Road To Damascus, Part II Conclusion

In this primitive period of East-West unity, Rome established its preeminence above all in the context of theological controversies, where it took on the role of unflinching champion of orthodoxy.  The Councils of Nicaea and Constantinople had formulated a creed that became the universal bedrock of faith, but in a certain sense they did not go far enough, for they did not speak explicitly to the different theories about Jesus Christ, His personhood and natures, that arose and clashed in the fifth century.  This was a matter of special concern for the emperors in Constantinople, who looked with anxiety to their critical southern and eastern frontiers populated by Christians who maintained that Jesus Christ was a human person united to the Divine Logos (Nestorianism) or one person endowed by a human nature fully subsumed by the divine (Monophysitism). Emperors who knew that the unity of faith was the unity of empire were sometimes inclined to foster these divergent christologies, or to broker agreements seen by the rigidly orthodox as watering down the faith of Nicaea. 

Rome had no truck with these dogmatic aberrations.  Pope Celestine of Rome was St. Cyril of Alexandria’s stalwart ally at the Council of Ephesus (431), which condemned Patriarch Nestorius of Constantinople and his Syrian supporters.  The Roman Church rejected as invalid the subsequent meeting at Ephesus in 449 that approved Monophysitism, and Rome was the decisive voice at the Council of Chalcedon (451), which  formally anathematized this christology.  The fathers of Chalcedon hailed Pope Leo I’s “Tome” defining the two natures of Jesus Christ as a divine oracle: “Peter has spoken through his successor Leo!” they thundered. But Chalcedon only offered a theological solution to Monophysitism as a theological problem; Monophysite Christians remained throughout Egypt and Syria. After the Emperor Zeno and Constantinopolitan Patriarch Akakios tried to conciliate them through publishing a doctrinal compromise known as the Henotikon (482), in a synod in Rome Pope Felix rejected the compromise (which his legates in Constantinople had initially supported) and deposed Akakios.  As a result, communion lapsed between Rome and Constantinople for a period of about forty years, in which the patriarchs of these churches refused to remember each other during the commemorations of the holy liturgy. Communion was only restored when Emperor Justin I relinquished the Henotikon’s false hopes of rapprochement with the Monophysites and even had the names of Akakios and Zeno expunged from the liturgical book of commemoration (519). 

Why was Rome able to manage this? Much has been made of the relative inferiority of Western intellectual life vis-à-vis the East, where a proliferation of theological sophistication produced a proliferation of heresy.  Claim has also been made that Rome benefited from its relatively remote position.  The barbarian invasions of the fourth and fifth centuries, which  disrupted Roman rule in  Western Empire, culminated in the loss of the Western imperial office in 476.  Roman bishops, so the argument runs, benefited by their isolation from the heavy and manipulating presence of the emperor in Constantinople.

These observations, though not entirely without merit, are insufficient.  While there is no doubt that the theological speculation of the East was well to the vanguard of what was going on the West in the fifth century, not even the barbarian invasions resulted in the total rupture of East-West intellectual exchange; there were plenty of Hellenophones in the Roman Church and personnel moving between Rome and the East. At the same time, while the imperial government was sometimes incapable of intervening in Italy, or otherwise apathetic in that regard—in 395, Emperor Theodosius I lastingly divided the Roman Empire between East and West, and settled the latter upon his son Honorius; distinct western emperors ruled, usually unimpressively, thenceforth until 476—this was not always the case. In 545, agents of the imperial government entered Rome and unceremoniously arrested Pope Vigilius for his resistance to Justinian and Theodora’s attempt to conciliate the Monophysites in the “Three Chapters Controversy” and dragged him off to Constantinople in chains. (The captive Vigilius’ vacillation in that controversy sparked outrage in the Western Church). The martyrdom of Pope Martin I by the regime of Constans II (r. 641-668) must be treated in the next article. The point is that even popes as strong-willed as Gregory the Great (590-604) saw themselves as subjects of the Roman Emperor, and even popes faced consequences for “disobedience” to imperial policy. Nevertheless, the Roman patriarchate was made of a tough moral fiber that came from the conviction of a singular and divine commission. 

