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Catholicism: Middle Ages

( Originally Published 1913 )

IT was Catholicism alone, justly entitled Roman, that could work out in western Europe the characteristic properties of the monotheistic system. As the introduction of a spiritual power entirely distinct from and utterly independent of temporal power, constituted in the middle ages the principal attribute of such a political system, we must proceed to an appreciation of this grand social creation.

The eminently social genius of Catholicism consisted in its making a way for morality to penetrate gradually into policy, to which it had hitherto been sub-ordinate, by the constitution of a purely moral power distinct and independent of the political power. This tendency constitutes the superiority of the civilization of modern times over that of antiquity. All true policy began from that time to acquire, in an intellectual point of view, a character of wisdom, of extension, and of rationality, which could never hitherto have existed.

Morally considered, it cannot be doubted that this admirable modification of the social organization must have tended to develope, even in the lowest ranks of the people who were able to feel its salutary influence, a profound sentiment of dignity and elevation hitherto almost unknown; by the simple fact, that a universal code of morality, unanimously accepted, apart from and above mere policy, spontaneously gave authority to the poorest Christian to remind the most powerful prince of the inflexible prescriptions of their common doctrine, the primary basis of respect and obedience.

Under a purely political aspect, it is evident that this social regeneration essentially realized the grand Utopia of the Greek philosophers, since it constituted, in the midst of an order founded entirely upon birth, fortune, or military deserts, an immense and powerful class, in which intellectual and moral superiority was openly avowed as the first title to real ascendancy. No philosopher can now-a-days refuse to recognize in principle the characteristic aptitude of a spiritual organization to an almost indefinite territorial extension, wherever there exists a sufficient similitude of civilization to admit of the regularization of habitual or continuous intercourse. It is irrefutable that the papal monarchy constituted in the middle ages the principal general tie between the various European nations, from the time the dominion of ancient Rome lost the power of concentrating them sufficiently.

If we examine the ecclesiastical constitution, we can-not be surprised at the political ascendancy which a power so strongly organized, equally superior to all that surrounded and to all that had preceded it, acquired universally in the middle ages. Directly founded upon intellectual or moral merit, the Catholic organization gradually attributed to the elective principle an extension hitherto unknown ; since the choice, always restricted in the ancient republics to one fixed class, might now embrace the whole of society, not excepting the lowest ranks, which at that time did, in fact, furnish so many Cardinals and even Popes; on the other hand, under a less well-understood but not less important aspect, it perfected the nature of this political principle by rendering it more rational, inasmuch as it substituted the choice of superiors, by their inferiors to the inverse disposition, hitherto exceptional. The characteristic method of election to the supreme spiritual dignity must always be regarded as a triumph of political wisdom, in which the general guarantees of real stability and fitting preparation were far better insured than by the empirical expedient of hereditary right.

We must equally re cognize the great political importance, until the decline of the system, of those Monastic Institutions which, setting aside their intellectual services, constituted certainly one of the most indispensable elements of this immense organization. These peculiar institutions, now known almost entirely by the abuses of their decadence, were the cradle in which the principal Christian conceptions, dogmatical and practical, were elaborated long before their promulgation.

The chief efficacy common to all the various political properties of the Catholic constitution consisted especially in this powerful education of the clergy, which rendered the ecclesiastical genius habitually so superior to all others, not only in enlightenment but also in political aptitude. Let us point out also another characteristic of deep political philosophy in the` discipline by which Catholicism gradually restrained the right of supernatural inspiration—representing it as eminently exceptional, confining it to cases of more and more gravity, to the more and more elect, to times farther and farther removed from each other ; subjecting it, lastly, to verifications of authenticity more and more severe. Its regular and continued use was reduced to what the nature of the system rendered strictly indispensable, as soon as all divine communication became, in principle, reserved for the most part to the supreme ecclesiastical authority. This papal Infallibility, now made so bitter a reproach to Catholicism, constituted in truth a very great intellectual and social progress. If we take from the sovereign Pontiff this indispensable prerogative, the spirit of Protestantism, far from sup-pressing the right of divine inspiration, tended directly an the contrary greatly to augment it, and to cause a retrogression in the gradual development of the human race.

