Skip to comments.St. Leo the Great on Authority
Posted on 09/26/2002 8:31:35 AM PDT by JMJ333
Believing as he did that true supreme authority of Peter resided permanently in the Roman Church, St. Leo could not regard himself otherwise than as 'the ruler of the Christian world' responsible for the peace and good order of all the Churches. (The designation given him in the Constitution of the Emperor Valentinian III, v. Works I, 637). Constant attention to this huge task was for him a religious obligation.
'The demands of religious duty, (ratio pietatis), (ibid., 664) he writes to the African bishops, 'require that we should make every effort to ascertain the exact state of affairs with that solicitude which, according to the divine command, we owe to the Universal Church.... For the stability and order of the Lord's whole household would be disturbed if there were lacking in the head aught of which the body had need.' (ibid., 646)
The same ideas are found expressed in a more developed form in his letter to the bishops of Sicily: 'We are urged by divine precepts and apostolic exhortations to keep a loving and active watch over the state of all the Churches and if there is anything deserving of blame we must be diligent to warn the culprit either against the rashness of ignorance or the presumption of self-aggrandizement. Constrained by the Lord's utterance which urged upon blessed Peter the mystical injunction thrice repeated that he who loves Christ should feed Christ's sheep, we are bound by reverence for His see, which by the abundance of divine grace we occupy, to avoid the peril of sloth so far as we may, lest the confession of the holy Apostle, whereby he declared himself the Lord's disciple, be required of us in vain. For he who is negligent in feeding the flock so repeatedly entrusted to him is proved to have no love for the Chief Shepherd.' (ibid., 695-6)
In his letter to St. Flavian, the patriarch of Constantinople, the Pope assigns to himself the task of preserving the Catholic faith intact by cutting off all dissensions, of warning by his own authority (nostra auctoritate) the champions of error, and of fortifying those whose faith is approved. (ibid., 733)
When the Emperor Theodosius II attempted to plead with St. Leo on behalf of the archimandrite Eutyches who was the author of the Monophysite heresy, the sovereign pontiff replied that Eutyches could secure pardon if he recanted the opinions condemned by the Pope, with whom lay the final decision in questions of dogma. 'What the Catholic Church believes and teaches on the mystery of the Lord's incarnation is contained fully in the letter sent to my brother and fellow-bishop Flavian.' (ibid., 783)
St. Leo did not admit that the ecumenical council had any power of decision on a dogma already defined by the Pope. (ibid., 918; Letter to Emperor Marcion). In the instructions which the Pope gives to his legate the Bishop Paschasinus he points to his dogmatic epistle to Flavian as the complete and final definition of the true faith. (ibid., 927)
In another letter to the Emperor Marcian, St. Leo declares himself instructed by the Spirit of God to teach and impart the true Catholic faith. (ibid., 930) In a third letter to the Emperor, he states that he has only asked for the summoning of a council in order to restore peace in the Eastern Church, (ibid., 932) and in the letter addressed to the council itself he says that he only accepts it 'so that the rights and dignity belonging to the See of the blessed Apostle Peter be respected', and he urges the Eastern bishops 'to abstain entirely from the rashness of impugning the divinely inspired faith' as he has defined it in his dogmatic epistle.
'It is not permitted,' he writes, 'to defend that which it is not permitted to believe, since in our letters sent to Bishop Flavian of blessed memory we have already with the greatest fullness and lucidity (plenissime et lucidissime) expounded the true and pure faith concerning the mystery of the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ in accordance with the authoritative record of the Gospels, the words of the Prophets and the teaching of the Apostles.' (ibid., 937-9)
And in the following words St. Leo informs the Gaulish bishops of the result of the council of Chalcedon: 'The holy Synod, adhering with religious unanimity to that which had been written by our unworthy hand and reinforced by the authority and merit of my lord the blessed Apostle Peter, has cut off from the Church of God this shameful abomination' (the heresy of Eutyches and Dioscorus). (ibid., 987)
But it is well known that, besides this result which the Pope approved, the council of Chalcedon was marked by an act of a different kind. In an irregular session, the Eastern bishops subject to the patriarch of Constantinople promulgated the famous twenty-eighth Canon by which they conferred upon their metropolitan the primacy of the East to the prejudice of the patriarchs of Alexandria and Antioch. It is true that they themselves declared the Canon to be provisional and humbly submitted it to the judgment of St. Leo, who repudiated it with indignation and seized this fresh opportunity of defining his conception of the hierarchy and the extent of his own authority.
