As the Spiritual Franciscans discovered to their regret in the early 1300’s, popes still wielded considerable power. Bishops of Rome took considerable umbrage at the radicals’ assertion that papal authority had no reach into internal Franciscan affairs or that Scripture alone trumped papal fiat. As the extreme Spirituals dissolved into the more general confused state of popular mysticism, they might have been surprised to know what historians know today, that the office of the papacy in the fourteenth and fifteenth century was in steep decline and would only find its footing after the Protestant Reformation.
It is unfortunate that for most Catholics, catechetics comes to an end where adult wisdom begins to take root. In the case of teaching about the pope, the language of texts about St. Peter and his successors is simple; phrases like “unbroken line” and “infallibility” are hermetically sealed in the Confirmation rolodex that we carry through life. Adult study—college, advanced parish adult education, independent reading—can be jarring, but in my own way I have found that my advanced schooling and study has strengthened my faith in the Church and the office of the papacy—there is something to be said for sheer survival, and the Kingdom of God is marathon as much as sprint.
The office of Bishop of Rome, Successor of Peter, came gradually to the Christian consciousness. Without the prompting of St. Paul, one wonders if St. Peter would have even gone to Rome on a Gentile mission. The bishop of Rome did not become an arbiter of disputes until the third century, and the Emperor Constantine convoked the first Ecumenical Council, Nicaea, in 325 A.D., not the bishop of Rome, who did not attend. The identity and authority of the pope developed through Gospel sources, the centrality of the Roman Empire in Rome itself, and the magnitude of the men who occupied the position. The two greatest popes of the pre-medieval era are probably St. Leo the Great (r. 440-461 A.D.) who saved the Council of Chalcedon from error and the city of Rome from Attila the Hun (multiple skill sets indeed), and St. Gregory the Great (r. 590-604 A.D.), former Prefect of Rome who dispatched missionaries in all directions while becoming the Church’s first moralist author.
Perhaps the nadir of the papacy and the resurrection of the papacy occurred in the same term: Leo III (795-816 A.D.). Leo proved to be so unpopular with partisans of his predecessor that his physical life was threatened, and Leo fled through treacherous conditions to the court of Charlemagne in Paderborn, Germany. Charlemagne cooled passions in Rome and restored Leo to his chair. Leo, in turn, crowned Charlemagne Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire on Christmas Day, 800 A.D., fixing in concrete a concept dating to the writing of an earlier pope, Gelasius I, in 494 A.D. The Gelasian formula, or the “two swords” theory, held that that there were two powers on earth, the priestly and the kingly, which ruled jointly, though the kingly power was subservient to the priestly on the grounds that the priestly realm dealt in eternal realities to which civil servants were subject.
The challenge for popes and kings from Gelasius’ time to the Protestant Reformation (1517-) was striking a workable balance when one considers the personalities and the stakes. Clearly, Luther’s preaching crusade of reform and critique was possible in large part because the kingly sword was no longer available to the supreme priest with his mystical weapons. The Gelasian balance did not survive intact till Luther’s time because of two “enhancements” to the arrangement, documents of dubious origins which were believed authentic by popes, if not necessarily kings, throughout the medieval era. These twin forgeries extended papal power far beyond the temperate and well-reasoned thought of Gelasius.
The first was the Donation of Constantine, written by an unknown author around 800 A.D. but claiming to be an instruction of the Emperor Constantine five centuries earlier. The Encyclopedia Britannica describes the donation as “purporting to record the Roman emperor Constantine the Great’s bestowal of vast territory and spiritual and temporal power on Pope Sylvester I (reigned 314–335) and his successors.” In short, the effort here is to claim that Constantine’s expressed wish for Western Christianity to possess a massive kingdom of land and political power (the two are inseparable) alongside its spiritual primacy. Although Lorenzo Valla proved the Donation a forgery around 1450, its impact was already achieved for papal theory.
The other document of note is Dictatus Papae (Declarations of the Pope). The writing, authorship, and purpose of this statement is one of history’s true mysteries; I have a link to the 27 propositions here, which are easy to peruse. The DP is a list of assertions of papal authority that far exceeds the terms and spirit of Gelasius; article 12 is the most famous proposition, “It may be permitted to him [the pope] to depose emperors.” The document appears during the reign of Pope Gregory VII, the reform-minded monk (r. 1073-1085 A.D.) and some historians believe that Gregory wrote it himself to strengthen his hand in his struggle with King Henry IV, the Holy Roman Emperor. It is interesting to see the shifts of power in the early medieval period. As we saw earlier, Charlemagne had rescued Pope Leo III two centuries earlier as the new Holy Roman Emperor; two centuries later Gregory VII is seeking grounds to excommunicate Charlemagne’s successor.
Those with little background in medieval history may wonder why the Church became enmeshed in secular pursuits to the degree I have described today. There was no cleavage between secular and spiritual. The answer is simple: Medieval Christianity had no psychological distinction between the things of God and the things of men. It is true that some individuals devoted themselves to religious orders, and others to farming or trades, and others to the military arts. Medieval minds easily comprehended distinction of roles, but not of reality.
