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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 1 — Progress From the First to the Fourteenth Century

Chapter 3 — Development of the Papacy from the times of Constantine to those of Hildebrand

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Chapters:
 1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10  11  12

Imperial Edicts — Prestige of Rome — Fall of the Western Empire — The Papacy seeks and finds a New Basis of Power — Christ's Vicar — Conversion of Gothic Nations — Pepin and Charlemagne — The Lombards and the Saracens — Forgeries and False Decretals — Election of the Roman Pontiff.

BEFORE opening our great theme it may be needful to sketch the rise and development of the Papacy as a politico-ecclesiastical power. The history on which we are entering, and which we must rapidly traverse, is one of the most wonderful in the world. It is scarcely possible to imagine humbler beginnings than those from which the Papacy arose, and certainly it is not possible to imagine a loftier height than that to which it eventually climbed. He who was seen in the first century presiding as the humble pastor over a single congregation, and claiming no rank above his brethren, is beheld in the twelfth century occupying a seat from which he looks down on all the thrones temporal and spiritual of Christendom. How, we ask with amazement, was the Papacy able to traverse the mighty space that divided the humble pastor from the mitered king?

We traced in the foregoing chapter the decay of doctrine and manners within the Church. Among the causes which contributed to the exaltation of the Papacy this declension may be ranked as fundamental, seeing it opened the door for other deteriorating influences, and mightily favored their operation. Instead of "reaching forth to what was before," the Christian Church permitted herself to be overtaken by the spirit of the ages that lay behind her. There came an after-growth of Jewish ritualism, of Greek philosophy, and of Pagan ceremonialism and idolatry; and, as the consequence of this threefold action, the clergy began to be gradually changed, as already mentioned, from a "teaching ministry" to a "sacrificing priesthood." This made them no longer ministers or servants of their fellow-Christians; they took the position of a caste, claiming to be superior to the laity, invested with mysterious powers, the channels of grace, and the mediators with God. Thus there arose a hierarchy, assuming to mediate between God and men.

The hierarchical polity was the natural concomitant of the hierarchical doctrine. That polity was so consolidated by the time that the empire became Christian, and Constantine ascended the throne (311), that the Church now stood out as a body distinct from the State; and her new organization, subsequently received, in imitation of that of the empire, as stated in the previous chapter, helped still further to define and strengthen her hierarchical government. Still, the primacy of Rome was then a thing unheard of. Manifestly the 300 Fathers who assembled (A.D. 325) at Nicaea knew nothing of it, for in their sixth and seventh canons they expressly recognize the authority of the Churches of Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, and others, each within its own boundaries, even as Rome had jurisdiction within its limits; and enact that the jurisdiction and privileges of these Churches shall be retained. [1] Under Leo the Great (440 — 461) a forward step was taken. The Church of Rome assumed the form and exercised the sway of an ecclesiastical principality, while her head, in virtue of an imperial manifesto (445) of Valentinian III., which recognized the Bishop of Rome as supreme over the Western Church, affected, the authority and pomp of a spiritual sovereign.

Still further, the ascent of the Bishop of Rome to the supremacy was silently yet Powerfully aided by that mysterious and subtle influence which appeared to be indigenous to the soil on which his chair was placed. In an age when the rank of the city determined the rank of its pastor, it was natural that the Bishop of Rome should hold something of that pre-eminence among the clergy which Rome held among cities. Gradually the reverence and awe with which men had regarded the old mistress of the world, began to gather round the person and the chair of her bishop. It was an age of factions and strifes, and the eyes of the contending parties naturally turned to the pastor of the Tiber. They craved his advice, or they submitted their differences to his judgment. These applications the Roman Bishop was careful to register as acknowledgments of his superiority, and on fitting occasions he was not forgetful to make them the basis of new and higher claims. The Latin race, moreover, retained the practical habits for which it had so long been renowned; and while the Easterns, giving way to their speculative genius, were expending their energies in controversy, the Western Church was steadily pursuing her onward path, and skillfully availing herself of everything that could tend to enhance her influence and extend her jurisdiction.

