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Religion Library: Roman Catholicism

Missions and Expansion

Written by: Christopher Bellitto

When the Roman Empire fell and there was no imperial or senatorial presence in the city and region, the bishop of Rome was forced by circumstance to take on a civil or secular role to maintain safety and the orderly running of the city of Rome and the nearby central portion of the Italian peninsula. So it was Pope Leo I who in 452 and 455 rode out to bribe the Huns and Vandals into skirting Rome.  About 150 years later, Pope Gregory I complained that he spent too much time as a paymaster administering property and overseeing the local army, illustrating the extent to which the papacy administered in a secular sense.  

Because of Islam's spread, popes seeking protection turned north, most notably to Charlemagne, who was only too happy to take on Constantine's mantle as defender of the faith and Church.  Pope Leo III crowned him the Holy Roman Emperor in 800, thus beginning centuries of an uneasy alliance between royal powers who saw themselves in a theocratic role as sacred kings, which was the model in the Byzantine Empire, and popes who had sometimes to be civil rulers but who always claimed that spiritual power trumped temporal power.

In order to compete and as part of the effort to evangelize and centralize Catholicism, popes starting in the middle of the 11th century broke away from the cozy relationship with royal power and set up a rival monarchy complete with a law system (canon law) and court process, bureaucratic department (chancery, tax office, archive), ambassadors (legates), and inner circle of curial advisers (college of cardinals). Much of this effort stemmed from the ideas and actions of Pope Gregory VII (1073-1085), leading the era to be labeled the Gregorian Revolution, and was fueled by the desire to establish the Church's independence and ability to name her own bishops and abbots. The goal was to prevent secular powers from investing religious leaders with the symbols of their authority (miter, crozier, ring). This investiture controversy, as it is known, was settled in compromise by the Concordat of Worms in 1122, whereby civil rulers could give bishops and abbots symbols of their secular authority (a bowl of earth symbolizing property, perhaps a sword or scepter), but not religious symbols. 

Study Questions:
     1.    What tactics did Christianity employ to aid its spread throughout the Roman Empire?
     2.    How did Christianity combat the rapid spread of Islam?
     3.    Why were Pagan sites converted, instead of destroyed?
     4.    Why were popes and emperors in tension to one another (from the 5th to the 11th centuries)? When did the mix between secularism and religion experience a notable break?


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