Faith of Our Fathers, Chapter 12 – Temporal Power of the Popes

photograph of Cardinal James Gibbons taken no later than 1915, location and photographer unknown; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsHow The Popes Acquired Temporal Power

For the clearer understanding of the origin and the gradual growth of the Temporal Power of the Popes, we may divide the history of the Church into three great epochs.

The first embraces the period which elapsed from the establishment of the Church to the days of Constantine the Great, in the fourth century; the second, from Constantine to Charlemagne, who was crowned Emperor in the year 800; the third, from Charlemagne to the present time.

When Saint Peter, the first Pope in the long, unbroken line of Sovereign Pontiffs, entered Italy and Rome he did not possess a foot of ground which he could call his own. He could say with his Divine Master: “The foxes have holes and the birds of the air nests, but the Son of Man hath not whereon to lay his head.” The Apostle died as he had lived, a poor man, having nothing at his death save the affections of a grateful people.

But, although the Prince of the Apostles owned nothing that he could call his personal property, he received from the faithful large donations to be distributed among the needy. For in the Acts of the Apostles we are told that “neither was anyone among them (the faithful) needy; for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things which they sold and laid them before the feet of the Apostles, and distribution was made to everyone according as he had need.” Such was the filial attachment of the early Christians towards the Pontiffs of the Church; such was the confidence reposed in their personal integrity, and in their discretion in dispensing the charity of the faithful.

During the first three hundred years the Pastors of the Church were generally incapable of holding real estate in Rome; for Christianity was yet a proscribed religion, and the faithful were exposed to the most violent and unrelenting persecutions that have ever darkened the annals of history.

The Christians of Rome worshiped for the most part in the catacombs. These catacombs are subterranean chambers and passages under the city of Rome. They extend for miles in different directions, and are visited to this day by thousands of strangers. Here the primitive Christians prayed together, here they encouraged one another to martyrdom, here they died and were buried; so that these caverns served at the same time as temples of worship for the living and as tombs for the dead.

At last Constantine the Great brought peace to the Church. The long night of Pagan persecution was succeeded by the bright dawn of religious liberty, and as our Blessed Savior rose triumphant from the grave, after having lain there for three days, so did our early brethren in the faith emerge from the tombs of the catacombs, after having been buried, as it were, in the bowels of the earth for three centuries.

Constantine gave to the Roman Church munificent donations of money and real estate, which were augmented by additional grants contributed by subsequent emperors. Hence the patrimony of the Roman Pontiffs soon became very considerable. Voltaire himself tells us that the wealth which the Popes acquired was spent not in satisfying their own avarice and ambition, but in the most laudable works of charity and religion. They expended their patrimony, he says, in sending missionaries to evangelize Pagan Europe, in giving hospitality to exiled Bishops at Rome and in feeding the poor. And I may here add that succeeding Popes have generously imitated the munificence of the early Pontiffs.

An event occurred in the reign of Constantine which paved the way for the partial jurisdiction which the Roman Pontiffs commenced to enjoy over Rome, and which they continued to exercise till they obtained full sovereignty in the days of King Pepin of France.

In the year 327 the Emperor Constantine transferred the seat of empire from Rome to Constantinople, the present capital of Turkey. The city was named after Constantine, who founded it. A subsequent emperor appointed a governor, or exarch, to rule Italy, who resided in the city of Ravenna. This new system, as is manifest, did not work well. The Emperor of Constantinople referred all matters to his deputy in Ravenna, and the deputy was more anxious to conciliate the Emperor than to satisfy the people of Rome. Italy and Rome were then in a political condition analogous to that in which the Irish were placed for several centuries.

Abandoned to itself, Rome became a tempting prey to those numerous hordes of Barbarians from the North that then devastated Italy. The city was successively attacked by the Goths under Alaric, and by the Vandals under Genseric, and was threatened by the Huns under Attila. Unable to obtain assistance from the Emperor in the East, or the Governor at Ravenna, the citizens of Rome looked up to the Popes as their only Governors and protectors, and their only salvation in the dangers which threatened them. The confidence which they reposed in the Pontiffs was not misplaced. The Popes were not only devoted spiritual Fathers, but firm and valiant civil Governors. When Attila, who was surnamed “the Scourge of God,” approached the city with an army of 500,000 men, Pope Leo the Great went out to meet him unattended by troops. His mild eloquence disarmed the indomitable chieftain and induced him to retrace his steps. Thus he saved the city from pillage and the people from destruction. The same Pope Leo also confronted Genseric, the leader of the Vandals; and although he could not this time protect Rome from the plunder of the soldiers he saved the lives of the citizens from slaughter. Such acts as these were naturally calculated to bind the Roman people more strongly to the Popes and to alienate them from their nominal rulers.

