Haeres Petri – Leo the Great and Authority

(This is Neil) Today is the feast day of St Leo the Great, pope. Thus, it would seem to be a good idea to consider some of his writings. Here, I would like to do so very briefly with the aid of an article in last year’s International Journal for the Study of the Christian Church by Douglas Powell. (The article is actually the edited version of one of Reverend Powell’s unpublished papers. He died in 1994.) It has to do with a rather important question: How did Leo speak of the authority of the papacy?

To answer this question, Powell looks at the term haeres Petri (“heir of Peter”), which occurs a few times in Leo’s 96 sermons. What could this term mean? It seems like a legal term, but it occurs in Leo’s anniversary sermons, not, as one would expect, in the letters that deal with juridical matters. Furthermore, Leo speaks of himself as indignus haeres (“so unworthy an heir”), which would mean that – legally speaking – he wouldn’t inherit. But, obviously, Leo feels that he has inherited. Lastly, in a legal context, an heir inherits after the original possessor becomes defunct. But Leo does not believe that St Peter, who he says perseveres “in the strength of the Rock which he has received,” is defunct.

So, then, what is going on here? We must conclude that the term is devotional, not juridical, and has to do with Leo’s devotion to Peter – particularly the “solid” faith of Peter in the church’s one foundation, Jesus Christ. Leo, for instance, reflects on Peter in Sermon III:

[Christ] has not Himself abandoned the guardianship of His beloved flock. And from His overruling and eternal protection we have received the support of the Apostles’ aid also, which assuredly does not cease from its operation: and the strength of the foundation, on which the whole superstructure of the Church is reared, is not weakened by the weight of the temple that rests upon it. For the solidity of that faith which was praised in the chief of the Apostles is perpetual: and as that remains which Peter believed in Christ, so that remains which Christ instituted in Peter.

Thus, for Leo, Peter is distinguished by the “solidity” and “stability” (firmitas, stabilitas, soliditas) of his faith. In Sermon IV, we read that Christ “prays especially for Peter’s faith for the state of the rest will be more secure if the mind of their princeps be not overthrown.” And “the assistance of divine grace is so ordained that the stability (firmitas) which through Christ is given to Peter should through Peter be transmitted to the other apostles.”

Being an “heir of Peter,” then, means being the heir of the one who received the charismatic gift of having the “primacy of faith” (Lk 22:32) to “strengthen [his] brothers.” The difficult questions of faith in the fifth century had to do with the Incarnation. The “plenitude” of faith in the Incarnation was contained in Peter’s declaration, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Leo – as Peter’s heir – had authority to resolve these pressing questions.

But this authority was based on the recognition that the Church of Rome, from Peter onwards, had always kept the faith, and, in Powell’s words, “had thereby preserved that fundamentum without which the Church would collapse and fall apart. This was the basis of its auctoritas.” Powell notes that this idea of the “primacy of faith” was so important later – in the late medieval period – that it was held that a Pope who lapsed into heresy simply could not be considered “heir of Peter.”

So, what might this practically mean for us? When we think and speak about the papacy, particularly with our Protestant and Orthodox brothers and sisters, perhaps we should not begin by discussing legal and jurisdictional questions. For Leo, any primacy in honor or rank comes from a primacy of faith. Perhaps, then, we should begin by asking how the primacy of the Bishop of Rome might serve to strengthen the faith in all the local churches through its own firmitas, soliditas, stabilitas.

How might such a primacy be described? Here, I think, we can look at the end of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission’s 1999 Agreed Statement, The Gift of Authority:

Such a universal primate will exercise leadership in the world and also in both communions, addressing them in a prophetic way. He will promote the common good in ways that are not constrained by sectional interests, and offer a continuing and distinctive teaching ministry, particularly in addressing difficult theological and moral issues. A universal primacy of this style will welcome and protect theological enquiry and other forms of the search for truth, so that their results may enrich and strengthen both human wisdom and the Church’s faith. Such a universal primacy might gather the churches in various ways for consultation and discussion.

What do you think?

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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