2014 is the two thousandth anniversary of the death of Augustus (19th August 14) and also, in a sense, of the Roman Republic. For Augustus’s stepson and successor Tiberius, supposedly on his predecessor’s advice, forthwith abolished the legislative and other sovereign powers of the Comitia – the Assembly of the Roman People – and transferred them to the Senate and the Princeps. As Tacitus (Annals 1.15) records,
The elections were now for the first time transferred from the Campus to the senate: up to that day, while the most important were determined by the will of the princeps, a few had still been left to the predilections of the Tribes. From the people the withdrawal of the right brought no protest beyond idle murmurs; and the senate, relieved from the necessity of buying or begging votes, was glad enough to embrace the change, Tiberius limiting himself to the recommendation of not more than four candidates, to be appointed without rejection or competition.
This revolution (or consummation of a revolution) was an important moment in the translation of the Roman Imperium from the temporal to the spiritual order of which St Thomas and St Leo the Great speak. For Comitia is after all the Latin equivalent of Ekklesia. The Plebs Christiani restored in the spiritual order the right of the Roman People to subject themselves to their magistrates. As St Leo the Great teaches “He who is to govern all, should be chosen by all” and this right was preserved in one way or another (at least in some places) through the chaos of the Völkerwanderung for more than a thousand years until first kings and then the papal curia divested them of it. Even Gibbon notes the irony,
The freedom of election subsisted long after the legal establishment of Christianity; and the subjects of Rome enjoyed in the church the privilege which they had lost in the republic, of choosing the magistrates whom they were bound to obey. As soon as a bishop had closed his eyes, the metropolitan issued a commission to one of his suffragans to administer the vacant see, and prepare, within a limited time, the future election. The right of voting was vested in the inferior clergy, who were best qualified to judge of the merit of the candidates; in the senators or nobles of the city, all those who were distinguished by their rank or property; and finally in the whole body of the people, who, on the appointed day, flocked in multitudes from the most remote parts of the diocese, and sometimes silenced by their tumultuous acclamations, the voice of reason and the laws of discipline. … The authority of the provincial bishops, who were assembled in the vacant church to consecrate the choice of the people, was interposed to moderate their passions and to correct their mistakes. The bishops could refuse to ordain an unworthy candidate, and the rage of contending factions sometimes accepted their impartial mediation. The submission, or the resistance, of the clergy and people, on various occasions, afforded different precedents, which were insensibly converted into positive laws and provincial customs; but it was every where admitted, as a fundamental maxim of religious policy, that no bishop could be imposed on an orthodox church, without the consent of its members. The emperors, as the guardians of the public peace, and as the first citizens of Rome and Constantinople, might effectually declare their wishes in the choice of a primate; but those absolute monarchs respected the freedom of ecclesiastical elections; and while they distributed and resumed the honours of the state and army, they allowed eighteen hundred perpetual magistrates to receive their important offices from the free suffrages of the people.
One of the reasons for the failure of the Republic to survive the transition to Empire was the increasing meaninglessness of the Assembly once the number of Roman Citizens and their distribution across the Mediterranean made it impossible for them to gather in the City and vote for their magistrates and their laws. In the Church the election of each bishop locally turned the Ecumenical Councils of the Christian Empire into something like representative Assemblies of ‘that Republic whose founder and ruler is Christ’ (Augustine). Yet the Bishop of Rome was elected by the Clergy and Laity of the Capital not by such a general council. We tend to think that this is an inferior arrangement to our modern Presidents and Prime Ministers elected by national parliaments or universal suffrage (an arrangement born from the mediaeval laity’s emulation of the religious orders). Yet the attachment of the universal primacy to a local church reflects anthropological reality, it reflects the natural pull of the Demos. The metropolitan media has become effectively the Demos of the modern democracies. This is especially true in Britain where the real power of the local party associations to select their candidates has been so eviscerated (and so the parties are effectively PR firms for hire) but apparently less true in the United States as a result of their primary system. But what of the Church? Many early expressions of the doctrines of indefectibility and infallibility relate to the Roman Church and not to the Bishop specifically. The last Pope to be born in Rome was Pius XII. At the conclave which elected Benedict XVI there was one Cardinal, one, who was from Rome. This Cardinal, Fiorenzo Angelini, is now too old to vote.
I am told by a friend who lived for many years in Rome that the ordinary Roman people are very resentful towards the Curia as a clique of foreigners who have stolen their Church from them. This reflects the problem with the clergy in general. They have become a spango – a self perpetuating autonomous non-governmental organisation. Of course they are not supposed to be non-governmental. They are supposed to be governing the Church but in order to preserve their self-perpetuating autonomy they do not. If the clergy did their job and excommunicated notorious public sinners and heretics then the faithful would demand the restoration of the electoral rights of the laity and take more interest in the morals of the clergy. This would be a nightmare for the incompetent and corrupt presbyterate. Conversely if the clergy were elected they would both behave better as individuals and do their job because they would have to moral authority to do so. Why would they not simply pander to the moral and doctrinal errors of the unfaithful laity and clergy? Because in the end the See of Rome as endowed with infallibility would have to sever communion with them until a faithful remnant reconstituted the local churches. This is after all why Christ endowed the See of Rome with infallibility, because Satan desires to sift the episcopate like wheat. Instead we have transferred all responsibility onto the Bishop of Rome and uprooted him from both the Roman clergy and the Roman people. This is the ecclesiological equivalent of casting oneself from the temple parapet and waiting for the angels to catch us. Except no angels are forthcoming because the prudential decisions of the Popes are not guaranteed. Thus we have substituted the Apostolic and Patristic arrangement which rested upon the genuine promises of Christ to His Church for a presumptuous bureaucratic alternative.