Leo the Great : Foundation of the Papacy – Beacon Lights of History, Volume IV : Imperial Antiquity by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume IV : Imperial Antiquity by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume IV : Imperial Antiquity

Cyrus the Great : Asiatic Supremacy
Julius Caesar : Imperialism
Marcus Aurelius : Glory of Rome
Constantine the Great : Christianity Enthroned
Paula : Woman as Friend
Chrysostom : Sacred Eloquence
Saint Ambrose : Episcopal Authority
Saint Augustine : Christian Theology
Theodosius the Great : Latter Days of Rome
Leo the Great : Foundation of the Papacy

Beacon Lights of History, Volume IV : Imperial Antiquity
John Lord

Topics Covered
Leo the Great,–founder of the Catholic Empire
General aim of the Catholic Church
The Church the guardian of spiritual principles
Theocratic aspirations of the Popes
Origin of ecclesiastical power; the early Popes
Primacy of the Bishop of Rome
Necessity for some higher claim after the fall of Rome
Early life of Leo
Elevation to the Papacy; his measures; his writings
His persecution of the Manicheans
Conservation of the Faith by Leo
Intercession with the barbaric kings; Leo’s intrepidity
Desolation of Rome
Designs and thoughts of Leo
The jus divinum principle; state of Rome when this principle was advocated
Its apparent necessity
The influence of arrogant pretensions on the barbarians
They are indorsed by the Emperor
The government of Leo
The central power of the Papacy
Unity of the Church
No rules of government laid down in the Scriptures
Governments the result of circumstances
The Papal government the need of the Middle Ages
The Papacy in its best period
Greatness of Leo’s character and aims
Fidelity of his early successors, and perversions of later Popes

Leo the Great : Foundation of the Papacy

A.D. 390-461.

With the great man who forms the subject of this Lecture are identified those principles which lay at the foundation of the Roman Catholic power for fifteen hundred years. I do not say that he is the founder of the Roman Catholic Church, for that is another question. Roman Catholicism, as a polity, or government, or institution, is one thing; and Roman Catholicism, as a religion, is quite another, although they have been often confounded. As a government, or polity, it is peculiar,–the result of the experience of ages, adapted to society and nations in a certain state of progress or development, with evils and corruptions, of course, like all other human institutions. As a religion, although it superadded many dogmas and rites which Protestants do not accept, and for which they can see no divine authority,–like auricular confession, the deification of the Virgin, indulgences for sin, and the infallibility of the Pope,–still, it has at the same time defended the cardinal principles of Christian faith and morality; such as the personality and sovereignty of God, the divinity of Christ, salvation in consequence of his sufferings and death, immortality, the final judgment, the necessity of a holy life, temperance, humility, patience, and the virtues which were taught upon the Mount and enforced by the original disciples and apostles, whose writings are accepted as inspired.

In treating so important a subject as that represented by Leo the Great, we must bear in mind these distinctions. While Leo is conceded to have been a devout Christian and a noble defender of the faith as we receive it,–one of the lights of the early Christian Church, numbered even among the Fathers of the Church, with Augustine and Chrysostom,–his special claim to greatness is that to him we trace some of the first great developments of the Roman Catholic power as an institution. More than any other one man, he laid the foundation-stone of that edifice which alike sheltered and imprisoned the European nations for more than a thousand years. He was not a great theologian like Augustine, or preacher like Chrysostom, but he was a great bishop like Ambrose,–even far greater, inasmuch as he was the organizer of new forces in the administration of his important diocese. In fact he was a great statesman, as the more able of the popes always aspired to be. He was the associate and equal of princes.

It was the sublime effort of Leo to make the Church the guardian of spiritual principles and give to it a theocratic character and aim, which links his name with the mightiest moral movements of the world; and when I speak of the Church I mean the Church of Rome, as presided over by men who claimed to be the successors of Saint Peter,–to whom they assert Christ had given the supreme control over all other churches as His vicars on the earth. It was the great object of Leo to substantiate this claim, and root it in the minds of the newly converted barbarians; and then institute laws and measures which should make his authority and that of his successors paramount in all spiritual matters, thus centring in his See the general oversight of the Christian Church in all the countries of Europe. It was a theocratic aspiration, one of the grandest that ever entered into the mind of a man of genius, yet, as Protestants now look at it, a usurpation,–the beginning of a vast system of spiritual tyranny in order to control the minds and consciences of men. It took several centuries to develop this system, after Leo was dead. With him it was not a vulgar greed of power, but an inspiration of genius,–a grand idea to make the Church which he controlled a benign and potent influence on society, and to prevent civilization from being utterly crushed out by the victorious Goths and Vandals. It is the success of this idea which stamps the Church as the great leading power of Mediaeval Ages,–a power alike majestic and venerable, benignant yet despotic, humble yet arrogant and usurping.

But before I can present this subtile contradiction, in all its mighty consequences both for good and evil, I must allude to the Roman See and the condition of society when Leo began his memorable pontificate as the precursor of the Gregories and the Clements of later times. Like all great powers, it was very gradually developed. It was as long in reaching its culminating greatness as that temporal empire which controlled the ancient world. Pagan Rome extended her sway by generals and armies; Mediaeval Rome, by her prelates and her principles.

