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Church Ascendancy


While Europe gradually recovered from the shock of the Roman Empire's demise, the Church -- the papacy and Benedictine monasticism in particular -- became the MAINSTAY OF EUROPEAN CIVILIZATION.

Gregory the Great
During the pontificate of GREGORY THE GREAT (590-604), the medieval papacy began to take form.

Gregory's achievement was to establish the MACHINERY OF PAPAL RULE, temporal as well as spiritual.

After the people of Rome elected him pope in 590, Gregory assumed the task of protecting Rome and its surrounding territory from the Lombard threat.

Thus Gregory was the first pope to act as TEMPORAL RULER of a part of what later became the Papal States.

Gregory also laid the foundation for the later elaborate papal machinery of CHURCH GOVERNMENT.

He took the first step toward papal control of the Church outside of Italy by sending a mission of Benedictine monks to convert the heathen Anglo-Saxons.

The pattern of Church government Gregory established in England -- bishops supervised by archbishops, and archbishops by the pope --became standard in the Church.

 The task of establishing papal control of the Church and extending the pope's temporal authority was continued by Gregory the Great's successors.  

In the 8th century English MISSIONARIES transferred to Germany and France the pattem of papal government they had known in England.

In 756, the Donation of Pepin created the PAPAL STATES and greatly increased the pope's temporal power.

The papacy's spiritual and temporal power suffered a SEVERE SETBACK, however, with the onset of feudalism. Beginning in the late 9th century, the Church, including the papacy, fell more and more under the control of feudal lords and kings.

In the last quarter of the 11th century, a resurgent and MILITANT PAPACY entered into a bitter and prolonged struggle with what was then Europe's strongest state, the German or Holy Roman Empire.  

By 1200 the papacy had emerged triumphant.

Under Innocent III, the most powerful man ever to sit on St. Peter's chair, the theory and the practice of papal power coincided.

Medieval political theory begins with the concept of a UNIVERSAL COMMUNITY divided into two spheres, the spiritual and the temporal.  

At first the question of ultimate superiority between these authorities did not arise.

The issue could not be permanently shelved, however. A fight for supremacy was in the long run inevitable.

When the German king Otto the Great revived the Roman empire in the West in 962, his act reemphasized the concept of the DUAL LEADERSHIP of pope and emperor.  

Otto claimed to be the successor of Augustus, Constantine, and Charlemagne, although his actual power was confined to Germany and Italy.

At first the papacy looked to the German king for PROTECTION against the unruly Italian nobles who for a century had been making a prize of the papacy.

From the Church's viewpoint, however, this arrangement had its drawbacks, for the German kings continued to INTERFERE IN ECCLESIASTICAL AFFAIRS -- even in the election of popes.

During the century the controversy between Church and state centered on the problem of LAY INVESTITURE. Theoretically, on assuming office a bishop or abbot was subject to TWO INVESTITURES.  

His spiritual authority was bestowed by an ecclesiastical official and his feudal or civil authority by the king or a noble.

In actual fact, however, FEUDAL LORDS AND KINGS CAME TO CONTROL BOTH the appointment and the installation of church prelates.

A RELIGIOUS REVIVAL began in the 10th century and reached full force in the 12th and 13th centuries.  

The first far-reaching force of the revival was the reformed BENEDICTINE ORDER of Cluny, founded in 910.

From the original monastery in Burgundy, there radiated a powerful impulse for the reform of the feudalized church.

The Cluniac program began as a movement for monastic reform, but in time it called for the enforcement of CLERICAL CELIBACY and the ABOLITION OF SIMONY (the purchase or sale of a Church office).

The ULTIMATE GOAL of the Cluniac reformers was to free the entire Church from secular control and subject it to PAPAL AUTHORITY.

Some 300 Cluniac houses were freed from lay control.

In 1059, the papacy itself was removed from secular interference by the creation of the COLLEGE OF CARDINALS, which henceforth elected the popes.

The most ambitious proponent of church reform was Pope Gregory VII (1073-1085), who claimed unprecedented POWER FOR THE PAPACY.  

Gregory held as his ideal the creation of a CHRISTIAN COMMONWEALTH under papal control.

Instead of conceding equality between the Church and the state, he concluded that THE SPIRITUAL POWER WAS SUPREME over the temporal

In the DICTATUS PAPAE (Dictates of the Pope), Gregory claimed:

 That the Roman pontiff alone can with right be called universal
That he alone may use the imperial insignia.
That of the pope alone all princes shall kiss the feet.
That it may he permitted to him to depose emperors.
That he himself may be judged by no one.
That he who is not at peace with the Roman Church shall not be considered catholic.
That he may absolve subjects from their fealty to wicked men.

In 1075 Gregory VII formally PROHIBITED LAY INVESTITURE and threatened to excommunicate any layman who performed it and any ecclesiastic who submitted to it.  

This drastic act virtually declared war against Europe's rulers, since most of them practiced lay investiture.

The climax to the struggle occurred in Gregory's CLASH WITH THE EMPEROR HENRY IV.

The latter was ACCUSED OF SIMONY AND LAY INVESTITURE in appointing his own choice to the archbishopric of Milan and was summoned to Rome to explain his conduct.

Henry's answer was to convene in 1076 A SYNOD OF GERMAN BISHOPS which declared Gregory a usurper and unfit to occupy the Roman See.

In retaliation, GREGORY EXCOMMUNICATED HENRY and deposed him, absolving his subjects from their oaths of allegiance.