The removal of the seat of empire from Rome to the splendid city on the Bosphorus, Constantinople, which the emperor had built with becoming magnificence for his residence, also tended to enhance the power of the Papal chair. It removed from the side of the Pope a functionary by whom he was eclipsed, and left him the first person in the old capital of the world. The emperor had departed, but the prestige of the old city — the fruit of countless victories, and of ages of dominion — had not departed. The contest which had been going on for some time among the five great patriarchates — Antioch, Alexandria, Jerusalem, Constantinople, and Rome — the question at issue being the same as that which provoked the contention among the disciples of old, "which was the greatest," was now restricted to the last two. The city on the Bosphorus was the seat of government, and the abode of the emperor; this gave her patriarch Powerful claims. But the city on the banks of the Tiber wielded a mysterious and potent charm over the imagination, as the heir of her who had been the possessor of all the power, of all the glory,

and of all the dominion of the past; and this vast prestige enabled her patriarch to carry the day. As Rome was the one city in the earth, so her bishop was the one bishop in the Church. A century and a half later (606), this pre-eminence was decreed to the Roman Bishop in an imperial edict of Phocas. Thus, before the Empire of the West fell, the Bishop of Rome had established substantially his spiritual supremacy. An influence of a manifold kind, of which not the least part was the prestige of the city and the empire, had lifted him to this fatal pre-eminence. But now the time has come when the empire must fall, and we expect to see that supremacy which it had so largely helped to build up fall with it. But no! The wave of barbarism which rolled in from the North, overwhelming society and sweeping away the empire, broke harmlessly at the feet of the Bishop of Rome. The shocks that overturned dynasties and blotted out nationalities, left his power untouched, his seat unshaken. Nay, it was at that very hour, when society was perishing around him, that the Bishop of Rome laid anew the foundations of his power, and placed them where they might remain immovable for all time. He now cast himself on a far stronger element than any the revolution had swept away. He now claimed to be the successor of Peter, the Prince of the Apostles, and the Vicar of Christ. The canons of Councils, as recorded in Hardouin, show a stream of decisions from Pope Celestine, in the middle of the fifth century, to Pope Boniface II. in the middle of the sixth, claiming, directly or indirectly, this august prerogative. [2] When the Bishop of Rome placed his chair, with all the prerogatives and dignities vested in it, upon this ground, he stood no longer upon a merely imperial foundation. Henceforward he held neither of Caesar nor of Rome; he held immediately of Heaven. What one emperor had given, another emperor might take away. It did not suit the Pope to hold his office by so uncertain a tenure. He made haste, therefore, to place his supremacy where no future decree of emperor, no lapse of years, and no coming revolution could overturn it. He claimed to rest it upon a Divine foundation; he claimed to be not merely the chief of bishops and the first of patriarchs, but the vicar Of the Most High God.

With the assertion of this dogma the system of the Papacy was completed essentially and doctrinally, but not as yet practically. It had to wait the full development of the idea of vicarship, which was not till the days of Gregory VII. But here have we the embryotic seed — the vicarship, namely — out of which the vast structure of the Papacy has sprung. This it is that plants at the center of the system a pseudo-divine jurisdiction, and places the Pope above all bishops with their flocks, above all king with their subjects. This it is that gives the Pope two swords. This it is that gives him three crowns. The day when this dogma was proclaimed was the true birthday of the Popedom. The Bishop of Rome had till now sat in the seat of Caesar; henceforward he was to sit in the seat of God. From this time the growth of the Popedom was rapid indeed. The state of society favored its development. Night had descended upon the world from the North; and in the universal barbarism, the more prodigious any pretensions were, the more likely were they to find both belief and submission. The Goths, on arriving in their new settlements, beheld a religion which was served by magnificent cathedrals, imposing rites, and wealthy and powerful prelates, presided over by a chief priest, in whose reputed sanctity and ghostly authority they found again their own chief Druid. These rude warriors, who had overturned the throne of the Caesars, bowed down before the chair of the Popes. The evangelization of these tribes was a task of easy accomplishment. The "Catholic faith," which they began to exchange for their Paganism or Arianism, consisted chiefly in their being able to recite the names of the objects of their worship, which they were left to adore with much the same rites as they had practiced in their native forests. They did not much concern themselves with the study of Christian doctrine, or the practice of Christian virtue. The age furnished but few manuals of the one, and still fewer models of the other.

