Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Tales From the Papal Crypt: Introduction

The Papacy is pretty cool.  It also happens to be one of the oldest continuous institutions in Western Civilization.  There has been a Bishop at Rome for about 2000 years, give or take a century or so.  To compare, there has been a President in Washington, DC for a little over 200 years, a King in England for about a thousand, and when the office was dissolved in 1924, there had been a Caliph ruling over Islamic civilization for less than 1300 years.

Like any other old institution, however, the Papacy has not always been as it is now.  It has had its ups and downs, its triumphs and its disasters, its disgraces and its vindications.  It has gone through many metamorphoses in response to the needs and conditions of the times, and its practical role in the world has varied a great deal over the centuries.  Yet the continuity at the heart of the Papacy has been singular, indeed.

And what a history it has been!  The Papacy has been at the heart of so many major historical events that it is almost impossible to recount them at all.  The amount of adventures, intrigues, battles, arguments, tragedies, and victories in which the Papacy has played its part in is enormous, and enough for many a good story.  Thus, for your edification and entertainment, dear hypothetical reader, I thought I would take the time to tell a few of these tales.  They will be told in no particular order, neither chronological nor thematic, and most of them will not be told at all.  But still!  If you're interested in learning more about the Papacy in history, read on!

The Pope marches on...

Today, we'll start with an introduction to the Papacy in history, setting us up for our first Papal tale:

One of the most pervasive misconceptions about the Papacy, especially pervasive among American Protestants, is the idea of the Papacy as an institution perennially characterized by massive wealth, untold riches, and incredible political power.  The image is well known, honed by many generations of tales about Luther and the Protestant reformers; the Pope, a massive, jeweled tiara on his head, seated atop a great, ornate throne in a massive hall decorated with priceless paintings, covered from head to toe in scarlet and gold, ruling all of Europe with an iron fist--kings and princes doing homage to him, kissing his ring, and obeying his decrees without question, while crafty monks and friars whisper intrigue in the corners.

Until, of course, the plucky young farm-boy Luke Skywalker Martin Luther creates the Protestant Alliance, nailing his 95 Theses to the thermal exhaust port of St. Peter's Basilica, causing a chain reaction that destroys the Catholic Church and restores freedom and justice to the Galaxy!  Yippee!

It's not easy being Pope...


Anyway, it's a very nice image, except for the fact that it happens to be not true.  The image reflects a period in the early Renaissance during which the Popes were able to raise enough capital to finally, after centuries of neglect and decay, rebuild Rome from the ground up in the grandest style, and during which they also served as political rulers of a significant part of Italy, a role that some of them (see Julius II) enjoyed a bit too much. This happens to be the period during which the Protestant Reformation was conceived.
Julius II, Warrior Pope

However, as this period lasted at most a hundred and fifty years, and was immediately followed by the worst sacking Rome has ever suffered, the kidnapping of the Pope by the Spanish Crown, and one of the worst and most powerless periods in the history of the institution, it is by no means a good model for most of Papal history.  Even during this period, the Papacy's actual power over the governments of Europe was fairly small, and even her religious authority far from unquestioned; so that our image will not do even for the days of the Roman Renaissance, let alone for the rest of history.

The facts are clear.  The story of the Papacy is not and never has been a story of unquestioned power, authority, and wealth; it is rather, for the most part, a story of constant conflict, frequent persecution, and all too often a desperate struggle even to survive.

The mission of the Papacy, as expressed by the Popes themselves from the time of Pope Gelasius I, has been to maintain and promote peace, order, unity, and charity within the Christian world; and if that sounds easy to you, then do I have a time-share plan for you!

In actuality of fact, it would be hard to conceive a more difficult group of people to keep in unity and charity than the perennially squabbling factions of the Catholic Church, then and now-- except, perhaps, the ambitious, constantly warring kingdoms of Europe during the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

Brotherly Love in Europe, 1415 AD

Making it even better, though, is the fact that, for the vast majority of history, the Pope has had only moral, rhetorical, diplomatic, and spiritual means at his disposal.

Even at the height of his authority, during the High Middle Ages and the Roman Renaissance--when the Pope in theory could make use of political means to accomplish his ends-- still, if the Pope wished a heretic persecuted, a crusade called, or a European war stopped, he was going to have to in some way persuade or cajole the Kings of Europe into doing it for him.  And if they didn't want to do it, there was very little the Pope could do about it.

Ever heard of the Tenth Crusade?  Well, that's because it didn't happen, even though the Popes very much wanted it to happen. When Constantinople fell to the Ottomans in 1453, the Popes spent a hundred years trying to get a Crusade together to take it back--but the Kings of Europe, frankly, couldn't care less about the plight of oppressed Byzantine Christians, and so they simply ignored the whole thing.  And this, mark you, was precisely during the period of the Roman Renaissance, when the Papacy was at the height of its worldly prestige.  Being Pope isn't easy.

Fall of Constantinople, 1453 AD

The history of the Papacy. generally speaking, is not one of power, political or otherwise; it is far more often the history of defiant powerlessness in the face of political or religious forces of seeming invincibility and inevitability.  The direct political authority of the Pope, at its greatest extent, was a series of lands and perennially unrestful cities in central Italy and Sicily; now, it is a few churches, palaces, and office buildings in the middle of Rome.  The indirect political authority of the Pope at its greatest extent, during the High Middle Ages and early Renaissance, was the highly theoretical ability to depose a king or Emperor for grave reasons under extreme circumstances; but since this almost never managed to achieve an actual deposition, and mostly ended badly for the Popes who tried it, it was more a theoretical and moral power than a practical one.  In any event, this authority has now also gone the way of the Dodo.

This is simply not much power with which to guarantee peace and security for all Christians throughout the world.

Everyone remembers the striking image of the Medieval Emperor barefoot and penitent in the snow outside of Canossa, begging Pope Gregory VII's pardon; but fewer remember the same Emperor, completely ignoring his second excommunication, returning with his his armies to sack Rome, appoint a puppet anti-Pope, and leave the Pope to die alone and friendless, lamenting to the last: "I have loved justice, and hated iniquity: therefore I die in exile."  

Pope Gregory VII, Exile

Yet the latter position of the Papacy is really far more common than the former, even if in not so dramatic a form.  It has been few rulers indeed who have really cared a whit what the Pope thinks of them; it has been far more who have sought merely to use the Pope for their own ends, following him no more than was useful, and ignoring or silencing him when he ceased to serve their interests.  Moral authority is one thing; but moral authority is not much to bring to the power-politics of Europe or the Byzantine Empire.  It is not easy being Pope.
"I respect your moral authority, but I'm going to kidnap you anyway."

Yet through all this, the Papacy has endured, again and again, in the face of overwhelming force.

There is a French proverb that reflects the matter well: "Qui mange du Pape, en meurt": "He who eats Pope, dies from it."  
Many kings, emperors, and caliphs have died of this pungent dish, and the Papacy endures still.

Don't eat me!

Soooo...with that out of the way, on my next post, I will begin with one of the Papacy's darkest hours, the sad tale of a powerless martyr: Pope Martin, the "Enemy of the State."

I hope, dear, hypothetical reader, that you will join me.

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