The increasing importance of the Church of Rome

As the centuries passed, the Church of Rome and its bishop, or the Pope as we must now begin to call him, became increasingly prominent in the Catholic Church. We have already noted the importance of the Church of Rome and the reasons why its bishops occupied a leading place. As time went on that position was accentuated. The removal of the main centre of the administration of the Empire to Constantinople, begun by Constantine, gave added importance to the Church of Rome and its head in the ancient capital and in the West for they were no longer overshadowed by the Emperor and his court. As we have seen, the Popes usually took an active part in the controversies of the fourth and fifth centuries over the relation of the divine and human in Jesus Christ and between Augustinianism and Pelagianism and, with two possible and brief exceptions, were on the side which the majority eventually regarded as orthodox. Rome was more and more esteemed in the Catholic Church as the representative and champion of true Christianity. When, in the fifth century, the imperial power began to decline in the West, the Popes, by contrast, loomed larger in that region, especially in Rome and Italy. This was particularly the case when, after 404, the imperial residence in the West was taken from Rome to Ravenna.

To this prestige of their office some of the Popes made outstanding contributions. Fairly typical of the pontiffs of the fifth century was Innocent I, who held the post from 402 to 417. In spite of the fact that his tenure of the office saw the sack of Rome by Ala-ric (although Innocent was in Ravenna at the time on business of state), he was active in the affairs of the Catholic Church in Italy, Spain, Gaul, Illyricum, North Africa, Thessa-lonica, and the East. He championed, although unsuccessfully, the cause of his contemporary, John Chrysostom, when the latter was deprived of the see of Constantinople.

Far more important was Leo I, who held the office of Pope from 440 to 461, and who with Gregory I, whom we are to meet in a later chapter, is known by common consent as "the Great." None of his predecessors had been as forceful or had exercised so great an influence. He insisted that by Christ's decree Peter was the rock, the foundation, the doorkeeper of the kingdom of heaven, set to bind and loose, whose judgements retained their validity in heaven, and that through the Pope, as his successor, Peter continued to perform the assignment which had been entrusted to him. We have noted how Leo's Tome set forth the doctrinal position which was approved by the Council of Chal-cedon. Leo declined to recognize as valid the canon enacted by that body which elevated the see of Constantinople to a position substantially equal with that of Rome, thus seeming to assert the right of his office to dissent from the decrees of a general or ecumenical council, but basing his opposition in part on the finality of what had been done earlier at Nicsa. Leo was a contemporary of the invasion of Italy by Attila and his Huns and was a bulwark of order in those troubled times. He interested himself in ecclesiastical questions throughout Italy, such as the qualifications of candidates for the episcopacy. In Gaul he successfully asserted the claims of the Church of Rome even as against metropolitans. He concerned himself with affairs in Spain and North Africa. He obtained from the Emperor Valentinian III an edict which commanded all to obey the Bishop of Rome on the ground that the latter held the "primacy of St. Peter."

In 494 a successor of Leo, Gelasius, declared that the world is ruled by the Emperor and the priests, but that the latter are more important since they will have to give an account even for kings in the day of judgement, and that the Emperor must submit to prelates in divine matters. He also insisted that the Pope was of right preeminent over all priests. He declared that in view of the founding of the Church of Christ upon Peter and of the joint consecration by Peter and Paul of the Church of Rome, the latter "has been placed before the other churches" and hence depended for that position not on any decrees of synods, but upon Christ Himself. Moreover, by their presence and martyrdom Peter and Paul, so Gelasius said, had elevated the Roman Church "over all the others in the whole world."

Probably important for the contribution which the outstanding Popes made to the leading position of Rome was the fact that they embodied the skill in administration and the sense for law and order which were the characteristics of the great Romans.

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