Morbidity and Vitality in the History of the Early Medieval Papacy

By Noble, Thomas F. X. | The Catholic Historical Review, October 1995 | Go to article overview

Morbidity and Vitality in the History of the Early Medieval Papacy


Noble, Thomas F. X., The Catholic Historical Review


The papal historian August Franzen says of his subject that "to arrive at truth one must wade through a swamp of calumnies and leave behind a forest of legends and anecdotes."(1) Franzen was speaking in particular of the history of historical writing about the papacy, an important topic that has never been satisfactorily handled. In very brief outline, that history might look something like this. In Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages, papal history was only one among many histories that competed for the attention of contemporary historiographers and that continues to compete for the attention of modern historians. After the eleventh century, papal and church history seemed to merge as the papacy attained the high point of its ecclesiastical and secular domination. With only minor and occasional deviations, the story continued to be told that way until the early sixteenth century, when Robert Barnes, an English Protestant, fled to Wittenberg and wrote there under Luther's protection a papal history designed to prove that the popes were the "vastatores fidei." Shortly thereafter, the Catholic writer Michael Buchinger produced a papal history that reiterated the link between papal and church history. Protestants could neither let that link remain unbroken, nor ignore the long period of papal prominence in church history. Consequently, down to the eighteenth century, more papal histories were written by Protestants than by Catholics. Indeed, Harald Zimmermann, the greatest living Protestant historian of the papacy, once said that it almost appears as if the writing of papal history were a Protestant invention.(2) Protestants kept telling the story their way so as to rebut Catholic claims about the identification of papal and church history, and also to advance the thesis that papal history revealed the "mysterium iniquitatis."

So things stood until changes were wrought by four modern developments, three of them products of the nineteenth century and one of them more recent. The first was the emergence of the "higher criticism" that forced new, and less palpably confessional, readings of the essential biblical texts concerning authority, charisma, and power in the Early Church. The second, during the pontificate of Pius IX, was the decree of the First Vatican Council, Pastor Aeternus, on papal infallibility, which attracted little Protestant attention, because it seemed so characteristically arrogant and unhistorical as to require little comment, but which shattered Catholic consensus about the historical role of the papacy.(3) Third, the opening of the Archivio Segreto by Leo XIII in 1881, because of the nature of its contents, turned much papal historical writing into a subset of diplomatic and political history. Finally, the ecumenical movement has tended to temper polemical rhetoric among Christians who belong to hierarchical, liturgical, and sacramental churches while sharpening the differences between them and the evangelicals. But, then, recent currents suggest that movements are underway to find common ground between Catholics and Evangelicals despite potent and lasting differences between them.(4)

This very rough sketch is relevant to the early Middle Ages in several ways. Bo Catholic and Protestant historians have long been telling essentially the same story about the centuries after Gregory I, albeit they draw very different morals from that story. Here is the Protestant Johannes Haller's version:

The papacy in the Roman Empire...was a papacy for the bishops, not for the individual Christian. In those things which concerned the ordinary man-certainty of redemption, penitence, forgiveness of sins, eternal life-the Roman pope had no more to offer than any other bishop or priest.... How different then when we enter the world of the converted Germans] For them the power of the bishop of Rome is a matter of faith. The heir and representative of St. Peter is for them not just the chief among the judges over his fellow bishops, but the guarantor and mediator of temporal and eternal salvation for all. …

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