“… the rise and break-up of the Roman system … the obstinate survival of the idea of theEmpire in Europe, and of the various projects for the unification of Christendom … at different times.”H.G. Wells, The Outline of History, Volume 1. Revised and brought up to date by RaymondPostgate and G.P. Wells. (Doubleday and Company, 1971), p. 3.
There have been two “Roman systems” in the History of the West. The first was that of antiquity and the Roman Empire created by Julius Caesar and his adopted son, Octavian, better known as Augustus, the first Emperor with the title. It lasted 503 years (27 BCE-476 CE[i]), and its Eastern Mediterranean successor, the Byzantine (East Roman) Empire, lasted almost another thousand years until the Fall of Constantinople to the Muslim Ottoman Turks in 1453.
The second was the spiritual empire of the Popes, the Christian Patriarchs of the West within the Catholic Church as it emerged after the collapse of Rome’s political hegemony. Apart from the Avignon hiatus during most of a century in the Middle Ages, the Popes remained in Rome and, for much of the time from about 800 CE until 1870, were the temporal sovereigns of the center of Italy. But the Papal claim to imperial status was spiritual. As the “Vicars of Christ on earth”, the successors of the “Prince of the Apostles”, St. Peter, and “Pontifex Maximus”, the Supreme Priest designated by God on earth to stand before and officiate at His altar on behalf of sinners seeking His mercy, the Popes of the “High Middle Ages” declared their authority to be above that of any earthly sovereign.
The New Testament calls the Church “the Body of Christ” and the “Family of God”. The Catholic Church emerged from the ancient world as a united institution declaring itself the sole legitimate presence of Christ on earth. In 1054 CE, it fractured into two branches, East and West, or “Orthodox” and “Roman Catholic”.
Inevitably, the Church was also very much imprinted with the human character of the society and culture into which it was born in time and space. Today’s church(es) are as much imprinted by their culture and history as those of yore. Without denying the hand of the Creator through Christ in the Church’s origin and continued existence, we must recognize its very human nature. This cannot be a surprise, for, in Christian theology, Jesus is both fully and equally God and human in one person. If the Church is the chief agency of Jesus’ continued presence in the world, we cannot be much astonished to find that it is “fully human”, as Christian theology says the same of Jesus.
But, unlike the Founder, the Church is not also “fully God.” Christians believe that it is imbued with God’s Spiritual presence and nature, but it is as much defined by the character of the humans who make it up as by the presence of God’s Spirit at its heart. Christians have done and do amazingly good things but, as ‘sinners’, they must still “work out their salvation with fear and trembling”, as the Apostle Paul once put it. Therefore they also mess up pretty badly and pretty regularly. So too, and repeatedly, have the Church’s human leaders.
Being a sinner is not so much the problem, but rather being too proud, arrogant, and stubborn to admit when we get it wrong, and sometimes horribly wrong. That is a manifestation of the common humanity of both every human individual and every historically recorded human institution and society. It is the same old pattern that has plagued humanity since its beginning, whether male or female, or any other gender we may care to define into existence according to certain postmodern lights who insist on redefining reality on their own terms. In any sense we care to look at it, humanity is broken and out of sync with the Creator’s original intention, or His/Her “will” as the Christian Bible terms it.
All this to say that the Church, or ekklesia as the Greek in the New Testament calls it (it means the assembly, congregation, or gathering of the Body of Christ on earth), first began in a First Century Jewish culture, itself already much influenced by the syncretistic Hellenic culture of the Eastern Mediterranean. It then rapidly expanded into the Hellenistic-Roman milieu, reaching as far west as Rome itself within the first generation. The ekklesia was both like and unlike other social groups of its time, but it quickly ran into serious difficulty because of its challenging differences with the host culture.
