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§ 63. Leo the Great. a.d. 440–461.


I. St. Leo Magnus: Opera omnia (sermones et epistolae), ed. Paschas. Quesnel., Par. 1675, 2 vols. 4to. (Gallican, and defending Hilary against Leo, hence condemned by the Roman Index); and ed. Petr. et Hieron. Ballerini (two very learned brothers and presbyters, who wrote at the request of Pope Benedict XIV.), Venet. 1753–1757, 3 vols. fol. (Vol. i. contains 96 Sermons and 173 Epistles, the two other volumes doubtful writings and learned dissertations.) This edition is reprinted in Migne’s Patrologiae Cursus completus, vol. 54–57, Par. 1846.


II. Acta Sanctorum: sub Apr. 11 (Apr. tom. ii. p. 14–30, brief and unsatisfactory). Tillemont: Mem. t. xv. p. 414–832 (very full). Butler: Lives of the Saints, sub Apr. 11. W. A. Arendt (R.C.): Leo der Grosse u. seine Zeit, Mainz, 1835 (apologetic and panegyric). Edw. Perthel: P. Leo’s I. Leben u. Lehren, Jena, 1843 (Protestant). Fr. Boehringer: Die Kirche Christi u. ihre Zeugen, Zürich, 1846, vol. i. div. 4, p. 170–309. Ph. Jaffé: Regesta Pontif. Rom., Berol. 1851, p. 34 sqq. Comp. also Greenwood: Cathedra Petri, Lond. 1859, vol. i. bk. ii. chap. iv.-vi. (The Leonine Period); and H. H. Milman: Hist. of Latin Christianity, Lond. and New York, 1860, vol. i. bk. ii. ch. iv.


In most of the earlier bishops of Rome the person is eclipsed by the office. The spirit of the age and public opinion rule the bishops, not the bishops them. In the preceding period, Victor in the controversy on Easter, Callistus in that on the restoration of the lapsed, and Stephen in that on heretical baptism, were the first to come out with hierarchical arrogance; but they were somewhat premature, and found vigorous resistance in Irenaeus, Hippolytus, and Cyprian, though on all three questions the Roman view at last carried the day.

In the period before us, Damasus, who subjected Illyria to the Roman jurisdiction, and established the authority of the Vulgate, and Siricius, who issued the first genuine decretal letter, trod in the steps of those predecessors. Innocent I. (402–417) took a step beyond, and in the Pelagian controversy ventured the bold assertion, that in the whole Christian world nothing should be decided without the cognizance of the Roman see, and that, especially in matters of faith, all bishops must turn to St. Peter.585585   Ep. ad Conc. Cartha. and Ep. ad Concil. Milev., both in 416. In reference to this decision, which went against Pelagius, Augustineuttered the word so often quoted by Roman divines: ”Causa finita est; utinam aliquando finiatur error.” But when Zosimus, the successor of Innocent, took the part of Pelagius, Augustineand the African church boldly opposed him, and made use of the Cyprianic right of protest.“Circumstances alter cases.”

But the first pope, in the proper sense of the word, is Leo I., who justly bears the title of “the Great” in the history of the Latin hierarchy. In him the idea of the Papacy, as it were, became flesh and blood. He conceived it in great energy and clearness, and carried it out with the Roman spirit of dominion, so far as the circumstances of the time at all allowed. He marks the same relative epoch in the development of the papacy, as Cyprian in the history of the episcopate. He had even a higher idea of the prerogatives of the see of Rome than Gregory the Great, who, though he reigned a hundred and fifty years later, represents rather the patriarchal idea than the papal. Leo was at the same time the first important theologian in the chair of Rome, surpassing in acuteness and depth of thought all his predecessors, and all his successors down to Gregory I. Benedict XIV. placed him (a.d. 1744) in the small class of doctores ecclesiae, or authoritative teachers of the catholic faith. He battled with the Manichaean, the Priscillianist, the Pelagian, and other heresies, and won an immortal name as the finisher of the orthodox doctrine of the person of Christ.

