A History of the Popes
by Joseph McCabe
Excerpts from: A History of the Popes by Joseph McCabe,
|First 5 Centuries
SECTION - ONE
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The Papacy as the supreme head of the western half of Christianity was established about the middle of fifth century. It is quite literally what Hobbes called it, "the ghost of the Roman Empire sitting upon the grave thereof." The Popes were masters of a time that was so debased that during the next seven centuries all Europe did not produce one book that any but a bookworm now reads or raise one building that any but an antiquarian would cross the street to examine.
Is it credible that the Holy Fathers, clad in the symbols of peace and purity, were guilty of such horrible things as contained herein? In this History of the Popes I pay attention to the characters of the Popes. Let me say shamelessly, that I read the original authorities in Greek, Latin, Italian, Spanish, German and French, and no Catholic has ever attempted to answer any of my historical work. And I say, coldly, that these Holy Fathers shed more blood in defense of their wealth and power than all the other historic religions put together and that the record of their vices is the worst in the whole history of religion.
There have been about 260 of these Vicars of Christ, as they call themselves. It is difficult to tell the exact number because in certain periods there were two or three truculently fighting for the holy title. In the tenth century there were 30 in 100 years — there have been only six in the last 100 years — and it is impossible to be sure how many were murdered by rivals. Let us say that there have been 260. We know nothing about the character of the great majority of these during the first thousand years of the Christian Era. Catholic literature gives the title of martyr to nearly every Pope to the year 310, though their most learned historian, Duchesne, admits that only two were martyred. It gives the title of Saint to all but one of them to the fifth century, whereas we have definite information about only three of them, and one of these (St. Victor) was at least shady, the second (St. Callistus) was definitely a crook, and the third (St. Damasus) was a forger, and an employer of murderous mobs and was charged under the civil law with adultery. In short, of the 150 or so Popes about whose characters we can be fairly sure at least 30 were sexually loose men (six or seven of them sodomists) and about a dozen murderers. Scores besides these were men of vile temper and great cruelty; and most of them were guilty of simony, nepotism, and protecting corruption.
This is a history of the Popes not a history of the Roman Church. The chief purpose of the writing of this work is to show how grievously the world is today duped about the history of this "holy" Church and "holy" Fathers, and how the general public are duped by the facile repetition in our literature of the myth that the Popes either restored or accelerated the restoration of civilization in Europe. We find the Teutonic invaders of Italy the Goths, Lombards, and Franks attempting after two or three generations of contact with an ancient culture to restore social life to a higher level and the Popes destroying their work. We shall find this true also of the Saracens and the Normans. Yet we see Rome itself, over which the Popes have despotic power, remaining at a low moral, social, and intellectual level and sinking, five centuries after the fall of the Empire, into what no one will hesitate to call semi-barbarism; the Rule of the Whores (scortorum).
Roman Christianity, at the end of the first century had no priests, no ritual, and no temple, yet became the Roman Catholicism of the fifth century, with the most elaborate and the most exacting hierarchy in the whole history of religion: a hierarchy which begins to claim that it is its mission to rule the entire world and to drown in their blood any who oppose its authority. And this story we read in the even more dramatic setting of the rise to full power and the tragic fall of the greatest Empire the world had yet seen, the Roman Empire.
The Church of the Popes was cradled, not in some marble mansion on the Pincian Hill nor in one of the crowded tenements of the Subura, but in the mean and despised foreign settlement outside the walls of Rome. A ragged fringe of buildings lined the farther bank of the Tiber, and at the northern end of this was the marshy Vatican Field, where the Pope is now enthroned upon his spacious medieval kingdom.
The pages of evidence which Catholic writers give prove only one fact: that in the last quarter of the second century the Roman clergy had a "tradition," which they passed on to other Churches, that Peter had founded their community. Tradition or fabrication? By that time, we shall see, the Roman community had lost its primitive innocence, and its clergy had begun to forge documents and traditions in their interest. Indeed, the most reliable Christian document of the first century plainly shows that there was no such tradition at Rome in the last decade of that century, and its later appearance is, therefore, worthless and suspicious.
Not only are there no Popes for us to consider or any evidence of the character of the earlier bishops but it is very difficult to sift the grabs of historical truths from the mounds of legend and forgery under which later Romans buried them. The Roman community of the second century developed a clergy and in time these clerics fabricated martyr-stories by the thousand and claimed converts for the early Church up to the very steps of the imperial throne.
The primitive Roman Church was wholly Greek until some time in the third century. Its prayers were in Greek, and it had not until long afterwards — other Churches complained — sermons or exhortations in Latin. As late as the third century the one scholar it had produced wrote in Greek.
Before the end of the second century, or a little later, the Roman clergy forged a number of quite pontifical documents, The Clementine Recognitions gave Clement an illustrious genealogy and an impressive and imperious personality, In real history he is just the name of a ghost. The earliest list of the Popes, a very meagre and modest list, belongs to the second half of the second century, when myth-making began. (The word Pope — Papa or Father — became a common title of bishops until the fifth century.) As time went on the list grew in picturesque detail. All the Popes, from Peter to the sixth century, in the list given in Catholic works today are decorated with the official halo of sanctity, and nearly all until the third century are described as martyrs. But if the patient reader cares to glance at the notice of each early Pope in the Catholic Encyclopedia, he will see that we really know nothing whatever about the first ten Popes: of the next ten one only is a clearly defined figure in history, and he, though officially a saint and martyr, died, in an odour not of sanctity but of knavery; and only two Popes in the whole series are known to have been martyred.
Let us for a moment enlarge upon this point, because few readers know how freely it is acknowledged that the popular Catholic version of the early history of the Popes is composed of forgeries. The Roman clergy soon began to embellish their Church with stories of heroic martyrs, saintly bishops, patrician converts, and a peculiar authority over other Churches. This was done so flagrantly that Catholic scholars themselves, in spite of their lingering affection for flattering fiction, have to reject these legends by the hundred.
One shadow-Pope succeeds another. Bishop Eusebius, who wrote a large and detailed Ecclesiastical History in the fourth century, hardly notices the Roman Church in his record of the first two centuries. It remained obscure for nearly a century after the dispatch of the Letter to the Corinthians.
The Eastern Churches were now aflame with the first of the great theological controversies which were to filll them with hatred and violence, and cause not a little bloodshed, during the next five centuries. The Gnostic struggle as it was called, may here shortly be described as an attempt to sever the Christian teaching sharply from that of the Jews and the Old Testament and present it to the pagans in a frame of Greek or Neo-Platonist mysticism. The struggle was conducted with amazing bitterness. However saintly the shadow-Popes may have been soon there were heretics and schismatics breaking the brotherly unity of the community. More mischievous were the charlatans who, as Bishop Hippolytus describes in a work which he wrote a few decades later, brought magical or supernatural power to the aid of the heretics. Someone from the Roman Church named Markos joined the Gnostics and helped out his teaching with Egyptian magic.
The first full and authentic account which we have of the life of the Christian community at Rome depicts it at about the year 175. So from the growth of a small religious body, which was supposed to turn its back from art, culture, wealth, and authority almost as sensitively as from vice, it would grow into the most elaborate in ritual and dogma, the wealthiest, and the most arrogant and most powerfully organized religion of all history; and we shall find this line of Popes which begins obscurely in Clement more frequently, more deeply, and for longer periods degraded than we can find in the history of any other religion.
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Pope Callistus (217-222) and Hippolytus (222-35) *Anti-pope
In the year 1842 the manuscript of a complete work was found in the dust of a monastery on Mount Athos and was published a few years later. It was titled The Refutation of All Heresies, and was written by a cleric of the Roman Church of the second and third centuries, Hippolytus (the first Anti-Pope). (Evidence of this Greek work had earlier been found among the fragments of early Christian literature.) Within it, many pages of the work were devoted to a scathing account of the condition of the Church and of the character and career of Pope Callistus (217-222). Hippolytus described Callistus as an unscrupulous adventurer and corrupter of the Church. Hippolytus is recognized to have been one of the most conscientious clerics of his age and the one learned Christian in the West until the days of Jerome and Augustine. (There is an English translation of the Refutation in the Ante Nicene Library (Vol. VI). The account of Callistus and the Roman Church of his time is in Book IX. ch. VII.) Here we have rich slave-owning Christians, banks, money-lenders, brawls, and charges of embezzlement.