However humble the origin of the Church of Rome, in the early part of the fifth century it was doubtless the greatest See (or seat of episcopal power) in Christendom. The Bishop of Rome had the largest number of dependent bishops, and was the first of clerical dignitaries. As early as A.D. 250,–sixty years before Constantine’s conversion, and during the times of persecution,–such a man as Cyprian, metropolitan Bishop of Carthage, yielded to him the precedence, and possibly the presidency, because his See was the world’s metropolis. And when the seat of empire was removed to the banks of the Bosporus, the power of the Roman Bishop, instead of being diminished, was rather increased, since he was more independent of the emperors than was the Bishop of Constantinople. And especially after Rome was taken by the Goths, he alone possessed the attributes of sovereignty. “He had already towered as far above ordinary bishops in magnificence and prestige as Caesar had above Fabricius.”

It was the great name of ROME, after all, which was the mysterious talisman that elevated the Bishop of Rome above other metropolitans. Who can estimate the moral power of that glorious name which had awed the world for a thousand years? Even to barbarians that proud capital was sacred. The whole world believed her to be eternal; she alone had the prestige of universal dominion. This queen of cities might be desolated like Babylon or Tyre, but her influence was indestructible. In her very ruins she was majestic. Her laws, her literature, and her language still were the pride of nations; they revered her as the mother of civilization, clung to the remembrance of her glories, and refused to let her die. She was to the barbarians what Athens had been to the Romans, what modern Paris is to the world of fashion, what London ever will be to the people of America and Australia,–the centre of a proud civilization. So the bishops of such a city were great in spite of themselves, no matter whether they were remarkable as individuals or not. They were the occupants of a great office; and while their city ruled the world, it was not necessary for them to put forth any new claims to dignity or power. No person and no city disputed their pre-eminence. They lived in a marble palace; they were clothed in purple and fine linen; they were surrounded by sycophants; nobles and generals waited in their ante-chambers; they were the companions of princes; they controlled enormous revenues; they were the successors of the high pontiffs of imperial domination.

Yet for three hundred years few of them were eminent. It is not the order of Providence that great posts, to which men are elected by inferiors, should be filled with great men. Such are always feared, and have numerous enemies who defeat their elevation. Moreover, it is only in crises of imminent danger that signal abilities are demanded. Men are preferred for exalted stations who will do no harm, who have talent rather than genius,–men who have business capacities, who have industry and modesty and agreeable manners; who, if noted for anything, are noted for their character. Hence we do not read of more than two or three bishops, for three hundred years, who stood out pre-eminently among their contemporaries; and these were inferior to Origen, who was a teacher in a theological school, and to Jerome, who was a monk in an obscure village. Even Augustine, to whose authority in theology the Catholic Church still professes to bow down, as the schools of the Middle Ages did to Aristotle, was the bishop of an unimportant See in Northern Africa. Only Clement in the first century, and Innocent in the fourth loomed up above their contemporaries. As for the rest, great as was their dignity as bishops, it is absurd to attribute to them schemes for enthralling the world. No such plans arose in the bosom of any of them. Even Leo I. merely prepared the way for universal domination; he had no such deep-laid schemes as Gregory VII. or Boniface VIII. The primacy of the Bishop of Rome was all that was conceded by other bishops for four hundred years, and this on the ground of the grandeur of his capital. Even this was disputed by the Bishop of Constantinople, and continued to be until that capital was taken by the Turks.

But with the waning power, glory, and wealth of Rome,–decimated, pillaged, trodden under foot by Goths and Vandals, rebuked by Providence, deserted by emperors, abandoned to decay and ruin,–some expedient or new claim to precedency was demanded to prevent the Roman bishops from sinking into mediocrity. It was at this crisis that the pontificate of Leo began, in the year 440. It was a gloomy period, not only for Rome, but for civilization. The queen of cities had been repeatedly sacked, and her treasures destroyed or removed to distant cities. Her proud citizens had been sold as slaves; her noble matrons had been violated; her grand palaces had been levelled with the ground; her august senators were fugitives and exiles. All kinds of calamities overspread the earth and decimated the race,–war, pestilence, and famine. Men in despair hid themselves in caves and monasteries. Literature and art were crushed; no great works of genius appeared. The paralysis of despair deadened all the energies of civilized man. Even armies lost their vigor, and citizens refused to enlist. The old mechanism of the Caesars, which had kept the Empire together for three hundred years after all vitality had fled, was worn out. The general demoralization had led to a general destruction. Vice was succeeded by universal violence; and that, by universal ruin. Old laws and restraints were no longer of any account. A civilization based on material forces and Pagan arts had proved a failure. The whole world appeared to be on the eve of dissolution. To the thoughtful men of the age everything seemed to be involved in one terrific mass of desolation and horror. “Even Jerome,” says a great historian, “heaped together the awful passages of the Old Testament on the capture of Jerusalem and other Eastern cities; and the noble lines of Virgil on the sack of Troy are but feeble descriptions of the night which covered the western Empire.”

Now Leo was the man for such a crisis, and seems to have been raised up to devise some new principle of conservation around which the stricken world might rally. “He stood equally alone and superior,” says Milman, “in the Christian world. All that survived of Rome–of her unbounded ambition, of her inflexible will, and of her belief in her title to universal dominion–seemed concentrated in him alone.”

