THE HISTORY OF THE ROMAN CHURCH
THE PAPACY AT ITS HEIGHT
IN the preceding three chapters I have described a thousand years of Papal history: a thousand years since, according to the Roman tradition, Peter had brought his special inspiration to Rome and inaugurated a "divinely inspired" series of pontiffs. What a millennium it was that he initiated! It began in the relative culture and prosperity of the best days of the Roman Empire; it ended in the dense darkness and misery of the early Middle Ages. The series of pontiffs includes 150 Popes in the thousand years. How many of them were great men? How many of them were of a character to accord with their pretensions? How many of them were corrupt? Where was the promised Holy Spirit during whole centuries of the millennium?
We now enter upon what we must describe as, in many respects, a better period of Papal history.
But with the comparative disappearance of gross vice and crime there reappears what one is tempted to call the spiritual criminality of the good Popes. We cannot, and have no wish to, question the motives of these sincerely religious Popes, but any historian must recognize the profound human evil of much of their work and the pitiful casuistry to which even the greatest of them stooped. The forgers return, and are employed by Popes like Hildebrand. Ambition of the spiritual sort returns, and, working upon a densely ignorant age, builds up a power that, passing to more corrupt men, causes shameful abuses. Ascetic Popes fasten celibacy upon their clergy, and human nature takes a tearful revenge. Swords still fly on all sides, and the best of the Popes set them about their bloody work in the interest of the Papacy. Enlightenment begins to dawn upon Europe from Moorish Spain, and the Popes set up Inquisitions and drown whole populations in blood. And all the time Europe is sodden with gross superstitions – with spurious relics, and magical cures for disease, and appalling travesties of Justice, and mechanical rites instead of real morality – and no "divinely inspired" Pope opens his lips to protest.
The early German Popes introduced by Henry, whom the malaria of Italy or the poison of Rome removed in quick succession, need not detain us. The short series culminated in the election of the famous Hildebrand, or Gregory VII, who embodies in his rugged personality all the virtues and vices of the reformers. He was from the first a rough and violent peasant, enlisting his brute strength in the service of the monastic ideal which he embraced. In the north of Italy a bishop began a campaign against the marriage of the clergy, and soon a wild mob, armed with staves, went from church to church dislodging the married priests and pouring filthy abuse upon them and their families. It must be remembered that there was as yet no rigorous law of the Church forbidding priestly marriage. There were old decrees by Popes, but long-standing custom had set them aside. The monks were generally immoral, and the secular priests nearly as bad, but a very large proportion of the priests were legally married, even in Rome. Hildebrand rushed into the fray with his fanatical monk-colleague, Peter Damian, who could sling invectives like a Neapolitan fisher. Peter wrote a book about the morals of the clergy and the monks, significantly called The Book of Gomorrah, and presented it to the Pope. It is a terrible picture of monastic, priestly, and episcopal vice, chiefly unnatural vice; and the state of things it describes certainly merited a campaign. But the real remedy was decent marriage for all, and against this Peter and Hildebrand, and half a dozen other firebrands, led the staff-armed mobs and the imperial troops. When Hildebrand became Pope they won. They imposed the theory of celibacy upon the Church; and the sequel had better be read in Lea’s History of Sacerdotal Celibacy (or Sacerdotal Vice) by any who is not familiar with it, or cannot imagine it.
There was hardly a country in Europe which Gregory did not try to annex to Rome. All the kingdoms of Spain belonged to the Papacy, he said; and other monarchs who had innocently accepted "blessed banners" found that their kingdoms were subject to Rome and owed vassalage in men and money, He claimed Hungary. He threatened to annex France. The United States of Europe, under the control of the Papacy, was Gregory’s supreme ideal. Not that he had the least idea of pacifying Europe, on the modern plan. He set swords flying, and flung out threats of war, on the slightest provocation. Armies were the Lord’s appointed instruments for making kings "obedient." He claimed the right to interfere in any concern, secular or spiritual, of any country of Europe. "If the Pope is supreme in spiritual things," he naively said, "he had all the greater right to intervene in the smaller matters which are called temporal." And, ignorant as Gregory was, he must have had some knowledge of the fact that his most active assistants – such as Bishop Bonitho, Bishop Anselm, and Cardinal Deusdedit – used and perpetrated forgeries in establishing his credentials.
Gregory "deposed" Henry IV – a new power of the Papacy, which Gregory partly uses forgeries to establish (Epp. viii, 21) – and Henry retorted by charging the Pope with various misdeeds, including suspicious intercourse with the Countess Mathilda! The Catholic writer tells that Gregory won; that the spiritual had a great triumph over the material; that the proud monarch knelt as a penitent in the snow outside the gates of the Castle of Cannossa and begged absolution. This picture is taken from the monkish chronicle of Lambert of Hersfeld, which has been heavily discredited. That Henry went through the form of penance I believe, though it is disputed. But it was merely a political stratagem. The moment Henry left Cannossa he resumed the fight, and, after years of struggle, he won. Gregory’s brutal Normans so enraged the Romans by their rapes and pillage, that they drove Gregory out; and the Pope died, exiled from his own city by his own people for the crimes of his chosen instruments.
