We are at very curious time in ecclesiastical history. On the one hand, the shaky ecclesiology of the Orthodox Churches, already shaken further when Constantinople and Moscow excommunicated each other over the status of Ukrainian Orthodoxy, has received another blow when the section of the latter body that had given its allegiance to Moscow broke it when Putin launched his invasion. The Orthodox seemed reduced to the reductio ad absurdam of their organisational principles. But on the other, the current Successor of St. Peter appears to have achieved a similar reduction by living down to their grimmest charges of the Papacy as a tyranny who believes he can alter Apostolic Tradition on his own whim. Certainly the time has come for believing Catholics to look carefully at that office which has so long defined them.
Integration of Pope and Prince
When Christ established the Mass and the priesthood at the Last Supper, He also united His Davidic Kingship with the Communio of the Church. From that time until the conversion of Armenia in 303, the Catholic Church and her leaders, the successors of the Apostles – with the spiritual heirs of St. Peter at their head – negotiated their way through persecutions at the hands of various pagan, secular regimes. But as successively Armenia, Georgia, Ethiopia, and at last the Roman Empire itself (thanks to Theodosius the Great’s Edict of Thessalonica in 380) adopted the faith as their official religion, Christian Sovereigns – and especially the Roman Emperors – came to see themselves as cooperators with the Popes and the Episcopate in the administration of the Catholic body. This reality was most fully expressed in the role played by successive Emperors in convoking various Ecumenical Councils, from Constantine and Nicaea to Charles V and Trent. It was expressed by Pope Gelasius I in a letter, Famuli vestrae pietatis written in 494 to Byzantine Emperor Anastasius I Dicorus and enshrined in the opening words of Emperor Justinian’s famed legal code: “We desire that all peoples subject to Our benign Empire shall live under the same religion that the Divine Peter, the Apostle, gave to the Romans, and which the said religion declares was introduced by himself…” What Viscount Bryce wrote of the Holy Roman Empire was also true of the Byzantine Empire – both being continuing manifestations of the Christian Imperial idea: “Thus the Holy Roman Church and the Holy Roman Empire are one and the same thing seen from different sides; and Catholicism, the principle of the universal Christian society, is also Romanism…” The various Christian Kingdoms, despite their functional independence, held the same relationship between themselves and the Church. Despite the 1054 excommunications between Rome and Constantinople, the same theoretical relationship between Church and State continued on both sides. Church and State in East and West were the two halves of the Res publica Christiana. War between Christian princes were considered civil wars, which the Church tried to mitigate through the Truce of God (forbidding warfare at certain times) and the Peace of God (and around certain places). Such struggles as the various Crusades were seen as wars on behalf of the whole Christian body.
This reality was expressed in innumerable ways. Liturgically, the rites for Coronations and the prayers for the various kings and for the emperor expressed their roles, as did the specific place the Holy Roman Emperor and the Kings of France and Spain occupied in Papal ritual. They and the king of England were canons of certain basilicas in Rome. The Pope was a Sovereign in his own right over the Papal States, could and did take kingdoms as fiefs, and called the Western Roman Empire back into being – and reserving the right to crown the emperors. But by the same token, the major Catholic Monarchs had the right to veto one candidate each at the conclave. Emperors and kings maintained particular national institutions in Rome and the Holy Land (and many of their successor governments still do). The discovery of the East and West Indies led 16th century Popes to extend the right of Patronage (whereby princes or nobles who endowed abbeys or parishes maintained certain rights over them) to the kings of Spain and Portugal in their American, Asian, and African dominions. This same deep relationship between Church and State continued down to the lowest level of governance; if the local nobles and gentry exercised patronage over the ecclesiastical foundations, bishops and abbots often had ex officio noble titles attached to their specific positions, and were members of the Provincial or National Estates. In addition to the Cathedral, every city and town had a civic church where the mayor and corporation attended Mass; so too did the guilds. Throughout Europe, the parish was the lowest level of both ecclesiastical and temporal governance, with the same council overseeing both church repairs and the expenses of the liturgy on the one hand, and dealing with the poor, militia, and policing matters on the other.
