A New Pope for Easter

Turkish is a fascinating language, and a challenge for the well-meaning holidaymaker who thinks to pick up a little for the sake of international goodwill. One of its peculiarities is a feature known to linguists as agglutination, whereby grammatical functions are constructed by adding suffixes to a lexical root. There is in theory no limit to the number of suffixes that can be agglutinated, and Turks take pride in the following word: ‘Çekoslovakyalılaştıramadıklarımızdanmısınız?’which has eleven suffixes, and can be rendered into English as ‘Are you one of those whom we have been unable to make Czechoslovakian?’

Of course every country and culture likes to feel that it is the best at, or has the biggest, longest, whatever, of something – it’s a natural human (or at least a male) thing. So as native speakers of English, we understandably dredge our memories for the longest word we know – and maybe come up with ‘antidisestablishmentarianism’. It doesn’t quite measure up, but it does at least have a useful and significant meaning (unlike its longer Turkish counterpart): ‘opposition to the disestablishment of the Church of England.’ 

Why am I telling you this? Because ‘establishment’ in this context means that Anglicanism is the official state religion of England, which, in turn means that England is not strictly speaking a secular state. The main precedent for this is the adoption of Christianity as the state religion of the Roman Empire by the Emperor Theodosius I in 380 CE. You might think that the world has moved on a little in the intervening 1630 years, but the English Parliament (wherein twenty-six seats are reserved for senior bishops) is holding the line.

What got me thinking about this was the recent election of a new Pope to preside over the international community of Roman Catholics – more specifically, a couple of discussions that surfaced in a circle of history buffs I follow online. The first was prompted by someone asking the question: If Benedict XVI was not the most intelligent head of state ever, who was?” Now I have to confess, it’s not a question that would ever have occurred to me – not least because I never really think of high intelligence as being a major requirement for a head of state. Nevertheless, once the question was posed, it got me thinking. Is being highly intelligent compatible with being a Catholic? Is the Pope actually a head of state?

Pope Gregory XII, resigned 1415
Well, probably the second question is the easier of the two, so let’s look at that one first. It seems that international law gives diplomatic recognition to two institutions of the Catholic Church: the Holy See and Vatican City. The latter, I was interested to learn, was actually established as an independent state by an agreement, in 1929, between Pope Pius XI and Italy’s ‘Duce’, Benito Mussolini. According to Wikipedia, “Vatican City is an ecclesiastical or sacerdotal-monarchical state, ruled by the Bishop of Rome—the Pope. The highest state functionaries are all Catholic clergymen of various national origins. It is the sovereign territory of the Holy See (Sancta Sedes) and the location of the Pope’s residence, referred to as the Apostolic Palace.” If that sounds positively archaic to you, it’s not surprising. A ‘See’ in RC parlance was originally the chair in which a bishop sat, but has come to mean the area over which the seated bishop has episcopal authority. Twelve of these gentlemen are said to derive their authority from an unbroken succession going back to Jesus’s twelve apostles. One of them, The Holy See, claims pre-eminence on the basis of direct descent from St Peter himself, and its official existence seems to date from some time in the 5th century.

Fine and dandy. I have no problem with Roman Catholics adhering to whatever beliefs give them comfort in the long dark teatime of their souls. Only I don’t quite understand why they get to have international recognition of statehood on the basis of their strange beliefs and their Pope’s alliance with a fascist Italian dictator in the 1920s. If Catholics, why not Presbyterians? Which brings me to the question of intelligence – and I suppose you’d have to admit that people who can pull that kind of stunt on the international community must be pretty smart characters.

It’s self-evident that you do need some kind of smarts to get yourself elected or appointed to a leadership role at that level of society. After all, the Roman Church does claim to have 1.2 billion adherents, even if 1,199,999,880 of them don’t actually have any say in choosing the new fella. But as for intelligence, that’s a curly one. IQ (Intelligence Quotient) used to be thought of as a way of measuring human intellectual capacity, but has gone out of favour in recent years. Former world chess champion Bobby Fisher (IQ 187) probably contributed to that as his genius for chess descended into vitriolic diatribes against the United States and the Jewish people. These days most discussions of intelligence recognize nine different types, one of which, linguistic, may be what Benedict XVI had.

The big thing for me is that intelligence can’t exist in a vacuum. It manifests itself in outcomes, and from those we will judge the mental capabilities of the individual. So it seems to me we can look at the ex-Pope’s intelligence in three ways. First, the guy is undoubtedly smart, and, discounting Tony Blair’s miraculous conversion, I reckon it must be pretty tough to be intelligent and to believe all that stuff that Catholics are expected to believe. So full points to the ex-Holy Father for being able to compartmentalize knowledge, if that’s what he did. On the other hand, it may be that early in his academic life, Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger decided that he wanted power, and thought the Church was a good career path, so he mouthed the mumbo jumbo in order to get where he wanted to be – another sign of a certain kind of intelligence, for sure. Then there’s the fact that Benedict resigned – the first Pope to do so since Gregory XII in 1415. Undoubtedly, for believing Catholics it’s a disappointment, and not at all the done thing – but in the greater scheme of things, we may think Father Joseph finally saw the error of his ways – and being able to admit your mistakes may be a another indicator of intelligence.

