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Volume 9, Issue 5: Hisoria

Medival Presbyterion

Cris Schlect

Roman Catholic--could there be a more blatant oxymoron? "Catholic" means universal, world-wide; an Italian city cannot be universal. In the middle ages, the Catholic Church would come to be identified with a single bishop, a notion which had never entered the apostles' minds. In the High Middle Ages, when Rome's exclusive claim to catholicity grew especially pretentious, a vast number rose up to defend true catholicism. These protesting catholics--the conciliarists--boldly pointed out the contradiction inherent in Roman Catholicism.

The fourth and fifth centuries were significant in the rise of Roman see. Bishop Siricius (385-398) issued what might be called the first genuine decretal letter in response to several questions of discipline that had been referred to him. Shortly thereafter, as controversy rattled a weak church, bishop Innocent I (402-417) asserted that nothing should be decided without the cognizance of the Roman see. Leo the Great's term (440-461) marked a watershed. He argued that Rome was greater than the other great church centers of the day, Constantinople, Antioch, and Alexandria. The world was ready for such arguments, for the church in the East was wracked with doctrinal disputes and poor leadership, North Africa was devastated by barbarian invasions, and the uninspired emperor of Rome ruled a weak West. When Leo's diplomacy saved Rome from Attila the Hun in 452, and later from the Vandals, the people hailed him as Papa"Pope"or father-protector. Leo was the first Roman bishop to be called "Pope," though at the time the title attached to the man, not his office. Leo's argument that the Roman bishop is primus omnium episcorum (first among all bishops) went virtually unchallenged.
The next significant bishop of Rome was Gregory the Great (590-604). Gregory affirmed Leo's arguments, but refused to practice their conclusions. When the bishop of Constantinople called himself "Universal" or "Ecumenical" Bishop, Gregory rebuked him, noting that all bishops together represent the universal church. It became the greatest controversy of his reign. "If one bishop is called Universal," he argued, "the Universal Church comes to ruin, if the one who is universal falls. But far, far be this levity from my ears." In another letter he stated prophetically, "whoever calls himself, or desires to be called, Universal Priest, is in his elation the precursor of Antichrist, because he proudly puts himself above all others." Applying the rule to himself, Gregory insisted that the Roman bishop was but one among equals. Gregory was a humble man who referred to himself as "servant of the servants of God." Many popes since have use this tag, but they turned it into a euphemism for prelatical pride. Gregory's own successors didn't heed his warnings; antichrist would come.
Subsequent Roman bishops would try to claim not only universal authority in the church, but sovereignty over states as well. They found precedent in the events of the mid 8th century. At the time, the Lombards advanced into Italy and threatened Rome. Popes Zacharias (741-752) and his successor, Stephen III (752-757) sought aid from Pepin the Short, major domo of the Franks. The Pope unlawfully deposed the Frankish King and anointed Pepin in his stead; Pepin then defeated the Lombards and donated the conquered territory to the Pope. (The territory would become the Papal States, ruled by popes until 1870.) Later, on Christmas day, 800, Pepin's son, Charlemagne, was crowned emperor by Pope Leo III. The donation of Pepin and the coronation of Charlemagne, insignificant in themselves, would be used by later popes as precedent for their usurpation of state power.
When Gregory VII (Hildebrand) emerged as pope (1073-1085), papal claims grew more haughty. For example, Hildebrand wrote to William of Normandy, "the Conqueror," King of England and Normandy, Like two great luminaries fixed by the Creator in the firmament of the heaven to give light to his creatures, so also hath he ordained two great powers on earth by which all men are governed and preserved from error. These powers are the pontifical and the royal; but the former is the greater, the latter the lesser light. Yet under both the religion of Christ is so ordered that, by God's assistance, the apostolical power shall govern the royal; and Scripture teacheth that the apostolic and pontifical dignity is ordained to be responsible for all Christian kings, nay, for all men, before the divine tribunal, and to render an account to God for their sins. If, therefore, I be answerable before the dreadful judgment seat, judge ye whether ye are not bound upon the peril of your soul . . . to yield unto me unconditional obedience. . . .
When Henry IV of Germany crossed Hildebrand, he was forced to stand outside for three days in frigid January snow, bare-footed and bare-headed, until the proud pontiff would finally receive him.
Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) achieved supremacy over all the souls and swords of Europe; he may be the most powerful man who ever lived. His interdict brought England to her knees, enabling English nobles to secure King John's signature on the Magna Charta, which Innocent nullified. He took England, and John received it back in fief. Innocent presided over the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), through which he instituted inquisition against heresy, and declared transubstantiation to be the dogma of the church--His church--"outside of which there is no possibility of salvation." The claim that salvation was impossible apart from Rome was reaffirmed in 1302 by Pope Boniface VIII's bull Unam Sanctum, and in 1516 by the Fifth Lateran Council.