The important institution of ecclesiastical Celibacy has been justly regarded as one of the essential bases of sacerdotal discipline. Men have not sufficiently appreciated the bold and really fundamental innovation operated in the social organization by Catholicism, when it thus suppressed for ever the hereditary priesthood, profoundly inherent in all the economy of antiquity, not only under the so-called theocratic system, but also among the Greeks and even among the Romans, with whom the various pontifical offices of any importance constitued the exclusive patrimony of a few privileged families—or, at the very least, of a certain caste. This general institution of ecclesiastical celibacy was essentially destined to render a pure theocracy radically impossible, guaranteeing to every rank of society, in the most special manner, legitimate access to all spiritual dignities whatsoever.

Another peculiar condition of the political existence of Catholicism in the middle ages, consists in the necessity of a temporal principality of sufficient extent, directly annexed to the head-quarters of spiritual authority, in order better to guarantee its entire European independence. Issuing, as at this day we are too ready to forget, from a social state in which the two elementary powers were confounded together, the Catholic system would then have been rapidly absorbed, or rather annulled, politically, by the preponderance of the temporal power, if the seat of its central authority had been shut up in any one particular jurisdiction; the chief personage in which would not have failed, following the primitive tendency towards the con-centration of all powers, to subject the Pope to himself as a sort of chaplain. But, on the other hand, the indubitable necessity of this temporal addition to the supreme ecclesiastical dignity, should not make us forget the grave and inevitable inconveniences resulting from it, whether as regards the sacerdotal authority itself; or the part of Europe reserved to this sort of political anomaly.

Let us now consider the great attribute of general Education, which, according to our anterior explanation, constitutes the most important function of the spiritual power, and the foundation of all its other operations. Almost all philosophers, even the Catholics, for want of a sufficiently elevated comparison, have appreciated too lightly the immense social innovation accomplished by Catholicism when it directly organized a system of general education, intellectual as well as moral, extending itself to every class of the European population, without any exception whatever. It is easy to perceive the eminent social value of such a permanent amelioration, starting from the polytheistic system which condemned the mass of the population to a state of brutalization.

Lastly, we must look upon the truly capital institution of Confession as .a necessary complement of this attribute, for it is on the one hand impossible that the real directors of youth should not become spontaneously in a certain degree the counsellors of active life ; and on the other hand, without such prolongation of their moral influence, their social efficacy would not have been secured, in virtue of their fitness to overlook the daily execution of the principles of conduct they had them-selves imparted. Who does not feel the powerful moral effects of this beautiful institution to purify by confession and rectify by repentance ?

To complete the comprehension of this grand organization, we have to point out its principal dogmatic conditions, in order to make it apparent that the secondary" theological creeds, at present commonly regarded as socially indifferent, were nevertheless indispensable to. the full political efficacy of this system.

Catholicism, to constitute and maintain the unity necessary to its social distinction, was forced to put a check at once on the free, individual, inevitably discordant, expression of the religious spirit, by erecting into the first duty of a Christian, the most absolute Faith. Without this basis, all other moral obligations would have immediately lost their only fulcrum. The famous dogma of the Fall and original Sin, constituted also a necessary element of the Catholic philosophy, not only by its relation to the theological explanation of human suffering, but also, in a more special manner, by providing a motive for the necessity of an universal Redemption, upon which rests the whole economy of the Catholic faith.

It would be easy, in the same way, to show that the institution of Purgatory, so bitterly criticized, was most happily introduced at first into practical Catholicism as an indispensable corrective of the eternity of future punishment, whatever may since have been the abuses of so arbitrary an expedient. Among the special dogmas an analogous examination would place in full evidence the political necessity of the eminently divine character attributed to the first founder, real or ideal, of this grand system of religion, in consequence of the profound and indisputable, though hitherto ill-understood, relation of such a conception with the radical independence of the spiritual power, thus placed at once under the protection of an inviolable authority.