Leo was born, in the latter part of the fourth century, at Rome, of noble parents, and was intensely Roman in all his aspirations. He early gave indications of future greatness, and was consecrated to a service in which only talent was appreciated. When he was nothing but an acolyte, whose duty it was to light the lamps and attend on the bishop, he was sent to Africa and honored with the confidence of the great Bishop of Hippo. And he was only deacon when he was sent by the Emperor Valentinian III. to heal the division between Aëtius and Albinus,–rival generals, whose dissensions compromised the safety of the Empire. He was absent on important missions when the death of Sixtus, A.D. 440, left the Papacy without a head. On Leo were all eyes now fixed, and he was immediately summoned by the clergy and the people of Rome, in whom the right of election was vested, to take possession of the vacant throne. He did not affect unworthiness like Gregory in later years, but accepted at once the immense responsibility.

I need not enumerate his measures and acts. Like all great and patriotic statesmen he selected the wisest and ablest men he could find as subordinates, and condescended himself to those details which he inexorably exacted from others. He even mounted the neglected pulpit of his metropolitan church to preach to the people, like Chrysostom and Gregory Nazianzen at Constantinople. His sermons are not models of eloquence or style, but are practical, powerful, earnest, and orthodox. Athanasius himself was not more evangelical, or Ambrose more impressive. He was the especial foe of all the heresies which characterized the age. He did battle with all who attempted to subvert the Nicene Creed. Those whom he especially rebuked were the Manicheans,–men who made the greatest pretension to intellectual culture and advanced knowledge, and yet whose lives were disgraced not merely by the most offensive intellectual pride, but the most disgraceful vices; men who confounded all the principles of moral obligation, and who polluted even the atmosphere of Rome by downright Pagan licentiousness. He had no patience with these false philosophers, and he had no mercy. He even complained of them to the emperor, as Calvin did of Servetus to the civil authorities of Geneva (which I grant was not to his credit); and the result was that these dissolute and pretentious heretics were expelled from the army and from all places of trust and emolument.

Many people in our enlightened times would denounce this treatment as illiberal and persecuting, and justly. But consider his age and circumstances. What was Leo to do as the guardian of the faith in those dreadful times? Was he to suffer those who poisoned all the sources of renovation which then remained to go unrebuked and unpunished? He may have said, in his defence, “Shall I, the bishop of this diocese, the appointed guardian of faith and morals in a period of alarming degeneracy,–shall I, armed with the sword of Saint Peter, stop to draw the line between injuries inflicted by the tongue and injuries inflicted by the hand? Shall we defend our persons, our property, and our lives, and take no notice of those who impiously and deliberately would destroy our souls by their envenomed blasphemies? Shall we allow the wells of water which spring up to everlasting life to be poisoned by the impious atheists and scoffers, who in every age set themselves up against Christ and His kingdom, and are only allowed by God Almighty to live, as the wild beasts of the desert or scorpions and serpents are allowed to live? Let them live, but let us defend ourselves against their teeth and fangs. Are the overseers of God’s people, in a world of shame, to be mere philosophical Gallios, indifferent to our higher interests? Is it a Christian duty to permit an avalanche of evils to overwhelm the Church on the plea of toleration? Shall we suffer, when we have the power to prevent it, a pandemonium of scoffers and infidels and sentimental casuists to run riot in the city which is intrusted to us to guard? Not thus will we be disloyal to our trusts. Men have souls to save, and we will come to the rescue with any weapons we can lay our hands upon. The Church is the only hope of the world, not merely in our unsettled times, but for all ages. And hence I, as the guardian of those spiritual principles which lie at the root of all healthy progress in civilization, and all religious life, will not tamely and ignobly see those principles subverted by dangerous and infidel speculations, even if they are attractive to cultivated but irreligious classes.”

Such may have been the arguments, it is not unreasonable to suppose, which influenced the great Leo in his undoubted persecutions,–persecutions, we should remember, which were then indorsed by the Catholic Church. They would be condemned in our times by all enlightened men, but they were the only remedy known in that age against dangerous opinions. So Leo put down the Manicheans and preserved the unity of the faith, which was of immeasurable importance in the sea of anarchies which at that time was submerging all the traditions of the past.

Leo also distinguished himself by writing a treatise on the Incarnation,–said to be the ablest which has come down to us from the primitive Church. He was one of those men who believed in theology as a series of divine declarations, to be cordially received whether they are fully grasped by the intellect or not. These declarations pertain to most momentous interests, and hence transcend in dignity any question which mere philosophy ever attempted to grasp, or physical science ever brought forward. In spite of the sneers of the infidels, or the attacks of savans, or the temporary triumph of false opinions, let us remember they have endured during the mighty conflicts of the last eighteen hundred years, and will endure through all the conflicts of ages,–the might, the majesty, and the glory of the kingdom of Christ. Whoever thus conserves truths so important is a great benefactor, whether neglected or derided, whether despised or persecuted.

