His early successors found it hard to live up to his height of virtue or power. For the most part they accepted domination by exarch or emperor, and were repeatedly humiliated in their efforts to resist. The Emperor Heraclius, anxious to unify his rescued realm, sought to reconcile the Monophysite East—which held that there was but one nature in Christ—with the orthodox West, which distinguished two; his manifesto, Ekthesis (638), proposed an agreement through the doctrine of monothelism—that there was but one will in Christ. Pope Honorius I agreed, adding that the question of one or two wills was “a point which I leave to grammarians as a matter of very little importance”;24 but the theologians of the West denounced his compliance. When the Emperor Constans II issued a proclamation (648) favoring monothelism, Pope Martin I rejected it. Constans ordered the exarch of Ravenna to arrest him and bring him to Constantinople; refusing to yield, the Pope was banished to the Crimea, where he died (655). The Sixth Ecumenical Council, meeting at Constantinople in 680, repudiated monothelism, and condemned Pope Honorius, post mortem, as “a favorer of heretics.”25 The Eastern Church, chastened by the loss of Monophysite Syria and Egypt to the Moslems, concurred in the decision, and theological peace hovered for a moment over East and West.
But the repeated humiliations of the papacy by the Eastern emperors, the weakening of Byzantium by Moslem expansion in Asia, Africa, and Spain, by Moslem control of the Mediterranean, and by the inability of Constantinople or Ravenna to protect the papal estates in Italy from Lombard assaults, drove the popes to turn from the declining Empire and seek aid from the rising Franks. Pope Stephen II (752-7), fearful that a Lombard capture of Rome would reduce the papacy to a local bishopric dominated by Lombard kings, appealed to the Emperor Constantine V; no help came thence; and the Pope, in a move fraught with political consequences, turned to the Franks. Pepin the Short came, subdued the Lombards, and enriched the papacy with the “Donation of Pepin,” giving it all central Italy (756); so was established the temporal power of the popes. This brilliant papal diplomacy culminated in the coronation of Charlemagne by Leo III (800); thereafter no man could be an accepted emperor in the West without anointment by a pope. The harassed bishopric of Gregory I had become one of the greatest powers in Europe. When Charlemagne died (814), the domination of the Church by the Frank state was reversed; step by step the clergy of France subordinated its kings; and while the empire of Charlemagne collapsed, the authority and influence of the Church increased.
At first it was the episcopacy that profited most from the weakness and quarrels of the French and German kings. In Germany the archbishops, allied with the kings, enjoyed over property, bishops, and priests a feudal power that paid only lip service to the popes. Apparently it was the resentment of the German bishops, irked by this archiépiscopal autocracy, that generated the “False Decretals”; this collection, which would later fortify the papacy, aimed first of all to establish the right of bishops to appeal from their metropolitans to the popes. We do not know the date or provenance of these Decretals; probably they were put together at Metz about 842. The author was a French cleric who called himself Isidorus Mercator. It was an ingenious compilation. Along with a mass of authentic decrees by councils or popes, it included decrees and letters that it attributed to pontiffs from Clement I (91-100) to Melchiades (311-14). These early documents were designed to show that by the oldest traditions and practice of the Church no bishop might be deposed, no Church council might be convened, and no major issue might be decided, without the consent of the pope. Even the early pontiffs, by these evidences, had claimed absolute and universal authority as vicars of Christ on earth. Pope Sylvester I (314-35) was represented as having received, in the “Donation of Constantine,” full secular as well as religious authority over all western Europe; consequently the “Donation of Pepin” was but a halting restoration of stolen property; and the repudiation of Byzantine suzerainty by the pope in crowning Charlemagne appeared as the long-delayed reassertion of a right derived from the founder of the Eastern Empire himself. Unfortunately, many of the unauthentic documents quoted Scripture in the translation of St. Jerome, who was born twenty-six years after the death of Melchiades. The forgery would have been evident to any good scholar, but scholarship was at low ebb in the ninth and tenth centuries. The fact that most of the claims ascribed by the Decretals to the early bishops of Rome had been made by one or another of the later pontiffs disarmed criticism; and for eight centuries the popes assumed the authenticity of these documents, and used them to prop their policies.*
By a happy coincidence the “False Decretals” appeared shortly before the election of one of the most commanding figures in papal history. Nicholas I (858-67) had received an exceptionally thorough education in the law and traditions of the Church, and had been apprenticed to his high office by being a favored aide of several popes. He equaled the great Gregorys (I and VII) in strength of will, and surpassed them in the extent and success of his claims. Starting from premises then accepted by all Christians—that the Son of God had founded the Church by making Peter her first head, and that the bishops of Rome inherited their power from Peter in direct line—Nicholas reasonably concluded that the pope, as God’s representative on earth, should enjoy a suzerain authority over all Christians—rulers as well as subjects—at least in matters of faith and morals. Nicholas eloquently expounded this simple argument, and no one in Latin Christendom dared contradict it. Kings and archbishops could only hope that he would not take it too seriously.
They were disappointed. When Lothaire II, King of Lorraine, wished to divorce his Queen Theutberga and marry his mistress Waldrada, the chief prelates of his kingdom granted his wish (862). Theutberga appealed to Nicholas, who sent legates to Metz to examine the matter; Lothaire bribed the legates to confirm the divorce; the archbishops of Trier and Cologne brought this decision to the Pope; Nicholas discovered the fraud, excommunicated the archbishops, and ordered Lothaire to dismiss his mistress and take back his wife. Lothaire refused, and marched with an army against Rome. Nicholas remained for forty-eight hours in St. Peter’s in fasting and prayer; Lothaire lost courage, and submitted to the Pope’s commands.
Hincmar, Archbishop of Reims, and the greatest prelate in Latin Europe after the Pope himself, dismissed a bishop, Ratherad, who appealed to Nicholas (863). Having reviewed the case, Nicholas ordered Ratherad reinstated; when Hincmar hesitated, the Pope threatened to lay an interdict—a suspension of all church services—upon his province; Hincmar fumed and yielded. To kings as well as prelates Nicholas wrote as one having supreme authority, and only Photius of Constantinople dared gainsay him. In nearly every case later developments showed the Pope to have been on the side of justice; and his stern defense of morality was a lamp and tower in a decadent age. When he died, the power of the papacy was acknowledged more widely than ever before.