Wednesday, January 24, 2018

The Popes and the Emperors

As is not entirely unprecedented, I recently came across an historical fact about monarchy that is, evidently, somewhat controversial and I had no idea that it would be. This came up in response to my listing of a few facts about the history of Christianity and the Roman emperors, some of which I have talked about here before as a way of illustrating how central the imperial power was to the early Church. I was surprised, however, to receive some “push back” on the last fact I listed which was that for the first roughly six hundred years of Church history, every pope was the subject of the Roman emperors. I was told that I was “dreaming” this up but, rest assured, I am not. Evidently, this is something that needs to be talked about as, upon reflection, I think I might have an idea of where denial of this fact comes from, specifically for Catholics.

In the first place, you can check pretty much any historical source and find that the basic fact is just that; a fact. Starting with St Peter, every Bishop of Rome up to Pope Stephen II in 756 was, officially, a subject of the (later East) Roman Emperor. St Peter and the earliest bishops of Rome were all direct or indirect subjects of the Roman emperors. This was true whether they liked it or not but the fact of the matter is that they never made any objections to this. They were bound by Roman law and obeyed it so long as it did not force them to do anything contrary to Christian doctrine. They were loyal to the Roman emperors and never taught Christian people to be rebellious or called for a revolution to overthrow the Roman emperors. They did, as was written in the Bible, call for everyone to love their community, be good Romans, “fear God and honor the emperor”.

During the reign of Emperor Claudius, as had happened before and would happen again, the Jews were expelled from Rome and mention is made of this in the book of Acts concerning St Paul. Originally, the Romans considered Christians to be a sect of Judaism and St Paul, who was ethnically a Jew and a Roman citizen, became frustrated in trying to convert them and decided to accept their rejection and direct his efforts towards the Greeks and Romans. Later, in the reign of Emperor Nerva, we can see more evidence that the Christians submitted to imperial authority by the fact that they petitioned the emperor to stop forcing them to pay the tax that Jews had to pay as they were a different religion. At that time, the state still did not recognize Christianity as a valid religion but Emperor Nerva did order that Christians not be forced to pay the tax since they were not Jews. Official recognition of the Christian religion would not come until the issuing of the Edict of Milan by Emperor Constantine the Great. Later, Emperor Theodosius the Great would make Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire.

However, even during the reign of Emperor Constantine the Great, the emperor played an important part in Church life and it is hard to imagine this would have been the case if the Bishop of Rome rejected his authority as emperor. One could also look to the Emperor Gratian who handed his title of ‘Supreme Pontiff’ over to the pope which, again, he hardly would have done if the pope was objecting to his authority. In fact, it would make no sense for the pope to accept such a title unless he first recognized that the emperor lawfully possessed it and thus could hand it over to him. Indeed, in the early days of the Church, before rules had been standardized for such a process, the Roman emperors played a part in the selection of popes. Much of the history in this period is sparse and often debated but some argue that Pope Julius I was, for all intents and purposes, appointed by Emperor Constantine the Great. It is more widely conceded that the imperial power played at least some part in the selection of subsequent popes and in efforts to resolve disputes over who the pope should be.

The underlying point though is that the bishops of Rome were by virtue of being born in the Roman Empire or, later, baptized as Christians, subjects from birth of the Roman emperors and that did not change with their election or selection for the papal throne. When the last remnants of the Western Roman Empire fell with the forced abdication of Romulus Augustulus, this did not legally change. With no emperor in the west, quite understandably, the Eastern Roman Emperor assumed sole authority for the whole Roman world and still regarded the popes as his subjects in the temporal sphere and as shepherds in the spiritual sphere (though the East Roman Emperor never recognized Romulus so that the exiled Julius Nepos was regarded in the east as the “last” West Roman Emperor until his death). This culminated in an era which I have previously heard plenty of Catholics complain about but never deny which was the so-called “Byzantine Papacy”.

This term has been used to describe the period dating from the time that the East Roman Emperor Justinian set out to take back the territory of the Western Roman Empire from the various Germanic tribes which had conquered it. Emperor Justinian, during this time, basically came to Rome, fired Pope Silverius and appointed Vigilius to take his place. As you can imagine, this caused some controversy but, while many have little positive things to say about him, Pope Vigilius is regarded as a valid pope, included on every list of the bishops of Rome. Subsequent papal elections were confirmed by the Byzantine emperors which, I can imagine, some may find an intolerable idea but this is probably due simply to ill-will generated by the eventual east-west schism since this idea never really went away. After all, in the Roman Catholic west, ultimately a number of monarchs held the power to veto papal candidates they found objectionable, meaning that whoever was chosen must have been passively approved of (otherwise his election would have been vetoed). In fact, this imperial veto was used for the last time in the conclave of 1903 when the first choice, Cardinal Mariano Rampolla, was vetoed by Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph, resulting in the election of Pope St Pius X.