It did not fit any models; it was not confined to a particular class or ethnicity. It recognized the full humanity of slaves and women and took no notice of race or language. It challenged accepted standards of public and private morality. But, most serious of all, it called its adherents to a higher ultimate allegiance than that to the Emperor or the “genius of Rome”. It proclaimed another King above even the divinity sitting on Rome’s throne, a King who could and would call to account even “Divine Caesar”, as Emperors had began to be called even in Augustus’ day (although he and his first successor, Tiberius, never officially adopted that title).
As we read the Book of Acts, the various Apostolic letters, and the Book of Revelation in the New Testament, we cannot but be struck by the almost immediate adaptation of the Christian message to the society and culture that enveloped it. Since then, this is the ongoing story of the presence of Christianity and the Church in our world. It can only be thus, for Christianity is not a fixed “system” meant to be cemented into an immutable set of rules and practices issuing from the mouth and mind of an unchangeable philosophy. It is a message about reconciling the parties in a very broken primary relationship (God with humanity), and then the relationships of human-to-human and humanity with the Creator’s creation. It is a message that every broken human and every struggling generation must hear and respond to for itself.
If we understand this dynamic from the start, there is always room for discussion about how this needs to be communicated and acted upon in the midst of the ebbs and flows of life and the ongoing saga of every society’s and culture’s evolution through time. However, it does not mean there are no firm principles or that there is no basic perspective or fixed points of reference. It is the ballet of finding the balance as the rocking vessel moves with the waves.
What emerged from the chaos of the thunderous crash of what had seemed like “Eternal Rome’s” collapse was an institution which had imbibed a great deal of the ethos and structure of the secular society and system of the Late Empire. It was this that gave an immediate anchor to help stabilize much of the West for a few centuries, helping it survive and emerge as “the West” as differentiated from “the Orient”. But even success has its drawbacks when we identify a fixed system as the primary reason for the eventual triumph of those that latch onto it, and make its forms, rules, and laws immutable because, for a time, they helped to achieve survival and bestow eventual supremacy over all rivals.
Within the emerging civilization of “the West”, the Roman Church had been the anchor, and the Patriarch of the West in Rome had been the Father-figure who offered connection to the revealed truth and traditions and assured their pure transmission. To a large degree, the Pope (the title is an adaptation of “Papa”, the familiar Latin word for father, a word still used in Italian and Spanish) was truly seen as the universal, earthly “father” of the family of God to which all the baptized belonged. Such a well-rooted emotional and cultural attachment cannot be very easily broken, even if it is eventually revealed as a construct which has passed its expiry date.
As we have seen, the sense of the Pope’s failure to be a faithful father and true “Vicar”, or stand-in, for God’s Son, had become more and more acute by the early 16th century. The hierarchy’s failure to restrain both Papal and its own exploitation of the “sheep of the flock” reinforced the conscious and unconscious (for many) sense that the ordained clergy had forfeited the right to the title “Father”, as the priests were to be addressed, and hardly even qualified for the humbler and simpler appellation of “brother” or “sister”. Some noted the verse where Jesus had cautioned his disciples to call no one “father” except God (Matthew 23:9).
All that was lacking for the storm to break out was a catalyst. In 1517 in Germany, a Dominican monk named Theodor Tetzel provided that catalyst. It would provoke a locally popular but obscure University of Wittenberg professor named Martin Luther to challenge Papal authority on a specific question. This challenge would prove the chink that fell out of the dam and let loose the flood of all the pent-up resentment, frustration, disillusionment and doubt. The rapid acceleration of what at first looked like a “tempest in a tea-pot” into a raging hurricane would take everyone by surprise. Within a generation it would have permanently shattered the illusion of the unity of Christendom and shaken the spiritual Imperium of Rome to its very foundations.
[i] 27 BCE is the year Augustus was officially granted the title, or rather the Senate ratified the fact of Octavian being, “Imperator”. Octavian was also named “Augustus”, or “highly honoured and esteemed. He was given life-long command of all Rome’s armed forces, as well as reconfirmed for life in many other honours, such as Pontifex Maximus and Princeps (First Man of Rome, hence the title “Prince”). This made the Emperor the supreme military, religious, and civil official of the State.