Thursday, November 19, 2015

Nicolas I - The Man in Charge

The next major pope after Gregory,  Nicolas I, had an important part in asserting the authority of the papacy. He took a definite view of his administrative authority and his ability to be the final judge of appeals. In defending this he used the Pseudo- Isidorian Decretals, now generally conceded to be forgeries. These include a number of items, real and forged, including the spurious story of the Donation of Constantine. This narrative claims that Constantine the  Great donated to Pope Sylvester the popes' temporal power and possessions. Nicolas I used his authority to rebuke Lothaire II, king of Lorraine, one of Charlemagne's descendants, for abusing and divorcing his wife and marrying his mistress. Nicolas corrected Hincmar, archbishop of Rheims, for deposing a bishop without sufficient reason. But Nicolas' great controversy was with the eastern church.   

The heart of this controversy was who was the boss, the pope or the patriarch of Constantinople, who, both contrary to the admonitions of Gregory I, were claiming the title universal bishop. Also, based on the idea that the church descended  from the apostles could not err, it was thought that the traditions of the church were authoritative. But the western and eastern church had different traditions. Involving such things as the date of Easter, the strictness of clerical celibacy, whether communion should be celebrated with leavened or unleavened bread, and how many times a widowed individual could remarry. There was also the abstruse and dubious doctrinal question of whether the Spirit descended only from the Father or from the Father and the Son. Though part of the issue was that the western church added the phrase "and the Son" to the Nicene Creed, which the east believed should never be changed. Also, there was the question of whether various newly arrived and converted people in Eastern Europe should be under the eastern or western authority.

Nicolas became involved because the emperor of Constantinople had deposed and banished the patriarch of Constantinople, Ignatius, with little reason and had replaced him with Photius, a scholarly layman who had to be moved up quickly through the clerical ranks in order to become patriarch. Nicolas ruled in favor of Ignatius. Photius retaliated, bringing up the disagreements between the east and the west. This resulted in a long and inconclusive struggle that alienated the two sides. Later, as a result of a political struggle, the patriarch of Constantinople, Michael Cerularius, and  Pope Leo IX ended up excommunicating each other. While there were various attempts to reconcile, the rift grew deeper over time, resulting in two churches, the Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox.

A case could be made for the correctness of Nicolas's particular judgments. But claiming excessive power, even in a good cause, is a dangerous thing. In this case it ended up dividing the church over minor things and laying the foundation of the authoritarian papacy. I am forced to wonder how many of our current church divisions are really over issues or over who gets to be in charge.

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