Why is the Supreme Pontiff?

Why is the Pope still called the Supreme Pontiff of pagan Rome?

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.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

9 thoughts on “Why is the Supreme Pontiff?”

  1. I'm not altogether certain it was Constantine who made Christianity the Roman state religion; I had thought the later Theodosius did that, whilst Constantine had merely decriminalised it. Constantine himself, for all his talk about visions of crosses in the sky, didn't turn Christian till on his deathbed, and even then, for all that he had convoked the council of Nicaea, was baptised by an Arian.

  2. Gregory the Great spent much of his reign dealing with a very live and kicking Roman Emperor named Maurice who lived in Constantinople and maintained an exarch in Ravenna. You can't understand early medieval history without remembering that Constantinople was one of the superpowers of the time.

  3. Alan: I take your point that Gregory was also, and perhaps mainly, underlining the Papacy's independence from control by the Byzantine emperors, who saw themselves as the heirs of the pagan Roman ones. In that case, "Pontifex Maximus" would be something of a diplomatic in-joke, subsidiary to the magnificent "servus servorum dei" he also adopted, I think in response to a more grandiose title adopted by the Patriarch of Constantinople.
    Ethelred the far from redeless: sorry, but I don't pretend to post scholarly historical articles, only commentary on current affairs informed by some historical culture. Thanks for your and Mrs Tilton's clarifications, but nothing you say affects my argument. And my name is spelled correctly on the website!

  4. I wanted to post my deep appreciation of the phrase, "an absurd centralisation which has allowed John-Paul II's policy of appointing far too many second-rate yes-men."
    I would like to discover a way to insert it into casual conversation on a regular basis!
    I will also take the opportunity point out that, although my name is a Normanization of the Anglo-Saxon "Ethelred," the poster "Ethelred (the unready)" & I are separate & distinct entities (unless you are a monist).

  5. if Prior Aelred is actually a prior named Aelred and is located in a midewestern state not far from a city containing an important center of medieval studies at the local state university, then (a) I am surprised to see him here, but (b) delighted since he and my wife and I have known one another for 3 decades, since my wife's father is a lay oblate of the monastery of which he is prior.
    And if all of this is gobbledook because the screen name is merely a screen name, you can ignore this comment. But if I am accurate, feel free to contact me at kber at earthlink dot net

  6. It's of course true that Henry II didn't speak English, for the simple reason that English didn't exist yet. At that time the native people of England spoke Anglo-Saxon, sometimes called "Old English," which was an entirely different language from what we speak.
    But Henry II didn't speak French either, for the same reason – French didn't exist.
    Henry II spoke Norman. Norman still survives – barely – in the Channel Islands.
    In Norman, Henry's name was spelled – surprise! – "Henry." In fact, he was "Le Roy Henry," King Henry.
    The reason the name "Henry" in English – and the names "Roy" and "Leroy" for that matter – use the letter "y" is that English adopted the Norman spelling, not the "i" spelling of the Paris-based language that became modern French.

  7. I was brought up in Jersey and can confirm that jerriais is almost certainly dead in the sense that while you can find native speakers, no children are currently being raised with it as their mother tongue. But it is plainly a dialect of French, just as the Chanson de Rolland is a work of French literature. So is the Roman de Rou composed by Guillaume's doggedly prolific court bard Wace, that my wife had to plough through when she studied French at Oxford. A sample of its literary quality, which is as comprehensible as William McGonagall:
    Jo vo dirai que jo suis
    Wace de l'isle de Jersui.
    (Spelling approximate, from memory of a proud inscription in the Jersey public library.)
    I'll pass on the question how far exactly the language Henri/Henry did not share with his Saxon subjects had already evolved from Anglo-Saxon towards the creole we speak now, dropping Germanic inflections, standardising on the French "s" for plurals and so on. Whatever it was, it's called Middle English.

  8. Ahem, as a former Soviet president used to say. 'Byzantine' was invented by Gibbon, who also invented most of the Byzantine reputation for behaving like the Bush administration. Maurice thought of himself as a Roman emperor, not an heir, as did most of his contemporaries including Gregory the Great. You have to wait for the reign of Heraclius and the loss of Egypt, Syria and Palestine to Islam before you can begin to sustain a Romans v Byzantines argument.

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