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The Papacy


The aim of this narrative is to outline the nature of the conflict between church and state in the Middle Ages. It concentrates on the papacy because the issues were laid bare most clearly there and because the events themselves were dramatic.

In order to appreciate the conflict, however, it is necessary to understand the basis for papal claims to universal authority. It is also helpful to know in broad outline the development of the papacy during the late Empire and the early Middle Ages. Once that is done, then the narrative takes up the mighty conflict between emperor and pope that is known as the Investiture Struggle.

Foundations of Papal Authority

On what basis, by what authority, did the Bishop of Rome claim power over all other bishops and over all Christians? Some of the claim was based on biblical passages, but some of it derived from political and cultural realities.

Being bishop of an important city naturally gave increased stature, and Rome was (until the 4th century) the most important city in the western world. It certainly gave the Roman bishop automatic prestige in the western Mediterranean, where there were no other cities to rival it. In the east, however, there were rivals indeed: Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, Constantinople. The bishop of this latter city never did bow to Roman claims.

But tradition conferred further special prestige on Rome. It was a city of martyrs. The first persecutions, instigated by Nero, were at Rome. Peter himself was martyred at Rome.

Moreover, no heresy had ever flourished at Rome, a fact that gained increasing weight in the later Empire. The East was a hotbed of heresy and cities such as Alexandria were permanently tainted by the fact, especially since some of their own bishops had been leading figures in the heresies. The Bishops of Rome, and their flock, had generally remained constant.

Prestige builds prestige. Especially in the west, Rome gradually became the arbiter of theology and church authority. By the 5th century, it was generally acknowledged that any bishop deposed by a local council could appeal his case to the bishop of Rome. Eastern bishops could and did take advantage of this as well.

But none of this would have supported papal claims later in the Middle Ages, when the city of Rome no longer commanded such automatic respect. But the bishop of Rome could point also to the Bible to buttress his claims.

Foundations of Papal Authority (Continued)

In the Bible, there are passages in which Jesus gives some very specific instructions to Peter. Roman Catholic teaching always placed St. Peter as the first Bishop of Rome. Roman tradition also had Peter pass on his authority to his successor, and medieval popes claimed to be in this direct line of inheritance from the Christ himself.

The Biblical passages are worth quoting. Perhaps the most important is in Matthew 16: 18-19; it is the reply of Jesus to Peter when Peter acknowledged him as the Christ:

And I say to thee, thou art Peter (petrus) and upon this rock (petra) I will build my Church and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth it shall be bound in Heaven and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth it shall be loosed in Heaven.

Jesus gave a kind of guarantee given to Peter, and hence to all the popes, in Luke 22:32. Christ says to Peter: "I have prayed for thee that thy faith may not fail."

Another charge frequently quoted was in John 21: 15-17, where Christ gave Peter the threefold command: "Feed my lambs. . . . Feed my lambs. . . . Feed my sheep." Clearly, the popes were the custodians of the church.

It is worth remembering that "the Church" (ecclesia) was understood to be the body of all believers. That is, the Church was not merely the formal administration and government of bishops and priests, but the entire society of Christians. If the traditional of apostolic succession (the inheritance of power and authority directly from the apostles) were taken seriously, the popes could claim vast powers.

Early Popes

There were Christians in Rome at least by 49 AD. St. Paul preached there 61-63 AD and was executed there in 67 AD. St. Peter, by tradition, also preached and died there around the same time. So the city could claim an ancient Christian lineage.

There is no evidence this early of a bishop in Rome. Those who governed the Christian churches were called episcopos or presbyter (both Greek words -- the early Church was strongest in Greek lands), and those words were never applied to Peter or Paul.

The first lists of bishops of Rome that we have date from 160-185 AD they make St. Paul and St. Peter the founders of the church of Rome. Not long after, we have documents that claim that Peter was the first bishop of Rome. These same documents claim that Peter made Clement his successor by a laying on of hands -- a transferral of spiritual powers.

The first bishop to claim primacy (in writing, anyway) was Stephen I (254-257). The timing is significant, for it falls during the worst of the tumults of the third century. There were several persecutions during this century and they hit the Church of Rome hard. Pope Xystus II (257-258), along with most of the members of the church of Rome, was martyred by the emperor Valentinian. Pope Marcellinus (296-304) apostasized during the persecutions of Diocletian.

