“Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and their glory is in their shame.
Their minds are set on earthly things.”
– (Bible, Philippians 3:19)
Jesus had commanded, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal”, (Matthew 6:19). But the Catholic Church has been piling up treasures on this earth for itself. This insatiable greed of the Church for power, position and wealth, ignited revolts, provoked revolutions and promoted destructive wars that have left its scars on the western world for hundreds of years, up to our own times. The Church is now so rich that she can put to shame even the most prosperous industrial giants and multinational corporations of the world. How did this happen? This question has echoed in the corridors of history during many past centuries.
The denouncements of the wealth, pomp, luxury and worldly habits of abbots, bishops, cardinals and popes can still be heard thundering from the pages of the chequered annals of western history. But the leadership of the Church never cared. The institutionalized church silenced those who challenged their authority, often brutally, using a combination of ecclesiastical and lay machineries at its command. The splitting of this giant religious system into three distracted portions, Roman Catholicism in the West, Orthodox churches in the Near East and Protestantism in Northern Europe, happened largely because of the economic interest which lay hidden behind the high-sounding theological contestations. And the Church continues to split.
Christianity had retained the innocence of its apostolic tradition during the first two centuries. Following the commandment of their master to the letter, believers disposed of their possessions, and used the money for the benefit of the community. However, by the third century, Christians had come to harmonize the possession of worldly good with the teaching of Jesus Christ by conveniently misquoting or misinterpreting sundry passages from the Gospels. Soon, the Church had turned itself into a corporate body with the primary goal of amassing wealth and augmenting power. The apostolic tradition of poverty was abandoned and the holy Church gradually became the custodian of wealth that she came to acquire, mostly in unholy ways.
Christians were a persecuted lot in the early centuries. But when Roman Emperor Constantine gave legal recognition to Christianity in 313 CE, persecutions ceased. The Roman state became the protector of the faith. And the Church began to vest herself with the raiment of the world. Wealth became a visible testimony to the newfound status of the church and came to be reflected in the massive cathedrals and in the opulence of the vestments of her prelates. Along with it grew worldly pride and an insatiable appetite for earthly riches. The church soon turned extremely intolerant. Pagan temples were closed, razed down or transformed into Christian shrines. Their properties were summarily added to the wealth of the Church. It was soon competing with the political and military outfits to amass wealth. The apostolic tradition of poverty was rendered a text for pious homilies aimed at squeezing more money out of the gullible believers.
The Church has always been innovative in creating ideas to make easy money. So, it hit upon the concept of pilgrimages. It exhorted the faithful to undertake pilgrimages to places that were declared holy in the name of some saint or superman. With the possession of the relics of the blessed and the promotion of their fanciful legends and accounts of miracles, came the monetary offerings of the pilgrims. The more popular a shrine or a saint, the more abundant was the collection of silver and gold. So, it made good business sense for the Church to declare more and more dead people as saints and to promote myths of holy miracles.
The Bishops of Rome, who later gave themselves the title of ‘Pope’, cultivated the myth that Peter was the first bishop of Rome and that his tomb was in the Eternal City. They claimed that they are the successors of St. Peter to whom Jesus had entrusted the turnkey of heaven. The cult of Peter demanded a journey to Rome to pray for favours at the tomb of St. Peter. Incidentally, to this date, the church has no more plausible data than a pious tradition about the presence or martyrdom of St. Peter in Rome.1 But the belief, eagerly propagated by the church, induced thousands of pilgrims to visit the Apostle’s tomb. And the cash registers of Vatican kept ringing.
The popes, who promoted pilgrimages to the “tomb” of St. Peter, were particularly interested in enticing people who could give them costly presents, land and power. For instance, Pope Leo tells us how the Emperor Valentinian III (Western Roman Emperor from 425 to 455), and his family regularly performed their devotions at the tomb of St. Peter, “such practice yielding a useful respect for the Apostle’s successors” to whom they offered costly presents and the tenure of lands. Pope Gregory, (590-604), promised Brunhilda of Austrasia (543-613), remission of her sins. He wrote, “The most Blessed Peter, Prince of the Apostles, will cause thee to appear pure of all stain before the judge everlasting”.2 Of course, the popes expected these celebrities to be liberal in enriching the coffers of Vatican.
