, , ,

Vatican-City-map_1200pxStruans and Malcolm have both picked up on the theme of the corrupting effects of power. My own posts earlier this week indicate where I stand. But a caveat or two need to be entered.

The Papal States did not come, as some seem to imagine, from an urge to secular power, but rather as the answer to a problem; it could be argued it was not the best answer, but the moment the nature of the problem is outlined, the issue of what the best answer might be arises.

With the fall of Rome in the early fifth century, and with the removal of the imperial capital to Constantiniople nearly a century earlier, the fate of the Bishop of Rome was effectively at the mercy of barbarian successor states. Thanks to the work of Popes like Leo the Great, the Papacy managed to establish itself as a very effective intermediary between the people of Rome and their rulers – and those, like Atilla, who threatened them. The gradual estabishment of the Papal States provided the Papacy with an answer to the problem of what to do when secular rulers threatened to use force against it; it fought fire with fire – and diplomacy. One might argue that this was not what Christ would have done; the riposte is simple, Christ was not trying to run a Church and to keep it secure against the secular arm. As the fate of the Church of the East shows, mass martyrdom is not, in this world, a particularly effective way of mission.

Rome was unique in this respect.  In Constantinople the Patriarch was viturally appointed by the Emperor, and the latter always exercised a great deal of control over the Church there.  The ‘Caeasaro-Papism’ some claim to divine in the Middle Ages was a reality only where there was no Pope.  It is true that not even the Papal States protected the Pope at all times, but Rome was more often independent of the State than not – and certainly more so than was the case in the Eastern Empire.

The same is true of the successor churches in the West. The Church of England would not have been founded without the State violence unleashed by Henry VIII, and he, like many of his successors, took an active role in the appointment of bishops and even priests. As Newman pointed out at the time of the Gorham case in 1850, the poor old C of E couldn’t even determine its own doctrines – a parliament which was not even Anglican had that right. No church should be in such a position; many have been. Indeed, and ironcally, had Charles V not been in occupation of Rome at the time old Henry wanted to rid himself of his old wife, it is likely the Pope would have granted the usual annulment. State power over the church seldom works well.

The Russian Orthodox Patriarch was virtually an officer of the Tsarist State, a situation which continued once Stalin had realised he needed the Church in 1941. During Ottoman rule, the Patriarchal throne was often sold to the highest bidder. All of that was positively benign compared to what happened to the Church of the East.

So yes, power corrupts. An absence of it tends to lead, at one end of the spectrum, to the extinction of the church, through to, at the other, State control. The detsruction of the Papal States in 1866 left the Pope almost defenceless against his enemies, and Napoleon III’s troops were stationed there to keep him safe. The first Vatican Council was suspended in 1871 when the troops of the Italian State bombarded the Vatican. Leo IX declared himsef the prisoner in the Vatican, and it was only in 1929, when the Fascist regime of Mussolini needed to won popular support, that the Latern treaties were signed which led to the formation of the Vatican State.

The tiny Vatican enclavee remains the best answer anyone has found to the question of how to ensure that a global Church has a leader who is not going to be subjected to direct State power. Whatever is wrong with the current Curia, it is the bureaucratic side of things which needs reforming, not the notion of having a Vatican State.