Papal Authority


Is there a neat and tidy way of describing the Pope's power? After just completing a general history of the papacy, Saints and Sinners (Yale University Press 1997), Eamon Duffy, reader in church history in the University of Cambridge doubts whether easy answers can be found. Here he traces the evolution of papal authority through history and concludes that such authority is both dangerous and irreplaceable. Such a paradox results because 'history is tangled, messy, contradictory'.

What is papal authority, what ought it to be? Having just completed a general history of the papacy in 150,000 words, I suppose I ought to have a ready answer to both questions. The forced march through 2,000 years of Christian history which the research and writing for the book involved, however, has left me with at least as many questions as answers, above all, with a sense of the intractable complexity of the historical reality of the Church and its institutions.

  Catholics tend to assume that the development of the papacy has been a steady evolution from Christ's appointment of Peter as the one who would 'feed my lambs' to John Paul II's world tours and solemn pronouncements on the objectivity of morals or the non-ordainability of women. Most people are vaguely aware that papal authority as we know it was not exercised by the early popes, but the later powers of the popes are assumed by Catholics to have been implicit in the more limited authority the early popes did actually possess. History, alas, is not so simple: the development of the papacy is not in any straightforward sense a matter of the steady unfolding of implicit powers and functions. Authority is never a matter of paper theory or mere status: it is embodied in real powers, and takes its meaning from the exercise of those powers. Yet many of the most characteristic functions of the papacy, like the appointment of bishops, are very recent indeed, and originated less in any scriptural or patristic basis than in the vagaries of history, and in the confusion of roles which were in theory quite distinct.

From the earliest times, of course, the church of Rome and its bishops had a special place in the churches of the Mediterranean world, and especially in the West. In practice, however, that primacy was experienced, and understood, quite differently in different regions. In most of peninsular Italy, the pope was in effect the sole archbishop, and his power, like that of other archbishops, was wide-ranging and very direct. The popes called and presided at synods, ordained the bishops, intervened to regulate discipline and enforce the canons. Outside Italy, in the West more widely, this metropolitan authority only obtained directly in those areas where the popes had succeeded in establishing and maintaining vicariates, a succession of local episcopal representatives through whom they exercised supervision - at Arles in Gaul, in the Balkan regions, and briefly for Spain at Seville under Pope Simplicius (468-83). These Apostolic Vicars were thought of as sharing the papal 'care for all the churches', and they were given the pallium as a sign of their co-operation in the papal ministry.   

Elsewhere, the pope's authority was that of the patriarch of the West, on a par with that of the patriarchs of Alexandria, Antioch, and, eventually, Constantinople and Jerusalem, over their regions, though the pope's patriarchal authority was uniquely enhanced by the added prestige of Peter's authority. That prestige, however, was a matter of moral authority rather than of administrative power. It was occasional rather than constant, for the regional churches governed themselves, elected their own bishops without reference to Rome, held heir own synods, ordered their own life and worship. Rome was important not as a daily presence, but as a fundamental resource, the only apostolic see in the West, above all functioning as a court of appeal in special circumstances. This last function was to be crucial in the emergence of papal theory: the 'case law' built up in the course of such appeals was formalised in the corpus of canon law, and helped shape Western thought about the Church, and the central place of the papacy in it.

  For the churches of Gaul, Africa and Spain, then, the characteristic expression of papal primacy was not a matter of executive rule from Rome, which they would certainly have rejected. Instead, the Petrine ministry was experienced in the form of occasional interventions, almost always in response to local requests, designed to give the added solemnity of apostolic authority to the decisions and actions of the local churches.   

In the East it was yet another matter. There the papal primacy of honour, derived from the succession to Peter, was indeed acknowledged, but the practical consequences the popes deduced from it were ignored or denied outright. Rome was seen as the senior patriarchate, one of five, the Pentarchy, whose harmony and agreement were the fundamental apostolic underpinning of the Church's authority. In Eastern thought, for example, the recognition of a council by the Pentarchy came to be seen as the decisive mark of a 'general' council, whereas, in the West, recognition by the pope alone was the crucial criterion. Above all, the claim of Constantinople, the new seat of the Empire, to be 'New Rome' in religious as well as in secular terms, was a constant threat to papal primacy, which the popes actively tried to counteract, in the end, unsuccessfully.   

