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The Historical Library is provided for those doing research into the history of nontheism. It is not intended to be--and should not be used as--a source of modern, up-to-date information regarding atheistic issues. DO NOT CONTACT US ABOUT THESE DOCUMENTS. Please read the full Historical Library Disclaimer

SECTION I
THE HISTORY OF THE ROMAN CHURCH

CHAPTER II
EUROPE DECAYS AND THE POPES THRIVE

SIMULTANEOUSLY with this forging of credentials and lowering of character in the Roman Church there was a singular transformation of its originally simple offices. The Pagans were accustomed to highly coloured and picturesque ceremonies, and the new Church indulgently met their wishes. Hymns, altars, and statues; incense, holy water, and burning candles; silk vestments and bits of ritual - these things were borrowed freely from the suppressed temples. There must have been a remarkable resemblance between the services in the suppressed temple of Mithra on the Vatican Hill and the services in the new temple dedicated to St. Peter on, or near, the same spot.

Other religions contributed their share. The Pagans had been accustomed to variety, and so the worship of the saints and the Virgin Mother, which was unknown in the Church for three centuries, was encouraged. Then relics had to be invented for the saints, just as saints were sometimes invented for relics. We hear every few years of bishops bring directed "in a vision" to discover the body of some martyr or saint. Palestine also began to do a magnificent trade in relics with Italy; beginning with the "discovery of the true cross," at which no historian even glances today. The events I have described bring us to the close of the fourth century, when Pope Innocent I, a strong man, undertook to enforce the Papal claim in the West. In the Eastern Church there was still nothing but contempt for that claim. In the year 381 the Greek bishops met at Constantinople, and in the third canon of the Council they expressly laid it down that the Bishop of "new Rome" (Constantinople) was equal in rank to the Bishop of "old Rome."

The great figure of the African Church - indeed, of the whole Church - at that time was St Augustine. Catholic Truth is very concerned to show that this great leader recognized the Papal claim, and it repeatedly puts into his mouth the famous phrase: "Rome has spoken; the case is settled." The heretic Pelagius was then active, and the implication is that St. Augustine recognized the condemnation of this man by Rome as the authoritative settlement of the dispute.

Now, not only did neither Augustine nor any other bishop use those words, but they are an entirely false summary of what he did say. His words, in his 131st sermon, are: "Already the decisions of two [African] councils have been sent to the Apostolic See, and a rescript has reached us. The case is settled." The settlement lies plainly in the joint condemnation of Pelagius by Africa and Rome Nor did the matter end here Pope Zosimus at first pronounced in favour of Pelagius, and the African bishops forced him to recant. In order to justify his further interference, the Pope then quoted two canons of the Council of Nicæa which astonished the Africans. After inquiry in the East it was proved that these canons were Roman forgeries, and the African bishops, maliciously informing the Pope of their discovery, trusted that they would hear "no more of his pompousness." They did hear more of it, and a few years later they sent to the Pope a letter (happily preserved) in which they scornfully reject his claim to interfere, and advise him not to "introduce the empty pride of the world into the Church of Christ, which offers the light of simplicity and lowliness to those who seek God." And Catholic Truth has the audacity to tell the faithful that these African bishops admitted the supremacy of the Pope! [1]

Rome fell in the year 410, but the charm of the great city laid its thrall upon the barbarians, and the Roman See suffered comparatively little. The Spanish Church was next overrun, and the Vandals, crossing the Straits of Gibraltar, trod underfoot the African colony and, as they were Arians, ruined its Church. The provincial bishoprics no longer produced prelates of any strength or learning, and the weak new men, quarrelling incessantly amid the ruins of the Empire, began to appeal more frequently to Rome. Dense ignorance succeeded the culture of the great Empire. The Popes did not rise, but the other bishops fell. "In a land of blind men," says an old French proverb, "the one-eyed man is king."

