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Ten Things You Might Not Know about the History of the Conclave

1)      For most of the papacy’s history, popes were elected by the clergy and people of Rome through some form of acclamation. Over time, the role of the laity and the non-cardinal clergy was gradually reduced, but the possibility of the cardinals electing a pontiff through acclamation  was not removed until 1996. To this day, the people’s acclamation of the new pope continues in some form when the new pope presents himself to the crowds in St. Peter’s Square.

2)      The cardinals did not become the principal electors of the pope until 1059, but even then the laity and clergy of Rome retained the right of confirmation.

3)      It was not until 1179, at the Third Lateran Council that a formal voting procedure for the cardinals was put in place, requiring a two-thirds majority.

4)      The first conclave happened in 1271. It was a spontaneous event that occurred against the will of the cardinals. The papacy had been vacant for nearly three years and the people of Viterbo, where the 12 cardinals were gathered, had had enough. They locked the cardinals in the church and forbid them access to the outside world. Finally, the townspeople started restricting the food that entered the church and even took the roof off to expose the cardinals to the elements. Finally, they elected Blessed Gregory X pope. At the Second Council of Lyon in 1274, Gregory promulgated a decree that mandated a conclave for papal elections, modeled directly on what the people of Viterbo had done—it included the provision that after three days the cardinals were to be given only bread and water.

5)      The cardinals can elect any baptized man pope. Pope Gregory X was not even a priest when he was elected in 1271. In a matter of days he was ordained through the minor orders and the priesthood, and was consecrated bishop. He was then made bishop of Rome and pope. Pope Urban VI (1378–1389) was the last pope who was not a cardinal before election. Nevertheless, John Paul II’s 1997 apostolic constitution on papal elections lays out the procedure to be followed if the cardinals elect someone outside the college as well as someone who is not yet a bishop.

6)      In the papal election of 1417, which definitively ended the Western Schism, the conclave included 30 non-cardinal delegates representing the “nations”: France, Germany, Italy, England, and Spain.

7)      There will be 115 cardinal electors in this conclave. Historically, this is a huge number. Indeed, in the conclave of 1261, there were only seven cardinals.

8)      The first conclave held in the Sistine Chapel was that of 1492. This was 16 years before Michelangelo began working on the chapel’s remarkable frescos. In 1492, it had bare walls and ceiling.

9)      Popes have not always changed their names when elected. John II in 533 seems to have been the first to do so, but for the first thousand years of the Church’s history, it was very rare. After 996, almost every pope chose to change his name to that of a previous pope, but not all. Marcellus II, who was elected in 1555, was the last pope who kept his baptismal name. While Pope John Paul I changed his name at his election in 1978, “John Paul” was the first new papal name in over one thousand years.

10)  The Roman emperor had a significant role in the election of popes for the majority of the papacy’s history. This role was normally limited to confirmation of the candidate. Until the eighth century, new popes sent to Constantinople for their election to be confirmed by the emperor of Byzantium. After Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne “Roman Emperor” in the year 800, the right of confirmation shifted to the Franks and what would become the Holy Roman Empire. The involvement of secular governments in papal elections went through many changes, culminating in the so-called “right of exclusion” through which the cardinal representatives of France, Austria, and Spain could “veto” a papal candidate. This was last exercised by Austria in 1903, and Pope Pius X definitively abolished this “right” in 1904, laying down excommunication for any cardinal who might try to evoke it in a conclave.

Pope Benedict XVI and the History of Papal Resignations—Part IV

 . . . continued from Part III

The Schism in the Church was first and foremost a schism in the College of Cardinals, a schism that lined up generally with the sides of the contemporary Hundred Years War between England and France. Once there were two lines of popes established, however, it became very difficult to conceive of a solution. One theory that was advanced was that a council—dominated of course by the cardinals—was in fact the highest authority in the Church. What this meant was that a council could depose both popes and elect a new one. In 1409, during a period of peace in the Hundred Years War, when the belligerent countries had less interest in “winning” the schism, cardinals from both popes defected and met in council in Pisa. They deposed the rival popes and elected a third. Of course, neither the Roman nor the Avignon pope recognized the depositions as valid, and so the Church was left with three popes. This situation was totally unacceptable and whatever support the rival popes could maintain began to erode in favor of the conciliar solution. Gregory XII, the legitimate pope of the Roman line, was not willing to allow the power of the papacy to be completely gutted by a council, and so he agreed that if a council deposed the two anti-popes, he would approve its acts and then resign himself, leaving the council to elect a new pope for the whole Church. This is exactly what happened at the Council of Constance in 1415. Gregory XII resigned and became the Dean of the newly re-united College of Cardinals. The council, however, did not proceed to the election of the next pope, Martin V, until 1417, after Gregory had died. So, the potentially problematic situation of having two popes alive at the same time was avoided.