Victor (189-198) is the first Pope to be quoted by Catholic writers as claiming and exercising the authority of head of the universal Church. No prelate, priest, or Church in the East ever entertained the claim of the supremacy of the Roman bishop. Victor's claim of authority over other Churches was so angrily resented in East and West, as a novel piece of impudence, that no Pope ventured to repeat it until more than half a century later.
Whether this led to the interpolation, about that time, in Matthew (16:18) of the famous pun, "Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church," or the Roman clergy seized upon the text as a priceless basis for their claim, we do not know. But from this time onward we get occasional evidence that the growing wealth of the Roman Church and its position in the world's metropolis have inspired the dream of ruling the Christian world. The claim to do so was consistently and emphatically rejected by the other Churches until, at the end of the fifth century, the Pope found himself surveying a world of ruins from the more substantial ruins of Rome: a world which was rapidly sinking into the densest ignorance. The Papacy became by an inexorable historical development "the ghost of the deceased Roman Empire sitting crowned upon the grave thereof."
Bishop Eusebius, of the fourth century, tells us in his Ecclesiastical History (V, 24) about this first futile assertion of the Roman ambition and of the vigorous repudiation of it. The controversy was about the date on which Easter ought to be celebrated. We must remember that Easter was then the greatest, if not the only, ecclesiastical festival; for December 25 was the supreme festival of the pagan and the Mithraic calendars and was an abomination to Christians.
At Easter the bishops of the various Churches communicated with each other, sending their consecrated bread they were evidently still far from a doctrine of transubstantiation across hundreds of miles of sea and land, as one now sends little boxes of wedding-cake. The difference in the date of celebrating was, therefore, inconvenient, and Pope Victor ordered the bishops ofAsia Minor to abandon their custom and conform to that of Rome.
Eusebius does not give us the text of the Pope's letter, but he dilates with pleasure upon the sequel. Bishop Polycrates of Ephesus, to whom the Pope had written, sent a contemptuous refusal. "I am," he wrote, "not moved by your attempt to intimidate us"; and he says that all the other bishops agree with him. Victor pompously excommunicated them, or declared that in future he would not send consecrated bread to them at Easter — it is an error to suppose that excommunication meant what it does to-day — and they "bitterly reproached Victor" for his arrogance and his spurious claim of authority, and maintained their own method of dating Easter. There was an outcry against Rome throughout the Church. Irenaeus of Lyons "courteously warned" Victor that he had gone too far; and years later we find the chief scholar of the African Church, Tertullian, writing with biting irony of some Roman Pope who calls himself "the Supreme Pontiff" and "the Bishop of Bishops." Victor spent the remaining years of his episcopate (189-198) in an exasperating series of heresy-hunts.
Victor died in the year 198 and bequeathed his sore burden to Zephyrinus (198-217): "an ignorant and illiterate man" according to Hippolytus, who knew him well. Only two Popes in four hundred years left a definite impression even in ecclesiastical history, Callistus and Damasus — (Victor remains a shadow-Pope of whose person and character we know nothing) — were men of tainted repute. Callistus, the ex-slave and crooked financier, was the strong or astute man who guided the counsels of the distracted new Pope. The new Pope, Zephyrinus, Hippolytus says, was as venal and greedy as he was ignorant, and Callistus soon obtained by bribery the position of first deacon (archdeacon) and the charge of the finances of the Church. He bought a cemetery or catacomb which still ironically bears the name of "St. Callistus". When Zephyrinus died in the year 217 Callistus succeeded him.
It is not pleasant to reflect that, apart from the reign of Alexander Severus, the early Roman Church prospered most under three of the most vicious emperors: Commodus, Caracalla, and Elagabal. The activity of Callistus as first deacon was in the reign of the brutal Caracalla, while his pontificate (217-222) coincided with the reign of Elagabal, a freak of sexual perversity.
Emperors — Since it is common for works of the conciliatory kind to represent the Roman community as, even in the second and third centuries, a body of humble and austere folk who shudder at the naked vices of the city, let us remember this story of Callistus and the first accountable corruption of the Church in light of its correct historical frame. The hectic vices of the Neros and Elagabals of the series of Emperors are often, and most unjustly, regarded as representative of Roman life. Of the thirty men to omit those who ruled for only a few months who wore the purple from the founding of the Empire to the conversion of Constantine, five only were depraved in character; and these ruled only during twenty-eight out of the three hundred and fifty years, while Emperors of a more decent, generally higher, character occupied the throne during more than two hundred years. The corrupt Emperors were, as a rule, assassinated by the army or the Romans within a few years of their accession.
Most people are surprised when they learn that Roman law prescribed the death-penalty for adultery, though even Septimius Severus could not prevail upon the humane civic authorities to inflict that excessive penalty. A lady of the Syrian family, Julia Mamaea, a woman of strong and high character and considerable ability, had then for thirteen years helped her son Alexander Severus to raise the life of the city and the Empire to the Antonine level. In coming from the East to Rome, Julia had, at Antioch, invited the learned Christian writer Origen to explain his religion to her. It had made no intellectual appeal to her, but she had taught her son to regard it favourably. As is well known, Alexander had a bust of Christ amongst those of other prophets in his private chapel. His mother and he shared the belief of most of the cultivated Romans who were not Epicureans (Atheists), that all popular religions were confused perceptions of some God whose real nature was hidden behind their various creeds and rituals. They were broken rays of sunlight on clouds of myth.
This was the situation in Rome when, some time after the Christians became free to build chapels, Pope Callistus set out to make his Church more attractive to the Romans. Callistus, recalling such texts as "Whose sins ye shall forgive, they are forgiven," which had been interpolated in the Gospels in the course of the second century, said that he could re-admit such sinners to communion if they repented. Just about this time the African Father Tertullian wrote his treatise On Chastity, and in the first chapter the sombre moralist breaks out: I hear that an edict has gone forth. The Supreme Pontiff, that is to say the Bishop of Bishops, announces: I will absolve even those who arc guilty of adultery and fornication, if they do penance. At Rome Hippolytus and the dissident puritans were scornful. But Callistus had done more than open the gates to a crowd of frivolous Romans: he had laid the foundation of the mighty power which the clergy would one day exercise through the confessional.
A certain clause of Roman law prescribed that the widow or daughter of a Senator could not validly marry a slave or freedman, and that she would forfeit her title of honour, which was equivalent to "Excellency," if she married a free-born man of inferior condition. Hippolytus describes the next measure of accommodation by the Pope: For even also he permitted females, if they were unwedded and burned with passion at an age at all events unbecoming, or if they were not disposed to overturn their dignity through a legal marriage, that they might have whomsoever they would choose as a bedfellow, whether slave or free, and that they, though not legally married, might consider such an one as a husband. If we accept the assurance of Hippolytus, scandals soon arose.
The relaxation of discipline was extended to the clergy. Henceforward even a bishop must not, if he repents, be deposed for having indulged in sins of the flesh. Men who have been married twice, or even three times, may become priests, and "men in orders" are free to marry. There was not, in fact, and would not be until nine hundred years later, a Church-law of clerical celibacy, but there was a strong feeling throughout the early Church that no cleric must incur the "taint" of the flesh. Callistus genially waved his pontifical arm, and new types of men found their way into the clerical body.
The fact is that the Roman community, which is so commonly represented as shuddering in the Catacombs while agents of bloody tyrants hunt for Christians, enjoyed more than a century and a half of almost unbroken peace from the death of Domitian to the accession of Decius (96 to 250). During all this period, however, there is only one Pope, Callistus, whose character is known to us or who has left any impression in history.