The time and place of the birth and earlier life of Leo are unknown. His letters, which are the chief source of information, commence not before the year 442. Probably a Roman586586   As Quesnel and most of his successors infer from Prosper’s Chronicle, and a passage in Leo’s Ep. 31, c. 4, where he assigns among the reasons for not attending the council at Ephesus in 449, that he could not “deserere patriam et sedem apostolicam.” Patria, however, may as well mean Italy, or at least the diocese of Rome, including the ten suburbican provinces. In the Liber pontificalis he is called “natione Tuscus, but in two manuscript copies, “natione Romanus.” Canisius, in the Acta Sanctorum, adopts the former view. Butler reconciles the difficulty by supposing that he was descended of a noble Tuscan family, but born at Rome.—if not one by birth, he was certainly a Roman in the proud dignity of his spirit and bearing, the high order of his legislative and administrative talent, and the strength and energy of his will—he distinguished himself first under Coelestine (423–432) and Sixtus III. (432–440) as archdeacon and legate of the Roman church. After the death of the latter, and while himself absent in Gaul, he was elected pope by the united voice of clergy, senate, and people, and continued in that office one-and-twenty years (440–461). His feelings at the assumption of this high office, he himself thus describes in one of his sermons: “Lord, I have beard your voice calling me, and I was afraid: I considered the work which was enjoined on me, and I trembled. For what proportion is there between the burden assigned to me and my weakness, this elevation and my nothingness? What is more to be feared than exaltation without merit, the exercise of the most holy functions being intrusted to one who is buried in sin? Oh, you have laid upon me this heavy burden, bear it with me, I beseech you be you my guide and my support.”

During the time of his pontificate he was almost the only great man in the Roman empire, developed extraordinary activity, and took a leading part in all the affairs of the church. His private life is entirely unknown, and we have no reason to question the purity of his motives or of his morals. His official zeal, and all his time and strength, were devoted to the interests of Christianity. But with him the interests of Christianity were identical with the universal dominion of the Roman church.

He was animated with the unwavering conviction that the Lord himself had committed to him, as the successor of Peter, the care of the whole church.587587   Ep. v. ad Episcopos Metrop. per Illyricum constitutos, c. 2 (ed. Ball. i. 617, in Migne’s Patristic Libr. vol. liv. p. 515): “Quia per omnes ecclesias cura nostra distenditur, exigente hoc a nobis Domino, qui apostolicae dignitatis beatissimo apostolo Petro primatum fidei suae remuneratione commisit, universalem ecclesiam in fundamenti ipsius [Quesnel proposes istius for ipsius] soliditate constituens, necessitatem sollicitudinis quam habemus, cum his qui nobis collegii caritate juncti sunt, sociamus.” He anticipated all the dogmatical arguments by which the power of the papacy was subsequently established. He refers the petra, on which the church is built, to Peter and his confession. Though Christ himself—to sum up his views on the subject—is in the highest sense the rock and foundation, besides which no other can be laid, yet, by transfer of his authority, the Lord made Peter the rock in virtue of his great confession, and built on him the indestructible temple of his church. In Peter the fundamental relation of Christ to his church comes, as it were, to concrete form and reality in history. To him specially and individually the Lord intrusted the keys of the kingdom of heaven; to the other apostles only in their general and corporate capacity. For the faith of Peter the Lord specially prayed in the hour of his passion, as if the standing of the other apostles would be the firmer, if the mind of their leader remained unconquered. On Peter rests the steadfastness of the whole apostolic college in the faith. To him the Lord, after his resurrection, committed the care of his sheep and lambs. Peter is therefore the pastor and prince of the whole church, through whom Christ exercises his universal dominion on earth. This primacy, however, is not limited to the apostolic age, but, like the faith of Peter, and like the church herself, it perpetuates itself; and it perpetuates itself through the bishops of Rome, who are related to Peter as Peter was related to Christ. As Christ in Peter, so Peter in his successors lives and speaks and perpetually executes the commission: “Feed my sheep.”  It was by special direction of divine providence, that Peter labored and died in Rome, and sleeps with thousands of blessed martyrs in holy ground. The centre of worldly empire alone can be the centre of the kingdom of God. Yet the political position of Rome would be of no importance without the religious considerations. By Peter was Rome, which had been the centre of all error and superstition, transformed into the metropolis of the Christian world, and invested with a spiritual dominion far wider than her former earthly empire. Hence the bishopric of Constantinople, not being a sedes apostolica, but resting its dignity on a political basis alone, can never rival the Roman, whose primacy is rooted both in divine and human right. Antioch also, where Peter only transiently resided, and Alexandria, where he planted the church through his disciple Mark, stand only in a secondary relation to Rome, where his bones repose, and where that was completed, which in the East was only laid out. The Roman bishop is, therefore, the primus omnium episcoporum, and on him devolves the plenitudo potestatis, the solicitudo omnium pastorum, and communis cura universalis ecclesiae.588588   These views Leo repeatedly expresses in his sermons on the festival of St. Peter and on the anniversary of his own elevation, as well as in his official letters to the African, Illyrian, and South Gallic bishops, to Dioscurus of Alexandria, to the patriarch Anatolius of Constantinople, to the emperor Marcian and the empress Pulcheria. Particular proof passages are unnecessary. Comp. especially Ep. x., xi., xii., xiv., civ.-cvi. (ed. Baller.), and Perthel, l.c. p. 226-241, where the chief passages are given in full.

