Santa Maria in Cosmedin, one of
the seven ancient diaconal Churches
that served as a food distribution
station for Rome's poor in the ealry
and central Middle Ages
Ever since the earliest days of the Church, not only at Rome but throughout Christendom, bishops were elected by the clergy and faithful of their diocese and then confirmed by the bishops of the surrounding Churches who gathered to consecrate the new bishop through the laying-on-of-hands and the invocation of the Holy Spirit. As the centuries went on this process often degenerated into mob activity. One of the most famous examples was the election of a bishop in Milan in 374 when competing factions—one Arian, the other orthodox, were fighting in the streets and the civil magistrate sent to put down the disturbance, a catechumen named Ambrose, ended up being chosen despite the fact that not only was he not a priest but he was not even yet baptized. It was, of course, a great choice—Saint Ambrose is one of the great bishops of the Church. Most of the time, and especially in Rome, the outcome was not so fortunate. Part of this was that the electoral process was out of control. The clergy numbered in the hundreds and the faithful of the Roman Church was nothing more than a mob. Changes had to be made.
By the early Middle Ages, the seventh or eighth centuries, in Rome the election devolved on the priests in charge of the principle churches of the city as well as the seven deacons attached to the papal household, and the deacons who headed up the seven diaconal churches. These diaconal churches were not parish churches, or even primarily worship sites; they were centers where relief was given to the poor—like Catholic Charities centers today. One of their most important functions was distribution of grain to the poor—grain from the vast papal estates in Sicily and southern Italy was brought to Rome for poor-relief. In addition to the principle priests and deacons—there were many more priests and deacons in the city other than these ones who had greater responsibility—the bishops of Rome’s seven suburbican (adjoining) sees formed part of the electoral process. It fell to them to ordain the new pope if he were not a priest and to consecrate him a bishop if and when he was. It was very rare in the early Middle Ages for the new pope to be a bishop as there were canons which forbad a bishop to move from one diocese to another—even to Rome and the papacy. A bishop was considered “married” to the Church of which he was bishop and being consecrated a bishop was a life-long commitment. This helped avoid some of the ambitious ladder-climbing that too often mars the hierarchy today. Sometimes, but in those early years, not often, this canon was overlooked. Election of the Roman bishop by the city’s principal priests, deacons, and the suburbican bishops was not sufficient however. Before the candidate could be consecrated and enthroned, he had to be presented to the faithful for their acclamation. This is where the mob violence often came in.
There had been an attempt in the fifth century to replace the popular election process by having a pope appoint his successor. Anastasius II who reigned from 496-498 prohibited this practice and insisted that the pope, like other bishops, had to be elected by the clergy and people. In the seventh an d eighth centuries The Emperors at Constantinople claimed the right to confirm the papal election but this practice fell into disuse after Zachary I in 741. Emperors also claimed the right to depose popes and while a number were forced to resign, by the end of the eighth century the actual power of the Byzantine Emperors to enforce their decrees in central or Northern Italy was nil. (Southern Italy was a different story and remained under Greek control into the tenth century.) As the Constantinople emperors lost control of Italy and Rome, it created a power vacuum that the Roman mobs filled. We saw what happened at the end of the ninth and into the early tenth centuries when the papacy went through what was probably its absolute low-point with the “pornacracy” of the Theophylact family controlling the papacy through the machinations of the mother-daughter team of papal mistresses, mothers, grandmothers of Theodora and Marozia.
Stephen III was the pope (768-772) who first used the term “cardinal” to describe the priests and deacons who appointment to the principal churches gave them voice in selecting the new pope. It came from the Latin, cardo, for hinge or pivot—the idea being that the priests of the principal churches and the deacons in charge of the seven diaconal charity stations were the operational pieces of the administrative machinery of the Roman Church that held it together. From the fifth century onwards, Rome had seen a surplus of churches being built as monastic foundations were made inside the city, as prominent citizens decided to build family churches for their special events—especially for burial, and as various civic organizations built churches in which their members could gather for prayers. Wealthy individuals whose petitions had been answered through the invocation of a particular martyr or saint often built a church as a thank-offering to their heavenly patron. In the same way, the number of clergy was growing fast as the elaborate papal ceremonial developed and as these various new churches needed clergy to carry on the services. Many of these clergy came to Rome from all over Europe and had no history with the Roman Church. Morevover, it became impractical to allow a clergy numbering in the hundreds, between priests and deacons, to have a voice in selecting the papal candidate to present to the faithful for acclamation. (The lesser clergy—subdeacons, acolytes, exorcists, lectors, etc. never had a voice in the selection process.) Thus by designating certain churches, the older and more important, as cardinal churches and their clergy as cardinal priests or cardinal deacons to whom the right of nomination was reserved a more manageable system was devised. But it would still be almost three centuries before the right was exclusively theirs. It still resided with the Roman faithful—or as we have seen, the Roman mob—to accept the candidate offered. Further changes were still needed if Rome was to have decent popes.