In addition to the labors of Leo to preserve the integrity of the received faith among the semi-barbaric western nations, his efforts were equally great to heal the disorders of the Church. He reformed ecclesiastical discipline in Africa, rent by Arian factions and Donatist schismatics. He curtailed the abuses of metropolitan tyranny in Gaul. He sent his legates to preside over the councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon. He sat in judgment between Vienna and Arles. He fought for the independence of the Church against emperors and barbaric chieftains. He encouraged literature and missions and schools and the spread of the Bible. He was the paragon of a bishop,–a man of transcendent dignity of character, as well as a Father of the Church Universal, of whom all Christendom should be proud.

Invasion of the Huns into Italy. After the painting by V. Checa

Invasion of the Huns into Italy. After the painting by V. Checa

Among Leo’s memorable acts as one of the great lights of his age was the part he was called upon to perform as a powerful intercessor with barbaric kings. When Attila with his swarm of Mongol conquerors appeared in Italy,–the “scourge of God,” as he was called; the instrument of Providence in punishing the degenerate rulers and people of the falling Empire,–Leo was sent by the affrighted emperor to the barbarian’s camp to make what terms he could. The savage Hun, who feared not the armies of the emperor, stood awe-struck, we are told, before the minister of God; and, swayed by his eloquence and personal dignity, consented to retire from Italy for the hand of the princess Honoria. And when afterwards Genseric, at the head of his Vandals, became master of the capital, he was likewise influenced by the powerful intercession of the bishop, and consented to spare the lives of the Romans, and preserve the public buildings and churches from conflagration. Genseric could not yield up the spoil of the fallen capital, and his soldiers transported to Carthage, the seat of the new Vandal kingdom, the riches and trophies which illustrious generals had won,–yea, the treasures of three religions; the gods of the capitoline temple, the golden candlesticks which Titus brought from Jerusalem, and the sacred vessels which adorned the churches of the Christians, and which Alaric had spared.

Thus far the intrepid bishop of Rome–for he was nothing more–calls forth our sympathy and admiration for the hand he had in establishing the faith and healing the divisions of the Church, for which he earned the title of Saint. He taught no errors like Origen, and pushed out no theological doctrines into a jargon of metaphysics like Athanasius. He was more practical than Jerome, and more moderate than Augustine.

But he instituted a claim, from motives of policy, which subsequently ripened into an irresistible government, on which the papal structure as an institution or polity rests. He did not put forth this claim, however, until the old capital of the Caesars was humiliated, vanquished, and completely prostrated as a political power. When the Eternal City was taken a second time, and her riches plundered, and her proud palaces levelled with the dust; when her amphitheatre was deserted, her senatorial families were driven away as fugitives and sold as slaves, and her glory was departed,–nothing left her but recollections and broken columns and ruined temples and weeping matrons, ashes, groans, and lamentations, miseries and most bitter sorrows,–then did her great bishop, intrepid amid general despair, lay the foundation of a new empire, vaster in its influence, if not in its power, than that which raised itself up among the nations in the proudest days of Vespasian and the Antonines.

Leo, from one of the devastated hills of Rome,–once crowned with palaces, temples, and monuments,–looked out upon the Christian world, and saw the desolation spoken of by Jeremy the prophet, as well as by the Cumaean sibyl: all central power hopelessly prostrated; law and justice by-words; provinces wasted, decimated, and anarchical; literature and art crushed; vice, in all its hateful deformity, rampant and multiplying itself; false opinions gaining ground; Christians adopting the errors of Paganism; soldiers turned into banditti; the contemplative hiding themselves in caves and deserts; the rich made slaves; barbarians everywhere triumphant; women shrieking in terror; bishops praying in despair,–a world disordered, a pandemonium of devils let loose, one terrific and howling mass of moral and physical desolation such as had never been seen since Noah entered into the ark.

Amid this dreary wreck of the old civilization, which had been supposed to be eternal, what were Leo’s designs and thoughts? In this mournful crisis, what did he dream of in his sad and afflicted soul? To flee into a monastery, as good men in general despair and wretchedness did, and patiently wait for the coming of his Lord, and for the new dispensation? Not at all: he contemplated the restoration of the eternal city,–a new creation which should succeed destruction; the foundation of a new power which should restore law, preserve literature, subdue the barbarians, introduce a still higher civilization than that which had perished,–not by bringing back the Caesars, but by making himself Caesar; a revived central power which the nations should respect and obey. That which the world needed was this new central power, to settle difficulties, depose tyrants, establish a common standard of faith and worship, encourage struggling genius, and conserve peace. Who but the Church could do this? The Church was the last hope of the fallen Empire. The Church should put forth her theocratic aspirations. The keys of Saint Peter should be more potent than the sceptres of kings. The Church should not be crushed in the general desolation. She was still the mighty power of the world. Christianity had taken hold of the hearts and minds of men, and raised its voice to console and encourage amid universal despair. Men’s thoughts were turned to God and to his vicegerents. He was mighty to save. His promises were a glorious consolation. The Church should arise, put on her beautiful garments, and go on from conquering to conquer. A theocracy should restore civilization. The world wanted a new Christian sovereign, reigning by divine right, not by armies, not by force,–by an appeal to the future fears and hopes of men. Force had failed: it was divided against itself. Barbaric chieftains defied the emperors and all temporal powers. Rival generals desolated provinces. The world was plunging into barbarism. The imperial sceptre was broken. Not a diadem, but a tiara, must be the emblem of universal sovereignty. Not imperial decrees, but papal bulls, must now rule the world. Who but the Bishop of Rome could wear this tiara? Who but he could be the representative of the new theocracy? He was the bishop of the metropolis whose empire never could pass away. But his city was in ruins. If his claim to precedency rested on the grandeur of his capital, he must yield to the Bishop of Constantinople. He must found a new claim, not on the greatness and antiquity of his capital, but on the superstitious veneration of the Christian world,–a claim which would be accepted.

