For 100 years or more, most western countries have worked on the axiom that our common life together ought to be deliberately secular. Religion in a free society may be acceptable as a private activity, like knitting or going to the gym, but it has no proper place in the spheres of politics, economics or citizenship.
The rise of militant Islam, like the influence of the Christian Right on American foreign policy and, perhaps more encouragingly, the role of the Catholic Church in the overthrow of Polish Communism, might suggest that in the real world things are not necessarily quite so simple.
That much, at any rate, was understood in the Middle Ages, where everyone accepted that religion – the fundamental understanding of life, death, the Universe and everything – was liable to have an impact on the way that society was organised.
Furthermore, for almost 1,000 years the Church was deeply embedded in every social structure. Religion was as inescapable as the church towers that dominated the local landscape, pointing the way to heaven but resting on solid, earthly foundations.
If the Church impinged on the world, the world also impinged on the Church. The Church was rich,
so men who cared little for Christ’s message still wanted a slice of the action. Wealthy families endowed charities for their souls’ sakes, but they also jostled to have their sons made bishops and abbots, to tap the Church’s wealth and influence.
From these entanglements not even the papacy was exempt. Central Italy was in political chaos at the end of the first millennium and the popes were forced to rely on powerful families around Rome to protect and enable their work.
Since there is no such thing as a free lunch, the result was a century of aristocratic nonentities appointed pope by local mafiosi. Most of these popes were mediocre; some were very bad indeed.
The papacy retained symbolic prestige as custodian of the heritage and tomb of Peter, but its moral stature shrank as it dwindled to an insular Italian possession.
All that changed for ever in the year 1046 when the German king, Henry III, came to Rome to be anointed Holy Roman Emperor. The popes had invented the Empire two and a half centuries earlier to recruit a powerful ruler as God’s policeman.
FULL STORY The German Pope who took on the secular world (Catholic Herald)