Gelasian Letter

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GELASIAN LETTER

This letter, often referred to by its opening words Famuli vestrae pietatis (Ep. 8, PL 59:4147; Ep. 12, Thiel's Epistolae rom. pont. 1:349358), was written by Pope gelasius i (492496) in 494 to the Byzantine Emperor Anastasius I. Its importance is in the fact that it is held to be "the most famous document of the ancient Church concerning the 'two powers' that exist on earth" (Denz 347) and that it states what has come to be called the Gelasian theory on relations between Church and state. The oft-repeated sentence runs: "Duo quippe sunt, imperator auguste, quibus principaliter mundus hic regitur: auctoritas sacra pontificum et regalis potestas There are indeed, Your Majesty, two [powers] by which this world is mainly ruled: the sacred authority of pontiffs and the royal power."

Though this central thesis of Gelasius is plainly enough stated, one who would derive from it a complete theory on the exact relations between the Church and civil societies under all circumstances would hardly escape the charge of rashness. The judgment of S. Z. Ehler and J. B. Morrall can perhaps be endorsed: "Silence on the question of what were in practice the limits of each sphere made it [letter and theory] ambiguous when borderline instances occasioned a clash between the two powers. This ambiguity is shown by the fact that both papalist and imperialist supporters in the medieval controversies appealed to Gelasius with equal freedom" [Church and State through the Centuries (Westminster, Md. 1954) 11].

The point of Gelasius' teaching is better appreciated if one recalls that the letter forms one incident in the whole series of incidents that occurred after and in consequence of the Council of Chalcedon (451) and more precisely during the acacian schism. This split between East and West arose out of the deposition (484) by Pope Felix III of Acacius, Patriarch of Constantinople, and was not healed until 519. It was then, during this period of friction, that the Pope wrote the letter to the Emperor, reproaching Anastasius for his support of the schismatical tendencies of the patriarchs of Constantinople.

If the occasion demanded a frank statement of the autonomy of the episcopate in deciding the doctrine and the discipline of the Church, an independence for which the Church had been struggling since the days of Constantine (cf. similar declarations of Athanasius, Ambrose, Augustine, Gregory of Nazianzus, and John Chrysostom in Lo Grasso Eccl), it did not suggest to Gelasius that a "distinction" of powers should evolve into a "separation" of powers. Gelasius' view of the relationship between the two powers can be read in that passage of the letter in which he states that "in the interests of their salvation much more will the people of Constantinople necessarily obey you, if you lead them back to the catholic and apostolic communion. For, Your Majesty, if you would not permit a man under any pretext to act against the laws of the State, don't you think that it is a matter of conscience for you to restore the people subject to your authority to an unsullied and genuine devotion to God?" For Gelasius the Emperor will be acting properly if he exerts his not inconsiderable influence to effect at the public level Christian religious unity on the lines laid down by the legitimate authority of the combined episcopate under the leadership of the successor of Peter.

The letter therefore is composed within the framework of a theory of two distinct "powers" in a Christian world rather than of two distinct "societies." It takes for granted a close cooperation between these two powers as well as a profession of religion on the part of the State. It does not examine the problem it treats in the light of the religious liberties of the individual nor does it envisage the relations between the Church and a State of divided religious allegiance. One of its main purposes is to insist that bishops are not mere ministers for public worship in the imperial "cabinet," but are immediately empowered in matters of religion by a distinct divine disposition, a disposition that entitles them to determine without interference from the other "power" the sense of Christian revelation and to enact all appropriate disciplinary measures.

See Also: authority, ecclesiastical.

Bibliography: y. m. j. congar, Catholicisme 3:143041. p. t. camelot, ibid. 4:180103. k. baus, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche 4:630. j. lecler, The Two Sovereignties (New York 1952). j. maritain, Man and the State (Chicago 1951). j. c. murray, We Hold These Truths (New York 1960).

[s. e. donlon]

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Gelasian Letter

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