Farewell to Gelasius

Peter J. Leithart
December 1, 2011
Category: History,Politics,Theology - Ecclesiology

Dumont argues that the Gelasian “two powers” theory is often misread.  The theory is not a simple hierarchy, the state subordinated to the church, but a “hierarchical complementarity.”  Priests are indeed superior to kings, but they are “subordinate to the king in mundane matters that regard the public order” and thus are “inferior only on an inferior level.”  By the Gelasian theory, “if the Church is in the Empire with respect to worldly matters, the Empire is in the Church regarding things divine.”

Things are quire different with Stephen II and Leo III.  By the ninth century, the complementary hierarchy has been replaced with Papal assertions concerning their supreme political power, their sovereignty in mundane worldly matters: “the Popes have, through a historical choice, canceled Gelaius’ logical formula . . . For Gelasius’ hierarchical dyarchy is substituted a monarchy of unprecedented type, a spiritual monarchy.”  The two powers differ “not in their nature but only in degree” and the “field is unified, so that we may speak of spiritual and temporal ‘powers.’”

The intention is to assert the superiority of the Pope and the church, but the effect is more ambiguous, and in some respects the opposite:

“the movement is . . . double-edged: if the Church becomes more worldly, conversely the political realm is made to participate in absolute, universalist values.  It is, so to speak, consecrated, in a quite new manner.”  In the anti-Gelasian formula we can see the first stirrings of “a particular political unity [that] may in its turn emerge as a bearer of absolute values, as the modern State.”  In this sense, Dumon argues, “the modern State is not in continuity with other political forms: it is a transformed Church, as is readily seen in the fact of its not being made up of different functions or orders, but rather of individuals.”

Saying farewell to Gelasius thus paved the way for modern nationalism and statism, but the Gelasian formula (as Dumont describes it) was inherently unstable.  Kings were to “bend a submissive head to the ministers of divine things” (Gelasius’ word) but the religious leaders had to recognize that in the arena of “public discipline” the “imperial power” had been conferred on the king, and that the priests had to obey laws pertaining the “worldly matters.”  But the lines are never as neat as Gelasius describes them: Is an unjust tax policy a “divine thing” or a matter of “public discipline”?  Gelasius’s theory seems to rest on an ability to discern the indiscernible difference of soul and body.


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