We should recall again very briefly the far-reaching changes that had taken place in the territories of the Western Roman Empire from the end of the fourth to the sixth centuries AD. We usually call the influx of barbarian tribes and nations into the empire and their settlement there “the great migration of peoples.” Of a lower cultural level than the native inhabitants they displaced, they brought about in 475 the collapse of Roman rule.
Franks, Goths, Huns, Burgundians, Vandals, and Lombards, they came to constitute the predominant element in the population of Western Europe. And by the late eighth/early ninth century, the military and political power of Charles, king of the Franks, surnamed the Great (Carolus Magnus, or Charlemagne, 742-814), enabled him to subject all the other tribes to his rule and form a vast state stretching from the North Sea to the Pyrenees and from the Atlantic to the Elbe.
The barbarian hordes that dissolved the Roman “order of things” in the West had hastened to adopt the Christian faith because conversion to Christianity at that time was the path to civilization. The question naturally arises: What can “conversion to Christianity” mean in the case of large masses of people who could not possibly have understood what until then had been the Greek expression of (or witness to) ecclesial experience—the Greek philosophical wording of the conciliar “definitions” and the teaching of the Fathers, the incomparable language of Greek art?
At any rate, the Christianized multiethnic kingdom of Charlemagne came to aspire to imperial status, thanks to its geographical extent and military power, on the model of the (unique until that time) Roman Empire. But it was taken for granted by everyone that the empire was an international “order of things”: more a common culture than a form of state. It was also taken for granted that Christianity (the pax Christiana) was the only basis for a common culture in the international world of that time. Consequently, there was no real room or logical possibility for a second Christian empire so long as the Christian Imperium Romanum remained on the historical stage with its center in New Rome/Constantinople.
Charlemagne saw clearly that his ambition to establish an empire presupposed a cultural basis for political unity that was necessarily different from that of the Roman oecumene. The new basis had to be founded on the Christian faith. It therefore had to come up with a different version of this faith on both the theoretical and the practical levels, a version that was more correct and more genuine than that of the Greeks, clearly differentiated and, above all, with a distinctive Western identity. Only with such a new starting point for a civilized collective life could a new Christian “order of things” be justified internationally with its center now in the Frankish West.
It would appear to be for these reasons that there arose at tha time a polemical literature condemning the “errors” of the Greeks— at least ten works dating from the ninth to the thirteenth centuries bear the title Contra Errores Graecorum. At the same time Augustine was retrieved from the historical margins to become the vital ideological discovery and weapon of the Franks.
Two separate bodies emerged from Christendom’s schism in 1054. One defined itself as the Roman Catholic Church, the other as the Orthodox Catholic Church. These titles clearly revealed two different versions of catholicity: one Roman, the other Orthodox. The pivotal difference between these two portions of the Christian world (whether conscious or unconscious) was their understanding of catholicity.
It should be mentioned that until the time of the schism the term Catholic Church defined the genuineness and authenticity of the ecclesial event in contradistinction with heresy. Heresy (from the Greek verb hairoumai, “I prefer,” “I choose”) indicated the result of an elected version of the presuppositions of the ecclesial event, a choice that led to a distinctively private approach ( idiazein), to a peculiar understanding and experience of the gospel—peculiar and disjunctive with regard to the whole (the katholou) of the ecclesial body. The criterion of the distinction between an ecclesial community (parish or diocese) and a heretical group was not the difference of “convictions,” or any codified formulations of experience. It was catholicity. The ecclesial community realized and manifested the whole (the katholou) of the ecclesial event, the totality of the gospel’s hope. And this catholicity was attributed to it by all the other local churches through the liturgical communion that was ensured by the conciliar system.
Even after the schism the Greek East continued to maintain the understanding of catholicity that had been held in common until that time. Of course, for the conciliar system, which ensured the distinction of the Church from heresy, to be able to function, the East depended on the effectiveness of the institutions of the Empire of New Rome/Constantinople, institutions that maintained the political and social cohesion of its Christian peoples. By contrast, the elder Rome had to deal with a European West fragmented politically and socially into a number of barbarian kingdoms, principalities, duchies, and counties where each ruler claimed to decide for himself the correct faith of his subjects.
In these circumstances it was almost impossible for the Church of Rome, the church “presiding” in the West, to guarantee and preserve simply by its ecclesiastical authority the catholicity (genuineness, wholeness, and authenticity) of the local churches to be found there. It was thus led to the solution of itself assuming the role of political leadership so as to be in a position to impose orthodox thinking by employing means effective in the secular sphere. The Roman Church succeeded in winning from the Frankish king Pepin the Short (715-68), Charlemagne’s father, recognition as an autonomous state (in 754) with a specific territorial sovereignty and with institutions and functions that enabled it to intervene authoritatively in international relations.