But even if Chalcedon was a theological victory for Rome, hugely boosting its prestige in the universal Church, it was a disciplinary defeat. For in its famous 28th canon, in stronger and more explicit terms than ever before, Chalcedon defined the primacy of the patriarchate of Constantinople, the imperial see, as equally supreme to Rome in her own sphere and second only to Rome in the Church worldwide.  While claiming complete fidelity to the fathers of the Council of Constantinople in 381, the authors of this canon engaged in some conciliar revisionism: they alleged that the fathers of Constantinople had granted primacy of the Church of Rome because of that city’s imperial status. In fact, the Council of Constantinople had granted no primacy to Rome, let alone supplied any rationale for its primacy—the fathers of Constantinople had merely taken the primacy of Elder Rome for granted. 

After the Emperor Justinian’s re-conquest of the West, a monumental and draining effort that re-imposed actual Roman rule over lands that had never lost their Roman culture or sensibilities, we can descry clearly the features of a pan-Mediterranean Christian Church.  An emperor ruled in Constantinople who saw the bishop of Rome, the pope, as the supreme hierarch of the Church.  A pope reigned in Rome who looked on the emperor as his sovereign.  By now, five ecumenical councils, including the prized “Tome of Leo,” had established the rule of faith.  One creed was sung throughout orthodox Christendom. This was the era not of “Latin Christianity” versus “Greek Christianity,” but of Roman Christianity—not as in “the Church of Rome,” but the Roman Empire. 

But the apparent harmony of this arrangement between empire and Church, called by Justinian symphonia, was something of a veneer. Straining beneath it was the tension between the institution of pentarchy (the rule of the Church divided among the five great patriarchs, in order: Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem) and, above all, the pretensions of the Constantinopolitan Church, based on imperial prestige but sanctioned by ecumenical canons, on the one hand, and the self-understanding of the bishop of Rome as the successor of Peter, on the other. There was also the omnipresent danger of conflict between Christian unity and Christian orthodoxy—a problem that will continue to play out, in surprising combinations, through the history of the schism and efforts to heal it. And soon enough, clouds would gather on the horizons of the unremarkable southeastern marches of the empire, clouds menacing a storm fierce enough to break asunder the unity of the Roman Christian world and, its underlying tensions laid bare, even threaten the unity of its one Church. 

(For the thesis of the persistent unity of the Roman world as founded upon the Mediterranean, even in spite of the Germanic invasions, which was only lost with the Islamic conquests, including, e.g., the attitude of popes, such as Pope Gregory I, toward the emperor—see above all Henri Pirenne’s monumental book: Mohammed and Charlemagne (1937)). 

Charles C. Yost

Charles C. Yost

4 Responses

  1. Dot says:

    I read the book by Henri Pirenne several years ago and plan to revisit it. I never understood the difference between the Merovingian and Carolingian periods. What do you think of the book “Mohammed & Charlemagne Revisited by Emmet Scott? I have read some of this book.

  2. Dot says:

    Recently I heard that a diocese in a certain state has closed a number of Catholic churches. I imagine this is happening throughout the country. This decline in Christianity leaves room for a vacuum to be filled. There can be a replacement of Christianity with Islam. If it gets to that point we eventually will be paying some kind of tax to the conquerors.

  3. Charles C. Yost says:

    Hi all– Dot is referring to the fact the so-called “Pirenne Thesis” is not universally accepted and has attracted some controversy and spirited objection. This series on the schism, and our discussions, may be a good venue in which to think hard about this thesis. I’ve not read Scott’s book–will look into it.

  4. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Speaking from a faulty memory of decades ago, as I recall the big objections to Pirennes’s thesis was the positing of a breakdown in the 8th and 9th century of international trade and communication. Pirenne was a magisterial scholar, but we all tend to overblow our insights, and this may be a good case. I have the opposite prejudice–always seeing continuity and gradual transition instead of great cultural rifts–but as useful as his work was, I think the case can be made for a more slow-going change.

    Of course, Dot, you are raising general questions of social and cultural evolution. For those who have taken less of an interest, the distinction between Merovingian and Carolingian France is based on the distinction between the older dynasty of Clovis and the later dynsty established by Charles Martel, his son Pippin, and his grandson Charlemagne.