With the election of Martin V, the papacy entered a new phase in its history. The strength of the Church as an institution had been severely weakened by the schism. Not only had the papacy’s prestige been hurt immensely, but over the course of the conflict, both papal lines had traded away a great deal of their governmental powers to the various princes of Europe. By the time the schism ended, the papacy had a fraction of the institutional power in the Church that it had in the mid-14th century. In fact, it is not too much of a conceptual stretch to start seeing Europe as a collection of national churches, led by their monarchs, yet united in doctrine. The constellation of circumstances that had led to the immense power of the cardinals and to the problems of papal vacancies and ultimately schism had largely faded away, and the papacy began facing a new problem, that of how to retain its independence from powerful monarchs who had near absolute control over the churches in their kingdoms. The solution was for the popes to construct their own church/kingdom in central Italy, which became the major project of the Renaissance papacy.


As we have seen, there have been three periods in which papal resignations have occurred. In each one the resignations were an aspect of the Church’s attempts at dealing with some crisis. In the ancient period, the problem was that of persecution; in the eleventh century it was the problem of corruption and irregular elections; in the High and Late Middle Ages the problem had to do with the power of the cardinals and the interference of increasingly powerful kingdoms in the election of popes, leading to long papal vacancies. In each case, though, the resignations themselves were largely incidental to the solution to the problem at hand. What Benedict XVI is doing is, therefore, novel. Because the Holy Father seems to be suggesting papal resignation itself as the solution to the problem of aged pontiffs in the fast-paced modern world. Benedict is suggesting that the Church requires a pontiff of a certain vigor and that when he is no longer capable of performing at this level, it is appropriate for him to step down. If this is the case and if papal resignations become a viable, even a normal, way for pontificates to come to an end, it will be a development in the papal office of the same magnitude as the eleventh-century constitution of the cardinals as papal electors or the thirteenth-century establishment of the Conclave. For this reason, it is a mistake to view the primary historical interest of Benedict’s resignation to be simply that papal resignations are rare and haven’t happened in a long time. Rather, we are potentially witnessing major development in the papal office. As with so many things in the Catholic Church, only time will tell.

Pope Benedict XVI and the History of Papal Resignations—Part III

. . . continued from Part II

III. The Crisis of the Late Middle Ages—the Resignations of Celestine V and Gregory XII

The High and Late Middle Ages, from about 1140 to about 1378, are sometimes called the period of papal monarchy. During this time, the Roman Church was constructed as a centralized power, headed by the pope, and with a hand in affairs throughout Europe. The pope had universal jurisdiction both in theory and in practice; a vast judicial system was constructed, with the papal curia as the court of last appeal, and with an intricate legal code of statute and procedure, known as canon law, that would become the model for all modern legal systems. Apostolic power was interwoven into the governing systems of local churches and princes, penetrating all aspects of the social life of Europe. Christendom-wide institutions of remarkable scale, like the Crusades and the inquisitions against heresy, relied on apostolic power and were to a certain extent directed by the papacy. All this was built, ultimately, to extend the reform movement throughout Christian society. During this period, the Roman Church became not just the spiritual but the legal and institutional head of Christendom.

A part of this process was the strengthening of the cardinals. The cardinals were crucial for a number of reasons: a) the vast administration of the Church required officials. The pope could not run it himself; b) the pope needed guidance, and the cardinals, drawn from throughout Europe, were his counsel; c) power in the Middle Ages was ultimately always local, and the cardinals were integrated into the families and religious institutions of the regions from which they came, allowing the pope to make his will felt; d) the cardinals elected the pope, who was by the thirteenth century the most powerful man in Europe. For all these reasons, the relative power of the cardinals increased.

