"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Leo the Great Reconsidered

Pope St. Leo the Great has come in for a scholarly reconsideration and renewed examination in the last couple of years. This is an extremely timely (perhaps Providentially so) reconsideration as the official international Orthodox-Catholic dialogue continues its examination of the papacy in the first millennium.

In 2008 we had Bernard Green's The Soteriology of Leo the Great.

Then last year we had two other major works, including Bronwen Neil's book Leo the Great (London: Routledge, 2009), part of the on-going and quite excellent series on the Fathers that Routledge has been bringing out for more than a decade now. Neil, who teaches Latin at the Australian Catholic University, has very helpfully gathered primary texts in this little book along with a brief introduction to the life of Leo.
The work that is most germane to the ecumenical discussion about the papacy, and therefore most deserving of wide notice, is that of Susan Wessel, Leo the Great and the Spiritual Rebuilding of a Universal Rome (Brill, 2009).  

As I said in my review in Logos, this is a work of fascinating scholarship from which Eastern Christians can greatly benefit, not least because the more polemically minded among us have sometimes portrayed the development of the papacy as one continuous process of self-aggrandizement at the expense of the East. While Pope Leo I (440-461) did indeed continually press and expand his papal brief, it was only, one must underscore, in the West that he did so, and not because he was consumed by libido dominandi but simply because of “a deeper sense of justice that facilitated order and stability within the hierarchy” (127). Leo’s concerns about West-Roman authority had nothing to do with jealousy at Constantinople as some kind of parvenu. Rather, he was a quintessential Roman deeply concerned about the importance of the tranquilitas ordinis without which disorder and dissent would destroy the Body of Christ. In view of the ongoing sociopolitical chaos to which the West was subject in his century especially—with the sacking of Rome preceding his pontificate, and the collapse of the empire in the West coming after it—Leo’s view here is pastorally understandable.

The role Leo played at Chalcedon is of course centred on his famous Tome, “the significance of which for the formation of catholic christology [sic] cannot be overstated” (41). But the second role Leo played—or, rather, refused to play—at Chalcedon has made him suspect in the East: his refusal to accept canon 28, the one underscoring Constantinople’s “privileges” next after Rome itself. In addition to the important procedural question (the canon was passed in the absence of Leo’s legates, whose reasons for leaving remain unclear), Leo refused this canon for several reasons, none of them, Wessel insists, nefarious: “the privileges that Rome claimed were not an attempt to subject the patriarchal sees to Roman domination” (285). Rather, he resisted what he saw as the nakedly “political” nature of Constantinople’s claim in contradistinction to his own much vaunted theory of “apostolicity,” which, until Leo, almost nobody thought significant in the East given the fact that all the major sees were apostolic. Only in and through Leo, in fact, does the whole idea of  Rome's "spiritual" authority, based on Peter and Paul's presence and martyrdom in Rome, come to be promulgated quite aggressively. He sees the ruins to which his city, and the empire in the West, have fallen, and he is determined to find a way to strengthen and rebuild Rome as a universal power, knowing it cannot be done in tangible political terms and so must instead be done in  less tangible spiritual-ecclesial ones.

Moreover, he resisted this canon because his decade-long campaign to strengthen papal “privileges” in the West led him to believe that what he had painstakingly accomplished on that score was exactly what Constantinople wanted for itself when it used the word “privileges” in canon 28. In fact Constantinople simply wanted to have “‘a comparable authority over metropolitan sees.’…It was not, in other words, competition with Rome, but rather practical considerations that governed Constantinople’s plan to formalize its exercise of jurisdiction in the region” (306).

As the official international Orthodox-Catholic dialogue continues to discuss the papacy in the first millennium, they and all of us will find that there is much to learn or relearn about such popes as Leo (and later Gregory, also called Great, among others), whose exercise of papal authority is sharply at odds with the received notions in the West of a "universal" pope with real "universal" jurisdiction exercised over East and West alike. That notion of papal authority has done enormous damage to the entire Church, leading some in the West to imagine their own ultramontane fantasies have an actual basis in history when they do not, and leading some in the East precisely to fear such a kind of papacy as--in David Bentley Hart's memorable words--the "advance embassy of an omnivorous ecclesial empire." Clearly, then, both Catholics and Orthodox alike have much to reconsider as the study of the the papacy in the first millennium continues, and we can do so thanks in part to the illuminating scholarship of such as Susan Wessel.

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