Excerpts From Rev. J. Barmby's
THE LIFE AND TIMES OF GREGORY THE GREAT
|THE RISE OF PAPAL POWER|
A brief preliminary sketch of the position of the Church, and especially of the Roman see, in relation to the world at the time of St. Gregory's accession, and of the causes that had led up to the existing state of things, will assist our understanding of his field of work.
At the close of the sixth century, when the first Gregory became pope, Paganism had long virtually disappeared from the Roman Empire; it was no longer a power to be considered, though it still lingered extensively, especially in country places, in spite of repression; Christianity was everywhere maintained and dominant. The emperors too, whether orthodox or heretical, had long taken a warm interest in church affairs, had summoned councils, promulgated and enforced their decrees; and, however morally corrupt society in high places might be, its atmosphere had been impregnated with theology. The result had been, among other things, a large advance in the importance of the hierarchy, and especially of the great patriarchal sees; but at the same time (in the East at least) increasing subservience to the imperial power, which, while treating prelates with much external respect, had been in the habit of dictating to them in fact, commanding their elevation or deposition, and at times trenching more or less even on their spiritual prerogatives by assuming to itself a kind of priestly power.
The controversies that had been the peculiar feature of Church history in the preceding centuries had furthered these results. The need felt for centers of unity and support against the aggressions of heretical speculation; the importance accruing to bishops, and especially to metropolitans and patriarchs, to whom in synod and general council the definition of the faith had been consigned, had enhanced the dignity of the episcopal order, while, on the other hand, the somewhat imperious attitude of the emperors in connection with such controversies and councils,—the latter being convened by their sole authority, controlled by them during their sittings, and dependent on them for ratification and the enforcement of their decrees—, had at the same time advanced imperialism. And, further, however important for all future time were the dogmatic decisions of that age of conflict, its immediate effects were likely to be demoralizing, as they certainly were replete with ill blood and discord. When the leaders of the Church had so long been habitually occupied in bitter controversy, dealing anathemas against each other, deposing and being deposed, their very councils often scenes of violence; when Christian communities were divided into parties, often fighting to bloodshed for rival tenets, or in support of rival bishops; when salvation had come to be regarded as dependent on accurate definitions of nice points of mysterious doctrine far more than on charity or holiness of life: the effects were necessarily disastrous to the peace and morality of the Church at large. It is to be observed, however, that throughout the period referred to the see of Rome had occupied a peculiar position, and been much less affected either by imperial domination or by doctrinal conflict than the patriarchates of the East. The tendency of events had been in fact to aggrandize exceptionally, and give a sort of sacred luster to, the occupants of St. Peter's chair. With regard to the great controversies that had so embittered and divided the Church, the West had been comparatively free from them, and the popes had taken but little part in them; but they had with one or two temporary exceptions supported uniformly the cause of orthodoxy; they had countenanced and protected orthodox prelates who had fled to them under persecution; they had been represented, though not present, in all the general councils held in the East to define the faith, and had ratified their decrees; they had often been able to defy emperors who favored heresy with a spirit and success little known in the more subservient East, and thus advancing their claims to be, as St. Peter's successors, the unfailing guardians of Apostolical tradition, and assumed a headship over all the Churches, which though by no means universally acknowledged, had gained extensive credence.
THE GROWTH OF THE PAPAL CLAIMS.
In such circumstances the importance of the popes had, since the time of Constantine, gone on increasing; to their acknowledged spiritual position as the occupants of the first see in Christendom, the representatives of St. Peter, the sole great patriarchs of the West, was added a temporal position of no mean importance. As the most influential potentates in the ancient imperial city, supported by the spiritual allegiance of the West, they had been enabled, though still subjects of the emperors, to hold their own against them in ecclesiastical matters with success, and were a power which had to be counted on by the State.
The invasions of the Roman empire by barbarian hordes, which had been the most important historical event of a century or two before the time of Gregory, being destined to found a new Europe on the ruins of old Roman civilization, had further strengthened the Papal power, and opened the way for its development The most memorable of these invasions,— those which resulted in the capture of Rome itself—, had been confronted by popes of singular eminence, who more than any others asserted and advanced the prerogatives of the Holy See.
Innocent I was pope when (AD 410) Rome fell into the hands of Alaric the Goth; Leo the Great when Attila the Hun (452) and Genseric the Vandal (455) were the successive conquerors. Each event, however notoriously disastrous, left the Church, and the see of Rome, in a higher position than before. The first accomplished the breaking up and dispersion of the old Roman families which had been the props of ancient heathenism, and the demolition of the ancient temples, afterwards left in ruins or converted into churches; it was regarded as a divine judgment on old heathen, rather than on Christian, Rome, especially as the Gothic invaders, being Christians though Arians, had singularly respected places and persons of Christian sanctity: and Innocent, who had been providentially absent (not through cowardice, but on a mission of duty,) during the siege and capture, when he returned to the city after the departure of the invaders, found himself in a position of singular eminence. He was henceforth without rival the greatest man in Rome; the head and organizer of a new Christian Rome rising out of the ruins of devastated heathen Rome; both his character and his conduct during the crisis, and his position afterwards, enhanced his prestige and his power in proportion as those of the weak emperor
Honorius, timidly inefficient at Ravenna, had decayed. Then, when Attila with his heathen Huns seemed to have Italy and Rome at his feet, it had been neither emperor nor general, but Pope Leo to whom the sole glory had accrued of checking him in his career of conquest, and, apparently in a great measure through a feeling of superstitious awe, inducing him to retire. And when, soon afterwards, the Arian Vandal Genseric devastated Rome, it was the same great pope who alone obtained some mitigation of the horrors of the conquest; and when that storm too had passed away, it left the Western Empire wounded to the death, but the see of Rome with its prestige and its luster unimpaired.
Only fifteen years after the death of Pope Leo, the Western Empire expired in Augustulus, and the Herulian Odoacer, and after him Theodoric the Ostrogoth, both Arian Christians, became rulers in the West. Under such rule it might have been expected that the head of Western Catholicity would suffer an eclipse. But it was not so. These princes were peculiarly tolerant, treated the Catholic clergy, and especially the pope, with respect, and in no way evinced any desire to interfere in Church affairs, except, when called upon, to rectify flagrant abuses attending elections to the popedom. Under this rule it was that Felix III, and his successors for more than forty years, had been able to defy emperors and patriarchs, in the matter of Acacius, and to renounce communion with the whole Eastern Church. Under the same rule Pope Hormisdas had at length dictated his own terms of communion to the East, and, with the aid of the orthodox Emperor Justin, ended the schism in a way that was, on the whole, a striking triumph to the Apostolic See.