August 28, 2015

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Medieval Church: Charlemagne overshadowed the pope

John F. Fink(Third in a series of columns)

In last week’s column, I wrote about the way Charlemagne (Charles the Great), the King of the Franks, came to the aid of Pope Adrian I and destroyed the Lombard Kingdom in 774.

Adrian died in 795, and was succeeded by Pope Leo III. This pope, though, was not popular among Rome’s aristocracy. At one point, in 799, they captured him and tried to put out his eyes and cut off his tongue. They shut him up in a monastery. However, with the help of friends, Leo escaped and fled to Charlemagne’s protection.

In November in the year 800, Charlemagne traveled to Rome from his home in Aachen, Germany, and held a council. Leo’s opponents leveled formal charges of perjury and adultery against him. On the advice of the scholarly Alcuin, who said that no power on Earth could judge the pope, Charlemagne ruled on the side of Leo and restored him to his throne.

On Christmas Day in 800, Charlemagne was in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. As he rose from prayer before the tomb of Peter, Pope Leo III placed an imperial crown on his head, proclaiming him emperor. He was the first emperor in the West since 476. He went on to unite most of continental Western Europe, except for Muslim Spain.

Charlemagne believed that his function was to defend the Church and consolidate it by promoting the faith, while the pope’s role was to pray like Moses for the realm and the victory of its army. Pope Leo enjoyed his confidence and traveled to Aachen to spend Christmas in 804 with him, but Charlemagne completely overshadowed the pope.

Charlemagne exerted more control over the religious affairs in his realm than any emperor since Constantine. He made reforms to improve the moral quality of the clergy, standardized liturgical practices, and rooted out paganism. He disciplined clerics and controlled ecclesiastical property.

He even called a council in Aachen in 809-810 that confirmed the belief in the western Church that the Holy Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son (rather than only the Father), and approved this addition to the Nicene Creed. Pope Leo III, although he approved the doctrine, opposed this addition to the Creed, but it was done anyway. It remains today a major disagreement between the Orthodox and the Catholic Churches.

Although he was so involved in Church reform, Charlemagne’s personal life was somewhat of a mess. He had 18 children with eight of his 10 wives or known concubines.

He died in 814, a little more than 13 years after being declared emperor. His cathedral, his sarcophagus, and many of his jewels are tourist attractions in Aachen today. I’ve visited them several times over the years, and they’re worth viewing. There are also some relics of saints that are dubious at best.

After his death, Charlemagne was immediately beatified by a bishop in Aachen, an action that was confirmed by Pope Benedict XIV in the 18th century. The antipope Paschal III canonized him in 1166, but that is not recognized by the Catholic Church. †

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