Friday, July 30, 2021

Seeds of Modernity?


The Papal Reformation had altered forever the character of the West.

The Age of Division: Christendom from the Great Schism to the Protestant Reformation, by John Strickland

This reformation occurred during the second half of the eleventh century, spanning the time from the election of Pope Leo IX to the death of Pope Gregory VII.  One must keep in mind the chaos that was Europe and the papacy in the century preceding this: the case of Emperor Otto III at the end of the tenth century; invasions by Vikings, Magyars, Saracens; the Cadaver Synod at the end of the ninth century.

Europe was a mess, the papacy corrupt, the Church corrupted by the nobles.  These realities cannot be discounted when considering Strickland’s views on the downsides to Christendom brought on by such reforms.

A sampling of the reforms, per Strickland: kings ordered to defend the papacy (yet, to what extent could a pope “order” a king, when the king had the military might); soldiers mobilized to extend the reach of the Latin Church; universities founded; and, inquisitions were held.  A mixed bag here, at least how I see it – like many human endeavors even those led by men of goodwill.

In this mix, the Great Schism.  Whereas Christendom (East and West) had grown by humility and repentance and revealed the presence of paradise in this world, in the West paradise and this world were now split in two.

And, on this, I must again refer to a couple of thoughts: the intrigue in the Byzantine court can easily match anything that occurred in the West – either by the papacy or in the position of the western emperor.  Further, the East had lost significant territory and significant numbers of the faithful to Muslim military advances, while the West turned the tide and stopped these Muslim advances both in France (eventually driving Muslims out of Spain) and in southeastern Europe; how to balance humility and also be prepared to defend one’s own has been and remains a difficult issue for Christians and Christendom.

Returning to Strickland: in the West, Christianity transformed to an instrument for engineering a new order:

This was not, to be sure, a secular utopia.  As we shall see, the kingdom of heaven remained its standard of cultural integrity.  But with its instrumental approach to Christianity, it set the West on a course toward modernity.

How did it set the West on this course?  Strickland explains that these changes would subvert the idea of heavenly immanence.  God was no longer working directly in the Church – “Church” being understood as the entire body of believers.  Instead, given the two cities (man and God) and the two classes – cloister and castle – the West attempted to limit God to work only through the Church as the institution. 

An ecclesiological culture thus arose in which heavenly immanence was no longer intrinsic to the divine-human body of Christ.  It was now extrinsically mediated through the clerical – that is human – establishment.

Which, it seems, is one of the things that the Protestant Reformation would come to address.  And I don’t mean to comment on the theological viewpoints, only to try and draw out how such events have impacted later – sometimes centuries later – events.

Strickland returns to the Eastern (and before the eleventh century, Christendom’s) idea of Symphony, described as assigning to “Christian rulers the responsibility of working in harmony with bishops for the good of the Church.”

But it could be violated if the ruler placed earthly priorities before those of the Church.

And, if so, who or what would place a check on the ruler?

It remains my view that this Eastern idea of Symphony is not available to us in a world of fallen man and in a world where the characteristics required for one to rise to emperor are the exact opposite characteristics of those demanded by Christ.  It cannot be claimed that it was sustained or sustainable even in the East.

This is not to say that the division of authority between the Church and the king in the West ever worked perfectly – each institution was led by a human being, after all.  But at least the structure was in place that afforded the possibility of an institutional check of one against the other.

In the meantime, paradise became increasingly institutionalized by the popes, kings, monks, and doctors who led it there.  This was both the genius and the tragedy of the new Christendom.

Without institutions, nothing lasts.  The issue comes down to: how to keep these institutions from being overtaken by corruption?  Or, more appropriately, how to recover these when they inevitably fall into corruption?  And, one can say, what was occurring in the West at this time was precisely the means by which this latter question was being answered – as was also the case in the later and better-known Protestant Reformation eventually resulting in changes to corrupt Church actions.

Not to whitewash the actions of popes, kings, reformers, etc.  But the question remains: how to deal with the corruption that always, eventually, comes into every institution?  It is this question that the West struggled with during this eleventh century period.

In contrasting the governance model in the East (Symphony) with the emerging model in the West (the two cities), Strickland offers that the expression finding form in the West…

…of a distinction “between church and state” …is an absurdity.  All members of the state were members of the Church, and all members of the Church within a given geographical place were members of the same state.