Pope Gregory even sent the nobleman Dynamius a cross containing “fillings” from St. Peter’s chains, telling him to wear the cross at his throat, “which is like as if he were wearing the chains of St. Peter himself.,” and adding “these chains, which have lain across and around the neck of the most Blessed Apostle Peter, shall unloose thee for ever from thy sins”. Obviously, the gift expected a price in the form of money and gold.3 Not content with this, Gregory began to send out “the keys of St. Peter, wherein are found the precious filings and which by the same token also remit sins” – provided the recipients adequately honoured the Pope with cash or costly gifts.4
It was but natural that Christians all over the world longed to go to Rome to pray at the tomb of Peter. It initiated the pilgrimage to Rome called the Pardon of St. Peter. The popes also encouraged the belief that by coming to the Eternal City, the pilgrims could address the Blessed Peter in person. St. Gregory of Tours, gives a detailed account of the ceremony to be performed in order to speak with Peter, the Prince of Apostles.5 The pilgrims had to kneel upon the tomb of St. Peter, the opening to which was covered by a trap door. Then, raising the door, he had to insert his head into the hole. Remaining in that posture, he had to reveal in a loud voice the object of his visit to the saint. Offerings of money were thrown in.
The Church, far from discouraging such dishonest humbuggery, gave her approval to it. The religious and even political results of this practice upon the ignorant believers can be easily imagined. Secular rulers of the highest rank flocked to Rome. For instance, at the beginning of the seventh century, two Anglo-Saxon princes renounced their thrones and passed the remainder of their lives at the tomb of St. Peter.6
The growing riches of the Church brought with it the corruption of the clergy. The clergy, for instance, began to ask for money for their work or made money out of church goods. Thus, under the pontificate of Gregory (590 – 604), clerics accepted valuables in exchange for burial places. Gregory forbade the practice, “never permitting that anyone should have to pay for money for a grave.” He issued sundry decrees, which prohibited the charging of fees for the induction of clerics into office, for the investment of a bishop, for the drawing up of documents, and so on.
When Pope Gregory was told how a priest had sold two silver chalices and two candelabra to a Jew, he issued a series of ordinances decreeing that each Christian community should make a correct inventory of all its sacred vessels, land and property. And for the first time, the church had precise information of its wealth. It owned landed property in Sicily, Gaul, Spain, the Balkan lands, the Near East and even many parts of Africa. St. Peter’s Patrimony, as it began to be called, owned Syracuse and Palermo, besides numerous rich estates all over Sicily, southern Italy, Apulia, Calabria and even Gallipoli, although in ruins.
The Roman Church in time of Gregory owned twenty-three estates, whose total area comprised 380 square miles, with aggregate revenue of over one million dollars a year, a colossal sum at that period. It must be said that Pope Gregory himself lived a life of austerity. When confronted with all this wealth, he called himself “the poor man’s treasurer,” and tried to live up to the role. He was the first pope to call himself Servus Servorum Dei (Servant of the Servants of God.) But the tide of corruption and of the progressive amassment of worldly riches only gathered momentum. Thus, 300 years after Constantine, Roman Catholicism had already turned herself into one of the largest landowners of the West.
However, a hundred years later, the tide suddenly turned. In the eighth century, when the papacy had so much that it did not even know how much, the semi-converted Slavs started to despoil St. Peter’s Patrimony. Even worse, the Arabs also came to loot it, claiming that they were doing it in the name of Allah. They not only captured wealth, but also forced people to convert to Islam. Several papal dominions were lost. Then the Roman rulers followed suit and deprived Peter’s Patrimony of its vast estates in Sicily, Sardinia, Calabria and Corsica. Within a few decades, St. Peter’s former boundless dominion was reduced to central Italy. And the Lombards (a Germanic people) of North Italy set out to grab this too.
Pope Stephen II (Pope from 752 to 757) was horrified. The cunning pope invoked the help of the Blessed Peter himself. And then something incredible happened! St. Peter wrote a letter from heaven to Pepin (Pepin the Short), King of the Franks. Of course, this celestial missive had to be sent ‘through proper channel’. So, it first came to the Pope, who had an abundant stock of “fillings” from Peter’s chain. Stephen sent the letter to king Pepin by a special papal envoy. The letter was all written in pure gold on the finest vellum. It began with the words: “Peter, elected Apostle by Jesus Christ. To our favourite Son, the King Pepin, to his whole army, to all the bishops, abbesses, monks, and to the whole people.”
