Sunday, March 25, 2012

Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy, by John Julius Norwich

I was raised as a Catholic. My grandparents had a framed photograph of Pope Paul VI on their bedroom wall. I don't think it matters how purposefully one has walked away from the Church, nor how rationally one justifies it, the mere idea of the Pope -- the infallible Head of the Church, with all the power and wealth that entails -- is numinous. Mr. Norwich is a historian, a Protestant by birth; he admires the durability of the papacy, deplores its failures and remains placidly unconcerned throughout this long book that God will smite him for heresy. His very sane perspective is this: 'I can only say that as an agnostic Protestant I have absolutely no ax to grind, still less any desire either to whitewash it or to hold it up to ridicule.' He makes clear, however, why this is such a remarkable subject: 'After nearly two thousand years of existence, the Papacy is the oldest continuing absolute monarchy in the world.' Pope-bashing has become fashionable, whether in response to the current pope's limp response to systemic child abuse allegations or the corruption and scandals of centuries past. In two millennia, of course, there have been extraordinary popes as well. A purely corrupt monarchy does not survive for 2000 years.

We always associate the papacy with Rome, of course, but must remember that in the early years, the church's power took root in the Greek-speaking world.
Considered from the perspective of history, the churches which, thanks to St. Paul and his successors, were springing up in Asia Minor, Egypt, Syria, and Greece were far more important than the relatively small communities in Italy. Alexandria was by now the second city of the empire, Antioch—where the word “Christian” was first used—the third. Intellectually, too, these cities were incomparably more distinguished. Despite the fact that Greek was, even in Rome itself, the first language of Christianity (and would continue to be dominant in the liturgy until the middle of the fourth century) and that the first- and second-century popes in Rome were nearly all Greeks, none of them proved to be thinkers or theologians—or even administrators—of any real distinction. Certainly they were not in the same intellectual league as the bishops of Antioch and Smyrna and their friends.
Watching a visiting group of Polish priests don vestments, light candles and celebrate Mass in the tiny cave church of St. Peter in Antioch (now Antakya, Turkey) was one of the most amazing travel experiences of my life - apart from their driver, I was the only witness. Needless to say Antakya is no longer a thriving Christian center, but not everyone has forgotten its potent historic past.

Rome had lost all traces of its imperial glory and had returned to a pestilential state. Huns and Turks and other barbarians surely vexed a great number of popes, but they were benign compared to the summertime microbial plagues that carried off one pontiff after the next in appallingly short order. Meanwhile, Emperor Constantine set up his capitol in present-day Istanbul, dedicating the city of Constantinople to the Virgin Mary in 330. Although the final schism between eastern and western churches was some years off, Christians managed to find other issues about which to bicker in the meantime.

I can never keep my heresies straight, but then Gibbon also commented that the issues were too picayune for the layman, so I feel that I'm at least in good company. Leave it to Norwich -- a Protestant, for heaven's sake -- to offer the Idiot's Guide to Early Heresies.  First we have the Arian heresy, which put the Son a step below the Father.
Christ was not coeternal and of one substance with God the Father but had been created by Him at a specific time and for a specific purpose, as his instrument for the salvation of the world. Thus, although a perfect man, the Son must always be subordinate to the Father.
After centuries violent wrangling over this issue, theologians re-framed the question. Did Christ have one nature, wholly divine (monophysite), or two separate natures, one being human (Nestorian)? This also fractured the church, with each side branding the other heretical. This division has never healed.
Already for a century and more the Church, and particularly the Eastern Church, had been deeply divided on the question of the nature—or natures—of Christ. Did he possess two separate natures, the human and the divine? Or only one? And if only one, which was it? The leading exponent of the dual nature was Nestorius, Bishop of Constantinople, who had been consequently deposed in 431 by the Council of Ephesus. It was possible, on the other hand, to go too far in the opposite direction; and such was the mistake of Eutyches, who held that Christ had only one nature, the human nature being absorbed in the divine. This theory is known as the monophysite...
The doctrine of the dual nature has remained ever since an integral part of orthodox Christian dogma, though several monophysite churches—including the Copts of Egypt, the Nestorians of Syria, the Armenians, and the Georgians—broke away at Chalcedon and still continue in being.
As I read of these titanic battles, I struggle to understand the passions that fueled them. They are surely meaningless to most Christians today. But then, as Norwich points out, there are today over 22,000 separate Christian religions, so there have obviously been two millennia of schism. I wonder, how many modern Christians can explain what divides them from Catholics?

