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Wonderful Leo

In the Church’s early centuries, “most major heresies originated in the Greek East. But all of them were defeated on the same ground by the intellect, the logic, the mystical intuition, and the biblical scholarship of the Greek Fathers, or their Hellenized allies of the Near East.”

This is what contemporary Greek Orthodox scholar Demetrios J. Constantelos sees in early Church history (Understanding the Greek Orthodox Church, p. 121). His first sentence is accurate; the second is pure romantic revisionism. Every major heresy of the East was forever branded as such and overcome by the authority of the bishop of Rome.

The founders of the Eastern heresies (called “heresiarchs”) all had intellect, logic, mystical intuition, and biblical scholarship to back up their erroneous teaching. All appealed to tradition. Only an authoritative interpretation of the faith could finally overrule them. The Eastern churches lacked that authoritative final word. In every case, Eastern bishops appealed to the pope to supply that word, and, exercising his universal jurisdiction, he did, exactly as Christ had intended. (See Matt. 16:13-19, Lk. 22:31–32, Jn. 21:15–17.)

It is an axiom of Eastern Orthodox apologists that in the early Church no bishop had authority over any other bishop. They contend there can be no power over a local church (by which they usually mean a diocese, rather than a local congregation). Why? Because, as Emilianos Timiadis noted, that power “would be outside the Church and be a power over the Church of God” (Mid-Stream, vol. 20 [1981], p. 18). The assertion proves nothing. Timiadis’ argument continues: “Power over a local Church would mean power over a eucharistic assembly, in other words, over Christ himself.”

The latter assertion was never made by Eastern apologists until centuries after the Eastern churches broke away from the papacy. In early centuries, when the popes repeatedly exercised their authority over churches in the East as well as in the West, never once was it suggested that the popes were trying to exercise authority over Jesus Christ.

Undeterred by contrary facts, Eastern apologists assert that each bishop was independent from the beginning of the Church. John Meyendorff repeats common Catholic truth when he says that the celebrant of the Eucharist serves as the image of Christ. But from this he draws the erroneous conclusion that there can be no power over the celebrant. Indeed, he says, very ” basis, the nucleus of Orthodox ecclesiology itself” is that there can be no power over the local bishop except the power of Jesus Christ himself (Catholicity and the Church, p. 135).

How the Pope Caught a Robber” (This Rock, June 1998) discussed the infamous “Robber Synod” of Ephesus of A.D. 449. It was occasioned by the heresy of Eutyches, heresy later known as “Monophysitism,” one-nature-ism. Overreacting against Nestorianism (two persons in the one Christ), Eutyches taught that in the Incarnation Christ took human nature but swallowed it up, so to speak, in his divine nature. The council was called to impress on Eutyches and his followers the condemnation of Monophysitism issued by Pope Leo. Instead the heretics took over the council and deposed leading bishops who held to the orthodox faith.

In condemning the Eutychian heresy, Pope Leo issued his famous Tome, setting forth the Church’s faith that the incarnate Lord is fully God, fully man, two natures in one divine person. The patriarch of Alexandria, Dioscorus, who ruled the Robber Synod with an iron hand, refused to allow the pope’s Tome to be read. Pope Leo condemned the council and declared its members to be deposed from their offices as bishops. This settled the fate of the Robber Synod.

It remained for the Council of Chalcedon to implement Pope Leo’s decisions. More than 600 bishops were present, almost all (except the pope’s legates) from the East. The pope directed the council to depose Dioscorus if he persisted in his heresy; to restore the bishops who had been deposed by that Synod; to reinstate bishops of that Synod who were truly repentant; and to issue a definition of faith that reflected Leo’s teaching in the Tome.

Every action taken by the Council of Chalcedon reflected its conviction that as successor to Peter the pope enjoyed supreme authority over the whole Church. With regard to the punishment of the unrepentant Dioscorus, the delegates unanimously asked the pope’s legates to pronounce the sentence of deposition because they spoke with the authority of Leo. Note carefully the subject and the predicate of the Council’s statement deposing Dioscorus:

“Wherefore Leo, the most holy and blessed Archbishop of great and older Rome, by us and by the present holy synod, together with the thrice blessed and worthy of all praise, the blessed Apostle Peter, who is the rock and foundation of the Catholic Church, and the foundation of the orthodox faith, has stripped him [Dioscorus] of his episcopate and deprived him of all sacerdotal dignity” (italics added). It was Leo, acting through the Council, who deposed Dioscorus. This is a significant exercise of papal authority, deposing the incumbent of the second see of Christendom with the unanimous approval of 600 Eastern bishops. What more striking declaration of universal papal authority could one ask for? Yet Meyendorff declares the basis and nucleus of Orthodox ecclesiology is that there can be no power over a local bishop. Had he qualified his reference to “Orthodox ecclesiology” with the phrase “post-schism,” his statement would be accurate. As it now stands, it is wrong.

