Modern popes command a peculiar kind of authority in the present day. In centuries past, popes wielded tremendous raw political power not just in the papal states, but throughout most of Europe, and even the New World and portions of Africa and Asia. In the twenty-first century, papal power is almost entirely “soft.” Yet this soft papal power is still tremendous. Pope Francis’s comments during interviews and audiences have helped to facilitate cultural shifts across the globe.
Even as the papacy today commands a very different kind of power than it once did, remnants of the older kind of power can be found in an unexpected place: the modern secular state. This is the subject of a recent book, Sacred Foundations: The Religious and Medieval Roots of the European State. The author, Stanford University’s Anna Grzmała-Busse, argues that the secular nation-state derives much of its structure from the Catholic papacy when it was at its peak in the Middle Ages.
Sources of Papal Power
In Sacred Foundations, Grzmała-Busse reminds us of the enormous political and administrative power of the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages. In 1200 AD, for example, the Church owned nearly 20 percent of the land in Europe. In some countries the percentage was even greater: in early modern Germany half of the land was owned by the Church; in Scandinavia, 40 percent of the land was in ecclesiastical hands. The Church very much overshadowed the power of medieval kings: Grzmała-Busse notes that when Henry VIII broke with Rome, he possessed 6 percent of the land while 25 percent of England was owned by the Church.
Part of what enabled the Church to command such vast power was its enormous tax base. There were times when the Church’s tax was so heavy that it led to a shortage of precious metals in some parts of Europe. What enabled the Church to execute its authority across the continent was its enormous bureaucracy of administrators. But these administrators weren’t mindless cogs in a machine. They were, Grzmała-Busse argues, potent “human capital”: clerics were educated and trained in law, rhetoric, and political administration. They were an elite able to read and write, and therefore were competent to navigate the thickets of canon law and to act as emissaries for the Church in foreign lands.
The sheer sprawl of the Church’s geographical reach should also not be underestimated. Indeed, the Church was literally everywhere in Europe: churches, cathedrals, and monasteries dotted the landscape. Perhaps most importantly, as Grzmała-Busse notes, the Church had tremendous moral and spiritual power. The overwhelming majority of medieval Europeans relied on the Church to help them achieve temporal and eternal happiness.
The medieval state, dwarfed and “outmanned” by the Church, responded by imitating the Church. Earthly rulers began to emulate the Church’s sophisticated legal system, which enjoyed a well-developed body of law and judicial process. Kings mimicked the Church’s tax and administrative record keeping. Even certain political notions such as majority rule and representation derived, at least in the medieval setting, from the Church. Grzmała-Busse provides the example of the Cortes of León as a secular national assembly with ecclesiastical origins. First meeting in the year 1188, the Cortes is recognized as the first example of parliamentary government in world history. Grzmała-Busse does note that modern states have classical, pagan Germanic, and even Viking precedents. Nonetheless, it’s clear that the scale of the Church’s influence on modern regimes eclipses all others.
During the Middle Ages, the great rival of the Church was the Holy Roman Empire. Charlemagne was famously crowned the first Holy Roman Emperor in 800. His line lasted for eighty-eight years until the empire’s land mass split into what would later become the countries of France and Germany. In the West, the Capetian line was formed, which ruled France until 1848, and in the East, the Ottonian line was formed by Otto I, who was crowned emperor by Pope John XII. The German empire would engage in a seemingly perennial struggle with the papacy for power. However, as Grzmała-Busse argues, unlike the Church, the German empire could not develop a strong central authority and thus was unable to outmatch papal power.
The Rise of the State
Comparing the political reality of early Asia, Byzantium, and the Middle East where monarchs were essentially autocratic, Grzmała-Busse argues that the Church provided a limit on monarchical power in Europe during the Middle Ages. So how did the temporal realm end up acquiring the powers that the Church had long enjoyed? Grzmała-Busse shows that the key was bishops’ traveling to their home dioceses from papal courts in Rome, which spread the Church’s political administrative innovations to various monarchies throughout Europe. In the late Middle Ages, the state became so powerful that it began to rival the Church’s temporal power, drawing money, human capital, and prestige to itself and away from the papacy. Grzmała-Busse sees Protestantism as one of the culminations of this process of secular state formation vis-à-vis the Church. She also notes that the Crusades specifically contributed to the rise of the modern state, which began facilitating tax collections, feudal land sales, and the economic connections formed by the crusaders with the rest of the known world.
In Sacred Foundations, Grzmała-Busse takes aim at what she calls the “bellicist” vision of state formation, exemplified by scholar Charles Tilly. The bellicist view argues that, rather than religion, war was the primary catalyst of formation of the European state. For bellicists, state formation began in the Early Modern period (mid-1600s to mid-1700s) at two key moments: the 1555 Treaty of Augsburg and the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, which marked the end of religious conflict in Europe. For the bellicists, the fifth-century fall of the Roman Empire, as well as the dissolution of the Carolingian in the ninth century, led to the creation of small fragments of power that never truly coalesced into state formation. The wars beginning around 1500 helped to reduce five hundred independent European states to thirty by 1900. In this view, the process of war helped to create the administrative power of the state. Grzmała-Busse makes the case that this bellicist school of scholarship has neglected the tremendous influence of the medieval Church in state formation by focusing too much on war and too little on the Church.
Some Christian readers might object to Grzmała-Busse’s secular approach. However, much of this work is honest and level-headed, and it is not a polemical attack on the papacy or Christianity. Rather, it’s an example of careful, studious scholarship that’s free from an ideological agenda—something increasingly rare in the modern academy.
Sacred Foundations, though, perhaps unintentionally underscores the tremendous power of the secular state in our own day. In many ways, the Church and the state have traded places. As mentioned at the beginning of this review, ecclesial power is entirely soft and symbolic today; meanwhile the secular state enjoys vast hard power. The measures enacted to ensure safety during the Covid pandemic have given the secular bureaucracy a powerful precedent to discipline, monitor, and control the civilian population. Moreover, the Biden administration has not been timid in using the administrative state to harass opponents. The secular state, now, with the aid of technology and enormous wealth, is much more powerful than the Church ever was—at least in a temporal sense.