History of the Catholic Church - J. MacCaffrey

The Union of Church and State

The Overthrow of the Roman Empire

The division of the empire into two parts, one governed from Rome the other from Constantinople, and a long series of weak rulers, made it impossible for Rome to resist the barbarians who flocked from the north and east into its fertile provinces. In the anxiety of the emperors to protect the capital, the Roman legions were summoned home from the confines of the empire. Province after province was abandoned though not without a struggle; bribes were offered to stop the advance of the invader; but the torrent could not be rolled back by such means, and more than once Rome was obliged to open its gates to the foreigner. In the year 410, Alaric, king of the Goths, surrounded the city and for three days the Roman citizens and their treasures were at the mercy of his troops. In the year 452 Attila, leader of the Huns, marched into Italy and advanced upon Rome. Leo the Great who was Pope at the time went out to meet him alone, and so great was the impression made upon the savage leader by the saintly pontiff that Attila consented to withdraw his forces and returned towards the Danube. Three years later, Genseric, king of the Vandals, who had conquered Spain and northern Africa led his forces against Rome. Once more Leo went out to meet the invader, but this time he was not so successful and Rome was given up to plunder. Finally Odoacer, king of the Heruli, put an end to the western Roman empire about the year 476.

Chief amongst the warlike races before whom the empire went down were the Goths, the Vandals, the Huns, the Lombards, the Franks, and the Saxons. The Goths were the first to advance from the Danube, and after settling for a time in Italy, a branch of them, the Ostrogoths or Eastern Goths, returned whence they came, while the other branch, the Visigoths or Western Goths settled down in south-west Gaul and in Spain. The Franks were a Germanic tribe, one branch of which settled along the Rhine in the district now known as Belgium, and the other south of the Moselle in the north-eastern portion of modern France. The Vandals marched through central Europe and took possession of Spain and North Africa, and other Germanic tribes, the Saxons and the Angles, captured the Roman province of Britain; while the Lombards, who were the last of the invaders from the east took possession of the district in northern Italy now known as Lombardy.

The Conversion of the Barbarians

The new conquerors were either pagans who knew nothing about Christianity except to hate it, or Arians filled with enmity towards the Catholic Church. They were, as a body, rude and uncultured, detesting the clergy and their schools, and anxious to enrich themselves by plunder, so that for a time it seemed as if the results of centuries of civilisation were doomed to destruction before the onward march of the barbarian invaders.

At this critical juncture so important for the future of Europe, it was the Catholic Church alone that interposed its authority to prevent Europe from relapsing once more into barbarism and to preserve for future generations the treasures of ancient Rome. The Church stood between the savage conquerors and their helpless victims, exhorting the former to abandon their idols and false gods and to submit themselves to the one true God who had sent His Son Jesus Christ to redeem mankind, and reminding the latter that by their wickedness they had brought upon themselves this awful visitation, and that by repentance and prayer alone could they hope for relief and consolation.

Nor were these exhortations without fruit. The new races, who had come determined to crush the Catholic Church, became in a short time its most ardent defenders. They recognised the zeal and the courage of Popes like Leo the Great, and Gregory the Great, who had shown themselves most anxious to share with them the blessings of the faith; they became deeply attached to the good Benedictine monks whose example and instruction had done so much to spread education and civilisation amongst them; they were amalgamated with the races they had conquered, and in a few centuries a new people was developed that contained much that was best in the characters of the Roman, the Celt, the Goth, and the Teuton.

Never was the power of the Church and of religion displayed to greater advantage than on this occasion, and never should Europe forget the debt which it owes to her for having checked the onward march of barbarism, for having changed and uplifted the characters of the invaders so as to prepare them for the great intellectual revival of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and for having preserved the literary and artistic treasures of ancient Rome so as to render possible the renaissance movement of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

The Anglo-Saxons, as we have seen, were converted in the sixth century by St. Augustine and the Roman missionaries aided by the Irish monks from Iona and Lindisfarne. The Goths of Spain were won over from Arianism after the conversion of their king, Recared (586–601). The Lombards, too, abandoned Arianism through the exertions of their queen, Theodolinda, backed by the influence of Pope Gregory the Great and the Irish monks of Bobbio. The Burgundians, a people who had settled in the south-east of France, were strengthened in the faith by St. Columbanus and his monks, and the Franks, who had settled along the west bank of the Rhine were converted mainly through the efforts of St. Livinus and other missionaries from Ireland.

