“From the birth of popery … it is estimated by careful and credible historians that more than 50 millions of the human family have been slaughtered for the crime of heresy by popish persecutors ….”—John Dowling
After Otto the Great died in 973, his German Empire—which he patterned after Charlemagne’s and built with the moral and spiritual support of the Catholic Church—continued as Europe’s most formidable empire. After several generations, however, it decayed into a severely weakened and fragmented state.
During the 13th century, Europe entered the valley between the third and fourth resurrections of the Holy Roman Empire.
The demise of Otto’s Germanic kingdom created a power vacuum in Europe. Before long, some of Europe’s other royal houses began positioning themselves to replace the Ottonians as the power brokers of the Continent. Following the path that Charlemagne and Otto had taken before them, the first step they took in seeking to dominate Europe was to secure the support of Europe’s ultimate spiritual authority.
The seeds of the fourth resurrection of the Holy Roman Empire were sown in the 13th century, when the Habsburg family stepped up its cooperation with the Roman Catholic Church.
The Habsburg dynasty is ancient—so old that its origins are somewhat of a mystery. Early on, the Habsburgs seemed more concerned about the legacy of their own dynasty in Germany and Austria than about world dominion. But after the decline of the German Reich founded by Otto the Great, they began cooperating more with the Vatican, with the intention of resurrecting, yet again, the Holy Roman Empire.
In 1273, Austria’s King Rudolf of Habsburg was crowned king of the Romans by Pope Gregory x in Aachen, the seat of Charlemagne’s authority. In order to receive this recognition from the church, Rudolf had to renounce his imperial rights and his claims to territory in Italy, and to issue a promise to wage a crusade. Quid pro quo, the pope persuaded Alfonso x of Castile, a rival for the imperial throne, to recognize Rudolf. Thus, the relationship between the Habsburgs and the pope began.
Although Rudolf had been declared king of the Romans, the official title of emperor of the Holy Roman Empire was not bestowed on the Habsburg rulers for another couple of generations. In 1452, Frederick iv, king of Austria, was crowned Frederick iii, the “holy Roman emperor.” That title remained in the family until the dynasty officially ended in 1806.
The greatness of the Habsburg dynasty lies more in its duration than in its dynamic leaders. Yet it did produce at least two outstanding kings who reigned successively in the 16th century: Maximilian i (1493–1519) and Charles v (1519–1556). Both these kings drastically expanded the power and influence of the Habsburgs and, of course, the Roman Catholic Church.
Maximilian laid the groundwork for an international empire encompassing most of Europe and Latin America. He did this by arranging two marriages with the Spanish houses of Castile and Aragon. In one marriage, Maximilian’s son Philip married Joanna, daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella. This union united Spain and its colonial possessions in the Americas with the Holy Roman Empire of the German nation.
Like many before him, Maximilian frequently allied with and fought for the pope. When Charles viii of France invaded Italy, Maximilian joined an alliance to drive him out. At one point he demonstrated his allegiance by turning down an offer to be made pope himself.
Encyclopedia Britannica concludes, “Great as Maximilian’s achievements were, they did not match his ambitions; he had hoped to unite all of Western Europe by reviving the empire of Charlemagne.” Though he personally failed at that task, it would continue to be pursued by his descendants.
In 1520, Charles, the son of Philip and Joanna, was crowned as Roman Emperor Charles v. Philip died before Maximilian, so Charles ended up succeeding his grandfather. Like Charlemagne and Otto, Charles was crowned in Aachen.
Before his coronation, Charles was asked the traditional questions by the archbishop of Cologne: “Wilt thou hold and guard by all proper means the sacred faith as handed down to Catholic men? Wilt thou be the faithful shield and protector of the holy church and her servants? Wilt thou uphold and recover those rights of the realm and possessions of the empire which have been unlawfully usurped? … Wilt thou pay due submission to the Roman pontiff and the Holy Roman Church?” (emphasis added throughout).
