Church History: The Myth of a Constant, Imperial Papacy.


In the comments thread to Frank Cocozelli’s post on “Carlism and the American right” at the Open Tabernacle , there are some observations by a reader which deserve a more appropriate response than simple burial in the comments.

Holy Roman Emperor Louis the Pious.

Holy Roman Emperor Louis the Pious

In his first comment, the reader asked:

Since when, I’d like to know, does Catholicism, a coherent theological and philosophical belief system with explicit teachings, been open to question, or to dissent by its members? What gives a Catholic the ‘right’ to speak against a teaching, any more than the Americans had a ‘right’ to commit treason against their lawful sovereign before God and men in 1776?

This suggestion to me was like the proverbial red rag to a bull: I entirely reject and resent the notion that Catholicism requires blind obedience to anything, so I replied accordingly:

Catholicism has always been open to question. It may well be a “coherent philosophical system”, but that does not mean we are expected to switch off our brains and bow down to the voice of the Catechism. This is just as well, for history shows that the official teachings have frequently been wrong. (on slavery, usury, and the “dangers” of democracy, for example).

Robe of Hply Roman Emperor Henry II, IIth Century
Robe of Hply Roman Emperor Henry II, IIth Century

This is where it gets interesting, because he then replied, with an argument entirely new to me: that the Church has not in fact rejected slavery, except in it’s abusive forms; that usury remains sinful, but is tolerated as a necessary evil; and that the Church in the 19th century was right to have rejected democracy.

The Church’s teaching on slavery is that it is not intrinsically evil, but nevertheless is almost never conducive to the salvation of souls … The morality of slavery has not changed a whit from Roman times until now —something which could be tolerated in the fairly benign and customary form it took in ancient Rome…..

Usury is still sinful, too, despite the fact that its practice is virtually universal today

Likewise, democracy, while not, strictly speaking, evil in itself, is an inferior form of government ………… it is very dangerous for the faith.

He then presents the more familiar arguments that Vatican II was “demonstrably wrong”, as shown by its subversion of the “constant teaching” of the Church’s long tradition.

I reject the reader’s observations pretty well in their entirety, but they deserve to be taken seriously, because they clearly illustrate, in an extreme form, the assumptions and loose thinking that underlay so much of the arguments of the Catholic right that Frank Cocozelli tackled in the first place.

The first assumption, of course, is that there is such a thing as the Church’s “constant” tradition. The simple truth, as should be obvious to anyone who looks at Church history, is that the only “constancy” in Church tradition, has been its regular process of change. This is to be expected: all of nature, all of humanity, all of society, is constantly changing. It would be quite extraordinary if it were otherwise.

One of the areas where this change has been most evident , is in the institution of the papacy itself. The modern papacy, likes to present itself as a model of continuity, in unbroken succession from Peter, and always at the head of the Church, in a monarchical model as absolute ruler and guide. I leave aside the question of the “unbroken succession”, which I have discussed before (in “The Bishops of Rome”). However, the idea of the pope as a quasi- monarchical, absolute ruler also does not stand up to scrutiny. As the pictures alongside show, the dress and pageantry of the modern papacy bear some startling resemblances to those of the medieval Holy Roman Empire, but it was not always so.

Cardinal George Pell
Cardinal George Pell

In the very beginning, in the first century of the Christian era, not only was there not a “pope”, there was not even a bishop of Rome. The name and office of “bishop” began to be applied by around the end of the first century – but only in the Eastern church. When Ignatius of Antioch, on his way to martyrdom in Rome, wrote to the leaders of the scattered churches, he addressed by name the “bishops” of each local church: except in Rome, where there does not appear to have been any bishop, and where the church was governed by a college of elders. Even where there were “bishops”, the office was dramatically different to the one we know today. Instead of the monarchical figure of authority we are used to now, he was much more like a team leader , supported and advised by his college of “elders” – or “presbyters”. Note that the term “priest” was not widely used until the end of the second century – and was first applied as a synonym for “bishop”. only later did it come to apply to the “presbyters”.