At the same time, their importance in the ecclesiology of the Church began to be constructed. Rather than simply being important members of the pope’s household, or important clergy in Rome, the cardinals were increasingly viewed as an integral part of the papacy. We start to see references to them as the pope’s body, as “sharing the secret counsel of the pope” and so sharing in his mind. We see canonists arguing that the cardinals have a sort of pre-legal power, knowing what the pope meant in his actions, of understanding the intentions of the pope at a level that conceptually trumped anything that may or may not have been put into law. Arguments begin to be advanced that when the papal see is vacant, the cardinals as a body held the plenitudo potestatis, the fullness of power.

Now, as the papacy became more powerful and the cardinals more powerful within it, the various princes of Europe became more and more concerned with the makeup of the College and the choice of the next pope. At the same time, there were increasing “national” loyalties among the cardinals—who sometimes acted as if they were representing the interests of their home kingdoms—and so the politics of the College often came to mirror that of the secular kingdoms. One of the consequences of all these developments was extremely long papal vacancies. The institutional coherence of the Church could function for a long time without a head, and the cardinals had a hard time finding candidates they could agree on. Between 1241 and 1316, the Apostolic See was vacant for over thirteen years. The longest vacancy was 38 months, from 1268 through 1269, 1270, and into 1271; but vacancies of ten months, three months, six months, became common. The laity got so desperate for a pope in 1271 that they locked the cardinals in a church, slowly started cutting their rations, and even took the roof off to expose the prelates to the elements—all to force them into a decision. The vacancies were a major pastoral and, indeed, governmental problem. Without a pope, the Church was unable to respond to changing circumstances, and the extensive judicial system slowly ground to a halt. This problem was the context for the election and abdication of Celestine V.

In 1294, the cardinals tried to break the gridlock of a two-year-nine-month vacancy by electing an outsider. They chose Pietro Di Murrone, a famous monk and hermit. Pietro reluctantly agreed and became Celestine V. Celestine was not right for the office. The papacy was an extremely powerful institution, engaged directly in international politics with such powerful personalities as King Philip the Fair of France and King Edward I (Longshanks) of England. He also had to run a massive ecclesiastical structure that was itself full of factions and political difficulties. The holy hermit was neither interested in nor capable of filling this position. The cardinals’ attempt at finding a solution to their problem through the election of a total outsider was a failure, and they began to pressure Celestine to resign, a suggestion that it seems Celestine welcomed. But before the pope abdicated, he did a number of very important things. First, he named a bunch of French cardinals—upsetting the balance of power in the College in favor of France. Second, he reinstated Gregory X’s 1274 decree Ubi Periculum, which was a formalization of the tactics used by the townspeople in 1271 and which established the conclave as the procedure by which popes were elected (it had been revoked quickly after Gregory X’s death). This time the law stuck, and we have had Conclaves ever since. Finally, Celestine stated plainly that a pope could abdicate, a statement that was quickly enshrined in canon law by his successor, Boniface VIII, in the face of opponents who were using Celestine to argue that Boniface was not a valid pope.

Boniface’s situation was tricky. The funeral of the previous pope was an integral part of the whole ritual nexus that surrounded the coronation of a pope. There was a ritual handoff from the body of the deceased pope, to the cardinals, and then to the new pope. They tried to maintain this by using the relics of previous, saintly popes in the place of Boniface’s immediate predecessor. The continued life of Celestine created a space for opposition to the new pope, even though he wanted nothing to do with it. The fear was that he would become a focus of the opposition. Because of this, Celestine was kept in the castle Fumone for the rest of his life (there is no evidence that he was mistreated).

The central problem that Celestine’s election had been an attempt to solve remained, however, and after another deadlocked conclave in 1305, Clement V was elected. Clement was from Southern France and moved the papal court to Avignon in 1309, where it stayed until 1376. During this period the papacy grew very close to the French monarchy, and many of the French cardinals felt a deep loyalty to their kingdom. When the papacy finally moved back to Rome, in the conclave of 1378, an attempt was made to regain the approval of the Romans through the election of an Italian pope, Urban VI. Urban quickly made enemies with a certain French faction of the cardinals. They claimed that his election had never been valid and held another conclave, electing one of their number and moving back to Avignon. This was the start of the Western Schism that would last 40 years and which is the context for the resignation of pope Gregory XII in 1415.