In his letter to the Emperor, he observes in the first place that the claims of the patriarch of Constantinople are based upon political considerations and have nothing in common with the primacy of St. Peter which is of divine institution.
'Secular things stand upon a different footing from things divine; and apart from the one Rock which the Lord has laid for a foundation no building can be stable.... Let it suffice him' (the patriarch Anatolius) 'that he has obtained the bishopric of so great a city with the aid of your piety and the support of my favor. He should not disdain the royal city, even though he cannot change it into an apostolic see; and let him on no account hope to succeed in exalting his own position at the expense of others.... Let him remember that it is to me that the government of the Church has been entrusted. 1 should be responsible if the rules of the Church were infringed through my acquiescence (far be it from me!) or if the will of a single brother had more weight with me than the common good of the Lord's whole house.' (ibid., 995)
'The agreements of the bishops which are contrary to the holy canons of Nicaea ... we declare to be null and void, and by the authority of the blessed Apostle Peter we annul them completely by a general decree.' (ibid., 1000)
In his reply to the petition of the bishops of the fourth council, the Pope confirms his approval of their dogmatic decree (formulated on the lines of his own letter to Flavian) as well as his annulment of the twenty-eighth Canon.
'Your Holiness will be able,' he writes, 'to appreciate the reverence with which the Apostolic See observes the rules of the holy Fathers, by reading my writings in which I have rejected the claims of the bishop of Constantinople; and you will understand that I am, with the help of the Lord, the guardian of the Catholic faith and of the decrees of the Fathers.' (ibid., 1027 sqq)
Although St. Leo, as we have just seen, did not think an ecumenical council necessary in the interests of dogmatic truth after the definitions contained in his letter, yet he considered it very desirable for the peace of the Church; and the spontaneous and unanimous adherence of the council to his decrees filled him with joy. In such a voluntary unity he saw the ideal relationship within the hierarchy.
'The merit of the priestly office,' he writes to Theodoret, bishop of Cyrus, 'gains great luster where the authority of those in command is so maintained that the liberty of those under obedience appears in no way diminished.' (ibid., 1048)
'The Lord has not allowed us to suffer harm in the person of our brethren, but what He had already laid down through our ministry He subsequently confirmed by the irrevocable assent of the whole brotherhood to show that it was indeed from Himself that "the dogmatic act" proceeded which was first promulgated by the chief of all sees and then received by the judgment of the whole Christian world so that in this also the members might be in agreement with the head.' (ibid., 1046-7)
The learned Theodoret, as is well known, had been accused of Nestorianism but had been exculpated at the council of Chalcedon; he himself, however, regarded this judgment as only provisional and applied to the Pope for a final decision. St. Leo pronounced him orthodox 'in the name of our blessed God Whose invincible truth has shown thee to be clean from all stain of heresy according to the judgment of the Apostolic See'; and he adds: 'We acknowledge the exceeding care of blessed Peter for us all, who not only has confirmed the judgment of his see in the definition of the faith, but has also vindicated those who were unjustly condemned,' (ibid., 1053)
But while he recognized in voluntary agreement the ideal of ecclesiastical unity, St. Leo clearly distinguished in this unity the element of authority from the element of deliberation, the decision of the Holy See from the consent of the ecumenical council.
The ideal of the Church requires such consent on the part of the whole brotherhood; the life of the Church is incomplete without an entire unanimity; but even this universal consent has no real basis and can produce no result without the decisive action of the central authority, as the history of the Church abundantly proves.