There were then three distinct functions within the early papacy: metropolitan, involving a direct, 'hands-on' role in the local churches of Italy; patriarchal, involving a looser and more reactive responsibility as point of reference and court of appeal for the West more generally; and the 'Petrine' or primatial ministry, a much less clearly defined place of honour among all the churches, East and West, whose precise implications were never universally agreed, and which were looked on with considerable reservations in the East. Much of the history of the papacy has been the collapsing of these three distinct roles into each other, and the growing claims of the popes to exercise all three functions as if they all involved metropolitan authority everywhere - as if the promises to Peter made the popes, in effect, archbishops of every province.

Growth of papal power
  That convergence - some would say confusion - of the papacy's three functions can be clearly seen in the extraordinary growth in papal power, and papal intervention, in the churches of the West from the mid eleventh and twelfth centuries. Rome had originally been conceived as the court of final appeal: in the course of the twelfth century it took on the role of a court of first instance. The pope became the 'universal ordinary', exercising direct jurisdiction in every corner of Christendom, dispensing judgements which were built into the precedent books and became the basis of law. The roots of this development were religious, based in the traditional Roman interpretation of the commission of Peter. As St Bernard of Clairvaux wrote to Pope Eugenius III:

It is true there are other doorkeepers of heaven and shepherds of flocks: but you are more glorious than all of these . . . they have flocks assigned to them, one to each: to you all are assigned, a single flock to a single shepherd . . . You are called to the fullness of power. The power of others is bound by definite limits; yours extends even over those who have received power over others.

  For Bernard as for Gregory the Great this lofty commission was a call 'not to dominion, but to ministry through the office of your episcopacy'. Yet Bernard had no doubt that this ministry demanded that the pope be exalted. 'Why should you not be placed on high, where you can see everything, you who have been appointed watchman over all?' It was the work of the medieval papacy to transform this religious perception into legal reality. Canon law became one of the principal fields of intellectual effort and advance in the Middle Ages, and the codification of law put the papacy at the heart of the Church, as the monarch and his courts lay at the heart of secular legal systems.   

All this had a negative side, which was much commented on. The right of any cleric to appeal to Rome, and the prohibition of local action against him while the appeal was pending, meant that culprits could fend off just punishment almost indefinitely by appealing to the pope. The judgements given in the papal court on cases far away was often based on insufficient information, or the one-sided presentation of a party in a dispute. Ecclesiastical superiors could be harassed by mischievous accusations against them at the papal court. Bernard of Clairvaux would warn Eugenius III against undermining the hierarchy of the Church - 'You have been appointed to preserve for each the grades and orders of honours, not to prejudice them.'   

The medieval papacy also hugely expanded its rights in the appointment of clergy and bishops. Bishops had been locally elected in the early Church, and in the early Middle Ages they had just as often been appointed by kings and princes as by any other method. What went for bishops went twice as emphatically for lower offices, but in the later Middle Ages the papacy gradually captured more and more of these appointments for itself by reserving the right to 'provide' or appoint to all benefices whose incumbents died while they were in Rome. This prerogative was steadily extended, and the papal court gradually became responsible for the appointment of huge numbers of clergy. Papal provisions benefited more people than the pope. Fortune-hunters all over the Church besieged the Curia with requests for preferment through the papal machinery, not least the crowned heads of Europe, who discovered that the cheapest way of paying their great servants of state (mostly clerics) was by securing bishoprics and abbeys for them by means of papal provisions. None of this was implicit in Christ's promises to Peter, none of this had been dreamed of by the popes of the early centuries, yet the idea that the pope was directly 'in charge' drew at least as much substance from the contingent fact of his ability to appoint men to jobs all over Europe, as from any theological consideration.   

