Roman Catholic Church
History of Christianity
This article is the 8th episode of a series on the History of Christianity. The first section was entitled Origin of Christianity 33 to 100 AD; and the episode before this one is History about Christianity 787 to 900 AD.
The Devil, always able to detect human weakness, attacked the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church with ferocity in the 10th Century. In 897, Pope Formosus was charged with perjury and covetousness—nine months after his death. His corpse was dug up, dressed in his papal uniform and seated on a throne by his successor, to face the charges. Found guilty, after exercising his right to silence, he was stripped and thrown into the Tiber River. His inquisitor, Pope Stephen VI, was soon strangled. The next pope was in power four months; and the next only twenty days. Soon there was Pope Sergius III, who murdered the other two popes to ascend to the papacy; and who fathered, by a 15-year-old girl, an illegitimate son—who later became Pope John XI.
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In 924, Pope John X was suffocated with a pillow. In 954, the illegitimate son of Pope Alberic was made Pope John XII—and he was the worst of the lot. He opened a whorehouse in the papal palace; habitually hosted drunken orgies; committed incest; was an adulterer; and was known to sexually assault his visitors. It was he who started the practice of assuming a pseudonym once elected to the papacy.
Otto the Great (912-973) inherited the kingship of Germany in 936 and ascended to the throne of Holy Roman Empire in 962. Every subsequent king of Germany descended from Otto. When the illegitimate Pope Philagathos took the papacy in 997, Otto III descended on Rome to unseat him. For good measure, Otto III cut off his hands, ears, nose, and tongue; and gouged out his eyes.
The 10th Century was not all bad news for the Roman Catholic Church. Duke William of Aquitaine founded the venerable monastery at Cluny in 910, widely acknowledged as the exemplar of western monasticism. Cluny Abbot barred politics and elected as their leaders the most holy men they could find. They returned to a strict adherence to the Benedictine rulebook, which had been relaxed over the years. Cluny sparked a religious revival inside and outside its walls, as well as building the most important library in France. It created a network of 314 monasteries from Spain to Poland. The Cluny archives were burned and its buildings destroyed by the Atheists at the heart of the French Revolution in 1790.
A great Archbishop arose in England named Dunstan (909-980). Dunstan reformed the church and monasteries in England. Besides being an extraordinary Christian and theologian—who worked tirelessly for widows and orphans, restored churches and established schools—he was a marvelous craftsman of church bells and organs; an accomplished musician and painter; and a sought after jeweler. He is the patron saint of goldsmiths.
The feudal system was to leave a profound stamp on Western Civilization regarding speech; manners, property rights; the rule of law; emphasis on contracts; the balance between rights and responsibilities; the importance of mutual trust and keeping one's word; and the relationship between those who govern and those who are governed.
Vladimir the Great
Meanwhile, Christianity continued to spread its message of Faith, Hope and Love to Central and Eastern Europe. Vladimir of Kiev converted in 988; dismissed 4 of his 5 wives and all 800 of his concubines; had his people baptized en masse; sent missionaries into the countryside to teach the new faith and demolish heathen shrines; and filled Ukraine and Russia with churches and monasteries. Henceforth, Ukraine and Russia would be powerful members of Christendom.
Symeon the New Theologian
Over in Constantinople, an exceptionally brilliant theologian arose, later named Symeon the New Theologian (one qualified to talk about God). He did not consider it possible to rationally understand God but he had powerful mystical experiences of God that led to his writings espousing the view that human beings should experience God directly and personally. He criticized the prevalent view that simply being baptized would provide salvation if one was still living a sinful life. He insisted a person must be baptized in the Holy Spirit and transformed into the likeness of Christ.
Symeon said, "Among tens of thousands you will hardly find one who is a Christian in both word and deed."
Thankfully, a century had come to an end that had been filled with bizarre deeds of amorality, greed, brutality, and murder among the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church. There were other problems extant including simony (paying money for church offices or worse—to buy the gift of the Holy Spirit); and the veneration of relics had made the market for the bones of saints so lucrative that there were more bones than saints. The Church would reform in the 11th Century, ushering in 300 years of good popes; but serious division was brewing between East and West regarding the use of leavened bread, celibacy among the clergy, and whether the Holy Spirit also proceeds from Jesus.