There is much to unpack here.  First is the notion of a “state.”  As long as all laws, judgements, interpretations, and punishments are held by one power, there is a state.  This was basically the case in the East.  Such a thing was moving to fruition in the West under Charlemagne, but his efforts didn’t last beyond a generation or two of his death.

In the West, the idea of a state – a monopoly, as described above – really didn’t take root until after the Protestant Reformation, solidified with the Peace of Westphalia.  Martin Luther was certainly a beneficiary of such a division of authority.  Was the division ever perfectly in balance?  No.  were lines never crossed?  No.  but it was the model at which Western society and governance aimed.

The alternative, the one espoused by Strickland, is the idea of Symphony – the emperor at the head, but listening to and guided by his bishops.  Perhaps I have too little faith, but such a model, it seems clear to me, always ends up with an emperor doing as he pleases, and a church meekly going along.  Witness this reality in the West today.

The Lateran Palace was now the final tribunal for all of Western Christendom.  The pope assumed the status of “universal ordinary,” meaning in the vocabulary of legalists that he was the highest appellate judge.

The pope may have said or “assumed” such a thing, but this didn’t make it so.  The various kings and princes had armies, more significant than anything the pope could command directly.  The pope did hold excommunication over the heads of the kings and princes, but without a military willing to enforce his edicts, the effect of such a tool was primarily dependent on the faith and conscience of the target.


The pontificate of Gregory VII marked a turning point in the political history of the West.  After that time, rulers no longer enjoyed uncontested influence in the religious policies of their realms.

This, for Strickland, is a bad thing.  He sees it as detrimental to the continuing development of Christendom.  Perhaps he is right, perhaps he isn’t.  We do know that the model, to the extent it was utilized in the East, did not really limit corruption in either the Church or the emperor.  We do know that the model was one that was unable to consolidate gains made by Christianity, specifically in North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia.

We do know that the characteristics of one who climbs to emperor (or president or prime minister) are not the same characteristics as one who aspires to live as Christ did.  We do know that all men are fallen, and the least bad solution to deal with this when it comes to governance is to divide authority.


Strickland continues this chapter with a look at the multiple crusades of the West (including disagreements between Church and king about undertaking such endeavors), the conflicts and controversies between Western emperors and kings and the Church, the tool of excommunication, etc. 

Instead of viewing these as a weakness of Christian governance in the West, as Strickland does, I find these checks one against the other as strengths.  The division between Church and king, both under a common Christian culture, gave individuals room to find liberty.


  1. I think that's correct: substantial checks and balances between State(s) and Church (or maybe, civil society in a robust form) instead of what Madison himself views as the often parchment barriers to power set forth in the 1787 Constitution (Federalist 48). You have presented a good summary of how liberty was preserved in the "dark ages", worthy of our present reconsideration.

  2. As for figuring out the "how to recover from corruption" part... lately I've been inching towards the notion that it will take a change of heart in "common people" - i.e. the ones who don't venture far from the mainstream in search of answers.

    And the most likely way that can come about is a tiredness, a boredom, a sense that the rationalist/Progressive/statist paradigm has been played out and any new developments within it begin to feel absurdly contrived ("trying too hard").

    (I keep coming back to Barzun and his "cycles of boredom" - the more I think on it, the better it seems to reconcile human nature with the rise and fall of paradigms.)

    There have been stirrings for decades, but between the latest intersectional insanity, Covidius lockdowns, election shenanigans, experimental drug mandates, etc. I've been spotting "red-pilled" attitudes in places I wouldn't have expected.

    Maybe the time is at hand when paradigms are in flux, and hearts and minds may be won and lost. One litmus test might be adolescents sneering at traditional humanist notions (like, say, "trust in science") with that perennial attitude of "yeah, yeah, I know... look how well THAT worked out!"

    1. There is no human solution to the human condition.

  3. Well, I just started reading Lex Rex by Samuel Rutherford. It is 323 pages written in 17 century English. It is a Protestant tracing the Bible, natural, civil, and divine law to come up with the appropriate structure of government. It is written as a series of questions and answers in the Socratic style. I don't know if I will finish it or how long it will take if I do. But I guess this is my next trail down the path of this topic.