The Fall of Orthodox England – The Ecclesiastical Roots of the Norman Conquest, 1043-1087 (Part 2)

by Vladimir Moss

The Rise of the Heretical Papacy

As the power of the “Holy Roman Emperors” of the West declined in the ninth century, so the power of the Popes increased. Beginning with Nicholas I, they began to claim a quasi-imperial rule over the whole Church, East and West. And this imperial role began more and more to resemble the “imperator-plus-pontifex maximus” role of the pagan Roman emperors: the heresy of Papism was born.


However, for the first eight centuries, every attempt to combine the roles of king and priest in a single person had been decisively rejected by the Popes. Thus when, in 796, Eadbert Praen, an English priest, assumed the crown of the sub-kingdom of Kent for himself, he was immediately rejected by Archbishop Aethelheard of Canterbury and anathematised by Pope Leo III, who wrote that such a priest-king was like Julian the Apostate.[9] But gradually, and with increasing self-assertion, the Popes themselves claimed a kingly power and role.

One of the reasons for this was that after the Western Empire had collapsed after 476 and split up into a number of independent kingdoms, the Church remained united, making her by far the most prominent survival of Christian Romanity in the West. Even the most powerful of the western kings did not command a territory greater than that of a Roman provincial governor, whereas the Pope was not only the undisputed leader of the whole of Western Christendom but also the senior hierarch in the whole of the Church, Eastern and Western. However, as long as the Popes remained both Orthodox in faith and loyal subjects of the Eastern Emperor in politics, – that is, until Pope Stephen’s political break with Byzantium in 756, – the lack of a political power in the West commensurate with the ecclesiastical power of the Popes was not a pressing necessity; for everyone accepted that in the political sphere the Eastern Emperor was the sole basileus of the whole of Christendom, and the western kings were his sons or satraps; while in the ecclesiastical sphere there was no single head, the Body of Christ being overseen by its “five senses”, the five patriarchates, of which Rome was simply the primus inter pares.

But problems arose when Rome broke its last political links with the Eastern Empire and sought a new protector in the Frankish empire of Pepin and Charlemagne. This caused changes in the political ideology of the Franks, on the one hand, who came to see themselves as the real Roman Empire, more Roman and more Orthodox than the Empire of the East; and on the other hand, in the ecclesiology of the Popes, who came to see themselves as the only Church of this renewed Roman Empire, having ultimate jurisdiction over all the Churches in the world. Frankish caesaropapism soon collapsed; but Roman papocaesarism continued to grow until it claimed supreme authority in both Church and State…

In fact, there is a strong argument to be made for the thesis that the ultimate gainer from Charlemagne’s coronation in 800 was not the new emperor, but the Pope. Judith Herrin writes that his “Of the three powers involved in the coronation event of 800, the Roman pontiff emerges as the clear winner in the triangular contest over imperial authority. By seizing the initiative and crowning Charles in his own way, Pope Leo claimed the superior authority to anoint an imperial ruler of the West, which established an important precedent… Later Charles would insist on crowning his own son Louis as emperor, without papal intervention. He thus designated his successor and, in due course, Louis inherited his father’s authority. But the notion that a western rule could not be a real emperor without a papal coronation and acclamation in ancient Rome grew out of the ceremonial devised by Leo III in 800.”[10]

So the foundations were laid for the growth of papal power in the political as well as the ecclesiastical spheres, which growth was especially evident as Carolingian power declined later in the ninth century.

The significant figure here is Pope Nicholas I, whose first task was to establish his supremacy over the Church in the West. However, here an Orthodox ecclesiology still prevailed at the metropolitan and lower levels. Thus the archbishops of Trèves and Cologne replied to an unjust sentence by Nicholas as follows: “Without a council, without canonical inquiry, without accuser, without witnesses, without convicting us by arguments or authorities, without our consent, in the absence of the metropolitans and of our suffragan bishops, you have chosen to condemn us, of your own caprice, with tyrannical fury. But we do not accept your accursed sentence, so repugnant to a father’s or a brother’s love; we despise it as mere insulting language; we expel you yourself from our communion, since you commune with the excommunicate; we are satisfied with the communion of the whole Church and with the society of our brethren whom you despise and of whom you make yourself unworthy by your pride and arrogance. You condemn yourself when you condemn those who do not observe the apostolic precepts which you yourself are the first to violate, annulling as far as in you lies the Divine laws and the sacred canons, and not following in the footsteps of the Popes your predecessors…”[11]

Nicholas did not confine himself to unjustly deposing western bishops: he also deposed St. Photius, Patriarch of Constantinople, whose speedy promotion to the rank of patriarch from the lay state he considered uncanonical (although many holy patriarchs, and the famous St. Ambrose of Milan, had risen to the episcopate as quickly). All this was in accordance with his theory, first put forward in 865, that the Pope had authority “over all the earth, that is, over every other Church”, “the see of Peter has received the total power of government over all the sheep of Christ”. The Emperor Michael III was furious, but Nicholas replied: “The day of king-priests and emperor-pontiffs is past, Christianity has separated the two functions, and Christian emperors have need of the Pope in view of the life eternal, whereas popes have no need of emperors except as regards temporal things.”[12]

This would suggest that Nicholas supported the Orthodox teaching on the separation of the secular and ecclesiastical powers. However, while it was useful for him to preach the Orthodox doctrine in order to limit the power of the emperor, he accepted few, if any, limitations on his own power. He even hinted that the Byzantine emperors might not be legitimate emperors of the Romans, which would imply that the only legitimate emperor was the Frankish one, or, if the forged Donation of Constantine was to be believed, the Pope himself! Thus he said that it was ridiculous for Michael to call himself Roman emperor, since he did not speak Latin.[13]

Then he demanded from the Emperor the return of his territories in the Greek-speaking south of Italy for no other reason than that they had once, centuries before, come within the jurisdiction of the Roman patriarchate: “Give us back the patrimony of Calabria and that of Sicily and all the property of our Church, whereof it held possession, and which it was accustomed to manage by its own attorneys; for it is unreasonable that an ecclesiastical possession, destined for the light and service of the Church of God, should be taken from us by an earthly power.”

Finally, he sent missionaries to Bulgaria, which was deep within the traditionally Byzantine sphere. To add injury to insult, these missionaries preached the heresy of the Filioque to the newly converted Bulgarians. For this reason, a Council convened at Constantinople in 867 presided over by St. Photius, and at which the archbishops of Trèves, Cologne and Ravenna were present, excommunicated and anathematized Nicholas.

Two years later, however, a palace revolution enabled another “anti-Photian” council to be convened, at which the Council of 867 was annulled. Papists have often counted this anti-Photian council as the Eighth Ecumenical – not least, one suspects, because the new Pope, Hadrian II, demanded that all its participants recognized him as “Sovereign Pontiff and Universal Pope”. But a much better claim to ecumenicity can be made for the Great Council convened at Constantinople in 879-80, which four hundred Eastern bishops and the legates of Pope John VIII attended. This Council annulled, under the legates’ signature, the acts of the anti-Photian council. It also made two very important decisions. First, it decreed that there was no papal jurisdiction in the East, although the papal primacy was recognised. And secondly, it reaffirmed the original text of the Nicene Creed without the Filioque, and explicitly condemned all additions to it. So a Roman Pope formally recognised that he had no jurisdiction in the Eastern Church and that the Filioque was a heresy!

(End of Part 2)

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