New Years Eve 999, many Europeans assumed the world would end that night. It didn't.
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There was no flourishing of Christian scholarship in the 10th Century. But 900 to 1100 is considered the "monastic period" and in the monasteries Christianity was very strong and focused on Christ as the source of all good.
The penitential system of the Church was developing at this time, with penance as a way to make satisfaction to the Lord, required as a consequence of human sin.
Critics of the Church, especially the Jews, accused Christians of idolatry for adoring the cross. The defenders of the faith responded that they were not adoring the cross itself or the material of the cross, but the Lord's body that was placed on the cross. The sign of the cross was an essential part of the liturgy of the Mass and at baptism. Demons and lusts were driven away by the sign of the cross. The cross was the instrument of victory by Christ over the devil. God sent his Son to conquer Satan. This requires taking seriously the role of the devil as a third party to the transaction that took place between God and man in the redemption of humankind. Together with the cross, it was the name of Jesus that became the object of mystical contemplation.
Christian thought continued to be refined in consideration of the paradox of free will and predestination; the nature of God; the redemptive work on the cross; and examination of how the relation of mankind to God and to the devil was changed by the death of Christ.
I will give some examples of the theology of the times.
The Gospels are the most important of all the things that are said in the Mass. The Mass began with songs and prayers, whose sweetness and pleasantness would first soften the hearts of the hearers, so that the people, after hearing the melody of a pleasant song and having had their attention focused on spiritual things through the repentance of their minds, will take up the saving words of the Gospel with ardent interest. (Remigius 841-908)
Odo of Cluny
The judgments and mercies of God are too profound for the human mind to plumb. His goodness cannot be exhausted, His mercy not consumed, His knowledge not incomplete, His power cannot fail.
Christ was the lover of humanity. Man did not need only to be redeemed but also to be instructed about how he ought to live after redemption. Acceptance of such instruction is the hallmark of true discipleship.
The one resource that could preserve the equanimity of the wise man amid all the troubles of this world was meditation on the Scripture, which contains everything that there was to know about God and about the self. Since it is the purpose of all Scripture to act as a restraint against the evils of the present life, it addressed itself to the human condition in two ways; either by consoling us or by warning us.
We are truly worthy of Christ if we, like Him, had grounds for pride and attained the height of power, but nevertheless remained humble. He was the model of how to bear the contempt of men. He had become a man so that human beings could not dismiss His virtues as something beyond the realm of possibility. The eyes of the faithful are to be intent on Him.
The three monastic vows—poverty, chastity, and obedience—were clearly present in the specific ways in which Christ served as example. The ideal of chastity is part of following the example of Christ, who taught that one who takes up His cross has never made provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
Those who refuse to acknowledge Christ on Earth will suffer an endless hell. The Lord of history will establish a new Earth on which the resurrected saints will dwell. (Odo of Cluny 878-942)
What is better news than the things that are said in the Gospel about the incarnation of the Son of God, about His miracles, His preaching, His resurrection, and His ascension?
To be truly a disciple of Jesus and one to whom Jesus speaks, one must truly love the discipline of Jesus. The discipline of Jesus included the total span of human experience as this was to be brought into conformity with the divine will that had been revealed through the incarnation of the Son of God in a fully human life, all of which was pertinent to the human lives that it was intended to redeem and renew.
The fundamental definition of a Christian is one who obeys the will of Christ; reads the Bible; wishes to be with God always; prays frequently. Although the crucifixion was sometimes viewed as the victory of Christ over the devil and other enemies—and the descent into hell and the resurrection even more—the ascension was especially suited to this theme. (Ratherius 890-974)
Jesus was the high priest of humanity who was free from sin and therefore an acceptable sacrifice to atone for the sins of humankind. God is a being which can subsist without any other; but nothing can exist at any time or in any place without the presence of God. God transcends the law of nature and nature is the very will of God. All who are saved are saved by the kindness of His grace alone, which transcends human comprehension. Christ should be imitated in all respects. If we claim to abide in Him, we must walk as He walked. (Othlo 1010-1072)
People should be in awe of the presence of their infinite Creator. There is no escape from His justice and His will. Humanity had dishonored God when it denied Him the honor that was due Him. In requiring restoration of that honor, God was not acting in a bloodthirsty manner, as some have charged, but in a manner appropriate to His nature and consistent with His justice.
