posted on Feb, 24 2013 @ 04:12 PM
The spring-board of papal power was the Lombard invasion of Italy, which began in A.D. 568.
Italy, at the time, was still part of the Roman empire based on Constantinople. The Emperor Justinian had only just recovered it from the Ostrogoths.
The Lombards came down from the Alps and conquered the north of Italy without much difficulty, giving their name to the plain of Lombardy. Further
bands pushed beyond Rome and were able to control most of the south. The Emperor’s authority was reduced to scattered enclaves.
The centre of Italy, though, put up a greater resistance. In fact the failure of the Lombards to conquer Rome set up a tri-partite division of Italy
which lasted more than a thousand years. If you look at a map of Italy of almost any date, right up to 1870, you will find a state or group of states
in the north, a state or group of states in the south, and a central state based on Rome holding the ground between them.
One of the side-effects of these events was the isolation of the Roman church from the rest of the empire.
And the practical effect of isolation was independence.
In the first place, it meant independence from the Emperors.
This was important, because the Emperor had been the chief single controlling authority in the church.
Every Ecumenical Council of the church had been summoned by an Emperor, convened for some place conveniently close to the capital.
As recently as 547, the Pope Vigilius had been brought to Constantinople so that he could be made to toe the line on the subject of the “Three
Chapters”. This imperial control did not disappear immediately. Pope Martin, in 653, was taken to Constantinople by force and died in exile.
But the claim of the Emperors to be the rightful rulers in Rome was fatally undermined by the fact that they could offer so little practical
Therefore the Popes were obliged to take charge locally and seek help elsewhere. They appealed to the Franks for military assistance, and built up a
closer and closer relationship, until the moment came when Pope Leo crowned Charlemagne as the western Emperor. For the convenience of later students
of History, he chose to do this on Christmas Day, 800.
In the immediate future, this just meant a change of masters. Western Emperors were just as prone to regard their bishops as officers in the imperial
civil service as eastern Emperors had been. The Emperor Otto III considered that he had the authority to depose Pope John XII(in 963) and organise a
grand reform of the church in Italy. In the long-term, though, their power in Italy was weakened by the fact that they were based north of the Alps.
As the Middle Ages wore on, Emperors began to find that launching a major military expedition in order to be crowned in their nominal capital city was
more trouble than it was worth, and they eventually gave up doing it.
That is how the papal territory around Rome became, for practical purposes, an independent state. It was a part of the empire which the Emperors could
no longer control.
In the second place, isolation from the east meant independence from the wider community of church leaders.
Up to this point, the bishops of Rome had not been the only leaders of the church.
In fact, before the time of Constantine, there had been no such thing as a centralised leadership of the church.
Bishops had led the church locally, in the different cities of the empire. But some cities, of course, were bigger and more important than others, and
the local bishop would have a prestige in the church matching the importance of the city. The bishops of leading cities in the empire, like Antioch,
Alexandria, Rome, and Carthage, were necessarily leading bishops in the church at large. When the church came under imperial protection, it could get
more organised. The structure of provincial capitals and boundaries and even the word “diocese” were borrowed from the secular system of
government. The first appearance of a centralised authority on top of the structure was the Nicene Council, the kind of meeting which only became
possible once the persecutions had come to an end.
By Justinian’s time, the bishop of Rome was being recognised as one of the five great Metropolitans of the church; the others were Constantinople,
Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. However Rome, to some extent, was always on the fringe of this group, because it was out on a limb in the
Latin-speaking west. Most of the population, and therefore most of the power, in the church was in the Greek-speaking east. The great theological
controversies of the time tended to be fought out in the east, based on the subtleties of the Greek language. As in the case of the Incarnation
question, which was partly a power-struggle between Constantinople and Alexandria, they sometimes reflected the rivalries among the eastern
Metropolitans. In fact this was a good reason for appealing to Roman arbitration; Rome was sufficiently “out of things”, detached from this
Greek-speaking fray, to be regarded as a neutral party.
The Lombard invasion of Italy changed all that, because it cut the political links between Rome and the rest of the empire. On the one hand, Rome was
now isolated from the main body of the church, marooned in a little Latin-speaking world of its own. On the other hand, Rome was now the only major
metropolitan diocese within that world. Even Carthage had fallen to the Vandals and the Arabs. Within that world, therefore, the Pope of Rome could
now be presented as the one and only religious leader.
The Metropolitans of the east would have felt entitled to sneer “Big fish in a small pool!”. However, the currents of history in the later Middle
Ages had the effect of reversing the relative size of the two “pools”. The eastern empire fell, and the power of the eastern church dwindled.
Conversely, the new civilisation of western Europe, originally focussed upon Rome, not only prospered, but was able, in the long-term, to extend its
power on a global scale.
As a result, the Pope now finds himself recognised as the central authority of a global community, “the Roman Catholic Church”.
In the early Middle Ages, as a result of its Lombard-induced isolation, this community came to understand itself as “the only church”, and has not
lost that habit.
Furthermore, they developed the habit of projecting that assumption backwards in time, and regarding the Pope as the central authority of the church
as a whole since the very beginning
The papal claims of today(as well as a host of anti-Roman conspiracy theories) are based on that misunderstanding of history.
The truth is that papal power was only made possible by the Lombard invasions, and took a long time in coming even then.
For the real beginnings of papal supremacy, both in theory and in practice, we need to look to the times of Hildebrand, who was a power behind the
throne of several popes, and became pope himself in 1073.
In other words, the power of the Roman papacy is, quite literally, not half as old as people think it is.