This letter sought Frankish intervention to save the Romans from the Lombards in exchange of a place in heaven for king Pepin. The papal envoy assured that the document was in its author’s own handwriting! He even personally vouched for Peter’s signature!7 Now the Franks, though limited in formal education, were no fools. Pepin wanted to know exactly how the letter had found its way from heaven to earth. “The Blessed Peter in person had come down from Heaven and given the letter to his successor, the pope of Rome”, said the papal envoy. French Benedictine monk and ecclesiastical writer Hugh of Fleury bluntly declares this ‘heavenly letter’ to have been nothing else than “an unexampled artifice”.8 Artifice or not, the letter had the desired effect. In 756, Pepin and his Frankish army forced the Lombards to surrender their conquests.
But Pope Stephen II planned to take over the recaptured territories. Towards this, he had used another forged document called the ‘Donation of Constantine’ (Latin: Donatio Constantini) to exact a promise from Pepin to convey to the Papacy certain territories to be wrested from the Lombards. Dated 30 March 315, it was a letter purportedly from Emperor Constantine to Pope Sylvester I (314-35). Its author made Constantine grant the pope and his successors “spiritual supremacy over the other great patriarchates and over all matters of faith and worship, and of temporal dominion over Rome, Italy and the entire western world.” According to Nicolas Cheetham, British diplomat and author, this document was “reputed to have been fabricated in the papal chancery during the feverish weeks when Stephen was preparing to leave for France” to meet Pepin.9
On the strength of this fake document, the pope persuaded Pepin to take Ravenna and other Italian towns from the Lombards, and restore it to the papacy since these areas belonged to it. The pope was simply lying since Ravenna had never been papal territory. But, in that ignorant age, the precise details about the past were not widely known beyond a limited circle of churchmen, who in any case monopolized the writing of the history books – one reason why we cannot know the true history of the times. The Church destroyed every record that did not suit the story it wished to say. (Incidentally, we should not be surprised when today we find Bishops and Archbishops lying with straight faces!)
So, king Pepin officially conferred upon the pope the territories belonging to Ravenna, even cities such as Forlì with their hinterlands, laying the deeds and keys to the cities upon the tomb of Saint Peter. All of these added up to a considerable extent of territory encompassing thousands of villages, forts, cities, farms, and estates – henceforward to be owned by the representative of St. Peter on earth, the pope. The Donations of Pepin made the Pope for the first time a temporal ruler. Pepin confirmed his Donations in Rome in 756, and in 774, his son Charlemagne reasserted the Donation.
But, the Church was still not content. The more it acquired, for more it lusted. And the Popes came round to the view that the newly born Papal States, in spite of its substantial size, were too small for the pope, the representatives of the Blessed Peter holding the turnkey of heaven. These territories had to be further expanded to match the spiritual imperium of Blessed Peter. At this point, the skilfully forged document ‘Donation of Constantine’ made its official entry into the scheme of things.
The Donation said that Constantine had handed over all the imperial garments, insignia, and symbols, including the sceptre, the lance, the orb, the standards etc. to Pope Sylvester. Constantine also gave Sylvester the imperial residence – “palatium nostrum”- as well as the city of Rome, all provinces in Italy and in the occident etc. In short, the emperor gave all the external characteristic symbols of emperorship and sovereign control over the territories including the islands, to the pope.10 Thus, with one masterstroke, this spurious document put the popes above kings, emperors and nations. The popes became the legal heirs to all lands of the planet, which the document granted to them, lock stock and barrel. No longer were the Vicars of Christ (Popes) subject to the Emperors, but the Emperors subject to the Vicars of Christ. It gave a legal basis to the territorial acquisitions of the popes.
The ‘Donation of Constantine’ first appeared at the Abbey of St. Denis, where Pope Stephen spent the winter of 754. It was apparently forged as early as 753 and was brought by Pope Stephen II to the Court of Pepin in 754, with the objective or persuading him to endow the popes with their first territorial possessions. It was instrumental in creating the Papal States. That achieved, the document disappeared. It reappeared to blackmail Charlemagne, the successor of Pepin. In the year 800, he granted additional territories to the Papal States and went to Rome to be solemnly crowned in St. Peter’s by Pope Leo, as the first Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. Thus, the great papal dreams of the recognition of the spiritual supremacy of the popes over emperors came to be fulfilled.
