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Did the early church interfere in civil matters?

Post of the Month: February 2014


Subject:    | mostly harmless...NOT
Date:       | 27 Feb 2014
Message-ID: |

In prior posts including from Feb 19th and from Feb 26th James Beck argued that the early Church was not a civilizing force.
His first quoted comment below was written on the 26th.

>> In Civilization Clark attributed something to Christianity that it never
>> claimed for itself. After all, early Christianity (especially Gelasius)
>> invented the notion of separation of church from the royal estates, splitting
>> spiritual from civil interest. The estates that developed into the modern
>> state looked after the body and property. Care for the soul was a separate
>> power from a very early on in the history of organized Christianity.

Nick Roberts suggests this might not be correct.
> I'm not sure I'd accept that early Christianity divorced itself from civil
> interest (unless I'm misunderstanding your point, which is quite possible).

Beginning his POTM James replies:
Interesting. Doesn't your common sense tell you that the leaders of a persecuted religion would have at least pretended to have no interest in civil matters? In any event, the statements of the early church fathers are part of the historical record.

> Roman Catholicism circa 11th/12th/13th century was very much into political power.

That's eventually true, yes. However, other than the excommunication of Emperor Theodosius for the unjust Massacre of Thessaloniki in the 4th century the early church steered clear of overt politics. Politically the issue of separation concerned whether the church would absorb the civil authority, become a vassal to it, or remain an independent spiritual authority.

As King of the Romans Henry III [Europe 1017 - 1056] attempted to "reform the church" by forcing it to become his vassal. That was opposed by, among others, Cardinal Bishop Humbert of Moyenmoutier, who called for a return to the traditional emancipation of the Church from the control of the secular power and for the free election of the pope. Hildebrand, a follower of Humbert, became pope in 1073 taking the name Gregory VII.

Following attempts by Henry IV [Europe 1050 - 1106] to force the church into his service and an exchange of harsh correspondence, Gregory VII excommunicated Henry and all of the bishops he had appointed. In addition, he took the further step of absolving all of Henry's vassals of their obligations to serve him. That had the effect of cutting Henry's lands and power base in half. Henry relented in 1077. Against the advice of his bishops, who thought that Henry would fail to honor any agreement he might make with the church, Gregory VII absolved Henry. A long period of civil war ensued.

In supporting Rudolph of Rheinfeldin in the Great Saxon Revolt, Gregory overplayed his hand. His second excommunication of Henry in 1080 was interpreted as the political move it was and some of Henry's former allies rejoined him rather than being picked off one by one.

Gregory VII survived as pope until his death in 1085, saved by the advance of Robert Guiscard. Otto of Ostia became pope as Urban II in the same year. With Norman support (Pope Alexander II had ratified the Norman Conquest of England) Urban II excommunicated Henry IV again. Henry was ex'ed yet again by Pope Paschal II. Henry's son, the future Henry V rebelled against his father. Henry IV was deposed, then reinstated, and finally died in 1106.

Alternate Timelines:

It's also possible that the Pope Alexander II set the chain of events in motion by excommunicating Harold II of England prior to the 1066 invasions of Harald Hardrada (Norway) and William the Conqueror, thereby pissing off the Saxons. In that case, it would be the church that played the secular card first and provoked the reform movement pushed by Henry IV.

It's also possible to argue that the church made a grab for secular power as soon as it could. Its position was much stronger following the division of Charlemagne's [74? - 814] kingdom among his grandchildren.

> When King John [England 1166 - 1216)] annoyed Innocent III, the Pope supported
> Philip of France's plans to invade England - until John arranged to hold England
> as a vassal of the Pope, and suddenly Innocent told Philip to back off.

> Not a whole lot of case for the soul there.

Discussion now moves to actions of the Church in sheltering individuals from civil judicial authority

> Plus, of course, the Church claimed for a long time that any monk or priest
> who was accused of a crime could only he tried by Church authorities, not
> civil ones, which effectively put them in the position of a separate state.

Superficially this sounds like a toughie. It's not really, but people do like to claim it. At the discretion of the secular authority, benefit of clergy (BoC) could be offered to any sufficiently literate person who was willing to tonsure their hair. If granted it could protect an offender from the state imposition of torture or capital punishment.

On the other hand...

Religious sanctuary wasn't free for lay offenders. Asylum seekers paid their own way in addition to making restitution ('bot'). The state permitted and even chartered sanctuary as a way to limit vigilante justice and blood feuds. In effect sanctuary amounted to a form of exile. By the 12th and 13th centuries abjuration, basically a plea of no contest, meant permanent exile, the loss of all property, and branding. The church did not as a rule turn people over to the secular authority, but couldn't stop it from burning churches, from starving the criminals out, or from entering the church and seizing them by force.

Further, the Medieval church did not shield clerics in the way implied. In fact, they were not only legally barred from abjuration, but also they were compelled to surrender to the secular authorities for all secular crimes. Under BoC the secular authority could then remand offenders to the ecclesiastical court. Ecclesiastical penance might have been better than torture and death, but it was no picnic.

By contrast, what the modern church did is much more heinous. They knowingly shielded serial child molesters from secular justice by concealing their identities and moving them to new posts, as well as, by paying off/intimidating the victims. Nothing remotely like that sort of shady dealing was sanctioned in the Middle Ages.

Instead a felonious cleric would have a limited set of options.
1) Abandon vows. Flee to church/chartered sanctuary. Make restitution.
2) Abandon vows. Flee to church/chartered sanctuary. Choose abjuration and accept permanent exile, loss of property, and branding.
3) Maintain vows. Submit to secular authority and hope for BoC.
4) Run for it. Hope to avoid the angry family and the authorities.

Keeping in mind that most of the kids in a monastery school would not have been Dickensian orphans and, given modern mores,
I wouldn't bet on the cleric's chances.

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