That the Roman bishopric did not change for the better in that age of general corruption its official record shows. At the death of Zosimus it became again the bloody prize of contending factions. Two Popes, Eulalius and Boniface, were elected, and on Easter morn, when each strove desperately for the prestige of conducting the great ceremony, a mighty struggle reddened once more the streets and squares of the city. A few years later, however, Rome again obtained a strong and zealous Pope, Leo I, and the claim of supremacy advanced a few steps farther. The Church still resisted the Papal claim. When Leo attempted to overrule Bishop Hilary of Gaul, one of the few strong men remaining in the provinces, Hilary (Leo says, Epp. x, 3) used "language which no layman even should dare to use."

In the East, Leo was not innocent of trickery. His Legates attempted to impose upon the Greeks the spurious canons which Pope Zosimus had attempted to use in Africa, and they were mercilessly exposed. In the fifteenth session of the Council of Chalcedon the Greek bishops renewed the famous canon which declared the Bishop of Constantinople equal to the Bishop of Rome. In an ironical letter they informed Leo of this, yet we find the Papal clerks sending to Gaul, in Leo's name, shortly afterwards, an alleged (and spurious) copy of the proceedings at Chalcedon, in which the Greek bishops are represented as calling Leo "head of the universal Church"! We shall see that there is hardly one of even the "great" Popes who did not resort to trickery of this kind.

The Greek Church has retained to this day its defiance of Rome. Western Christendom, on the other hand, has submitted to the Papacy, and we have next to see how this submission was secured. This is explained in part by the enfeeblement of the provincial bishoprics, but especially by the dense ignorance which now settled upon Europe. The reader will not have forgotten the forgeries which I described in the last chapter. The products of this pious industry included documents less innocent than the pretty stories about St Agnes and St. Cecilia. Some of these - certain spurious or falsified canons of Greek councils - we have already met. The forgers grew bolder as the shades of the medieval night fell upon Europe, and some romances of very practical value to the Papacy were fabricated

The chief of these, The Acts of St. Silvester, is believed by many scholars to have been composed in the East, about the year 430. However that may be, it soon passed to Europe, and it became one of the main foundations of the Papal claim of temporal supremacy. After giving a gloriously fantastic account of the conversion and baptism of the Emperor Constantine, it makes that monarch, when he leaves Rome for the East (after murdering his wife and son), hand over to the Papacy the secular rule of all Europe to the west of Greece! It is a notorious and extravagant forgery, but it was generally accepted, and was used by the Popes.

A similar document, The Constitution of St. Silvester, is believed by modern historians to have been fabricated in Rome itself, in the year 498. Two Popes were elected once more, and on this occasion the customary deadly feud existed for three years. The document is supposed to have been invented, in the course of this struggle, by the supporters of the anti-Pope. Rome and Italy were now so densely ignorant that forgers - of relics, legends, canons, pills, or anything else - enjoyed a golden age. The one force on the side of enlightenment was the heretical and anti-clerical King of Italy, Theodoric the Ostrogoth; and the Roman clergy intrigued so busily against his rule that he had to imprison Pope John I. Rome split into Roman and Gothic factions, and terrible fights and bribery assisted "the light of the Holy Ghost" in deciding the Papal elections. In the early part of the sixth century there were six Popes in fifteen years, and there is grave suspicion that some were murdered.

At last Pope Silverius opened the gates of Rome to the troops of the Greek Emperor, but the change of sovereign only led the Papacy to a deeper depth of ignominy. The Greek Empress Theodora, the unscrupulous and very pious lady who had begun life in a brothel and ended it on the Byzantine throne, had a little heresy of her own; and a very courtly Roman deacon, named Vigilius, had promised to favour it if she made him Pope. "Trump up a charge against Silverius [the Pope], and send him here," she wrote to the Greek commander at Rome; and the Pope was promptly deposed for treason and replaced by Vigilius. But Pope Vigilius found it too dangerous to fulfill his bargain; and, amid the jeers and stones of the Romans, he was shipped to Constantinople to incur the fiendish vengeance of the pious Theodora. The Romans, who openly accused him of murder, heard with joy of his adventures and death, and they vented their wrath upon his friend and successor, Pope Pelagius.