Down the road we will look at a few intrepid souls whose writings in this period indicate that not everyone subscribed to the medieval synthesis, such as William of Ockham and Marsilius of Padua. For the immediate future, as in next week, we will look at the pope who, without doubt, exercised papal authority at the crest of the power of the office. This would be Innocent III, (r. 1198-1216). The most powerful man in Europe in his time, it was Innocent who met St. Francis of Assisi and approved his Order; who convoked the Fourth Crusade; who convened the most important Medieval Council, IV Lateran; and who died at the young age of 52. If there was a golden age of the papacy, given the circumstances, Innocent’s reign meets the qualification. But within a century there was very little “golden” about the state of the papacy.
Last week we talked about the origins of the Franciscans as the face of renewal in Medieval Europe, and the similarities and differences in the reforming styles of Francis of Assisi and Martin Luther. The Franciscan story does not end with Francis; it opens an era of controversy on the authority of Scripture vs. Pope, a century long tale that regrettably comes to a sad end for a segment of the Franciscan family, a movement of friars known today in history as “the Spiritual Franciscans.”
The tale of the Spiritual Franciscans began during Francis’ last years. The saintly founder had fought consistently for a literal interpretation of the Gospel as it was stated in the friars’ rule. Many of the friars, as we saw last Thursday, were educated, and nurtured in towns and households where learning was esteemed. While most friars adhered to basic ministry at the grassroots level, more than a few gravitated toward the teaching ministry. Because of their erudition and simplicity of life, the university friars were much loved by their students. The friars taught their courses for free, rousing considerable ire from their secular clergy counterparts. The friars enjoyed special protection from popes, referred to as “papal privileges.” Francis, in his lifetime, saw papal privilege as an unrequested and dangerous status that would undermine the heart of his order.
The theological issue most troublesome to the Order in the years after Francis’ death in 1226 A.D. was usum (or “use.”) With the Order accepting more priests into its ranks, its admissions swelling, and the needs of its scholars for books, libraries, and other academic accoutrement, it became harder to adhere to Francis’ Biblical rule that the friars “should take nothing for the journey.” Ironically, the saint’s death itself was an outlier for the kinds of struggles ahead for the Order: his immediate successors (at least a portion of them) approved a magnificent church in Assisi as Francis’ final resting place on the grounds, one could say, that the greatest apostle of Gospel austerity deserved the best that money could buy. The Franciscan conundrum, simply stated.
[Source note: the best and most readable volume of the controversies in today’s post is David Burr’s The Spiritual Franciscans: From Protest to Persecution in the Century After Saint Francis (2003). I have an Amazon review posted here.]
The evolution of the Order from itinerant bands of brothers to mainstay of the medieval Church was navigated about as well as could be hoped by the General of the Order St. Bonaventure (r. 1257-1274), one of the greatest minds of the Church in his day. (St. Bonaventure University near Buffalo bears his name.) Bonaventure is alternately praised or condemned for his role in the evolution of the Order into a primarily clerical institution which accepted possession of buildings and possessions because, spiritually speaking, the friars did not own the buildings and other resources but simply used them (usum). (If you’ve ever wondered about that term “medieval distinction” ….)
While Bonaventure worked for some kind of unifying principle to hold strict observants and the institutionally minded in fellowship, his fellow friar and thinker Peter John Olivi (1248-1298) was headed in an opposite direction. Olivi was deeply committed to the radical poverty of Francis and the Gospels, and his writings served as an intellectual and theological basis for the beleaguered spirituals going into the 1300’s. Peter died in the good graces of the Church, but his writings had a life all to themselves, inspiring both the radical Franciscans and the many free-floating fraternities that worried popes at the turn of the fourteenth century.
Peter became a spiritual figurehead for those who believed that the Rule of Francis could not be taken metaphorically. David Burr writes of the sufferings endured by the spirituals in fraternities, where their ragged and tattered habits were mocked by other friars (the relaxati) and at times defaced or degraded, thrown into privies, for example. A separation seemed inevitable, and the literature of the spiritualists made this almost inevitable.
A review of the Spiritualist literature gives us a picture of their working theology. They placed major emphasis upon the Gospels, particularly the evangelical virtues of poverty, chastity, and obedience which Francis had integrated into the original rule. Their emphasis on poverty is noteworthy because they regarded the Church as overly rich and corrupt. They regarded priests in mortal sin as incapable of exercising their office (as would Luther.) Perhaps their most politically dangerous tenet was the lack of authority of any pope to change the Franciscan Rule. Thrown into this mix is the earlier writing of a monk, Joachim of Flora, who predicted that a new age, the Age of the Holy Spirit, would occur soon. Spiritual Franciscans revered Francis as the prophet of this new age.
