved less admirably. Thus Valentinian III killed his best general Aetius in the same way and for the same reason (suspected sedition) that is predecessor Empero Honorius had killed his best general, Stilicho, two generations before. It did not look good for the State… 


     A few years later, St. Leo went to Attila the Hun and succeeded in turning him away from Rome, gaining great prestige for the Church in the process. Again, it did not look good for the State… So it is with pardonable exaggeration that Terry Jones and Alan Ereira write that, as a result of Leo’s successful embassy, “the Church was now, it would be said, the true power in Rome, the replacement for military authority…”[16]  


     Not that the Church wanted to humilate the State. St. Leo was feeling his way to a correct formulation of the Church-State relationship. He would probably have agreed with Justinian’s classic formulation of a “symphony of powers” between Church and State, and also with his slogan: “One Faith, One Church, One Empire”. After all, it fitted well into his grandiose conception of the universal role of the Roman Church. But it is not difficult to see the dangers of comparing the structure of the Church to the structure of the Empire. For one might be tempted to think: just as the Roman Empire is universal and ruled by a single man, so the Catholic – that is, the Roman - Church, as a parallel institution to the Empire, is universal and should be ruled by a single man. And that man has to be the Pope, since he represents St. Peter… 


     In Pope Gelasius (492-496) we see the beginnings of a characteristically “western” understanding of Church-State relations that placed particular emphasis on the Church’s independence from the State. 


     Thus he rejected the comparison, common in the East, between the Emperor and Melchizedek. This comparison might be valid in some respects, but not if it meant that a mortal man could combine the roles of king and priest in the manner of Melchizedek. Thus “before the coming of Christ,” wrote Gelasius, “there existed people… who were, according to what sacred history tells us, at the same time both kings and priests, such as Melchizedek. This example was followed in his domain by the devil, who always, in a tyrannical spirit, claims for his own that which is fitting for divine worship, to the extent that the pagan emperors were also called pontiffs. But when there came He Who was in truth both King and Priest, from that time the emperor ceased to give himself the name of pontiff and the pontiff to lay claim to the royal pomp. For, although we say that the members of Christ, the true King and Priest, have, by reason of their participation in the glorious nature, received both the one and the other dignity through the sacred generosity [of Christ], so that they are at the same time ‘a royal and a priestly race’, nevertheless Christ, remembering the weakness of men..., has divided the spheres of the two powers by means of a distinction of duties and callings..., desiring that His own [children] should be guarded by grace-filled humility and should not once again become victims of human pride. So that the Christian emperors need the pontiffs for eternal life and the pontiffs conform to the imperial laws as regards the course of temporal things. Thus spiritual activities have been separated from carnal activities…. He who is entrusted with secular matters should not appear to preside over divine things, so that the modesty of the two orders should be respected…. ”[17]


     “There are two powers,” Gelasius wrote to the emperor, “which for the most part control this world, the sacred authority of priests and the might of kings. Of these two the office of the priests is the greater inasmuch as they must give account even for kings to the Lord at the Divine Judgement. You know that although by your rank you stand at the head of the human race, you nevertheless bend your will before the leaders of Divine affairs, you turn to them in matters relating to your salvation, and you receive the heavenly sacraments from them. You know, consequently, that in matters of the faith you must submit to their lawful decisions and must not lord it over them – not submit them to your will, but be yourself guided by their judgements.” But “in matters touching public order, the Church hierarchs know that the emperor’s power has been sent down on you from above, and are themselves obedient to your laws, for they fear to be shown as opponents of your will in worldly affairs.”[18]