Such had already become the Papacy which Catholic historians describe as distinguished for holiness and orthodoxy, under special protection of the Holy Spirit, from its foundation. But this is merely a mild foretaste of its medieval qualities. For a time Gregory the Great (590-604) raised its prestige once more; but even the pontificate of that deeply religious man has grave defects. His fulsome praise of the thoroughly vicious and murderous Queen Brunichildis (Letters, vii, 5, 50, etc.) and of the brutal Eastern Emperor Phocas, and his wild rejoicing at the murder of the Emperor Maurice (who had called him "a fool") (xiii, 31), are revolting. His ignorance and credulity were unlimited. His largest works, The Magna Moralia and The Dialogues, are incredible hotch-potches of stories about devils and miracles. He sternly rebuked bishops who tried to educate their people (vi, 54); and he did not perceive that the appalling vices and crimes which he deplores almost in every letter - the general drunkenness and simony and immorality of the priests, and the horrible prevalence of violence - were mainly due to ignorance. He was one of the makers of the Middle Ages.

After Gregory the Papacy sinks slowly into the fetid morass of the Middle Ages. The picture of the morals of the Roman Church by Jerome in the fourth century, of the whole Western Church by the priest Salviamis in the fifth century, and by Bishop Gregory of Tours in the sixth century, are almost without parallel in literature. It would, however, be dreary work to follow the fortunes of the Papacy, as well as we can trace them in the barbarous writings of the time, through that age of steady degeneration. Contested elections, bloody riots, bribes, brawls with the Eastern bishops, punctuate the calendar. Twenty obscure Popes cross the darkening stage in the course of a hundred years. I resume the story at the point where the Popes begin to win temporal power.

In the eighth century the Greek emperors were again in the toils of heresy, and the ruling people in the north of Italy, the Lombards, were still Arians. The Popes began to look beyond the Alps for an orthodox protector, and their gaze was attracted to the Franks. Rome found it convenient to regard the Franks as an enlightened and pious race, though we know from the reports of St. Boniface to the Popes that the Frank clergy and princes were among the worst in Europe. Clerics, we read, had four or five concubines in their beds. Drunkenness, brawling, simony, and corruption tainted nearly the whole of the clergy and the monks. These things were overlooked; nor did the Lateran (at that time the palace of the Popes) rebuke Charles Martel for his own corruption in despoiling the Church.

Charles Martel paid no attention to the flattering offer of the Popes, but his son Pippin found occasion to use it. He was "Mayor of the Palace," and he desired to oust the king and occupy his throne. He sent envoys to Pope Zachary to ask if he might conscientiously do so. Not only might he, Zachary replied, but he must; and from that time onward Rome was able to claim that Pippin and his famous son, Charlemagne, owed their throne to the Papacy.

It was not long before Pope Stephen II, being hard pressed by the Lombards, appealed to the gratitude of the ignorant Frank, and a very remarkable bargain was struck. Pippin accepted the title of "Patricius" (vaguely, Prince) of Rome, and in return he promised to wrest from the Lombard heretics the whole territory which belonged to the Popes. It is true that very considerable estates had previously been given to the Papacy. Gregory the Great, who believed that the end of the world was at hand, had induced large numbers of nobles to leave their estates to the Church, since their sons would have no use for them, and he farmed and ruled immense territories. He became the richest man and largest slave-holder in Europe. Gregory had been as shrewd in material matters as he had been credulous in religion. But historians suspect, and there is very good reason to suspect, that the Papal envoys showed Pippin The Acts of St. Silvester, and in virtue of it claimed nearly the whole of Italy.

The gruff and superstitious Pippin swore a mighty oath that he would win back for "the Blessed Peter" the lands which these hoggish heretics had appropriated, and he went to Italy and secured them. What precise amount of Italy he handed over to the Papacy we do not know. The Papacy has not preserved the authentic text of a single one of these "donations" on which it bases its claims of temporal power. There is a document, known as the "Fantuzzian Fragment," which professes to give the terms of "the Donation of Pippin," but scholars are agreed that this is a shameless Roman forgery. It is, however, certain that Pippin gave the Papacy, probably on the strength of the older forgery, a very considerable part of north and central Italy, including the entire Governorship of Ravenna, and returned to France.