That last comment may seem unduly harsh, but take a close look at the history of Roman Catholicism and you’ll see what I mean. Here I want to touch on the second topic being discussed by my online friends, which involved some scholarly debate on the definition of ‘heresy’, and whether it differed from ‘dissent’, in the context of Christianity. In the course of my Euro-centred Christian-oriented education, I learned that the early followers of Jesus were strong-minded innocent souls suffering terribly at the hands of Roman Emperors, who employed various methods, of which feeding to lions was a favourite, to discourage the spread of the new religion. What I didn’t learn until much later was that, once those Roman Emperors, for reasons of their own, which may or may not have had much to do with actual spiritual experience, decided to ‘establish’ Christianity as the state religion, the apparatus of institutional persecution was turned on those who failed to toe the official Christian line.

The process, essentially was this: the emperor and his sacerdotal henchmen gathered together in various ecumenical councils, most of which were held within the territory of the Eastern or Byzantine Roman Empire (in modern Turkey) and formulated a doctrine, or set of articles which would thereafter be required beliefs for ‘orthodox’ Christians. These councils, by the way, were convened 300 years or more after the death of the church’s namesake. The articles of ‘faith’ were designed to include elements which made it relatively easy for adherents of earlier pagan and folk religions to find points of contact with the new official system, while, at the same time, provided a basis for getting rid of troublesome parties who might foster dissent from within. The result was a creed, or creeds, containing ‘truths’ never claimed, as far as I am aware, by Jesus himself, and closing debate on matters that a reasonable human being might consider highly debatable, even irrelevant to the essence of the business.

As an illustration of this, let me include an excerpt from the Athanasian Creed, which came into use in the 6th century, and is apparently still, I understand, subscribed to by mainstream western Christian churches, though, perhaps understandably, no longer much used in everyday worship:
“Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith; Which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly. And the catholic faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the persons nor dividing the substance. For there is one person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Spirit. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit is all one, the glory equal, the majesty coeternal. Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Spirit. The Father uncreated, the Son uncreated, and the Holy Spirit uncreated. The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Spirit incomprehensible. The Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Spirit eternal. And yet they are not three eternals but one eternal. As also there are not three uncreated nor three incomprehensible, but one uncreated and one incomprehensible .  . . . So that in all things, as aforesaid, the Unity in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshipped. He therefore that will be saved must thus think of the Trinity.”
Says who? you may ask. Well, I have to agree, you need a certain kind of intelligence to get your head around that, or even to want to think about trying. You might also suppose the word ‘incomprehensible’, included five times in that text, and rightly applied to any entity worth worshipping as GOD by an intelligent human being, would let you off the hook – but not so. Those words were carefully and specifically chosen to allow authorities to weed out deviants from the true path. The Wikipedia entry on heresieslists fifty-four distinct ideas that have qualified as such over the years under ‘established’ church law, the most recent of which involved a nonagenarian lady in Canada whose followers believed she was a reincarnation of the Virgin Mary, and were duly excommunicated by the Pope in 2007. Early heresies tended to focus on what Jesus actually was, given the church’s insistence that his mother was a virgin and his father was the Lord God Almighty. Clearly an incomprehensible God would need an equally incomprehensible agent to carry out such worldly activities, hence the Holy Spirit (or Ghost, if you prefer). Then the debate tended to get entwined in arguments over whether Jesus’s body was actually like yours and mine, or made of some less corporeal stuff; whether he had a normal soul like other mortal men; and whether there was some kind of divine substance in there too, setting him apart from the rest of us.

The consequence of all this was the establishment of a state religion with a very strict code of ‘beliefs’, and the expulsion, excommunication and persecution of dissenters from the party line (labeled heretics, which has a more resonant ring to it, the better to justify punitive action). The big winner was the Roman Empire, by this time, centred on the eastern capital of Constantinople, especially after the fall of western Rome to the barbarians in 476 CE. It’s also pretty obvious that most of the early action in the birth and evolution of Christianity took place in eastern lands, with the West a relative latecomer on the scene.

Still, once they got going, Western Christians set about making up for lost time. Early convocations of bishops formulating the creeds of the established church took place in eastern cities, Nicaea, Chalcedon and Ephesus, and you couldn’t really deny their conclusions without getting yourself out on an insecure limb. What you could do, however, was sneak an extra word or two into the text (in Latin so the ordinary Joe wouldn’t notice), then, when the time was right, insist that your version was the correct one, thereby creating a doctrinal split, giving you grounds to excommunicate the other side and set yourself up as the true church. Which is more or less what the Romans did. It’s known in theological circles as the ‘filioque’ controversy, and relates to a word inserted into the 4th century Nicene Creed in Spain some two centuries later. By the 11th century, Western Christendom felt itself strong enough to challenge Constantinople for supremacy, and that word provided doctrinal justification for the Great Schism of 1053.

