Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The half-baked Church

Teaching the first half of a world history course for the first time this semester has provided numerous opportunities for me to learn. I’ve had to develop at least a rudimentary understanding of the non-European civilizations and to think much more about global patterns, commonalities, and differences. At the same time, as I’ve discovered over the last couple of days while preparing my lectures on the European middle ages, I’ve gotten a chance to think more about questions with which I thought I was already somewhat familiar.
Many scholars, in trying to explain Europe’s sui generis path, have pointed to the division of power between secular and religious authorities going back to the middle ages and even to the origins of Christianity and the Roman empire. This division may have been the mother of all divisions of power. One way to think about the sources of this ur-division is to say that western Christianity, the Catholic Church, was half-baked in its origins. A common feature in other civilizations was that religious and secular power were fused, they were held in the same hand. This was the case with the Muslim Caliphs as well as the Chinese emperors. It would become the case with the Roman/Byzantine emperors in the eastern, surviving half of the Roman empire, as they developed caesaro-papism. Western Christianity developed differently because of the nature of the empire within which it grew, because of the Church’s experiences in the first centuries of its existence, and especially because the western half of the empire collapsed, preventing a likely drift into caesaro-papism. The eastern Church was fully baked, one might say, while the western was only half-baked.
For the first 250 or so years of organized Christian churches, they were persecuted by Roman authorities, and hence developed a healthy suspicion of political power. Constantine’s conversion and edict of toleration in 313, of course, brought the Church great patronage and benefits, but it was only in 395, with the declaration of Christianity as the only tolerated religion within the empire, that Christianity became fully allied with, and thus potentially subservient to, the state. By this point, however, the western empire only had another 80 years to live. That is, the western Church tasted the fruits of an alliance with power for only a relatively short time.
But its incubation within the Roman empire for 400 years, first – and for the longest time - as persecuted, then as tolerated and promoted, and finally as the only officially backed religion, did form crucial features of the Church: in its bishoprics, it imitated the structures of Roman urban life; in its hierarchy, that of the Empire; in its legalism, the Roman tradition going back to the Twelve Tables. The basic structures of much of Church life were partly formed – half baked - by the Roman empire, including some of the remnants of the Republic, without the Church becoming too wedded to power – without it being fully baked by power.
Of course, the caesaro-papist tradition didn’t remain fully absent in the west, at least on a small, decentralized scale: during the “Dark Ages” between 500 and 1000, secular rulers often treated priests and bishops, who were often family members or directly dependent on the secular power-holders for their positions, as their vassals. Yet, at the latest by the Investiture Struggle (circa 1100-1300), when reforming Popes claimed not just equality with and independence from the secular authorities but, in fact, dominance over them, the caesaro-papist option was foreclosed. (Whether a papal-caesarist option was ever viable is another matter.) The two authorities, worldly and heavenly, were to be permanently divided, providing perhaps the most basic model to the West of the division of power. What I’m suggesting here is that this was not merely the overcoming of secular meddling by any old religion. Its success required a Church, a Church that could muster enormous intellectual and organizational resources. Without that half-baking in its early centuries, that is, if the Church had not developed at least incipient structures and legal traditions with which to counter Henry IV’s armies and claims, it seems hard to imagine how it could have stood up to worldly authorities. Thus, it seems to me that for its success – and perhaps for that of the West – it was crucial not only that the Church avoid a complete caesaro-papist baking, but also that it undergo a half-baking, one whose impact would only be felt a thousand years later.
(For a scholarly, quite masterful, treatment of related questions, I recommend John Hall’s Powers and Liberties.)

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