The Political and Moral Progression of the Papacyby Rit Nosotro
Change Over Time essay
Describe the political and moral progression of the papacy from 600 to 1500 AD.
During the tumultuous events occurring in Europe from 600 to 1500AD, the papacy went through many political and moral fluctuations. The papacy originated during the Church's struggle with various heresies to serve as a central authority for determining the correct way to interpret scripture. The patriarchs of the five major cities, Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria, became ever more important than bishops of smaller cities. Eventually the patriarch of Rome dominated the others, becoming the pope. The papacy was firmly established by 461. Between 600 and 1500AD, the political power of the papacy rose from being almost non-existent to dominating European politics before decaying into weakness again while its moral integrity degraded, revived, and then fell again. 1
The early growth of the papacy's political power was fueled largely by the Roman Empire's falling power. Many of the barbarians who eventually overran the empire were converted by the work of Roman bishops, and thus came to regard the pope highly. Popes such as Leo I, who was able to prevent or reduce the excesses of conquering invaders such as Attila the Hun and the Vandals, served to further increase the people's trust of the papacy. 2 The Muslim invasions, despite their dreadful negative impact on the size of the Christianized world and highly anti-biblical teachings, strengthened the pope's power by eliminating any future competition from the patriarchs of Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria. 3 Not all papal growth was due to environmental causes. Around 750, the Church obtained its first large grants of land from the Frankish king Pepin. Charlemagne, the son of Pepin, promoted the spread of Christianity and civilization throughout his many conquests. Around 800AD, several false documents, such as the Donation of Constantine, gave the Church a pseudo-legal claim to secular power. 4
The greatest open claims to the temporal papal power of the papacy came from Nicholas I, who was pope from 858 to 867. He claimed that the pope was God's supreme ruler on earth, above all earthly powers, and, by the Papal Succession of inheriting Peter's "keys of the kingdom", became the gatekeeper to God . These claims are contrary to the Bible, in which Jesus states, "No man cometh unto the Father but by Me." (John 14:6) Despite the breadth of his claims, he only ever realized a small portion of that power.
The moral and political situation of the papacy declined to one of its lowest points as a result of the development of feudalism. With the decentralization of power caused by feudalism, Italian nobles began fighting among themselves. Because of this, Rome itself changed masters frequently, and the new masters often replaced the previous pope with one of their own men. Many of these popes were immoral and impious, elected for the political gain of their masters rather than their fitness for church office. Many other church officials were also unfit for their positions at this time because they were appointed by kings solely for their loyalty to the crown. The church reached its lowest point around 1045, when a struggle for the papacy resulted in three concurrent popes. Benedict IX was driven out of Rome and Sylvester III was appointed. Benedict returned, sold his papacy to Gregory VI, and then refused to step down. 5 These actions are clearly against the Bible, both in the appointment of wicked men to church positions and the nature of what they taught.
The degradation of the spiritual qualities of the Church at this point drove the growth of monasticism. Seeking the spiritual fulfillment the corrupt church could not give them, many church members became monks. Although the monastic idea of people being of "higher" or "lower" religious quality is not biblical, their actions were based in a genuine fervor for God. The strict teachings of the monastery at Cluny eventually spread throughout the church, removing much of the corruption and excess present but replacing it with erroneous monastic principles. The Cluny movement, with the help of German emperor Henry III, succeeded in removing the three simultaneous popes and electing Leo IX as the new pope. Leo quickly enacted many reforms in the church. In 1054, the widening theological gap between the western church, with the Pope in Rome as its head, and the eastern church, with the patriarch of Constantinople as its head, resulted in a complete split. The two leaders excommunicated each other, resulting in the Great Schism between the Greek Eastern and Latin Western Churches. The following series of Cluny popes waged a long struggle with secular powers, primarily the German Emperors, for the exclusive right to ordain new bishops and other church officers. Whoever had this right would control the power of the church. Eventually a compromise was reached in 1122 in which the Church appointed the officers, but the state gave them lands, and consequently power. 6
In 1095, Pope Urban II ignited the first crusade. This and the other crusades following it were another expression of the spiritually misguided fervor of the Church. The people, seeking a meaningful spiritual achievement and chasing the imaginary guarantees of heaven and shortened purgatory, were eager to undertake these holy wars. The largely uneducated people of the time rarely questioned if such actions were truly part of their religious duties. These conquests did succeed in reclaiming parts of Israel from the Turks for a time. However, these territories were eventually re-conquered by Muslims.
The Church gained its highest peak of political power under Innocent III. With excommunication as his weapon, Innocent was able to bring the majority of the kingdoms in Christendom under his power. The moral quality of the church, however, had fallen by this point. The great wealth amassed by the Church lead to corrupt and greedy officials. In the spirit of reformation, the Dominican and Franciscan orders were created in 1215. These friars pledged themselves to simple working lives dedicated to educating the common people about Christian teachings. Thomas Aquinas, an exceptional Dominican scholar, combined teachings of Aristotle with church dogma to produce the massive Summa Theologica, which served as the basis of Roman Catholic instruction from that point on. 7
The political power gained by Innocent was sustained until the unusually arrogant Pope Boniface VIII was elected in 1294. Through his arrogance, Boniface made enemies of many of the kings around him. As a result, the papacy was moved to Avignon, where it became completely subordinate to the French kings. The Italians were unhappy with the removal of power from Rome, and elected their own Pope, who began a war of excommunication and anathematization. A 1404 council held in Pisa elected Alexander V to replace both popes. However, neither of the existing popes would relinquish power. In 1417, the Council of Constance finally elected Martin V, who succeeded in gaining the support of the other three popes. Around 1348, the Black Plague devasted Europe, including the clergy, who had claimed the Plague was God's punishment for sin. A couple decades later John Wycliffe gave the English a Bible they could read, against the Pope's command. Roman Catholicism never recovered from the people's loss of confidence in their Church authority resulting from these events.
Through all these events, two main trends are clear. The political power of the Church grew in response to secular stimulations and its own ambitions. This growing power resulted in a decline in morality among Church officers as they invented such practices as the selling of indulgences to raise money for self-glorifying building projects. The moral state of the Church was partially cleansed by reformation movements, although many of the underlying teaching of the Church were still flawed. Eventually, the Church's political influence fell swiftly due to its abrasive arrogance. The weakened Church left room for the proliferation of other religious ideas. Some of these teachings were Biblical while others where heretical. The environment of a depraved clergy, politically opportunistic German princes, and the invention of the printing press was perfect for the rapid proliferation of reformation ideas taught by leaders such as Martin Luther and John Calvin. The political use of power by the popes had led to a spiritually weak church. Before state sanctioned Christianity, the persecuted church was politically weak and morally strong. With increasing political strength, it became increasingly corrupt. These lessons from history serve as a powerful reminder that any power outside Bible authority is by position, anti-biblical.
up4 Wikipedia.com, "Donation of Constantine," 5 October 2005, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Donation_of_constantine (19 October 2005).
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