In the early part of the eighth century Leo Isauricus, one of the successors of Constantine on the imperial throne, not content with his civil authority, endeavored, like Henry VIII, to usurp spiritual jurisdiction, and, like the same English monarch, sought to rob the people of their time-honored sacred traditions. A civil ruler dabbling in religion is as reprehensible as a clergyman dabbling in politics. Both render themselves odious as well as ridiculous. The Emperor commanded all paintings of our Savior and His saints to be removed from the churches on the assumption that such an exhibition was an act of idolatry. Pope Gregory II wrote to the Emperor an energetic remonstrance, reminding him that “dogmas of faith are to be interpreted by the Pontiffs of the Church and not by emperors,” and begging him to spare the sacred paintings. But the Pope’s remonstrance and entreaties were in vain. This conduct of the Emperor tended to widen still more the breach between himself and the Roman people.

Soon after an event occurred which abolished forever the authority of the Byzantine Emperors in Italy, and established on a sure and lasting basis the temporal sovereignty of the Popes.

In 754 Astolphus, King of the Lombards, invaded Italy, captured some Italian cities and threatened to advance on Rome.

Pope Stephen III, who then ruled the Church, sent an urgent appeal to the Emperor Constantine Copronymus, successor of Leo the Isaurian, imploring him to come to the relief of Rome and his Italian provinces. The Emperor manifested his usual apathy and indifference and received the message with coldness and neglect.

In this emergency Stephen, who sees that no time is to be lost, crosses the Alps in person, approaches Pepin, King of France, and begs that powerful monarch to protect the Italian people, who were utterly abandoned by those that ought to be their defenders. The pious King, after paying his homage to the Pope, sets out for Italy with his army, defeats the invading Lombards and places the Pope at the head of the conquered provinces.

Charlemagne, the successor of Pepin, not only confirms the grant of his father, but increases the temporal domain of the Pope by donating him some additional provinces.

This small piece of territory the Roman Pontiffs continued to govern from that time till 1870, with the exception of brief intervals of foreign usurpation. And certainly, if ever any Prince merited the appellation of legitimate sovereign, that title is eminently deserved by the Bishops of Rome.

The Validity and Justice of Their Title

There are three titles which render the tenure of a Prince honest and incontestable, viz., long possession, legitimate acquisition and a just use of the original grant confided to him. The Bishop of Rome possessed his temporality by all these titles.

First – The temporal dominion of the Pope is most ancient in point of time. He commenced, as we have seen, to enjoy full sovereignty about the middle of the eighth century. The Pope was, consequently, a temporal ruler for upwards of 1,100 years. The Papal dynasty is, therefore, the oldest in Europe, and probably in the world. The Pope was the temporal ruler of Rome four hundred years before England subjugated Ireland, and seven hundred before the first European pressed his foot on the American continent.

Second – His civil authority was established not by the sword of conquest, nor the violence of usurpation. He did not mount the throne upon the ruins of outraged liberties or violated treaties; but he was called to rule by the unanimous voice of a grateful people. Always the devoted spiritual Father of Rome, he providentially became its civil defender; and the temporal power he had possessed already by popular suffrage was ratified and sanctioned by the sovereign act of the Frankish monarch. In a word, the ship of state was in danger of being engulfed beneath the fierce waves of foreign invasion. The captain, meantime, folded his arms and abandoned the ship to her fate. The Pope was called to the helm in the emergency, and he saved the vessel from shipwreck and the people from destruction. Hence, even Gibbon, the English historian, who cannot be suspected of partiality, has the candor to use the following language in discussing this subject: “Their (the Pope’s) temporal dominion is now confirmed by the reverence of a thousand years, and their noblest title is the free choice of a people whom they had redeemed from slavery.”

Third – What is the use or advantage of the temporal power? This is well worth considering, as many have erroneous notions on the subject.

The object is not to aggrandize or enrich the Pope. He ascends the Papal chair generally an old man, when human passion and human ambition, if any did exist, are on the wane. His personal expenses do not exceed a few dollars a day. He eats alone and very abstemiously. He has no wife, no children to enrich with the spoils of office, as he is an unmarried man. The Popedom is not hereditary, like the sovereignty of England, but elective, like the office of our President, and the Holy Father is succeeded by a Pontiff to whom he was bound by no family ties. What personal motive, therefore, can he have in desiring temporal sovereignty? I am sure, indeed, that if the Holy Father were to consult his own taste and feelings, he would much rather be free from the trammels of civil government. But he has higher interests to subserve. He must vindicate the eternal laws of justice which have been violated in his own person.

As the Popes were not actuated by a love of gain in possessing temporal dominion, neither had they any desire to enlarge their territory, small as it was. The temporalities of the Pope were not much larger than the State of Maryland before he was deprived of them by Victor Emmanuel a few years ago.

