why was the roman catholic church so powerful

Oh dear. Don't let one of the numerous Orthodox posters around here catch you saying that. The Papacy was utterly powerless from the beginning of the office through at least the 8th century. The first instances we see of the Pope taking prerogative is in the mid-seventh century, through conflicts with the still Roman Emperor in Constantinople. The Emperor, through negligence or merely circumstance, was unable to properly govern and secure the territory of Italy and the city of Rome, straining relations between the two. Shortly afterward the iconoclast controversy began, straining relations further and prompting the Papacy to begin making good on its claims as head authority (claims that date back to the fourth century). Meanwhile, the political situation continued to stagnate until Pope Stephen II traveled over the Alps to visit the newly-crowned King Pepin of the Franks and enlist his aid against the Lombards.


The Romans/Byzantines, and later Orthodox Christian observers (who of course at the time were all one in the same) saw this as nothing short of treachery, claiming that the Pope as an imperial subject had no right to act as such. The Papacy, however, owing to the turmoil of the previous generations, saw things differently. When the Franks invaded Italy and squashed the majority of Lombard power, the land that was seized -- previously part of the Roman Exarchate of Ravenna, was not returned to imperial control, but to the Papacy to hold in trust. Further agreeements -- based mainly on one of the greatest forgeries of all time, the Donation of Constantine -- laid forth the division of Lombard lands and served as the power base of the Papacy.


As time went on and the alliance between the Pope and the Franks continued, the Pope found himself strong enough, as the head of Rome and what were referred to as the Roman lands,
Romagna, to venture to crown an Emperor himself, beginning a dynamic relationship between Pope and crown that elevated each to higher positions with each passing generation, though bringing with it new conflict. That's at least a very rough and brief introduction into where the Papacy established itself as a temporal and material power. It's highly contentious as well, owing to the religious and political discord of the time with a certain weakened, but still powerful polity to the east.


The legality of the Pope's moves is extremely fuzzy. This relationship between people and church was essentially based on money - hence the huge wealth of the Catholic Church. Rich families could buy high positions for their sons in the Catholic Church and this satisfied their belief that they would go to heaven and attain salvation. However, a peasant had to pay for a child to be christened (this had to be done as a first step to getting to heaven as the people were told that a non-baptised child could not go to heaven); you had to pay to get married and you had to pay to bury someone from your family in holy ground.

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