V. THE PAPACY BEFORE GREGORY VII
An institution is not necessarily discredited when we discover that it has grown from small beginnings, has been applied under new conditions to new purposes, and in the course of a long history has been defended by arguments which are demonstrably false. The child, no doubt, is father of the man; but the man is something different from, and may well be something better than, his infant self. We must not attach undue importance to the study of origins. On the other hand we cannot afford to neglect them. However slight the fibres by which the present is rooted in the past, to observe them is to realise the continuity of human development - the most important, the most obvious, and the most neglected of the lessons that history can teach. It is true that the roots, however strong and however deeply set, are insufficient to account for the characteristics of the plant which springs from them. But it is also true that neither plants nor institutions can altogether shed the husk of their immaturity. They are not entirely adapted to the conditions under which they reach their full development. The Papacy in the zenith of its power and renown is partly new and partly old. When we consider the papal theory, as it floated before the mind of a Gregory VII or an Innocent III, it produces in us the same impression of symmetry, logical consistency and completeness, which we experience on entering for the first time one of the great medieval churches. But when once we have grasped the design of the architect, we shall usually find that he has conformed in some respects to unmeaning traditions inherited from an earlier period, and further that his work incorporates the remnants of an older, simpler structure. Here are pillars of massive girth altogether disproportionate to the delicate arches which they carry; there an old tower has been buttressed to make it capable of supporting a new spire. For all the builder's cunning, we can yet distinguish between the new and the renovated. So it is with the papal apologia in the great days of papal policy. A sentence from the laws of ancient Rome dovetails with an axiom stolen from the philosophers of the Porch or the Academy. Fables of Gallic or Egyptian origin are invoked to corroborate the canons of Nicene and Chalcedonian synods. A text from a Hebrew prophet is interpreted by the fancy of an African expositor. The fabric composed of these incongruous elements has in truth a unity of purpose; but the design is so disguised and so perverted by the recalcitrance of the materials, that we are irresistibly impelled to ask how and why they came to be employed.
More than any other human institution the Papacy has suffered from a supposed necessity of justifying every forward step by precedent and reference to authority. Twice in the course of sixteen centuries the Holy See has ventured on a startling change of front, and has been sorely embarrassed to rebut the charge of inconsistency. One such change was silently effected at the close of the seventeenth century, when the Popes ceased to concern themselves more than was unavoidable with international affairs. This was a great change; yet not so great as that made in the latter part of the eleventh century, by Gregory VII. For he revolutionised the whole theory of papal prerogative. Neither a profound lawyer nor a profound theologian, he regarded the past history of his office with the idealism of a poet, and looked into its future with the sanguine radicalism of a Machiavelli or a Hobbes. Gregory VII conceived of Christendom as an undivided state; of a state as a polity dominated by a sovereign; of a sovereign as a ruler who must be either absolute or useless. And who, he asked, but the heir of the Prince of the Apostles could presume to claim a power so tremendous? For us the audacity of his pretensions is excused by the lofty aims which they were meant to serve. To conciliate contemporary opinion it was necessary that the new claims should be represented as the revival of old rights, as the logical corollaries of undisputed truths. And this course involved as its consequence an industrious, if partially unconscious, perversion of past history. For the Popes who had gone before him claimed powers which, though extensive, were capable of definition; which, though startling, could in the main be defended by appeal to well-established usage. The new policy led to this paradoxical situation, that precedents were diligently invoked to prove the Pope superior to all precedents.
With Gregory VII the primacy of Western Christendom assumed a new character. But the primacy, in one form or another, had for centuries belonged to the Roman See. So much his remote predecessors had achieved, and their success is all the more remarkable when we remember how few of them had been distinguished statesmen. It is no matter for surprise that, in the course of nine troubled centuries, some Bishops of Borne had proved incompetent and others had betrayed the interests committed to their charge. It is, however, surprising that the Roman See was able to assume and hold the leading position among Western bishops without rendering much service to the extension or the organisation of the Church.