And this is the little slice of land which Victor Emmanuel wrested from the Holy Father. This is the vineyard which the modern King Achab wrung from the unoffending Naboth. But the Pontiff answers, like Naboth of old: “The Lord be merciful to me, and not let me give thee the inheritance of my fathers.”

This is the little ewe-lamb which the modern David has snatched from Uriah, its legitimate owner. The royal shepherd of Piedmont had already seized all the other lambs and sheep of his neighbors; but he was not satisfied till he added to his fold the solitary, tender lamb of the Pope. Let him take care, however, that the prophecy denounced by Nathan against David fall not upon himself and his posterity: “Why, therefore, hast thou despised the word of the Lord, to do evil in My sight? Therefore the sword shall never depart from thy house, because thou hast despised Me. Behold, I will raise up evil against thee out of thy own house.”

While the patrimony of the Pope was large enough to secure his independence, it was too small to provoke the fear and jealousy of foreign powers. The authority of the Roman Pontiffs in the Middle Ages was almost unbounded. Had they wished then, they could easily have increased their territory; yet they were content with what Providence placed originally in their hands.

The sole end of the temporal power has been to secure for the Pope independence and freedom in the government of the Church. The Holy Father must be either a sovereign or a subject. There is no medium. If a subject, he might become either the pliant creature, if God would so permit, of his royal master, like the schismatic Patriarch of Constantinople, who, as Gibbon observed, was “a domestic slave under the eye of his master, at whose nod he passed from the convent to the throne, and from the throne to the convent.” And, indeed, the Oriental schismatic Bishops are as subservient now as they were then to their temporal rulers. Or, what is far more probable, the Pope might become a virtual prisoner in his own house, as the present illustrious Pontiff is at this moment.

The Pope is the representative of Christ on earth. His office requires him to be in constant communication with prelates in every country in the world. Should the kingdom of Italy be embroiled in a war with any European Power – with Germany, for instance – it would be difficult, if not impossible, for the Holy Father and the German Bishops to confer with each other, and religion would suffer from the interruption of intercourse between the Head and the members.

The interests of Christianity demand that the Vicar of the Prince of Peace should possess one spot of territory which would be held inviolable, so that all nations and peoples could at all times, in war, as well as in peace, freely correspond with him. Nothing can be more revolting to our feelings than that the spiritual government of the Church should be constantly hampered by the hostile aggressions of ambitious rulers, an eventuality always likely to occur so long as the Pope remains the subject of any earthly potentate.

But we are told that the Roman people, by a plebiscitum, or popular vote, expressed their desire to be annexed to the Piedmontese Government. To this I answer, in the first place, that we ought to know what importance to attach to elections held under the shadow of the bayonet. It is well known that the Roman plebiscitum was undertaken by the authority and guided by the inspiration of the Italian troops. It is equally notorious that the numerous stragglers who accompanied the Italian army to Rome legalized the gigantic fraud of their master, as well as their own petty thefts, by voting in favor of annexation.

In the second place, the Roman people, even had they so desired, had no right to transfer, by their suffrage, the Patrimony of Saint Peter to Victor Emmanuel. They could not give what did not belong to them. The Papal territory was granted to the Popes in trust, for the use and benefit of the Church – that is, for the use and benefit of the Catholics of Christendom. The Catholic world, therefore, and not merely a handful of Roman subjects, must give its consent before such a transfer can be declared legitimate. Rome is to Catholic Christendom what Washington is to the United States. As the citizens of Washington have no power, without the concurrence of the United States, to annex their city to Maryland or Virginia, neither can the citizens of Rome hand over their city to the Kingdom of Piedmont without the acquiescence of the faithful dispersed throughout the world.

We protest, therefore, against the occupation of Rome by foreign troops as a high-handed act of injustice, and a gross violation of the Commandment, “Thou shalt not steal.”

We protest against it as a royal outrage, calculated to shock the public sense of honesty, and to weaken the sacred right of public and private property.

We protest against it as an unjustifiable violation of solemn treaties.

We protest, in fine, against the spoliation as an impious sacrilege, because it is an unholy seizure of ecclesiastical property, and an attempt, as far as human agencies can accomplish it, to trammel and embarrass the free action of the Head of the Church.

What The Popes Have Done for Rome

Although the temporal power of the Pope is a subject which concerns the universal Church, no nation has more reason to lament the loss of the Holy Father’s temporalities than the Italians themselves, and particularly the inhabitants of Rome.

It is the residence of the Popes in Rome that has contributed to her material and religious grandeur. The Pontiffs have made her the Centre of Christendom, the Queen of religion, the Mistress of arts and sciences, the Depository of sacred learning.

By their creative and conservative spirit they have saved the illustrious monuments of the past, and, side by side with these, they have raised up Christian temples which surpass those of Pagan antiquity. In looking today at these old Roman monuments we know not which to admire more – the genius of those who designed and erected them, or the fostering care of the Popes who have preserved from destruction the venerable ruins. The residence of the Popes in Rome has made her what she is truly called, “The Eternal City.”