Papal rights of appointment to benefices and bishoprics fluctuated wildly. The late Middle Ages were its high point, but from the Renaissance onwards the growth of the nation state, and the jealousy of secular rulers over outside interference, changed all this. Steadily, the pope was forced to concede more and more appointments, especially of bishops, to the secular ruler. In 1753 the best pope of the eighteenth century, Benedict XIV, conceded to the king of Spain the right to appoint to 12,000 benefices in Spain, leaving the pope with just 52. The move almost bankrupted the hoteliers and inn-keepers of Rome, for within a matter of weeks 4,000 Spanish job-hunters left Rome and stampeded back to the Spanish court to jockey for promotion.   

This process of whittling down of papal control went on till the mid nineteenth century, as the popes bargained with the monarchies of Europe and beyond to secure freedom for the Church's work. The breakdown of social order in the French Revolution taught the rulers of Europe that they could not rule without the help of the Church: bishops and priests were needed to preach obedience and contentment. Bishops and priests cost money, however, and because the Church had lost its endowments in the Revolution, it needed state funding to pay its ministers. The state valued the clergy, but demanded the right to appoint the men it paid, and Rome had no choice but to agree, even when the governments were Protestant (as in Prussia). By 1829, 555 of the 646 diocesan bishops of the Roman Catholic Church were appointed by the state. Another 67, in the USA, Ireland, parts of Germany, Belgium and Switzerland were locally elected by cathedral chapters or some similar arrangement. The pope, acting as sovereign of the papal states not as bishop of Rome, appointed 70 bishops. As pope, he appointed directly just 24 in Russia, Greece and Albania.   

This massive transfer of episcopal appointments to the state had of course been well under way before the French Revolution, but the Revolution altered the terms on which it was taking place. In the high Middle Ages the papacy had struggled to destroy the system of 'proprietary churches', by which laymen had appointed bishops. The theological motive of the popes was to secure the Church's freedom in appointing its pastors. It did not identify that freedom with itself, and since the Second Lateran Council (1139) the 'normal' method of episcopal appointment had not been papal nomination, but real election by the local church, in the form of the cathedral chapter. For financial reasons, the later medieval papacy, especially at Avignon, had slowly eroded this situation to capture more and more episcopal nominations for itself. Theoretically, however, capitular election remained normative, and from 1814 until the 1860s, wherever the popes were free to do so, they preferred capitular election to other methods of appointment. But many cathedral chapters had been swept away by the Revolution after 1789, and where they were restored, the Concordats often ignored or removed their electoral powers. In effect, the Concordats, and state payment of bishops, recreated the proprietary system by which secular rulers paid the bishops, and therefore demanded the right to choose them.

Secular influences
  Ironically, it was the steady secularising of Europe which led to a change in papal responsibility in this matter. Secular rulers, anxious to distance themselves from the Church, ceased to want to appoint bishops. The most spectacular shift came in Italy. In November 1870 Italy, formed in part out of the confiscated papal states, passed the Law of Guarantees, to regulate relations between Church and state. As part of the law, the state surrendered any claim to the appointment of bishops. In theory, the pope refused to recognise this law. In practice, however, he tacitly adopted many of the provisions as a working arrangement, allowing clergy to accept the revenues of their benefices from the state, and himself taking over the appointment of all Italian bishops. This was a move of enormous significance. Italy had a greater concentration of bishoprics than any other part of Christendom, and as new territories were annexed to the kingdom, Victor Emmanuel had accumulated immense powers of appointment, greater than those of any other king in Christian history. By 1870 he had the right to appoint 237 bishops. All these appointments now came into papal hands, and not only transformed the relationship of the pope to the Italian episcopate, but shifted expectation about the papacy's role in episcopal appointments generally.

