The Demise of Christendom, 3

“[In]the medieval situation …. Europe was regarded as Christ’s kingdom–Christendom.  Thus, Christian baptism was not only spiritually but socially and politically significant: it denoted entrance into society.  Only a baptized person was a fully accepted member of European society.  A Jew was a nonperson in this sense… But if the church baptized or consecrated the state, this only made more complex the problem of conscience, because a government which is to all appearances in tune with society can, for that very reason, betray society with the greatest impunity.  This, of course, was and is true of the church as an organization too.”

FrancisA. Schaeffer, (How Should We Then Live, Complete Works, Volume 5,  A Christian View of the West, Second Edition, 1982) pp. 95-96.

Part2 of this series recounted the genesis of Christendom.  In the above citation, Schaeffer succinctly and brilliantly summarizes the inborn contradiction the marrying of the Church (or any institutional, officially sanctioned religion, Christian or other) with any form of government creates.  The outcome is an inevitable wrestling match for domination between the twin centers of authority as the contestants vie for primary loyalty.  But before we embark on how this hybrid system fared during over a millennium of uneasy cohabitation, we must quickly survey what happened with the collapse of the Western Roman Empire.

As noted in Part 2, the Empire of the West dissolved at the end of the 5thCentury CE.  In 476, the Ostrogoth King Odoacer simply deposed the nominal Emperor of the West, the youth Romulus Augustulus, and, as King of Italy, declared his own nominal allegiance to the Emperor ofthe East.  Thereafter, there were no Emperors of the West, and the barbarian kings who had overrun the western provinces paid lip-service to their nominal sovereigns in Constantinople for some decades, then simply didn’t bother. 

In the early 6th Century, Emperor Justinian I sent a powerful army west from the still surviving East Roman Empire to recover the lost provinces.  His best generals, led by Belisarius, partially succeeded.  However, Persian attacks and internal turmoil, including several years of disastrous harvests because of volcanic ash in the atmosphere and a terrible plague which killed millions, forced him to recall his main army.  He left garrisons to try to hold North Africa, most of Spain, and Italy, which had been retaken.  Gradually these provinces were lost, with the remnants going down under the Muslim onslaught in the 7thand 8th Centuries.[i]

The last West Roman Emperors had increasingly turned to the Church to unify and consolidate society and the power of the State. Bishops were given double-duty as spiritual leaders under the Church and civil administrators seeing to the social and material welfare of the people and providing scribes and lawyers to assist the civil authority.  In return, the civil authority assisted the Church in collecting tithes and offerings and enforcing orthodoxy.

Inorder to make it easier for people to accept baptism and Christianity as the rule for their lives and the guide to eternal salvation, the Church began to syncretize and baptize pagan philosophy and practices.  Here are some examples: Plato’s and Cicero’swritings were interpreted as ‘proto-Christian’, semi-inspired by the Holy Spirit.  Sometimes popular myths could be retold and re-identified with Saints or angelic interventions, while demons could be found behind other, less edifying practices.[ii]  Ceremonies and rituals, shrines and holy places could be revised and rebranded.  The role of ‘Pontifex Maximus’, once the highest religious position in Rome as the High Priest of Jupiter, was assumed by the Bishops of Rome as ‘Christ’s Vicar on earth’.[iii]

The Church’s ‘magisterium’ (the officially approved teaching ministry guided by the theological masters) regulated how Scripture was to be read and understood, claiming the authority of the Holy Spirit. Like Constantine, the proto-type 0f the Christian sovereign, the King, Emperor, or Prince could claim that God had put them in place and that their subjects owed them ‘honour, respect, obedience, taxes and duties,’ preferably without contestation.[iv]  The ‘secular’ authorities gave special exemptions to the ‘sacred congregations’ and those that fell under their jurisdiction in order to minimize friction.

But friction was frequent and inevitable.  Over the Centuries, the Church became wealthy and endowed with enormous property.  Bishops and Abbots became ‘lords temporal and material’ in their own right.  The Kings and Princes began to resent the Church’s frequent demands, special privileges,and incessant claims to special authority. Popes eventually began to claim authority, as the earthly representative of Christ, the King of kings, to dictate what the ‘temporal rulers’ could and could not do under threat of personal excommunication, and/or interdiction of their realm.[v]

Events like the Crusades against Islam and heretics must be viewed at least partly in this light.  The Popes and their deputies, the Cardinals and Bishops, constantly intervened in worldly politics and then fell back on their ‘sacred’ privileges and exemptions when Kings sought to dispute or retaliate.  Much of their massive wealth was not returned to the commonwealth in fulfilment of their recognized obligations to bring healing, comfort, and material help tothe sick, the widows and orphans, the dying, the despairing, and the straying.  To many in Europe in those centuries Church magnates seemed much better at judging, condemning, and persecuting dissenters and sceptics, or chastising offenders of the sanctioned customs and regulations, than in sharing Christ’s love and preaching the good news of the Kingdom. 

There were of course many exceptions and godly examples.  The best known is Francis of Assisi, but there were numerous others, more obscure. It was the humble local clergy and ministers, assisted by the monks and sisters of local houses led by compassionate and pious leaders who brought hope and consolation to the struggling masses. But there was a great disconnect between the people and the Church hierarchy.

By the late Middle Ages there was an increasing call for true change, such as somehow reducing the power of the Pope.  One effort in this direction was the Conciliar Movement in the 15thCentury.  Its proponents said that the Pope should be subject to and restrained by a regularly meeting Council of the leading ‘Fathers of the Church’ and that Bishops should hold no or limited secular power and have no access to the disposition of Church wealth or property.  However, the hope of true reform eventually collapsed, as did calls for the reunification of the Western (Roman Catholic) and Eastern (Orthodox) Churches, which had undergone an irreconcilable schism in the year 1054.

The‘Lords Spiritual’ proved themselves unable to voluntarily divest themselves  of wealth and power.  Inevitably, some people would decide to take things into their own hands. 

We will pursue this tale in our next instalment.


[i] It is interesting to note that the Arabs suffered far less from the devastating plague of the 6th Century. This meant that their society and manpower retained more vigour than the Persians and Byzantines who were enormously weakened by this, perhaps the worst plague in recorded history.  This factor is usually forgotten in trying to explain why the Muslim eruption from Arabia (634-714 CE) so swiftly overran the much enfeebled Sassanids and Byzantines.

[ii]The identification of demons with pagan idols, shrines, and gods had begun very early in Christianity.  The Apostle Paul said idols were ‘nothing’ but he also firmly held that there were unseen ‘principalities and powers, and spiritual forces of wickedness in heavenly places’ much involved in the world’s dark places.

[iii] There is a cogent Catholic argument for the role of the Pope as Peter’s successor as earthly Head of the Church.  Various Gospel passages can be cited in support of it, although there are equally cogent arguments to dispute it.  Even if we accept the ‘Petrine Primacy’ logic as valid, it is still a very long way to all the rest of what has accrued to the Papacy and hierarchy over the last 1900+ years of Church History.

[iv] To be fair, the New Testament does advise Christians to grant these things to rulers, for example in Romans Chapter 13.

[v] Interdiction was a solemn Papal decree forbidding the clergy to say mass or administer the sacraments to the population of a realm refusing to accept Papal authority.  It was rarely used and usually when a sovereign had violated what the Pope considered Church and Papal jurisdiction on an important matter such as naming Bishops.  A people without mass and the sacraments feared the fires of hell if they died without confession and absolution.

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