The so-called “Byzantine Papacy” did not end until the reign of Pope Stephen II in 756. Prior to that time, the gains of Emperor Justinian had been rolled back and what was referred to as the Duchy of Rome (legally part of the [eastern] Roman Empire) was under threat from the Lombards of northern Italy. Constantinople was unable to help and the Pope turned to the King of the Franks, Pepin, son of the famous Charles Martel, to come to his rescue. He did so, the Lombards were defeated and in the subsequent peace treaty, only the “Romans, Franks and Lombards” were signatories, the Byzantines being left out completely. After the Lombards broke the treaty, attacked again and were defeated again, the King of the Franks ceded territory he had conquered from the Lombards to Stephen II which subsequently became the Papal States. Legally speaking, and this is why I warn Catholics about always trying to play the “legitimist” game, all of this territory was still part of the empire, having been basically stolen from the Byzantine emperors as the last Roman emperors still standing.

Their power, however, was gone and would not be coming back. From that time on, the popes would look to the west rather than to the east. However, that they had previously been imperial subjects cannot be argued against. Into the reign of Pope Stephen II, if not slightly longer, records were still dated by imperial years and imperial coins were still minted and dated according to the East Roman Empire. The ultimate change, of course, came when Pope St Leo III crowned another Frankish monarch, Charlemagne, “Emperor of the Romans” on Christmas day in the year 800. Again, if one chooses to play the strictly “legitimist” game, this was out of order as it had never been up to the Bishop of Rome to decide who the Roman emperor should be. This is, however, all I have been able to come up with in determining the root reason of why anyone would deny that the popes prior to this time had all been subjects of the Roman emperors in spite of the obvious history. I shall relate my theory and you may comment below as to whether you think it holds any water.

In the east, Church and State were firmly united. In the west, they were united as well but also fairly consistently at odds with each other and I think the perception of this has grown worse in modern times. The idea developed in the west of the “two swords” approach with the emperor (this being the German emperor) having the secular sword and the pope having the spiritual sword. However, the popes maintained that their sword was bigger than the emperor’s sword and that they could take away his sword if they wanted to because they had given it to him in the first place. I think this is magnified in our time because, basically, *everything* is or can be argued from moral grounds so that any issue can be considered a moral issue and thus falling under papal jurisdiction. All I have been able to come up with, to put it another way, is that there is a revulsion by some Catholics to the idea that the Bishop of Rome could ever, even in temporal terms only, be “subject” to a higher power, again, even if that power is only higher in terms of worldly power and nothing at all to do with spiritual power.

The Church was born into the preexisting Roman Empire. As such, the Roman emperors came and went and the earliest Christians and Christian bishops, had nothing to say about the matter. When the Pope crowned Charlemagne, this created a new western empire, which eventually became the German empire (First Reich) under the magnificent Kaiser Otto the Great, and a sort of “new world order” of which I am rather fond. However, it also led to a succession of troubles, most famous being the “Investiture Dispute” as the popes and the German emperors quarreled over where their powers began and ended. This is because this new imperial system had been handed down by the pope and what the pope gave, naturally, the pope felt he could take away. This is something no pope could or ever tried to do with the east because the eastern imperial succession predated his own, going all the way back to the first Augustus who was the Augustus before Christ was born. The Byzantine (East Roman) emperors had to be converted, confronted or submitted to, they could not simply be dismissed or overruled by the popes.

I think, at least this has so far been all I can come up with, the underlying reason for any denial that the popes were ever subjects of the Roman emperors which, like it or not, is an objective fact. It seems to me that some have become too attached to the idea of the popes being temporal sovereigns as they were in the era of the Papal States and since the recognition of the State of Vatican City because this has been so heavily emphasized as being absolutely essential to the independent function of the papacy as an institution, that it would be impossible for Catholicism to function without the popes being a power unto themselves. Personally, I do not think this view an incontestable one. Certainly it did not prevent any and all secular influence and I cannot be the only one who was outraged at the number of clerics implicated in child sex abuse crimes who escaped justice by being transferred to the Vatican establishment and thus beyond the reach of any secular government. However, the fact is that the papacy did exist for quite a few centuries without any secular power of their own, as subjects of the Roman emperors and it did not mean that they were simply the tools of Rome or Constantinople. What it did mean was that they had only their personal piety and courage to rely on. Those who were persecuted, exiled or martyred, I think, shows that such devotion was not unknown just as, I think, the amount of secular praise heaped on the current pontiff shows that independent sovereignty does not prevent a pope from giving in to popular trends or influence from beyond the Vatican walls.

For Further Reading:
Centrality of the Roman Empire
Church and Empire
Christian Empire
The Tiburtine Sybil & Imperial Prophecy
Christ and the Emperor Tiberius
The Story of the Byzantine Empire

2 comments:

  1. To be honest I would think common sense would dictate that the Popes were Roman subjects, but then "common" sense is rather rare...

    Also great post as usual.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Remarkable historical analysis. I am very pleased to read such keen essay.

    ReplyDelete

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