There is no unequivocal evidence about the status of the pope in the earliest days of the church. That he was accorded special honor as the successor of St. Peter is acknowledged, but whereas Roman Catholic historians hold that the peculiar position of the Holy See was recognized and accorded authority, non-Catholic historians in general contend that the bishop of Rome was accorded honor over the other bishops, not authority. As missionaries sent directly from the city founded new churches throughout the West, more and more reverence was given to the pope. The Roman church was being enriched with gifts by converts, and it supported struggling young churches everywhere and supplied funds for charitable foundations all over Italy.
As the political power of the city of Rome declined, the pope inherited some of the Roman emperor's position as symbol and defender of civilization. The combination of assurance and intrepidity in dealing with barbarian attacks and rulers of emerging states in this period (300–700) was a mark of the great popes—saints Julius I, Innocent I, Leo I, Gregory I, and Martin I. The papacy gained prestige in the West and was powerful in doctrinal disputes, especially in the struggles over Arianism, Monophysitism, and Monotheletism.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.