Local churches operated essentially autonomously, with several of them (not only Rome) recognized as “apostolic sees” (that is, founded by one or other of the apostles). In time, the see of Rome came to be recognized as having a special status as first among equals, but that applies originally to the diocese, not to the office-holder. Gradually, certain sees became recognized as holding authority over neighbouring areas. Rome was one of these – but with authority recognized only over only Italy and Gaul. Even Spain was subservient not to Rome, but to Carthage, while Alexandria looked after Egypt and Libya, Antioch Syria and Cilicia, and Ephesus Asia Minor and Phrygia.

As the term “pope” came into usage, even this term was not applied uniquely to the bishop of Rome – other senior bishops also adopted the title. For many centuries, the story of the papacy was of a continuing struggle by the see of Rome to assert power and control over the rest of the Church – and continuing efforts by the rest of the Church to deny and resist these claims. The ultimate ascendancy of Rome over the other major sees did not come by agreement or by force of argument – but simply by the Islamic ascendancy, which swept away strong Christian churches in Jerusalem, Antioch and Alexandra, and later Constantinople. Note that in those parts of the East where Christianity was able to survive, it was in the form of the Orthodox church – which has still not recognized the primacy of Rome.

Eric’s extraordinary dismissal of “democracy” is also entirely misplaced: it was the default procedure of the earliest church, which routinely took decisions collectively. For many centuries, bishops were often elected, not appointed, and many pope’s themselves recogniZed that their authority did not exceed the collective wisdom of the other bishops. The easy dismissal of the second Vatican Council is equally unjustified. It is a complete myth that this council swept away long-standing “tradition” and so lacks authority. On the contrary, the first Vatican Council, which was called precisely in defence of the monarchical principle and against the tide of democracy then spreading across Europe, was the one which brushed aside much that had previously important in the established tradition of the Church. Vatican II, in assessing the situation of the Church in the modern world, did not simply assert new principles, but re-asserted older ones that had been forgotten.

Imposing_the_Cardinal's_Berretta
Imposing the Cardinal’s Beretta

Even one of the most visible and obvious reforms, to replace Latin in the liturgy with the vernacular, was not a revolutionary principle: Latin itself had been introduced, a millennium and a half earlier, for precisely the same reason: because Latin had become the common language of the people of the Church, who were not fluent in the Greek of the existing Scriptures (Jerome’s famous Latin translation of the Bible, the “Vulgate” was so called for excellent reason: “Vulgate” meant of the common people).

The reader’s comment states:

“These doctrines cannot change: what was true in A.D. 33, when Our Lord ascended into Heaven, 100, when St. John, the last apostle died, 1198 (accession of Pope Innocent III, arguably the height of the Middle Ages) 1565 (Council of Trent) and 1962 (first year of Vatican II) is still just as true today.”

If we are to accept this at face value, and to apply to the Church today what was true “in A.D. 33, when Our Lord ascended into Heaven, 100, when St. John, the last apostle died”, we would not be seeking to impose a grandiose, autocratic papal monarchy, but would be practicing church democracy, without an exclusive professional clergy, meeting and worshipping in small, domestic spaces. Truth endures, but doctrine and church practice do not. To believe that they do, is as fanciful as the bizarre notion that Roman slavery was “benign”. That was certainly not the view of the slaves who experienced it, nor of the historians who have noted that in (admittedly exceptional) cases, some wealthy slave-owners thought nothing of having them killed for sport, as hunters do wild animals, for the entertainment of their guests.

Far from being the “constant tradition” of the church, the imperial, autocratic model described by Eric is a medieval hangover, modeled on the Holy Roman Empire. The attempts to extend, fossilize and preserve the model at the first Vatican Council had nothing whatever to do with the Gospel’s the teaching of the Church fathers, the practice of the early church, or with authentic Catholic tradition. Instead, it was quite simply a clear attempt to increase papal power still further, in total contrast with the movements towards democracy sweeping across Europe.

Vatican II did not so away with Catholic tradition – to a large degree, it was reasserting it, undoing some of the damage of Vatican I.

Further Reading:

Priesthood: Medieval Mythmaking

Duffy, E: Saints and Sinners (A History of the Papacy)

Davidson, I: The Birth of the Church: from Jesus to Constantine, AD30 – 312

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