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Fabianus (236-250) is the first, almost the only, Pope whom we definitely know to have died for his faith, yet he is given in every Catholic list, popular or academic, as the twentieth Pope who was "saint and martyr." Of nearly fifty priests of his Church only two were arrested and imprisoned,, and of nearly a hundred clerics of less degree four only seem to have died for the faith.
We begin to see upon what spurious evidence is based the pious proverb that the blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians. Whatever proportion of the small early community may have suffered under Nero or Domitian, the persecutions of Maximin and Decius had very few victims at Rome; and we shall see the same about later persecutions.
The re-assembled Church, instead of having been chastened by the persecution, was now swept by a whirlwind of domestic passion. Pope Cornelius (251-253), another obscure mediocrity of the Papal succession, gave facile absolution in the new Roman manner, but he was vigorously opposed by one of the most influential priests of his Church, Novatianus (251-258), Anti-pope: an accomplished man, well versed in philosophy, and very popular. He demanded stern disciplinary measures against apostates, and he formed so large a party that he was elected anti-Pope and founded a separate Church which spread over Italy and lasted two centuries.
The troubles of the Pope increased when a group of priests who had been deposed at Carthage came to Rome to secure, and obtain, its cheaper absolution. The African province of the Roman Empire was at this time as prosperous and advanced as Italy itself, and its Church gave three scholars to Western Christianity for any one that Rome contributed. The Bishop of Carthage and head of the African Church at the time was Cyprian, one of the most esteemed of the Latin Fathers. We still have the lengthy letters which Cyprian wrote to Cornelius and his successor, and in these Cyprian, from first to last, scornfully repudiates the Roman claim to have any sort of authority in Africa.
Cyprian assures Cornelius that the priests who have appealed to him are "a band of desperadoes" whom he had very properly excommunicated. He describes "the pseudobishop" who accompanies them as "an embezzler of money entrusted to him, the violator of virgins, the destroyer and corruptor of many marriages." They have appealed to Rome only because, since the days of Callistus, absolution is cheap there, and the Pope had no right to listen to them, "For," he says, "it is decreed by all of us, and is equally fair and just, that the case of every man should be judged where the crime was committed."
A few years later Cyprian sent a contemptuous letter to the successor of Cornelius, Pope Stephen (254-257). Cyprian is scolding the Pope because he has not done his part. "We who hold the balance in governing the Church" is Cyprian's description of himself and the Roman Bishop. Pope Stephen, another pompous mediocrity, threatens anathemas, and Cyprian gathers his eighty African bishops in council; and they send as disdainful a reply to the Pope's claim as any Protestant would make today. They write :
We judge no man, and we cut off no man for differing from us. None of us regards himself as the Bishop of Bishops or seeks by tyrannical threats to compel his colleagues to obey him.
Cyprian, the greatest Christian leader of the third century, head of one of the chief branches of the Church and more famous for learning and piety than any Pope in four centuries, wrote pages in this vein; and Rome retorted by calling him "a false Christ" and "false Apostle" and refused hospitality to his envoys. What manner of men these were who continued to forge their credentials and issue pontifical orders in spite of every rebuff we do not know. They are still mere names to us, shadow-Popes. Not one of them stands out in ecclesiastical history as Tertullian and Cyprian do.
The Pontifical Chronicle itself admits that Pope Marcellinus (296-304) saved his life by offering incense on the pagan altar, but it goes on to say that he repented and died for the faith; whereas that Pope, as the distinguished Catholic historian Duchesne politely shows, died in his bed a year before he is supposed to have been executed. During four years after the death of Marcellinus, the Roman Christians were too scattered and few in number to elect a Pope. Then, in 308 and 309, two more shadow-Popes cross the stage, Marcellus (308) and Eusebius (309), and there is another interval of two years, for the city is again under a hostile ruler.
Pope Melchiades (311-314) is almost equally unknown to us, though we read of him claiming and securing the return of all Church property. At the end of 313 we find him, and he must have been dazed to find himself, discussing in an imperial palace the question of traitors to the faith. Emperor Constantine was impatient of such controversies. When, years later, the great struggle about the divinity of Christ raged between the Arians and Athanasians, he complained to the bishops that the ground of their quarrel was "insignificant and entirely disproportionate to such a quarrel."
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Through the pontificate of Silvester I (314-335), though about the man himself we still know nothing, the church received superb gifts in gold and silver, bronze and precious stones and fabrics, which Emperor Constantine and his family showered upon the new churches, so that they could outshine the temples; indeed, the gifts suggest that the practice now began of looting the temples to enrich the churches. The gifts to two of these include four hundred massive silver objects and seventy of gold, often encrusted with jewels, besides magnificent bronzes and furniture. We read of one silver vessel, decorated with jewels, which stood five feet in height and weighed one hundred and twenty pounds, of seven solid silver altars weighing two hundred pounds each, and so on. Hundreds of estates were transferred to the churches to give them a revenue.
Earlier Popes had given the Church two of the elements of its triumph, laxity and clerical organization. Constantine added the third, wealth; his son would add the mfourth, coercion.
From other sources we learn how officers were promoted if they joined the Church; how money gifts were made to men and women who accepted baptism. We find the Pope transferred from some poor lodging across the river to "the royal house of the Laterani," as Juvenal calls it. But Constantine's attempts to change the law to the advantage of the new religion failed. He issued a futile decree against divination, and he tried in vain to make Sunday, instead of Thursday (Thor's Day or Jupiter's Day), the workers' day of rest. As they already had about two hundred days of rest in a year, they were not attracted. His one successful service in this direction promoted the corruption of the Church. He relieved from the burden of municipal duties any who entered the Christian ministry. This had speedy and pernicious consequences, this admitted to its bosom guilty passions which had hitherto been foreign to it.
In an effort to further promote unity and uniformity within Christianity, Constantine calls a conclave of bishops from all parts of the Empire in 325. The council intended to settle doctrinal disputes among Christians—is held at Nicea, in Bithynia. The Council of Nicea confronts two major issues. It deals firstly with a dispute over the relationship of Christ to God the Father. The dispute is called the Arian controversy. Arius, a priest of Alexandria, has been teaching that Christ was created, not eternal and divine like the Father. The Council condemns him and his doctrine and exiles Arian teachers.
The other major issue at the Council is the proper date for the celebration of Passover. Many Christians — especially those in Asia Minor — still commemorate Jesus' death on the 14th day of the Hebrew month Nisan — the day the "Jewish" passover lambs had been slain. In contrast, Rome and the Western churches emphasize the resurrection, rather than the death of Jesus. They celebrate an annual Passover feast — but always on a Sunday.
The Council rules that the ancient Christian Passover commemorating the death of Jesus must no longer be kept — on pain of death. The Western custom is to be observed throughout the Empire, on the first Sunday after the full moon following the vernal equinox. It is later to be called "Easter" when the Germanic tribes are converted en masse to Christianity.
By the year 329 a new and wholly unexpected cloud threw gloom upon the Papal court and the Church, and the spirits of the pagans rose. All Rome, except the Christians, believed — and the evidence is inexorable — that Constantine had committed three horrible murders in his own family. His illegitimate son Crispus had been sent into exile some time previously and was poisoned. His wife Fausta was found suffocated in a vapour-bath, His nephew, a boy of twelve, was murdered. It was a terrible blow to the Roman Church when Constantine, stung by the contempt of Rome, left the city and transferred the court to the East There are historians who admire his statesmanship in giving the vast Empire a second focal centre in Constantinople, while others hold that he found Rome incurably pagan and decided to give it a magnificent Christian rival. But, while it is true that he had already decided to build a city in the East, as Diocletian had done, it was his crime that in fact drove him from Rome, which he never ventured to revisit. The Roman Church had, indeed, to listen to ever-deepening murmurs of the pagans about their first Christian Emperor.
Yet for several decades the Bishops of Rome remain so destitute of distinction in Church history that we must still call them shadow-Popes. The long reign of Pope Silvester is almost co-extensive with the long, and for the Church most beneficent, reign of Constantine, yet his personality is as obscure as those of his predecessors. We know only that the golden shower continued, and the Roman Church was endowed with a sum which in modern money we should estimate at many million pounds.