Leo I Entering Rome, Fresco by Raphael

Now it happened that one of Leo’s predecessors had instituted such a claim, which he would revive and enforce with new energy. Innocent had maintained, forty years before Leo, that the primacy of the Roman See was derived from Saint Peter,–that Christ had delegated to Peter supreme power as chief of the apostles; and that he, as the successor of Saint Peter, was entitled to his jurisdiction and privileges. This is the famous jus divinum principle which constitutes the corner-stone of the papal fabric. On this claim was based the subsequent encroachments of the popes. Leo saw the force of this claim, and adopted it and intrenched himself behind it, and became forthwith more formidable than any of his predecessors or any living bishop; and he was sure that so long as the claim was allowed, no matter whether his city was great or small, his successors would become the spiritual dictators of Christendom. The dignity and power of the Roman bishop were now based on a new foundation. He was still venerable from the souvenirs of the Empire, but more potent as the successor of the chief of the apostles. Ambrose had successfully asserted the independent spiritual power of the bishops; Leo seized that sceptre and claimed it for the Bishop of Rome.

Protestants are surprised and indignant that this haughty and false claim (as they view it) should have been allowed; it only shows to what depth of superstition the Christian world had already sunk. What an insult to the reason and learning of the world! What preposterous arrogance and assumption! Where are the proofs that Saint Peter was really the first bishop of Rome, even? And if he were, where are the Scripture proofs that he had precedency over the other apostles? And more, where do we learn in the Scriptures that any prerogative could be transmitted to successors? Where do we find that the successors of Peter were entitled to jurisdiction over the whole Church? Christ, it is true, makes use of the expression of a “rock” on which his Church should be built. But Christ himself is the rock, not a mortal man. “Other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ,”–a truth reiterated even by Saint Augustine, the great and acknowledged theologian of the Catholic Church, although Augustine’s views of sin and depravity are no more relished by the Roman Catholics of our day than the doctrines of Luther himself, who drew his theological system, like Calvin, from Augustine more than from any other man, except Saint Paul.

But arrogant and unfounded as was the claim of Leo,–that Peter, not Christ, was the rock on which the Church is founded,–it was generally accepted by the bishops of the day. Everything tended to confirm it, especially the universal idea of a necessary unity of the Church. There must be a head of the Church on earth, and who could be lawfully that head other than the successor of the apostle to whom Christ had given the keys of heaven and hell?

But this claim, considering the age when it was first advanced, had the inspiration of genius. It was most opportune. The Bishop of Rome would soon have been reduced to the condition of other metropolitans had his dignity rested on the greatness of his capital. He now became the interpreter of his own decrees,–an arch-pontiff ruling by divine right. His power became indefinite and unlimited. Just in proportion to the depth of the religious sentiment of the newly converted barbarians would be his ascendancy over them; and the Germanic races were religious peoples like the early Greeks and Romans. Tacitus points out this sentiment of religion as one of their leading characteristics. It was not the worship of ancestors, as among the Aryan races until Grecian and Roman civilization was developed. It was more like the worship of the invisible powers of Nature; for in the rock, the mountain, the river, the forest, the sun, the stars, the storms, the rude Teutonic mind saw a protecting or avenging deity. They easily transferred to the Christian clergy the reverence they had bestowed on the old priests of Odin, of Freya, and of Thor. Reverence was one of the great sentiments of our German ancestors. It was only among such a people that an overpowering spiritual despotism could be maintained. The Pope became to them the vicegerent of the great Power which they adored. The records of the race do not show such another absorbing pietism as was seen in the monastic retreats of the Middle Ages, except among the Brahmans and Buddhists of India. This religious fervor the popes were to make use of, to extend their empire.

And that nothing might be wanted to cement their power which had been thus assured, the Emperor Valentinian III.–a monarch controlled by Leo–passed in the year 445 this celebrated decree:–

“The primacy of the Apostolic See having been established by the merit of Saint Peter, its founder, the sacred Council of Nice, and the dignity of the city of Rome, we thus declare our irrevocable edict, that all bishops, whether in Gaul or elsewhere, shall make no innovation without the sanction of the Bishop of Rome; and, that the Apostolic See may remain inviolable, all bishops who shall refuse to appear before the tribunal of the Bishop of Rome, when cited, shall be constrained to appear by the governor of the province.”