Continue to Part IV…

Pope Benedict XVI and the History of Papal Resignations—Part II

 . . . continued from Part I

II. The Crisis of the Eleventh Century—the Resignations of Benedict IX and Gregory VI

The second period in which we see papal resignations is the mid–eleventh century. In the ninth century, the papacy had separated itself from the then heretical Byzantine empire and had looked north to the Franks, crowning their king, Charlemagne, emperor of the west in 800. But Charlemagne’s empire did not long endure the monarch’s death, and by the year 900 it had virtually no presence in Rome. The papacy, therefore, entered a period of extremely local focus. The office had little jurisdictional or governmental authority outside the city of Rome, and had become an object of petty struggles between Roman aristocratic families. In 1032, one of these families managed to place a boy of about 17 on the papal throne, Pope Benedict IX.

Benedict was not a good pope. By all accounts he was immoral and irresponsible, living a dissolute life (he was, nevertheless, orthodox in all his pronouncements). In 1044, a rival family overthrew Benedict and installed Sylvester III. Benedict’s faction, however, regrouped and re-took the city from Sylvester. There were now two papal claimants. Benedict’s uncle, Gratian, was so distressed by the scandal that he tried to persuade Benedict to step down. Apparently, the only form of persuasion that Benedict responded to was money, and so Gratian “bought” the papacy from him, becoming Pope Gregory VI. A short time later, Benedict decided that this sale had been a mistake and reclaimed his throne.

Now there were three claimants. By this time the power of the Western Empire, headed by Henry III, had re-established itself in the North and was in the process of major secular and ecclesiastical reforms. Outraged by the affairs in Rome, Henry intervened by calling a council. The council declared Benedict IX and Sylvester III deposed, while Gregory VI resigned on account of his simoniacal election. Pope Clement II, a favorite of the emperor, was then elevated to the papacy. But this was not the end of Benedict IX. When Clement II died in 1047, Benedict IX returned to the papal throne for a short time before being driven from Rome by the emperor and replaced with Damasus II. In all this mess, it is impossible to sort out valid resignations and valid elections. But we can certainly say that there were at least two papal resignations—both of which occurred under pressure and toward the end of eliminating corruption.

There were several interconnected problems that the Church was facing. First was the procedure for electing a new pope. The College of Cardinals didn’t exist yet, and the cardinals themselves were simply important members of the Roman clergy. The election of the pope proceeded in a largely ad hoc manner. A candidate was basically acclaimed by the clergy and people of Rome. In reality, of course, this lack of procedure opened the door for the corruption of secular politics to penetrate the whole electoral process. Furthermore, if the clergy and people acclaimed the pope, what happened when two groups of clergy and people acclaimed two different men? If this happened, when there were rivals for the throne, who was the judge? The emperor?

The reforming popes—starting with St. Leo IX (1049–54), who came in on the heels of the scandalous events of the mid–eleventh century—had been brought in from the North, from well outside the Roman milieu, by the German Emperor. They were to clean up Rome, and they set about doing so. But as much as they owed their position to the emperor’s power and agreed with him about ecclesiastical reform, they were extremely uncomfortable with his role in deposing and electing popes. The introduction of a power capable of judging the pope was not the solution to the Church’s problem.

And so, in 1059, Pope Nicholas II issued an edict that established the cardinals of Rome as the papal electors. Their choice still had to be acclaimed by the clergy and people, and confirmed by the emperor, but only a candidate of their choice could become pope. This was rejected by the Germans as prejudicial to the rights of the emperor, and the Germans, attempting to operate according to the old “rules,” tried to depose Nicholas and replace him with another. This ushered a long period of conflict between the emperors and the Roman popes. Seven out of the next ten popes faced anti-popes.

By the 1140s, this conflict ended with the victory of the reform party. Not only did the papacy retain control of itself; it could definitively assert control over the spiritual dimensions of the clergy throughout the Church, including the bishops. This was crucial to extending the reform movement out of Rome and throughout the Church, which became the program for the next 160 years. The resignations that occurred in this period were a part of the process of ending one way of doing things that was no longer congruent with the social reality and replacing it with another. This was a painful experience that resulted in decades of schism and even outright war.