The last word in all questions of dogma and the final confirmation of every ecclesiastical act belongs to the see of St. Peter. Hence in his letter to Anatolius, the patriarch of Constantinople, regarding a cleric of that city, Atticus, who was to recant his heretical opinions and submit himself to the judgment of the fourth council, St. Leo draws an essential distinction between his own part in the decisions of the ecumenical council and the part played by the Greek patriarch:
'He' (i.e. Atticus) 'must promise to maintain in all points the definition of faith of the council of Chalcedon to which your charity has assented and subscribed and which has been confirmed by the authority of the Apostolic See' (ibid., 1147)
The fundamental principle of Church government could not be better formulated than by drawing St. Leo's distinction between the authority which confirms and the charity which assents. It is assuredly no mere primacy of honor that the Pope claims in these words. On the contrary, St. Leo allows a complete equality of honor among all bishops; from that point of view all were for him brethren and fellow-bishops.
It was on the other hand the distinction of power which he explicitly asserted. The brotherhood of all does not exclude for him the authority of one. In a letter to Anastasius, bishop of Salonica, on certain matters which 'have been entrusted to his brotherly care by the authority of the blessed Apostle Peter' (ibid., 668) he sums up the conception of the hierarchical principle thus:
'Even among the blessed Apostles, there was side by side with an equality of honor a distinction of authority; and though all were equally chosen, nevertheless pre-eminence was given to one over the others. On the same principle distinction is made between bishops, and the mighty design of Providence has ordered it that all may not claim every prerogative but that in each province there should be someone possessing primacy of jurisdiction' (literally 'prime judgment') 'over his brethren; and again that those presiding in the larger cities should receive a wider responsibility, that through them the care of the Universal Church might ultimately rest upon the one see of Peter and that no part should anywhere be separated from the head.' (ibid., 676)
The ultimate warrant and sanction of this 'mighty design of Providence' consists, according to St. Leo in the fact that the one head of the Church, with whom the rights and obligations of all are bound up, does not owe his power to the ordinance of man or to the accidents of history but represents the impregnable rock of truth and justice laid down by the Lord Himself as the foundation of His social structure. It is no mere consideration of expediency but the ratio pietatis which is invoked by him who has received the government of the whole Church e divina institutione. (ibid., 646)
November 10, 2004
St. Leo the Great
With apparent strong conviction of the importance of the Bishop of Rome in the Church, and of the Church as the ongoing sign of Christs presence in the world, Leo the Great displayed endless dedication in his role as pope. Elected in 440, he worked tirelessly as "Peters successor," guiding his fellow bishops as "equals in the episcopacy and infirmities."
Leo is known as one of the best administrative popes of the ancient Church. His work branched into four main areas, indicative of his notion of the popes total responsibility for the flock of Christ. He worked at length to control the heresies of Pelagianism, Manichaeism and others, placing demands on their followers so as to secure true Christian beliefs. A second major area of his concern was doctrinal controversy in the Church in the East, to which he responded with a classic letter setting down the Churchs teaching on the nature of Christ. With strong faith, he also led the defense of Rome against barbarian attack, taking the role of peacemaker.
In these three areas, Leos work has been highly regarded. His growth to sainthood has its basis in the spiritual depth with which he approached the pastoral care of his people, which was the fourth focus of his work. He is known for his spiritually profound sermons. An instrument of the call to holiness, well-versed in Scripture and ecclesiastical awareness, Leo had the ability to reach the everyday needs and interests of his people. One of his Christmas sermons is still famous today.
BTTT on the (New Calendar) feast of St. Leo the Great.
In Orthodoxy, his feast is celebrated on February 18.
The truth of things hath revealed thee to thy flock as a rule of faith, an icon of meekness, and a teacher of temperance; for this cause, thou hast achieved the heights by humility, riches by poverty. O Father and Hierarch Leo, intercede with Christ God that our souls be saved.
Seated on the priestly throne, O great and glorious Leo, with the Holy Trinity's inspired and God-given doctrines thou didst stop the gaping mouths of spiritual lions and didst shine upon thy flock the light of God-knowledge, and art glorified now as a divine initiate of the sublime grace of God.
As an aside, the Orthodox Church does not understand the words of +Leo in the same manner the Latin Church apparently does.
BTTT on the Memorial of St. Leo the Great, November 10, 2006!