Tuesday, July 19, 2005
the rise and fall of respublica christiana
one of the more general forms in which the tragedy of koros -- hybris -- ate presents itself is the intoxication of victory -- whether the struggle in which the fatal prize is won be war of arms or a conflict of spiritual forces. both variants of this drama could be illustrated from the history of rome: the intoxication of a military victory from the breakdown of the republic in the second century b.c. and the intoxication of a spiritual victory from the breakdown of the papacy in the thirteenth century of the christian era. but as we have already dealt with the breakdown of the roman republic in another connexion we will confine ourselves here to the latter theme. the chapter in this history of the roman see, the greatest of all western institutions, with which we are concerned is that which began on the 20th december, a.d. 1046, with the opening of the synod of sutri by the emperor henry iii, and closed on the 20th december, 1870, with the occupation of rome by the troops of king victor emmanuel.
the papal respublica christiana is unique among human institutions. attempts to establish its character by analogies with institutions evolved in other societies reveal differences so fundamental that the supposed analogies turn out to be unprofitable. it can best be described, in negative terms, as an exact inversion of the caesaro-papal regime, against which it was a social reaction and a spiritual protest; and this description gives, better than any other, the measure of hildebrand's achievement.
when the tuscan hildebrand took up his abode in rome in the second quarter of the eleventh century, he found himself in a derelict outpost of the east roman empire which was occupied by a degenerate offshoot of the byzantine society. these latter-day romans were militarily contemptible, socially turbulent, financially and spiritually bankrupt. they were unable to cope with their lombard neighbors; they had lost the whole of the papal estates at home and overseas; and when it was a question of raising the level of monastic life they had to turn for guidance to cluny, beyond the alps. the first attempts to regenerate the papacy took the form of passing over the romans and appointing transalpines. in this despised and alien rome hildebrand and his successors succeeded in creating the master institution of western christendom. they won for papal rome an empire which has a greater hold on the human heart than the empire of the antonines, and which on the mere material plane embraced vast tracts of western europe beyond the rhine and the danube where the legions of augustus and marcus aurelius had never set foot.
these papal conquests were partly due to the constitution of the christian republic whose frontiers the popes were enlarging; for it was a constitution which inspired confidence instead of invoking hostility. it was based on a combination of ecclesiastical centralism and uniformity with political diversity and devolution; and, since the superiority of the spiritual over the temporal power was a cardinal point in its constitutional doctrine, this combination made the note of unity predominant without depriving the adolescent western society of those elements of liberty and elasticity which are the indispensable conditions of growth. even in those central italian territories over which the papacy claimed secular as well as ecclesiastical authority the twelfth-century popes gave encouragement to the movement toward city-state autonomy. at the turn of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, when this civic movement was in full flood over italy and when the papal authority stood at its zenith over western christendom, a welsh poet was 'pointing out... how strange it was that the pope's censure, which in rome could not move trifles, was elsewhere making the sceptres of kings tremble.' giraldus cambrensis felt sure that he was here exposing a paradox which was a theme for satire. but the very reason why in this age a majority of the princes and city-states in western civilization accepted the papal supremacy with so little demur was because the pope was not then under suspicion of attempting to trespass on the domain of the secular power.
this statesmanlike aloofness from the secular and territorial ambitions was combined, in the papal hierocracy at its zenith, with an energetic and enterprising use of the administrative gift which was the byzantine legacy to papal rome. while in orthodox christendom this gift had been fatally applied to the tour de force of putting substance into a resuscitated ghost of the roman empire and thereby crushing an adolescent orthodox christendom society under the incubus of an institution too heavy for it to bear, the roman architects of the respublica christiana turned their administrative resources to better account by building a lighter structure, on a new plan, upon broader foundations. the gossamer filaments of the papal spider's web, as it was originally woven, drew medieval western christendom together in an unconstrained unity which was equally beneficial to the parts and to the whole. it was only later, when the fabric coarsened and hardened in the stress of conflict, that the silken threads changed into iron bands and that these came to weigh so heavily on the local princes and peoples that at last they burst their bonds in a temper in which they hardly cared if, in liberating themselves, they were destroying the ecumenical unity which the papacy had established and preserved.