Continue to Part III…

Pope Benedict XVI and the History of Papal Resignations—Part I

Pope Benedict XVI’s announcement that he intends to resign from the Chair of Saint Peter has rightfully sent shock waves through the Church. It is an epochal development. This is so not just because papal resignations are rare, but because this time things are different. We are potentially witnessing a development as significant as the medieval emergence of the cardinals as the sole papal electors. The way pontificates end has never been problematic for the Catholic Church—they have ended with the natural death of the pope. Rather, it has been the election of popes that has been the focus of institutional development. With Benedict’s announcement, however, he seems to be acknowledging that it is necessary for the Church to develop a new “normal” way in which a pontificate might come to an end.

This is a very big deal. It’s not that there haven’t been papal resignations before. In fact, it has happened somewhere between five and nine times in Church history. In each case, however, the resignations have occurred within the context of a greater crisis in the Church, and have involved issues surrounding papal legitimacy and papal succession. Also, in each case, the pope was under great pressure to resign. Things are different with Benedict.

The best way to see these differences is by a detailed look at past resignations. These can easily be fit into three distinct periods in Church history: the Early Church, the eleventh century, and the late Middle Ages. In each period, the resignations occurred in the context of very different crises, but there are certain threads that tie all of them together. This is the first in a series of posts that will go through these three periods, exploring what was happening in the Church that led to the exceedingly rare papal resignations. By the end, we will hopefully be able to place Benedict XVI’s resignation in enough historical context to begin to understand its significance.

I. The Crisis of the Early Church—the Possible Resignation of Martin I

In the first period of resignations, the Church faced the crisis of persecution at the hands of the Roman emperors. We have three popes that are sometimes said to have abdicated between 235 and 366. St. Pontian (230–235) and Liberius (352–366) were both sent into exile by the emperor and may have abdicated the papal throne in order to allow for a new papal election. The evidence that these events happened, however, is extremely weak, and as good a case can be made that the resignations never happened.

It is sometimes asserted, based on thin evidence, that under torture St. Marcellinus (296–304) offered sacrifice to the Roman idols and resigned from his office before he repented and was martyred. While St. Augustine argued that this was not true of Marcellinus, the truth is that the extant evidence is inadequate to piece together the events.

The one clear but odd case is that of St. Martin I (649–655), the last of the martyr popes. St. Martin refused to accept the Byzantine emperor’s Monothelite heresy, and so was sent into exile as a slave laborer. After several years, the Romans elected Eugenius I pope. Sometime later Martin wrote a letter in which he makes reference to Eugenius approvingly. The details are unclear, but it does not seem to be the case that Martin resigned in any sort of formal manner. Rather, he seems to have retroactively acknowledged Eugenius. There is not enough clear evidence to make strong conclusions about this period. Nevertheless, the central problem in play is popes who were incapable of performing their office because of persecution—a problem that would not be ultimately solved until the papacy was no longer subject to the secular power of the emperors.

Continue to Part II…

Mardi Gras

The casual observer would be forgiven for failing to recognize Mardi Gras as a centuries-old Christian event. Indeed, there seems little Christian about the contemporary spectacle. It is a party different only in scale from the parties of any given Friday night. But there once was a time, in the late Middle Ages, when Mardi Gras was an important part of the liturgical year, when the whole Carnival season—of which it is the culmination—was an integral part of the cycle of Christian life. It was the necessary companion to Lent. But what is really fascinating is that even then it was a giant party, filled with debauchery, the mockery of religion, and the upturning of the social order. What are we to make of this? It seems paradoxical to the contemporary Christian mind, shaped as it is by the rigorously rational moral and theological perspective of modern thought. How could an enduring aspect of Christian culture be seemingly devoid of Christian content?

In the Middle Ages, Carnival was a time when the order of Christian society was undone. Not only was it a time of rampant gluttony, drinking, and general license, but it was filled with rituals of mockery of the established order. There was a king of Carnival, a jester or beggar, who mocked the real king. There was a boy bishop who would officiate at mock Masses and discipline the clergy, who (embracing the absurdity) submitted to the authority of the child prelate. The solemn liturgical procession was replaced with an unruly parade of the farcical and grotesque. It was a spectacle. Many historians and anthropologists have tried to “unpack” Carnival and undercover its “meaning.” Predictably, they tend to see Carnival as an act of subversion on the part of “folk culture” against the repressive and stuffy culture of the upper classes, or else they see Carnival as a “release valve” that allowed the masses to escape from the rigors of Christianity and blow off steam. I find these explanations to be wholly inadequate. They are attempts at shoving Carnival into modern categories of psychology, social discipline, and class conflict. Indeed, it is a mistake to view Carnival as an exception to the Medieval Christian order. Rather, it was something that had a place in Christendom because of how Christians themselves understood and practiced Christianity: in the late Middle Ages in many parts of Europe everyone from the peasant to the noble, to the priest and bishop participated—it was a part of what Christians did.