To these questions, Charles responded, “I will.”
After his coronation, he conducted himself in accordance with the conviction that the emperor reigned supreme. He went on to become one of the greatest emperors in history.
At age 19, Charles became ruler over Spanish and German dominions, including Germany, Burgundy, Italy and Spain, along with sizable overseas possessions. His kingdom became known as “the empire on which the sun never sets.”
Ten years later, in 1530, Charles was officially crowned emperor in Rome by Pope Clement vii, after Charles’s armies defeated the pope’s in 1527. In his youth, Charles was taught by Adrian of Utrecht, who went on to become Pope Adrian vi.
During Charles’s reign, vast territories in Latin America were converted to Catholicism. This began before Charles ascended to the Spanish throne. Spanish and Portuguese explorers, encouraged by the Vatican, claimed new territory for their home nations. In 1493, Pope Alexander vi gave much of the new land to Spain and, in exchange, asked Spain to convert the natives to Catholicism. Encyclopedia Britannica records that Spanish and Portuguese rulers “recognized the obligation to convert the indigenous population as part of their royal duty.” Franciscans, Dominicans, Augustinians and Jesuits traveled with the European ships. Much of the conversion of the natives took place under the reign of Charles v and his son Philip ii.
The Catholic Church quickly became the most powerful institution in Latin America. Priests were held in such great respect that they could be relied on to control the masses if the army failed. The Jesuits even had their own private armies. When the Spanish government tried to reform the Catholic Church hundreds of years later, the priests turned the population against Spain. They led Latin America to independence. The fact that this vast territory became Catholic still affects geopolitics today.
During the reign of Charles v, the fourth resurrection of the Holy Roman Empire reached its apex. Not since the days of Charlemagne had a holy Roman emperor ruled over such an immense territory.
The Vatican’s Instrument
Charles v reached the height of power while the Spanish and Roman inquisitions were raging in Europe. Although the Spanish Inquisition was started by his grandparents, Ferdinand and Isabella, Charles took it to new levels. He became a deadly weapon of the Catholic Church.
At first, the Inquisition forced the conversion of Jews and Muslims. All Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492. Then the majority of Moriscos—converted Muslims living in Spain who had retained some Islamic practices—were killed.
Charles v became king of Spain in 1516 (known as Charles i). The following year, Martin Luther produced his 95 Theses, and the Protestant Reformation began. The Spanish Inquisition was aggressively expanded into Europe and brought to full fury during the Protestant Reformation. The Inquisition proved to be an effective Counter-Reformation weapon.
Many thousands across Europe were made to convert to Catholicism or were tortured and executed by the church at this time. In his 1871 book, The History of Romanism, author John Dowling wrote, “From the birth of popery … it is estimated by careful and credible historians that more than 50 millions of the human family have been slaughtered for the crime of heresy by popish persecutors ….” Halley’s Bible Handbook corroborates this figure: “Historians estimate that, in the Middle Ages and Early Reformation era, more than 50 million martyrs perished.”
That is more than twice the population of Australia—tortured and killed for not converting to Catholicism.
Charles fought forcefully against Protestantism. In 1545, he presided over the Council of Trent, which initiated the Catholic Counter-Reformation. This reformation was the Vatican’s response to the Protestant Reformation. This response was brutal, using torture and imprisonment to bring wayward Catholics back into the fold. Germany’s Protestant princes formed the Schmalkaldic League, which Charles defeated in 1547.
However, Charles was too distracted by other wars to prevent Protestantism from getting a powerful hold over Germany, though he fought hard to stop its spread. By 1547, Lutherism had grown so strong within Germany that he was forced to recognize it.
Charles v abdicated in 1556. After his reign, the Habsburg dynasty severed along Spanish and Austrian lines. The Austrian Habsburg line still assumed the title “Roman emperors of the German nation” like their predecessors five centuries before, except they no longer pilgrimaged to Rome to be crowned by the pope. The imperial office became hereditary within the Habsburg line.
