On the ironies of history

The ironies of history are manifold. They can intrigue us as much as do the parallels which we can see in events many centuries apart. As I read of and watched the progress of Pope Francis in Iraq last week and his wonderful rapport with the Muslim leaders of that country, I could not but help see a parallel between the peace-making efforts of this Pope and the peace brokered between the crusading Emperor Frederick II and the sultan of Egypt, Al Kamil, recounted in Ernst Kantorovicz’s recently republished biography of Frederick Hohenstaufen. The irony? That Frederick can now be seen in parallel with a reigning pope, knowing that at the time the Emperor made this peace, and won back Jerusalem for Christians for a ten-year period – and was duly crowned its king – he was himself under a ban of excommunication by a Pope who initially rejected the peace he had made. 

The story of Frederick II and his battles with the popes is one of the great personal tragedies of the Middle Ages, and one of the darkest epochs in the history of the Church. These were strange times, in many ways incomprehensible to us in terms of their brutality, but also awesome in terms of how crucial they were in determining so much of what our world is today.

Frederick was known in his time as The Wonder of the World, Stupor Mundi. He was only an infant when he succeeded his brutal German father, the Hohenstaufen Emperor Henry VI, as king of Sicily in 1198. Henry had just savagely subdued the kingdom which became his when he married Frederick’s mother, the Norman Queen of Sicily, Constance. He was then orphaned when his mother died and he became the ward of Innocent III, the most powerful pope of the Middle Ages, whose fiefdom the kingdom was. 

That he survived his childhood in the strife-torn kingdom was in itself something of a miracle. Then, while still a teenager, the young king of Sicily, in an extraordinary series of circumstances which many, not least Frederick himself, also read in semi-miraculous terms, reached the point where he succeeded his father and grandfather, Frederick Barbarossa, and was elected German Emperor. In 1220 he was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in Rome by Pope Honorious III.

That was when the trouble began – or one might say the seemingly endless conflict of the Middle Ages, the struggle between the Empire and the Papacy, resumed its tortured journey. This episode was to be a kind of Endgame which, while it might have looked like a victory for the Papacy, brought neither credit nor victory to anyone. It plunged Italy into savage internecine factional warfare; it destroyed, for centuries, any prospect of Italy or Germany being unified nations as all their neighbours were becoming – some more, some less – at that time. It also sowed the seeds of the Reformation in the damage it inflicted on the Church. The horrendous wounds inflicted on the Church festered for centuries until eventually recovery came with the Council of Trent and the Catholic Reformation. On the positive side, it is also credited with sowing the seeds of the Italian Renaissance.

The excesses of that age were not only manifested in murder, mayhem and devastation but also in the wild swings of language in which the protagonists in this struggle addressed each other. In the brief periods of peace they addressed each other in terms which made them appear truly cor unum et anima una, of one mind and one heart, dedicated to the salvation of souls. When at enmity however, insults and accusations were hurled across the divide in terms which were strong enough to curdle the blood.

Kantorovicz portrays the tragedy of Frederick in all its manic detail – a flawed genius of brilliance, showing great promise in his early years but ultimately corrupted by his own anger, pride and cruelty. The papal response to the threat Frederick posed to the Church’s freedom and teaching mission was flawed and far too human. The papal vision of how things needed to be was hopelessly encumbered by the burden of having to maintain the integrity of the territories where it was a temporal power – the Papal States, lying between the Kingdom of Sicily and Northern Italy. At all costs – a terrible cost – the papal calculation was that the Emperor could not be allowed to fulfil his dream of uniting his Sicilian kingdom with the rest of the Empire, creating an imperium stretching from the Baltic to the southern Mediterranean. To allow this, it was thought, would put in peril the Church’s freedom to govern itself and to teach the doctrine of Christ as only she had been given the authority to do.

The magnetism of Frederick, and the aura around him, was frightening to his opponents. Kantorowicz, writing before the rise of Hitler in Germany, compares the flaws of this genius with those of another megalomaniac genius, Napoleon Bonaparte. Kaiser Frederick, modelling himself on the original ‘divine’ Caesars, like them, fostered visions of himself as God’s chosen instrument for the rescue of the world from the chaos which he saw around him. In an age when illusions of Arthurian reincarnations were not uncommon, it was not too difficult to make these take hold of the popular imagination. Such things happened even in the early twentieth century when people became mesmerised by megalomaniacs. A recently revealed example might be  the admission in the  diaries of early twentieth century British MP, Henry ‘Chips’ Channon, which have just been published. He remarks that  in the  presence of Adolf Hitler in the 1930s, “one felt as if one was in the presence of some semi-divine creature”. 

Kantorowicz, like many before him, was in awe of Frederick II. This heightens the sense of  tragedy surrounding his life and death.  Kantorowicz’s account, however, is marred by his failure to discuss in detail the reality and provenance of the threat to the freedom of the Church perceived by the three popes who had to deal with this Emperor. His narrative, one suspects, has to some extent suffered the same clouding of human judgment as afflicted, in their bitter enmity, all the protagonists in this terrible struggle. Frederick died just short of his 56th birthday, still officially excommunicated. Garbed in a Cistercian habit, he received the last rites from one of the not insignificant number of churchmen who did not accept the ban or his deposition. Not even Louis IX, St. Louis, proclaimed the excommunication in his kingdom.

We began by reflecting on the irony of a Pope apparently following in the footsteps of an excommunicated Emperor – in one of his better moments. We might end with the consideration of another link across the centuries to our own time. It symbolises the persistent chain of seemingly endless tension which accompanies our efforts to observe that simple command of Christ, “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God, the things that are God’s.” The struggle to keep this balance between the things that are Caesar’s and the Church’s defence of the things that are God’s was what tore apart the Empire and the Papacy in the Middle Ages – and the tension continues into our own day. 

It is unlikely that any ecclesiastical authority will seek to depose America’s new President, Joe Biden, as Innocent IV did to Frederick II.  However, it is notable that the head of the US Episcopal Conference, Archbishop José H. Gomez, had to implicitly call attention to the need to protect the integrity of the respective offices of Church and State in his address for the president’s inauguration in January, courting controversy in doing so.  

A President who proclaims himself to be a Catholic – precisely because he proclaims himself to be such – but whose ideology, in the context of many issues central to Christian and Catholic teaching, is profoundly un-Christian, might well be seen as more of a threat to the teaching and saving mission of the Church than even Frederick II.

Archbishop Gomez, felt obliged to say this to the President: “I must point out that our new President has pledged to pursue certain policies that would advance moral evils and threaten human life and dignity, most seriously in the areas of abortion, contraception, marriage, and gender. Of deep concern is the liberty of the Church and the freedom of believers to live according to their consciences.” For saying those words some have felt free to publicly proclaim him to be no longer fit to be in charge of the largest Catholic diocese in the world. President Biden did not say this, but in the age of culture cancellation, does he need to?

So, centuries pass, but the struggles of the Church and the world continue as she seeks to persevere in her mission to teach mankind all that it needs to know about “the way, the truth and the life” – and to render to God the things that are God’s. But Christians will not be dismayed by this. They are well aware that it is part of the script given to them two thousand years ago and which Pope Francis constantly draws to our attention.

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