The first of the Gothic princes to enter the Roman communion was Clovis, King of the Franks. In fulfillment of a vow which he had made on the field of Tolbiac, where he vanquished the Allemanni, Clovis was baptized in the Cathedral of Rheims (496), with every circumstance of solemnity which could impress a sense of the awfulness of the rife on the minds of its rude proselytes. Three thousand of his warlike subjects were baptized along with him. [3] The Pope styled him "the eldest son of the Church," a title which was regularly adopted by all the subsequent Kings of France. When Clovis ascended from the baptismal font he was the only as well as the eldest son of the Church, for he alone, of all the new chiefs that now governed the West, had as yet submitted to the baptismal rite.

The threshold once crossed, others were not slow to follow. In the next century, the sixth, the Burgundians of Southern Gaul, the Visigoths of Spain, the Suevi of Portugal, and the Anglo-Saxons of Britain entered the pale of Rome. In the seventh century the disposition was still growing among the princes of Western Europe to submit themselves and refer their disputes to the Pontiff as their spiritual father. National assemblies were held twice a year, under the sanction of the bishops. The prelates

made use of these gatherings to procure enactments favorable to the propagation of the faith as held by Rome. These assemblies were first encouraged, then enjoined by the Pope, who came in this way to be regarded as a sort of Father or protector of the states of the West. Accordingly we find Sigismund, King of Burgundy, ordering (554) that all assembly should be held for the future on the 6th of September every year, "at which time the ecclesiastics are not so much engrossed with the worldly cares of husbandry." [4] The ecclesiastical conquest of Germany was in this century completed, and thus the spiritual dominions of the Pope were still farther extended.

In the eighth century there came a moment of supreme peril to Rome. At almost one and the same time she was menaced by two dangers, which threatened to sweep her out of existence, but which, in their issue, contributed to strengthen her dominion. On the west the victorious Saracens, having crossed the Pyrenees and overrun the south of France, were watering their steeds at the Loire, and threatening to descend upon Italy and plant the Crescent in the room of the Cross. On the north, the Lombards — who, under Alboin, had established themselves in Central Italy two centuries before — had burst the barrier of the Apennines, and were brandishing their swords at the gates of Rome. They were on the point of replacing Catholic orthodoxy with the creed of Arianism. Having taken advantage of the iconoclast disputes to throw off the imperial yoke, the Pope could expect no aid from the Emperor of Constantinople. He turned his eyes to France. The prompt and powerful interposition of the Frankish arms saved the Papal chair, now in extreme jeopardy. The intrepid Charles Martel drove back the Saracens (732), and Pepin, the Mayor of the palace, son of Charles Martel, who had just seized the throne, and needed the Papal sanction to color his usurpation, with equal promptitude hastened to the Pope's help (Stephen II.) against the Lombards (754). Having vanquished them, he placed the keys of their towns upon the altar of St. Peter, and so laid the first foundation of the Pope's temporal sovereignty. The yet more illustrious son of Pepin, Charlemagne, had to repeat this service in the Pope's behalf. The Lombards becoming again troublesome, Charlemagne subdued them a second time. After his campaign he visited Rome (774). The youth of the city, bearing olive and palm branches, met him at the gates, the Pope and the clergy received him in the vestibule of St. Peter's, and entering "into the sepulcher where the bones of the apostles lie," he finally ceded to the pontiff the territories of the conquered tribes. [5] It was in this way that Peter obtained his "patrimony," the Church her dowry, and the Pope his triple crown.

The Pope had now attained two of the three grades of power that constitute his stupendous dignity. He had made himself a bishop of bishops, head of the Church, and he had become a crowned monarch. Did this content him? No! He said, "I will ascend the sides of the mount; I will plant my throne above the stars; I will be as God." Not content with being a bishop of bishops, and so governing the whole spiritual affairs of Christendom, he aimed at becoming a king of kings, and so of governing the whole temporal affairs of the world. He aspired to supremacy, sole, absolute, and unlimited. This alone was wanting to complete that colossal fabric of power, the Popedom, and towards this the pontiff now began to strive.

