Did The Romans Transfer The Empire To The Pope? Chapter 30 ~ William Of Ockham

What is the source of the Roman Empire?

Opinion 2: The Roman Empire was established by God through the Roman people

Did the Romans transfer the Empire to the pope?

Chapter 30

Student According to that opinion the Romans were able to transfer to the pope every right they had over the empire, and so the empire could be from the pope.

Master According to one opinion, the Romans not only could have transferred every right to the pope, but did in fact do so. And from then on the empire was from the pope, and from then on, therefore, the pope had both swords, not in the sense of execution but in the sense that he could commit the power of the material sword to whomever he wished. And in this way, according to that opinion, the apparent contrariety of many canons and very many glosses on the decrees and decretals is solved.

Student If the Romans transferred every right of theirs to the pope, or were able to do so, they therefore transferred or were able to transfer to him the execution of the material sword, and so the pope either has or can have the material sword, in the sense of the execution of it.

Master The answer is that the Romans were able to transfer to the pope every right and power that the whole multitude of Romans had, yet were not able to transfer every right that some person or some particular or special number of Romans had. For they could not give to him every right that the Roman emperor had nor every right that the senators or the prefect of the city had. And so they could not transfer to the pope the particular rights of persons, congregations, colleges or particular communities. It was not the whole community of the Romans, however, who had the execution of the sword, but the emperor or some other person under him or some particular community. And therefore the community of the Romans was not able to transfer to the pope the execution of the material sword.

Student According to that opinion, neither in temporal nor in spiritual matters does the pope have plenitude of power to be able to do everything.

Master That opinion regards it as heretical to say that the pope can do everything, because neither from God nor from a man nor from men does he have the power to do everything, since from God he does not directly have the material sword, neither in the sense of its execution nor in the sense that he can commit its execution to another. He certainly has, or can have, the material sword from a man or from men, in the sense that he can commit to another the execution of the material sword, yet he does not have the material sword in the sense of its execution.

Student What right over the Roman empire, therefore, did the Romans transfer, or were they able to transfer, to the pope?

Master The answer is that they were able to confer on him the power of making arrangements for the promoting of the emperor, that is, that he himself elected the emperor or committed to others the power of electing him.

Student It is certain from what our fathers have said that the pope intervened in many matters that concerned the emperor and the empire. And according to that opinion the pope does not have any special power from God over the emperor and the empire more than he has over other kings and kingdoms, but has it only from the Romans. What right over the empire, therefore, did the Romans in fact transfer to the pope?

Master The reply is that no one can answer this, except someone who had carefully looked at the papal privileges, trustworthy registers, or authentic writings about this kind of transfer or about the right over the empire that was conferred on the pope, because the Romans were able to confer on the pope a more or less substantial right over the empire. They were also able to give this sort of right to the apostolic see or only to the person of the pope. They were also able to give it to the pope for one succession or for many.

Student Should trust be placed in a solitary assertion on this side by a pope saying that the whole right of the Romans over the empire has been transferred to him, even if he does not show this by authentic writings or by other proofs?

Master The reply is that no matter with what dignity it shines the assertion of one man should never be believed to the prejudice of others (the whole of 6, q. 2,) and therefore trust should not be granted to the assertion on this side of a single pope to the prejudice of the Romans unless he brings forward competent proofs.

Student Can the pope lay claim to the right and power to make a disposition about the empire on the basis that he has been accustomed to interfere in the disposition of the empire, since custom acquires the force of law and custom gives jurisdiction and, consequently, a right and legitimate power?

Master The reply is that in connection with those matters which the pope has legitimately commanded against the Romans he has right and power, but not in connection with other matters.

William of Ockham, Dialogus
part 3, tract 2, book 1, chapters 18-31

Text and translation by John Scott.
Copyright (c) 1999, The British Academy