Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Crisis in the West


Ours is not the first….

Yet if Christendom was flourishing in the Slavic borderlands of the East, it was entering a protracted crisis in the heart of the West.

The Age of Paradise: Christendom from Pentecost to the First Millennium, by John Strickland

The time is the tenth century.  At the same time that the East saw the conversion of Vladimir, the West saw the collapse of papal dignity.  This “protracted crisis” would last for more than a century, only to regain its footing with Leo IX in the middle of the eleventh century and his principle of papal supremacy.  That footing was so strong as to doom any further hope of repairing relations with the East.

In 882, Pope John VIII, a staunch defender of papal authority, was murdered; when poison failed to kill him, a hammer was used to smash his skull.  It isn’t clear why he was murdered, but perhaps a turning to the East – both, perhaps, regarding the filioque and also as a bulwark against further Arab invasions – created powerful enemies in Italy.

Shortly after this, one of the most unthinkable acts in papal history occurred – I guess not really unthinkable, as someone thought to do it.  In 897, Pope Stephen VI ordered the body of his predecessor, Formosus, exhumed and put on trial – an event known as the cadaver synod.  The body of the former pope was fully arrayed in all his vestments, with a deacon at his side acting as his defense.  (I have previously written about this, for those interested; the post includes a painting that captures the gruesome scene.)

The dissolution of the Frankish Empire left the Church without a meaningful defender, left captive to the many disparate factions.  Taking advantage of this void would be the Arabs, and also the Roman aristocracy; Byzantium always loomed large, with its foothold in southern Italy.

Multiple murders, popes driven out of Rome only to return to Rome due to assassinations, the Vatican as a brothel (with the period coming to be known as “pornocracy”), a pope controlled by his mother – all of this in just the first few years of this crisis period. 

Strickland describes one pope as “the most disgraceful of the age”: John XII, the son of Alberic II – through either a concubine or his stepsister – would turn the Lateran Palace into “Christendom’s greatest brothel.”  Prostitutes certainly, but also unsuspecting female pilgrims were said to have been raped.

Meanwhile, Otto the Great, having subdued the Hungarians, was declared emperor by his soldiers; this meant little without papal confirmation, so Otto would cross the Alps for Rome, where John has little choice but to crown Otto.  John would soon after die, in the arms of a married woman, or, alternatively, at the hand of her husband.

Otto, as emperor, would begin to wrest control over the Church in a manner not even achieved during the Carolingian “correction.”  The bishops and abbots of his realm were as lords and knights – his vassals:

When they were appointed to their dioceses through an institution called investiture, they were obliged to prostrate before Otto or his deputy, pledging to solemnly serve the crown with all their strength. 

Within a century, the spiritual degradation that was a result of this consolidation of power would provoke a momentous papal reformation, known as The Gregorian Reforms.  But this was still some time in the future.  In the meantime, bishops were expected to raise armies, just as the lords; they would even be required to bear arms.  In reality, the idea of the emperor ruling the Church was not a new concept: caesaropapism, transplanted from the East to the West.

Henry II, successor to Otto II, would demand the papal Mass be sung in St. Peter’s with the filioque in the creed – a first.  And the pope, weakened tremendously in this period of extreme corruption, would submit – ignoring the Fourth Ecumenical Council’s ban on alterations to the Creed. More than any other act, this would set the stage for what would shortly follow.


Which brings us to the conclusion of this first volume and the eve of the Great Schism:

The Great Schism of 1054 marks the sacramental end to a thousand years of a unitary Christian culture.

Strickland marks this event as the one which would send Western Christendom on its course of innovation that, ultimately, would lead to the decline of Christian culture. 

The single most important cause of the collapse of Christian culture is the loss of confidence in a spiritually transformed cosmos and the experience of human salvation within that cosmos.

Not that Strickland ignores the troubles of the East – the history of the Byzantine state was one of “venality and deceit.”  Violence could be found everywhere.  The Eastern Church, meanwhile, would come to drift into isolation and historical irrelevance.  But Strickland sees signs of this changing today, with Western man looking for the paradise offered in early Christendom.


Strickland makes a point to note that whereas in the West, military engagements were often offensive, in the East these were defensive.  An interesting topic, given that the West ultimately was more successful at warding off Islam than was the East, a topic that raises so many questions about love of enemies and defending Christendom (see here and here for a robust conversation in the comment sections on this topic).


  1. So the Church's moral character was on the ropes in the late 9th and late 15th centuries... I hope the cycle doesn't continue linearly, or else we're just getting started!

    1. Let's hope the clock ran a little fast this time, with the suicide of the West in the Great War in 1914. Then, maybe, we only have a few decades to go....

  2. I believe Alberic II was a secular ruler of Rome, not a pope. He did father Pope John XII. Also, Alberic II's half brother was Pope John XI.