It is scarcely possible to imagine humbler beginnings than those from which the Papacy arose, and certainly it is not possible to imagine a loftier height than that to which it eventually climbed. He who was seen in the first century presiding as the humble pastor over a single congregation, and claiming no rank above his brethren, is beheld in the twelfth century occupying a seat from which he looks down on all the thrones temporal and spiritual of Christendom. How, we ask with amazement, was the Papacy able to traverse the mighty space that divided the humble pastor from the mitred king?
When Constantine reigned, the Church already stood out as a body distinct from the State. Her new organization imitated the empire. Under Pope Leo the Great (440 - 461) the Church of Rome assumed the form and exercised the sway of an ecclesiastical principality. Emperor Valentinian III recognized Rome's Bishop as supreme over the Western Church and Rome affected the authority and pomp of a spiritual sovereign. Gradually the reverence and awe with which men had regarded Rome, the old mistress of the world, began to gather round the person and the chair of Rome's bishop. Factions and strife abounded with only the Pope to arbitrate. Men craved both his advice and his judgement of causes. The Roman Bishop made it the basis of newer and higher claims.
Even when the Emperor removed from Rome, where he overshadowed the Pope, to Constantinople, Rome's ancient kudos remained. Of the five great patriarchates - Antioch, Alexandria, Jerusalem, Constantinople, and Rome - the old question of "which was the greatest" was now reduced to Rome or Constantinople. Constantinople was the new seat of government, and the abode of the Emperor. This gave its patriarch powerful claims. But Rome continued to wield a mysterious and potent charm over the imagination, as the heir of that imperial power which had been the possessor of all the power, of all the glory, and of all the dominion of the past. This vast prestige carried the day for Rome.
The Emperor Phocas
In AD 606 the Emperor Phocas formally decreed that the Bishop of Rome was pre-eminent. Thus, before the Roman Empire fell to the invading hordes, the Bishop of Rome had established his spiritual supremacy. The canons of Councils show a stream of decisions from Pope Celestine, in the middle of the fifth century, to Pope Boniface II. in the middle of the sixth, claiming, directly or indirectly, this august prerogative. Henceforward the Popes held their authority neither from the Emperor nor from ancient Rome but from Heaven. The Bishop of Rome claimed to be not merely the chief of bishops and the first of patriarchs, but the Vicar of the Most High God.
Night descended on the Roman world from the North of Europe. The newly arrived Goths beheld a religion served by magnificent cathedrals, imposing rites, and wealthy and powerful prelates, presided over by a chief priest, in whose reputed sanctity and ghostly authority they found again their own chief Druid. These rough warriors, who had overturned the throne of the Caesars, bowed down before the chair of the Popes.
The evangelisation of these tribes was easily accomplished. They exchanged their Paganism or Arianism for the "Catholic Faith". This faith consisted chiefly in reciting the names of the objects of their worship, which they were left to adore with much the same rites as they had practiced in their native forests. They did not much concern themselves with the study of Christian doctrine, or the practice of Christian virtue. The age furnished but few manuals of the one, and still fewer models of the other.
Clovis, King of the Franks
Clovis, King of the Franks was baptized in the Cathedral of Rheims in AD 496 with every solemnity, impressing awe on the minds of Rome's rough proselytes. Three thousand of his warlike subjects were baptized with him. The Pope styled him, "the eldest son of the Church", a title adopted by all the subsequent Kings of France. Clovis was now unique, for all the other chiefs governing the West were unbaptised.
In the sixth century the Burgundians of Southern Gaul, the Visigoths of Spain, the Suevi of Portugal, and the Anglo-Saxons of Britain entered the pale of Rome. The tendency among the princes of Western Europe to submit themselves and refer their disputes to the Pontiff as their spiritual father escalated. National assemblies were held twice a year sanctioned by bishops. Prelates ensured their enactments advanced the cause of Rome. The Pope was now regarded as Father and protector of the West.
In the eighth century Rome was menaced by two dangers which she skilfully turned to strengthen her dominion. Victorious Saracen Turks crossed the Pyrenees and overran France as far as the Loire threatening eventually to plant the Crescent in the room of the Cross in Italy. Meanwhile the Lombards were brandishing their swords at Rome ‘s gates. Worse they were on the point of replacing Catholic orthodoxy with the creed of Arianism.
Having thrown off the imperial yoke, the Pope could expect no aid from the Emperor of Constantinople so he turned to France. Frankish arms saved the Papal chair as intrepid Charles Martel drove back the Saracens. Rome completed this victory through Pepin, son of Charles Martel, who had just seized the throne. Pepin badly needed Papal sanction to cover his usurpation. So he hastened to help Pope Stephen II resist the Lombards. Having vanquished them, he placed the keys of the Lombard towns upon the altar of St. Peter, so laying the first foundation of the Pope's temporal sovereignty.