Let the Popes leave Rome forever, and in five years grass will be growing on its streets.

Such was the case at the return of the Pope, in 1418, from Avignon, which had been the seat of the Sovereign Pontiffs during the preceding century. On the Pope’s return the city of Rome had a population of only 17,000188 and Avignon, which, during the residence of the Popes in the fourteenth century contained a population of 100,000, has now a population of only 36,407 inhabitants. Such, also, was the case in the beginning of the present century, when Pius VII was an exile for four years from Rome, and a prisoner of the first Napoleon, in Grenoble, Savona and Fontainebleau. Grass then grew on the streets of Rome, and the city lost one-half of its population.

Rome has naturally no commercial attractions. It is only the presence of the Pope that keeps up her trade. Let the Popes abandon Rome, and her churches will soon be without worshipers; her artists without employment. Her glorious monuments will perish. Science and art and sacred literature will take their flight and perch upon some more favored spot. The hundred thousand and more strangers who annually flock to Rome from different parts of the world will shake off the dust from their feet and seek more congenial cities.

Let the Popes withdraw from Rome, and it may become almost as desolate as Jerusalem and Antioch are today.

Peter preached his first sermons in Jerusalem, but he did not select it as his See; and Jerusalem is today a Mahometan city, with its sacred places profaned by the foot of the Mussulman.

Peter occupied for a time the city of Antioch as his first See. But, in the mysterious providence of God, he abandoned Antioch and repaired to Rome; and now, little remains of the ancient Antioch of Peter’s day except colossal ruins.

Had the Popes remained in Antioch, Syria would now very probably be, instead of Europe, the centre of Christianity and civilization. The immortal Dome of Saint Peter’s would, doubtless, overshadow the banks of the Orontes instead of the Tiber; and Antioch, not Rome, would be the focus of art, science, and sacred literature, and would be called today “The Eternal City.”

Our present beloved Pontiff, Pius IX, I need not inform you, is now treated with indignity in his own city. In his declining years, as well as in the early days of his Pontificate, he is made to drink deep of the chalice of affliction. His name is dear to us all. To many of us it is a name familiar from our youth; for thirty-one years have now elapsed since he first assumed the reins of government; and it is a noteworthy fact that, since the days of Peter, no Pope has ever reigned so long as Pius IX.

The Pope in every age, like his Divine Master, has his period of persecution and his period of peace. Like Him, he has his days of sorrow and his days of joy, his days of humiliation and death, his days of exaltation and glory. Like Jesus Christ, he is one day greeted with acclamations as king, and another day crucified by his enemies.

But never does the Holy Father exhibit his title as Vicar of Christ more strikingly than in the midst of tribulations. If he did not suffer, he would bear no resemblance to his Divine Model and Master; and never does he more worthily deserve the filial homage of his children than when he is heavily laden with the cross.

I envy neither the heart nor the head of those men who are now gloating with fiendish joy over the calamities of the Pope; who are heaping insults and calumnies on his venerable head, while he is in the hands of his enemies, and who are confidently predicting the downfall of the Papacy, from the present situation of the Head of the Church, as if the temporary privation of his dominions involved their irrevocable loss; or, as if even the perpetual destruction of the temporal power involved the destruction of the spiritual supremacy itself. “The Papacy,” they say, “is gone. Its glory is vanished. Its sun is set. It is sunk below the horizon, never to rise again.” Ill-boding prophets, will you never profit by the lessons of history? Have not numbers of Popes before Pius IX been forcibly ejected from their See, and have they not been reinstated in their temporal authority? What has happened so often before may and will happen again.

For our part we have every confidence that ere long the clouds which now overshadow the civil throne of the Pope will be removed by the breath of a righteous God, and that his temporal power will be re-established on a more permanent basis than ever.

But whatever be the fate of the Pope’s temporalities, we have no fears for the spiritual throne of the Papacy. The Pontiffs have received their earthly dominion from man, and what man gives man may take away. But the spiritual supremacy the Bishops of Rome have from God, and no man can destroy it. That Divine charter of their prerogatives, “Thou art Peter, and on this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it,” will ever shine forth as brightly as the sun, and it is as far as the sun above the reach of human aggression.

The Holy Father may live and die in the catacombs, as the early Pontiffs did for the first three centuries. He may be dragged from his See and perish in exile, like the Martins, the Gregories and the Piuses. He may wander a penniless pilgrim, like Peter himself. Rome itself may sink beneath the Mediterranean; but the chair of Peter will stand, and Peter will live in his successors.

– text taken from The Faith of Our Fathers, Being a Plain Exposition and Vindication of the Church Founded by Our Lord Jesus Christ, by Cardinal James Gibbons, Archbishop of Baltimore, 1917