Not long after, in 1071, Seljuk Turks defeated the Eastern Romans in battle and began serious incursions into territory long-considered part of the European sphere of influence. Pope Urban II’s launching of the First Crusade in 1096, and subsequent Crusading invasions by armies from Western Europe may have been ostensibly aimed at freeing the so-called Holy Lands from the clutches of Muslim unbelievers; but subsequent events suggest that uniting Europe under Papal and Roman Imperial authority played a major part; as did a desire to expropriate and/or plunder wealthy eastern lands and cities; and to demonstrate to Eastern Christians where the real power in Christendom now lay.

Things didn’t work out exactly according to Papal plans, of course. The Holy Roman Empire never really got off the ground. The   Byzantine Empire fell, but to the Ottoman Turks. It was another five centuries, nearly, before those Holy Places returned to Western control, by which time they had been in Muslim hands for most of the previous two thousand years, and continue to cause severe headaches for all concerned.

Nevertheless, the Roman Catholic Church had ‘established’ itself as a dominant player in European power games by the beginning of the second millennium, and the concept of heresy was the major tool in its box of tricks for ensuring compliance. It was obvious to many, even in those days, that the search for temporal power had resulted in an organizational structure that had more interest in matters material than spiritual. For four hundred years before the successful emergence of Protestantism in the 16thcentury, various groups (Catharsand Waldensians in France, for example) were challenging the materialism of the established Roman Church, and being viciously suppressed for their idealism.

The Inquisition was not a peculiarly Spanish invention, but it achieved notoriety during the 15th century as the mechanism whereby the Iberian Peninsula was ‘reclaimed’ for Christendom. Muslims and Jews were forced to convert or leave, and the backsliding converted were ruthlessly hunted out. Some modern Catholic sources suggest that there wasn’t as much burning at stakes as we had been led to believe – but the existence of the threat may have been enough to overcome the reluctance of some; and if not, there were less fatal but nonetheless exemplary methods of persuasion, among which foot-roasting was apparently popular.

An interesting concept I came across recently is something referred to in RC literature as ‘The Black Legend’, which argues that most of that Inquisitorial unpleasantness didn’t actually happen, and that stories about events in Spain and Spanish conquests in Central and South America were concocted and spread by Protestants keen to discredit their religious rivals. To me it sounds rather akin to Holocaust Denial. What was the reason for all those Spanish Jews uprooting themselves from their homeland of centuries and resettling thousands of kilometres away in the Ottoman Empire in the 1490s? Maybe they just felt like a change of scenery?

As we head into another Easter weekend, I find myself wondering again about the strangeness of that central event in the Christian calendar. As far as I can learn, the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in 325 CE determined the date of Easter to be the first Sunday after the full moon following the March equinox, which is why the holiday moves around from one year to the next (a moveable feast, in technical parlance). But you’d want to ask, why would they do that? If you’re commemorating the date Jesus Christ was crucified, why not go for the actual date, or at least fix a date and run with that? Could it have been that a lot of the local populations were partying up large at spring fertility or seed-planting celebrations and the Jewish Passover at that time of year, and the machinery of state decided to make a virtue of necessity? If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, and then gradually shift the official emphasis. Makes a lot of sense.

Similar theories have been advanced as origins for the stories of Jesus’s virgin birth at the winter solstice, his crucifixion and resurrection at the spring equinox, and the cult of his mother, Mary. Just down the road from the supposed House of the Virgin Mary near the town of Selçuk in Aegean Turkey are the remains of the classical Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The Greek goddess Artemis is linked to the Phrygian female deity Cybele, and the generic Anatolian mother goddess. Virginity was one of their characteristics, as was, paradoxically, a quality of universal motherhood. Associated with Cybele was a young man, Attis, born to a virgin mother who may or may not have been Cybele. Whatever the case, week-long festivities in their honour were being conducted well into classical times, and may have inspired those early church authorities to add sympathetic embellishments to their own creeds.

Well, who knows? It’s all too long ago for anyone to be able to demonstrate sure proof of what actually went on. What we can say with some certainty is that a good deal of what passes for Christian ‘belief’ was determined by power-hungry gentlemen in days of old with very secular imperial aspirations, and a fair amount of rather nasty coercion was applied to ensure that dissidents were silenced or removed to a safe distance. That’s the reason that ‘disestablishment’ movements have constantly resurfaced over the centuries. In the end, the search for truth starts and ends in your own heart. If the new Pope’s ok with that, then I’m ok with him.

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