By the late 600s, the papacy was in one of its scandalous periods, essentially an extension of a power-loving and utterly corrupt Roman family. Not surprisingly, Norwich turns to Gibbon for some wry commentary to describe this 'pornocracy'.
At this point there appears in papal history the ravishingly beautiful but sinister figure of Marozia, senatrix of Rome. She was the daughter of the Roman Consul Theophylact I, Count of Tusculum, and his wife, Theodora; Bishop Liudprand of Cremona described her as “a shameless strumpet … who was sole monarch of Rome and wielded power like a man.”
Lover, mother, and grandmother of popes—“a rare genealogy,” sniffs Gibbon, adding that "the worthy grandson of Marozia lived in public adultery with the matrons of Rome; that the Lateran Palace was turned into a school for prostitution; and that his rapes of virgins and widows had deterred the female pilgrims from visiting the shrine of St. Peter, lest, in the devout act, they should be violated by his successor."
Popes were occasionally appointed by rival monarchs, each declaring the other's appointment an anti-pope. The loser of these battles rarely fared well, through no fault of his own. This is the fate of one anti-pope whose monarch lost Rome to his enemy in 998.
Antipope John had fled just in time to the Campagna, but was soon captured. Blinded and hideously mutilated, he suffered much the same fate as the Prefect Peter half a century before, being paraded naked through the streets, sitting backward on a donkey. He was then formally deposed and defrocked before being incarcerated in some Roman monastery, where he lingered for another three years before a merciful death took him.
Rome itself was turbulent, with wealthy and powerful families backing their own candidates. The Romans were perhaps as dangerous as the annual pestilence and invading armies. The pope could rarely count on their protection or support. 
For a pope of such caliber, the Romans should have been grateful; it need hardly be said that they were nothing of the kind. By some sad irony Rome remained as unsuitable as any city could ever be, as both the center of the universal Church and the capital of a revived Western Empire. It was devoid alike of order and discipline, lying at the mercy of irresponsible magnates such as the Crescentii and the counts of Tusculum, and indeed of its own highly volatile populace.
The final break between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches came in 1054 and, according to Norwich's research, was entirely avoidable. In short, a pope and a patriarch went at it like a couple of fighting cocks (with as little intelligence), and the damage was irreversible. The pope's legates to Constantinople took matters into their own hands, causing even greater offense than the ill-advised papal bull.
Even if we ignore the fact that the legates were without any papal authority and that the bull iself was consequently invalid by every standard of canon law, it remains an astonishing production: few important documents, in the words of Sir Steven Runciman, have been so full of demonstrable errors.Yet such was the sequence of events at Constantinople in the summer of 1054 which resulted in the lasting separation of the Eastern and Western churches. It is an unedifying story because, however inevitable the breach may have been, the events themselves should never—and need never—have occurred. More strength of will on the part of the dying pope, less bigotry on the part of the narrow-minded patriarch or the pigheaded cardinal, and the situation could have been saved.
In 1059, Pope Nicholas attempted to establish some independence for the papacy:  'In future the Church would run its own affairs and take orders from neither the empire nor the aristocracy of Rome.' It was a nice thought.

In practice, the popes continued to be puppets of various kings, emperors and rich nobleman. A scene from the mid-1100s, in which two candidates, backed by different potentates who bought what they thought an adequate number of cardinals' votes, tried to climb into the papal throne simultaneously, reads like a Laurel  and Hardy farce.
...just as the scarlet mantle of the Papacy was brought forward and Roland, after the customary display of reluctance, bent his head to receive it, Octavian dived at him, snatched the mantle, and tried to don it himself. A scuffle followed, during which he lost it again; but his chaplain instantly produced another—presumably brought along for just such an eventuality—which Octavian this time managed to put on, unfortunately back to front, before anyone could stop him. There followed a scene of scarcely believable confusion. Wrenching himself free from the furious supporters of Roland, who were trying to tear the mantle forcibly from his back, Octavian—whose frantic efforts to turn it the right way around had resulted only in getting the fringes tangled around his neck—made a dash for the papal throne, sat on it, and proclaimed himself Pope Victor IV.
Norwich cites a few pontiffs as truly remarkable men, and Innocent III is one of his most admired.
[He was] the man under whom the medieval Papacy reached its zenith. No pope ever had a more elevated conception of his position than Innocent III; he was indeed the Vicar of Christ on Earth (a designation that first became current in his day), standing, as it were, halfway between God and man. But his complete confidence in himself—together with a sense of humor rare in the Middle Ages—made him patient, simple, and always approachable, genuinely loved by those around him.
Innocent III had his disastrous moments as well, however, such as his launch of the Fourth Crusade, which resulted in the hideous sacking of Constantinople. Yes, Christians looting, pillaging and raping another Christian capital, leaving it so desperately weakened that it was easy prey for the Ottomans when they arrived. The Ottomans, of course, took the blame for the ultimate conquest, but historians agree the Crusaders did the bulk of the job for them.

