Once Gregory (monk Hildebrand) reformed the Church, the clergy was placed in authority not by the suffrages of the people but certainly more by their talents than by the influence of relatives. As advocated by Plato in the “Republic”, the clergy was free from family cares. Contrary to the postulate of Plato, the Church at one time owned nearly a third of the soil of Europe so that its rule, mainly relying on prestige, was backed by an economic strength that everybody had to respect. The ideals of chivalry were initially nonexistent in Europe and savagery was the rule until the advent of the Saxon Ottonians. Rising in an anarchic world created by the Franks and the Muslims, whose hallmark was cruelty and savagery, the Church imposed itself as a moral authority and ruled with little resort to force. While the people asked no voice in the government, their liberty of adhesion had been respected. Excommunication is force enough but in those early days no one thought to challenge the Christian Faith, which was the cement of the society. The protection of a pacific corps of spiritual leaders was anyhow preferable than fall prey to the arbitrary dictates of savage rulers. Besides, the Church did not demand blind obedience, and discussion was tolerated.
The priests and monks favored, through the preaching of chastity and the imposition of chastity on themselves, the infertility of part of the population. Whereas the leadership of the rest of the world was polygamous and fecund, the Church, even the triumphant Church of 1200, favored infertility of the elite of the population. The clerical elite preferred celibacy and the ruling classes were the least fecund. This differential fecundity bred a great dynamism because of the opportunity for social ascension given to the most gifted of the whole population. A bishop of Liege is reported to have sired 43 bastards. Some popes had children. But obfuscation is hypocritical and also is irrelevant. Power exercises an irrepressible attraction on women. Sexual depravation is a direct consequence of the spirit of war and extends to all forms of power. Depravation in Avignon and at the Vatican of the Borgia’s does not signify that the whole of the priestly class procreated wantonly. The opposition of the Church to abortion and other artificial means of contraception is not an invitation to population inflation but expresses the belief that these means are improper for the achievement of the purpose. To the Church, the end does not justify the means.
The Church was an organization that was neither monolithic nor homogeneous. The Church princes enjoyed a considerable autonomy of action in their own jurisdiction and a freedom of thought for which the pope showed respect by calling Councils. Historically, the Council drove to present itself as the sole true representative of all the believers. As such, the Council claimed to be the democratic highest authority of the Church. The opposition of the Council to the Holy See culminated in 1437, with the deposition of Eugene IV and his replacement by Felix V. Most princes had, in those days, reached favorable concordats with the Holy See for the nomination of national high Church dignitaries. The fear was great that the Council would overturn the existing social order and impose a leadership based on a democratic Christian organization steered by the low clergy and the population. The deposition of Eugene, heralding a new schism, was the occasion for princes and Holy See to ally and reduce the power of the council, that disbanded in Basle on 25th April 1449, leaving the final authority to a Holy See freed of any internal control over its power. The infallibility ex cathedra of the pope has been promulgated lately in the face of lethal dissidence but such a strange concept was unthinkable during the first one thousand five hundred years of the Church’s existence.
Further, the Papacy tolerated and sometimes favored the appearance of monastic orders. The monks served as an example to the surrounding populations. The dietary habits of these monks were excellent compared to the feeding habits of the population at large and they lived much longer, i.e. about 50 to 60 years instead of 30, which favored their wisdom and experience. Abbeys sometimes became extremely rich and their abbots were not in the habit to give account of their actions to anybody but their religious superior, who was not the pope. The reproach that the pope favored monachism for profit is unfair. First, no one founding a new monastic Order knew its future. Second, the first Orders founded in an anarchic world focused on sedentariness and were persistent, thrifty, industrious and constructive: no reproach for that should be made. Quite often, the monks who settled in remote, secluded places were killed. It happens still today. The Hierarchy had no command over the Orders, which had their own Superiors. The superior abbot reported to Rome but geographic isolation made his leadership de facto autonomous. Finally, in some cases as the Begging Order of St Francis, the new Order shunned wealth and was rejected by a civil society that focused on secure means of sustenance.
During the middle Ages, the aristocratic yet diversified priestly class built an organization that provided the conditions needed for the emergence of a genuine culture that was essential for further cultural progress. This culture was pacific and humane: the great lapse into barbarous integrism and violent repression of “sorcery” occurred only in the second half of the 16th and in the 17th centuries, well after Universities and rational behavior had taken a foothold in western conscience.
12.1.1 Respect of individuality and tolerance of creativity
The vast majority of past and contemporary human cultures is constructed on models that impose collective goals important only to the society as a whole. Supported by modern Logic, the contemporary communist regimes were the best example of this but this situation is observable also in countries having the appearances of a democracy, such as the Southeast countries, the Latin American countries, Spain 4 and France. These societies condemn the individual to a marginal position and the culture runs a high risk of turning spurious. This was not the case in some parts of Christendom.