I’m not sure there is an easy explanation for Carnival. It is only with extreme difficulty that we moderns can set aside our relentlessly scientific categories of thought and so understand what the revelers were up to. But I do think that it had something to do with their understanding of sin and with their understanding of time.

In the Middle Ages there was a certain acceptance of sin. I do not mean by this that sin was okay—far from it. Rather, the fallen-ness of the world was somehow more accepted. Prostitution offers an example. Prostitution was never condoned. It was a sin. Saving prostitutes was a praised act of charity, and the evil of fornication was a regular topic of the Church’s moral exhortation. Nevertheless, only very rarely did someone try to stamp out prostitution—most of the time it seems to have been recognized as a feature of social life. Only in the beginning of Modernity did the idea emerge that all of society could be perfected through the eradication of sin and the disciplining of the populace. Before this modern theological and political trend, the tendency was to see sin and redemption as bound up together in a sort of drama—albeit one whose plot was known.

It was in this drama that Carnival had a place—but only a temporary one, which raises the issue of time. To the medieval mind there were really two courses of time. There was the linear time of sequence—one thing came after the next, forever—and there was the higher order time through which the transcendent came into contact with the immanent. This higher order of time “spiraled” around the linear, manifesting itself in the liturgical cycle. For example, the celebration of Holy Week 1253 would have been understood as “closer” to the actual passion, crucifixion and resurrection of Christ than would the literal week after the events in the first century. In the higher order of time, significant events of the past transcended sequence and escaped the abyss of the past. They were re-experienced, they came around again and again, and the living participants partook of their essential reality. Before the reign of Grace, there had been a time of the reign of the body, of the flesh, when sin was not recognized as such; it was a time of moral and social chaos. It seems to me that Carnival was a participation in this part of the drama of redemption. And it was fun. It was fun in the same sort of way that the prodigal son in his “far country” no doubt had fun, a fun that led ultimately to an empty and desperate life of self-loathing that could only be redeemed through a profound humbling, through begging to be allowed once more into the Father’s household, now as a slave. And so, Carnival transitioned suddenly into Lent, the time of penance and prayer, which itself ended with Easter. At Easter the faithful received the then infrequent sacraments of Confession and Eucharist and were fully incorporated into the body of Christ that was the Church. There was coherence to this sequence, a congruency between salvation history and the people’s social and ritual life.

It was only with the modern conception of time as a ubiquitous “field” on which events are played and which can be captured absolutely by the regular ticking of the stop watch that the liturgical, higher order of time receded from the Christian world-view. This combined with the modern conception of sin and of the perfectibility of society led to the loss of whatever place in Christian culture the non-sequitur absurdity of Carnival once held.

Is all this to say that the excesses of Medieval Carnival were okay, that the reformers of the modern period were wrong to condemn them as immoral? I don’t think so. Certain aspects of Carnival were immoral—that was the point. But, they were immoral in a different way than those of the typical modern affair. I think on Bourbon Street very few wake Wednesday morning and set out on the arduous, Lenten path to Easter; And without Lent and Easter, Mardi Gras is no longer a “world turned upside down,” but is rather business as usual—this is rightly condemned. Medieval Carnival is difficult to understand. It was an aspect of a culture of which little remains, and it is a mistake to think that it could or should be replicated in the modern context. Nevertheless, I do think that if our observance of Lent and Easter became a bit deeper and more rigorous, we would probably find ourselves enjoying Tuesday night a bit more.


Mardi Gras Sale

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Catechism of the Catholic Church Collection
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Haydock’s Bible Commentary

Verbum is hiring

2012 was an incredible year for the Catholic department here at Logos. We produced a lot of terrific resources, and our own brand—Verbum. 2013 is shaping up to be even better. We have big plans and are looking for some help. If you or someone you know wants to work for a great company, doing great things, please check out our job posts here.

Introducing Logos 5 – Verbum!

