“Make me a channel of your peace; where there is darkness, let me bring your light; where there is injury, your pardon Lord …” St. Francis of Assisi
Charlemagne’s dream of reunifying the West under the banner of a ‘Christian Empire’ died with him in 814 CE and faded from view in the secular sphere. Henceforth, jealousies and rivalries among rulers would close that door. But there was one place where the goal of Rome’s supremacy remained very much alive—Rome!
True, there was no longer an Emperor there, but there was an imperial claimant of another sort—the Bishop of Rome, the Patriarch of the Western regions of the (not yet Roman) Catholic Church. Even with Charlemagne, the alliance between the Imperial throne and the throne of St. Peter had been an uneasy one, as the Popes had come to view their place with a spiritualized imperial eye.
The claims of the Popes to first place in the power hierarchy of the West, and indeed the universal Church, had been growing since the late Roman Empire. With the Empire’s hold over the lands from Italy north and west evaporating, and the Emperor in distant Constantinople, the only prominent authority figure left with a general claim, for Christians at least, was the Pope. The West’s Patriarch within the Church hierarchy claimed the prestige and authority of the two greatest apostles, Peter and Paul, who had both finished their lives in martyrdom at Rome.
The argument ran that since Christ is the King of kings his authority supersedes that of any earthly sovereign. When Christ ascended into heaven, he had commissioned his apostles with his authority to carry his Kingdom to the ends of the earth. Peter was the primus inter pares (first among equals) among the Apostles, because, just before his ascension, Jesus told him to look after his flock as its shepherd. And prior to that Peter had given Peter ultimate authority to “bind and loose” things on earth in Christ’s name. Jesus had also given Peter the “keys to the Kingdom” of Heaven.
But how did the Bishop-Patriarch of Rome inherit Peter’s authority, assuming that this is what Jesus had really done and that it didn’t just die with Peter? The rationale was that anyone who stepped into the role of Peter in Rome (Bishop) also stepped into the commission and special authority Peter had received from Jesus. In effect, he became Peter’s stand-in, and Peter had been Jesus’ designated stand-in. Ergo, the Patriarch of Rome was the “Vicar” (like a Regent) of Christ on earth. But how was the line of authority from Peter transmitted to the Bishop of Rome? Had Peter directly delegated it in some way? Did he even have Christ’s authority to do such a thing? Answer to the jeopardy question: the power to bind and to loose! The Church’s greatest ancient historian, Eusebius of Caesarea, who just happened to be a great fan (and personal friend) of Constantine and his imperial commissioning of the Catholic Church to assist the Emperor in ruling the great Roman domain, delineated the direct succession to many of the apostolic and post-apostolic generation of leaders in detail, so tradition confirmed it! Thus, just as the Emperor designated governors and prefects, Christ designated the spiritual government via the Apostolic Succession.
This line of transmission was nowhere to be found (except by inference) in the New Testament. After all, an imperial claim of the magnitude the Pope was asserting could not rest solely onso me ambitious ‘Successors’ of Peter’ claims to go one-up on their other Patriarchal colleagues. (Other Patriarchs hailed from Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem. The only one in the West was Rome.)
The large majority of Christians tended to be in the cities and towns for the first few centuries. When inevitable controversies grew over how to interpret Scripture, what to believe, how to live a Christian life, and how to incorporate converts into the “Body of Christ”, the leaders of smaller centers and congregations looked to those of the larger ones. And among the larger ones, disputes about whose guidance and direction was to have primacy arose. After a while, it boiled down to just a few senior leaders, “Father-Rulers”—Patriarchs—especially the two in Rome and Constantinople.
Because claims to senior authority had to be backed up, it came down to “the Apostolic Succession.” This concept declared that the Apostles had the power to pass on their authority to bind and to loose spiritual truth and rules to successors “by the laying on of hands”, i.e., designating a chosen successor upon whom they laid their hands and prayed “ordination”[i]—the impartation of their authority to this chosen successor. These successors then had the same power to bind and loose and ordain and even condemn. Thus, as Eusebius recounted it, all true authority in the Church had been handed down in a direct line, via proper ordination, to the Bishops in office, who also then ordained local elders (presbyters [priests]).
