Good popes, bad popes – the last of the first millennium

Features Mgr John Broadbent31 May 2012 By the year 650, the whole complexion of the civilised world was changing. The Eastern or Byzantine hold on Ravenna in the north of…


Mgr John Broadbent
31 May 2012

By the year 650, the whole complexion of the civilised world was changing.

The Eastern or Byzantine hold on Ravenna in the north of Italy was weakening by murders and the assignations of emperors in Constantinople.

But, more importantly, after Muhammad’s death in 632, his Arabian warriors had swiftly conquered most of the Middle East and then North Africa.

From there, the Muslims entered Spain and Portugal in 711 and crossed the Pyrenees in 732 to enter France where they were defeated by Charles Martel at the Battle of Tours.

Charlemagne to the rescue
The Mediterranean, on the shores of which the Church had grown and flourished, was fast becoming a Muslim lake, which it was to remain for several centuries.

The Lombards were increasing in number in Italy and Pope St Leo III (795-816) appealed to Charlemagne (grandson of Charles Martel) to rescue Rome and when he did so, the pope crowned him emperor.

Once again, in Europe there was an empire: the Holy Roman Empire, which became, as Voltaire remarked, ‘neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire’.

Charlemagne’s sons, whose support of the papacy waned, divided the empire.

With Pope Leo III, who had crowned Charlemagne, there is a hint of a new regime. Leo, before Charlemagne rescued Rome, was apparently attacked in procession by members of a Roman aristocratic family who tried unsuccessfully to cut out his tongue and blind him.

Lacking Charlemagne’s support, Leo’s successors were exposed to the infighting of the Roman families and their followers.

In 681 the General Council, the Third of Constantinople, condemned monothelitism (which professed that Jesus had only one will but not a human one).

Unfortunately, Pope Honorius I (625-38) had, in a letter to the Patriarch of Constantinople, said he saw little wrong with what was later condemned as heresy. He is the only pope condemned by a General Council.

But as the Commission on Infallibility before Vatican I declared, Honorious’ opinion was private and he never, as leader of the Church, taught monothelitism to be followed by all.

A low point for the Church
By the time of Gregory I (the Great), pope from 690 to 604, Rome had shrunk from the capital of an empire with over a million people to an impoverished city of about 50,000, its buildings and artefacts in ruins.

Gregory began to rebuild the city’s aqueducts and many of its fine buildings.

He organised food for the starving, having 12 poor beggars at his table daily, and also organised the papal estates so that their revenue should go principally to the poor.

In 596, he sent Augustine, the prior of his Roman monastery, and his fellow monks to convert the pagan English. (See last issue for the story of the first Archbishop of Canterbury.)

The 900s, with the Borgia era of the late 1400s and early 1500s, was one of the two worst periods for the papacy.

The tenth century had over 20 valid popes, many of whom were murdered or poisoned and were in place mainly because one Roman family had seized the power of appointing popes.

The capital was effectively ruled by Theodora and Marozia, the mother and daughter from whom rose the legend of a woman pope (Joan) in Rome. Rather than being evil, the popes they appointed were weak and ineffectual.

One historian has referred to this period as ‘the pornocracy of the papacy’.

Not all the popes of the 900s were morally bad and they certainly did not teach any erroneous doctrinal error, but they were manipulated or indirectly driven by the political ambitions of Roman aristocracy.

The dark ages
This was the period of the European dark ages Barbarians were still coming in from central Russia and the region was very unsettled economically as the Norsemen swept down from Scandinavia.

The Church badly needed reform, because even in the more settled areas such as France, Germany and parts of Italy, bishops were by this time being appointed by secular rulers.

The Lombards were becoming stronger in Italy and probably would have conquered Rome had not Charlemagne and Pepin, his father before him, intervened.

General decay set in – simony was rampant, celibacy of clergy, although officially recognised in most dioceses, was often not kept, church property often passed on to priests’ sons, and laity dominated the Church.

Reform was in the air, as Mgr Broadbent reveals in the next instalment.