Pope Julius (337-352) ventured to rebuke Eastern bishops for holding a council without his permission, they sent him a letter which was, says the Greek historian Sozomen, "exquisite in the elegance of its language, composed in a vein of oratory, but full of irony and not devoid of serious threats." The Roman archives have, of course, not preserved the letter, and the Catholic historian never mentions it.
Liberius (352-366), the new Pope, wrote to the Emperor Constantius, who was in Gaul, asking him to convoke a council of bishops to settle the controversy of Arianism which has to do with the divinity of Christ. Liberius was later sent into exile after embittering the Emperor. The Emperor had him replaced and three of the bishops of the court consecrated a new Bishop of Rome, Felix. The news about Felix had been more effective to influence Liberius' decision to come back and he returned to Rome, even if it meant "embracing the heretical perversity." The majority of the Christians welcomed him back, but so large a number believed that he had purchased his liberty by yielding to the heretic that there were murderous riots even in the churches and, the Pontifical Chronicle says, several priests were killed. Felix had fled from Rome, but when he saw the strength of the opposition to Liberius, he returned and tried to hold a church in the old settlement across the river. He was evicted after a sanguinary struggle, and he settled in a country house on the road to the Port of Rome, where he died comfortably in his bed a few years later.
The reader may have reflected that up to the present the one Pope in ten for Damasus is nearly the fortieth of the line who emerges sufficiently out of the mists for us to get some glimpse of his character does not make a favourable impression upon us. I repeat emphatically that this is not because I have made a selection of unflattering evidence. The simple truth is that the clearer the historical light in which we see any of these early Popes, the less attractive we find them. Victor, the first Pope about whom we know anything, is hardly an engaging personality. Upon Callistus the light is stronger and the character is worse. Cornelius is the next Pope who is not wholly obscure, and our sympathy is with the Africans who so severely condemned him. No other Pope issues from the chronic obscurity until Liberius, the Pope who bought comfort by betrayal; and then comes Damasus, of whom we have considerable knowledge.
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Damasus (366-383) had been one of the most enthusiastic of the clergy who had sworn to substitute no Pope for Liberius, and he was one of the first to support Felix. He transferred his support back to Liberius when the voice of the people convinced him of his duty, and he made such progress under that Pope, especially in the favour of the richer women, that he was elected to be his successor. But the minority who had been faithful to Liberius during his exile had met simultaneously in a church across the river and had elected the deacon Ursicinus, who was at once consecrated.
When the supporters of Damasus heard of the rival conventicle across the river, they made for it and laid siege to the church. The fight lasted three days, and the shock-troops of the Damasus party consisted of gladiators, charioteers, and grave-diggers. The Prefect (Mayor) of the city led guards to the quarter3 and, Ammianus says, he was driven off by the furious Christian mob. He was then, persuaded to recognize Damasus, who had control of the treasury, and at length he arrested Ursicinus and seven priests who supported him. They were, however, rescued by their followers, and they took possession of a church on the Esquiline Hill in the city.
They were at worship in this church a month after the election when a stronger body of supporters of Damasus laid siege to it. The assailants cut down with axes the barricaded door, while some of the party climbed to the roof, tore off the tiles, and flung them at the men and women inside, Damasus's gladiators and racing men then fell upon their opponents with swords, axes, and staves. In short, the only conflict of evidence is whether the corpses which were strewn over the floor of the sacred edifice numbered a hundred and sixty, as the petition to the Emperors claims, or a hundred and thirty-seven, as Ammianus says. The mildest expression of a Christian historian of the time, Rufinus, is that the churches were "filled with blood." The riots were renewed in the following year; but Damasus had the ear of the authorities, and Ursicinus was expelled and forbidden ever again to approach within twenty miles of Rome.
The Eastern bishops, meeting to appease the distracted Church in the Council of Constantinople (381), renewed the canon of the Council of Nicaea which gave the Bishop of Constantinople the same power in the East as the Bishop of Rome had in the West.
Ammianus Marcellinus, a retired general of literary taste and high character who then lived in Rome, tells us that the higher Christian clergy share the voluptuous life of the rich pagans. The Papacy has acquired and will retain from this date another of its features. The bishop's house by the Asinarian Gate is now the Lateran Palace: the bishop's household is a court: the bishop's power is based largely upon gold. The Pope has become, in a nickname which Rome gave Damasus, "the Tickler of Matrons' ears."
We do not expect Jerome to say much about his friend and patron Damasus, but he extends this charge of worldliness, sensuality, and vice to nearly the whole of the clergy and the laity. Catholic writers rely chiefly upon Jerome's letters when they claim, as they invariably do, that the Romans led more virtuous lives when they passed from paganism to the Church. It does not seem to occur to the Catholic reader that it is singular that Jerome's letters have never been translated into English, though he was the finest Latin writer of his day, and the writings of all other Fathers axe available in English. The reason is because, while he does tell us of about a dozen Roman ladies of virtuous, even austere life, he, in the very letters which he writes to these ladies, warns them that the Roman Church, in clergy and laity, is generally and monstrously corrupt. He is frank to the point of coarseness. Indeed, Jerome, however saintly he may have been, was, for all his learning and refinement of style in writing Latin, a vulgar, fiery-tempered monk. He tells us in one of his letters (L, 4) that he and another monk with whom he argued "often spat in each other's faces."He uses language about sex to his aristocratic lady-pupils which is at times hardly fit for translation.
I could fill this entire chapter with passages from the letters in which Jerome ferociously attacks the priests, monks, professional virgins, widows, and Christian women generally for their immorality, but I must confine myself to a few quotations.
Typical is the long letter in praise of virginity to the aristocratic maid Eustochium (Ep. XXII). There is not a class of the Christian community which he does not warn her to avoid.
Virgins "fall every day." Widows are as bad; and they use drugs and are very drunken, If you meet an ascetic-looking woman in the streets of Rome, he tells her, you say: "There goes a Manichaean"; and the Manichaeans were not even Christian heretics. The young women who take private vows of chastity and live with priests or men who have taken similar vows are "a new species of concubine . . . harlots who keep to one man." The love-feasts, or banquets in the churches in honour of the martyrs are orgies; which Ambrose and Augustine also affirm.
Eustochium must "avoid the society of matrons and not go to the houses of noble ladies," They "pass as chaste nuns, and then after a dubious supper they sleep with the apostles" (priests). She must "beware of nuns who go about in poor dress, with short hair, with long faces." She must "beware of men [monks] who wear chains and long hair like women and go barefoot." They fast during the day and gorge at night; on feast-days "they gorge until they vomit." As to priests and deacons, they have chosen the career "so that they may see women more freely." With hair curled and scented, fine robes, and jewels on their fingers, they spend all their time visiting rich women. "When you see these people" he says, "regard them as husbands, not clerics."
That he is speaking of the clergy quite generally he makes clear again in a letter (XXIV) to another maid. She is never to be alone in a room with any priest. If she ever does find herself in such a situation I will venture to give one mild example of Jerome's style in addressing patrician young ladies she must "plead that either her bowels or her bladder need relieving." In another letter (CXXV) he says that he hears that Roman Christians resent his charges, and he emphatically repeats them.
Another feature of the Papal Church has now appeared. It has monks and nuns. Athanasius had imported two monks from Egypt about the middle of the century, and it became a common practice for men and women to make a vow of chastity — there were as yet no rules or monastic houses — and wear a peculiar dress and fashion of hair to indicate this. It became common also, as others besides Jerome assure us, for these "spiritual sisters" and "brothers" to live in pairs and spend a good part of the day visiting the rich. St. Augustine is almost as severe as Jerome on the morals of these monks and "virgins."
Indeed, there is a law in the Theodosian Code, passed in the fourth year of the pontificate of Damasus and quoted by Cardinal Baronius in his Annales (370), which sternly forbids priests or monks to seek donations in the houses of widows or orphans and declares all such donations or legacies invalid. "I do not complain of the law," says Jerome, "but of the facts which justly brought it upon us."