The justice of God had been violated by the failure of man to render to God what he owed Him. The Justice of God also made it impossible for God to forgive this sin by mere fiat, for this would have been a violation of the very order of the universe that God had to uphold to be consistent with Himself and with His justice.
God did not need to suffer on the cross but man needed to be reconciled through such suffering. God is free of any necessity. What the justice of God demanded, the mercy of God supplied, because the sinner has nothing with which to make satisfaction. If Jesus had been only God and not also a man, He would not have been able to achieve salvation through satisfaction since the divine nature was incapable of suffering or humiliation, not to speak of dying. If he would not have been God but merely a man, his obedience would have availed for himself alone.
Because Christ did not have to die unless He willed to do so and because He was free of all sin, His voluntary acceptance of death and of the punishment that men had deserved was the means by which salvation was accomplished. Christ was motivated not by any debt but by the honor of the Father and the plight of humankind. It was the intention of this Just God in the act of creation to make a just and blessed rational creature that would enjoy Him.
The task of the Christian message is to induce in the hearer an accurate self-knowledge; for through the knowledge of self one comes to the knowledge of God. Man can be saved through the mystery of the Incarnation of Christ or not at all. The natural free will always assists the gift of divine grace in salvation. Nevertheless, grace receives the credit, for without it free will could not attain to salvation.
The union of the divine and human natures in Christ made the atonement and satisfaction possible, in that whatever was necessary to be done for the restoration of men, the divine nature did it if the human nature could not, and the human nature did it if it was not fitting for the divine. In His association with them He was teaching them by word how they ought to live, and would provide Himself as an example for them.
Satan was a proud spirit in relation to God—and always malevolent in relation to us—who believed it was better to reign in hell than serve in heaven. He successfully tempted man to share in his fate. Man had permitted himself to be so easily vanquished by him through sinning. (Anselm 1033-1109).
God had been urged by His love to descend to Earth, and He who is consubstantial with the Father has through His love deigned to come to us. We are justified by His blood. The only Son of God became incarnate to liberate us from the servitude of sin and the yoke of the devil, and thus by His death to open the door for us to eternal life. (Peter Abelard 1079-1142)
Saint Bernard of Clairvaux
On Earth, we are in the school of Christ. Christ must have used his human feelings and sense experiences as a means of access to the human condition, becoming compassionate through personal acquaintance with the misery and weakness of man. A principle cause of the incarnation was the need of man to have, in concrete historical form, the embodiment of the invisible God in the real events of a human life.
These events collected from all the anxieties and bitter experiences of the life of Christ, were a source of instruction and of consolation to the believer, who was sustained by the example of our Savior in His sufferings and in His life. Each event had a special message: His virgin birth was a disclosure of purity; His life revealed the sinlessness of His character, His teaching conveyed the unalloyed truth.
Christ was proof of divine love. There is no greater compassion than this, that one should lay down his life for those who had been sentenced and condemned. The effect of redemption is that men learned to love.
Some are drawn to Christ by their desire for wisdom, some by their need for forgiveness, some by the example of His life. But for each of these groups and for all levels of men, it was the crucifixion that served as the revelation of the way and the will of God, even for those who were not able to penetrate the mysteries of that will.
Take away free will and there is nothing that needs to be saved. Take away grace and there is no way to save it.
The godless were giving themselves over to consumption and enjoyment; what was waiting for them was consummation and judgment. Only because Christ was both Judge and Savior, both just and merciful, could He be truly either one. Mercy without justice would make the sinner presumptuous; justice without mercy would make him despondent. (Bernard of Clairvaux 1090-1153)