Michael O’Hare’s post below on Chinese bishops points out that the Vatican’s conflict with the PRC over the appointment of bishops closely parallels its mediaeval run-ins with Henri II Plantagenêt and the Emperor Heinrich IV. I follow Norman Davies’ convention of naming rulers in their usual language, which in Henri’s case wasn’t English. It wasn’t in any case diplomatese for either of them; a letter of Heinrich’s to Pope Gregory VII ends: I, Henry, king by the grace of God, with all of my Bishops, say to you, come down, come down, and be damned throughout the ages.
Toynbee is unfashionable but he was surely right to argue that the importance of these controversies was that nobody won: kings and popes checked each other in a fruitful Madisonian tension that nurtured modern political concepts. The Papacy only secured its current exclusive control over the appointment of bishops with the disappearance of the Catholic monarchs in the last century, an absurd centralisation which has allowed John-Paul II’s policy of appointing far too many second-rate yes-men.
Which brings me to the question: why does the Pope retain the bizarre title of Supreme Pontiff , the chief priest of the pagan civic cults of Ancient Rome?
As an ignorant Protestant, I used to think this was a silly piece of antiquarianism. It is antiquarianism, but not silly.
Under the Roman Republic the civil magistracy and the priesthood were separate, though it’s not clear whether the title pontifex has to do with metaphorical bridge-building to the supernatural or a prosaic charge of maintaining critical public infrastructure. The job carried immunity from prosecution – any citizen could charge a returning provincial governor with crimes, but I suppose it would be too easy to prosecute a priest for an augury that turned out to be wrong. During the brutal manoeuvering that led to the collapse of the Republic, Julius Caesar had himself elected Supreme Pontiff to enjoy this handy privilege. Augustus kept the tradition on, as another element of the republican façade behind which he hid the reality of autocratic power.
So things stood until Constantine – who changed the state religion to Christianity, but kept the office of Supreme Pontiff. This signified a real claim to control the Church; Constantine chaired the critical Church Council of Nicaea in 325 CE. Popes bowed to the ruthless and domineering Constantine, but a few years later Eusebius and Ambrose persuaded his malleable and pious successor Gratian to give up the office. Apparently the Popes didn’t claim it themselves before Gregory the Great two centuries later. Why did he bother? It was valueless against pagans and negative in internal Christian disputes (“I told you he’s a crypto-pagan”). I think the purpose was simply insurance against the caesaro-papal claims of a second future Constantine, a very real risk as it turned out, though much later.
So those old Romans peering at chicken entrails have had a small part in the germination of freedom of conscience.