Innocent III's papacy marked a high point in Romanism that will never be seen again. Those of his successors who shared his pride did not share his competence. Boniface VIII (1294-1303) was humiliated by the king of France, and the papacy eventually became subject to France. From 1305 to 1378, seven popes ruled from France. These popes were gluttonous simoniacs, a blemish on the church. Meanwhile, Rome, the "Holy City," fell literally into ruins.
Europe had had enough; lofty papal claims were challenged not just by jealous kings, but also by prominent churchmen who won a ready ear among the faithful. One protesting voice was William of Ockam (d. 1349), who argued the following points in his Dialogue and Eight Questions: the papacy is not necessary to the being of the church; popes are not infallible, and even a legitimate pope may embrace heresy; a general council may also err; Christ committed the faith neither to the pope, nor his hierarchy, but to the church; and a king's power isn't derived from the church. More strident was the challenge of Marsiglius of Padua (c. 1270-c. 1343) and his great work, Defensor Pacis (Defender of Peace). He held that the State developed out of the family, not the church, and that the right to rule is derived from the governed. In all matters of civil crime, clergymen are responsible to the civil authorities just as anyone else. He said that God alone has the power to forgive sins, and that the church's hierarchy was a human invention. He staunchly rejected the notion that Peter was the first "pope." General Councils are the supreme representatives of the church, but even they may err. Only the Scriptures hold ultimate authority, from which the Church derives its authority. Disputes over doctrine must be taken to a General Council. The opinions of William and Marsiglius, and others like them, were disseminated widely and embraced by many.
Pope Gregory XI returned the papal seat to Rome in 1378. The election of his successor was disputed, and some cardinals elected a rival pontiff who reigned in France. Each pope excommunicated the other, and neither repented. Identical bureaucracies developed in France and Rome. Both popes appointed rival bishops in a number of places, and more awkwardly, rival abbots in some monasteries. The schism lasted thirty-seven years while a disgusted Europe stood excommunicated by either one pope or the other.
Protest rang out among the church's best. In 1380, Konrad of Gelnhausen wrote an important tract asserting that the Church is not the pope and the cardinals, but the whole body of the faithful which receives its life directly from Christ. A year later, the vice-chancellor of the University of Paris, Henry of Langenstein, wrote similarly. He claimed that the Church speaks most authoritatively in representative councils, which need not be sanctioned by a pope, and may even be called by civil authorities. A council can even nullify the election of a pope. These ideas were embraced by the faculties of the University of Paris, as did countless officials in the church.
In 1408, nine Cardinals broke off from Italian Pope Gregory XI and went to Pisa, and met with four Cardinals of French obedience for the purpose of forming an appeal beyond the popes to Christ himself, whose fullness is embodied in the whole church, which could be represented in a general council. European church leaders had abandoned the idea of Roman Catholicism. The ensuing council convened--with church, not papal, sanction--at Pisa in 1409. Fourteen, and later, 24 cardinals were present, along with four patriarchs, ten archbishops, 79 bishops and representatives of 116 others, 128 abbots and priors and representatives of 200 others, the heads of five great monastic orders, 300 doctors of theology and canon law, the deputies of five kings and many princes, and 109 representatives of cathedral and collegiate chapters. The catholicity of the Church was unquestionably displayed there. The Council of Pisa deposed both popes and elected a new one. Defiantly, neither the Roman nor the French pope would step down.
To secure the position that Roman bishop Gregory the Great had so stridently defended, that no one man could represent the catholic Church, another council convened in Constance (1414-1418). Having even more august representation than Pisa, its fourth session declared, This holy Council of Constance . . . declares, first, that it is lawfully assembled in the Holy Spirit, that it constitutes a General Council, representing the Catholic Church, and that therefore it has its authority immediately from Christ; and that all men, of every rank and condition, including the pope himself, are bound to obey it in matters concerning the Faith, the abolition of the schism, and the reformation of the Church of God in its head and members. Secondly, it declares that anyone, of any rank and condition, who shall contumaciously refuse to obey the orders, decrees, statutes, or instructions, made or to be made by this holy Council, or by any other lawfully assembled general council . . . shall, unless he comes to a right frame of mind, be subjected to fitting penance and punished appropriately.
In certain respects the Council of Constance furthered the decline of the church, but its view of church authority was truly medieval, and far more biblical than the trendy popish innovators of the age. The protestant reformers embraced and refined the ecclesiastical views of the conciliarists, joining them in rejecting the catholicity of one Roman bishop. Roman Catholicism was a fad in the middle ages that the Catholic church rejected. However, Rome continues the embracing the silly fad with neither Scriptural warrant nor compelling historical precedent

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