The Title Pontifex Maximus

This explains the origin of the title "Pontifex Maximus" for the Papacy

written by Mark Bonocore

Title "Pontifex Maximus" or "Supreme Pontiff"

<< One of the most amazing aspects about the ascendancy of the papacy is that the church of Rome promotes the pope as the "Pontifex Maximus" or, Supreme Pontiff. The title Pontifex Maximus is mentioned numerous times by the early church fathers (particularly by Tertullian), but it was not applied to a Christian bishop. The early church fathers say that the Pontifex Maximus was the "King of Heathendom", the evil high priest of the pagan mystery religion of Rome. It is certainly not likely that Christ appointed Peter "Pontifex Maximus" of Rome. >>

Of course Christ didn't appoint Peter to be the Pontifex Maximus. And of course the early Church Fathers spoke of the Pontifex Maximus in such derogatory, paganistic ways. Because when theearly Fathers were writing, the Pontifex Maximus was the head of the Roman pagan religion, and the Roman Empire itself was pagan. As any student of Roman history knows, the Pontifex Maximus was an imperial office, usually held by the Emperor himself, which made one the "chief priest" of the Roman "state cult."

Now as I said, in the days of the early Fathers, this "state cult" was paganism and Emperor worship. Yet, when Constantine the Great became the first Christian Roman Emperor, the "state cult" changed to Christianity. Now, oddly enough, the first Christian emperors all still retained the title of Pontifex Maximus (a traditional title for Emperors) which, under imperial law (though not Church law), actually made them the "Head of the Church" ! It was by this authority, for example, that Constantine called the Council of Nicaea (325 AD) to settle the Arian controversy.

Indeed, it was not until the Empire split in two, with the Western Empire going to the pious, youthful Emperor Gratian (c. 360 AD) that the Pope was given the title Pontifex Maximus. Indeed, feeling that it was not right for he himself to carry that title (since he was, after all, not a Christian priest) the pious young Emperor bestowed it upon Pope Damasus I, who became the first Pope in history to hold the title "Pontifex Maximus."

Yet, this was only a legal title; and the Popes didn't pay much attention to it at the time, but continued to maintain that their authority came from the Apostle Peter and Peter alone. It was not until the Popes began to conflict with several heretical Eastern Emperors (who, by the way, never relinquished the title "Pontifex Maximus" in the Eastern Empire) that the Popes began asserting their legalauthority under imperial law.

This is why the Pope is referred to as the "Pontifex Maximus" or "Supreme Pontiff" today, and not because of any carry-over from paganism. Just as there were pagan Emperors and Christian Emperors, just as there are pagan kings and Christian kings, so there are pagan Pontiffs and Christian Pontiffs. Our critic's anti-Catholic prejudice prevents him from appreciating this.

As for Tertullian's reference to Pontifex Maximus (cited by our critic above), this is most interesting indeed since, despite our critic's spin on things, it is a powerful proof for the authority of the early Roman Papacy. As already described by both the author and myself, Tertullian was (at the time) a Montanist heretic who clashed with Pope Callistus I (c. 220 AD) over Callistus' relaxation of the Church's penitential discipline, allowing repentant adulterers and fornicators back into the Church, even if they were "repeat offenders."

Now, as our critic pointed out, Callistus cited his Petrine authority to "bind and loosen" to validate his decree. In response, the heretical Tertullian has this to say:

"In opposition to this [modesty], 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 [the requirements of] 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!" (On Modesty 1, Ante-Nicene Fathers IV:74)

Now Tertullian is obviously being sarcastic in calling Pope Callistus by such names as "bishop of bishops" and "Pontifex Maximus" -- both of these titles, as I said, being imperial pagan ones at this time (c. 220 AD). However, the mere fact that Tertullian (a heretic) is referring to the Pope this way, shows that Pope Callistus wielded authority outside of his own bishopric and throughout the universal Church.

Indeed, Tertullian continues to criticize Pope Callistus, saying:

"I now inquire into your opinions, to see whence you usurp the right for the Church. Do you presume, because the Lord said to Peter, 'On this rock I will build my Church ...[Matt 16-19]' that the power of binding and loosing has thereby been handed over to you, that is, to every church akin to that of Peter? What kind of man are you, subverting and changing what was the manifest intent of the Lord when He conferred this personally on Peter? 'On you,' He says, 'I will build my Church; and I give to you the keys'...." (Tertullian, On Modesty 21:9-10)

So, what does this tell us? While Tertullian (a Montanist heretic, who at this time did not recognize Apostolic succession or any Church authority) criticizes it, the fact is clear that here in 220 AD, Pope Callistus is claiming authority based on his direct succession from St. Peter and using that authority to change a Church discipline that remained changed from then on. This fact cannot be avoided. In other words, the view of the heretic Tertullian was not the view of the rest of the universal Church.

See also the detailed article The Primacy of Peter, the Papacy and Apostolic Succession

Mark Bonocore