In 741 Rome elected the last of its Greek speaking popes, and that man, Zachary, made two consequential decisions. We’ll look at the second of them first. It had him setting aside the Merovingian dynasty by crowning Pepin, the son of Charles Martel as king of the Franks in 750. That deposing of one monarch and crowning of another amounted to his claiming the supremacy of the papacy over all of Europe’s kings.
Zachary’s t first decision that made way for the second was his accepting a false document as genuine. The document was known as the Donation of Constantine . In it Constantine just before his death in 337 had supposedly ceded central Italy to Pope Sylvester and his successors as a papal kingdom. In good conscience popes for five centuries, feeling they needed civil independence for asserting their spiritual authority, relied on the so-called Donation of Constantine. (Scholars in 1500 saw that the document used Latin words that had not come into use until three hundred years after the death of Emperor Constantine.)
Pope Zachary gave his blessing to St. Boniface undertaking the education of King Pepin’s son Karl, and Boniface made Karl, who is known to us as Charlemagne, into an exception among princes. He could read, write, and dispute in Latin, and he had an honest desire to aid in the spread of Christianity. At age twenty-nine Karl was crowned king of the Franks. In that role he made no distinction between his power over the nation and his church. From Spain to the Balkans to Denmark he used severity in putting down opposition to both his kingdom and his church. He gave lip service to the so-called Roman emperors in Constantinople by praying for the reigning emperor in every Mass; but with none of his ministers being conversant in Greek, he had no communications with the eastern empire.
In Constantinople the emperors had long regarded the ancient schools of Alexandria as their intellectual jewels. This had them bending over backwards to maintain strong ties with Egypt during the centuries during which they were ignoring Europe’s needs and interests.
This was the case with the differing understandings of the humanity of Christ held in Egypt and Europe. From the days of St. Anthony, all Egyptians thought of our bodies as temporary prisons for our souls. With Jesus too, they thought of his body as merely the flesh that kept people from seeing his soul; and for them it was only his soul that was the real Jesus. This brought them close to denying the humanity of Jesus. At the Council of Chalcedon in 450 eastern bishops had grudgingly accepted Pope Leo’s teaching that Jesus was one person with both a human and divine nature; but afterwards they edged back toward the old Docetists’ belief that Our Lord’s body was a mirage.
This belief that the body of Jesus kept us from seeing the real Christ led them into an iconoclasm, or the practice of doing away with all pictures and statues of Jesus. For good measure, they went on to ban all images of the saints, feeling all such images drew attention away from the souls of the saints that constituted their greatness.
In 730 Constantinople’s Emperor Leo III, in a move toward placating the Egyptians, banned all images of Jesus and the saints. The Church in the west was so busy with its own concerns that it took no notice of Emperor Leo’s ban, but the monks in Greece and Syria, who loved their ancient images, rebelled. Some of them defended their sacred icons with their lives. The struggle between the rulers and the monks caused Greece to lose so many of its beloved monasteries that in 787 the Empress Irene took action. She convoked what she called the Second Ecumenical Council of Nicaea where she directed the bishops to placate the monks by approving the veneration of religious images.
At last a major action in the east caught the attention of the west. The council’s conclusion should have pleased Karl, king of the Franks, but he resented Empress Irene’s convoking a council without consulting him. What is more, by his faulty reading of the decrees of the council published in Greek, he thought it was permitting not the veneration but the adoration of sacred images. This confusion prepared east and west for breaking apart.