Let me add that Gregory VII strove just as earnestly, in the intervals of his political struggles, to reform Rome and the Church. One little glimpse of the state of things will suffice. His admirer, Bishop Bonitho, tells us (Ad Amicum, vii) of a quaint reform he made in St. Peter’s. It appears that "sixty or more" laymen, dressed like priests and capped with mitres, were accustomed to control the church. It was an "old custom." They represented to ignorant pilgrims that they were cardinals, and they promised prayers in return for money. These venerable rogues all had wives or mistresses, says the bishop, yet at night they used to rape or seduce the women-pilgrims who often slept in St. Peter’s. Gregory had great difficulty in evicting them.
Violence begets violence, Gregory’s friend Abbot Didier gently complained to him; and when that worthy man found himself, against his will, appointed to succeed Gregory (in 1087) he realized the truth of his own words. The Imperialists ejected him and the troops of the tender Mathilda, and set up an anti-Pope. The Papalists summoned the Normans, and Rome swam with blood. On the eve of the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul there was a furious battle for St. Peter’s. Each troop was resolved that its particular Vicar of Christ should say mass at the great altar, but the battle was indecisive, and on the solemn day the church lay, silent and blood-spattered, between the rival camps. Pope Victor died heart-broken in the middle of the carnage.
The anti-Pope held Rome for six years, and the new Pope, Urban II, had, at his return from exile in 1093, to borrow money to pay for a lodging in the city. The Vatican and Lateran palaces were ruined. The Papacy, to its great grief, almost returned to the poverty of Christ. Under Paschal II, the next Pope, the Imperialists set up three anti-Popes, and the state of Rome was chronic bloodletting. Paschal’s men captured one of the pretenders, and he was brought on an ass, his face to the tail, to the Lateran Palace.
Such was the Rome of "the ages of faith" and after its "reform." And after nearly a century of bitter strife and bloodshed over the right of investiture, it was settled by a little human wisdom and moderation, a reasonable compromise, in the Concordat of Worms (1122). The "divine inspiration" had not acted well.
But the Papacy had hardly emerged from this struggle, or reached a pause in the struggle with the Emperors, before it plunged into another, and less reputable, conflict.
The beginning of the quarrel with the Empire is told in one of those quaint chapters of medieval history which bring a smile to the lips of the historian when he hears Catholics speak of their divinely guided Papacy and the divinely-illumined elections of Popes.
In the year 1160 Alexander III received the votes of the electors, and, in time-honoured language, he protested that he was unworthy. "Very good," said Cardinal Octavian, who stood near; and he plucked the cope from the astonished Pope’s shoulders. Two other cardinals of the imperialist school at once proposed Octavian for the Papacy. The cope was torn from his hand by an angry supporter of Alexander, but another cope was at hand. Octavian (now Pope Victor IV) put it on at first with the back to the front, and the rival party jeered. But the doors suddenly burst open, and a crowd of soldiers saluted the "true" Pope, Victor IV. Alexander, who quickly discovered his worthiness, hastily barricaded a house near St. Peter’s, but he was evicted by his rival, and was compelled to fly to France. The Emperor Frederick supported Victor.
After five years Alexander, the unworthy, paved a way back to Rome with French gold. But he had scarcely a majority large enough for the tranquil exercise of his spiritual office, and he summoned a French army. The ensuing fight was one of the worst in the Papal annals; which is a high compliment to its earnestness. The floor of St. Peter’s itself is described as "strewn with corpses," and many other churches were ruined. The Romans themselves drove Alexander from the ruins. He returned, and the gates of Rome were closed against him. But on a third attempt he negotiated peace, and for three years he more or less quietly enjoyed the tiara, for which he had amply proved his unworthiness. This was Rome after the "reforms" of Hildebrand.
Innocent III (1198-1216) was, in my opinion, the greatest of the Popes. He was a man of much strength of character, considerable ability, intense religious feeling, and very remarkable achievements.
Yet it is precisely in the life of this great Pope that we may study most clearly what I have called the spiritual criminality of the good Popes; the proof that the Papacy was not merely a pitifully human growth, but a profoundly mischievous institution, warping the finest characters, obstructing the progress of the race, maintaining Europe in anarchy and bloodshed.
