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The Papacy was an international institution, the first international institution, the first and for many centuries the only international institution. Just one example of this is during the years 654 to 752 there were seventeen popes of whom only five were Roman, three were Greek, five were Syrian, three were from Greek speaking Sicily and one was from somewhere else in Italy and this trend continued with many more European popes in the ninth century. The popes were a unifying centre. The Pope was seen as head of the Church in the West, the leader of all who belonged to the faith, no matter where those faithful lived or what their occupation.
The first major event causing disunity within Christianity was the rapture between the West and the East. It was not a sudden occurrence. The build-up was spread over many centuries beginning in the eighth century and concluding in the fifteenth century. Many see the beings of the rapture in the dispute, which took place over images in 729 however the distance between Rome, and Constantinople was already visible at this stage. Over the centuries Rome had created a foundation for itself on which it was possible to achieve more and more independence from the Emperor. It had created it’s own income and followers and was finding it increasing unsatisfactory to remain within a state of subordination to the Emperor. In 726 the pope refused to pay taxes to the Byzantines owed because the Bishop of Rome was a Byzantine Duke and ruler of part of the imperial territories in Italy. In his defence the theory was developed that the lands controlled by Rome were of special significance and had in fact been donated to the see of St. Peter by Constantine in the fourth century. In the same year Byzantium became gripped by Iconoclasm or image-breaking. It soon became the official policy of Constantinople. Leo III decreed that the crucifix be replaced by a plain cross and that all images of saints and especially the Virgin Mary be white washed. He then tried to impose Iconoclasm on Rome. Pope Gregory II condemned and rejected it. However he did not abandon the Emperor.
Then in 753 the Pope seized political power from the Emperor. The Lombards had been advancing to the walls of Rome for sometime and Byzantium was not giving military support to the Pope. Seeking protection Stephen the II (III) turned to the Franks. At the time Pepin the Short was ruler of the Frankish kingdom in all but name and was looking for an ally capable of legitimately conveying the crown to him. He found that ally in the Pope. In 751 public approval was obtained from Stephen when he corroborated the opinion of Pepin that a king must rule in order to reign, and a few weeks later Pepin was anointed king by Archbishop Boniface. The following year Stephen claimed Pepin’s assistance against the Lombards whom the Frankish king proceeded to conquer. He then gave the former Exarchate of Ravenna to the Pope. The acceptance by Stephen revealed that the Pope’s allegiance to the Emperor had been renounced. Rome had broken with Constantinople and associated herself with the Franks. This was re-emphasised with the coronation of Charlemagne in 800.
However there had been no formal divorce. The final break did not come until 1054 and involved differences over doctrine and the Pope’s claim to papal supremacy. The Greeks were accused of omitting the Filioque from their creed for centuries. They were also criticised for using leavened bread for communion, for fasting on Sundays and for various other practices. The Pope wrote the following to the Patriarch of Constantinople “Rome is mother and her spouse is God. Constantinople is a naughty and corrupt daughter, any church which descents from Rome is a confabulation of heretics, a conventical of schismatics and a synagogue of Satin”. Nevertheless he did offer to give papal support to the Greek Empire if the Greek Church accepted the supremacy of the Pope. The Greeks refused, the Western Church was condemned for Latin heresies in creed and in practice and the papal legates were excommunicated. For their part the legates had already excommunicated the Patriarch for refusing to recognise their powers.
From this point there were two universal Christian Empires and two universal and orthodox Christian Churches, each with their own head, own doctrines and own followers. In the following centuries there were two major attempts to heal the split. At the Council of Lyon in July 1274 the Greeks actually accepted papal supremacy and agreed to insert the filiogue into the Creed. However Emperor Michael was unsuccessful when he attempted to force compliance among his people with the agreement. In addition Gregory X’s successors in the West did not make its assimilation any easier. After the Emperor’s death Greek orthodoxy was restored and Michael’s successor was excommunicated for persistently failing to implement the agreement. A final attempt was made to reunite East and West at the council of Florence in 1439. This attempt was made mostly due to the fact that the threat to Constantinople from Islam was increasing daily and was reaching crisis point. Once again the Greeks gave way on all matters of substance and the Union was formally sealed in the decree Laetantur coeli of 6 July 1439. However the Union was not supported by the Byzantine populace and orthodox clergy. The Eastern Patriarchs condemned it. Some protested that they were ready to turn Turk rather than Papist.