But then came the miracle of Constantine's conversion, and suddenly the church at Rome was saved. And yet, Constantine created an even more serious threat by removing the capitol to Byzantium.

It can be no accident that Pope Damasus I (366-384) was first to claim that Rome's primacy rested solely on Peter, and was the first pope to refer to the Roman church as "the Apostolic See". The prestige of the city itself was no longer sufficient; but in the doctrine of apostolic succesion the popes had an unassailable position.

Papacy in the Late Empire

Christianity was finally tolerated under Constantine, with the church enjoying most favored status although other religions were also tolerated. Rome benefitted from the emperor's attentions.

The Lateran palace was handed over in 312 to bishop Miltiades as an episcopal residence. The first of the churches was erected over St. Peter's shrine in the Vatican by Constantine. The way was cleared, but there were no remarkable popes for many years. In fact, it took a crisis before one emerged.

Leo I (440-461)
Leo was a Roman noble who entered the Church and eventually became Bishop of Rome. It was he who bargained with the Huns in 453 and averted a sack.

Leo was the first to state the Petrine doctrine outright, saying that he was the "heir" of St. Peter and that Christ had appointed Peter as head of his church. He said that all bishops were heirs to the apostles (this was general belief at the time), and that Peter was the chief of the apostles. The Bishop of Rome was therefore the chief of all bishops.

The Papacy hit a low point in 6th century. Silverius (536-37) was deposed by force and died in a penal colony. Vigilius (537-55) was harried and imprisoned. " Pelagius I (556-561) was unworthy but was forced on the Church by Justinian.

Still, as weak as the popes of this time were as individuals, their theoretical position could not deteriorate. Papal claims waited only on a strong leader to make them good.

Pope Gregory I (590-604)

Gregory was the son of a wealthy noble Roman family, who entered on a political career and became the prefect of the city of Rome. In 574 he entered a monastery. By 579 he was serving in diplomatic missions to Constantinople. He was elected pope in 590.

Rome in 590 was a city that was falling apart. The civil administration was collapsing and people were starving. Lombards threatened the city and there was no one to organize its defense. Criminals went free because the courts were in chaos. Buildings were collapsing and no one was repairing them.

Gregory I and Rome

Although Gregory was strictly speaking only the Bishop of Rome, he became in fact the ruler of the city. His noble background and his public career gave him an interest in administrative matters and there was much to tend to.

Gregory used the resources of the Church to buttress the failing city. He organized the church lands in southern Italy to feed the people of Rome. He himself took a hand in their administration, setting prices and choosing markets. He used income from the estates to ransom prisoners from the barbarians and to endow churches, hospitals and schools.

He actively intervened in the affairs of other bishops, settling disputes, and further elevated the status of the Church of Rome above that of other cities.

Mission to England

He furthered the prestige of the papacy, too, by initiating missions to the pagans. The story, probably apocryphal, has it that in 597 Gregory saw slaves offered for sale in a Roman market. They had blue eyes and blond hair and Gregory on the spot decided to convert these beautiful barbarians.

They were English slaves. Gregory despatched Augustine (not Augustine of Hippo, who lived much earlier) to England, who converted the English king a few years later. England has remained Christian ever since.

This mission began an unbroken tradition of the popes as the sponsors of missions to the pagans. This, too, buttressed the authority of the papacy, for the popes had a direct authority over the missionary territories.

Gregory and the Church

Gregory is counted one of the Church Fathers, along with Jerome, Augustine and Ambrose. He earned this not only for the activities already cited, but also for his writings.

One of the most influential of these was his Book of Pastoral Care, a handbook of common-sense instructions to preachers and bishops. It was one of the first books ever written in English (was translated from Latin original) and was widely read throughout Middle Ages.

Gregory also wrote music. He is the creator of the Gregorian chant.

Gregory set the Church of Rome firmly on the path to temporal power; he was the real founder of the medieval papacy. Given how the world was falling apart, he was a truly inspiring leader, no least because he did not despair.

