Friday, September 21, 2012

How the absolute monarchical power of the popes took shape

Leonardo Boff's weekly columns are available in Spanish from Servicios Koinonia and in Portuguese on his blog. Some of his older columns are available in English at

by Leonardo Boff (English translation by Rebel Girl)

We wrote earlier in these pages that the crisis of the hierarchical institutional Church lies in the absolute concentration of power in the person of the pope, power that is exerted in an absolutist way, distant from any participation of Christians and creating almost insurmountable obstacles to ecumenical dialogue with other denominations.

It wasn't like that in the beginning. The Church was a fraternal community. The figure of the pope didn't exist yet. The Church was ruled by the emperor since he was the Supreme Pontiff (Pontifex Maximus), not the bishop of Rome or Constantinople, the two capitals of the Empire. So Emperor Constantine convened the first ecumenical council of Nicea (325) to decide the question of Christ's divinity. Still in the 6th century, Emperor Justinian, who reunited the two parts of the Empire, the West and the East, claimed for himself the primacy of law and not that of bishop of Rome. However, by virtue of the tombs of Peter and Paul being in Rome, the Roman Church enjoyed special prestige, as did its bishop who, before the others, had the "presidency in love" and "carried out the service of Peter" -- that of "strengthening the faith", not the supremacy of Peter in commanding.

Everything changed with Pope Leo I (440-461), a great jurist and statesman. He copied the Roman way of power which was the absolutism and authoritarianism of the emperor. He began interpreting in strictly legal terms the three texts of the New Testament that refer to Peter: Peter as the rock on which the Church would be built (Mt 16:18), the strengthener of the faith (Lk 22:32), and Peter as the Shepherd who must care for his sheep (Jn 21:15). The Biblical meaning, and that of Jesus himself, goes along a completely opposite line -- that of love, service, and renunciation of any honor. But the absolutist Roman law interpretation prevailed. Consequently Leo I assumed the title of Supreme Pontiff and Pope in the proper sense. Then the rest of the popes began using the imperial insignia and apparel -- scarlet, the miter, the golden throne, the crozier, stoles, the pallium, the mozzetta, palaces were established with their courts, and cardinals and bishops adopted palatial habits that persist to the present day, which has scandalized many Christians who have read in the Gospels that Jesus was a poor workingman without any finery. Then it became clear that the hierarchs are closer to Herod's palace than the grotto in Bethlehem.

But there's a phenomenon that's hard for us to understand: In the eagerness to legitimize this transformation and ensure the absolute power of the pope, a series of false documents were forged. First, an alleged letter from Pope Clement (d.96), successor to Peter in Rome, addressed to James, the brother of the Lord, the great pastor of Jerusalem, which said that before dying, Peter had determined that he, Clement, would be the sole legitimate successor. And, obviously, the rest who would come later. An even greater forgery was the famous Donation of Constantine, a document forged at the time of Leo I according to which Constantine would have donated the whole Roman Empire to the pope in Rome. Later, in the disputes with the Frankish kings, another great forgery was created, the Pseudo-Isidorian Decretals which brought together false documents and letters as if they came from the first centuries, which reinforced the legal primacy of the pope of Rome. And everything culminated in Gratian's Decretum in the 13th century, considered to be the basis of canon law, but which was based on forgeries and norms that reinforced the central power of Rome in addition to other real canons that were circulating around the churches. Logically, all this was unmasked much later but without producing any modification in the popes' absolutism. But it's lamentable, and an adult Christian should know the schemes used and conceived to develop power that runs against the current of Jesus' ideals and obscures the fascinating Christian message that holds a new way to exert power, helpfully and participatively.

Subsequently, there was a crescendo in the power of the popes: Gregory VII (d.1085) in his Dictatus Papae (the dictatorship of the Pope) declared himself absolute master of the Church and the world; Innocent III (d.1216) proclaimed himself vicar-representative of Christ, and finally Innocent IV (d.1254) lifted himself up as representative of God. As such, under Pius IX in 1870, the pope was declared infallible in the field of doctrine and morals. Interestingly, all these excesses have never been denounced or corrected by the Church hierarchy because it profits from them. They continue to be a scandal to those who still believe in the poor Nazarene, the humble Mediterranean peasant and craftsman who was persecuted and executed on the cross for rising up against any quest for power and more power, even within the Church. This interpretation commits an unforgivable omission: the true vicar-representatives of Christ, according to the Gospel of Jesus (Mt 25:45), are the poor, the hungry and thirsty. And the hierarchy exists to serve them, not replace them.

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