     Gelasius’ rejection of the comparison with Melchizedek was also influenced, as Dagron points out, by St. Augustine’s The City of God, “in which, during his exegesis of Melchisedek, Augustine affirms that from now on Christ is the only Mediator between God and men, the only One to have put on the eternal priesthood. In the time of Israel, the earthly kingdom ‘was a type of’ the spiritual kingdom, but since the Incarnation the City of God has found its King once and for all. The break is a sharp one: before the coming of Christ a royal priesthood is possible whether by Divine economy (Melchisedek) or by diabolical counterfeit (the Roman imperator-pontifex maximus); after the coming of Christ this very notion is lanced with illegitimacy; the regale sacerdotium has devolved to the Son of God and by extension to the Christians as a whole… A true Christian emperor is not a Roman emperor converted or faithful to Christianity, or an emperor who could draw a new legitimacy from Old Testament models, but an emperor whose power has been in part confiscated by Christ and whose competence has been modified by the installation of Christianity, who will have to adopt the pose of humility before the new wielders of spiritual power, who will be constantly suspected of belonging to ‘the earthly City’, of remaining pagan or of identifying himself through pride with the Antichrist.”[19]


     However, as Dagron points out, this was very much a western perspective: the easterners’ attaching a quasi-priestly character to the figure of the emperor (but without the sacramental functions of the priesthood) smacked, to western minds, of dangerously Hellenistic ideas of divine kingship. Leo sometimes ascribed to the emperor a quasi-priestly character, as when he complimented Marcian and Pulcheria, the saviours of Chalcedon, in this way. But this was not natural to the western way of thinking. It was Leo thinking as an easterner!


     In fact, western proto-papism received a crushing blow at the Fifth Ecumenical Council in 553. Only Pope Vigilius, out of all five patriarchates, refused both to attend the Council and to anathematize the Chapters. Thereupon he (but not the Roman patriarchate as a whole) was excommunicated; and in its final definition the Council condemned the budding papist heresy that one bishop was above the judgement of his fellow bishops. This condemnation of papism was accepted by all subsequent popes until the eleventh century, and constitutes one of the most important, albeit not well-known, achievements of the Council.[20]


May 6/19, 2022.

St. Job the Long-Suffering.


[1] Runciman, The Great Church in Captivity, Cambridge University Press, 1968, p. 6.

[2] J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, London: Adam and Charles Black, 1977, p. 35.

[3] St. Cyprian, On the Unity of the Church, 4, 5.

[4] Meyendorff, Imperial Unity and Christian Divisions, Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1989, pp. 59-60.

[5] Meyendorff, op. cit., p. 63.

[6] P.L. 13: 374-6.

[7] Meyendorff, op. cit., p. 63.

[8] Dvorkin, Ocherki po Istorii Vselenskoj Pravoslavnoj Tserkvi, Nizhni Novgorod, 2006 p. 369.

[9] Herrin, Ravenna, p. 57. Theodosius convened the heretical council of Ephesus in 449, which involved violence against the Orthodox bishops and the death of St. Flavius, Archbishop of Constantinople. For this it was labelled latrocinium, a “robbers’ council”, by Leo. But Theodosius recovered, and his successors Marcian and Pulcheria were champions of Orthodoxy.

[10] Henry Bettenson and Christopher Maunder, Documents of the Christian Church, Oxford University Press, third edition, 1999, pp. 24-25.

[11] St. Demetrius of Rostov, The Great Collection of the Lives of the Saints, vol. 6: February, House Springs, Mo.: Chrysostom Press, 2003, p. 207.

[12] See Dvorkin, op. cit., pp. 299, 309.

[13] Abbé Vladimir Guettée, The Papacy, New York: Minos, 1866, p. 198.

[14] St. Leo, Letter 14, 1.

[15] St. Ambrose, Sermon against Auxentius, 35.

[16] Jones and Ereira, Barbarians, London: BBC Books, 2006, p. 280.

[17] Gelasius, Tractatus IV; translated from Dagron, op. cit., pp. 190-191. 

[18] Gelasius, quoted in Fomin S. and Fomina T., Rossia pered Vtorym Prishestviem (Russia before the Second Coming), Moscow, 1998, vol. I, p. 74.

[19] Dagron, op. cit., p. 191.

[20] “Condamnation de la papauté par le Ve Concile Œcuménique”, February 19, 2019,

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