Saturday, May 2, 2015

Papal Power: Religious and Secular

The book Political Thought by Coleman is exceptionally well written and covers the main thinkers of the 13th and 14th centuries. She presents the ideas of Aquinas, John of Paris, Marsilius, Ockham, and Machiavelli. In a sense the many arguments discussed by her in the book, all exceptionally clearly presented, lay out the changes occurring at that period with Kings and countries evolving and the papacy in a growing position of power, following through the Avignon papacy of the Bishop of Rome, a bit of a contradiction in terms.

She starts with an overview of the key principles that had been some of the underpinnings of the political thought at the time. Two of them are The Donation of Constantine and the Two Swords theory. The Donation was an outright fabrication but it had been used by the papacy for establishing is primacy in all things. In essence the Donation alleged that Constantine had recognized and accepted the domination of the Church, which in a sense had become by this time the papacy. It was also based upon this false document that Henry II of England was “allowed” to give his son John kingdom over Ireland. The two swords principle is the belief that the papacy had both spiritual and temporal powers over people.

By the 13th century there clearly was an established power base with the papacy. The Pope had battles various Princes and had tried to hold his dominance over the Kings now emerging in the nations in formation. Thus there was a debate as to what was the role of the papacy and more importantly what were the principles related to governance. As would be argued that councils had primacy over the Pope, then too one could argue that people had primacy over Kings. The Council principle, Conciliar Theory, had re-emerged from centuries of dormancy. Popes had become Emperors in their own right, and in many ways this led to a breaking point, especially with John XXII in Avignon.

The discussion of Aquinas is standards but well done. Aquinas is a classic example of the Scholastic School, and he managed to explain Aristotle but to keep from exciting too great a Papal response.

John of Paris and especially Marsilius are key players in addressing the limited powers of the Papacy. They rejected the power of the Pope in civil matters and their arguments establish a base for what Ockham was to do next. The author’s presentation of Marsilius is one of the best I have seen. It is clear and delineates the details of his theory. Marsilius saw civil law as distinct from clerical rule and religious law. Marsilius, who is often less well known, set the path for much of what was to come in the 16th century.

The presentation on Ockham is clear and insightful. Ockham has many scholars who have examined his work. The recent work by Shogimen is an example. However the author lays out the brilliant arguments of Ockham especially targeted at John XXII in Avignon. Ockham saw the papacy as a purely religious arm.  Ockham saw a separation between religion and politics and he was clear in his arguments for the papacy keeping to its own terrain. Ockham at this time was developing his ideas on individualism, one of the very first to articulate individual rights, individual presence, and an acceptance of individuals acting in groups, while retaining their individual character. Whether this is based upon his nominalism or not is still open for debate. Ockham is an interesting player in this area. Marsilius is often a footnote but one suspect that they in some way built upon one another. What drove Ockham was the opulence and arrogance of the Papacy, as exemplified by John XXII. The Papacy had become an interferer in all matters of daily life. It sensed supremacy over rulers and people, not only religious but in their daily actions. Ockham set the path that allowed this to fall apart, albeit over time.

Finally she deals with Machiavelli. This also is a well done section and is presents the almost natural transition from Aquinas, to Ockham and to Machiavelli. At this point we see the Aquinas nexus to Augustine and the old Roman way, to the individualism of Ockham and the brilliance of Machiavelli and the Prince.

This is a wonderful book and it is especially worth reading as we see a papacy becoming more involved in secular matters. Understanding its prior involvements may help in understanding the strengths and weaknesses of this effort.

Now what is especially prescient of this book is the application to the current Pope. As Ockham noted the focus of Papal power was limited to spiritual matters. The Pope had not authority over matters of state. The current Pope seems to be reverting to Avignon days and opining on matters that Ockham would have scowled upon. Thus to understand the Papacy, this is an excellent start.