By the early 17th century, the power and might of the Habsburg empire—the fourth resurrection of the Holy Roman Empire—had begun to wane. The Protestant Reformation had considerably weakened the once-dominant church in Rome. On the secular side, the tide of power was beginning to shift toward France.
The fourth revival of the “Holy” Roman Empire was on its last leg, but the inevitable fifth revival of the Holy Roman Empire was on its way!
Sidebar: Selling Spiritual Favors
The origins of the Roman Catholic Church can be traced back to when the Apostle Peter spurned Simon Magus for attempting to buy the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:18-21). Perhaps unsurprisingly, the religion that Simon Magus founded eventually became extremely rich by selling spiritual favors.
The most famous of these was the selling of indulgences, a practice especially popular during the Middle Ages.
The church taught that men could reduce the time they would have to spend suffering in purgatory by giving money to the church. The sale of indulgences operated like a franchise, like Subway or McDonald’s: A local bishop would buy the right to sell indulgences from the papacy. This gave him permission to use the Catholic “brand,” and he then worked to profit from this purchase by selling indulgences to those in his district.
The Middle Ages version of the practice began with the Crusades. In 1095, Pope Urban ii decreed that all those who went on a crusade would have their sins forgiven, and their time in purgatory would be wiped out. At the start of the 13th century, this practice was expanded so that those who helped with money and advice were also eligible to have their sins forgiven. From then on, the church seized on indulgences as a means of gathering wealth and power. By the end of the century, it had become a political tool, given to princes to win their favor.
Indulgences were a potent method for raising money. The church profited greatly from people’s sins. Those on their deathbed could buy indulgences and go straight to heaven. Indulgences could be purchased by contributing money toward a cathedral. “Thus a period of pillage and lawlessness might also be characterized by a luxuriant crop of new monasteries, like the England of Stephen’s reign,” Paul Johnson writes in A History of Christianity.Encyclopedia Britannica notes, “From the 12th century onward the process of salvation was therefore increasingly bound up with money.”
Eventually the practice became so widespread that it became financially painful, a major grievance among the people, and one of the catalysts of the Protestant Reformation. Thus the church lost its spiritual monopoly, and with it the power to demand that its followers hand over money or suffer for untold years in purgatory. Responding to the Reformation, Pope Pius v canceled all indulgences that involved financial transactions in 1567.
However, indulgences were not the church’s only revenue raisers. One of the most hated was the death duty. When someone died, tradition dictated that an item of value be handed over to the local priest. The price varied. In some places, it was the person’s bed; for others it was his best garment; in still others it was his second-best possession (the local lord sometimes took the best). For some districts, the church’s price was as high as one third of all the man’s possessions.
This death duty was often collected no matter how poor the parishioner. And the church had a powerful tool to enforce their collection: In many cases, the church would not bury a man unless the duty was paid.
Imagine the position this would put a grieving mother or widow in. The main provider of the household may have just died, and the family would be told that unless they made significant gifts to the church, their husband and father would not be buried. He would be deprived the prayers and blessing of the church and would therefore have to suffer longer in purgatory or perhaps even burn forever in hell. The new widow would be forced to choose between risking the survival of her family or the soul of her husband.
If the family refused to pay, the church would often help itself to what it felt it was due.
For a time, the Catholic Church was the most successful protection racket in history. “During the Avignon regime, the central machinery of the church turned itself primarily into a money-raising organization,” Johnson writes. “In England, the clergy, with 1 percent of the population, disposed of about 25 percent of the gross national product. This was about average. In some parts of France and Germany the church was wealthier and owned one third to half of all real estate.”
The Catholic Church is one of the wealthiest institutions on Earth. Millions of people marvel at its magnificent possessions and awesome material splendor. But how many realize how it came by its wealth?