Leo thus made out of a primacy of grace and of personal fitness a primacy of right and of succession. Of his person, indeed, he speaks in his sermons with great humility, but only thereby the more to exalt his official character. He tells the Romans, that the true celebration of the anniversary of his accession is, to recognize, honor, and obey, in his lowly person, Peter himself, who still cares for shepherd and flock, and whose dignity is not lacking even to his unworthy heir.589589    “Cujus dignitas etiam in indigno haerede non deficit,” Sermo iii. in Natal, ordin. c. 4 (vol. i. p. 13, ed. Ball.).“Etsi necessarium est trepidare de merito, religiosum est tamen gaudere de dono: quoniam qui mihi oneris est auctor, ipse est administrationis adjutor.” Serm. ii. c. 1. Here, therefore, we already have that characteristic combination of humility and arrogance, which has stereotyped itself in the expressions: “Servant of the servants of God,” “vicar of Christ,” and even “God upon earth.”  In this double consciousness of his personal unworthiness and his official exaltation, Leo annually celebrated the day of his elevation to the chair of Peter. While Peter himself passes over his prerogative in silence, and expressly warns against hierarchical assumption,590590   Pet. v. 3. Leo cannot speak frequently and emphatically enough of his authority. While Peter in Antioch meekly submits to the rebuke of the junior apostle Paul,591591   Gal. ii. 11. Leo pronounces resistance to his authority to be impious pride and the sure way to hell.592592   Ep. x. c. 2 (ed. Ball. i. p. 634; ed. Migne, vol. 54, p. 630), to the Gallican bishops in the matter of Hilary: “Cui (sc. Petro) quisquis principatum aestimat denegandum, illius quidem nullo modo potest minuere dignitatem; sed inflatus spiritu superbiae suae semetipsum in inferna demergit.” Comp. Ep. clxiv. 3; clvii. 3. Obedience to the pope is thus necessary to salvation. Whosoever, says he, is not with the apostolic see, that is, with the head of the body, whence all gifts of grace descend throughout the body, is not in the body of the church, and has no part in her grace. This is the fearful but legitimate logic of the papal principle, which confines the kingdom of God to the narrow lines of a particular organization, and makes the universal spiritual reign of Christ dependent on a temporal form and a human organ. But in its very first application this papal ban proved itself a brutum fulmen, when in spite of it the Gallican archbishop Hilary, against whom it was directed, died universally esteemed and loved, and then was canonized. This very impracticability of that principle, which would exclude all Greek and Protestant Christians from the kingdom of heaven, is a refutation of the principle itself.

In carrying his idea of the papacy into effect, Leo displayed the cunning tact, the diplomatic address, and the iron consistency which characterize the greatest popes of the middle age. The circumstances in general were in his favor: the East rent by dogmatic controversies; Africa devastated by the barbarians; the West weak in a weak emperor; nowhere a powerful and pure bishop or divine, like Athanasius, Augustine, or Jerome, in the former generation; the overthrow of the Western empire at hand; a new age breaking, with new peoples, for whose childhood the papacy was just the needful school; the most numerous and last important general council convened; and the system of ecumenical orthodoxy ready to be closed with the decision concerning the relation of the two natures in Christ.

Leo first took advantage of the distractions of the North African church under the Arian Vandals, and wrote to its bishops in the tone of an acknowledged over-shepherd. Under the stress of the times, and in the absence of a towering, character like Cyprian and Augustine, the Africans submitted to his authority (443). He banished the remnants of the Manichaeans and Pelagians from Italy, and threatened the bishops with his anger, if they should not purge their churches of the heresy. In East Illyrian which was important to Rome as the ecclesiastical outpost toward Constantinople, he succeeded in regaining and establishing the supremacy, which had been acquired by Damasus, but had afterward slipped away. Anastasius of Thessalonica applied to him to be confirmed in his office. Leo granted the prayer in 444, extending the jurisdiction of Anastasius over all the Illyrian bishops, but reserving to them a right of appeal in important cases, which ought to be decided by the pope according to divine revelation. And a case to his purpose soon presented itself, in which Leo brought his vicar to feel that he was called indeed to a participation of his care, but not to a plentitude of power (plenitudo potestatis). In the affairs of the Spanish church also Leo had an opportunity to make his influence felt, when Turibius, bishop of Astorga, besought his intervention against the Priscillianists. He refuted these heretics point by point, and on the basis of his exposition the Spaniards drew up an orthodox regula fidei with eighteen anathemas against the Priscillianist error.

