Understanding the Catholic Church’s Rise to Power

Emperor Constantine the Great

As I said in my last post, the historical stage had already been set for Luther when he came out swinging with his 95 theses.

What was that stage? What was it that really propelled Luther out of the relative seclusion of his monastery and university to be one of the leading voices calling for reform within the church?

It was the state the Catholic church had reached in regard to its claims both to spiritual authority and temporal power.

The Mixture of Church and State

But how exactly did it reach this state of absolute dominion over spiritual life and over temporal government? Where did it get its authority in the first place?

It all began in the 4th century with a Roman emperor named Constantine.

Constantine is commonly known as the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity. In the year 313 he issued the “Edict of Milan” declaring “that it was proper that the Christians and all others should have liberty to follow that mode of religion which to each of them appeared best.” (Lactantius, On the Deaths of the Persecutors, ch. 48.)

As a result of such religious tolerance, the severe persecution Christians had faced for the past 4 centuries came to an end. And now having a Christian emperor backing her up,  the church assumed a position of authority within the empire for the first time.

Taking the role of patron the church, Constantine enriched it financially, built a vast number of churches, and began to place Christians in high-ranking positions  within both the church and the state. He gave power to the priests and clergy to be leaders not only of the church but also of society.

From here the engagement between Christian emperors and the bishops of Rome, who became known as Popes, evolved and developed until the Pope became the head of the Roman Catholic Church. For centuries the church ruled over the souls and society of the lay people with relatively few attacks on their sovereignty. For the most part people just accepted its rule. That is, until Boniface VIII arrived on the scene.

The Church Takes on Civil Government

One of the first steps down for the Catholic church occurred during the 13th century, when Pope Boniface VIII (1294-1303) began to assert that the papacy had jurisdiction not only over the souls of the church but also over civil government. Kings and princes were now expected rule their lands in subordination to papal authority. The document he used to leverage this claim is known as the “Donation of Constantine.” The Donation of Constantine was a document forged during the 8th century and alleged to be a last will and testament of the great Emperor Constantine. In this document he purportedly hands the control of secular government over to the church and specifically the pope.

This claim to authority was not well received by the civil rulers of Europe, who saw this act as  infringement of their rightful territories.  During the latter Middle Ages the tensions only increased as a series of power-hungry popes ascended the throne, caring nothing for the church, but only for how they could amass more power and collect more taxes. This move by the papacy to assume absolute dominion over the spiritual and political life  of the entire western world  was really the first crack in the church’s armor.

Whether he knew it or not, Pope Boniface VIII, in declaring papal supremacy, had set the church on shaky ground. This move was just the beginning of a series of crises which were about descend upon the church. As early as 1309, just 6 years after the death of Boniface VIII, the papacy would experience a few serious blows which would weaken its structure to the very core and begin to pave the way for reformation.



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