Then it was time for another heresy to get people's minds off that. The Albigensians were also known as Cathars and Bogomils. (And they wonder why we can't keep our heresies straight?!) Again, as I read this with my 21st century, fallen-Catholic eyes, I struggle to understand why this idea was so terrifying and objectionable, but it cost thousands of heretics their lives.
Essentially, they espoused the Manichaean doctrine that good and evil constituted two distinct spheres—that of the good, spiritual God and that of the Devil, creator of the material world—and that the earth was a constant battleground between them... The heresy refused to die. It would be another hundred years before the Inquisition, unleashed on the region with all its terrifying efficiency, succeeded in crushing it at last.
Occasionally the College of Cardinals made bizarre choices, and some very strange men were designated the Vicar of Christ. Pope Celestine was a peasant priest, absurdly unsuited for the role of pontiff, and the only one to abdicate. With encouragement, mind you.
He normally refused to see his cardinals, whose worldliness and sophistication terrified him; when he did so, they were obliged to abandon their elegant Latin and adopt the crude vernacular which was the only language he could understand. The duties of the Papacy, political, diplomatic, and administrative, he ignored; favors were bestowed on anyone who asked for them. No wonder that he lasted for just five months, then wisely announced his abdication—the only one in papal history.
The architect of this abdication was Cardinal Benedetto Caetani, who is said to have introduced a secret speaking tube into Celestine’s cell through which, in the small hours of the night, he would simulate the voice of God, warning him of the flames of Hell if he were to continue in office.
Another commonly held notion that Norwich refutes is that Avignon was the temporary situation of the papacy in exile. That said, it's hard to fathom why they would have picked that particular city. Rome was disagreeable enough, but it had historical relevance. Avignon just sounds like a pit.
Those years are often referred to as the Babylonian Captivity. They were nothing of the kind. The popes were in no sense captive; they were in Avignon because they wanted to be. Nonetheless, it was not a comfortable place. The poet Petrarch described it as being “a disgusting city” battered by the mistral, “a sewer where all the filth of the universe is collected.”
The Aragonese ambassador was so nauseated by the stench of the streets that he fell ill and had to return home. As papal territory, it also became a place of refuge for criminals of every kind, and its taverns and brothels were notorious.
Moving the papacy back to Rome was no easy task. It had been in France for the bulk of the 14th century and had become very French in language, culture and composition of the cardinals. For a while at the end, there were dual papacies in Rome and Avignon, until the conflict and expense became untenable. This situation reached its nadir when there appeared to be three legitimately elected popes, and one of them allegedly poisoned one of the others. Finally, the cardinals were forced to take action to remove him, acknowledging that he may not have been the most suitable candidate after all.
As Edward Gibbon delightedly noted, “the most scandalous charges were suppressed: the Vicar of Christ was only accused of piracy, murder, rape, sodomy and incest.”
The Renaissance brought popes who patronised the arts and architecture and simultaneously swelled the Vatican's library and treasury. How they came by the money and their lifestyles would later send Luther into fits.
Franciscans are noted for their love of poverty; it can only be said that Sixtus, on becoming pope, proved an exception to the rule. From one day to the next, his whole character changed. He spent money like water; his coronation tiara alone cost 100,000 ducats, more than a third of the Papacy’s annual income. To raise additional funds, he sold plenary indulgences on a scale previously unparalleled, together with high-sounding papal titles and sinecures.
He slept almost continuously, waking to gorge himself on gargantuan meals.… He grew grossly fat and increasingly inert, being able, toward the end of his life, to take for nourishment no more than a few drops of milk from the breast of a young woman. When he seemed to be dying, an attempt to save his life was made by sacrificing the lives of three healthy young men to provide a blood transfusion. (Ironically, this attempt was made by a Jewish doctor.) The young men supplying the blood were paid one ducat each. They perished in the process and, with the onset of rigor mortis, the coins had to be prised from their clenched fists.
 Ah, the Enlightenment. It was bad news for the papacy, which had become accustomed to wielding its spiritual clout. Now the popes found themselves battling crass commercial interests.
Pope Paul V, as he chose to be called, was every bit as devout as his predecessor but not nearly as intelligent. He failed absolutely to understand that the Papacy was now one of a number of European powers; it was no longer possible to uphold the ideal of absolute papal supremacy as it had existed in the Middle Ages. Paul attempted to do so and immediately met his match—in the Republic of Venice. The Venetians would not have dreamed of questioning their duty of doctrinal obedience; their political independence, on the other hand, they held to be sacrosanct. Besides, the very existence of their city depended on international commerce; how could they be expected to discriminate against heretics, any more than in the past they had discriminated against the Infidel? ...
As the eighteenth century continued, it gradually became clear that the Papacy had a new enemy with which to contend, an enemy a good deal more insidious than the doctrinal differences that had plagued Christendom for well over a millennium. For this was the Age of Reason. For many churchmen, even heretics were preferable to skeptics, agnostics—relatively few people dared call themselves atheists—or anticlericals. In the face of this new intellectual climate, it is not easy to see what measures the Holy See could have taken; what is clear, however, is that it did not take them.
Things went downhill from there in many regards. Napoleon Bonaparte 'made his formal entry into Milan, where he established a republic. His orders were to annihilate the papacy, "the center of fanaticism..."'  After he'd been exiled to Elba, a revolutionary named Garibaldi returned to Rome with the goal of re-establishing the Roman Republic, removing all temporal power from the pope.

