The Sacred Roots of Modern Government

May 24, 2023 by

By Jesse Russell, Public Discourse.

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.

Read here.

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