Charlemagne, Pepin‘s son, later repeated similar service for similar recognition. After his campaign Charlemagne visited Rome. Here Charlemagne gave to the pontiff the territories of the conquered tribes. By this act Peter obtained his so-called "patrimony", the Roman Church her dowry, and the Pope his triple crown.
‘I will be as God'
The Pope had now attained two of the three grades of power that constitute his stupendous dignity. He had made himself a bishop of bishops, head of the Church, and he had become a crowned monarch. Did this content him? No! He said, "I will ascend the sides of the mount; I will plant my throne above the stars; I will be as God." Not content with being a bishop of bishops, and so governing the whole spiritual affairs of Christendom, he aimed at becoming a king of kings, and so of governing the whole temporal affairs of the world. He aspired to supremacy, sole, absolute, and unlimited. This alone was wanting to complete that colossal fabric of power, the Popedom, and towards this the pontiff now began artfully to strive .
The great forgery
An astounding document, purporting to have been written in the fourth century, although unheard of till then, was in the year 776 brought out of the darkness where it was supposed to have rested for many years. It was the "Donation" or Testament of the Emperor Constantine. Constantine, says the legend, found Sylvester in one of the monasteries on Mount Soracte, and having mounted him on a mule, he took hold of his bridle rein, and walking all the way on foot, the emperor conducted Sylvester to Rome, and placed him upon the Papal throne.
But this was as nothing compared with the vast and splendid inheritance which Constantine apparently conferred on him. It reads "We attribute to the See of Peter all the dignity, all the glory, all the authority of the imperial power. Furthermore, we give to Sylvester and to his successors our palace of the Lateran, which is incontestably the finest palace on the earth; we give him our crown, our mitre, our diadem, and all our imperial vestments; we transfer to him the imperial dignity. We bestow on the holy Pontiff in free gift the city of Rome, and all the western cities of Italy. To cede precedence to him, we divest ourselves of our authority over all those provinces, and we withdraw from Rome, transferring the seat of our empire to Byzantium; inasmuch as it is not proper that an earthly emperor should preserve the least authority, where God hath established the head of his religion."
It was rare modesty from Popes, to silently reserve it for 400 years, then astutely publishing it in the gullible, dark eighth century. To quote is to refute. It was probably forged a little before AD 754. In it, Constantine is made to speak in the Latin of the eighth century, and to address Bishop Sylvester as Prince of the Apostles, Vicar of Christ, and as having authority over the four great thrones, not yet set up, of Antioch, Alexandria, Jerusalem, and Constantinople. It was probably written by a priest of the Lateran Church, and it gained its object - that is, it led Pepin to bestow on the Pope the Exarchate of Ravenna, with twenty towns to furnish oil for the lamps in the Roman churches. For 600 years Rome impressively cited this deed of gift, inserted it in her codes, permitted none to question its genuineness, and burned those who refused to believe in it.
The Decretals of Isidore
About AD 845 the Decretals of Isidore appeared. They professed to be a collection of the letters, rescripts, and bulls of the early pastors of the Church of Rome - Anacletus, Clement, and others, down to Sylvester - the very men to whom the terms "rescript" and "bull" were unknown. This compilation affirmed the pontifical supremacy had existed from the first age. It was the clumsiest, but the most successful, of all the forgeries which have emanated from Rome, "the native home of inventions and falsifications of documents". The writer, supposed to be Benedict Deacon of Mainz, who professed to be living in the first century, painted the Church of Rome in the magnificence which she attained only in the ninth century; and made the pastors of the first age speak in the pompous words of the Popes of the Middle Ages. Abounding in absurdities, contradictions, and anachronisms, it affords a measure of the intelligence of the age that accepted it as authentic.
It was eagerly laid hold of by Nicholas I to prop up and extend the fabric of his power. His successors made it the arsenal from which they drew their weapons of attack against both bishops and kings. It became the foundation of the canon law, and continues to be so, although there is not now a Popish writer who does not acknowledge it to be a piece of imposture. "Never," says Fr Rignon, "was there seen a forgery so audacious, so extensive, so solemn, so persevering." Yet the discovery of the fraud has not shaken the system. "Without the pseudo-Isidore," says a scholar "there could have been no Gregory VII. The Isidorian forgeries were the broad foundation which the Gregorians built upon." Thus was the way paved for the full supremacy of the Popedom.
(From Wylie's History of Protestantism, edited by Dr Clive Gillis.)