Thus firmly was the Papacy rooted in the middle of the fifth century, not only by the encroachments of bishops, but by the authority of emperors. The papal dominion begins, as an institution, with Leo the Great. As a religion it began when Paul and Peter preached at Rome. Its institution was peculiar and unique; a great spiritual government usurping the attributes of other governments, as predicted by Daniel, and, at first benignant, ripening into a gloomy tyranny,–a tyranny so unscrupulous and grasping as to become finally, in the eyes of Luther, an evil power. As a religion, as I have said, it did not widely depart from the primitive creeds until it added to the doctrines generally accepted by the Church, and even still by Protestants, those other dogmas which were means to an end,–that end the possession of power and its perpetuation among ignorant people. Yet these dogmas, false as they are, never succeeded in obscuring wholly the truths which are taught in the gospel, or in extinguishing faith in the world. In all the encroachments of the Papacy, in all the triumphs of an unauthorized Church polity, the flame of true Christian piety has been dimmed, but not extinguished. And when this fatal and ambitious polity shall have passed away before the advance of reason and civilization, as other governments have been overturned, the lamp of piety will yet burn, as in other churches, since it will be fed by the Bible and the Providence of God. Governments and institutions pass away, but not religions; certainly not the truths originally declared among the mountains of Judea, which thus far have proved the elevation of nations.

It is then the government, not the religion, which Leo inaugurated, with which we have to do. And let us remember in reference to this government, which became so powerful and absolute, that Leo only laid the foundation. He probably did not dream of subjecting the princes of the earth except in matters which pertained to his supremacy as a spiritual ruler. His aim was doubtless spiritual, not temporal. He had no such deep designs as Hildebrand and Innocent III. cherished. The encroachments of later ages he did not anticipate. His doctrine was, “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things which are God’s.” As the vicegerent of the Almighty, which he felt himself to be in spiritual matters, he would institute a guardianship over everything connected with religion, even education, which can never be properly divorced from it. He was the patron of schools, as he was of monasteries. He could advise kings: he could not impose upon them his commands (except in Church matters), as Boniface VIII. sought to do. He would organize a network of Church functionaries, not of State officers; for he was the head of a great religious institution. He would send his legates to the end of the earth to superintend the work of the Church, and rebuke princes, and protest against wars; for he had the religious oversight of Christendom.

Now when we consider that there was no central power in Europe at this time, that the barbaric princes were engaged in endless wars, and that a fearful gloom was settling upon everything pertaining to education and peace and order; that even the clergy were ignorant, and the people superstitious; that everything was in confusion, tending to a worse confusion, to perfect anarchy and barbaric license; that provincial councils were no longer held; that bishops and abbots were abdicating their noblest functions,–we feel that the spiritual supremacy which Leo aimed to establish had many things to be said in its support; that his central rule was a necessity of the times, keeping civilization from utter ruin.

In the first place, what a great idea it was to preserve the unity of the Church,–the idea of Cyprian and Augustine and all the great Fathers,–an idea never exploded, and one which we even in these times accept, though not in the sense understood by the Roman Catholics! We cannot conceive of the Church as established by the apostles, without recognizing the necessity of unity in doctrines and discipline. Who in that age could conserve this unity unless it were a great spiritual monarch? In our age books, universities, theological seminaries, the press, councils, and an enlightened clergy can see that no harm comes to the great republic which recognizes Christ as the invisible head. Not so fifteen hundred years ago. The idea of unity could only be realized by the exercise of sufficient power in one man to preserve the integrity of the orthodox faith, since ignorance and anarchy covered the earth with their funereal shades.

The Protestants are justly indignant in view of subsequent encroachments and tyrannies. But these were not the fault of Leo. Everything good in its day is likely to be perverted. The whole history of society is the history of the perversion of institutions originally beneficent. Take the great foundations for education and other moral and intellectual necessities, which were established in the Middle Ages by good men. See how these are perverted and misused even in such glorious universities as Oxford and Cambridge. See how soon the primitive institutions of apostles were changed, in order to facilitate external conquests and make the Church a dignified worldly power. Not only are we to remember that everything good has been perverted, and ever will be, but that all governments, religious and civil, seem to be, in one sense, expediencies,–that is, adapted to the necessities and circumstances of the times. In the Bible there are no settled laws definitely laid down for the future government of the Church,–certainly not for the government of States and cities. A government which was best for the primitive Christians of the first two centuries was not adapted to the condition of the Church in the third and fourth centuries, else there would not have been bishops. If we take a narrow-minded and partisan view of bishops, we might say that they always have existed since the times of the apostles; the Episcopalians might affirm that the early churches were presided over by bishops, and the Presbyterians that every ordained minister was a bishop,–that elder and bishop are synonymous. But that is a contest about words, not things. In reality, episcopal power, as we understand it, was not historically developed till there was a large increase in the Christian communities, especially in great cities, where several presbyters were needed, one of whom presided over the rest. Some such episcopal institution, I am willing to concede, was a necessity, although I cannot clearly see the divine authority for it. In like manner other changes became necessary, which did not militate against the welfare of the Church, but tended to preserve it. New dignities, new organizations, new institutions for the government of the Church successively arose. All societies must have a government. This is a law recognized in the nature of things. So Christian society must be organized and ruled according to the necessities of the times; and the Scriptures do not say what these shall be,–they are imperative and definite only in matters of faith and morals. To guard the faith, to purify the morals according to the Christian standard, overseers, officers, rulers are required. In the early Church they were all brethren. The second and third century made bishops. The next age made archbishops and metropolitans and patriarchs. The age which succeeded was the age of Leo; and the calamities and miseries and anarchies and ignorance of the times, especially the rule of barbarians, seemed to point to a monarchical head, a more theocratic government,–a government so august and sacred that it could not be resisted.

