March 27, 2011

Rome resurgent

Over the last two centuries, both Christians and Atheists have tended to argue that the latter have acquired more and more power. The Enlightenment, French and Russian Revolutions, the growth of printing, the scientific revolution and the growth of toleration have all strengthened in different ways the atheist perspective on religion. In 1714 confessional states existed right across Europe, from Britain in the West to the Russian Empire in the East and in every state prosecutions for blasphemy continued. In 1697 Thomas Aikenhead was executed in Edinburgh for distributing the ideas of Spinoza, a crime described as blasphemy. The consequences of the next two centuries have meant that what Aikenhead was punished for, Dawkins and Hitchens now would regard as the softest of soft anti-theisms. But this revolution has not had unmixed consequences in the Christian world: it has changed the power relationships between churches, eroded the authority of some and enhanced that of others. One of the most curious cases of this- and something that we can see very early on after the French Revolution is the renewed strength of the Papacy.

The Pope has always been a key player within Western Christendom (I distinguish it here from Orthodox or non-Chalcedonian Christianity). His power, built upon forgeries like the donation of Constantine and theology about St Peter, extended in the medieval era through a vast panoply of churches and privileges to encircle almost every throne. In far away England the Pope's authority helped legitimate the Norman invasion in 1066: his reach extended even further in the 16th Century when he subdivided the world into Spanish and Portugeese portions- creating a Portugeese Brazil and making the rest of South America Spanish. But his power always coexisted with other powers. The Popes of the early Middle Ages could look east to see the Emperor in Constantinople and a rival who could claim the very mantle of the first Christian Emperor himself- not to mention the allegiances of the oldest Churches in the world: Jerusalem and Antioch. From 800, he might look north to the Western Roman Emperor in Germany: Charlemagne, Otto and Frederick Barbarossa all could either patronise or humiliate the Pope. Imperial power placed real limits on the Pope's authority. Furthermore the powerful Western Churches, which developed over the Middle Ages, particularly in France and Germany could always resist Papal authority. Whilst the great French bishops argued for Gallicianism, German prince bishops sheltered in their rich territories and both ignored missives from Rome.

The effect of the French Revolution was to sweep all the Pope's rivals away. The Eastern Empire had long ago fallen and the centre of orthodoxy moved north to Moscow- far far away from Italy. In the wake of the Revolution, all the Pope's other challengers were destroyed though. In the 1790s a campaign by the French state deprived the French church of its uncontested position at the centre of national life. The Napoleonic invasions of Germany swept away the Prince-Bishoprics and led to the confiscation of clerical estates. Napoleon also swept away the Holy Roman Empire. In 1816 at the Congress of Vienna these acheivements were recognised: the Bishops did not reacquire their territories and the throne of Charlemagne was declared forever vacant. The German and French Church and all other European Churches clustered around the Papacy for protection: the Pope was the only bishop to retain his land after Vienna and he became the leader of a more centralised church.

In a sense this is not so surprising. Christianity in the era when Europe was Christendom contained within itself enough space for dispute and rebellion. It is always easier to disagree from a position of dominance about how to use that dominance. As it went onto the defensive, Christianity became more unified and centralised: more dependant in the Catholic world on its centre in Rome. This phenomenon- partly explaining the rise of Ultramontanism- is one of the more paradoxical of the consequences of the Enlightenment: the rise of atheism strengthened the Pope!


Georg said...

A very interesting point of view. Unfortunately, you don't give any specific examples of how the the pope or papacy carried out their power.


Arianna said...

To defend papacy, I think theology on St Peter is ultimately more important. I have a question on the false donation of Constantine: just how important was that? Did the Frankish kings explicitly refer to that? The Pope could also rely on a solid de facto presence in central Ita

Gracchi said...

Georg- the argument is that within the Catholic chruch, the modern Papacy is more powerful than it was. The doctrine of infallibility (1870) is one piece of suggestive evidence.

Arriana yes Peter is more important in general and the basis for the modern papacy. The donation of Constantine was cited both by Hadrian to Charlemagne and by Leo IX to the Patriarch of Constantinople to defend papal privileges and suggest that the Papacy was independent of the oecumenical Patriarch. Its a key document for the medieval papacy.

On the papal state: I agree with you that the papal state aided the power of the Pope. However for long periods in the history of Rome- say the early ninth century- its existance was dependant on the fiat of another ruler (Charlemagne). It was never a large enough territory to be significant in European power politics outside of Italy. I suppose the basis for this argument is that the papacy became in some ways more powerful after the demise of the state itself, thanks to the fact that Catholics gathered around it, rather than around Gallician or general episcopal centres fo power.