But of all these races none were destined to play such a part in the future of Christianity and of Europe as the Franks and the Germans. Clovis, who may be regarded in a sense as the founder of the kingdom of France, received the title of "eldest son of the church," on account of the fact that he and his race were the first of the invaders to receive the pure Christian faith untarnished by heresy or schism. He was married to Clotilda who was herself a Christian, and being hard pressed at the battle of Tolbiac (590), he implored the aid of the God of Clotilda and of the Christians, and promised that if his prayer were heard he should accept the Christian faith. His prayer seems to have been heard, for he was entirely successful. Clovis became a Christian himself, and through his exertions the true religion was embraced by the great body of his people, so that in a short time the church of France took its place as one of the great churches of Europe.

It was at a later date that the gospel was preached to the Germans on the other side of the Rhine. There, Irishmen like St. Killian and St. Fridolin aided by many of their countrymen, worked with great success. They preached the faith and established here and there Christian communities, but somehow or other they did not appear to have the gift of organisation. They took few steps to establish bishoprics, to arrange for a regular supply of clergy, and in a word to insure the permanency of their work. The man who really converted the Germans and who set up the Church in Germany was the Anglo-Saxon monk, St. Boniface, who deserved well the title by which he was known in after ages, namely, apostle of Germany. St. Boniface was born in Devon about the year 680, and after his ordination, aroused by the news of the success of his countryman Willibrord in Holland, he determined to preach the faith to the Frisians who inhabited that country. But many obstacles impeded his progress and he was obliged to return. The next year, having received the blessing and approval of Pope Gregory II. for his projected mission in Germany, he set out from Rome and preached in many of the states which now form part of the German Empire. When he saw the great results which attended his efforts he returned to Rome in 722, and was consecrated bishop of Germany. Ten years later he was appointed archbishop with full powers to set up bishops among the peoples he converted. He built a great monastery at Fulda which was for centuries the leading monastery in Germany; he established his own metropolitan See at Mayence; he arranged the limits of a great many bishoprics and drew up a code of laws for the government of the church in the country. When he had finished his work he was an old man, but neither age nor infirmity had diminished his zeal, and he determined to carry out the project so dear to his heart, the conversion of the Frisians. He set out on this mission accompanied by a few companions, and on the eve of Pentecost day, when he was about to administer baptism to a number of his converts assembled on the banks of the river Borne, he was surrounded by a band of pagans and was put to death for the faith. But he had lived long enough to accomplish the work for which Providence had called him. The church of Germany was firmly established.

The conversion of the Saxons was a difficult work, but after this sturdy race was subdued by Charlemagne about the year 805, large numbers of them embraced the Christian faith. Poland and Hungary were converted in the ninth and tenth centuries, as also the nations of the north, Denmark, Norway and Sweden.

The Temporal States of the Holy See

From a very early time donations and bequests were made by the faithful to the Holy See, in order to provide the Pope with the mean' of relieving the wants of the poorer Christians and of having the gospel preached to the unbelievers. After the conversion of Constantine and the recognition of the Christian religion as the official religion of the empire, valuable estates situated in different parts of Italy and Sicily passed into the hands of the Pope. About the same time, owing to his position as head of the Church, and owing to the important privileges conferred upon him by the emperors, the Pope secured a certain amount of temporal authority in Rome and the adjoining district. This authority was extended very much when the seat of the empire had been removed to Constantinople; and in later times when invaders began to threaten the capital and when the rulers were unable to protect their people, the Popes stood between Rome and danger, and the Romans came to regard the Pope as their natural protector. In the fifth century Leo the Great endeavoured to protect the capital; in the seventh century Gregory the Great adopted a similar policy, and in the eighth century Pope Zachary interposed in order to induce the Lombard leaders to withdraw their forces from the gates of Rome. In this way the people began to look to the Pope as their real leader and sovereign, and to pay very little attention to the eastern emperors who claimed the authority and yet were unable and unwilling to defend their subjects.

During the Iconoclastic troubles the eastern emperors practically declared war on the Popes, and tried to seize the estates that had been handed over to the Church. At the same time the Lombards were concentrating their forces on Rome and central Italy, and the Pope, seeing no other hope of protection, appealed for assistance to Pepin who had just been appointed king of the Franks. Pepin promptly responded to this appeal by leading an army into Italy, and when he had succeeded in driving back the Lombards, he handed over to the Pope large territories stretching along central Italy, to be ruled by him and his successors with full sovereign rights. The inhabitants were delighted at this change which gave them as king the man whom they had hitherto regarded as their protector. At a later period, the Lombards having again invaded the Patrimony of St. Peter, Charlemagne crossed the Alps, reduced the Lombards to subjection, confirmed the grant of Pepin and added additional territories to the kingdom of the Pope (774).