  From now on, there was a growing but quite new assumption that the pope was the right person to appoint all bishops. Paradoxically, the loss of the temporal power of the popes enormously increased papal control not only over the Italian Church, but over the Latin Church more generally. The change took place when Western theology of the local church was weak, when the freedom of the Church over against the state was imagined almost exclusively in terms of papal freedoms. So it is no surprise that the new expectation that the pope would normally appoint all bishops was enshrined in the new code of canon law promulgated in 1917. The overall effect of the code was a massive increase of centralisation. It owed more to the spirit of the Napoleonic Code than to scripture or patristic tradition (scripture is rarely quoted in it), and it canonised as permanent features of church life aspects of the papal office which were very recent developments. In particular, canon 329 declared that all bishops were to be nominated by the Roman pontiff, setting the seal of legal timelessness on a radical extension of papal responsibility which had taken place virtually in living memory.

  None of these developments were inevitable, none of them were implicit in the scriptural promises to Peter or the earliest Christian reflection on the Petrine office. This means that much of what we consider most characteristic of the modern Petrine office has accrued to the popes through the merging of distinct functions, and through the vicissitudes of quite recent history. And what comes by historical accident may go by historical accident. The present powers of the popes in such matters as episcopal appointments are open to assessment on grounds of utility, efficiency and theological fitness, and might be changed on any one or all of these counts. It is not obvious that the choice of a bishop for Brisbane, Borneo or Birmingham is best decided in Rome, nor that the wishes of the local churches and their bishops should be ignored when it comes to such choices - as they often are.   

In the past, the grandeur of papal claims has been moderated by the brute realities of rival powers. The most exalted prerogatives of the popes often rang hollow because they were impossible to put into force. The pope might claim to be universal ordinary, but the existence of rival legal systems, conflicting rights, the claims of powerful secular rulers, even the sheer length of time correspondence took to get from one place to another moderated those claims, created a system of checks and balances. This was especially so in the Baroque period, when the pinnacle of papal power was symbolised in the sublime vulgarities of the Baldacchino in St Peter's or Bernini's collonade, but when papal influence over the Church was in fact being increasingly marginalised by the great powers. Cardinal Richelieu, ruler of France, declared of the pope that 'We must kiss his feet, and bind his hands.' Yet the grandiose claims of the popes in the age of the absolute monarchs, however hollow, did help to prevent the churches of Europe becoming imprisoned in national agendas, kept alive the concept of a universal Church which meant more than a mere chaplaincy to universal empire. Without the papacy, Europe might have invented Stalinism three centuries early.      

In a world in which the state has essentially given up interest in the Church, and in which e-mail, the fax, the telephone and the jet plane have eliminated distance, the checks and balances have gone, there is no one to bind the pope's hands. For the first time, the Church has a papacy whose power is almost equal to its claims. This is certainly dangerous for the local life of the churches, and will have to be addressed in the new millennium. As every papacy draws to its close, it is a favourite party-game among Catholics to imagine their dream pope. A recurrent scenario is the pope who will surrender his supremacy, restore the papal primacy to its primitive role of support and honour, a papa angelicus who will bury the sceptre of power and use only the force of persuasion and good example. It will not happen, of course, and on the whole it should not happen, for any sudden transformation would be likely to be catastrophic. The Church in the USA, for example, is deeply divided, increasingly polarised between right and left, prey to a babel of conflicting caucuses and sectional interests. Many American Catholics, especially those with feminist convictions, view the papacy with undisguised suspicion and even hostility. No doubt papal interventions in the US have helped foment as well as control these divisions, but it is equally obvious that the papacy is currently the strongest glue holding the centrifugal energies of American Catholicism in some sort of unity. If the pope were tomorrow to surrender his role in the choice of American bishops to local processes, the result would be likely to be schism: it might also remove one of the barriers against the drastic surrender of the American Church to cultural, moral and economic values which sit very uneasily indeed with the demands of the gospel.   

The papacy in its present form is the work of history and circumstance, as well as of divine intention. The disabling paternalism and interventionism which is current Vatican style (and has been 'current' for centuries) are not the inevitable development of the promises to Peter, but the work of time and circumstance. Yet if the papacy has developed its claims to a level dangerous for other forces and freedoms within the Church, it is also one of the Church's most precious and irreplaceable assets. History is tangled, messy, contradictory. But is where we are.

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