The effort to purify the Church through the papacy

Could all Western Christendom be really Christian? More than once we have called attention to the problem. Western Europe had adopted the Christian name by mass action, usually tribe by tribe. Baptism had become a social convention. A vast distance separated the living of the ordinary Christian from the high demands of Jesus for discipleship. Could that distance be narrowed?

In the preceding two chapters we have noted efforts which deepened the living of minorities. Some were monastic. Others were non-monastic. Some remained within the Catholic Church. Others denounced the Catholic Church or were expelled from it as heretical. As the centuries passed these several kinds of movements increased in numbers and endeavoured to reach a larger proportion of the population. The earlier ones were primarily monastic, despaired of the world at large, and sought salvation by withdrawal from it. Those caught up in them lived either as hermits or in communities apart from the other dwellings of men. They regarded themselves as good Catholics and asked the approval of the Pope but were largely independent of the normal ecclesiastical structure of parishes and dioceses. Increasingly monastic movements appeared, notably but by no means exclusively the Franciscans and Dominicans, which strove to combine distinctive Christian living in communities with reaching and serving the entire population. They were paralleled by non-monastic movements, some of them heretical, which also endeavoured to win others to what they deemed conformity to the standards of Christ.

Contemporaneous with these minority efforts were men who hoped to raise the level of all Western Christendom through the geographically inclusive structure of the Catholic Church. With its parishes and their priests, its dioceses and bishops, all heading up in the Roman Pontiff, the Catholic Church could touch all those in Western Europe who called themselves Christians. There were those who strove to utilize this inclusive organism to produce a society which would fully conform to the Christian ideal and which would eventually embrace all mankind. Some of these dreamers were humble folk. Others were bishops whose efforts were confined chiefly to their own dioceses. Numbers were monks. Others were laymen or members of the secular clergy. Many sought to oper ate through synods, either regional or universal, or endeavoured to make of the Papacy an instrument for attaining this goal. Among the latter were some who occupied the Papal throne. Often secular rulers took a hand in the effort. But, as we are to see, repeatedly the ecclesiastical authorities clashed with nobles, kings, and emperors.

The dreamers worked against mountainous handicaps. As we have more than once noted, in the five or six centuries before the year 950, invasion had succeeded invasion and each wave had interrupted the recovery from its predecessor and had brought fresh disorder. Fighting was chronic. Commerce had dwindled. Crude agriculture was the major means of livelihood. After the hopeful Carolingian revival, learning had again declined. The emerging feudalism was dividing Europe into a multitude of political entities which combined with the wars and the bad state of the roads, piracy, and banditry to render an inclusive Christian fellowship extraordinarily difficult. That unity faced an additional obstacle in the existence of what were in effect tribal churches, in each of which the chieftain, whether under the title or king, count, or duke, strove for control and to that end sought to appoint to its leading positions men whom he could dominate. In one fashion or another, offices in the Church were bought and sold. The practice was called simony, from Simon Magus, who, according to The Acts of the Apostles, had offered to purchase of Peter the power to confer the Holy Spirit. A large proportion of the clergy were notoriously lax in their sex relations and were married or kept concubines. This was known as nicolaitanism, from a practice denounced in The Revelation of John.

The efforts of the reformers were directed in large part to the purification of the clergy from these abuses, for it was hopeless to seek to improve the quality of the spiritual and moral life of the masses if the pastors were corrupt. Many looked to the Papacy for leadership and to advance the reform sought to place worthy men upon the chair of Peter. They conceived of the Catholic Church as embracing all true Christians and as finding its unity by conforming to the Church of Rome and by submitting to the head of that church. Periodically, indeed almost chronically. Popes and many of the bishops and archbishops strove to free the Church from the control of lay lords. The most ambitious of the Popes endeavoured to dominate not only the ecclesiastical but also all other aspects of life, including especially the political.

The battle for the cleansing of the Catholic Church and the achievement of an ideal society was always being fought but was never won. The vision of making the Church worthy of the designation Corpus Christi, the body of Christ, and of Christendom a society which could be described as the Corpus Christianum, was not to be fully realized. Probably it could not be. The ideals set forth by Christ are too high to be reached within history. Throughout this period, as both before it and after it, the struggle was a continuing thread in the history of Christianity. Sometimes it was pushed with vigour and gains seemed to be made. At other times it was allowed to lag. Yet always consciences made sensitive by the demands of Christ were grieved by the gap between the ideal and the actual. Nearly always there were those who were nerved by their faith to seek to close it.

The movements for reform through the reinvigoration of the existing monastic institutions or the creation of new ones were usually closely interrelated with those for the improvement of Church and society as a whole. In its effects the Cluny revival spread far beyond the Cluny houses. The same was true of the Cistercians. As we have seen, Ber nard of Clairvaux was outstanding in the affairs of the Church and one of his proteges from Clairvaux became Pope. It was not long after the birth of the Franciscans and Dominicans before members of those orders were occupying high places in the Church.

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