But in Gaul he met, as we have already, seen, with a strenuous antagonist in Hilary of Arles, and, though he called the secular power to his aid, and procured from the emperor Valentinian an edict entirely favorable to his claims, he attained but a partial victory.593593   Comp. above, § 59. Still less successful was his effort to establish his primacy in the East, and to prevent his rival at Constantinople from being elevated, by the famous twenty-eighth canon of Chalcedon, to official equality with himself.594594   See the particulars in § 36, above, near the close His earnest protest against that decree produced no lasting effect. But otherwise he had the most powerful influence in the second stage of the Christological controversy. He neutralized the tyranny of Dioscurus of Alexandria and the results of the shameful robber-council of Ephesus (449), furnished the chief occasion of the fourth ecumenical council, presided over it by his legates (which the Roman bishop had done at neither of the three councils before), and gave the turn to the final solution of its doctrinal problem by that celebrated letter to Flavian of Constantinople, the main points of which were incorporated in the new symbol. Yet he owed this influence by no means to his office alone, but most of all to his deep insight of the question, and to the masterly tact with which he held the Catholic orthodox mean between the Alexandrian and Antiochian, Eutychian and Nestorian extremes. The particulars of his connection with this important dogma belong, however, to the history of doctrine.

Besides thus shaping the polity and doctrine of the church, Leo did immortal service to the city of Rome, in twice rescuing it from destruction.595595   Comp. Pertbel, l.c. p. 90 sqq., and p. 104 sqq. When Attila, king of the Huns, the “scourge of God,” after destroying Aquileia, was seriously threatening the capital of the world (A. D. 452), Leo, with only two companions, crozier in hand, trusting in the help of God, ventured into the hostile camp, and by his venerable form, his remonstrances, and his gifts, changed the wild heathen’s purpose. The later legend, which Raphael’s pencil has employed, adorned the fact with a visible appearance of Peter and Paul, accompanying the bishop, and, with drawn sword, threatening Attila with destruction unless he should desist.596596   Leo himself says nothing of his mission to Attila. Prosper, in Chron. ad ann. 452, mentions it briefly, and Canisius, in the Vita Leonis (in the Acta Sanctorum, for the month of April, tom. ii. p. 18), with later exaggerations. A similar case occurred several years after (455), when the Vandal king Genseric, invited out of revenge by the empress Eudoxia, pushed his ravages to Rome. Leo obtained from him the promise that at least he would spare the city the infliction of murder and fire; but the barbarians subjected it to a fourteen days’ pillage, the enormous spoils of which they transported to Carthage; and afterward the pope did everything to alleviate the consequent destitution and suffering, and to restore the churches.597597   Comp. Leo’s 84th Sermon, which was preached soon after the departure of the Vandals, and Prosper, Chron ad ann. 455

Leo died in 461, and was buried in the church of St. Peter. The day and circumstances of his death are unknown.598598   The Roman calendar places his name on the 11th of April. But different writers fix his death on June 28, Oct. 30 (Quesnel), Nov. 4 (Pagi), Nov. 10 (Butler). Butler quotes the concession of Bower, the apostate Jesuit, who, in his Lives of the Popes, says of Leo, that “he was without doubt a man of extraordinary parts, far superior to all who had governed that church before him, and scarce equalled by any since.”

The literary works of Leo consist of ninety-six sermons and one hundred and seventy-three epistles, including epistles of others to him. They are earnest, forcible, full of thought, churchly, abounding in bold antitheses and allegorical freaks of exegesis, and sometimes heavy, turgid, and obscure in style. His collection of sermons is the first we have from a Roman bishops In his inaugural discourse he declared preaching to be his sacred duty. The sermons are short and simple, and were delivered mostly on high festivals and on the anniversaries of his own elevation.599599   Sermones de natali. Canisius (in Acta Sanct., l.c. p. 17) calls Leo Christianum Demosthenem. Other works ascribed to him, such as that on the calling of all nations,600600   De vocatione omnium gentium—a work praised highly even by Erasmus, Luther, Bullinger, and Grotius. Quesnel has only proved the possibility of Leo’s being the author. Comp. Perthel, l.c. p. 127 sqq. The Sacramentarium Leonis, or a collection of liturgical prayers for all the festival days of the year, contains some of his prayers, but also many which are of a later date. which takes a middle ground on the doctrine of predestination, with the view to reconcile the Semipelagians and Augustinians, are of doubtful genuineness.



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