Wednesday, 20 October 2021

Question for Catholics: Why Not the Pope?

It's too bad Integralism, by Fr Tomas Crean, OP and Alan Fimister had not yet been published. It might have helped MM with his question.

From The Mad Monarchist

Two weeks ago was my second attempt at a “theme week” focusing on royal topics from a particular region. The first was Scandinavia, then two weeks ago was Southeast Asia. Here at The Mad Monarchist your humble correspondent makes an effort to cover the royal heritage of every part of the world, not just the popular monarchies or former monarchies most in this audience are probably most familiar with. However, who you are will always have some effect on what you do and so, in spite of my efforts to leave no continent or region neglected, I am sure I have naturally tended to talk more about the monarchies of those places I am most familiar with; Europe and East Asia. Not surprisingly for someone like me, I have long been fascinated by both the similarities and the vast differences between these two sides of the world. Recently, while thinking about the ways of the major monarchies of East Asia, a question occurred to me regarding the oldest succession in the western world; the Roman Pontiff. I pose this question to Catholic readers, not to exclude anyone, but because others would have no reason to even have the vaguest clue of an answer. The question is; why was the Pope never made Emperor? There must be some really smart Catholic readers out there who could take a crack at this one. Here is how I arrived at such a thought:

In the Far East the usual translation for what westerners have called the emperor is some variation of the term “celestial sovereign”. It is a position that holds supreme political as well as religious authority with some variations in one or the other from time to time. In Japan, for example, His Majesty the Emperor was considered the highest political authority (even when he did not exercise such authority) as well as being the chief priest of the ancient Shinto faith of Japan. Similarly, in China (and Sino-influenced countries), the Emperor was the “Son of Heaven” who, at the top of the Confucian hierarchy, said prayers and made sacrifices to Heaven on behalf of humanity. He was the national pontiff, so to speak, linking the upper and middle kingdoms. A similar situation exists or existed in those monarchies more influenced by India than China such as in Thailand where the King is regarded as an avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu and (reflecting Hinduism being supplanted by Buddhism) as an enlightened one. He too performs religious rituals on behalf of his country, in a way acting as their pontiff, in traditional beliefs being the center of all things. This is all, of course, very different from the way things are or were done in the west. Kings at times claimed to be the viceroys of God on earth, particularly in Protestant countries during the height of Protestant fervor, but they always had to be careful not to be too overt about it for fear of resembling their primary enemy; the Pope in Rome.

Leo III crowns Charlemagne

However, if we go back far enough (but not too far) the monarch and the pontiff were one and the same. The title of the Pope, Supreme Pontiff, of course goes back to the pre-Christian religious leaders of pagan Rome and from the beginning of the Roman Empire under Caesar Augustus, the Emperor of Rome was also the Supreme Pontiff. This tradition actually carried on even into the early days of Christian Rome until the Emperor Gratian decided it was rather odd that he still be titled as the Supreme Pontiff when the Bishop of Rome was basically doing that job in the new Christian religion of the empire. So, from that time on there was an Emperor and a Pontiff but they were never again one and the same. And, as we know, there was not always an emperor (just as there is not today) but there has always been a Pope. We also know that, when there was again a Pope and an Emperor (after 800 AD) they did not enjoy a peaceful relationship terribly often. The feuds between the two most powerful figures in western Christendom were quite unfortunate for everyone but it is not surprising considering the rather complicated nature of their relationship. The Pope needed the Emperor politically but did not want to be subject to him while the Emperor did not exactly need the Pope politically, the Pope could certainly help or hurt your cause and then, for the true believers amongst them, there was the whole burning in Hell for eternity thing if you did not fall in line with him. So, trouble.

It would seem at least plausible that all of this might have been avoided if the Pope had simply made himself emperor rather than constantly having to crown an emperor only to then excommunicate or attempt to depose him when he did something wrong. Likewise, the emperors went to a great deal of trouble dealing with popes who opposed them like calling councils to depose them, setting up anti-popes and waging war against them. Even Emperor Charles V, one of the great champions of the Catholic cause, made war on the Pope and his troops came very close to killing the Pontiff. This relationship remained somewhat complicated even long after the days when wars were fought over religion in Europe. The Emperor of Austria, for example, (successor of the Holy Roman Emperors) retained the right to veto papal candidates they thought would be a threat to their national interests until 1904 when Pope Pius X forbid any outside interference in papal elections. There was, in any event, only one other papal election before there was no more Austrian emperor and, indeed, no more emperors in Europe at all (unless one counts the Tsar of Bulgaria but he was Orthodox in any event). So, almost up until the very end, there was still this possible cause of contention between the Pope and emperor.