In Moscow the fallout from the Union resulted in the establishment of a Separate Russian Orthodox Church. The council had failed to heal the schism and had in fact only created more disunity. On 29 May 1453 Constantinople was sacked by the Ottoman’s and European Christianity remained divided. One author has even called the episode of the Union of Florence “one of the most pathetic episodes in the scandalous annuals of Christianity”.
The ‘Great Schism’ was also a disunifying influence on Europe. In 1303 pope Clement V became the unlikely successor of Benedict Ix. He had been an outsider acceptable to both Bonifacian and French parties within the College of Cardinals. During his pontificate he was forced to give priority to French affairs and had created enough French cardinals to swing the balance of power within the college in their favour. He was a sick man and never felt able to travel to Rome and so in 1309 he set up residence in Avignon. This was seen as a temporary home for the Papacy and was not intended to become permanent. However after Clement’s death, although the new pope, John XXII, had promised to restore the Holy See to Rome serious troubles in Italy prevented him from keeping his promise. This situation was only profitable for the French and was infuriating to other states and Christians. In 1367 Urban V did return to Rome but was back in Avignon by 1370 as the situation in Italy was diabolical.
Finally Gregory XI, having no choice because of the political situation in Italy and the resolve of St. Catherine of Siena, returned to Rome in 1376. A troubled year followed and his death was the only reason why the Pope did not return, as planned, to Avignon. Urban VI was elected after Gregory’s death. It was the first time in nearly 75 years that a Pope had been elected in Rome and the populace had demanded a Roman pope. Soon after the election the cardinals were quarrelling with the Pope. Not only had the French cardinals protested that they had acted under the influence of terror but now Urban was openly reproving their way of life, cutting off some of their sources of income and threatening to create more Italian cardinals. Their reply to these actions was to leave Rome, declare the election null and void and elect a new pope. Clement VI, a Frenchman, was their choice and after a failed attempted to capture Rome they returned to Avignon and re-established the old papal offices. Nevertheless Urban refused to accept his disposition, instead creating 29 new cardinals and excommunicating those who claimed to have disposed him.
Europe was split. Clement was acknowledged by the King of France and his allies, Aragon, Castile, Navarre, Sardina, Sicily, Scotland and some parts of Germany. Urban was acknowledged by the remaining states of Europe, most of Germany, England, Flanders and the Northern Kingdoms. Two groups were created, one under the influence of France and the other under the influence of England. The people had little choice but to support the choice of the princes, unless they were in revolt.
The split continued with the election of new popes, on both sides, each time a current pope died and the representatives of each line continued to claim to be the legitimate ruler of the Whole church. Then in 1393 the French were offended by the election of a Spanish Pope at Avignon and urged him to resign. Benedict XIII refused and so three years later the support and allegiance of the French Church was withdrawn from the Avignon Pope. The Church then began to organise itself on national lines practically independent from papal rule. Bohemia and Hungary soon followed and it became obvious that the Church was in serios danger of breaking up. A General Council of the Church was convened in Pisa in 1409 to find a solution to the problem. Both Popes were summoned before the Council, failed to appear, were both declared as notorious schismatics and heretics and deposed. The Holy See was declared vacant and Alexander V was elected and established in Rome. Neither Pope accepted the act of disposition and so instead of solving the problem the Church had now created a third pope.
Finally a solution was found at the Council of Constance (1414-1417). It was decided the only means by which unity could once more be achieved was for all three popes to be disposed in order to place a single pope on the throne. In the end John XXIII was deposed, Gregory XII renounced the tiara and Benedict XIII was deposed and condemned as a heretic and schismatic. Martin V was elected in 1417 and once more there was only one pope. However the damage had already been done. National conflicts had been accentuated. The Church had lost much of the respect of the laity. The devotion and affection once felt towards the Pope was diminished. Throughout the schism the morals of the Popes and their courts had fallen deeper and deeper into disrepute. The time at Avignon, before Gregory’s return to Rome, has been called the ‘Babylon Captivity’. Even the churchmen were revolted by the activities of the Popes. Mutual excommunications, war and political intrigue, corruption, self-indulgence, these were all embroiled in the popes reigns. Simony, nepotism and favouritism became absurdly prevalent, with money becoming increasingly the master of the hierarchy. Increasingly the laity was observing a side of the Papacy, which was, in the years and centuries to come, to create even more disunity within Christianity and Europe. The authority of the Church was derived from its unity. During the time of two, or even three popes, this unity had disappeared and so the Papacy’s authority had been greatly eroded. The French, Bohemians and Hungarians had been on the verge of becoming independent national churches. Edward P. Cheynay summed up the consequences of the scandal very well
“The Church was too closely interwoven with the political, economic and religious life of the time, to strong in its privileges and duties as a national body and too important as the only international organisation in existence to show evidence of dismemberment and decay without creating general dismay”
The Church had been humiliated, weakened and it’s blatant abuses paraded for all of Christianity to cringe at.