Driven to make peace with the pontiff by a REVOLT AMONG THE GERMAN NOBLES, Henry appeared before Gregory in January 1077 at Canossa, a castle in the Apennines, dressed as a penitent. He stood barefoot in the snow for three days and BEGGED FORGIVENESS until Gregory received him back into the arms of Holy Mother Church.

Aided by the success of the papal-proclaimed First Crusade, the papacy emerged in the 12th century as potentially the MOST POWERFUL OFFICE IN EUROPE a papal monarchy.  

Innocent III (1198-1216) was a new type of ADMINISTRATOR-POPE, trained as a canon lawyer.

Like Gregory VII, he held an EXALTED VIEW OF HIS OFFICE:: The successor of Peter is the Vicar of Christ: he has been established as a mediator between god and man, below God but beyond man; less than God but more than man; who shall judge all and be judged by no one.

He told the princes of Europe that the papacy was like the sun whereas they were like the moon. As the moon derives its light from the sun, so the KINGS DERIVED THEIR POWERS FROM THE POPE.

So successful was the pontiff in asserting his temporal as well as spiritual supremacy that many states, both large and small, formally acknowledged VASSALAGE TO THE POPE.

In the case of KING JOHN OF ENGLAND, a struggle developed over the election of the archbishop of Canterbury.

Innocent placed England under interdict and excommunicated John.

Under attack from his barons, John capitulated to Innocent by becoming his vassal, receiving England back as a fief, and paying him an annual monetary tribute.

Innocent forced PHILIP AUGUSTUS OF FRANCE to comply with the Church's moral code by talking back as his queen the woman he had divorced with the consent of the French bishops.

As for the HOLY ROMAN EMPIRE, Innocent intervened in a civil war between rival candidates for the throne, securing the election of his ward, the young Hollenstoffen heir Frederick II, who promised to respect papal rights and to go on a crusade.

Within the Church itself; the power of the papal monarchy is best illustrated by the FOURTH LATERAN COUNCIL, which Innocent III called in 1215 to confirm his acts and policies.

More than 400 bishops, some 800 abbots and priors, and representatives of all leading secular rulers answered Innocent's call.

The council dealt with a wide range of subjects (it outlawed trial by ordeal, required Jews to wear distinctive yellow badges, declared clergymen exempt from state taxation, and formally defined the Christian sacraments, setting their number at seven).

Church theology held that salvation was won only with the grace of God, and that God bestowed His grace on man by means of SACRAMENTS through the Church and its official.

Thus the CHURCH WAS THE NECESSARY INTERMEDIARY BETWEEN GOD AND MAN, a position strengthened when the Fourth Lateran Council decreed that every adult Christian must confess his sins and  attend communion at least once a year.

The SACRAMENTS have been defined as outward signs instituted by Christ to give grace.

BAPTISM washed away the taint of original sin and gave the person a Christian name.

CONFIRMATION strengthened the character of the recipient and confirmed his membership in the Church.

HOLY ORDERS, or ordination into the priesthood, was administered by a bishop.

This sacrament conferred the power and grace to perform the sacred duties of the clergy.

The ordained priest was capable of administering all sacraments except Confirmation and Holy Orders.

MATRIMONY was instituted to give the married couple spiritual help -- although celibacy was prescribed for those who entered the Church as a career.

PENANCE enabled sins committed after Baptism to be forgiven through the absolution of the priest.

EXTREME UNCTION was administered when death appeared imminent. It forgave remaining sins and bestowed grace and spiritual strength on the dying Christian.

The most important sacrament was the HOLY EUCHARIST, defined as: ". . .both a Sacrament and a sacrifice; in it Our Savior, Jesus Christ, body and blood, soul and divinity, under the appearance of bread and wine, is contained, offered, and received.

According to the doctrine of TRANSUBSTANTIATION (as defined by the Fourth Lateran Council) when the priest performing the mass pronounces over the bread and wine the words Christ used at the Last supper, "…this is My Body, …this is My Blood," a miracle takes place.  

To all outward appearances, the bread and wine remain unchanged.

But in "substance" they have been transformed into the actual body and blood of Christ.

In 1233 a special papal court called the INQUISITION was established to cope with the rising tide of heresy and to bring about religious conformity.  

The accused was tried in secret without the aid of legal counsel.

f he confessed and renounced his heresy, he was reconciled with the Church on performance of penance.

If he did not voluntarily confess, he could be tortured.

If this failed, the prisoner could be declared a heretic and turned over to the secular authorities, usually to be burned at the state.

As a more positive response to the spread of heresy, Innocent III approved the founding of the Franciscan and Dominican ORDERS OF FRIARS.  

Instead of living a sequestered existence in a remote monastery, the friars moved among the PEOPLE, ministering to their needs and preaching the Gospel

Their message and zeal did much to provide the Church with MORAL AND INTELLECTUAL LEADERSHIP at a time when such leadership was badly needed.

Neither the Church's concern for theology nor its claims to universal authority appealed to ORDINARY MEN.  

They wanted solace on this earth and salvation in the next life.

Such concerns enhanced the VENERATION OF THE VIRGIN MARY. In an age when even the most educated persons believed that thunderstorms, plagues, and famines were the devil's work and that hell loomed perilously close, it seemed natural to pray to the Mother of Christ for protection and comfort.

Medieval people believed that RELICS of saints had MIRACULOUS POWERS. The bone of a saint, for example, supposedly would halt disease or create abundant harvests.


Send mail to Dr. Edrene S. Montgomery  with questions or comments about this web site.
Copyright © 1999-2000 Edrene S. Montgomery
Last modified: July 11, 2000