To this territory the Papacy had no just title whatever, and the King of the Lombards at once reoccupied it. Pope Stephen stormed the French monarch with passionate and piteous appeals to recover it for him, but Pippin refused to move again. Then the Pope took a remarkable step. Among his surviving letters there is one (no. v) addressed to Pippin which is written in the name of St. Peter. The Pope had forged it in the name of Peter, and passed it off on the ignorant Frank as a miraculous appeal from the Apostle himself. By that pious stratagem and the earlier forgery the Papacy obtained twenty-three Italian cities with the surrounding country.

Those who affect to doubt whether the Pope really intended to deceive the King seem to forget that the Papacy of the time was deeply stained with crime and forgery. In 768 a noble of the Roman district named "Toto" got together a rabble of priests and laity, and elected his own brother. "Pope" Constantine was a layman, but he was hastily put through the various degrees of ordination and consecration by obliging bishops. No doubt these bishops then claimed their reward and disturbed the older officials. At all events, we read that the chief official of the Papal court, Christopher, and his son Sergius fled to the Lombards, borrowed an army, and marched back upon Rome. A fierce and deadly battle, in which the Lombards won, was followed by the first of a series of horrible acts of vengeance, which will henceforward, from time to time, disgrace the Papacy.

The wretched Constantine, duly consecrated by three bishops, was put upon a horse, in a woman's saddle, with heavy weights to his feet, and conducted ignominiously through the streets of Rome. He was then confined in a monastery, to await trial; but Christopher and Sergius broke into the monastery and cut out the man's eyes. In this condition, his blind face still ghastly from the mutilation, Constantine was brought before a synod in the Pope's palace and tried. The infuriated priests thrashed the wretch with their own hands, and "threw him out." The end of Constantine is, in the chronicles, left to the imagination. His brother also lost his eyes. One of the consecrating bishops lost his eyes and his tongue. In short, the supporters of the premature Pope were punished with a savagery that tells us plainly enough the character of the Papacy at that time.

Catholic Truth - which, however, generously admits that there were "some bad Popes," though this does not affect its claim of the special interest of the Holy Ghost in the Papacy - imagines the Pope serenely aloof from these horrors. Listen to the sequel. Christopher and Sergius presumed too much upon their services to Pope Stephen, and he grew tired of them and plotted with the Lombard King. They discovered or suspected the plot, and sought to kill the Pope; and it is enough to say that before many days they themselves had their eyes cut from the sockets. Christopher was mutilated so brutally that he died. There are some Catholic writers who make a show of liberality, and admit that the Pope was "implicated" in this. But the sordid truth is known to us and to these writers on the most absolute authority of the time. In the Liber Pontificalis [2] itself we have the explicit testimony of Pope Hadrian I, the greatest Pope of the time, that Pope Stephen ordered the eyes of Christopher and Sergius to be cut out, and for the sordid reason that King Didier promised to restore the disputed lands if he did so. Stephen, Hadrian says, admitted this to him.

To such depths had "the Vicars of Christ" sunk now that the greed of temporal sovereignty and wealth was added to the ambition for religious supremacy. And they had, naturally, allowed all Europe to sink to the same level As the letters of St. Boniface and other contemporary documents affirm, the moral condition of England, France, and Germany - Spain had now passed to the Arabs was unspeakable. Monasteries and nunneries were houses of open debauch - Boniface describes the English nuns as murdering their babies - and the clergy very corrupt. But here I must confine myself to the Vicars of Christ.


Notes
[1] What is claimed to be the most scholarly publication of the Church, the Catholic Encyclopædia, is the worst of all. Under the heading "Pope" Father Joyce (S.J., of course) says that Rome claimed supremacy from the earliest times and no Church ever questioned it. We will return to this.
[2] In the sketch of the life of Pope Hadrian, which was written in Rome at the time and is at least semi-official


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