Logos Bible Software 5 is here! Logos 5 has been years in the making and it’s full of powerful new tools and exciting features. But we have even more reason to be excited because Logos 5 has a Catholic version –Verbum—with all the functionality of Logos 5 and designed with Catholics in mind.

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Verbum is jam-packed with new features and datasets. For example, the clause search lets you do amazing things like find every sentence in the Bible that Jesus is the subject and Peter is the indirect object, even if pronouns are used.

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The Technology of Scripture Study: The Renaissance

A couple weeks ago, I wrote a post about the technology of Scripture study in the Middle Ages. In it, I explained how medieval monks and scholars approached Scripture as an organic aspect of the living Tradition. The Bible was understood primarily within a liturgical context, and it was studied primarily within a paradigm of memorization in which the Scripture text, along with its glosses, was incorporated into the believer’s very personality. In the typical Bible, the text was literally surrounded by the texts of the tradition, and Scripture’s primary existence was in the hearts and minds of the living Church—there was no hard line between Scripture and Tradition, past and present.

To the thinkers of the Middle Ages, the present was simply a continuation of the periods that had preceded it—they understood history as continuity. The Renaissance humanists, however, posited a historical narrative of rupture. To these scholars, the accomplishments of the ancient Greeks and Romans represented the pinnacle of civilization. From those heights, the West had descended into a thousand years of barbarity, and the humanists saw themselves as pulling Christendom up from this decline, from these “middle ages” (as they called the period), again to the level of the ancients.

This movement was primarily literary in orientation, and the humanists were obsessed with language. They found medieval Latin crude and championed, instead, the formal, intricate style of the classical rhetoricians. They studied this style and emulated it and, in doing so, contributed to the fossilization of Latin, to its conversion from a living to a dead language. After the Renaissance, the Latin taught throughout Europe was the language of a bygone age, of Cicero, rather than the living language of the contemporary Church.

This rupture, this passing over of the Middle Ages, was manifested in the manner in which scholars approached texts. Scholars of the Middle Ages tended to approach texts as participants in a perpetual dialogue. For example, they studied Roman Law because it was understood to enshrine timeless truths of legal reason, truths that had immediate application. The Renaissance scholars, on the other hand, tended to approach texts as artifacts of a distant past. They were far less interested in what Roman Law could tell them about political reality and far more interested in what the Roman code could tell them about the Romans, about the time and place in which it was written. They were interested in historical context, in the shifting meaning of words, in the scientific study of the text as a text. If the scholars of the Middle Ages sought, through meditation, to bring literary texts into their own personalities, Renaissance scholars sought to push the texts away from themselves, seeking an objective vantage point from which to dissect them and understand them on their own terms.

The biblical scholars of the period approached Scripture in the same way. They sought the pure text—the text as it had been originally written—and the meaning within its historical context. The medieval Bibles, filled with illuminations, and bursting with the centuries’ glosses, gave way to the scientific text; of what objective value, after all, were the thoughts of some random eight-century monk? Rather, what the Renaissance scholars wanted was Scripture as it had been composed—both its text and its meaning. They turned to the Greek and Hebrew, studying the Bible more as a historical text than as a living, liturgical utterance. And so the glossed Bibles faded away and were replaced by such seminal marvels as the Complutensian Polyglot and Erasmus’ Greek New Testament.

This movement corresponded exactly with the invention of the printing press. Whereas in the Middle Ages, each Bible was the unique manifestation of sometimes centuries of tradition, the printing press could produce thousands of identical copies. This demanded a single text, a fundamental text that could serve as the printers’ source. Such a technological need was directly congruent with the humanist approach to historical texts, and so the humanists set to work producing critical editions, taking into account the various manuscript traditions, reconciling them, sorting out what they deemed to be corruptions from later ages, and finally producing the “text” as they supposed it to have been written. This text was printed, translated, and disseminated as a stand-alone book, without glosses or adornment. It was the Bible in this form that would become “the Bible” as we tend to think of it today. But its development was not complete. The tradition and liturgical aspects of the Scripture may have been removed from the physical book, but the fight over these facets of the Christian heritage was only just beginning, and it was over the course of the Reformation that the conceptions of Scripture that corresponded to its new form would definitively take shape—but this is a topic for another post.

