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All this was obviated in the early constitution of the Church. So struck were some of the pagan emperors
with the Church system, that one, more keenly alive to the social influence of Christianity than others, declared that he had rather hear of the revolt of a province than of the election of a bishop; whilst another, more liberal-minded, ordered that the prætors should be chosen by the people by vote, in the same manner as the Christians elected their bishops.
As every man has natural wants, so has every man spiritual requirements. As there is a tendency in one man to encroach on the natural rights of his neighbours, so is there a tendency in one man to deny the spiritual rights of his neighbours ; this, the Protestant spirit, the setting up of the “I-myself” as the rule for every one else, is the great danger to the unity and concord of religious humanity.
To preserve to all men their prescriptive religious rights, to prevent one man from trampling on the convictions of another man, an organization is necessary which shall represent all men. If it be the representative of a few it is a religious aristocracy, if of one it is a theocracy.
The only possible mode of conciliating all rights, and of assuring to all men the free expression of their religious wants, is to intrust to all the election of their officers. Then the officer is responsible to all, he is the representative of all.
This is precisely the scheme of self-government adopted by the Church. No other scheme could comport with the object of the organization; nay, more, every other scheme must violate some rights, and allow the few or the many to constrain those who did not see or feel as themselves.
The Church was a city (civitas) organized on the soundest basis of common advantage. Every member was an elector. The bishops were chosen by the vote of the people, but the election was confirmed by the bishops of the province. On the death of a bishop, the clergy and laity of the diocese proceeded to elect a successor. They then presented their candidate to the metropolitan, who convened the bishops of the province, and submitted the nominee of the diocese to their approval. The concurrence of the bishops was required because the new prelate would act officially with them, and the theory of the ecclesiastical constitution was, that all who had anything to do with the officer should have a voice in his nomination. Thus, the prelate represented neither the laity exclusively, nor the priests alone, nor the episcopal interest only.
If it be necessary for the ideally best social organization, that every member should be represented, and he is represented if he exercises a vote; it is also necessary for the promulgation of its laws, for the ventilation of its wants, and for the preservation of its discipline, that its representatives should meet for discussion and for determining the laws and usages of the society. And that, and that alone, can be the mode in which the society will speak authoritatively. Ecumenical Councils are therefore another first requisite for the well-being of the society.
When any matter of difficulty or doubt arose in a diocese, a synod was called, in which it was discussed and decided by the vote of the majority. If, however, the matter affected the neighbouring dioceses, a provincial convocation was summoned, and in it the matter was ventilated, and argued, and finally voted upon. If, however, the whole Church was interested in the question, the whole Church met to debate it by its representatives in a General Council, which was thus the voice of the whole Church, that is of Christ in His social aspect. And because Christ, individual or social, must be infallible, therefore the decision of an Ecumenical Council, accepted by the whole Church, is infallible.
For convenience in legislation, the bishoprics were grouped into provinces, and the provinces into patriarchates; but such arrangement was de bene esse alone. Thus the archbishop exercised jurisdiction by the voluntary assent of the bishops constituting his province, and the patriarch was the freely chosen head, primus inter pares, of a cluster of archbishoprics, which voluntarily submitted to his rule. The thirty-third canon of the Apostolic Constitutions lays down the doctrine of primacy thus: “It behoves the bishops of every people to know who among them is to be held as first, whom they may esteem as their head, πρώτον ως κεφαλήν, and they are not to do anything without the knowledge of all, that there may be unanimity.” The Council of Antioch, reviewing this canon, gave the name of metropolitan to the first bishop in each province: “It behoves the bishops of each province to know which bishop is to be metropolitan” (Can. 9). The Council of Laodicæa named the metropolitan as president at the election of bishops (Can. 12).
The thirteenth canon of Laodicæa (360-70) enjoins that the selection of the bishop is to be made by the people over whom he is destined to bear rule. The tenth canon of the Council of Rome, held under Innocent I., alludes to the same practice which prevailed in the patriarchal see. The Council of Milevis having deposed Maximinianus, Bishop of Vaga, sent letters to the people of that diocese to elect his successor. The Council of Carthage, in 407, ordered that when a body of heretics joined the Church, they should elect a bishop to preside over them, unless they were resident in an already constituted diocese.
The Council of Constantinople, in 861, decreed in its twenty-second canon, that kinys and great men have no authority or right to nominate patriarchs, metropolitans, or bishops, but that it is their duty to recognize those who have been canonically chosen.
In the fifth century Pope Zosimus condemned the usurpation of two bishops who had been consecrated without the suffrages of their dioceses (Ep. 3). Celestine I. wrote to the bishops of France, that no one was to be made bishop without the consent of the clergy and people and senate. S. Leo, in his 89th Epistle, lays down the same rule as being one that prevailed throughout the universal Church, and he says, “Qui praefuturus est omnibus ab omnibus eligatur.” A similar statement occurs in several of the letters of S. Gregory the Great; and again we find Gregory VII., the famous Hildebrand, insisting on the same rule as late as 1076.
It was not without a struggle that the Crown wrested from the Church her rights, and it did so only by brute force. The history of the subjection of the Church in France will illustrate what took place in other countries as well. The second Council of Arles (circ. 445) ordered that the ancient rule should be somewhat modified in the French Church; that the metropolitan and the bishops should nominate three candidates, and propose these three to the clergy and people, who should elect one of them.
The second Council of Orleans (533) ordained in its seventh canon, that the metropolitan of the province should be elected by the laity and clergy of the diocese and by the bishops of the province conjointly, and that the bishops should consecrate him.
The Council of Clermont (535) decreed that none should rise to the episcopal or archiepiscopal office by ambition, but solely by his merits; that holiness of life, and not wealth, should render him eligible, and that advancement to the sacred office should not be due to the favour of a few, but to the suffrages of all; that he who was to be bishop must of necessity be chosen by the clergy and people, and must be ordained by his metropolitan, or with his consent.
The second Council of Orleans, in repeating this old law, added that it was but right and reasonable that he who is to preside over men should be elected by them.
The third Council of Paris (557) made the same rule, and protested that the Crown must not be suffered to wrest the right of nomination of bishops from those whom Catholic tradition and the practice of the universal Church had recognized as the true and lawful electors.
The fifth Council of Paris (615) decreed that an appointment to a vacant see made by other than the people and clergy, with the concurrence of the archbishop, should be null and void. King Clothaire, understanding that this canon was levelled against royal interference, refused to ratify it at first, and only yielded by adding a codicil of his own to the effect that the nominee must receive confirmation from the sovereign before the bishops might lawfully consecrate.
In the third Council of Valence (855) it was declared that, to prevent the preferment of ignorant or unfit persons to bishoprics, the king should be petitioned to permit the people and clergy of the vacant diocese to elect their own bishop, and that should the king desire any one to be elected, he must submit his qualifications to examination by the canonical electors.