The political role of the Roman Catholic Church in Western Europe

From the collapse of the Roman Empire and the founding of the barbarian kingdoms until the Carolingian period (5th-9th c. AD)


In this text I call "Church", the Roman Catholic Church, governed by the Pope, who is the successor of the Apostle Peter in the Bishop's role in Rome. According to the Christian doctrine, the history of the Roman Catholic Church begins in the year 33, when Jesus begins to preach and teach.

By "political role" I hereby mean a number of actions taken by the "Church", in terms of policy making and of doing politics.

There is no universally accepted definition of "Western Europe", as Western Europe does not exist as a political, national, cultural or legal entity during the period in question. Thus, I adopt the modern geographical definition of Western (including South West) Europe, according to which Western Europe consists of the following states: Belgium, France, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Spain, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Portugal; and by the principality of Monaco and Andorra. However, it is worth noting that the geographical boundaries of the cities, states, kingdoms and empires created in Western Europe between the 5th and 9th centuries are variable due to the intense population mobility and continuous geopolitical changes in Europe and the wider region of the Mediterranean basin.

For the exact chronological determination of the period I refer to, I use as a starting point the fall of ancient Rome, namely, the 4th of September 476 AD which is the date of the deposition of the last emperor of the Western Roman Empire, Romulus Augustulus. I consider the end of the Carolingian era, to be the date of the death of the last Emperor, Charles III, i.e. 13th January 888 AD.


The Church's political role



To provide support on diplomacy

In many cases, the kings turn to the Pope to receive the official recognition of their status from the Church. The Pope may Christianise a king (take as an example Pepin’s baptism in 751 AD), or crown them Patrician, August or Emperor. To be crowned by the Pope (i.e. to have a title recognised by the Church) is an honour and a significant added value to the title itself, thus affecting the way with which it is being perceived by the public opinion. As an example, one might refer to the coronation of Pepin III, by the Pope Zacharias, and the consequent definition of his family as "the holy family and the royal clergy".

In many cases, in return for this recognition, the Pope seeks in the kings political allies. A good example takes us back to the 7th century, when Pepin the Short accepts the Rome Bishop’s call for help, turns against the Lombards, conquers their land and donates it to St. Peter (whose spokesman is the Pope), making the first step towards the establishment of a distinct Papal State. Note that the crowning of an Emperor strengthens the Church’s position as it testifies that the Pope is the only one presumed to attribute the imperial title. Another remarkable case is that of Leo III who crowns the Charlemagne Emperor.

Moreover, the Church’s diplomatic support to the Royals, entails the provision of moral advantage to them by defining their war campaigns as "holy" (remember that theoretically the sole purpose of some wars is supposed to be the spreading of Christianity).


To contribute to the public administration and governance

One of the most important contributions of the Church to the state is the provision of know-how in matters of internal organization and hierarchy. The Pope is the head of the independent Papal State and has the power to appoint military commanders. In many regions, especially in besieged areas, the Bishops exclusively exercise political power, organize citizens, attach justice, etc. The Church is entrusted with major infrastructure projects, such as the construction of aqueducts or the maintenance of fortifications, which are often funded by the Church itself. The Bishops open new hospitals and establish other public buildings, and sometimes undertake the landscaping and architecture of the settlements in their areas.

Finally, the church presents for the first time in Western Europe the concept of the asylum.


To provide financial support

Since one cannot easily make a distinction between the role of the Church and that of the State, financial support for the operations of the State is self-evident either through financing public works, or through the direct transfer of wealth from the Church to the State as financial support for specific military campaigns (upon the Church’s initiative, or upon pressure from the State).


To ensure social cohesion

Ensuring peace within the kingdoms and empires is a matter of utmost importance, which often the Royals cannot deal effectively with. Ensuring a single religion within the Empire is a key means of achieving the above goal. This is either achieved smoothly bythe Church, or violently by the State. Over time, one notes that social and cultural differences between native farmers and craftsmen and conquerors are mitigated. A big achievement is also the settlement of disagreements between the Franco-Roman aristocracy and the conquerors. The Bishops become a link between Franks and Franco-Roman society, but also between the royals and the people.

Note that the Bishops are the sons of great families with a genuine interest in the commons of their city, and that their work is largely due (not to the conscious effort to provide political support to the Royals, but) to the desire to pursue social policy. A typical example is Bishop Gregory, who, as a peacemaker, undertakes the financial arrangement of a family vendetta before it takes on the dimensions of a civil war.


The charity work of the Church

The social work of the Church overcomes the narrow limits of participation in the state's government and goes into the care of feeding the population, caring for the weak and providing benefits to those in need. Especially during the period of the Merovingians, for whom there is no distinction between their kingdom and their personal property, the Church plays an important role, laying the foundations for what could be now described as a social state.


The Church as a carrier of culture

The bloom of science and arts during the period in question, is mostly due to the Church’s initiative. Within the Church, the knowledge of reading and writing, the study of Latin literature, and the study and copying of great classical works spreads. The Bishops, but especially the monks, are concerned with the correction of old historical records, but above all with the creation and preservation of historical archives that account for the modern knowledge of the early Middle Ages. A distinguished example is the research and writing work of Bishop Gregory of Tours. Finally, the inauguration and education of young aristocrats from the Church, ensures the spreading of knowledge to the next generations, but also its spreading into the broad social network of the aristocracy.

Despite the fact that the secular power of the Church is growing or decreasing at times, the Church remains firmly an important player in politics, contributing substantially to the development of a local government model and a powerful social and educational work, clearly influencing the development of Western Europe. Its political role is so important, that it is rather unclear whether it makes sense for the modern (Western) Europe to be perceived as a set of nation-states, since it is the Church that is primarily their fundamental connecting link during the period I examine.


#roman #catholic #church #politics #europe #publicadministration #diplomacy #charity #culture #middleages


Suggested reading:

Serge Berstein & Pierre Milza, Ιστορία της Ευρώπης, Εκδόσεις Αλεξάνδρεια, Αθήνα, 1997

Ralph Henry Carless Davis, Ιστορία της μεσαιωνικής Ευρώπης: από τον Μέγα Κωνσταντίνο στον Άγιο Λουδοβίκο, Εκδόσεις Κριτική, Αθήνα, 2011

David Nicholas, Η εξέλιξη του μεσαιωνικού κόσμου: κοινωνία, διακυβέρνηση και σκέψη στην Ευρώπη, 312-1500, Εκδόσεις ΜΙΕΤ, Αθήνα, 1999

Κωνσταντίνος Ράπτης, Γενική Ιστορία της Ευρώπης, ΕΑΠ, Πάτρα, 2000

Ρίκα Μπενβενίστε, Από τους βάρβαρους στους μοντέρνους: κοινωνική ιστορία και ιστοριογραφικά προβλήματα της μεσαιωνικής Δύσης, Εκδόσεις Πόλις, Αθήνα, 2007



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