The Holy Roman Empire

The Merovingian line of rulers who followed Clovis on the throne of France were entirely worthless and wicked, and the whole power passed into the hands of the leading ministers, who were called Mayors of the Palace. The most famous of these were Charles Martel, who at Poitiers withstood successfully the advance of the Saracens from Spain, and Pepin the Short, on whom the people wished to bestow the royal dignity as well as the royal power. Pope Zachary approved of their choice and Pepin was crowned king. Pepin was succeeded by his sons Carloman and Charles, but on the retirement of Carloman after a few years, Charles, known as Charlemagne or Charles the Great, became the sole ruler of the dominions of his father. He was a man of great ability and great military genius who was determined to weld together the greater part of western Europe into one vast united kingdom. He conquered the Saxons in the east and the Lombards in the south. He repelled the Scandinavian invasion from the north, and he ruled with undisputed sway over an immense territory comprising modern France, northern Spain, northern Italy, Switzerland, the greater portion of Germany, Holland and Belgium.

In the year 800 Charlemagne visited Rome and while assisting at Mass on Christmas morning he was crowned by Pope Leo III. and saluted as emperor of the west. Thus a new kingdom was set up in place of the old Roman Empire, and its rulers pledged themselves to be the protectors of religion, the mediators of peace among Christian nations and the special defenders of the Holy See.

During his life Charlemagne was the patron of religion and of learning throughout his vast dominions. He secured the appointment of good bishops, and endeavoured to raise the tone of clerical life by insisting that those of the clergy who were not monks should live at least under a canonical rule. He convoked several synods which were attended by the bishops and princes to reform the abuses that had crept in, and to arrange for the better government of the Church. Anxious to put an end to the state of ignorance that was then too general in his dominions, he called together scholars from all parts of the world, especially from England and Ireland, and established schools in the country over which he ruled. When he died in 814 his remains were laid to rest in the cathedral of Aix-la-Chapelle, which he himself had built.

The Union of Church and Stale

The vast empire over which Charlemagne ruled did not long remain united after his death. On the death of Louis the Mild it was split up amongst his three sons, and the question as to who should have the imperial dignity gave rise to constant wars. France separated entirely from the empire on the accession to its throne of Hugh Capet in the ninth century, and the ruler of Germany who claimed to be the emperor was often unable to maintain his authority against the princes and leaders who contested it in Italy. As a consequence the emperors were unable to carry out their pledges to protect the Holy See; various factions in Italy struggled to place their own partisans in the chair of St. Peter; not unfrequently unworthy men received the papal dignity, and for the greater portion of the tenth century the condition of the Papacy can be described only as deplorable.

Again, on the introduction of the Feudal System according to which the land was parcelled out among the greater nobles, on condition of military service, rulers found it safe to have bishops and abbots as their feudal subjects. They were likely to be loyal when others might rebel, and hence the bishoprics and abbacies were endowed with immense territories and the bishops and abbots became great secular rulers. At first these endowments were useful, because they gave the ecclesiastical rulers a position of authority and supplied them with funds for carrying on works of charity and education.

As long as good men were elected there was little danger of abuse, but soon the ceremony of investiture by which the feudal subject received his authority began to take the place of canonical election, and men were appointed bishops or abbots for other reasons besides their fitness for these sacred offices. Even had the bishops been the best of ecclesiastics they had a difficult work before them on account of the frequent wars that broke out over Europe, but when many of the bishops were totally indifferent and paid no attention to their spiritual duties, it is not to be wondered at that the clergy fell from their high level and that demoralization set in rapidly among the people.

In spite of the efforts of men like St. Dunstan, archbishop of Canterbury, Ratherius of Verona, St. Peter Damian, and Benedict of Aniane, the reformer of monastic life, ignorance, immorality and simony were only too common amongst the clergy. These sad results were due entirely to the enslavement of the Church by the State, and to the want of freedom in the election of bishops and popes; and the tenth and eleventh centuries, the real dark ages, instead of being a reproach to the Church, serve rather as a reproach to the oppressors of the Church and a warning to those who would restrict her liberties.