And there can be but little doubt that this was the best government for the times. Let me illustrate by civil governments. There is no law laid down in the Bible for these. In the time of our Saviour the world was governed by a universal monarch. The imperial rule had become a necessity. It was tyrannical; but Paul as well as Christ exhorted his followers to accept it. In process of time, when the Empire fell, every old province had a king,–indeed there were several kings in France, as well as in Germany and Spain. The prelates of the Church never lifted up their voice against the legality of this feudo-kingly rule. Then came a revolt, after the Reformation, against the government of kings. New England and other colonies became small republics, almost democracies. On the hills of New England, with a sparse rural population and small cities, the most primitive form of government was the best. It was virtually the government of townships. The selectmen were the overseers; and, following the necessities of the times, the ministers of the gospel were generally Independents or Congregationalists, not clergy of the Established Church of Old England. Both the civil and the religious governments which they had were the best for the people. But what was suited to Massachusetts would not be fit for England or France. See how our government has insensibly drifted towards a strong central power. What must be the future necessities of such great cities as New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago,–where even now self-government is a failure, and the real government is in the hands of rings of politicians, backed by foreign immigrants and a lawless democracy? Will the wise, the virtuous, and the rich put up forever with such misrule as these cities have had, especially since the Civil War? And even if other institutions should gradually be changed, to which we now cling with patriotic zeal, it may be for the better and not the worse. Those institutions are the best which best preserve the morals and liberties of the people; and such institutions will gradually arise as the country needs, unless there shall be a general shipwreck of laws, morals, and faith, which I do not believe will come. It is for the preservation of these laws, morals, and doctrines that all governments are held responsible. A change in the government is nothing; a decline of morals and faith is everything.

I make these remarks in order that we may see that the rise of a great central power in the hands of the Bishop of Rome, in the fifth century, may have been a great public benefit, perhaps a necessity. It became corrupt; it forgot its mission. Then it was attacked by Luther. It ceased to rule England and a part of Germany and other countries where there were higher public morals and a purer religious faith. Some fear that the rule of the Roman Church will be re-established in this country. Never,–only its religion. The Catholic Church may plant her prelates in every great city, and the whole country may be regarded by them as missionary ground for the re-establishment of the papal polity. But the moment this polity raises its head and becomes arrogant, and seeks to subvert the other established institutions of the country or prevent the use of the Bible in schools, it will be struck down, even as the Jesuits were once banished from France and Spain. Its religion will remain,–may gain new adherents, become the religion of vast multitudes. But it is not the faith which the Roman Catholic Church professes to conserve which I fear. That is very much like that of Protestants, in the main. It is the institutions, the polity, the government of that Church which I speak of, with its questionable means to gain power, its opposition to the free circulation of the Bible, its interference with popular education, its prelatical assumptions, its professed allegiance to a foreign potentate, though as wise and beneficent as Pio Nono or the reigning Pope.

In the time of Leo there were none of these things. It was a poor, miserable, ignorant, anarchical, superstitious age. In such an age the concentration of power in the hands of an intelligent man is always a public benefit. Certainly it was wielded wisely by Leo, and for beneficent ends. He established the patristic literature. The writings of the great Fathers were by him scattered over Europe, and were studied by the clergy, so far as they were able to study anything. All the great doctrines of Augustine and Jerome and Athanasius were defended. The whole Church was made to take the side of orthodoxy, and it remained orthodox to the times of Bernard and Anselm. Order was restored to the monasteries; and they so rapidly gained the respect of princes and good men that they were richly endowed, and provision made in them for the education of priests. Everywhere cathedral schools were established. The canon law supplanted in a measure the old customs of the German forests and the rude legislation of feudal chieftains. When bishops quarrelled with monasteries or with one another, or even with barons, appeals were sent to Rome, and justice was decreed. In after times these appeals were settled on venal principles, but not for centuries. The early Mediaeval popes were the defenders of justice and equity. And they promoted peace among quarrelsome barons, as well as Christian truth among divines. They set aside, to some extent, those irascible and controversial councils where good and great men were persecuted for heresy. These popes had no small passions to gratify or to stimulate. They were the conservators of the peace of Europe, as all reliable historians testify. They were generally very enlightened men,–the ablest of their times. They established canons and laws which were based on wisdom, which stood the test of ages, and which became venerable precedents.

The Catholic polity was only gradually established, sustained by experience and reason. And that is the reason why it has been so permanent. It was most admirably adapted to rule the ignorant in ages of cruelty and crime,–and, I am inclined to think, to rule the ignorant and superstitious everywhere. Great critics are unanimous in their praises of that wonderful mechanism which ruled the world for one thousand years.

Nor did the popes, for several centuries after Leo, grasp the temporal powers of princes. As political monarchs they were at first poor and insignificant. The Papacy was not politically a great power until the time of Hildebrand, nor a rich temporal power till nearly the era of the Reformation. It was a spiritual power chiefly, just such as it is destined to become again,–the organizer of religious forces; and, so far as these are animated by the gospel and reason, they are likely to have a perpetuated influence. Who can predict the end of a spiritual empire which shows no signs of decay? It is not half so corrupt as it was in the time of Boniface VIII., nor half so feeble as in the time of Leo X. It is more majestic and venerable than in the time of Luther. Nor are Protestants so bitter and one-sided as they were fifty years ago. They begin to judge this great power by broader principles; to view it as it really is,–not as “Antichrist” and the “scarlet mother,” but as a venerable institution, with great abuses, having at heart the interests of those whom it grinds down and deceives.