Gregory VII absolves Henry IV

Now, just to be clear, I am not suggesting that the Pope should have become the emperor or that everything would have worked out for the better if he had. I have no idea, I am just wondering what reasons others might have for why this was never done. Obviously, the recreation of the imperial office by the Pope was done for practical reasons; the Pope needed protection and the King of the Franks had the muscle to do it. However, most of the time, the Catholic Church does not seem to rely on solely practical explanations for things but usually points to some higher reason for why or how the Church does things. There are also reports, though I am not sure if they are believable or simply examples of the many accusations made about the Popes by their religious or political enemies that certain pontiffs fancied themselves as emperors. There are stories of one or two even dressing in imperial robes and some claim that, Boniface VIII perhaps, exclaimed, “I am Caesar! I am the Emperor!” before a crowd of pilgrims. That may not be true but the thought has occurred to me; why not? What would be the problem with it? After all, it is not as though the popes were ever deemed to be too lofty to deal with politics and government. For much of history between the fall of Rome in the west and 1870 the Pope was a temporal ruler who maintained ships and soldiers, levied taxes, enacted laws, arrested criminals and maintained diplomatic alliances and trade.

The relationship never seems to have been very well defined or thought out before Pope Leo III restored the Western Empire by crowning Charlemagne the Emperor of the Romans. At least one source says that, after he did so, Pope Leo bowed his head to the ground before Charlemagne in the manner that was done to the past Roman Emperors, portraying himself as the Emperor’s subject. After that, Emperor Charlemagne not only essentially ruled over those lands his father Pepin had entrusted to the Pope but even ruled in religious matters. As any Catholic with a catechism can attest, however, it is only supposed to be the Pope who has absolute authority and protection from error when it comes to matters of faith. Later on, the appointment of bishops became a major bone of contention but there almost never ceased to be at least some unfortunate infighting or at least tension over the simple political jurisdiction of the two. The Emperor was, after all, supposed to be the “Emperor of the Romans” and so he was, at least at first, but very early on the Pope, while still recognizing the German monarch as Roman Emperor, fiercely guarded his own political authority over Rome and the surrounding territory. So the Emperor of Rome was titled the Emperor of Rome by the Pope but the Pope would not allow him to actually exercise that office as it was really the Pope who ruled the Romans. It can get more than a little confusing.

Pope Caesar Boniface VIII

Eventually, the Pope being the absolute monarch of his own central Italian kingdom was deemed as essential so that the Pope could exercise his spiritual office without being dependent and thus partial to influence by any secular monarch. A very good argument. Yet, it did not start out that way as, obviously when the Roman Empire first became Christian the Bishop of Rome was an imperial subject and had no secular authority at all and later on when the restored Western Empire or what eventually became the German “Holy Roman Empire” came into being, Rome was clearly a part of the Empire over which the German monarch reigned as Holy Roman Emperor. It is also true that in all the time that the Pope was master of his own country, it was never a country that was strong enough to stand completely on its own and thus he was often at the mercy of foreign powers; if not controlled by them at least forced to shift in alliances between the French and the Germans to keep either one from dominating his territory. Upon reflection, it seems slightly amazing to me that no Pope ever decided to just simplify things by saying that since the spiritual authority is greater than the secular authority and since I claim the right to crown and depose the emperor, I will just be emperor myself and make it a part of the whole papal package. It could not have been a hereditary monarchy but the Holy Roman Empire, at least on paper, was not hereditary either. Papal elections might have been extremely troublesome affairs, but they were in any event and eventually calmed down to be carried out peacefully and without controversy.

It was not until 1177 with the Treaty of Venice (after the Italians had defeated a German invasion led by Emperor Frederick I) that it was ever really spelled out that the Papal States, over which the Pontiff ruled, were to be considered an independent sovereign state apart from the Holy Roman Empire. At that point it could have been truthfully stated that Frederick I was no more “Emperor of the Romans” than he was the “Emperor of the Muscovites” and that he should be satisfied with the title of “King of Germany” while the Pope took the title of Roman Emperor for himself. There was, unfortunately, the minor fact that even then the Romans were not prepared to submit to the Pope (he was driven out of the city a couple of years later) but the fact that many if not most would have been reluctant to submit to the Pope as their temporal monarch does not move me much as a reason for this never having been done. After all, even when all of western Europe was Catholic, not everyone submitted to the Pope even in spiritual matters and despite the outbreak of numerous heresies, the long-term silent treatment with the Orthodox half of Christendom and the rise of Protestantism, the Pope never ceased to maintain his pontifical title and position in spite of all those who denied it.

Again, I am not trying to make a case here, at all, for the Pope being the Emperor. I am not trying to argue that everything would have been better if he had, though nor am I saying things would have been worse. I am simply asking the question and throwing it out to any who may wish to answer it. There is no “right” answer I am looking for, nor can there be a “wrong” answer, this is purely speculative. Are there some concrete religious or political reasons why this was an absolute impossibility that I am ignorant of? Did anyone ever suggest such a thing in the past? Let me know what you think.

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