Incidentally, Anglicans and Eastern Orthodox who claim to accept the full authority of the early ecumenical councils should ponder what this fourth ecumenical council teaches about Peter the Rock. What/who is “the rock and foundation of the Catholic Church?” Not Peter’s faith, as Anglicans and other Protestants claim. Not Peter as a symbol of all bishops, as the Eastern Orthodox hold. No, the Apostle Peter himself is “rock and foundation.”

The Chalcedonian fathers sent a report to the emperor detailing the reasons why Dioscorus had been deposed by Pope Leo, acting through the council. They also wrote an account of their action to the empress Pulcheria, telling her that the bishops deposed by the Robber Synod had been restored to their sees, “Christ our Lord having prosperously directed their course, who shows the truth in the wonderful Leo—for as he used the sapient Peter, so He uses also this champion of the truth.”

As with all the other heresies, so with Monphysitism: Neither scripture nor creeds nor previous ecumenical councils nor tradition—nor all of them together—could prevent the rise of this heresy. In fact, the heretics appealed to all these sources in support of their opinions. Nor could another ecumenical council rob a heresy of its venom. As our series of articles has shown, the first three ecumenical councils became authoritative only by action of the pope. So it was with the Council of Chalcedon. As we shall see in later articles, so was it with the next three ecumenical councils.

The fathers of Chalcedon unanimously aligned themselves with the faith set forth in Pope Leo’s Tome. Never in the council proceedings was the Tome discussed. Pope Leo had spoken; nothing remained to be discussed. Some bishops admitted need of further instruction in order clearly to understand Leo’s teaching. Indeed, Leo himself approved the instruction so that the bishops’ could give fully informed assent to the doctrine he set forth.

The council informed the emperor it had promulgated the doctrine of Leo. The council fathers spoke of Leo in glowing terms. Referring to him as “the Holy Father,” they wrote, “God has given the synod a champion against every person in the person of the Roman bishop, who like the ardent Peter, desire to lead everyone to God.” They asked the emperor to act graciously by “setting his seal to their godly decrees, and confirming the preaching of the See of Peter.”

Of all the general councils, the Council of Ephesus in 431 spoke most fully about the bishop of Rome’s intimate and unique relationship to St. Peter as his successor. During the sessions of the Council of Chalcedon, however, even more references were made to that relationship. In all instances the import of the references is to explain the present authority of Pope Leo, under whose direction and watchful eye (through the eyes of his faithful legates present at the council) the council carried on its work.

How can an Eastern Orthodox apologist explain this, holding as he does that the pope had no authority over any other bishop? Very simple, says Meyendorff: It was all a matter of politeness. In the early centuries when Eastern fathers decided the pope’s intervention in doctrinal and ecclesiastical matters was “necessary and useful,” the fathers did mention the role of St. Peter in connection with the bishop of Rome. But those mentions had no doctrinal or juridical import. They “belonged rather to the realm of diplomatic politeness and never implied a clear recognition of Rome as the only final criterion of Christian truth” (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Quarterly, vol. 6, no. 2 [1961], p. 64).

If as the Eastern Orthodox contend the pope had only a “primacy of honor,” with no juridical power over any other bishop, how could his intervention in the continual Eastern doctrinal civil war everbe “necessary” or even “useful”? If Eastern Orthodox ecclesiology was based on the proposition that there could never be any authority over a local bishop (not to mention a patriarch), then to invoke the pope’s intervention would be an insult to the bishops over whom he was asked to exercise authority. Why would they even consider obeying his commands? And therefore why would his intervention ever be even “useful”?

It is inconceivable that the pleas over the centuries—from Eastern bishop after patriarch after bishop—to the pope to settle doctrinal disputes the East so readily created but could never resolve were nothing more than “diplomatic politeness.” The final strain on our credulity is that, according to the Easterners, this “diplomatic politeness” masked a conviction that the pope had no authority over any other bishop anyway.

Anti-papal apologists are hard-pressed to explain the fact that in all the early Church’s tumultuous history (indeed, right up to the present day) the popes always stand uncompromising on the side of orthodoxy. Eastern apologists cannot ignore the fact. They do refer to it, calling it the source of the papacy’s prestige; but they do not explain why the popes were always right.

G.asping at straws to explain this phenomenon, Eastern Orthodox writer Methodius Fouyas maintains that during the religious conflicts of the fourth century the bishops of Rome “almost always had the intelligence and the good fortune to take that side which, according to the natural development of dogma, must carry the day” (Fouyas, quoting German theologian Karl von Hase, in Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism, p. 134). ” Almost always”? When didn’t they? The quotation, which gives no hint what “the natural development of dogma” means, does give a simple explanation of the popes’ consistent orthodoxy: They were lucky!

So go the efforts of anti-papal apologists. They can never explain away the hard fact that from the first century onward the popes exercised universal jurisdiction over the kingdom whose keys Jesus Christ had entrusted to St. Peter and all his successors.


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