But, after all, I do not in this Lecture present the Papacy of the eleventh century or the nineteenth, but the Papacy of the fifth century, as organized by Leo. True, its fundamental principles as a government are the same as then. These principles I do not admire, especially for an enlightened era. I only palliate them in reference to the wants of a dark and miserable age, and as a critic insist upon their notable success in the age that gave them birth.

With these remarks on the regimen, the polity, and the government of the Church of which Leo laid the foundation, and which he adapted to barbarous ages, when the Church was still a struggling power and Christianity itself little better than nominal,–long before it had much modified the laws or changed the morals of society; long before it had created a new civilization,–with these remarks, acceptable, it may be, neither to Catholics nor to Protestants, I turn once more to the man himself. Can you deny his title to the name of Great? Would you take him out of the galaxy of illustrious men whom we still call Fathers and Saints? Even Gibbon praises his exalted character. What would the Church of the Middle Ages have been without such aims and aspirations? Oh, what a benevolent mission the Papacy performed in its best ages, mitigating the sorrows of the poor, raising the humble from degradation, opposing slavery and war, educating the ignorant, scattering the Word of God, heading off the dreadful tyranny of feudalism, elevating the learned to offices of trust, shielding the pious from the rapacity of barons, recognizing man as man, proclaiming Christian equalities, holding out the hopes of a future life to the penitent believer, and proclaiming the sovereignty of intelligence over the reign of brute forces and the rapacity of ungodly men! All this did Leo, and his immediate successors. And when he superadded to the functions of a great religious magistrate the virtues of the humblest Christian,–parting with his magnificent patrimony to feed the poor, and proclaiming (with an eloquence unusual in his time) the cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith, and setting himself as an example of the virtues which he preached,–we concede his claim to be numbered among the great benefactors of mankind. How much worse Roman Catholicism would have been but for his august example and authority! How much better to educate the ignorant people, who have souls to save, by the patristic than by heathen literature, with all its poison of false philosophies and corrupting stimulants! Who, more than he and his immediate successors, taught loyalty to God as the universal Sovereign, and the virtues generated by a peaceful life,–patriotism, self-denial, and faith? He was a dictator only as Bernard was, ruling by the power of learning and sanctity. As an original administrative genius he was scarcely surpassed by Gregory VII. Above all, he sought to establish faith in the world. Reason had failed. The old civilization was a dismal mockery of the aspirations of man. The schools of Athens could make Sophists, rhetoricians, dialecticians, and sceptics. But the faith of the Fathers could bring philosophers to the foot of the Cross. What were material conquests to these conquests of the soul, to this spiritual reign of the invisible principles of the kingdom of Christ?

So, as the vicegerents of Almighty power, the popes began to reign. Ridicule not that potent domination. What lessons of human experience, what great truths of government, what principles of love and wisdom are interwoven with it! Its growth is more suggestive than the rise of any temporal empires. It has produced more illustrious men than any European monarchy. And it aimed to accomplish far grander ends,–even obedience to the eternal laws which God has decreed for the public and private lives of men. It is invested with more poetic interest. Its doctors, its dignitaries, its saints, its heroes, its missions, and its laws rise up before us in sublime grandeur when seriously contemplated. It failed at last, when no longer needed. But it was not until its encroachments and corruptions shocked the reason of the world, and showed a painful contrast to those virtues which originally sustained it, that earnest men arose in indignation, and declared that this perverted institution should no longer be supported by the contributions of more enlightened ages; that it had become a tyrannical and dangerous government, to be assailed and broken up. It has not yet passed away. It has survived the Reformation and the attacks of its countless enemies. How long this power of blended good and evil will remain we cannot predict. But one thing we do know,–that the time will come when all governments shall become the kingdoms of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ; and Christian truth alone shall so permeate all human institutions that the forces of evil shall be driven forever into the immensity of eternal night.

With the Pontificate of Leo the Great that dark period which we call the “Middle Ages” may be said to begin. The disintegration of society then was complete, and the reign of ignorance and superstition had set in. With the collapse of the old civilization a new power had become a necessity. If anything marked the Middle Ages it was the reign of priests and nobles. This reign it will be my object to present in the Lectures which are to fill the next volume of this Work, together with subjects closely connected with papal domination and feudal life.


Works of Leo, edited by Quesnel; Zosimus; Socrates; Theodoret; Fleury’s Ecclesiastical History; Tillemont’s Histoire des Empereurs; Gibbon’s Decline and Fall; Beugot’s Histoire de la Destruction du Paganism; Alexander de Saint Chéron’s Histoire du Pontificat de Saint Leo le Grande, et de son Siècle; Dumoulin’s Vie et Religion de deux Papes Léon I. et Grégoire I.; Maimbourg’s Histoire du Pontificat de Saint Léon; Arendt’s Leo der Grosse und seine Zeit; Butler’s Lives of the Saints; Neander; Milman’s Latin Christianity; Biographie Universelle; Encyclopaedia Britannica. The Church historians universally praise this Pope.

Beacon Lights of History, Volume IV : Imperial Antiquity