in that papal work of creation it was not, of course, either a capacity for administration or an avoidance of territorial ambitions that was the vital creative force; the papacy was able to be creative because it threw itself without hesitations or reservations into the task of giving leadership and expression and organization to an adolescent society's awakening desires for a higher life and a larger growth. it gave these aspirations form and fame, and thereby transformed them from the daydreams of scattered minorities or isolated individuals into common causes which carried conviction that they were supremely worth striving for, and which swept men off their feet when they heard these causes preached by popes who were staking upon them the fortunes of the holy see. the victory of the christian republic was won by the papal campaigns for the purification of the clergy from the two moral plagues of sexual incontinence and financial corruption, for the liberation of the life of the church from the interference of secular powers and for the rescue of the oriental christians and the holy places from the clutches of the turkish champions of islam. but this was not the whole of the hildebrandine papacy's work; for even in times of the severest stress the great popes under whose leadership these 'holy wars' were fought had a margin of thought and will to spare for the works of peace in which the church was displaying her finest self and exercising her most creative activity: the nascent universities, the new forms of monastic life and the mendicant orders.
the fall of the hildebrandine church is as extraordinary a spectacle as its rise; for all the virtues which had carried it to its zenith seemed to change, as it sank to its nadir, into their own exact antitheses. the divine institution which had been fighting and winning a battle for spiritual freedom against material force was now infected with the very evil which it had set itself to cast out. the holy see which had led the struggle against simony now required the clergy to pay their dues to a roman receipt of custom for those ecclesiastical preferments which rome herself had forbidden them to purchase from any local secular power. the roman curia which had been the head and front of moral and intellectual progress now turned itself into a fastness of spiritual conservatism. the ecclesiastical sovereign power now suffered itself to be deprived by its local secular underlings -- the princes of the rising parochial states -- of the lion's share of the product of the financial and administrative instruments which the papacy itself had devised in order to make its authority effective. finally, as the local prince of a papal principality, the sovereign pontiff had to content himself with the paltry consolation-prize of sovereignty over one of the least of the 'successor-states' of his own lost empire. has any institution ever given so great occasion as this to the enemies of the lord to blaspheme? this is surely the most extreme example of the nemesis of creativity that we have yet encountered in our study. how did this happen, and why?
how it happened is foreshadowed in the first recorded transaction of hildebrand's public career.
the creative spirits of the roman church who set themselves in the eleventh century to rescue our western society from a feudal anarchy by establishing a christian republic found themselves in the same dilemma as their spiritual heirs who are attempting in our own day to replace an international anarchy by a world order. the essence of their aim was to substitute spiritual authority for physical force, and the spiritual sword was the weapon with which their supreme victories were won. but there were occasions in which it seemed as though the established regime of physical force was in a position to defy the spiritual sword with impunity; and it was in such situations that the roman church militant was challenged to give its answer to the riddle of the sphinx. was the soldier of god to deny himself the use of any but his own spiritual arms at the risk of seeing his advance brought to a standstill? or was he to fight god's battle against the devil with the adversary's own weapons? hildebrand accepted the latter alternative when, on being appointed by gregory vi to be the guardian of the papal treasury and finding it constantly looted by brigands, he raised an armed force and routed the brigands manu militari.
at the moment when hildebrand took this action the inward moral character of his act was difficult to divine. at his last hour, forty years later, the answer to the riddle was already less obscure; for in 1085, when he was dying as a pope in exile at salerno, rome herself lay prostrate under the weight of an overwhelming calamity which her bishop's policy had brought upon her only the year before. in 1085 rome has just been looted and burnt by the normans, whom the pope had called in to assist him in the military struggle which had spread from the steps of st. peter's altar -- the papal treasury -- until it had engulfed the whole of western christendom. the climax of the physical conflict between hildebrand and the emperor henry iv gave a foretaste of the deadlier and more devastating struggle which was to be fought out a outrance, more than a century-and-a-half later, between innocent iv and frederick ii; and, by the time we come to the pontificate of innocent iv, a lawyer turned militarist, our doubts will be at an end. hildebrand himself had set the hildebrandine church upon a course which was to end in the victory of his adversaries -- the world, the flesh, and the devil -- over the city of god which he was seeking to bring down to earth.