The schism had also increased the spread of heresy. This was the period when Wycliffe had written his essays in which he argued that the papacy and the Church had no divine authority over or political value for religion. It was at this time also that the Lollard heresy spread throughout England and the Hussites began to emerge in Bohemia. The schism had ‘ cut through the universal church like a deep and sceptic wound’ and had ‘debased the coin of religion’.
As was already mentioned the ‘Great Schism was one of the major influencing factors of the increase in heresy that was to follow in the decades and centuries to come. In the Dark Ages heresy was relatively rare in the West. Now the Church was being shaken by these movements. By the mid twelfth century heresy had become a major problem, on a scale not experienced since the Goths and Vandals had given their allegiance to Arian beliefs in the fourth century. In addition to becoming more popular it was also becoming more durable. One of the first of the ‘new breed’ of heretic was John Wycliffe in England. His arguments were not directed towards Christian doctrine or morality but at the Church and, in particular, the Papacy. He taught that the Pope was the antichrist, there was no difference between priests and laymen, Christ was the only head of the Church and, perhaps most important, England was absolutely independent of the pope, with the kings temporal power being derived directly from God. He united the religious and political aspects of the matter and, in so doing, drew people’s interest to the religious question through their interest in the political question. He was supported by many nobles and burgesses, who resented the interference of a foreign power in their affairs, and, incredible as it may seem, the lower clergy were preaching his doctrines among the people. Even the English Parliament saw him in a favourable light, with many of its members being his most loyal supporters. Wycliffe undermined the peoples respect for religious authority and his religious movement is thought to have caused the peasant revolts in England in 1381. This group of people were christened the Lollards and even after Henry IV turned against them they still managed to influence religious thought in England for many centuries to come.
Wycliffe’s doctrine was then transported to Bohemia by Jan Hus. His teachings became associated with the outburst of nationalist passions and shock the foundations of the Church in Germany. The Slav population had regarded the Church as that of the Germans and so when Hus emerged his religious zeal fanned the flames of nationalist passions among the people. The Council of Constanz ordered him to be burnt at the stack, however this did not put an end to his heresies. His followers, the Hussites, were infuriated by his death and ‘launched what in effect was a national riding and the first reformation.’ The Catholic clergy were dispersed, its property confiscated, the Churches and monasteries destroyed and the National Czech Church was founded. The Pope’s response was to announce a general crusade against the heretics and for years huge invading armies of German crusaders attempted to squash the Hussites, without success. In the end peace was made when in 1436 the two sides decided to content themselves with their present situation. By this time Hus’ doctrine had also spread to Poland, Hungary and Croatia, where his followers language was readily understood. The religion even found supporters within the poorer inhabitants in German Regions of Austria.
There were other heretic movements also in existence around this time. The ideas of the Bogomils, who denied that Christ had established an organised Church and were dualists, spread quickly in the West and took root in the Balkans. In 1199 the Ban of Bosnia and his court declared themselves Bogomils and the religion also gained a strong grip on Hum (Herzegovina). By the 1160, the Cathars were another movement who were well established in Western Europe. Some believe the spread of Catharism was due in no small part to the arrival of Bogomil missionaries in the West. In some places they were numerous enough, as in the South of France, to organise churches and bishoprics, and constituted an alternative church. They even had a general council in 1167. This heresy found support in Italy and the South of France, amongst other places. The members were even protected in many places by the local lords. To crush this heresy the Pope declared yet another crusade, which along with the Inquisition, which had become the main tool of the Church in it’s fight against heresy, was relatively successful in reaching it’s objective. Yet no matter how many crusades were launched, how many heretics were burnt or hoe powerful the Inquisition became the Church could never be totally successful in bringing all the people back into the folds of the Church again.