Today historians know that the so-called Donation of Constantine was a forgery, created by the Church to boost the power of the pontiffs. But the popes used this fictitious document with great enthusiasm for many centuries. In 1440, Lorenzo Valla (c. 1407-57) a Catholic priest and a courageous man, butchered this holy cow of the Roman Church. The ‘gentle’ fathers of the Inquisition tried to destroy him. Their design, however, was thwarted by his powerful employer, Alfonso V (1396-1458), King of Aragon. “Only Alfonso’s personal intervention saved him from the stake”.11
Vatican did not stop with forging documents alone. Soon afterwards, the Roman Chancery produced the throne of the Blessed St. Peter as well. The church asserted that St. Peter sat as the bishop of Rome in that very chair! It was a further inducement to king Pepin and his successors to grant the popes protection, and more property as needed. And the inducement was a powerful one, since a king of the Franks, if crowned sitting on the Chair of the Turnkey of Heaven, would be invested with an authority surpassing that of any other temporal ruler, of course, with the exception of the pope!
Apparently, Pepin had never heard of St. Peter’s chair. Most probably, Pepin died before the Church put the scheme into full operation. When Charlemagne was crowned as Emperor in the year 800, he too did not sit in the chair. However, by the following century, St. Peter’s chair turned into one of the most precious relics of Roman Catholicism. Since then it has been venerated as the true chair upon which St. Peter used to sit. In 1656, the chair was put inside an ornate bronze case, on papal command, by the sculptor Bernini.12
Vatican was not content with the subjugation of the Imperial Crown alone. It sought to control the civil administration of the whole empire. In order to achieve this goal, another forgery called, Pseudo-Isidorean Decretals (“False Decretals”), appeared some half a century later.13 These made its first official appearance out of the blue in 850 CE. It constituted a heterogeneous collection of the early decrees of the popes and councils. Some of its contents are genuine. But a large portion was garbled, forged, distorted or entirely fabricated. The objective was to obtain additional power for the popes by giving to the abbots, bishops, and clergy in general, authority over civil jurisdiction in all the provinces and thus establishing a legal basis for evading the orders of the secular rulers of the provinces.
Using these forgeries, the Roman Church obtained immunity from the operation of the secular law. The church came to be out of reach of the jurisdiction of all secular tribunals. It gave the clergy an enormous advantage in all their dealings or disputes with the civil power. Thus, thanks to a series of fabrications, forgeries, and distortions, carried out through several centuries, the popes rendered themselves practically independent of all secular authority – something we have to guard against today.
Pope Gregory VII (1073) openly asserted his temporal supremacy over the whole of the Byzantine Empire (Eastern Roman Empire), including Africa and Asia. He went even further by declaring that his ultimate goal was simply the establishment of the universal temporal domain of St. Peter. Following in the footsteps of Gregory VII, Pope Urban II decided to bring under subjection the churches of Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria and Constantinople, with all the lands wherein they flourished. He called for the (first) Crusade and mobilized the entire western world into an irresistible army which, leaving the shores of Europe, plunged into Asia Minor like a tornado, creating the greatest military, political and economic commotion in both continents and killing millions of people.
As centuries passed, the popes continued to expand their autocratic authority. They declared that, by virtue of the Donation of Constantine, emperors were emperors simply because the popes permitted them to be so. Pope Innocent II (1198-1216), claimed temporal supremacy over all the crowns of Christendom. He claimed that as the successor of St. Peter, he was simultaneously the supreme head of the true religion and the temporal sovereign of the universe. Pope Innocent IV (Pope from 1243 to 1254) asserted that what Constantine gave to the Church had not belonged to him at all, for Europe always belonged to the Church.
