|reliquary bust of Charlemagne|
First of all, let’s remember the axiom: ecclesia semper reformans, semper reformanda—the Church, always reforming; always in need of reform. History has borne that out. Human nature being what it is, the Chuch—which after all is a collection of humans with all the faults and failures of the residue of original sin—keeps slipping from the ideal is Founder set for it and, like the individuals who comprise it, needs to do penance and amend its ways.
When I teach the history of the Church, the earliest reformation of the Church, or at least the Church in the West, that I treat is the Reform of Charlemagne. I suspect that one might be able to look back to Gregory the Great (c.600) and argue for a Reform, though personally I don’t see that being a time of Reform but more of a pristine idealism in a Church had had yet to be corrupted. On the other hand I am probably naïve; human nature being what it is the Church has probably needed Reform from the time of the Apostles. Some might speak of “Constantine’s Reformation”—after all he did call the Council of Nicea and he reshaped the Church to fit into the Roman world, but I guess I come out of the Niebuhr school that judges Constantine’s influence on the Church to have been deforming rather than reforming. That will be an interesting series of blog entries—the Constantinian heritage. Hmmm have to think about that.
In any event, we will start with the Carolingian Reformation—which was part of the Carolingian Renaissance—renaissances and reformations often travel together through the pages of history books. Charlemagne was faced with a problem. He had a vast empire which today would cover France, Belgium, Holland, Switzerland, most of Germany, the northeastern corner of Spain, parts of Austria, and Italy as far south as Rome. There were, in this Empire, huge variances in language, culture, and religion. When I say there were differences of religion, most of the region had been Christianized but there were significant differences in liturgy (worship practices and rites), monastic practices, and church discipline. While the pope had the title of Patriarch of the West, in actual fact he had no power and there was no central authority. Each bishop was elected in his diocese and was pretty much independent. Charlemagne wanted to unify his empire and so he decreed that there would be one language for all official business-Latin, the language of ancient Rome. And as for religion—he decided that Roman practices should be used throughout his empire. The Roman liturgical books were made standard. Now, in the ninth century liturgical books contained the texts of prayers, not the rubrics. Matters such as the number of candles on the altar, the color of vestments, when to bow or genuflect—that still varied from city to city according to the local custom. Charlemagne imposed a uniform calendar (again, allowing for additions of local usage) and the text of the prayers. Thus, for example, the Roman Canon (today’s Eucharistic Prayer I) became the standard consecratory prayer used throughout the empire. Similarly the structure of the Mass and the various collects for Sundays and major feasts were determined for all the empire, which meant practically speaking, for all Western Europe. The Roman martyrs and saints began to be venerated throughout Europe, while the memory of local saints were still honored in their home region.
Charlemagne also imposed the Roman Rule for Monks—that is the Rule of Saint Benedict—on all the monasteries of his empire. There were innumerable monasteries of nuns and monks in the ninth century and again, in various matters such as the arrangement of the monastic garb or what foods were eaten at which season, local custom remained, but in the essentials of monastic organization and discipline, Charlemagne established a uniformity. Every monastery had an abbot. Every monastery fasted from “the ides of September until Easter Day” as Benedict prescribed. The round of daily services—Matins, Vespers, Compline, etc. was followed as it was in Rome. Charlemagne also mandated that all the monasteries, at least of men, should have a school as education was very important to his program. Of course, other than future monks few attended these schools but it did preserve learning and culture. By the way, the nuns’ monasteries often had schools every bit as good as the monks’ and though they were primarily for the education of future nuns they did provide an opportunity for women to learn not only how to read and write, but Latin, music, art, astronomy, mathematics and other disciplines.
In many ways it was Charlemagne’s Reform that created a “Roman” Catholic Church although it would not be called that for several centuries. Charlemagne did his best in the Reform of the Church, but there were many issues left pending. Economically the Church was deeply immersed in the feudal system and its offices and incomes would be exploited by kings and nobles alike—bishoprics and abbacies were too often filled with men (or in the case of abbacies, with women as well as men) whose only qualification was their parentage or patronage. Monasticism was limited to the upper classes and the ordinary peasantry was relegated to a life that was more superstitious piety than Christian discipleship. The primitive Church’s idealism regarding pacificism was forgotten as the demands of political situations required warfare. Nevertheless, Charlemagne’s efforts should not be dismissed. While he did not do all the Church needed for reform, given the resources with which he had to work, he made an honest effort and it was not without its benefits, most notably in regards to education.