Short Catechism of Church History - J. Oechtering

Origin of Church Property

And the Temporal Power of the Popes

79. Q. In what manner did the Church acquire temporal possessions among the newly converted nations?

R. 1) The early missionaries, bishops, and especially the religious Orders, who settled down among the barbarian nations, cleared and cultivated the soil in the wild forests, which they had either bought or received as gifts.

2) In gratitude for the gift of faith, the boundless charity, and civilizing influence of the Church, princes and people made frequent gifts of lands to her for the foundation and endowment of institutions devoted to religion, education, and charity.

3) Around cathedrals and abbeys, people settled down, forming counties, villages and cities, and freely chose the temporal government of bishops and abbots, preferring their mild rule to that of secular lords. Emperors and kings favored this as conducive to the stability and order of the realm, and made bishops and abbots feudal lords over their bishoprics and lands.

Feudalism developed during the middle ages. It was a system wherein inferior lords hereditarily held, used and governed lands and provinces, transferred in trust by the prince, for which they were bound to swear allegiance to him and render military and other services. In the unsettled state of Europe, caused by the migration of nations, Feudalism sprang up from the needs of the time and became a great element of public order, but, in course of time decayed and fell. Prelates becoming feudal lords over their temporal possessions and vassals of princes, gave to the state far more than the Church got in return from the state. Many evils were brought on the Church by princes, who on the strength of their feudal rights, interfered with the appointment of bishops and abbots in behalf of their own favorites. Too often they succeeded in placing worldly men into sacred offices either by open force or by simony and in open defiance of ecclesiastical law and authority. The popes, especially Gregory VII., firmly opposed and fought this baneful influence of Feudalism in the Church. It is a great mistake to confound the principle of union between Church and state with ecclesiastical Feudalism.

80. Q. What was the origin of the temporal power of the popes, or the pontifical states?

R. 1). From the first centuries of the Christian era; the popes received frequent donations of estates in and around Rome through the generosity of devout wealthy Christian families. Up to the seventh century, the possessions of the Holy See had grown to such an extent that they comprised a large portion of middle Italy. They were called the Patrimony of St. Peter.

2) After the seventh century the emperors who resided at Constantinople, had virtually abandoned their rights and left Rome and Italy exposed to the invasions of barbarian nations. In this distress the people turned to the Holy See for protection, and the popes repeatedly saved Rome from destruction and acted as rulers, chosen spontaneously by the people.

3) Finally, when the Lombards attempted the conquest of Rome, and all demands for help were left unanswered by the emperor, Pope Stephen II. appealed to Pepin, king of the Franks. The Lombards were defeated and Rome delivered. Pepin restored the Patrimony of St. Peter to the Pope, and laid the keys of the cities, taken from the Lombards, on the tomb of St. Peter, in token of their donation to the Holy See. Charlemagne, his son, confirmed this donation. Thus the temporal power of the pope originated, and it rests on most just and legitimate titles.

81. Q. How did the establishment of the temporal power affect the relation of the Holy See to the nations?

R. 1) The establishment of the temporal power made the Holy See more independent in ruling the Church, and freed it from that dangerous interference, which the emperors after Constantine had almost continually claimed and practiced as an imperial right.

2. It placed the Holy See on neutral ground, whence it could deal without suspicion of partiality with the new and independent Christian states, formed after the downfall of the Roman Empire of the West.

The establishment of the temporal power at such a time was providential.

This property, continually increasing through pious gifts and bequests, enabled the Church to establish an all-embracing system of charity, managed mainly by the religious orders and pervaded by the gentle spirit of Christ. There were hospitals for the sick, asylums for orphans and old people, for cripples, for the insane, and the homeless. When, after the crusades, leprosy swept over Europe, homes for its unfortunate victims were abundantly provided. The parish poor were cared for, not as paupers, but as "guests of Christ". Churches and convents received numerous endowments from which the poor and sick received medicines, clothing, and daily food. Other foundations were made to have prayers and masses offered for the repose of the suffering souls.

Such were the beneficent results which accrued to mankind from the property of the Church.