The Pope, says the writer on Damasus in the Catholic Encyclopedia, saw that the law was strictly observed. Not only is there no such statement about the Pope in any writer of the time, but the fact that two years later the Emperors extended the law to bishops and nuns proves that the Roman clergy shamelessly evaded it; and Jerome says that they continued to evade it by secretly securing donations. This humiliating law remained in the civil code for more than a century. It put the clergy, Jerome groaned, lower than gladiators and prostitutes, for these had the right to inherit and receive money.
The considered verdict of any impartial person after reading this undisputed evidence will be that the clergy and members of the Roman Church were corrupt to an extraordinary extent, and Catholic writers who suppress this evidence and give Jerome's dozen lady-pupils as representatives of the new Rome take dishonest advantage of the law of their Church which forbids Catholics to read critical works. The Papacy was very diligently augmenting its own power and wealth, but that it used the power and wealth to uplift the Roman people is totally false.
To what extent Damasus, whose halo of sanctity is, of course, merely a relic of an age when such things were awarded almost promiscuously, shared the general degradation of the clergy it is difficult to say. Ammianus, who ought to know, plainly attributes to him, in the words I quoted, sensuality and even "vices"; and it is impossible to suppose that a bishop who let murderers fight for him week after week and allowed his clergy and people to become so gross could have been a man of high character. Many of the Italian bishops disliked him, and on one occasion they refused to attend a birthday celebration to which he invited them.
Damasus was denounced to the civil authorities on a charge of adultery. It will be understood that the civic authorities had little respect for Damasus and if he had been found guilty he would have been condemned to death. Hence the direct appeal to the Emperor. St. Ambrose, who advised him, did not love Damasus, but he had to avert a terrible scandal from the Church. The acquittal is not of prime importance, but it is useful to see how the leading Catholic authorities deal with charges against the character of the Popes and preserve their "holiness."
After the death of the Emperor Julian and a very short-lived successor the troops had raised a half-savage, officer named Valentinian to rule the western part of the Empire. He later left the rule of the Western Empire to his son Gratian, a boy of sixteen, who was wax in the hands of the bishops. Ambrose of Milan, a civic official who had been rushed to the episcopate even before he was baptized, directed him, and often defeated the pagan counsellors who surrounded him. It was from him that the Roman Church had obtained the order to quash the criminal proceedings against the Pope. Damasus and the forty bishops who clung to him — less than half the bishops of Italy — then tried to get from the Emperor a declaration that henceforward the Bishop of Rome should not be arraigned for any cause in any other than the imperial court, and the request was refused.
Yet Damasus did secure privileges which proved of immense importance in building up the fabric of clerical power. The bishops of the synod of 378, or the Pope, wrote to remind the Emperor that his father had decreed that "the Roman bishops should have power to inquire into the conduct of the other priests of the churches, and that affairs of religion should be judged by the pontiff of religion with his colleagues." There is no trace of such a rescript of Valentinian, nor is it probable that he ever said so, but the claim seems to have been admitted. In this obscure way, under a weak and youthful Emperor, the clergy got exemption from secular jurisdiction, and the Pope got — so he thought — the power to rule the affairs of other churches. On the strength of this Damasus, acting through a synod of ninety-three Italian prelates, deposed several bishops on the pretext of heretical taint, but really because they favoured the cause of his rival Ursicinus, whose party continued to torment him. It is probably they who pressed the charge of adultery. They scorned his anathemas, and he then secured from the young Emperor the right of bishops to have their decisions enforced by the secular authority. At once he turned the Roman "police" upon his rebels, and they were hounded from place to place and in some cases mercilessly beaten.
Damasus inaugurated the cult of martyrs and the veneration of their remains. The truth is that, as the Catholic experts on martyrs tell us, 'Damasus was one of the most industrious forgers of martyr-stories'. It is true that a vast amount of legend already existed in the Church, but this mainly referred to martyrs in the East, and it was Damasus who began that fabrication of Roman martyrs which would, in the coming age of ignorance, run into the wildest extravagance and flood Europe with spurious relics of them. Damasus did not, it is true, permit the opening of the graves and dismemberment of the bodies of his "martyrs," but the traffic began at this time.
At this time also began the veneration of pictures and statues of the saints and of Mary. The frescoes with which the Pope had the new churches decorated promoted it. The cult of Mary did not, in fact, begin at Rome. We find the first trace ofit in Arabia, though it is said to have been imported from Asia Minor, the home of the love-goddess. On a certain annual festival the women baked small cakes in honour of Mary, and the name they gave them betrays that the cakes had formerly been eaten in honour of Ceres. The bishops denounced the practice on the ground that Mary was a human being and must not receive these honours, but the increasing cult of virginity and the development of the controversy about Christ encouraged the worship of Mary. That it developed in Rome under Damasus we know from the fact that Jerome wrote against Roman "heretics" who attacked the innovation and denied the virginity of Mary. It was not until paganism was suppressed that Mary was decked in all the robes and flowery epithets of Isis and Cybele, Ceres and Ishtar.
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The genuine motive of the church's policy of persecution will now be clear to the reader. During the two and a half centuries which elapsed between the Neronian Persecution and the Edict of Toleration the Church had made little progress at Rome. The historical truth is that during more than two hundred out of the two hundred and forty-five years (A.D, 68-313) the Church enjoyed a genial toleration; and that few were put to death at Rome during the years when the decrees were enforced.
Apart from the fact that Constantine's gold and favour now weighted the scales, there is here a very superficial misconception of the life of the Roman Church. On investigation, while we have many sermons, taken down by shorthand writers, of Ambrose of Milan or Augustine of Hippo, we have no Roman sermons until the second half of the fifth century. It seems a singular piece of negligence in a city where the ancient system of shorthand was most cultivated and the wealth of the churches was greatest. In point of fact, the bishops of other Churches complain that Rome shirked this elementary Christian duty. It relied, we saw, upon a swarm of perfumed priests, parasitic monks, and hypocritical "virgins" assiduously cultivating the houses of rich and ignorant women. Valentinian's contemptuous law against them proves that unpleasant truth.
Only three facts need be recalled to show that, in spite of imperial favour and every other advantage, in spite of the levity or scepticism with which the old gods and goddesses were generally regarded, the majority of the Romans refused to be attracted and had to be coerced.
The first is the visit of the Emperor Constantius to Rome in the year 357. In the previous year he had decreed sentence of death against any, in East or West, who practised the pagan religion. Instead of insisting that the civic officials of Rome should enforce even the lighter of his decrees, he found himself compelled to play his part as head of the State religion. He confirmed the privileges of the pagan priests and the Vestal Virgins, courteously visited the temples with the pagan officials, and made no effort even to forbid the sacrifices to the gods. The processions through the streets, one of the most colourful features of Roman life, were entirely pagan, and often, on Christian principles, indecent. The deliberations of the Senate, which he attended, opened with the burning of incense to Jupiter on the small and elegant Altar of Victory.
The second. A quarter of a century later, in the year 384, Augustine, who was not yet a Christian, spent some months in Rome. He describes his experience in his Confessions. He found that "nearly the whole of the nobles" were pagans; and by nobles he means not merely the wealthier patricians, mbut the whole official and cultivated class. The extant letters of the Prefect Symmachus and his friends and them Saturnalia of Macrobius fully confirm this; while Jerome gives the name of only one man of the patrician class who was a Christian. They were in large part open-minded and thoughtful men, believing as we found Ammianus saying that there was one "Eternal God" behind the imagery of the popular religions; but, while some of them patronized Mithraism and other foreign cults, they kept aloof from the churches. As to the mass of the people, Augustine plainly conveys that the great majority were still pagan. He describes how they lined the streets, as they had always done, during the picturesque processions of the emasculated priests of the Mother of the Gods.
