We have previously written that the crisis of the institution-hierarchy-Church is rooted in the absolute concentration of power in the person of the pope, power exercised in an absolutist form, with no participation of the Christians. This creates practically insurmountable obstacles for ecumenical dialogue with other Churches.
It was not that way at the beginning. The Church was a fraternal community. The figure of the pope did not yet exist. The Church was led by the emperor, rather than by the bishops of Rome or of Constantinople, the two capitals of the empire, because he was the Supreme Pontiff (Pontifex Maximus). Thus, emperor Constantine called the first ecumenical council of Nice (325) to resolve the question of the divinity of Christ. Even in the VI century, the primacy of right was claimed by emperor Justinian, who reunited the Western and the Eastern sections of the Empire, rather than the bishop of Rome. Nonetheless, since the tombs of Peter and Paul are in Rome, the Roman Church had special prestige. Her bishop, before the others, had the “presence in love” and “performed Peter’s service,” that of “confirming in the faith”, but not Peter’s supremacy in leadership.
Everything changed with pope Leo I (440-461), a great jurist and statesman. He copied the Roman form of power, namely, the emperor’s absolutism and authoritarianism, and began to interpret strictly in juridical terms the three texts of the New Gospel related to Peter: Peter as the rock on which the Church would be built (Mt 16,18), Peter as the one who confirms in the faith (Lk 22,32), and Peter as Shepherd, who has to care for His flock, (Jn 21,15). The biblical and Jesuanic meaning follows a totally different path: one of love, service and renunciation of any honor. But the absolutist reading of Roman law predominated.
Consequently, Leo I assumed the title of Supreme Pontiff and Pope in the proper sense. Thereafter, other popes began to use the imperial insignia and apparel, the purple, the mitre, the golden throne, staff, stoles, pallium, and cape. Palaces with their courts were established, and palatial habits were introduced that cardinals and bishops still retain to the present. This scandalizes more than a few Christians, who read in the gospels that Jesus of Nazareth was a poor laborer, without pomp. Thus it began to be clear that the leaders are closer to Herod’s palace than to Bethlehem’s manger.
But there is a phenomenon that is hard to fathom: in the drive to legitimize this transformation and guarantee the absolute power of the pope, a series of false documents was forged. First, a purported letter from pope Clement (+96), Peter’s successor in Rome, addressed to James, the brother of the Lord, the great pastor of Jerusalem, in which he said that before he died, Peter had determined that he, Clement, and evidently the others who would come after, would be the sole legitimate successors. A still greater falsification was the famous Gift from Constantine, a document forged in the period Leo I, according to which Constantine made a gift of the entire Roman empire to the pope of Rome. Later on, during the disputes with the French kings, there was another great fabrication, the Pseudo decrees of Isidore, a collection of false documents and letters that reinforced the juridical primacy of the Roman pope, presented as if they were from the first centuries. It all culminated in the XIII century with the Codex of Gratian, that became the basis of canon law, but which derived from falsifications and norms that reinforced the central power of Rome, together with actual canons that had circulated among the churches. Of course, this was all unmasked later on, but without a single modification of the absolutism of the popes. Still, it is lamentable, and mature Christians should know the tricks used and conceived to create a form of power that is totally contrary to the ideals of Jesus, and that obscures the fascinating Christian message,which is the carrier of a new type of exercise of power, one that is helpful and participative.
Subsequently there was a crescendo of the power of the popes: Gregory VII (+1085) in his Dictatus Papae (The Pope’s Dictatorship) proclaimed himself to be the absolute lord of the Church and of the world; Innocence III (+1216) declared himself the vicar-representative of Christ and finally, Innocence IV (+1254) elevated himself to the representative of God. As such, under Pius IX in 1870, the pope was proclaimed infallible in the areas of doctrine and morality.
Curiously, none of these excesses has ever been denounced or corrected by the hierarchical Church, because they benefit the hierarchy. They continue to be a source of scandal for those who still believe in the Nazarene, a poor, humble artisan and Middle Eastern peasant, persecuted, crucified and resurrected to rise up against all grabs for power and more power, even within the Church. The contrary understanding clearly omits something: the true vicars-representatives of Christ, according to the Gospel of Jesus of Nazareth (Mt 25,45) are the poor, the thirsty and the hungry. And the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church exists to serve them, not to take over from them.