He set about the regaining of the temporal power, for all the Papal territories were now occupied by German commanders or Italian nobles, and were incorporated in the Empire. This was one of Innocent’s fundamental defects. His aim brought the Papacy once more into deadly conflict with the Emperors, and caused him to stoop to actions which we should call mean and treacherous. He first induced the invalid widow of Henry VI, who lived in Sicily, to make over that kingdom (and a very large annual sum) to the Papacy, in return for which he would look after the interests of her son, the boy Emperor; and he then encouraged, and apparently financed, a French adventurer who came with a claim to it. As Frederick was very young, his uncle Philip of Swabia held the throne in Germany. Otto of Brunswick then raised a wholly baseless claim to it – it belonged to the Pope’s ward – and, because the unscrupulous adventurer promised to be docile to the Church, Innocent blessed his claim, and told the Germans to submit to it. The German prelates angrily warned the Pope to mind his own business, and a very brutal civil war devastated Germany for seven years. It was a just punishment of the Pope that Otto, when he secured the crown, laughed at, and defied him; and it is not strange to find that, as the Pope calmly changed once more and recognized the lawful heir, that prince turned out to be the most deadly opponent of the Papacy, the brilliant and skeptical, Frederic II.
Innocent’s relations with other monarchs are marked by the same shuffling compromise. The supreme thing, in the Pope’s estimation, was the power of the Church, which meant, he said, the good of mankind; and in striving after that power he at times felt that such smaller matters as human honour and manliness might be disregarded. With that incomparable ruffian King John Lackland, of England, he maintained the most friendly and flattering relations as long as John was "obedient" – and paid his dues. The Pope made no indiscreet inquiry into the death of Prince Arthur; and, when John shamefully stole the betrothed of a French knight, the Pope imposed upon him only a ludicrously light penance. But when John refused to recognize Stephen Langton, whom Innocent imposed upon the English Church, he withered the land with an interdict, and invited Philip of France to invade and subdue his "Papal fief," England. When John submitted, and acknowledged that England and Ireland were vassals of the Papacy, Innocent strenuously supported him in his tyranny. The Pope denounced Magna Charta, the first democratic charter of Europe, as a "diabolical document," and bade the barons lay down their arms under penalty of excommunication.
In directing the Fourth Crusade his conduct was even worse. The Crusaders paid their passage by taking Zara from the Hungarians for the Venetians. The Pope excommunicated the Venetians, though the Venetians merely smiled (as they usually did at Papal curses), and the Crusaders took little practical notice of the censure. But when the Crusaders took Constantinople from the Greek Catholics, and committed the most appalling horrors in the city and its churches, soldiers and prostitutes rioting together with the sacred vessels of the altar, Innocent had not a word of reproof. It was only when they failed to hand over to him the control of the Greek Church that he opened the flood-gates of his eloquence.
Finally, and worstly, the conduct of this great Pope in connection with the massacre of the Albigenses was at times revolting. I have examined the evidence elsewhere (Crises in the History of the Papacy), and need not repeat it. The abuses and corruption of Rome had begotten in Europe a drastic form of anti-papal heresy which had spread very widely in the south of France. When Raymond of Toulouse refused to coerce his subjects, who were deaf to legates and monks, Innocent began to handle his customary formidable weapons. When the angry nobles then killed the Pope’s arrogant representative, Innocent declared a "crusade" against Raymond and his heretical subjects. No prince would join it, and it was a mighty rabble of adventurous nobles and soldiers, captained by bishops and monks, that gathered for the slaughter and pillage of the prosperous and industrious heretics. What Catholic writers like Belloc say about the "social danger" of their opinions is mendacious rubbish. Their character and conduct were high above the average of the Middle Ages.
Let us allow that Innocent was, on his own principles, right up to this point; though it was not very delicate to stipulate that Toulouse should be handed over as another fief of the "Holy See." But in the further course of events the Pope behaved disgracefully, on any principles. Raymond offered to submit, and the Pope (Epp. xi, 232) instructed his representatives to deal craftily with him and ensnare him. They deliberately goaded Raymond into revolt, and the bloody avalanche descended upon the people of Albi. For three years all the unspeakable horrors of medieval slaughter were perpetrated upon men, women, and children. Innocent himself sickened of the slaughter, and in 1213 cried a halt. He suddenly recollected that Raymond had never been tried and found guilty, and that in any case the kingdom would belong to Raymond’s sons. But the Pope yielded again to the ferocious and crafty abbots and bishops who led the crusade, and he let the massacre be consummated and the kingdom "annexed."
No one knows how many hundred thousand perished horribly in this campaign, which was directly due to the Pope’s immoral instructions to his Legates. But the Papal Legate boasts that his men slew forty thousand men, women, and children in one town, and we know that he had an army of 200,000 at work for two years; yet so many heretics survived that a fresh army of 100,000 had to be hired to finish them. And, while the Pope devoted himself to such matters, Christendom was, as he himself repeatedly says, in a state of general and profound moral corruption, both in its laity, clergy, monks, and nuns.
Such was the greatest, one of the most sincerely religious, of the Popes. Such was the Papacy in the two hundred years of its supreme power. The jewels of the period are Gregory VII, who imposed the colossal blunder of celibacy on the clergy and initiated the terrible feud with the Emperors, and Innocent III, the hero of the Albigensian massacre and the Fourth Crusade (the most sordid adventure of the thirteenth century). Between the two lie that generally miserable series of brawlers whom I have described. Let us pass on.