This paper argues that a new notion of priestly office is articulated in Latin Christianity during the last days of the western Roman Empire.
Today, we presume a basic distinction between an office and its occupant. In the ancient world, office was bound up in the person of its holder. Its conferral rewarded or recognized achieved moral and social status, not the other way round, and personal disgrace amounted to official disqualification. At the turn of the fifth century, however, in the course of the intensely competitive clerical politics of North Africa, Augustine of Hippo (d. 430) made a radical suggestion: that priestly office did not depend on the character of those who held it.
This was a revolutionary notion, not fully worked out by Augustine himself, and one which took centuries to become influential. A record of the African Church councils, along with Augustine’s texts, reached Rome in the course of the fifth century. In the 490s, we see popes starting to experiment with asserting Augustine’s view of the priesthood, and the development of canon law compilations to support these assertions. The paper concludes with a discussion of how Pope Gregory the Great (d. 604) both supported and undermined this new conception of office.