Any view of Christendom before the Reformation which ignores the relation of the Papacy to its vassal kingdoms overlooks Europe's chief characteristic.
This relation was that of dominancy. The papacy was, in a word, Europe's chief, Europe's ruler. The papacy taught her subject nations to see in the power seated upon the Seven Hills, the bond of their union, the fountain of their legislation, and the throne of their government. The papacy knit all the kingdoms of Europe into one great confederacy or monarchy. These vassal kingdoms lived and breathed in the Papacy. Their fleets and armies, their constitutions and laws, existed more for her than for themselves. They were simply employed to advance her policies and uphold the power of the Papal chair. In the one Pontifical government there were rolled up in reality two governments, one within the other. The smaller of these covered the area of the Papal States while the larger, spurning these narrow limits, embraced the whole of Christendom. The sceptre of absolute jurisdiction stretched across them all.
How a spiritual monarchy exercised temporal dominion co-extensive with Christendom, is not apparent at first sight. But history attests the fact. The papacy's primary means was the "legate-a-latere" literally ambassador from the Pope's side. The legate-a- latere was the Pope's alter ego, literally his person and his power. He was sent not to mediate but to govern like the deputies sent from Rome by the Caesars to govern all subject provinces of the Empire.
On arrival the legate-a-latere immediately set up his court to try causes and pronounce judgment in the Pope's name. Neither the sovereign's authority nor the law of the land were acknowledged in the legate's court. Rome's canon law determined a vast multitude of cases. Many were not even spiritual as legates drew ever more causes under its jurisdiction. For instance the legate decided all questions of divorce but since this would encompass civil matters involving landed estates and the ownership of wealth, and at times even the right to the throne his jurisdiction went way beyond the spiritual.
All questions touching the lands and estates of convents, monasteries, and abbeys were determined by the legate. This gave him the direct control of one-half of the landed property of most of the kingdoms of Europe. He could impose taxes, and did levy a penny upon every house in France and England. He could impose extraordinary levies upon both clergy and laity for singular ambitions. He was arbiter of peace and war. He meddled in the affairs of princes, conducted intrigues, fomented quarrels, and umpired all controversies. The aggrieved could have no redress from the courts of the country, nor the sovereign. Such a one must go in person to Rome. Thus did the Pope, through his legate-a-latere become grand justice of each kingdom.
Terror of the interdict
The legate-a-latere enforced his judgements by "interdict." The interdict was equivalent to the army of a temporal ruler. The blow it dealt was more rapid, and the subjugation it effected more complete. When a monarch proved obdurate, the legate unsheathed this sword against him. Immediately the clergy throughout his kingdom ceased the celebration of the ordinances of religion. Sovereign and subjects alike shared this ghostly but dreadful infliction. The priesthood alone offered graceless salvation through Sacraments available only through themselves. The terrors of interdict were irresistible.
Malediction desolated the land upon which this terrible chastisement had been laid. Superstitious terror and images of doom extending from this world into the next terrorised the imagination. The interdict in those ages rarely failed to gain its end. The people, punished for the fault, real or supposed, of their sovereign would eventually rebel against the intransigent prince. Faced with a choice between an insurrection or making his peace with Rome, ensured the papacy almost always prevailed. The king had in effect just the shadow of power, the substance of sovereignty having been effectively filched from him to be carried to Rome and vested in the papal chair.
Another contrivance allowing princes the name of king whilst removing from them the actual government of their kingdoms, was the Concordat. Concordats between the Pope and the kings of Christendom varied in minor details, but the leading provisions were all alike. Their key-note was exalting the papal supremacy and subordinating the State. The Concordat bound the prince to enact no law, profess no religion, open no school, and permit no branch of knowledge to be taught within his dominions without prior papal consent. Moreover the prince was bound to keep freely open the gates of the realm for all such legates, bishops, and nuncios as the Pope might be pleased to send to impose such spiritual authority and promulgate such bulls and briefs as might please him. All were to have the force of law even if local jurisdiction had to be waived or altogether set aside. The advantages secured by the contracting prince were usually meagre and only respected whilst it remained in the interests of the Church of Rome not to violate them. In short, the Concordat gave the Pope the first place in the government of the kingdom, leaving to the sovereign and the Estates of the Realm only the second. The prince was bound down in vassalage, and the people in serfdom both political and religious.
The hierarchy was yet another formidable weapon . The struggle commenced by Gregory VII (Hildebrand) ended in giving to the Pope the power of appointing bishops throughout all the Empire. This right of investiture immediately provided the Pontiff with the better half of the secular government of kingdoms. The hierarchy formed was rendered powerful by union, intelligence, and the superstitious reverence of ordinary people for sacred office. Each member of the hierarchy had taken a feudal oath of obedience to the Pope. The bishop was no mere priest, he was a ruler as well, being possessed of jurisdiction through the canon law he administered on behalf of Rome. The "chapter" was the court by which the bishop exercised that jurisdiction.
The jurisdiction of the bishop was acknowledged to be temporal as well as spiritual rendering the hierarchy in fact a magistracy planted in the country by a foreign power and under an oath of obedience to the papacy that had appointed it. This was therefore a magistracy independent of the sovereign on his own soil. It wielded temporal and spiritual jurisdiction over every person in the realm. All were in effect governed by Rome in religious acts, political duties and temporal possessions.
The Confessional, Dispensations and Indulgences
The Confessional was a further papal weapon. Called "the place of penitence" it was, in reality, a seat of jurisdiction. It was to the papist the tribunal of God. Its terrors transcended the human judgment-seat, as the sword of eternal anathema transcends the gallows of temporal governments. It afforded unrivalled opportunity for sowing sedition and organising rebellion. Here the priest sat unseen, digging, hour by hour and day after day, the mine beneath the prince whom he had marked out for ruin, while the latter never once suspected that his overthrow was being prepared till he was hurled from his seat.
Another powerful weapon was the widespread marketing of dispensations and indulgences. Never did merchant by the most daring venture, nor statesman by the most ingenious scheme of finance, succeed in amassing such store of wealth as Rome did simply by selling pardon. She sent the vendors of her wares into all countries, and as all felt that they needed forgiveness, all flocked to her market. So did Rome gather the riches of all the earth.
And yet another was the invention of mortmain to protect the papacy's accumulated lands. Her property was beyond the reach of the law. The estates of the nobles could be dealt with by the civil tribunals if deemed dangerous to the public good. But it was the fate of ecclesiastical property ever to grow. However noxious the uses to which it was turned, however much it tended to impoverish the resources of the State, and undermine the industry of the nation, and however great the obnoxious arrogance of its owners no remedy could be applied to the mischief.
Century after century these evils continued (see the Box) and waxed stronger, till at length the Reformation came and dissolved the spell by which Rome had succeeded in making her enormous possessions inviolable to the arm of the law by covering them with the sanctions of Heaven. Reason and argument would have fought against such a bulwark in vain. Philosophy and literature or raillery and scepticism would all have shot their bolts at such an edifice to no purpose. A Divine assailant only could overthrow it: and that assailant was PROTESTANTISM.
Taken from Wylie's History of Protestantism, and edited by Dr Clive Gillis