The assertion that contemporary France is not a democracy may surprise but this evidence is frequently discussed on TV by French intellectuals who wonder about its current decadence. I will discuss the matter more at length in subsequent chapters but give here a few examples of her shortcomings. The radioactive Chernobyl cloud was claimed by the officials in charge of the radioprotection to have been repelled at the French border by custom agents and police forces. The population, kept in ignorance of the true level of radioactive contamination, continued consuming the contaminated vegetables grown by French farmers. As a consequence, a large number of the population living in Alsace, that received the cloud, now suffers from thyroid dysfunction. Likewise, the contamination of blood bags by the HIV virus was denied by the officials in charge of the public health, enabling the state-controlled national producer of blood derivatives to distribute its stock of contaminated blood derivatives until near exhaustion. Similarly, the sales of sheep growth hormone by a State-controlled company went on until the exhaustion of the stocks, although it was known to be contaminated with the prion of the “mad cow disease”. Finally, the anti hepatitis B vaccine developed by the Pasteur Institute and commercialized by the Sanofi, shown at a conference held on 9 November 2004 to induce multiple sclerosis and auto-immune diseases but not to induce any protection at the doses used, shown in a medical thesis defended on 7 November 2003 to induce multiple sclerosis and cancer, was deemed harmless and immune-active on 24th of November 2004. The minister of health, Ph. Douste-Blazy, who presented these false conclusions to the President of the Republic Jacques Chirac on 26 November 2004, who adopted them although fully aware they were false, was not demoted but promoted to the ministry of foreign affairs and is now in charge of a human health program at the U.N.
The concept of the individualized person existing for himself is the leading thought proclaimed and upheld by the Church. The Roman Catholic Church emphatically rejects the concept of the individual person being a tool in the service of collective goals. The spiritual primacy of the individual soul was always upheld. If a concession needs to be made, it is not up to the social structure to allow a semblance of freedom of thought but it is up to the individual to give up some of it, by his own free will. The results of an individual’s action, while at the service of a Prince, remain his sole responsibility.
Small groups, whose members are bound by intense direct spiritual contacts, are most likely to create a genuine culture able to assimilate the indispensable individual energies that sustain it 5. The abbeys, where the same lingua franca (Latin) was spoken, were cultural centers that gave an outlet to the creative urges of outstanding citizens and monks. Abbeys and city-states were of a size adequate to permit a thorough interrelation between all those who participated in an effort towards cultural progress. Examples are Paris, which stands for the whole of the “culture française”; London during Elizabethan times, Athens under Pericles, Rome under Augustus, Zurich in the 1800′s, where Rosa Luxembourg, Mussolini, Carl Jung and Einstein rebuilt the world in Bierstubes. Zurich was so intellectually corrosive that the Russian government requested the immediate departure of all the Russian students from it. Today, we have the Universities of Los Angeles , Davies, San Francisco, among others, that explore new cultural avenues.
Further, due to the agrarian type of civilization devised, about one half of the year was holidays, during which an industrious person could develop his personal aspirations. A final prerequisite for a genuine human culture is the need for the individual to assimilate a significant part of the cultural heritage of the society. The abbeys of the West were the repositories of the cultures of Greece, Rome, Israel and Islam and these traditions were kept and studied 6. Conversely, arrogance had to be avoided so that the creative group did not become socially sterile: the Church avoided as much as possible the social isolation of its members, including the monks. It led to abuses because the abbeys were not too demanding on the moral qualities of the monks who joined their ranks. The reproach can be made that some abbeys were brothels, as acknowledged by Erasmus. The hildebrandine renovation temporarily put an end to it but the carnal appetites of the nuns and monks, in an environment that was not always impregnated with virtue, suffered indeed temptations beyond their strength to resist. Besides, Hildebrand did not brand fornication as a mortal sin. Abelard exiled in a Breton abbey bitterly complained about the rudeness and vulgarity of the monks. The Jesuits, for their part, right from the beginning, were discriminating about the postulants.
The monks had virtually a monopoly of the instruments as well as the opportunities of culture. Only in the priestly class and more specifically in abbeys could a cultural progress be registered. It is a credit to the Roman Catholic Church that it indeed occurred.
12.1.2 Curbing of the war tendencies
The Church condemns war without remission. The first Christians refused to accomplish military duties. The Church abhors bloodshed so much that it forbids the regular practice of surgery for its priests. When the Church wants to kill, it hangs, burns and smashes but does not slice. Roman Catholic priests handling swords or guns are an intolerable paradox. During the Middle Ages, the rare extermination campaigns that occurred (the crusades against the Albigensians and against Islam) should not distract from the evidence that the Church, on European soil, endeavored to restrict, by all possible means, the practice of war. The Europe of the early middle Ages was an iron-age civilization of warrior tribes. Under these conditions, no great progress toward civilization could be registered. One does not build, innovate and create with the fear that all may be destroyed within a day. Feudal wars were the plague of the Europe of the middle Ages. The Church continuously endeavored to restrain their extent by imposing truces, rules and providing refuges. In 1213, pope Innocent III, facing the disastrous inclination of the French Crown to wage war against its neighbors, proclaimed the preponderance of the pope over the secular rulers and claimed to be not only the successor of Petrus but also of Christ himself, which entitled him to stop war-loving trends. The Holy Germanic Empire, made up of several dozens of states all sovereign yet all submitted to the Emperor, was civilized as long as it was ruled by Saxons, and provided for a very low level of destruction in war.