St. Benedict, Benedict XVI, and the Conversion of Europe

It’s often said that Benedictine monasticism saved Western civilization during the Dark Ages. Normally, we think of an ink-stained monk huddled over manuscripts in a damp scriptorium, straining in the inadequate light of a flickering candle, copying books that no one knows how to read that they might not be lost to the centuries. This is a heroic and romantic notion, one not totally devoid of truth. But the story of the Benedictine monks is far, far more interesting. It’s not so much that the Order of St. Benedict saved Western civilization as that they built a new civilization. The Europe that emerged in the Middle Ages and grew into the modern West was a combination of the Roman and the Germanic, and it was the monks, more than anyone else, who gave it life.

St. Benedict of Nursia lived in the late fifth and early sixth centuries in central Italy. He started several communities of religious men and wrote his famous Rule to govern their lives. It is a beautifully Roman rule. Benedict took the ascetical teachings of the East and adapted them to the Roman personality. The Rule is concerned with the decidedly Roman virtues of stability, order, and moderation. Even the layout of the Benedictine monastery was based on the Roman villa, and Benedict’s insistence on the absolute authority of the written Rule was likewise Roman. Indeed, the great historian R. W. Southern referred to the Rule as the last great piece of Roman legislation; it was characterized by romanitas, the normative value of Roman culture. But interestingly, Benedictine monasticism was not a Roman phenomenon. After Benedict’s lifetime, which saw the start of the devastating Gothic Wars, there isn’t evidence of a single Roman monastery following the Rule until the tenth century. Rather, it was in faraway England, and then Gaul and Germany, that the Rule thrived.

St. Gregory the Great had sent missionaries to the Anglo-Saxons in the early seventh century. By this time, most of western Europe no longer lay within the Roman world, having been overcome by Germanic tribes. These missionaries carried with them the Benedictine Rule and the notion of romanitas. In the late seventh century, the protégées of these missionaries crossed back over the channel to Gaul and Germany. They found immediate patronage under the Carolingian clan of the Franks and began to imbue the Franks with romanitas and spread the Benedictine Rule. Profoundly affected by these monks, the Carolingian kings adopted Roman customs and increasingly looked to the papacy in Rome as the Church’s spiritual head. They also built thousands of monasteries. Within these monasteries, the Germanic and Roman cultures grew together in a profoundly liturgical culture that shared with the Roman a focus on moderation, law, and literacy and with the Germanic a focus on action and social solidarity. The monks of the Carolingian Empire were no hermits living divorced from their brothers in the world. Rather, their spiritual warfare against the devil was the direct counterpart to the armies’ warfare against the worldly enemies of the kingdom—the two sides of the conflict were understood to rise or fall together.

At about this time, the papacy in Rome was drifting away from the Eastern Roman Empire centered in Constantinople. The distant Eastern emperors were increasingly unable to protect the papacy from the Lombards, who had conquered most of Italy in the sixth century, and so the popes began looking for more local help. When the emperors in the East adopted the iconoclast heresy, the popes turned north to the Carolingians for protection, and what they found was a kingdom imbued with romanitas and full of monasteries. The Franks swept into Italy, conquering the papacy’s enemies and setting up the foundations of the papal state. This move culminated on Christmas Day 800 when Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne emperor of the Roman Empire. With this realignment, Catholic Europe was born, a synthesis of the Germanic and the Roman—but a profoundly orthodox synthesis. The liturgical and monastic developments of the Franks, including the Benedictine Rule, spread to the Roman Church, while the Romans influenced the Franks in legal and doctrinal matters. Together, the popes and the Carolingian kings built Western Christendom.

The great melting pots of this exciting story were the Benedictine monasteries. It was the monks who brought the Roman and the Germanic together within the bounds of orthodoxy and who created a Christian culture that both preserved the fruits of classical civilization and adapted and grew over time.

There’s a fascinating lesson here for the contemporary Church. The faith in the West is weakening; there’s no doubt about that. It’s under assault. But Christianity is growing in new and unexpected ways throughout the world from seeds planted by Western missionaries; the West’s culture is mingling with non-Western, traditional, or even postmodern cultures in dynamic orthodoxy. It seems very likely that it is from this dynamic that Europe will rediscover the Faith. Pope Benedict XVI has often remarked that he chose St. Benedict as the patron of his reign because the saint points to the Christian roots of Europe. The pope, like Pope John Paul II before him, has often looked backward in order to see the way forward—in this regard, and for the conversion of Europe, it seems to me that the current pope is very aptly named.


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