no politick admitteth nor did ever admitif we have succeeded in explaining how the papacy became possessed by the demon of physical violence which it was attempting to exorcise, we have found the explanation of the other changes of papal virtues into their opposing vices; for the substitution of the material for the spiritual world is the fundamental change of which all the rest are corollaries. how it is, for example, that a holy see whose main concern with the finances of the clergy had been the eradication of simony in the eleventh century should in the thirteenth century become so deeply engaged in allocating for the benefit of its nominees, and by the fourteenth century in taxing for its own benefit, those ecclesiastical revenues which it had once redeemed from the scandal of prostitution to secular powers for the purchase of ecclesiastical preferment? the answer it simply that the papacy had turned militarist and war costs money.
the teacher into confidence; nay ev'n the church,
with hierarchy in conclave compassing to install
saint peter in caesar's chair, and thereby win for men
the promises for which they had loved and worship'd christ,
relax'd his heavenly code to stretch her temporal rule.
the outcome of the great war between the thirteenth-century popes and the hohenstaufen was the usual outcome of all wars that are fought out to the bitter end. the nominal victor succeeded in dealing the death-blow to his victim at the cost of sustaining fatal injuries himself; and the real victors over both belligerents were the neutral tertii gaudentes. when, half-a-century after the death of frederick ii, pope boniface viii hurled against the king of france the pontifical thunderbolt which had blasted the emperor, the sequel demonstrated that, as a result of the deadly struggle of 1227-68, the papacy had sunk to the level of weakness to which it had reduced the empire, while the kingdom of france had become as strong as either the papacy or the empire had been before they had destroyed each other. king philippe le bel burnt the bull before notre-dame with the general approval of his clergy as well as his people, arranged the kidnapping of the pope, and, after his victim's death, secured the transference of the seat of papal administration from rome to avignon. there followed the 'captivity' (1305-78) and the schism (1379-1415).
it was now certain that the local secular princes would inherit, sooner or later,, within their respective territories, the whole of the administrative and financial organization and power which the papacy had been gradually building up for itself. the process of transfer was only a matter of time. we may notice, as landmarks on the road, the english statutes of provisors (1351) and praemunire (1353); the concessions which the curia was compelled to make, a century later, to the secular powers in france and germany as the price of their withdrawal of support from the council of basel; the franco-papal concordat of 1516 and the english act of supremacy passed in 1534. the transfer of the papacy's prerogatives to secular governments had begun two hundred years before the reformation and it worked itself out in the states which remained catholic as well as in those which became protestant. the sixteenth century saw the process completed; and it is, of course, no accident that the same century also saw the laying of the foundations upon which the 'totalitarian' states of the modern western world have been built. the most significant single factor in this process, of which we have indicated some of the external landmarks, was the transference of devotion to these parochial secular states from an ecumenical church.
this hold upon human hearts is the most precious of all the spoils which these successor-states have taken from the greater and nobler institution which they have plundered, since it is by commanding loyalty much more than by raising revenues and armies that these successor-states have kept themselves alive. by the same token it is this spiritual heritage from the hildebrandine church that has turned the once harmless and useful institution of the parochial state into the menace to civilization which it clearly is today. for the spirit of devotion, which was a beneficent creative power when directed through channels of a civitas dei to god himself, has degenerated into a destructive force when diverted from its original object and offered to idols made by human hands. parochial states, as our medieval forebears knew, deserve from us that same conscientious but unenthusiastic performance of minor social duties which we render in our time to our municipalities and county councils. to idolize these pieces of social machinery is to court disaster.
we have now perhaps found some answer to the question how the papacy came to suffer the extraordinary peripeteia; but in describing the process we have not explained the cause. why was it that the medieval papacy became the slave of its own tools and allowed itself to be betrayed, by its use of material means, into being diverted from the spiritual ends to which those means had been intended to minister? the explanation appears to lie in the untoward effects of an initial victory. the dangerous game of fighting force with force, which is justifiable within limits which may be divined by intuition but which are perhaps impossible to define, had fatal results because, in the first instance, it succeeded all too well. intoxicated by the successes which their hazardous maneuver obtained for them in the earlier stages of their struggle with the holy roman empire, gregory vii (hildebrand) and his successors persisted in the use of force until victory on this non-spiritual plane became an end in itself. thus, while gregory vii fought the empire with the object of removing an imperial obstacle to a reform of the church, innocent iv fought the empire in order to destroy the empire's own secular authority.