The Rise of the Papacy. During the Early Church, the bishops of Rome enjoyed no temporal power until the time of Constantine. After the Fall of the Western Roman Empire the papacy was influenced by the temporal rulers of the surrounding Italian Peninsula; these periods are known as the Ostrogothic Papacy, Byzantine Papacy, and Frankish Papacy.
Over time, the papacy consolidated its territorial claims to a portion of the peninsula known as the Papal States. Thereafter, the role of neighboring sovereigns was replaced by powerful Roman families during the saeculum obscurum, the Crescentii era, and the Tusculan Papacy.
The Rise of the Papacy
At the time of the conversion of Constantine the process of transforming the church into a hierarchical organization had already begun. The clergy were separating from the laity as a body with distinct rights and privileges, divided within itself into different grades of rank and power. The leading church official in a city became the bishop. The bishops of the more important cities exercised some power over the other bishops of their province.
The final step was taken when the bishop of the capital city founded an ecclesiastical monarchy. When Christianity became the official religion of the empire, the bishop at Rome was made the legal adviser of the emperor in church affairs, and it often fell to him ecclesiastical questions submitted to the emperor’s decision.
The belief that the church at Rome had been founded by St. Peter, recognized as the chief apostle, gave a theoretical basis for the preeminence of the Roman bishop, who was considered to be his apostolic successor. Besides, the provincial churches in the west had been established under the auspices of the Roman church, had received financial aid from it, and owed allegiance to the Roman bishop. Missionaries sent out by the Roman church were active in converting the barbarians, and it was natural that the barbarians would recognize the headship of the church from which their teachers had come.
The formation of a powerful, centralized church organization was hastened by changes that took place in the doctrines and practices of the church. In its first two centuries Christianity remained a simple, spiritual religion. But when Christianity became fashionable, after its adoption by the state, many pagan ideas were introduced by those who became nominal Christians but had no conception of its spiritual truths. In the process of converting the Teutonic barbarians further changes in church practices and beliefs came in.
Finally, the interest in speculative philosophy, especially in the Eastern Church, gave rise to many differences in doctrine that compelled some decision between orthodoxy and heresy. It became necessary, therefore; to guard and regulate the doctrines and ceremonies of the church, and for that purpose an ecclesiastical government was gradually formed, and an elaborate system of canon law, modeled upon the Roman Jaw, was created.
When the Arian heresy convulsed the church in the fourth century, a general church council gave to the Roman bishop appellate jurisdiction over the decrees of the other bishops. And in the following century, the western emperor declared the supremacy of the Roman bishop and made him the legal court of appeal! in ecclesiastical cases.
The group of influences and ideas that grew out of the historical position of Rome were the chief causes in elevating the Roman bishop to the papacy. Since Rome was the capital of the political world, it seemed logical that it should also be considered the center of the religious world.
As the church built up its system of organization, it was natural that it should follow Roman imperial models; and after the barbarian conquest, when there was no longer an opportunity for Roman political and legal genius in actual government, the ablest minds in the Roman world turned to the church and found a new field of activity in the creation of an ecclesiastical empire under the papacy.
The belief that the empire of Rome was divinely founded and eternal was also useful and, with the added Christian idea that the kingdom of Christ was to rule the whole world, led to a spiritual conception of the world-empire which was embodied in the organized church and the papacy.
When the imperial court was moved from Rome to Constantinople, the bishop at Rome was left with no overshadowing authority beside him, As a result, the Roman bishop was able to act more independently than was his chief rival, the bishop at Constantinople, and was also able to maintain a more consistent theology and thus gain a reputation for orthodoxy, while the eastern bishop was subject to the ideas and demands of a court frequently in revolution.
In the absence of the emperor from Rome, the bishop became the most important official in the city, and considerable power of local political administration passed into his hands, In this way there was added to the large ecclesiastical power of the Roman bishop the practically independent political government of a little state.
From the beginning of the seventh century the political affairs, first of Rome and finally of Italy, became a definite part of the pope’s duties, The attacks of the Mohammedans on the Eastern Empire prevented the emperor at Constantinople from giving serious attention to affairs in the west, and the pope became virtually independent of any superior political authority.
The final separation of the Eastern and Western churches also occurred about this time. When the empire was divided the close connection between the government and the church led the church to group itself about the two main centers, Rome and Constantinople.
This division was accentuated by the differences in language and civilization between the Graeco-Oriental world and the Roman world. Differences in doctrine also separated the churches, and the great controversy over image worship in the eighth century finally brought to a crisis all the divergent tendencies of Greek and Roman Christianity.
The churches separated, and in spite of numerous efforts to unite them, remained apart. The Roman pope thus became independent of the East in ecclesiastical as well as in political affairs, and was recognized without opposition as the supreme head of the Western Church.
When the Lombard kings tried to incorporate the city of Rome within their dominions, the pope resolutely opposed them, and when his efforts seemed hopeless, he appealed for aid, in the name of St. Peter, to the warlike Franks, who had adopted Roman Christianity and with whom the pope had long had an understanding.
The powerful major domus of the Franks, Charles Martel, and later his son Pepin, responded to this appeal, drove the Lombards from the Jands they had occupied, conquered the territory formerly held by the eastern emperor in Italy, and bestowed it upon the pope.
The papacy thus became in law as it had long been in practice the holder of political authority, In return the pope sanctioned Pepin’s usurpation of royal power among the Franks, confirmed his position by crowning him king, and after the Frankish kingdom had expanded over a large part of western Europe. crowned Pepin’s son Charlemagne Roman emperor. Thus, in A.D. 800 the medieval empire was established, and the connection was begun between church and state that furnished the main issues in political thought for centuries.
The chief defect in the early position of the pope was the method by which he was chosen. Selected at first by the clergy and people of Rome, the choice of a new bishop was frequently accompanied by popular rioting and bloodshed. After the fall of the empire, the office fell into the control of the powerful families who dominated the city.
As the office gained in political importance, contests among these families became bitter, and rival feudal factions at Rome set up and deposed popes at will. Through such influences persons of scandalous life were, through violence and bribery, elevated to the papal office.
This source of weakness was removed in the eleventh century, when a church council vested the selection of the pope in a college of cardinals, made up at first of the leading clergy around Rome, later extended to include a wider field. The pope was thus made more independent of local politics, and the way was prepared for the great popes who elevated the office to a position of highest dignity and power.