Friday, May 07, 2010

The Spirit of the Roman Church

Paul had to caution them in Romans 16: "I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions [Greek: "dissensions"] and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive. For your obedience is known to all, so that I rejoice over you, but I want you to be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil. The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet."

The emperor Claudius had ejected "the Jews" from Rome for "fighting" over "Chrestus". Even in Paul's day, there was tension. Clement alluded to "jealousies" at the time of Peter and Paul, that led to their deaths.

Throughout the first half of the second century, the Roman church was led by a network of presbyters in a network of house churches, and these presbyters fought among themselves as to who was greatest. I've quoted Hermas from "The Shepherd of Hermas as saying, "They had a certain jealousy of one another over questions of preeminence and about some kind of distinction. But they are all fools to be jealous of one another regarding preeminence.”

This fighting continued on and on.
"In 235, two rival bishops of Rome, Pontianus (230-235) and Hippolytus (c.217-235) were exiled from the city by the emperor Maximin 1 because of street fighting between their followers." (Roger Collins, "Keepers of the Keys of the Kingdom," pg. 25)

and …
"Because of the house-church system, such rival bishops could co-exist for as long as they had the backing of some of the city's many Christian groups. But the divisions usually resulted in violent clashes between the partisans of the two claimants, and in all cases the imperial government intervened to end the bloodshed and to send one or both of the rivals into exile, as happened in 235, and would do so again in 306/7 and 308." (Collins 26)

Note that in 150 they were fighting, and in 235 they were fighting, and in 306-308 they were still fighting. See a pattern? These last two incidents mentioned were during the fierce period of persecution known as "the Great Persecution," brought on by the emperor Diocletian and continued under his successors, until Constantine.

The pattern continued; as I mentioned, Damasus, "a man of much practical shrewdness and self-assertive energy" (Shotwell and Loomis, pg 595), became pope as his followers "launched an assault on the Julian basilica, seizing control of it after three days of streetfighting. When the backers of Ursinus (Damasus's opponent) occupied the Liberian basilica, it too was stormed. In the aftermath of the fighting, a neutral contemporary reported that the bodies of 137 men and women were found in the church." Collins 52). This last datum was originally reported by Owen Chadwick, "Catholicism and History: The Opening of the Vatican Archives, Cambridge 1978, pgs 110-116.

This is one reason, Matthew Bellisario, why your 19th century historians are not likely to have the whole story of the early papacy.

I doubt that we have it now, but we know more today than "the faithful" did in the 19th century.


Viisaus said...

Damasus seems to have been among the first "renaissance popes."

That is, prelates whose conduct resembled more HBO's "Rome" series than "Quo Vadis".

Pagan historian Ammianus Marcellinus wrote in late 4th century (book 27, c. 3):

"13. Ultimately Damasus got the best of the strife by the strenuous efforts of his partisans. It is certain that on one day one hundred and thirty-seven dead bodies were found in the Basilica of Sicininus, which is a Christian church. And the populace who had been thus roused to a state of ferocity were with great difficulty restored to order.

14. I do not deny, when I consider the ostentation that reigns at Rome, that those who desire such rank and power may be justified in labouring with all possible exertion and vehemence to obtain their wishes; since after they have succeeded, they will be secure for the future, being enriched by offerings from matrons, riding in carriages, dressing splendidly, and feasting luxuriously, so that their entertainments surpass even royal banquets.

15. And they might be really happy if, despising the vastness of the city, which they excite against themselves by their vices, they were to live in imitation of some of the priests in the provinces, whom the most rigid abstinence in eating and drinking, and plainness of apparel, and eyes always cast on the ground, recommend to the everlasting Deity and his true worshippers as pure and sober-minded men."

Throughout the Middle Ages, Rome remained a considerably more "pagan" place than the rest of Europe. As Whig historian Macaulay poetically put it:

"Happily the public mind of Italy had long contained the seeds of free opinions, which were now rapidly developed by the genial influence of free institutions. The people of that country had observed the whole machinery of the Church, its saints and its miracles, its lofty pretensions, and its splendid ceremonial, its worthless blessings and its harmless curses, too long and too closely to be duped. They stood behind the scenes on which others were gazing with childish awe and interest. They witnessed the arrangement of the pulleys, and the manufacture of the thunders. They saw the natural faces, and heard the natural voices, of the actors. Distant nations looked on the Pope as the vicegerent of the Almighty, the oracle of the All-Wise, the umpire from whose decisions, in the disputes either of theologians or of kings, no Christian ought to appeal. The Italians were acquainted with all the follies of his youth, and with all the dishonest arts by which he had attained power. They knew how often he had employed the keys of the Church to release himself from the most sacred engagements, and its wealth to pamper his mistresses and nephews. The doctrines and rites of the established religion they treated with decent reverence. But, though they still called themselves Catholics, they had ceased to be papists. Those spiritual arms which carried terror into the palaces and camps of the proudest sovereigns excited only contempt in the immediate neighborhood of the Vatican. Alexander, when he commanded our Henry II to submit to the lash before the tomb of a rebellious subject, was himself an exile. The Romans, apprehending that he entertained designs against their liberties, had driven him from their city; and, though he solemnly promised to confine himself for the future to his spiritual functions, they still refused to readmit him."

Andrew said...


I am really enjoying your presence here.

John Bugay said...

Thanks Andrew. I very much appreciate your thoughts, and I'm glad you're participating here. Please let me know if there's ever anything I can do for you.

John Bugay said...

Viisaus -- you've pretty much hit the nail on the head. Damasus has also been described as a "ladies man" and an ear-tickler. Eamon Duffy, in his "Saints and Sinners, History of the Popes," really goes into some detail about this sort of thing. I hope to be able to post some of that in the near future. But you've captured it perfectly here.