In the 20th century, the Pontiff failed to speak out forcefully against the Nazis and Fascists on behalf of the Jews. Why?
How can we explain this contemptible silence on the part of Pius XII? It all goes back first to his innate anti-Semitism and then to his fear of communism—always, both to his predecessor and to himself, a far greater bugbear than Nazi Germany... 
There were many people, too, who wondered, in retrospect, why a pope who had thought nothing of excommunicating all members of the Communist Party throughout the world had never apparently considered doing the same to the Catholic Nazi war criminals, including Himmler, Goebbels, Bormann, and Hitler himself.
The contemporary Vatican is far from immune to scandal. I remember the brief reign of Pope John Paul I, but I'd been blithely unaware of the rumours of his murder.
He soon found, too, that the Vatican was a hotbed of petty hatreds, rivalries, and jealousies. “I hear nothing but malice, directed against everything and everyone,” he complained. “Also, I have noticed two things that appear to be in very short supply: honesty and a good cup of coffee.”
Friday, September 29, 1978, he was found dead in his bed. He had been pope for just thirty-three days, the shortest reign since that of Leo XI in 1605. Was John Paul I murdered? Certainly, there were reasons to believe so. For a man of sixty-five he was in excellent health; there was no postmortem or autopsy. The Vatican, moreover, is an easy place for murder. It is an independent state with no police force of its own; the Italian police can enter only if invited—which they were not.
The conspiracy theorists claim that there was a murky lot of financial malfeasance that John Paul I had uncovered and was about to expose. John Paul II, the Polish pope, may have taken the opposite approach and simply taken good advantage of it. 
[John Paul II] gave every encouragement to the Polish Solidarity movement and its leader, Lech Wałęsa, to whom he may well have secretly channeled funds through Archbishop Marcinkus and the Vatican Bank. As Mikhail Gorbachev once remarked, “The collapse of the iron curtain would have been impossible without John Paul II.”
John Paul II left another odd legacy. I wonder if he felt the need to canonise so many others as an oblique way to mitigate his own shortcomings.
Where he surprised everybody was in his berserk canonizations of everyone in sight: quite apart from the 1,340 men and women whom he beatified, the first step to sainthood, he canonized no fewer than 483 new saints, more than had been made in the previous five centuries.
The present pope, Benedict XVI, Norwich notes, has hit some rough patches in his papacy. Just as he's being bludgeoned in the press for his lukewarm response to allegations of child abuse, he elevates the ordination of women to an equivalent offense.
Sometimes, indeed, the Church seems to take a step backward: as recently as July 15, 2010, it elevated the ordination of women to the status of “grave delict,” making it one of the most serious crimes in canon law and effectively putting it on the same level as child abuse.
His papacy is not over, however, and until it is, Norwich suggests that we reserve final judgement.  In the end, he sagely notes, there will have been better popes and most assuredly worse ones.  

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.