Early in history, the Roman papacy consolidated its power. It became one of the most influential organizations in the medieval period. This rise to power resulted from the decline in the Western Empire, the leadership of Roman bishops, and special grants that gave the church land holdings. This rise to power caused some positive ramifications, such as the protection of the church from heresy. However, the absolute power of the pope also caused corruption and abuses, many of which would eventually spark the reformation.
Rise of the Papacy
Perhaps no other event was as influential to the rise of papacy in Rome as the decline of the Roman empire. With the decline of the empire, the church became the last refuge of stability. Without the protection of the empire, Rome was subject to poverty, disrepair, and attack from enemies.1 The rise of the papacy was a response to this situation. It was further cemented by the leadership of such men as Leo I and Gregory I, the latter sometimes referred to as the father of the medieval papacy.2 Finally, the granting of lands and authority to the bishop of Rome greatly increased the power of the Roman church.3
Decline of the Empire
As the Roman Empire shifted its center of power to the East, Rome lost much of the prestige and protection it had previously enjoyed. With Constantinople as the new seat of the empire, the West was left to stand alone, often defenseless.4 Barbarians attacked Rome in AD 410, and Rome found little help from Constantinople. With the Western Empire essentially abandoned, disease, poverty and instability were rampant. Many structures had fallen into disrepair, and famine ravaged the land. Most government officials had left Rome, leaving the church as the only stable civil institution. With little oversight from the East, the people looked to the church for aid. The church rose to the challenge, providing food and supplies to those in need.5 The church also took over many the tasks the government had abandoned, such as repairing structures and overseeing the law enforcement of Rome.6 Furthermore, as the Eastern Empire neglected Rome, the popes turned to other nations and peoples for support. This would eventually lead to the crowning of Pepin, a Frank, by the papacy. This provided Rome with protection from the enemy lombards who threatened to attack. In turn, the Franks were indebted to the church, and granted the papacy extensive lands.7
The decline of the Western Empire was not the only factor contributing to the rise of the papacy. Strong leaders served to solidify the power of the Roman bishop. Through their efforts, the people began to see the Roman bishop as far more than a mere spiritual leader. They looked to the bishop for guidance in matters of state as well. An excellent example of this is found in Leo I.
In AD 452, Attila the Hun marched towards Rome, intending to conquer the Western Roman Empire. He was met by a...