The Patriarchs of Rome asserted that because Peter had ministered in Rome for the last few years of his life, he had designated Rome as the locus of his successor, and he would be the “Primate”, the foremost of the chosen leaders of the whole Church.[ii] Eventually, as Medieval society reached its quintessential expression, there arose a number of truly “Imperial Popes”, claiming both supreme spiritual and temporal power, even the right and authority to enthrone and dethrone monarchs and deny whole countries access to mass and the sacraments, which were held to be the principle channels of God’s mercy, grace, and favour.
Personal faith in and relationship with the Creator had little to do with any of this. Certainly there were many good and saintly Christians with deep personal faith, but the official Church had little room, less comfort, and scant patience for such zealots who could and sometimes did radically challenge the proper imperial ordo rooted in Rome’s still potent ambition to reassert Empire via a different route. It was abundantly clear that whatever spirit was really at work here, it did not bear the marks (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, self-control) of the work of the Holy Spirit. The high water mark of Papal Imperialism came under Pope Innocent III (quite the ironic patronym).
So what to do with the fanatics who saw through this charade of using all the levers of secular power to assert Christ’s authority to rule and reign (largely in the same old way by the same old rules)? First tactic: divert them into less menacing channels and get them to accept the hierarchical model, as with the co-opting of the Franciscan movement even during Francis of Assisi’s lifetime. It was fitting that that most imperial of all Popes, Pope Innocent III, had to deal with that humblest and most unpreposessing of saints, Francesco Bernardone (1182-1226), the greatest radical and most serious challenge to imperial Christianity of the Middle Ages, and perhaps of all time.
It was said that Francis died of a broken heart, choosing self-imposed exile in a simple forest habitation rather than one of the proliferating fine new abbeys being built for or handed over to the newly established Franciscan Order. Francis rejected this seduction and was deposed as leader of his own movement. But being who he was, Francis could not be left alone. He was well tended to by his most faithful disciples even as he slowly starved (fasted) himself to death.[iii]
Francis was a pacifist through and through and he preached peace and reconciliation. He was neutralized by the seduction of his followers, but for those who would not be diverted, best coerce them into silence by threats and fear. If they would not be coerced, eliminate them by excommunication and condemnation as heretics (Albigensians, Waldensians, Lollards, Cathars, etc.), then hunt them down and subject them to the proper penalty for blasphemy and heresy, or perhaps for witchcraft and sorcery and consorting with demons. Thousands of “wise women” and not a few men who would not go into a convent to practice ‘proper’ spirituality were disposed of this way.
Many ordinary, simple folk looked on in disgust, seeing right through the facade. There had to be another way, a “Third Way” to know God—not the old imperial way or the increasingly corrupt hybrid called Christendom. People grew more and more disillusioned and many set about seeking that “Third Way.”
[i] “Ordination” is a very Roman word designating someone’s official, approved acceptance into a distinct “ordo”, or class of persons with special status and rights and privileges, setting them apart from others who thus became lesser and who could then be “patronized”—another Roman term—given gifts and favours from the higher order to the inferior classes. Being a patron carried weighty responsibilities, but bestowed great prestige and “gravitas”, the air of authority and position the bearer had earned or inherited. This whole ancient Roman social system is still quite visible in the Roman Catholic and other very hierarchical Christian denominations. It was one of the principle goals of the Reformation and especially the Anabaptists to shed this imperial (and very unbiblical) religiosity.
[ii] The English word “church” with its building-centered and cumbersome administrative baggage almost completely misses the real meaning of the Greek word it supposedly translates. That word is ekklesia and, in the time of the New Testament, it carried a semi-democratic meaning. It meant ‘the popular assembly’, or the assembly of citizens who had political rights in the local polis, or civic community. It is certainly debatable that Jesus intended to leave a heavily autocratic, rigidly hierarchic institution to carry forward his mission of bringing the “Kingdom of God” into the world after he departed. One may be excused for suspecting that another, older pattern based on humanly constructed (Roman) power paradigms usurping the Master’s real intention is at work here.
[iii] Many hold that the Medieval, and Roman Catholic Church (as well as the historic Church in general) missed its greatest opportunity to return to the “straight path” with Francis. If his amazing vision and beautiful spirituality had been fully embraced and perhaps given a tweaks for folks who could not match his inner fire, it would very probably have truly, radically changed the direction of both the Church and society. Even as it was, it brought hope and real spiritual renewal to millions even in Francis’ lifetime. For many, St. Francis was/is the greatest Christian since the Apostle Paul.