Saint Siricius is someone who took the papacy in directions that I would not have, but perhaps that's why he's a saint and I am just a blogger. I briefly thought about not giving him his due today; certainly there are other worthy saints to be honored. But Siricius is part of the story of where we (western Christians) have come from. Jesus did not say one must know whence one came to know where one will go, but the proximity implies a linkage. To take no chances, let's acknowledge contributions of Pope Saint Siricius.
Even if I testify on my own behalf, my testimony is valid, for I know where I came from and where I am going. But you have no idea where I come from or where I am going.
Portrait courtesy of one-evil.org
1. The late fourth century was a perilous time time for the papacy. Although it had the official support of the Roman Emperor, electors included laymen. The urban tradition of mob rule had thrown at least one election uncertainty, resulting in the exile of Anti-Pope Ursicinus (he lacked Al Gore's grace and noble deference to the greater good). Although Siricius, a papal deacon, had been duly elected in December 384 to succeed Damasus, Ursicinus made a second play for top spot. Emperor Valentinian II issued a rescript confirming Siricius' election and further entwining imperial and papal authorities. I don't blame Siricius for this, but it took a long time to undo the damage.
2. Rescripts, by the way, are imperial decrees. They get their name because they were copied (rewritten) to be sent to every praefect and proconsul in the Empire. Uniformity of law was something to be admired and desired. Siricius emulated this practice with decretals -- papal orders that were copied and sent to every bishop (well, every metropolitan, anyway) in Christendom. Uniformity of belief might be desirable, but the enforcement of orthodoxy had two problems associated with it. First, belief is not the same as practice. Men may follow laws without believing in their justice, but men may not believe without feeling the correctness. Thus many were forced to violate their consciences for the sake of complying with the decretals. The second problem is that the concentration of power over orthodoxy opens the doors of abuse and corruption, eventually inviting popes like Alexander VI.
3. The earliest extant papal decretal is from Siricius. It ordered married priests to stop cohabiting with their wives. This is the earliest document ordering priestly celibacy, an issue that continues to divide the Church. There is a case to be made for it -- the inheritance of episcopal property and titles was problematic enough without patriliny -- but the case against it is stronger.
4. There's a claim that Siricius was the first bishop of Rome to be called Papa (father, pope). There's a counterclaim that most bishops were called Papa, just as most RC priests are called Father. The likely truth is that he, like other bishops, was called Papa, but that his belief in the primacy of the Bishop of Rome led to the identification of the papacy with that one seat rather than with all bishops. How this is reconciled with Matthew 23:9 -- Call no man your father on earth, for you have one in heaven -- is as debatable as priestly celibacy.
The best I might say for Pope Saint Siricius is that he was a man for his times. Chesterton might counter that if something were true for one time, it is true for all time. Truth is not relative or situational. The UCC would answer him that God is Still Speaking. We won't heal the one holy catholic and apostolic Church until we acknowledge the legitimacy of multiple pathways to God, and Siricius' insistence of condemning heretics (e.g. Bishop Bonosus of Sardinia and a monk named Jovinian) didn't help. Nonetheless, he is part of where we have come from. He is acknowledged as a saint. This post is no more (and quite possibly less) than his due.