The celebrated dogma of the real presence, which, in spite of its apparent strangeness, constituted in fact a natural prolongation of the preceding dogma, contained in itself the same political efficacy, attributing as it did to the most ordinary priest a daily power of miraculous consecration, tending to render him an object of veneration to those chiefs whose material power, however great, could never aspire to such' sublime operations. The Catholic Mass is a happy invention of the theological mind ; destined to replace universally and irrevocably the hideous and bloody sacrifices of Polytheism, it contrived by a sublime subterfuge to satisfy beyond all anterior possibility the instinctive demand for sacrifices necessarily inherent in every system of religion, by this voluntary daily immolation of the greatest victim imaginable.

After having thus traced the character of the mono-theistic system, relatively to its spiritual organization; which constituted its principal foundation, it is easy to proceed to the philosophical examination of its corre. sponding temporal organization. When we compare the Feudal with the Roman system of government, we shalt easily recognize that in spite of the general prolongation of the military system, it had undergone in the middle ages an important transformation resulting from the new situation of the civilized world. Military activity, although strongly developed, had begun to divest itself more and more of the eminently offensive character it had hitherto assumed, and to reduce itself gradually to a purely defensive character.

When once the Roman system of conquest had acquired all the plenitude of which it was susceptible, by a natural transition military efforts were turned habitually to conservation, now their only great object, and daily more and more menaced by the growing energy of the unconquered nations. Each military chief holding himself constantly in readiness for the defence of his territory, tended spontaneously to the erection of an almost independent power over that portion of country which he was capable of protecting sufficiently himself, with the assistance of those warriors who had attached themselves to his fortunes.

The influence of Catholicism is not less discernible in the universal transformation of slavery into serfdom, which constitutes the last essential attribute of the feudal organization. The Catholic system interposed directly between the master and slave, or the lord and serf, a salutary spiritual authority respected equally by both, and continually recalled them to their respective duties.

Lastly, we must here consider the grand institution of Chivalry, as in its nature reflecting the three characteristics of the temporal organization of the middle ages. in these noble associations, the salutary influence, ostensible or secret, of Catholicism, reveals itself, tending as it did to convert a simple means of military education into a powerful instrument of social progress.

Having thus worked out the important and difficult political appreciation, both spiritual and temporal, of the monotheistic system of the middle ages, it remains for us now to complete the analysis, by an examination of its moral influence and intellectual efficacy. We will confine ourselves to a rapid indication of the more important progress made in the, three successive portions which make up the whole of Morality—firstly, personal, secondly, domestic, and lastly, social—following the order already established.

Catholicism, appropriating the unanimous opinion of antecedent philosophers, rightly regarded individual virtues as the basis of all others, inasmuch as they afford the most natural and most decisive exercise of that ascendancy of reason over passion, on which all moral perfection depends. The simply personal virtues began from that time to be directly regarded in all their social importance, whereas the ancients recommended them as measures of prudence, purely relative to the individual considered separately.

The moral fitness of Catholicism is peculiarly manifested in its happy organization of domestic morality, now for the first time placed in its proper rank, instead of being absorbed by policy, as in all antiquity. Catholicism, while it consecrated in the most solemn manner the authority of parents, abolished totally the almost absolute despotism which it possessed among the ancients, and which not unfrequently manifested itself in the murder or desertion of in ants at their birth. No one now disputes that it ameliorated the social position of women. By concentrating them more completely in domestic life, it guaranteed to them a just degree of liberty, and consolidated their situation by rendering marriage an indissoluble contract.

Taking into consideration mere social morality, properly so called, it is almost superfluous to demonstrate the excellent influence of Catholicism in modifying the energetic but savage patriotism which alone animated the ancients, by the more elevated sentiment of universal humanity or brotherhood, so happily familiarized under the gentle name of Charity. This was the fruitful source of so many admirable asylums destined to the relief of human wretchedness, which metaphysical policy has had the boldness to condemn in the name of the pretended science of political economy, whereas it remains for us at this day, by reorganizing, to extend and complete them.

