Pontifex Maximus - Roman Catholic Use of The Title

Roman Catholic Use of The Title

When Tertullian, a Montanist, furiously applied the term to some bishop with whom he was at odds (either Pope Callixtus I or Agrippinus of Carthage), c. 220, over a relaxation of the Church's penitential discipline allowing repentant adulterers and fornicators back into the Church, it was in bitter irony:

In opposition to this, could I not have acted the dissembler? I hear that there has even been an edict sent forth, and a peremptory one too. The "Pontifex Maximus," that is the "bishop of bishops," issues an edict: "I remit, to such as have discharged repentance, the sins both of adultery and of fornication." O edict, on which cannot be inscribed, "Good deed!" ... Far, far from Christ's betrothed be such a proclamation! —Tertullian, On Modesty ch. 1

It is not clear if the word Pontifex, the word used in Latin for the Jewish high priest, as in John 11:49 and Hebrew 5:1, was commonly used by early 3rd-century Christianity, as it was later, to denote a bishop.

The last traces of Emperors being at the same time chief pontiffs are found in inscriptions of Valentinian I, Valens, and Gratian (Orelli, Inscript. n1117, 1118). From the time of Theodosius I (r. 379–395), the emperors no longer appear in the dignity of pontiff, but the title was later applied to the Christian bishop of Rome. In 382, the Emperor Gratian, at the urging of Ambrose, removed the Altar of Victory from the Forum, withdrew the state subsidies that funded many pagan activities and formally renounced the title of Pontifex Maximus. It is said that Pope Damasus I was the first Bishop of Rome to assume the title, Other sources say that the use of such titles by bishops, including the Bishop of Rome, came later. The title pontifex continued to be a title for both the bishop of Rome and other bishops. In Emperor Theodosius's edict De fide catholica of 27 February 380, enacted in Thessalonica and published in Constantinople for the whole empire, by which he established Catholic Christianity as the official religion of the empire, he referred to Damasus as a pontifex, while calling Peter an episcopus : "... the profession of that religion which was delivered to the Romans by the divine Apostle Peter, as it has been preserved by faithful tradition and which is now professed by the Pontiff Damasus and by Peter, Bishop of Alexandria ... We authorize the followers of this law to assume the title Catholic Christians ..." Some see in this an implied significant differentiation, but the title pontifex maximus is not used in the text; pontifex is used instead: "... quamque pontificem damasum sequi claret et petrum alexandriae episcopum..." (Theodosian Code XVI.1.2; and Sozomen, "Ecclesiastical History", VII, iv.).

The Encyclopædia Britannica says that Pope Leo I (440–461) assumed the title Pontifex Maximus, while other sources say Gregory I (590–604) was the first pope to employ the title in a formal sense. or on the contrary that Pope Siricius (384–399) assumed the title. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church says that it was in the 15th century (when the Renaissance stirred up new interest in ancient Rome) that "Pontifex Maximus" became a regular title of honour for Popes.

While the title Pontifex Maximus has for some centuries been used in inscriptions referring to the Popes, it has never been included in the official list of papal titles published in the Annuario Pontificio, which instead includes "Supreme Pontiff of the whole Church" (in Latin, Summus Pontifex Ecclesiae Universalis) as the fourth official title, the first being "Bishop of Rome".

The terms pontifex maximus and summus pontifex were for centuries used not only of the Bishop of Rome but of other bishops also. Hilary of Arles (d. 449) is styled "summus pontifex" by Eucherius of Lyons (P. L., L, 773), and Lanfranc is termed "primas et pontifex summus" by his biographer, Milo Crispin (P. L., CL, 10); they were doubtless originally employed with reference to the Jewish high-priest, whose place the Christian bishops were regarded as holding each in his own diocese (I Clement 40), but from the 11th century they appear to be applied only to the Pope. The Roman title of "Pontifex Maximus" was rendered in Greek inscriptions and literature of the time as "ἀρχιερεύς" (literally, "high priest"|) or by a more literal translation and order of words as "ἀρχιερεὺς μέγιστος" (literally, "greatest high priest". The term "ἀρχιερεύς" in the Septuagint text of the Old Testament and is used in the New Testament to refer to the Jewish high priest.

The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church says that it was in the 15th century that "Pontifex Maximus" became a regular title of honor for Popes.

The title of "Pontifex Maximus", which is now applied to the pope, though not included in his official list of titles, thus has a very ancient history, dating back to the times of the Roman Republic. The only title applied to the Pope that has a longer documented history is the word "pope" itself (in Greek, "πάππας"), which is found already in the time of Homer. This title likewise is not included in the official list of his titles, but is used in official documents (such as the headings of encyclicals and similar documents) far more commonly than the title "Pontifex Maximus", which is in practice used in little more than inscriptions of buildings.

  • The title Pontifex Maximus was briefly used, from 1902 to 1906, by the head of the Philippine Independent Church.

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