This system worked very well in many places and times – moreover, it had gradually developed as the inherited pagan institutions became ever more Christian. But like any human arrangement, it gave rise to tension between the various players from time to time – not over basic principles, but particular cases. A Prince-Bishop might owe allegiance to the Pope in his episcopal role, and to the emperor in his noble one. Usually, this would not pose too much of a problem; but if his two masters were in conflict, he and his flock would suffer. As the 13th and 14th centuries passed, successive popes came into conflict with various emperors and kings. In Germany and Italy, this led to the rise of the pro-Imperial Ghibellines and the pro-Papal Guelphs, whose fighting between them reduced Italy to chaos, and affected Dante heavily. Then the Great Schism broke out, giving Christendom three popes. The Emperor Sigismund was seen as the only authority capable of ending the strife – even as his predecessor Otto I had ended the Pornocracy of the 10th century. He convoked the Council of Constance, which settled the matter with one Pope in 1415. A little over a century later two major events occurred: the election of Charles V as emperor, who would be the last thus far to try to realise concretely the idea of the Res publica Christiana, and the Protestant revolt, which would end it for the foreseeable future. But if the Guelph idea had triumphed in the West (only to lose the victory thanks to Luther, Calvin, and company), it was the opposite impulse that triumphed in the East. There – both in Constantinople, and in Orthodoxy’s later centre at Moscow – it was the Church’s autonomy that was sunk by the Imperial supremacy, despite the efforts of such as Catholic Bl. Emperor Constantine XI and Alexius of Moscow.
Rooted in the horrors of the Western religious wars of the 17th century, the indifferentist Enlightenment arose in the 18th century; its ideas were given horrible life by the French and following revolutions. The 19th and early 20th centuries saw the successive destruction of the remaining Catholic Monarchies; peacefully or otherwise, Liberalism triumphed in country after country. Seeking to separate Catholicism or whatever dominant body from any effective role in public life was what united Liberalism, Communism, National Socialism, and Fascism.
From the age of revolution forward, successive popes and their clergy acted as the leaders of the resistance to these manifestations, as royals and nobles were defeated or co-opted in country after country. This role was augmented by the fact that pope after pope was in this era much holier and wiser than the average layman, to say nothing of their opponents. A perfect specimen of the breed was Bl. Pope Pius IX, who called valiant young men from all over the Catholic world to defend the Papal States. At the same time, a generation of Catholic lay politicians arose, who carried on the fight wherever the Church was threatened, be it on the battlefield or in parliaments. Far more deferential to the clergy than their royal and noble predecessors they relied upon them for strategic direction – these were called the Ultramontanes; they formed the great Catholic political parties of the era. It was against this backdrop that Vatican I dogmatically defined Papal Infallibility.
After Vatican One
If anything, the loss of the Papal States increased the spiritual prestige of the popes. World War I saw the ruin of most of the last bit of the Catholic temporal order in Europe, although Bl. Charles I of Austria-Hungary briefly shot across the sky like a comet from the days of chivalry. Unfortunately, his betrayal – not merely by politicians, but Vienna’s Cardinal Piffl – was a presage of worse things to come, and not just in Central Europe. In the interwar years Pius XI and XII were the unquestioned leaders of the Catholic people; as with Leo XIII, they issued many fine social and political statements designed for the new liberal republican era, and the Catholic politicians – often clerics themselves – tried dutifully to carry them out. Meanwhile, the theological Modernism that St. Pius X had attempted to squelch (unsuccessfully, as it turned out) slowly grew in nooks and crannies. World War II saw Catholic politicians given the choice of either collaborating with the Germans in hopes of saving something and perhaps eventually achieving their goals – and so being destroyed with them in 1945, or else joining Liberals, Socialists, and Communists in the Resistance. Those who took the latter option would be the fathers of Postwar Christian Democracy.
The 1950s were perhaps the apogee of Papal prestige. Enough of the old ceremonial remained to give the Papal court a patina of antique charm unequalled anywhere save perhaps the Court of St. James. Pius XII’s personal holiness and air of ethereality seemed to give him a kind of personal infallibility. He saw there were troubles brewing ahead. He wrote against them, if unconsciously abetting their fomenters: to deal with dogmatic issues, he wrote Humani Generis – but allowed Karl Rahner to edit Denzinger; he gave us Mediator Dei, a fine expose of liturgical malfeasance – and allowed Annibale Bugnini to begin his ritual redesign. As he had been a staunch ally of the United States against the Nazis, so too did he work with them against the Communists. Whatever it was, if it came from Rome, most Catholics believed it to be Infallible and Pius XII did indeed define the dogma of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
His death brought St. John XXIII to the throne of St. Peter; while maintaining the formality of his predecessor in most respects, he did so with a twinkle in his eye, and won the hearts of millions. John’s deep piety made him encourage devotion to the Precious Blood, and ordered the use of Latin in seminaries in no uncertain terms. But these were overshadowed and then forgotten due to his calling of Vatican II, at the beginning which he died. Without wanting to go too much into the Council, in its wake, every aspect of Catholic life was shaken up. The immense prestige of the Papacy was brought to bear to enforce such changes. Paul Vi’s attempts to “modernise” the papal court primarily consisted of removing most of its remaining lay positions, and dulling down those that remained. But when Paul VI would attempt to actually defend Catholic teaching – as with Humanae Vitae – entire national conferences of Catholic bishops happily ignored him, and encouraged dissent. This, and the same bodies’ refusal to support Catholic politicians keen on fighting both birth control and abortion had the effect of reducing the Christian Democratic parties of Western Europe and Latin America into the mere groups of hunters for government jobs they have been ever since (those in Central Europe tend to rather different, thanks ironically to their experiences under Communism).
