Friday, July 13, 2012

Holy Roman Saxon

Today is the feast day of St. Henry II, Holy Roman Emperor. He was the last ruling member of the Saxon dynasty of the Holy Roman Empire that had been created by Otto the Great. He did not succeed his father on the throne; rather he succeeded, if I recall correctly, his second cousin, Otto III, who had died childless. He was a savvy political operative: he had been on his way to assist Otto III who was under siege when Otto had died; Henry quickly took over all the royal insignia in order to reduce the possibility of a nasty succession dispute then spent some years steadily consolidating his power against those of his cousins who thought they deserved it more. Standard operating procedure, if you ever happen to be the newly ascendant Holy Roman Emperor: work very, very quickly to get across to the almost-Emperors that almost is not enough. This sometimes meant some rather bloody episodes, especially in the hornet's nest that was eleventh-century Italy. Like his predecessors, and especially Otto the Great, he knew how to maneuver with regard to the Church: he vigorously supported Catholic bishops, but always in ways that were politically useful. You can look at almost everything he did and see at least two reasons for it. For instance, he was an enthusiastic supporter of the spreading standard of clerical celibacy. Why? Because it reduces the chances that church property and power will be passed down as private property and dynastic power, which both purifies the Church and reduces the political danger of bishops amassing enough power over generations to challenge the Emperor, but at the same time makes possible an influential class of non-nobles who can be allies against the nobles. That is, of course, how you will have to think yourself if you ever become Holy Roman Emperor: everything has to be weighed not merely in terms of whether it is good, but whether it conduces to the peace, order, stability, and prosperity of the Empire.

But it does make him not what you would expect to see on the calendar of saints. Cunning and occasionally brutal, he used the Church itself as an instrument of power in good Ottonian fashion. He had an undeniably genuine respect for the God, the Church, and the Faith -- but bishops themselves he saw as political agents, and he trusted them as far as he trusted any other political agents, and no farther -- which is to say, he made no concessions to them he did not have to make. But people aren't on the calendar because they had good policies or even because they are obviously admirable (although on many points Henry did and was); they are on the calendar because they have imitable virtues of extraordinary value that are seen in their service to Christ. One can question Ottonian policy, but Henry really cared. He wasn't a cynical manipulator, he wasn't a self-aggrandizer; he devoted himself to the utmost to God and to the good of his people as best he knew how. Even when he was very sick he continue to travel all over his dominions -- not a small feat, especially in those days -- to fix problems and maintain peace. It was not for nothing that he was remembered as Good King Henry, and it is not for nothing that he is the only Holy Roman Emperor to be canonized.

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