We are at very curious time in ecclesiastical history. On the one hand, the shaky ecclesiology of the Orthodox Churches, already shaken further when Constantinople and Moscow excommunicated each other over the status of Ukrainian Orthodoxy, has received another blow when the section of the latter body that had given its allegiance to Moscow broke it when Putin launched his invasion. The Orthodox seemed reduced to the reductio ad absurdam of their organisational principles. But on the other, the current Successor of St. Peter appears to have achieved a similar reduction by living down to their grimmest charges of the Papacy as a tyranny who believes he can alter Apostolic Tradition on his own whim. Certainly the time has come for believing Catholics to look carefully at that office which has so long defined them.
Integration of Pope and Prince
When Christ established the Mass and the priesthood at the Last Supper, He also united His Davidic Kingship with the Communio of the Church. From that time until the conversion of Armenia in 303, the Catholic Church and her leaders, the successors of the Apostles – with the spiritual heirs of St. Peter at their head – negotiated their way through persecutions at the hands of various pagan, secular regimes. But as successively Armenia, Georgia, Ethiopia, and at last the Roman Empire itself (thanks to Theodosius the Great’s Edict of Thessalonica in 380) adopted the faith as their official religion, Christian Sovereigns – and especially the Roman Emperors – came to see themselves as cooperators with the Popes and the Episcopate in the administration of the Catholic body. This reality was most fully expressed in the role played by successive Emperors in convoking various Ecumenical Councils, from Constantine and Nicaea to Charles V and Trent. It was expressed by Pope Gelasius I in a letter, Famuli vestrae pietatis written in 494 to Byzantine Emperor Anastasius I Dicorus and enshrined in the opening words of Emperor Justinian’s famed legal code: “We desire that all peoples subject to Our benign Empire shall live under the same religion that the Divine Peter, the Apostle, gave to the Romans, and which the said religion declares was introduced by himself…” What Viscount Bryce wrote of the Holy Roman Empire was also true of the Byzantine Empire – both being continuing manifestations of the Christian Imperial idea: “Thus the Holy Roman Church and the Holy Roman Empire are one and the same thing seen from different sides; and Catholicism, the principle of the universal Christian society, is also Romanism…” The various Christian Kingdoms, despite their functional independence, held the same relationship between themselves and the Church. Despite the 1054 excommunications between Rome and Constantinople, the same theoretical relationship between Church and State continued on both sides. Church and State in East and West were the two halves of the Res publica Christiana. War between Christian princes were considered civil wars, which the Church tried to mitigate through the Truce of God (forbidding warfare at certain times) and the Peace of God (and around certain places). Such struggles as the various Crusades were seen as wars on behalf of the whole Christian body.
This reality was expressed in innumerable ways. Liturgically, the rites for Coronations and the prayers for the various kings and for the emperor expressed their roles, as did the specific place the Holy Roman Emperor and the Kings of France and Spain occupied in Papal ritual. They and the king of England were canons of certain basilicas in Rome. The Pope was a Sovereign in his own right over the Papal States, could and did take kingdoms as fiefs, and called the Western Roman Empire back into being – and reserving the right to crown the emperors. But by the same token, the major Catholic Monarchs had the right to veto one candidate each at the conclave. Emperors and kings maintained particular national institutions in Rome and the Holy Land (and many of their successor governments still do). The discovery of the East and West Indies led 16th century Popes to extend the right of Patronage (whereby princes or nobles who endowed abbeys or parishes maintained certain rights over them) to the kings of Spain and Portugal in their American, Asian, and African dominions. This same deep relationship between Church and State continued down to the lowest level of governance; if the local nobles and gentry exercised patronage over the ecclesiastical foundations, bishops and abbots often had ex officio noble titles attached to their specific positions, and were members of the Provincial or National Estates. In addition to the Cathedral, every city and town had a civic church where the mayor and corporation attended Mass; so too did the guilds. Throughout Europe, the parish was the lowest level of both ecclesiastical and temporal governance, with the same council overseeing both church repairs and the expenses of the liturgy on the one hand, and dealing with the poor, militia, and policing matters on the other.
This system worked very well in many places and times – moreover, it had gradually developed as the inherited pagan institutions became ever more Christian. But like any human arrangement, it gave rise to tension between the various players from time to time – not over basic principles, but particular cases. A Prince-Bishop might owe allegiance to the Pope in his episcopal role, and to the emperor in his noble one. Usually, this would not pose too much of a problem; but if his two masters were in conflict, he and his flock would suffer. As the 13th and 14th centuries passed, successive popes came into conflict with various emperors and kings. In Germany and Italy, this led to the rise of the pro-Imperial Ghibellines and the pro-Papal Guelphs, whose fighting between them reduced Italy to chaos, and effected Dante heavily. Then the Great Schism broke out, giving Christendom three popes. The Emperor Sigismund was seen as the only authority capable of ending the strife – even as his predecessor Otto I had ended the Pornocracy of the 10th century. He convoked the Council of Constance, which settled the matter with one Pope in 1415. A little over a century later two major events occurred: the election of Charles V as emperor, who would be the last thus far to try to realise concretely the idea of the Res publica Christiana, and the Protestant revolt, which would end it for the foreseeable future. But if the Guelph idea had triumphed in the West (only to lose the victory thanks to Luther, Calvin, and company), it was the opposite impulse that triumphed in the East. There – both in Constantinople, and in Orthodoxy’s later centre at Moscow – it was the Church’s autonomy that was sunk by the Imperial supremacy, despite the efforts of such as Catholic Bl. Emperor Constantine XI and Alexius of Moscow.
Rooted in the horrors of the Western religious wars of the 17th century, the indifferentist Enlightenment arose in the 18th century; its ideas were given horrible life by the French and following revolutions. The 19th and early 20th centuries saw the successive destruction of the remaining Catholic Monarchies; peacefully or otherwise, Liberalism triumphed in country after country. Seeking to separate Catholicism or whatever dominant body from any effective role in public life was what united Liberalism, Communism, National Socialism, and Fascism.
From the age of revolution forward, successive popes and their clergy acted as the leaders of the resistance to these manifestations, as royals and nobles were defeated or co-opted in country after country. This role was augmented by the fact that pope after pope was in this era much holier and wiser than the average layman, to say nothing of their opponents. A perfect specimen of the breed was Bl. Pope Pius IX, who called valiant young men from all over the Catholic world to defend the Papal States. At the same time, a generation of Catholic lay politicians arose, who carried on the fight wherever the Church was threatened, be it on the battlefield or in parliaments. Far more deferential to the clergy than their royal and noble predecessors they relied upon them for strategic direction – these were called the Ultramontanes; they formed the great Catholic political parties of the era. It was against this backdrop that Vatican I dogmatically defined Papal Infallibility.