The third episode was in the year 392. A new type of Christian Emperor, a strong, truculent, and superstitious soldier, Theodosius, was now upon the throne at Constantinople, and was virtual master also of the West. He was a recent convert and docile to the bishops, and by a horrible crime into which his temper had betrayed him he had strengthened their power over him. He had had a vast crowd of citizens, mostly Christians and variously estimated at from seven thousand to one hundred and fifty thousand in number, treacherously and horribly massacred at Thessahmica for some affront to his dignity. In this man the bishops had found an instrument for the enforcement of the persecuting decrees, and the suppression of paganism had begun at Rome. Theodosius left this task to his young colleague, the Emperor of the West. The following year, the youthful Emperor Valentinian II was murdered by the military commanders, and they offered the purple to a cultivated Roman named Eugenius. This man had conformed outwardly to Christian requirements, but he and his chief supporters had been secret pagans, and they declared the practice of the old religion once more free. The altar of sacrifice was restored in the Senate, and the fumes of incense rose once more to the roofs of the marble temples. Theodosius eventually awakened from his sybaritic retreat, and he destroyed the last strength of Roman paganism.
As to the frivolous mass of the citizens of Rome the evidence shows that the majority were still pagans in 384, seventy years after Constantine had begun to undermine their allegiance to the old gods, but just at that time a humane persecution of paganism began in Rome, and the transfer of allegiance proceeded on a larger scale.
Now that the East had a strictly Christian metropolis, Constantinople, coercion was easier than in the West, and the bishops who ruled Constantius, the son of Constantine, persuaded him at once to embark upon it. The very first decree was tainted by the unhealthy spirit in which the evil policy was conceived. In the Theodosian Code it is dated 341, when it was in fact issued, but it purports to have been written by Constantine, who had died four years earlier. The pretence that the old Emperor had in the end departed from his policy of avoiding coercion and had left this rescript for publication is rejected by all historians. The bishops forged it and advised this stratagem. It prescribed that any who in the future ventured to sacrifice to the gods should receive "condign" punishment. Most historians regard this as a death-sentence, but the law could not be applied even in the East.
It was hardly forty years since Christians had held that persecution for religion could be inspired only by the devil. In a few years Constantius yielded to the pressure and issued another edict, which one may still read in the Theodosian Code:
It is our pleasure that the temples be closed at once in all places and towns: that access to them be forbidden to all, and thus the opportunity of transgressing be removed from wicked men. We require also that no one shall offer sacrifice. And if any do perpetrate anything of the kind, let him perish by the sword of vengeance.
In the year 356 Constantius renewed the death-sentence against any who "offered sacrifice or worshipped idols"; and in the following year he, we saw, respectfully visited the pagan temples at Rome, permitted the sacrifices, and confirmed the privileges of the priests. In the East the decree inaugurated the destruction of temples which was to continue for the next fifty years.
Simultaneously, the see of Milan, where the Western Emperors lived, was thrust upon an abler and more powerful man than any of the Popes, Ambrose; and in the following year, 375, Valentinian left his imperial power in Europe to a boy of sixteens his son Gratian, and the East to a still younger son. It was in these circumstances that coercion began in Italy. There were pagans in high office at the Milan court, and it took Ambrose several years to outstrip them in influence with the youthful Emperor. In 382 Ambrose struck. The Roman senators were accustomed to open their proceedings by burning incense on the Altar of Victory in their handsome house in the Forum. It was a symbol of the establishment of the old religion, and as such it was hated by the Pope and his followers. Damasus sent word to Ambrose that the majority of the Senators were now Christians, and they regarded the altar to Jupiter as an abomination.
We have the impartial testimony of Augustine that even two years later than this "nearly the whole of the nobles" were still pagans, but Gratian was not the man to make an inquiry. At the dictation of Ambrose he ordered that the statue be removed, the revenues of the pagan temples be confiscated to the State, and the privileges of the priests be annulled. Gratian was murdered in the following year, but this only left the Empire to a boy of fourteen, Valentinian II, and the appeal of the Romans for the restoration of the symbolic statue was rejected. We still have a letter (XVII) in which Ambrose not only, and very ingenuously, begs the imperial boy "not to let anybody impose upon thy youth," but threatens him with excommunication, to say nothing of the vengeance of Theodosius, if he yields. The law stood, and paganism entered upon its last phase at Rome.
There was, however, still such massive hostility at Rome that the bishops who surrounded the besotted Theodosius pressed for more effective coercion. Theodosius had at first been content to decree, in 381, that no man who reverted to paganism could make a valid will. It was an astute move, since it put a man's faith in the custody of wives and daughters whose inheritance was in danger ; though the fact that the law had later to be renewed suggests that large numbers were in fact returning to the temples. In 386 the Emperor was induced to enforce the laws of Constantius and order that all the temples must be closed or destroyed. The appalling wave of vandalism that then rolled over the East reached its height in the burning of the great library at Alexandria. The final assault upon the old religion was zealously conducted while most of Italy was trodden underfoot and the Goths were starving the city of Rome into surrender.
After the death of Damasus the Popes sink once more into obscurity until the accession of Innocent I (401-417).
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Dean Milman, in his History of Latin Christianity calls Innocent I (401-417) one of the great Popes he might have said the first great Pope but his entire pontificate was spent in securing or asserting the supremacy of his See, while most of the other episcopal Sees in the West were swept away in the flood of barbarism.
An army of two hundred thousand Goths (including their women and children) ate their way down Italy like a swarm of locusts and camped in the open country round. This time the gates were opened to him, and the trembling Romans saw those whom they had been taught to regard as savages of the northern forests wander arrogantly among the marble-lined streets. Pope Innocent, whether to avoid embarrassment or in real concern for the city, went to Ravenna to arrange terms with the worthless Honorius (son of Theodosius — he had become Emperor in 395), who slunk in his palace behind the protection of the marshes of that region. The Pope remained there, however, and did not share the horrors of the year 410.
Alaric proceeded to loot Rome. The large body of very pagan Huns in the service of Alaric, the tens of thousands of Roman slaves who joined them, and the body of the Goths who were intoxicated by their splendid opportunities, fell upon the city. The great city was looted for three-six days. Noble maids, matrons, and nuns were stripped, beaten, and violated in the streets. Men collected what treasure they could and, with their families, fled to Africa, Greece, or Egypt. These scenes were repeated in all the large cities of Italy.
When Innocent returned from the safety of Ravenna, he found paganism dead, for the upper class which had clung to it was merged in a common ruin with the lower or was scattered oversea. The Goths, in half-ruining Rome — there was ample treasure left to attract the Vandals later — had almost made an end of paganism. It was in these circumstances that the Papal ambition to rule the West was more clearly formulated and, as far as Italy is concerned, more effectively asserted by Pope Innocent. The Latin style of his letters reveals the man: cultured and imperious a real Roman turned priest. All the Churches of the West were, he says, founded by Peter and must be governed from the Lateran. There is a note of command in his letters which reveals a confidence that he will not be disobeyed.
The temper of the Popes soon hardened, and by the middle of the fifth century we find them claiming and exercising that "power of the sword," the right to put heretics to death, which is still a normal and emphatic part of the Canon Law, as it is taught in the Papal university at Rome. The sternest rival of the Roman Church was what we now regard as the obscure sect of the Manichaeans.
A few years later the Spanish bishops again executed Priscillianists, whose ideas were allied to those of the Manichaeans. In writing (Ep. XV) to praise the Bishop of Astorga for his action, Leo explicitly stated for the first time the Papal policy of lethal persecution:
Although ecclesiastical mildness shrinks from blood-punishment, yet it is aided by the severe decrees of Christian princes, since they who fear corporal suffering will have recourse to spiritual remedies.
In the same miserable vein he wrote to bishops (Epp. XVI, XVII, and XIX) wherever Manichaeans were discovered.
We saw how the Bishop of Rome, whom we found in the first century hardly distinguishable from the brothers and sisters who have appointed him overseer (episkopos) or chairman of their modest group, becomes in four centuries the autocrat of Christian Europe. The shadow-Popes are replaced by a succession of wealthy, arrogant, power-conscious men who, from a superb palace by the Asinarian Gate of the city, discharge anathemas upon their rebels, armed mobs upon their rivals, and sentences of death upon all who will not bow to their authority. We have after three centuries a score of finely-decorated churches in which a severely graduated body of clergy, theatrically clad and severed by a stern sanctuary-line from common folk, perform, amid clouds of incense and in a blaze of lamps and candles, strange new ceremonies which would have made the shades of the early Popes, if there were any shades, shudder. Every appanage of paganism, even to the altars and statues of Jupiter and Ceres, has been appropriated.