In an encyclical (letter from the Pope) published shortly after the close of the Council of Lyons in 1245, Pope Innocent IV expressly stated, “It is wrong to show ignorance of the origin of things and to imagine that the Apostolic See’s rule over secular matters dates only from Constantine. Before him, this power was already in the Holy See. Constantine merely resigned into the hands of the Church a power, which he used without right when he was outside her pale. Once admitted into the Church, he obtained, by the concession of the Vicar of Christ, authority, which only then became legitimate.“
The theory behind such ridiculous claims ran like this: ‘Christ is the Lord of the whole world. At his departure, he left his dominion to his representatives, Peter and his successors. Therefore, the fullness of all spiritual and temporal power and dominion, the union of all rights and privileges, lies in the hands of the pope. Every monarch, even the most powerful, possesses only so much power and territory as the pope has transferred to him or finds good to allow him.’ This theory was supported by most medieval theologians.14
Thus, thanks mostly to the cult of the Blessed Peter aided by frauds and forgeries, Roman Catholicism, which had collected such vast extents of temporal wealth prior to Pepin, now crowned her earthly possessions with additional territorial dominions (while staking claim to rule the whole universe). The popes reigned over papal territories as absolute temporal rulers for more than a thousand years, until 1870, when the Italians, having seized Rome with all the adjacent papal territories, declared the Eternal City the capital of the newly formed United Kingdom of Italy.
(Adapted from my upcoming book on the history of Christianity)
The greed of the Church was not restricted to using unholy methods to make secular rulers acquiesce to the supremacy of the Church in order expand its temporal dominion. The Church also used devious methods to squeeze the maximum out of the poor and hapless laity, in order to fill its coffers. But we have no space here to discuss it.
It is not the author’s object to hurt the religious sentiments or anyone or to show any individual or community in poor light. This is purely an attempt to share information that the author has gathered from various sources. (Select sources are indicated in the ‘Notes’ part.) Any inadvertent errors are regretted and would be corrected if brought to the author’s notice.
- The pontiffs of the twentieth century have been trying to substantiate it with doubtful archaeological finds. In 1968, Pope Paul declared officially that, “a few fragments of human bones found under the Basilica of St. Peter are the authentic mortal remains of the Apostle”. How the “identification” had been carried out, on a site where hundreds of thousands of bodies had been buried during many centuries, was not plausibly explained. (The Times, London, June 26, 1968)
- Gregory, Letter 65
- Vita Bonifacio (Life” of Boniface) written by a certain Willibald, an Anglo-Saxon priest, 14; also Liber Pontificalis (Latin for ‘pontifical book’ or Book of the Popes), a book of biographies of popes from Saint Peter until the 15th century).
- Gregory, Letters 12-17
- Gregory of Tours was a Gallo-Roman historian and Bishop of Tours, which made him a leading prelate of the area that had been previously referred to as Gaul by the Romans. He was born Georgius Florentius and later added the name Gregorius in honour of his maternal great-grandfather. De Gloria Martyrum, (“The Glory of the Martyrs”), Gregorius (Turonensis) (1583), 1.28
- Bede, 5.20 (‘The Ecclesiastical History of the English People’ (Latin: Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum), written by the English Benedictine monk, Venerable Bede, (also known as Saint Bede, and Bede the Venerable), in about AD 731, is a history of the Christian Churches in England).
- Avro Manhattan, ‘The Vatican Billions: Two Thousand Years of Wealth Accumulation from Caesar to the Space Age’, 28.
- Hugh of Fleury, Historia Ecclesiastica, book 43, 17.
- Cheetham, A History of the Popes, 59.
- Walter Ullmann, The Growth of Papal Government in the Middle Ages – A Study in the Ideological Relation of Clerical Power to Lay Power (Routledge Library). Later, the papal attire was modelled on these imperial grants.
- Encyclopaedia Britannica ,
- But, after carbon14 and other radiological tests, it was discovered that the chair belonged approximately to around 875 CE and not to the first century CE as the Church claimed (The Times, London, November 29, 1969). In the winter 1969-70, Pope Paul VI (1963 to 1978) was put into another serious quandary. What could he do with Peter’s throne after a thousand years of veneration? There were two options before him – put it back where it had been during a long millennium, in St Peter’s Basilica, or put it in the Vatican Museum? Finally, the so-called throne of St. Peter was back in St. Peter’s Basilica.
- The document is also called the Decretals of Pseudo-Isidore because their compilers passed as Saint Isidore of Sevilla, a Spanish encyclopaedist and historian, and sometimes the Collection of Isidore Mercator because they usually begin with the words Isidorus Mercator, servus Christi lectori salutem (“Isidore the merchant, a servant of Christ, salutes the reader”.)
- Agostino Trionfo and Alvaro Pelayo, theologians of the Papal Court.