After the sad last decade of Paul VI and the brief reign of his immediate successor, St. John Paul II roared into town. Young and vibrant at the beginning of his Pontificate, he became a travelling pope like none other. Attracting crowds across the planet and media savvy, his phenomenologically-inflected language might have been hard to understand, but there was no mistaking his devotion and personal piety. Young people loved him, and he successfully threw his prestige into the ultimately victorious struggle against Communism. He also restored Eucharistic adoration, and began slowly and against much opposition the return of liturgical and theological tradition to the mainstream of the Church. As the years went by, and he became sick, old, and feeble, this pope was obviously walking the Way of the Cross; his greatest regret – a lack of attention to the appointment of bishops – he not only drew attention to, but attempted to rectify in the last few years of his life.
His successor, Benedict XVI, if anything, increased the prestige of the papacy even further than had St. John Paul II – at least if we measure this in terms of pilgrims to Rome. Learned in both the Church Fathers and Scholastics, as well as a participant at Vatican II, he struggled manfully to bring about a reconciliation of the machinery of the Church with its own soul. Piece by piece he restored papal symbols abandoned by his immediate predecessors – realizing, in his humility – that the world and the Church needed not his personality, but renewed papal symbolism. So it went, until he left us.
He was succeeded by Francis, who seems to believe that as pope he has the right to do anything he pleases, and alter the faith at will. When Paul VI attempted something similar, the vast majority obeyed, because of the huge prestige the office had come to have – and because of a sort of “creeping infallibilism” (in the late Chuck Wilson’s pithy phrase) which (because of the historical occurrences we have looked at) had gradually overshadowed all the popes since Vatican I. But that prestige had been largely dissipated by the time of John Paul II and Benedict. They were both wise men in their very different ways – much aware that the Church was not their personal property. In this pontificate, that awareness appears entirely absent.
Lessons from History
So what lessons may we draw from this toboggan ride through Church history? Very often, the solution to one crisis in the Church’s life leads to the next – Arianism’s defeat led to Nestorianism, which in turn spawned Monophysitism in response, as Islam sparked Iconoclasm. The decentralization brought about by the Great Schism fed into the Protestant Revolt, which was quelled by the centralising of Trent, which was reinforced by the collapse of Catholic lay authorities; this in turn led to Ultramontanism, a necessary thing, indeed, to fight Liberalism and Modernism – but deadly if the latter should ever gain control over the Holy See.
Of course, a great deal depends upon the next few pontificates. But sooner or later, when Catholicity is again dominant at the Holy See – something as much dependent upon generational demographics as anything else, including the wishes of the current tenants – the work of Vatican I, interrupted by the Italian seizure of Rome in 1870, shall have to be returned to. The truth of the great gift of infallibility, which has kept the Church from ever fully and finally embracing heresy at her highest levels, is not the question. But what is needed is a clearer definition of the limits of the papacy. It has been implied by many things in ages past; but as with any other time a doctrine has been defined, it must be made explicit. So too with the limits and even the definition of the Ordinary Magisterium, in whose name at different times and places in the past century the most solemn teachings have been concealed. It may well be that a future Council would benefit from the presence of the Orthodox Patriarchs, who were invited as full participants to Vatican I by Bl. Pius IX – partly to end the Schism, but perhaps to get their counsel regarding the papal office in its first millennium. In their pride, they refused; it may be that their current travails are a punishment for this. But certainly the current position of the Holy See embodies all their worst fears of Roman domination. What makes the current situation so difficult is that in this pontificate those fears have come to be shared by so many loyal Catholics. Eastern Catholics, on the other hand, have a great deal to teach us at the moment.
Charles A. Coulombe is a contributing editor for OnePeterFive. He is the author of many books, most recently Blessed Charles of Austria: a Holy Emperor and His Legacy, as well as Puritan’s Empire: A Catholic Perspective on American History, Vicars of Christ: a History of the Popes, with A Catholic Quest for the Holy Grail. His writings have appeared at the Catholic Herald, Crisis, The European Conservative and he also has his own podcast with Mr. Vincent Frankini.