Charlemagne and the Western Schism by Vladimir Moss

March 27, 2015  (Source:

For centuries, and in spite of the intermittent expression of papist ideas, the Roman Papacy had seen itself as part of the Eastern Empire and a vital link with the other four patriarchates of the East. This position was reinforced in a cultural sense during the period of the “Byzantine papacy” of the seventh and early eight centuries, when several of the Popes were Greek or Syrian in origin, and many eastern monks fled to Rome to escape persecution by Monothelite or Iconoclast emperors. Even when the Emperor Leo deprived the papacy of its lands in Southern Italy and the Balkans, the Popes still looked to New Rome as the capital of the Christian oikoumene. They still commemorated the eastern emperors at the Liturgy, and still used the emperors’ coinage. East and West still constituted one Christian world…


However, the relationship began to undergo increasing strain when the Lombards penetrated further south into Italy, and Leo, occupied with his Muslim enemies in the East, could offer the papacy no military support. The Popes in desperation looked for other defenders, and found them, eventually, in – the Franks…


The first act that “brought the Franks into Italy” was the blessing by Pope Zachariah of a dynastic coup d’état in Francia. The last Merovingian rulers were weak and ineffective: real power was concentrated in the hands of their “mayors” or prime ministers. Pope Zachariah – the last of the Greek popes[1] – had already been heavily engaged in the reorganization of the Frankish Church through his legate in Francia, St. Boniface, the English Apostle of Germany. In 751 the Frankish mayor, Peppin III, Charles Martel’s grandson, sent envoys to him to ask “whether it was just for one to reign and for another to rule”. Zachariah took the hint and blessed the deposition of Childeric III and the anointing of Peppin by St. Boniface in his place.


We may wonder whether Zachariah was right to interfere in the politics of the West in this way: removing legitimate dynasties and putting upstarts in their place is not usually considered the business of churchmen… Be that as it may, his successor, Stephen II, a Roman aristocrat, greatly increased the links with “the most Christian king of the Franks”. Having been deserted by the Emperor Leo at a moment when Rome was in great peril from the Lombards, he crossed the Alps and in the summer of 754 gave Peppin the title of “patrician”, reconsecrated him and his queen and blessed him and his successors to rule in perpetuity. Perhaps Peppin’s first consecration was deemed to have been illegitimate in that the last Merovingian king, Childeric, was still alive. Or perhaps this second anointing had a deeper significance. Whether Stephen already had this in mind or not, it came to signify the re-establishment of the Western Roman Empire, with its political capital north of the Alps, but its spiritual capital, as always, in Rome. For in exchange, the Franks became the official protectors of Rome instead of the Eastern emperors, whose subjects the Popes now ceased to be.[2]  Moreover, from this time the popes stopped dating their documents from the emperor’s regnal year, and began to issue their own coins.[3]


Peppin more than fulfilled his side of the bargain: he defeated the Lombards, restored the Pope to Rome and gave him the former Byzantine exarchate of Ravenna, thereby laying the foundation for the Papal States and the role of the Popes as secular as well as spiritual rulers.


At about this time the forgery known as The Donation of Constantine was concocted by someone in the papal chancellery. This alleged that Constantine the Great had given his throne to Pope Sylvester and his successors because “it is not right that an earthly emperor should have power in a place where the government of priests and the head of the Christian religion has been established by the heavenly Emperor”. For this reason he moved his capital to the New Rome, Constantinople. “And we ordain and decree that he [the Roman Pope] shall have rule as well over the four principal sees, Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople, and Jerusalem, as also over the Churches of God in all the world. And the pontiff who for the time being shall preside over the most holy Roman Church shall be the highest and chief of all priests in the whole world, and according to his decision shall all matters be settled.”[4]

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