Such is a summary representation of the immense moral regeneration established by Catholicism in the middle ages. We have now to judge of its intellectual attributes. Tinder a strictly philosophical point of view, the intellectual aptitude of Catholicism is as eminent as it is ill appreciated. We have already considered the extreme social importance of the system of universal education which it contrived to organize throughout all classes, even the lowest, of the European populations. Now, however imperfect may appear to us the purely theological philosophy thus spread abroad, it certainly exercised for a long time a most happy influence over the intellectual development of the mass of civilized nations, from that time regularly subjected to a spiritual exercise thoroughly adapted to their situation, and as much calculated to elevate their ideas above the narrow circle of material life, as to purify their habitual sentiments.

The purely scientific influence of Catholicism was certainly not less salutary than its philosophical action. It is easy to imagine the influence which the monotheistic rule must exercise over the movement of the principal natural sciences : by the creation of chemistry, founded upon the preliminary conception of Aristotle relative to the four elements : by the notable progress made in anatomy, so fettered in ancient times ; and by the continual development of preceding mathematical speculations and the astronomical notions connected therewith; a development as decided as the then state of science admitted. As to the esthetic influence of the monotheistic system of the middle ages, although, in common with those above alluded to, it did not unfold itself until the period immediately following, we cannot deny its decided bias when we think of the immense progress of music and architecture during this memorable epoch.

If we regard the movement communicated by this social system under the least elevated and most universal aspect, that is, as respects the industrial Impulse, we cannot doubt but that the greatest improvement realizable in human industry must consist in a gradual and discreet abolition of serfdom, accompanied by the progressive enfranchisement of the common people, at that time accomplished under the guardianship of such a system, and which constituted the necessary basis of its immense subsequent success. We should remark a progressive tendency towards the economy of human labour replaced by exterior forces scarcely at all used by the ancients. This important substitution, the principal source of the great development of modern Industry, may be traced certainly to this date. The personal emancipation of the immediate labourers had an evident tendency to impose an imperious general obligation to spare human forces by utilizing in a greater degree the various physical forces.

After this analysis of the monotheistic system, it remains for us to demonstrate, lastly, the principle of decadence inherent in this transitory system, whose necessary destination in the evolution of humanity was to prepare under its beneficent tutelage the gradual decomposition of the theological and military condition, and the advance of new elements of definitive Order.

The general cause of the inevitable mental dissolution of Catholicism consists in its never having been able to corporate itself with intellectual advancement ; it was thus necessarily, after a time, outstripped ; from that time it was impossible for it to maintain its empire except by abrogating the progressive character proper to every system in its rise, in order to take more and more the stationary and even retrograde character which so deplorably distinguishes it at present.

The universal morality of which Catholicism was primarily the indispensable organ, can certainly no longer constitute its peculiar property, when it has lost its aptitude to impose it upon social economy in general.

In a secular point of view the transitory nature of the feudal system manifests itself in the" most un-equivocal manner. As to its principal aim, the defensive organization of modern societies, it could retain no importance after invasions were put an end to, by the final transition from a barbarian state to an agricultural and sedentary life, on their own domains, sanctioned and consolidated by their gradual conversion to Catholicism, which incorporated them more and more completely in the universal system.

This transitory character is still more apparent in the decomposition of the temporal power into partial sovereignties, which we have admitted as one of the characteristics of the feudal system, and which could not fail to be early replaced by a new centralization, towards which everything would naturally tend. The same holds good in its last characteristic feature—the transformation of slavery into serfdom—since slavery constitutes a state susceptible of any amount of duration under suitable conditions ; whereas serfdom, strictly speaking, could only be in the system of modern civilization a transient condition, promptly modified by the almost simultaneous establishment of industrial communities, whose sole social destination was the gradual preparation of the labourer for entire personal emancipation.

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