This evolution, a result rather of an inexorable historical necessity (but also of the indisputable struggle for primacy of “jurisdiction” between the patriarchates of Rome and New Rome), produced in the West a new version and understanding of catholicity that was purely geographical and quantitative. Catholicity now meant not the wholeness and fullness of a mode of existence, but the international (or even global) character of objective marks of the ecclesial event, such as faith as official “doctrine” and conforming to a codified ethics.
Faith ceases to be a struggle to attain trust, to attain relations of loving communion. It ceases to be the fruit of self-transcendence. It is identified with convictions possessed by the individual, with the individual’s intellectual assent to “official” axiomatic declarations and principles. Faith is transformed into an ideology, and its authenticity is confirmed now not by the dynamic of a shared experiential verification (the conciliar function) but by an institution of infallible authority: the episcopal cathedra or see (supposedly) of the Apostle Peter and of each successive bishop of Rome. The same see also determines the regulative principles of conduct, the morality of those who are believers in this ideological sense, through a juridical system of codified canons and also by means of a constant series of declarations on topical moral problems.
It is easy to understand how and why the quantitative/geographical version of catholicity was an effective solution to the problem of the unity of the Christian world in the West and at the same time the matrix for the generation (for the first time in human history) of the phenomenon we call totalitarianism. Humanity had known various forms of absolutist rule, tyranny, and arbitrary despotism. But it had not known a form of authority that controlled not only public conduct but also the convictions of individuals, their ideas and views, their private life. It had not known institutions such as the Holy Inquisition that punished thoughtcrimes, nor the Index of Prohibited Books, the systematic indoctrination of the masses established by the Congregatio de Propaganda Fidei, the principle of infallible leadership enshrined in the papal infallible magisterium, the use of torture as a method of examination (authorized by a bull of Innocent IV in 1252).
The Roman version of catholicity became identical with the alienation of the ecclesial event in a centrally controlled ideology and codified moralism: its radical religionization. All the elements and marks of a natural religion are manifest in the Roman Catholic tradition as institutionalized responses to humanity’s biological, instinctive need for religion [Note: Yannaras in this book make a distinction of "religion" and the "ecclesial event". Religion being a kind of 'sickness' that must be cured through the true christianism - the "ecclesial event"]. They are manifest in an intellectualist safeguarding of metaphysical certainties; in a moralistic legalism, or fear of freedom; in submission to an “infallible” authority, or fear of growing up; and in the idolization of “dogma,” or fear of risking ascetical access to experiential knowledge.
As in any religion, salvation was understood as an event centered on the individual and proclaimed as such—a narcissistic, neurotic goal. Matter was depreciated, the human body became a source of anguished guilt, and erotic love was identified with the terror of a punishable “impurity.” At the same time the Church’s service to humanity of freeing us from slavery to the egocentrism of guilt was alienated into an authority “to bind and to loose,” an all-powerful authority from the moment the full weight of pangs of guilt that are so intolerable for humanity began to be felt. The expression “plenitude of power” (plenitudo potestatis) literally means that the bishop of Rome claimed (and for long periods succeeded in enforcing) that he alone (thanks to the absolute power on earth granted to him by God) “invests” the secular rulers, kings, and sovereigns with the insignia of their office, and consequently that it was also he who deposed them when he judged their actions not to conform to true piety. And if kings and sovereigns were directly or indirectly subject to the pope, how much more completely were the laity subject to the “Church,” that is, to the clergy.
Those who exercised the authority “to bind and to loose,” the clergy as a whole, were charged, moreover, with the authority that came from the obligatory renunciation of sexuality: the priesthood was linked without exception to celibacy. With full awareness of the powerful prerogatives and high merit that went with their sexual privation, the clergy in the medieval West constituted a distinct social class that enjoyed a standard of living incomparably higher than that of the ordinary laity and often even higher than that of the nobility.
The Roman version of catholicity succeeded in solving the problem of the unity of the particular local churches in an impressively effective manner. But there is no doubt that it radically changed the character of ecclesial unity, transforming it into an ideologically disciplined uniformity and a homogenous legal moralism. (The Roman Catholic totalitarian model of unity was reproduced some centuries later by Marxism, in its imposition of a single and once again “infallible” cathedra—Moscow—and an inflexible system of obedience of the “faithful” to the party ideology and morality.61) By the criteria of the Church’s gospel, the Roman version of catholicity was a dramatic historical failure, even if by the criteria of secular efficiency it may be reckoned a success.