The birth of the Reformation can be attributed to a number of factors including the new learning, the need for reform within the Catholic Church, the spread of knowledge due to printing. By 1500 the Church was in a state of deep crisis. The laity was becoming increasing disillusioned with the lifestyle of the clergy. Many priests had families and the practices of simony and nepotism was wide spread. It was obvious that the Church needed reform, many of its clergy were crying out for reform and yet those in a position to initiate the necessary measures refused to listen.
Luther, an Augustinian monk, was born and raised in Wittenberg in Saxony and eventually became professor of Theology at the Saxon University in the town. He first came to prominence when on 31 October 1517 he nailed his 2ninety five thesis” to the door of Wittenberg Castle. In these theses he attacked the practice of the sale of indulgences which were being use to help finance the building of St. Peter’s in Rome. It had been universally assumed that the pope was very rich, which in reality was not true, and on nailing his these to the door Luther asked why the pope not did pay for the building with his own money, instead of using the money of poor Christians . The theses were immediately translated into German and widely distributed causing great excitement. However his attack was on the theological basis of indulgences more so than the morality of their sale. In the aftermath of this action Luther’s position became clearer. His belief was that man could be saved by faith alone and not by the mechanical Christianity of the Catholic Church. Through his preaching and writings, from 1517 he averaged a book every fortnight until his death, this heresy spread throughout Germany and beyond. By 1520 he had been excommunicated from the Church. A ban was pronounced on Luther at the Diet of Worms in 1521 but could not be enforced. This lead to a split in German politics with many advocating his punishment, while others strongly opposed it. He had called on the princes to reform the church within their territory, trying to reform the church from the ground up.
In 1529, at the Diet of Spier, the princes, who would gain economically and politically from a split with the Church, delivered their ‘protest’ against the Catholic powers. They then went on to present a measured summary of their beliefs the following year. The Emperor responded by ordered their submission, and they refused. Lutheranism was quickly adopted in several states and in most German cities and soon became the state religions of Denmark and Norway. The protestant movement was placed on a military footing two years later with the formation of the Schmalkaldic League which by 1539 had extended to include a vast area of Germany. Luther and his Church were now secure.
The other major figure of the reformation was Jean Calvin, the founder of the most widely influential branch of Protestantism. He was more radical than Luther, including the doctrine of predestination in his teachings and he saw it as the duty of the Church to protect the preaching of Christ. He took control of the city of Geneva in 1541 and created a total Christian society with a new system of state and ecclesiastical government. His teachings were quickly spread throughout Western Europe by preachers trained in his theological school in Geneva. By 1560 Calvinism was the sole religion of Scotland, in France it quickly spread into the former Albigension lands in the South and the West and into urban populations of all provinces, the Hungarian city of Debrecen became the ‘Calvinist Rome’. It also became a popular religion in other places like Poland, Bohemia and the Netherlands.
In England at the time Henry VIII was fighting with the pope to grant him a divorce because of his obsessive desire for an heir. The Pope’s refusal gave him the excuse needed to break with the Church. He had gained the support of his parliament and was anxious to bring the Church in England under state control so that he could benefit from the immense material advantages of attacking the Church’s privileges and properties. In 1532 England cut financial payments to Rome and by 1534 Papal authority had been completely abolished.
The reformation had created three religions in Western Europe each of which was universalistic in its outlook and each claiming jurisdiction over the areas it controlled. Even the illusion of unity had disappeared and ‘with Europe split into three camps, the difference of religion was a deep motive for fear and political disunity.’ Even Protestants themselves were splitting into more rival factions. Also peaceful co-existence between the various religions was non-existent. With all this division and fragmentation people began to talk less and less about Christendom and more and more about Europe.
It is clear from the above account of Christianity, that it has moved from being a unifying force in it’s early history, and the early history of Europe, to becoming a force of disunity in later centuries. Yet it must be remembered that, to have the ability to cause fragmentation in Europe, Europe first needed to have a unity that could be divided, and this original unity was created by the Church. If this unity was not provided in the early centuries it is very unlikely that we would have the Europe of today. It is true that the division of East and West Christianity was a cause of disunity in Europe for many centuries to come and the Reformation was a time of much fragmentation. However it must be remembered that the results of the Reformation were due as much to the political ambitions of many leaders as they were to the split in the Church.
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