Roman Catholics today like to tell us that “Christ is the head of the church,” but Pope Siricius (384-399), who was the successor of the murderer pope Damasus, “self-consciously … began to model their actions and style as Christian leaders on the procedures of the Roman state. … [Siricius responded to an inquiry from a neighboring bishop in Spain] in the form of a decretal, modeled directly on an imperial rescript, and like the rescripts, providing authoritative rulings which were designed to establish legal precedents on the issues concerned. Siricius commended the [inquiring] Bishop for consulting Rome ‘as to the head of your body’, and instructed to him to pass on ‘the salutary ordinances we have made’ to the bishops of all the surrounding provinces, for ‘no priest of the Lord is free to be ignorant of the statutes of the Apostolic See’” (Duffy 40).
Shotwell and Loomis, who a almost a century ago, compiled virtually all the writings concerning the “early papacy” into a single volume, go into somewhat greater detail:
We see that Siricius, in taking up, as he says, the responsibilities of Damasus, assumes the right to make ordinances for the metropolitans [city bishops] and clergy of the West and classes the statutes of the Apostolic See and the venerable canons of the councils together as laws of which no priest of the Lord may be ignorant. He is writing, one must note, for western churches only, as far as his explicit directions go, but his West includes Spaniards and Gauls and Carthaginians in provinces far beyond Italy.
The decretal itself is more than the instructions of a senior bishop to his junior colleagues on ways to remedy evils in congregations under their authority. In several of its provisions it goes behind the local bishop and metropolitan altogether and establishes relations by its own authority directly with the lesser clergy, monks and laity of these distant regions. The local bishop is for the moment merely the organ of communication between the chief shepherd and the sheep. All priests are to keep the rules or be “plucked from the solid, apostolic rock upon which Christ built the universal Church.” Offenders are “Deposed by authority of the Apostolic See from every ecclesiastical position which they have abused.” (Shotwell and Loomis, “The See of Peter,” New York: Columbia University Press, ©1927, 1955, 1991, pgs 699-700).
This is perhaps the earliest of these epistolae decretales on record. It was contemporary with the time that all that the Eastern bishops, at the council of Constantinople (381), had decreed that “appeals in the cases of bishops should be heard within the bishop’s own province,” as Duffy had said, “a direct rebuttal of Rome’s claim to be the final court of appeal in all such cases (34). The Eastern bishops had no concept at all that the Roman bishop had the right to interfere with or make laws in their regions.
Duffy notes that “the apostolic stability of Rome, its testimony to ancient truth, would now be imagined not simply as the handing on of the ancient paradosis, the tradition, but specifically in the form of lawgiving. Law became a major preoccupation of the Roman church, and the Pope was seen as the Church’s supreme lawgiver. As Pope Innocent I (401-417) wrote to the bishops of Africa, ‘it has been decreed by a divine, not a human authority, that whatever action is taken in any of the provinces, however distant or remote, it should not be brought to a conclusion before it comes to the knowledge of this see, so that every decision may be affirmed by our authority’” (Duffy 40). And of course, nepotism reigned:
Round the papal household there developed a whole clerical culture, staffed by men drawn often from the Roman aristocracy, intensely self-conscious and intensely proud of their own tradition – Jerome dubbed them ‘the senate’. Damasus himself was a product of this world, the son of a senior Roman priest who had himself founded a titulus church. Pope Boniface was the son of a Roman priest, Innocent I was the son of his predecessor as pope, Anastasius I (399-401), and had served his father as a deacon.
But probably the pinnacle of admixture between Roman imperial law and arrogance and usurpation of the nepotism system came in the person of “Pope Leo the Great” (440-461).
More on Leo the Great next time.