Later Popes, up to 900

Leo III (795-816): the one who appealed to Charlemagne for help and eventually crowned him on Christmas Day, 800. Leo's action would serve as precedent for later popes who claimed the right and power to make (and unmake) emperors.

Nicholas I (858-867): A strong pope, who rebuked Lothair II, king of Lotharingia (855-869) for an illegal second marriage. Nicholas actually compelled Lothair to take his first wife back. He also deposed two German bishops who had supported the king in the matter. The letters exchanged in this affair provided important precedents for later popes.

Some time during the 9th century were created some papal decrees that affirmed that bishops could be deposed only by the pope, not by lay lords. Although forgeries, for they claimed to date from much earlier, they were generally accepted as genuine during the Middle Ages.

Also during this time was created the Donation of Constantine. Also a forgery, it was a document in which the Emperor Constantine allegedly gave the lands of central Italy to the papacy. This document formed the keystone to papal claims to temporal power in Italy.

The Papacy in the Tenth Century

The popes of the tenth century were a miserable lot, both by character and by circumstance. Rome was continually threatened by Muslims, and there was no king or emperor strong enough to defend them.

The papacy itself became controlled by local Roman noble families. Becoming Bishop of Rome was a matter of winning out in the various feuds that raged. Occasionally the German kings would come down and appoint good popes, but most of the time the Romans forced the election of extremely bad popes who were either incompetent or scandalously immoral and sacrilegious.

At the same time, the monasteries of Europe suffered from the hammer blows of Viking, Magyar and Muslim. The Celtic monasteries of Ireland and Britain were virtually wiped out. The French and German monasteries had little discipline and less learning.

The bishops were also of poor quality. Many fought alongside the lay lords, cracking heads like a good warrior. Priests were ignorant of Latin, merely memorizing the rites and freely mixing in pagan superstitions. Secular lords usurped many church lands and privileges.

It was scandalous, but the popes were in no position to do anything about it.


A movement for reform of the Church began at the monastery of Cluny, in France. The order was well-disciplined and centrally organized - the abbot of Cluny ruled all the other houses and met regularly with the other abbots.

A second center grew up around the abbey of Gorze, in Lotharingia; other centers included St. Dunstan in England and a number of cities in northern Italy. From these sources came the churchmen who would become popes and their secretaries, who would lead the Roman Church to power and greatness.

Papal Reform

Henry III of Germany travelled to Rome in 1046 to receive coronation as emperor. What he found there was three rivals, all claiming to have been elected pope. Henry tried to sort the matter out but was unable to and finally deposed all three and installed his cousin as Leo IX.

Leo IX (1049-1054) had three important assistants: Hildebrand, who would himself become pope; Humbert from Lotharingia, who became the leading theoretician of the reform movement; and Peter Damian, an Italian monk who was a fiery preacher and strict ascetic. With these and other men, all deeply influenced by the Cluniac movement, Leo set about trying to reform the Church.

Among the worst of the abuses were clerical marriage (that is, priests taking wives either in open or in secret) and simony (the buying of church offices). Leo held a series of synods, travelling throughout Europe to spread the word and to enforce reforms himself. He held councils at major centers to publicize his reforms. He sat in judgment on accused clerics, or summoned them to Rome for further hearings.

Lay Investiture

Once the reform ideals of Cluny arrived at Rome, the stage was set for a dramatic conflict between popes and the kings of Europe. The larger issue was at once simple and complex: who was the supreme authority within Christendom--the king (or emperor) or the pope?

The traditional answer was that the pope was supreme in spiritual matters, the emperor in secular matters, but the reality was far more complicated. The Church held lands and, with them, powers and responsibilities that were worldly. Emperors were accustomed to nominate bishops within their realm because bishops formed an important element of imperial government and the emperor could not trust such a vital choice to the petty rivalries of cathedral canons.

Until the mid-eleventh century, both sides had gone their way, largely because it was rare that both emperor and pope were strong at the same time. But in the 1070s there emerged a pope who was determined to eliminate the influence of lay rulers in the business of the Church, and an emperor who was equally determined to prevent that very thing.

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Copyright 1999, Ellis L. Knox This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.The contents of ORB are copyright 1995-1999 Laura V. Blanchard and Carolyn Schriber except as otherwise indicated herein.