Authority and Duty: Columbanus and the Primacy of Rome

Authority and Duty: Columbanus and the Primacy of Rome

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Authority and Duty: Columbanus and the Primacy of Rome

Bracken, Damian (Department of History, NUI Cork)

Peritia, 16 (2002) 168–213


Columbanus’s letters are among the earliest examples of literature written by an Irishman and one of the first acknowledgements of the primacy of Rome from the pen of a barbarian. Many scholars have discerned a truculence, if not arrogance, in his letters to the popes. In many cases, his direct manner of speaking has obscured for a modern readership the extent of his knowledge of the nature of Roman primacy and his acceptance of many of the principles on which that primacy rests. Particularly in his letter to pope Boniface IV, Columbanus draws on these principles, in the first instance to acknowledge the primacy of the bishop of Rome, but also to remind the pope of the duties of leadership. Columbanus wrote Letter 5 at the time of the Three Chapters controversy when, following the doctrinal wavering of pope Vigilius, the churches of the West had either broken off communion with Rome or viewed its bishop with suspicion. In that context, Columbanus’s call on the bishop of Rome to fulfil his role of ‘watchman’ of the church was less an affront to his dignity than an affirmation of his authority.

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