Lies, Damn Lies, and Institutions

If you take a tour with a guide in Rome or Vatican, they will tell you a nifty tale about the source of the worldly power of the papacy in Rome. The first Christian Roman emperor Constantine (bless him!) shifted his capital to Byzantium (later Constantinople) in the 4th century and left Rome to the Pope, they will tell you. It is easy to believe. The first Christian emperor is likely to have the zeal of a newly converted. A donation to the Church was in order, right?

There is one big glitch though. And a few associated “minor” ones! The big one is this. Throughout the middle ages, Roman Catholic Church claimed the same story based on a document called Donation of Constantine, through which the emperor had supposedly donated Rome (and Western Roman Empire!) to the Pope. During the time of Renaissance, though, the document was proved to be a forgery. The forgery was perhaps done in the 8th century when an actual “donation” did come to the Pope from Pepin – the King of Franks (who was a usurper and whose kingship was legitimized by the approval and blessing of two successive Popes!). But not secure in their position, they perhaps felt the need to invoke the “ancient” Constantine to give legitimacy to this new donation. We don’t like to believe in anything unless somebody in past believed in it too, right? I say these Europeans are indeed Indians!

Donation of Constantine

There are a few more reasons to not believe in the story. For example, Constantine wasn’t a Christian at the time he shifted the capital and this donation happened. He had proven himself tolerant towards Christianity with the Edict of Milan, which granted Christians the freedom to practice their religion and put a stop to their persecution. But he continued to patronize paganism and wasn’t baptized until he was on his deathbed (pious reasons have been discovered for this delay, but let’s not get into ecclesiastical debates here).

Constantine also didn’t seem to have any intention of giving away any part of his empire to anyone. A while before Constantine, Roman Empire had been divided into two parts – Eastern and Western – for administrative convenience. Otherwise, the empire had become too big to be managed by one emperor. So they had started having two co-emperors. Constantine had a co-emperor too. Until the partnership soured and he finally fought, defeated and killed his co-emperor to become the sole emperor of the empire. He is credited with unifying the Roman Empire again, not for chipping it off. The emperors that followed him also didn’t want to cede anything. Although ultimately they had to. Western Roman Empire was to collapse.

Finally, Bishop of Rome in the 4th century was not what Pope today is. He wasn’t the sole supreme leader of the Christian world. He was one of the bishops. Even among the important patriarchs, he was one of the five. In time Islam ran over the territory of three of them, Roman and Greek church parted ways, a lot of political, military and religious maneuvering happened before Rome and the papacy became the supreme symbols of Christianity (umm – just Catholicism actually).

Today the Vatican is this cute, little country sitting in the middle of Rome. Technically a theocracy, where visitor’s access is limited to only designated areas and where only Catholics can find work, it doesn’t invite outcries of bigotry or protests against “reservation” or “discrimination”. It is a harmless tourist destination, a nice eccentric piece of toy country to have. But even until the middle of 20th century, the papacy wasn’t this avuncular, harmless-looking institution. It was actively involved in the temporal politics of Italy. The compromise of leaving Vatican to them in return for them not claiming much else was arrived at by Mussolini. I suppose we could call Vatican a Donation of Mussolini.

For several hundred years now, the Rome (now the Vatican) hasn’t invoked the Donation of Constantine. But for almost 1000 years now we have known that they engaged in a forgery like that. Don’t you wonder how an institution with claims on superior spirituality survived such blatant disregard for right and wrong in pursuit of material greed? How did it not crumble under the revelation?

Well, it didn’t. It survived and it flourished. It conquered and it killed. Make what you will of human nature from this. But this is how things are with many more powerful institutions. With many powerful people too.

Time to stop wondering about how political parties, companies, and powerful individuals survive all the scandals and outrageously irresponsible behavior they engage in. There is something natural about their survival.