Some of the arts had recourse to in order to grasp the coveted dignity were of an extraordinary kind. An astounding document, purporting to have been written in the fourth century, although unheard of till now, was in the year 776 brought out of the darkness in which it had been so long suffered to remain. It was the "Donation" or Testament of the Emperor Constantine. Constantine, says the legend, found Sylvester in one of the monasteries on Mount Soracte, and having mounted him on a mule, he took hold of his bridle rein, and walking all the way on foot, the emperor conducted Sylvester to Rome, and placed him upon the Papal throne. But this was as nothing compared with the vast and splendid inheritance which Constantine conferred on him, as the following quotation from the deed of gift to which we have referred will show: — "We attribute to the See of Peter all the dignity, all the glory, all the authority of the imperial power. Furthermore, we give to Sylvester and to his successors our palace of the Lateran, which is incontestably the finest palace on the earth; we give him our crown, our miter, our diadem, and all our imperial vestments; we transfer to him the imperial dignity. We bestow on the holy Pontiff in free gift the city of Rome, and all the western cities of Italy. To cede precedence to him, we divest ourselves of our authority over all those provinces, and we withdraw from Rome, transferring the seat of our empire to Byzantium; inasmuch as it is not proper that an earthly emperor should preserve the least authority, where God hath established the head of his religion." [6]

A rare piece of modesty this on the part of the Popes, to keep this invaluable document beside them for 400 years, and never say a word about it; and equally admirable the policy of selecting the darkness of the eighth century as the fittest time for its publication. To quote it is to refute it. It was probably forged a little before A.D. 754. It was composed to repel the Longobards on the one side, and the Greeks on the other, and to influence the mind of Pepin. In it, Constantine is made to speak in the Latin of the eighth century, and

to address Bishop Sylvester as Prince of the Apostles, Vicar of Christ, and as having authority over the four great thrones, not yet set up, of Antioch, Alexandria, Jerusalem, and Constantinople. It was probably written by a priest of the Lateran Church, and it gained its object — that is, it led Pepin to bestow on the Pope the Exarchate of Ravenna, with twenty towns to furnish oil for the lamps in the Roman churches.

During more than 600 years Rome impressively cited this deed of gift, inserted it in her codes, permitted none to question its genuineness, and burned those who refused to believe in it. The first dawn of light in the sixteenth century sufficed to discover the cheat.

In the following century another document of a like extraordinary character was given to the world. We refer to the "Decretals of Isidore." These were concocted about the year 845. They professed to be a collection of the letters, rescripts, and bulls of the early pastors of the Church of Rome — Anacletus, Clement, and others, down to Sylvester — the very men to whom the terms "rescript" and "bull" were unknown. The burden of this compilation was the pontifical supremacy, which it affirmed had existed from the first age. It was the clumsiest, but the most successful, of all the forgeries which have emanated from what the Greeks have reproachfully termed "the native home of inventions and falsifications of documents." The writer, who professed to be living in the first century, painted the Church of Rome in the magnificence which she attained only in the ninth; and made the pastors of the first age speak in the pompous words of the Popes of the Middle Ages. Abounding in absurdities, contradictions, and anachronisms, it affords a measure of the intelligence of the age that accepted it as authentic. It was eagerly laid hold of by Nicholas I. to prop up and extend the fabric of his power. His successors made it the arsenal from which they drew their weapons of attack against both bishops and kings. It became the foundation of the canon law, and continues to be so, although there is not now a Popish writer who does not acknowledge it to be a piece of imposture. "Never," says Father de Rignon, "was there seen a forgery so audacious, so extensive, so solemn, so persevering." [7] Yet the discovery of the fraud has not shaken the system. The learned Dupin supposes that these decretals were fabricated by Benedict, a deacon of Mainz, who was the first to publish them, and that, to give them greater currency, he prefixed to them the name of Isidore, a bishop who flourished in Seville in the seventh century. "Without the pseudo-Isidore," says Janus, "there could have been no Gregory VII. The Isidorian forgeries were the broad foundation which the Gregorians built upon." [8]

All the while the Papacy was working on another line for the emancipation of its chief from interference and control, whether on the side of the people or on the side of the kings. In early times the bishops were elected by the people. [9] By-and-by they came to be elected by the clergy, with consent of the people; but gradually the people were excluded from all share in the matter, first in the Eastern Church, and then in the Western, although traces of popular election are found at Milan so late as the eleventh century. The election of the Bishop of Rome in early times was in no way different from that of other bishops — that is, he was chosen by the people. Next, the consent of the emperor came to be necessary to the validity of the popular choice. Then, the emperor alone elected the Pope. Next, the cardinals claimed a voice in the matter; they elected and presented the object of their choice to the emperor for confirmation. Last of all, the cardinals took the business entirely into their own hands. Thus gradually was the way paved for the full emancipation and absolute supremacy of the Popedom.


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