We saw that this triumph, which is almost without precedent in the history of religion, was due neither to an entirely innocent human development, nor to the divine guidance and aid which Catholics claim. It was inevitable that organization should be developed in the growing Church; it was almost inevitable that this should take the shape of an exaltation of the clergy. We saw, however, that this natural tendency was skilfully directed by the few Popes of strong personality, and that after the third century political and economic conditions gave a superb opportunity to their ambition. Political changes gave them wealth, prestige, the resources for an artistic transformation of the churches and services. The political accident of a series of boy-emperors in the West then gave them the power they coveted to enfeeble rival religious bodies; and at last a politico-economic revolution, the first devastation of the Empire by the barbarians, destroyed the wealth and culture which had been the core of the opposition to them.
But the Bishop of Rome was still a Pope, not the Pope, and we have now to see how his ambition to rule the entire Christian body was attained in the western half of the old Empire. On every single such occasion the Pope's claim was not merely rejected but treated as an insolent novelty. From the time of Pope Victor onward, we found, every branch of the Church peremptorily refused the Roman claim of dictatorship. We heard the most saintly of the Fathers Tertullian, Cyprian, and Basil using far from saintly language about it.
Cyprian, the most resolute and most sarcastic opponent of the Roman claim in the third century, is uniformly described in Catholic literature as one who docilely accepted it. The only important incident in this connection during the fourth century is the correspondence with Basil, who was no less sarcastic, In the fifth century we have the greatest of the Latin Fathers, Augustine of Hippo, confronting Popes who have now, we saw, fully developed the ambition to rule the world. And in almost all Catholic literature Augustine is represented as accepting the Roman supremacy. The echo of words which he is alleged to have used in closing a famous controversy, "Rome has spoken the case is settled", still rolls through the Catholic world. He never used those words. He was as stern an opponent of the Papal claim as Basil and Cyprian.
It was in the last year of the life of Innocent I (417) that the events occurred which are fraudulently misrepresented in the words attributed to Augustine, "Rome has spoken." In 416 Augustine had two synods convoked in Africa, and he forwarded a request to Rome. It is in a sermon (No. 131) which Augustine preached after the arrival of the Pope's letters that he used the words which are so persistently misquoted. What he said, literally translated, was:
Already the decisions of two [African] councils have been sent to the Apostolic See, and the reply has come to us. The case is finished.
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Pope Zosimus (417-418) is the next Pope after Damasus to stand out as a definite personality much more definite than Innocent I in the line of the Papal succession, and he has not a more attractive character than Damasus. One of his first acts had been to grant special privileges to the Bishop of Aries, Patroclus, in spite of the vigorous protests of the Bishops of Gaul, who pointed out that the consecration of Patroclus was invalid because a properly consecrated Bishop of the See was still alive. Whether or no it is true, many believe Patroclus had helped Zosimus to become Pope.
Zosimus had created a painful situation in Africa by undoing the agreement which Innocent I had previously written to and agreed upon with the African church. The African bishops denounced the Pope to the Emperor, and he warned the Prefect of Rome that "heresy was rampant in the city." Whereupon Zosimus wrote hastily to Africa that he had been misunderstood. He was doubtless assisted in his decision by the fact that the Emperor had in the meantime pronounced a sentence of confiscation and banishment against all who followed Pelagius; him who Innocent I had condemned and whom Zosimus had then found to be "a good Catholic" and a man of "unquestionable faith."
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Zosimus, whose two years of rule had been so infelicitous, died, and the Africans heard of scandalous scenes in Rome which confirmed their disdain. There had been an unpleasant split in the Roman clergy before Zosimus died, and the two parties proceeded to elect rival Popes, Eulalius and Boniface. Once more there were barricaded churches and armed mobs. The Prefect of Rome we learn that he was a pagan ordered Boniface to leave the city, but he and his supporters appealed to the Emperor at Ravenna, and their cause was espoused by the adventurous princess, Galla Placidia, who had spent several years among the Goths. Honorius, however, relegated the decision to a general council of the bishops of Italy, Gaul, and Africa, who met at Spoleto (419).
Boniface (418-422) was declared Pope, and he had at once to confront the painful situation which the dishonesty of Zosimus had created in Africa. The question of the Pope's supremacy was now the main concern of the Papal Court and the canons of Nicaea were the most notorious obstacle to the claim. The African bishops met the Legate once more in 419. Of this council the records have "not been preserved." We have, however, the letter, and later letters, which the African bishops sent to the Pope. They tell him that they have had three days of wrangling with his Legate, and they "would have been spared intolerable things which they do not care to mention" if he had not cited false canons. However, they "trust that we will not have to endure thy pompousness again."
The claim of supremacy was now an obsession at Rome, while the city sank into decay, the imperial family into vice and frivolity, and the Empire into ruin.
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So petty were the Popes who tried to sustain the religious arrogance of Innocent I that Boniface's successor Celestine (422-432) renewed the attempt to dominate the African Church. A vicious priest who had started trouble had confessed his guilt once before and been forgiven, but he was again exposed by his parishioners, and once more he appealed to Rome; Pope Celestine sent the same Legate who had deeply affronted the African bishops to order them to reinstate the priest! In the quarrel that followed the priest Apiarius broke down and again confessed his guilt, and the Pope's party had to return in anger.
The Africans did not let the matter rest there. Labbe (year 424) again gives us the text of the long letter which they sent to Celestine, and it is a scorching and contemptuous refusal of the Papal claim of leadership. The Legate Faustinus, they say, "insulted the whole assembly, pretending to assert certain privileges of the Roman Church." They remind the Pope that the genuine canons of the Council of Nicaea expressly deny him these privileges and direct that each province shall manage its own affairs. "Are there," they ironically ask, "any who can think that our God will give his inspiration of justice to some single individual and deny it to so many priests assembled in council?" The Legate Faustinus will never again be received in Africa, and they trust that the Pope will send no more representatives.
There were three important Churches in the West besides that of Italy: the Churches of Africa, Spain, and Gaul. The reaction of the Spanish Church to the increasing arrogance of Rome we have not to consider, for since the year 409 the Vandals and their allies had spread over the Peninsula and, being themselves Arians as well as barbarians, had trodden out the life of the Church and destroyed the high culture and polity of Roman Spain.
The reaction of the African Church we have now studied in detail. Five years after the African bishops had definitely stated their position in relation to the Papacy, the Vandal nation, led by at least twenty thousand (some say fifty thousand) fierce warriors, crossed the straits of Gibraltar and began to lay waste the African coastal provinces in which Rome had established a civilization second only to that of Rome. The Vandals were Arians, and it was under standards which were surmounted by copies of the Bible that they perpetrated their atrocities as far as Carthage. The great African Church collapsed.
The Goths had established the spiritual supremacy of the Pope in Italy. The Vandals secured its triumph in Spain and Africa. The Franks would complete this exaltation of the Popes. There remained the Gallic Church; and the superb monuments which survive in the South of France today remind us that there the Romans had created one of their fairest provinces. Though there were sheltered regions in which fragments of the Roman culture survived, Gaul had suffered even more than Italy. The Goths had settled in it; the Vandals had devastatingly crossed it to reach Spain; the terrible Huns reached it. The ancient writers assure us that after one battle of the Huns against the Goths, Franks, and Romans one hundred and sixty thousand corpses littered the plains of Chalons. But there were still deeply religious prelates, and it is from one of these that we learn the character of the reaction of the Church of Gaul to the Roman claim.
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Leo I (440-461), the Pope who was the first to formulate the Church's right to put heretics to death, had been elected to the Papal throne in the year 440. His pontificate illustrates once more the truth which few historians and moralists care to envisage candidly: that the Popes whom the Catholic regards as great and saintly men, whose deep religious convictions, indeed, none of us question, did more harm to the interests of the race then the Popes of irregular or worldly life. In Leo the pontifical ambition rose a stage higher. He was so stern in his sacerdotal conception that he forbade the admission of slaves to any rank of the clergy, "on account of the baseness of their condition."
We have already seen that the one evidence of any acceptance of the supremacy which every Pope now emphasized is that excommunicated priests and deposed bishops began to appeal to Rome against their provincial superiors. Hilary of Aries, which was a metropolitan (archiepiscopal) See, very properly deposed one of his bishops in 445, and the man fled to Rome. In his own letters Leo imputes such vices to the bishops, priests, and monks of Gaul that we may safely trust the judgment of Hilary. Yet the Pope, as usual, declared the bishop innocent.
Hilary went to Rome to put the facts before the Pope. What happened we learn from the Pope's own letters. In one (X, 3) he complains that Hilary addressed him in "language which no layman even should dare to use and no priest to hear" and then "fled disgracefully" from Rome. The Pope was now so ready to use "the secular arm" that Hilary was probably threatened with imprisonment. The Pope, however, wrote to Hilary's bishops releasing them from obedience to their metropolitan, and, as we learn from another of his letters (XI), he obtained from the Emperor a rescript which confirmed the power he claimed:
We lay down this for ever, that neither the bishops of Gaul nor those of any province shall attempt anything contrary to ancient usage, without the authority of the venerable man, the Pope of the Eternal City.
The appeal to ancient usage amuses us when we recall that, from Pope Victor in the second century to Pope Leo in the fifth, every single attempt to claim authority over Churches outside Italy had been emphatically rebuked. The Popes had obliterated rival religions and heresies by getting the police put at their disposal. By this new imperial rescript they got the use of the same secular force to silence any bishop who disputed their claim. The final element in the making of the Papacy was now secured.
Just at this juncture, when the splendour of the ancient world was sinking into the night of the Dark Age, the Roman See was occupied for twenty-one years (440-461) by the strongest and sternest Pope who had yet acceded to it, Leo I, so that the Church had every chance of exerting whatever moral and social influence it possessed.
Honorius, who had played with his pets at Ravenna while blow after blow fell upon his Empire, had died in 423 and left the Empire to the boy Valentinian III, son of his adventurous sister. Valentinian grew up to be a prince of loose morals and entirely frivolous mind, and he moved the court to Rome. His mother, who granted every request of the Pope, is seriously charged with encouraging Valentinian in his follies so that she could hold the reins as long as possible; and in order to escape the danger of having an ambitious son-in-law she, on a religious pretext, condemned her daughter Honaria to virginity, with disastrous consequences.
Honaria was presently found to be pregnant and was imprisoned in a convent in the East, and from this the girl contrived to send a letter to the leader of the savage Huns offering him her hand and half of Italy as her dowry. In 452 Attila descended upon Italy with his vast army of Huns and Teutons, pillaged town after town with great savagery, and seemed to threaten Rome with worse ravages than ever. Pope Leo went at the head of a deputation of Romans to disarm Attila, and Catholic literature still tells how the fierce Asiatic was cowed by the venerable Pope. In profane history we learn that Attila had just come with his battered army from its terrible defeat at Chalons, that it was suffering heavily from disease and weariness, and Attila was too sagacious a commander to venture farther into Italy. He withdrew his troops, laden with booty and ransom, from the enervating and infectious south.
In the imperial circle a series of outrages soon occurred which confirm the characterization of life at Rome. Valentinian III was murdered by one of his leading officers, a rich noble, for raping his wife. The wife died soon afterwards, and even the Romans were disgusted when the noble compelled the Empress-widow to marry him and share his bed. She sent a message summoning the Vandals, who had already occupied Sicily, to come and avenge her, and they gladly complied. Leo again headed the deputation of Romans which went to intercede for the city, and it is said that he obtained a promise that none should be killed who did not resist the looters. Genseric was no Attila, and he would probably have issued that order in any case; nor was it obeyed. Vandals and slaves looted the city for fourteen days and nights. They seized the sacred vessels of nearly all the churches, stripped the palace, and tore bronze tiles, plated with about two million pounds worth of gold, from the roof of the great temple of Jupiter. The Empress who had summoned them was robbed of her jewels, and she and her daughters and a large company of other Romans were shipped to Africa in the Vandal fleet.
Twenty years afterwards the great city was again, and finally, sacked, the slaves and workers now joining with the barbarians in the work; and three years later the Teutonic ruler of Europe disdainfully abolished the stricken Empire. Leo and his successors were ecclesiastical statesmen, concerned almost exclusively in every letter that has been preserved, every act of theirs which is recorded, with the assertion of their authority over other Churches and the final extinction of heresy. They succeeded. With the passing of the Empire all culture and civilization die and a beggared remnant of the Roman people crawl onward into the long night.
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With superb indifference to the most notorious historical facts the modern Catholic apologist tells his Catholic readers that the Popes abolished slavery, raised the status of women, gave the Roman world schools, hospitals, and philanthropic institutions, and abolished the brutal gladiatorial combats.
The games of the amphitheatre, which were provided for the people by very wealthy men or the Emperors and might cost as much as 100,000 in three days, naturally perished when their economic roots were cut by the destruction of Roman society. The claim of a moral influence becomes amusing when we reflect that, as soon as some economic recovery began, duels, tournaments of the most bloody description, and the baiting of animals were the principal recreations of Christendom.
Hardly less blatant is the claim that the Popes suppressed slavery. No Pope ever condemned slavery. Millions of slaves were set free by the destruction of the imperial government and the ruin of the rich patricians who owned them, but every man who could afford them still had slaves. The Popes, we shall see, became the chief slave-owners in Europe. Economic changes again led to the modification of slavery over the greater part of Europe into serfdom (if there is any material difference), but under the eyes of the Pope the Italian principalities and republics still conducted a traffic in slaves of the vilest description; and the later brutal trade in African flesh is a direct continuation of this until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Every Pope agreed with Augustine (City of God, XIX, 15) that slavery was in accordance with the divine will.
In regard to schools, hospitals, and charitable institutions we must discriminate. We have to-day expert historical manuals of each of these subjects, and they unanimously show the absurdity of the claim of the Catholic apologist. The Roman Empire had created a remarkable system of free elementary and secondary schools, made a very large provision of free medical service, and was, from the beginning of the second century, rich in homes for orphans, widows, and aged folk. This impressive system of social service inevitably collapsed at the fall of Rome and the Empire, and Europe was so terribly impoverished for centuries that it would have been absurd to expect the Church to restore it. we should expect any authority which had a concern for social welfare to press for the education of the people as soon, and in proportion, as new economic resources permitted. The Papacy did exactly the opposite. We shall sec that by the year 600 it had acquired vast wealth, yet the Popes not only did nothing for the education of the people, but condemned bishops who attempted it. We shall further see that when Charlemagne endeavoured to found a school-system, the local representatives of the Papacy, which was hostile to him in his later years, ruined his plan.
A sociologist or any sound moralist would probably say that the gravest consequence to civilization of the fall of the Roman Empire was the destruction of the system of free universal education which it had provided. One may safely say that of the fifty million citizens of the Western Empire at least ninety per cent, had been literate; and one may just as confidently say that from the year 500 to 1050 more than ninety per cent of them were illiterate. Educationists have made a thorough research, and they declare that one can count on one's fingers the number of schools which during this period existed at any particular time in any country. This crass universal ignorance was the chief cause of the coarseness and violence which reduced Europe to barbarism.
Hitherto we have found few Popes of a character that was plainly unfitted for the office. It is true that we know nothing in exact history about the character of nine out of ten of them, but we will take the silence of ecclesiastical history as evidence of pious mediocrity. Now men of corrupt character appear more frequently, and, to the confusion of writers who blame the barbaric invasions; we shall find them more numerous the farther we move away from the period of those invasions. The degeneration reaches its lowest depth five centuries after the fall of Rome in a hundred years of Papal corruption which the older Catholic historians, who were at least more conscientious than those of modern times, called "The Reign of the Whores."