By the 1300’s the Inquisition began interrogation of the Spirituals on the grounds that they promoted both theological and legal error in the Church. Implied in their beliefs, of course, is the superiority of Scripture over Church authority. (When I reviewed Burr’s book many years ago, I wrote at the time that “for all practical purposes the Reformation began here.”) Pope John XXII (r. 1316-1334) excommunicated the Spirituals and burned several. Many went into exile carrying their devotion and ideas with them and needless to say, found more sympathetic hearers in some other parts of Europe.
But the story is not over yet. The general Franciscan Order had accrued many papal privileges over its first century, but not so many friends and allies. The favoritism of the Vatican Court toward Franciscans did not please clergy and the Dominican Order. When John XXII excommunicated the radical Franciscans---those most wedded to Franciscan uniqueness—an outside observer of the Dominicans, for example, could look at the friars of 1325 and ask legitimately, “What makes them so different from the rest of us?” The Order found itself defending its raison d’etre, particularly the usum principle whereby all the friars’ good technically belonged to the pope, not the friars. John would have none of this. As his Wikipedia biography states, “John XXII declared it ridiculous to pretend that every scrap of food given to the friars and eaten by them belonged to the pope, refused to accept ownership over the goods of the Franciscans in future and granted them exemption from the rule that absolutely forbade ownership of anything even in common, thus forcing them to accept ownership.”
John XXII was angry that the general body of friars was slow to embrace his interpretation of the usum rule, and he may have wreaked more disciplinary action on the entire Order—or even disbanded the friars—but the pope found himself in hot water on another front after release of his own theological tract on the soul after death. His theology was judged in error by the Cardinals, and duly chastened, he appears to have been less aggressive in his dealings with the mainstream Franciscan Order.
In case you are wondering, some form of usum continues today. A few weeks before my simple profession in 1969, I signed a will leaving all my earthly possessions to my Province of the Order. Who ultimately owns what my former Province has, I can’t say, but with fewer workers and more elderly friars, it is safe to say that the main office is not getting rich. I assumed that my will lost force when I left the friars in 1989. My life’s earnings are not high enough to justify anyone’s paying an attorney at probate time, in any event.
Protestant reformers opposed the institution of monasticism. In the reformist world where salvation and justification were a gracious and undeserved gift from God, a state that no man could achieve by his own efforts, one can imagine the disdain for houses of men and women working to attain forgiveness and heaven. That said, what might a Luther make of a medieval saint and his followers who embraced “corporate destitution” as a lifestyle, based upon the very words of Sacred Scripture?
Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) and the lifestyle style of he left behind has bedeviled both Catholic and Protestant thinkers for eight centuries—not to mention thinkers, historians, social philosophers, and artists outside the religious sphere. Dante, for example, would imagine Francis as a rising sun in his Paradiso. In the events leading to the sixteenth century Reformation it would be a grievous omission to overlook a man whose influence on Christian society radiated in several directions, some of them in opposition to others. If by “reformation” one means a radical reform of Church life, then one would need to acknowledge that Francis set this in motion three centuries before Luther. If by “reformation” one means a change in thinking about the meaning of the Church—its identity and actions—Francis set the wheels of change in motion there, too.
Over the past two years I have had the opportunity to revisit contemporary research on St. Francis of Assisi, in Medieval Christianity: A New History (2015) and Francis of Assisi: A New Biography (2012). (I have reviews at both Amazon sites.) It is interesting to see how much continues to appear from historians who pour over the original records, which includes the saint’s own autobiography written shortly before his death. I am assuming that all readers have a cursory knowledge of Francis’ life and may remember that he fought in a war between Assisi and Perugia which hastened some kind of inner life crisis. When he returned to Assisi, his lavish deeds of charity to the poor—from his father’s pocket--led him to a final break from his family.
Religious change is always the child of discontent. We have no way of knowing the root of the saint’s discontent, though his immediate course of action after the familial break is certainly a clue. He set out by himself to live in dire poverty, to pray, and to tend to the wounds of lepers. He might have continued this life into perpetuity, but in his life story he records that “the Lord gave me brothers.” It is hard to say whether Francis welcomed this development or not, given his penchant for a hermetic lifestyle. Kevin Madigan points out that Francis’ distinct religious observance held special appeal to the upwardly mobile who were equally discontent with their lives. The truly poor would have found nothing notable about Francis’ life, which they were seeking to escape. On the other hand, men (and eventually women) of means would have found Francis’ way a true and dramatic baptismal submersion into eternal life, a courage equal in its own way to their confreres off to fight in the Crusades.
Administration was not a strength of Francis, but he was no rube, either. He compiled a very brief rule from a random selection of Gospel texts in which Jesus calls his followers to give up everything and take up his cross. Luther, whose moment of light came from a reading of St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, could appreciate this. Francis eschewed the established rules of other orders then in existence, but he also had opportunity to observe the mistakes of other clusters of penitentials who had gone off to pursue their own lights. When his community was still quite small, Francis had presence of mind (and apparently good advice) to receive papal approval for his enterprise.
That pope would be Innocent III (r. 1198-1216) who may have been the most powerful pontiff to occupy the Chair of Peter. His spiritual and worldly power, the inheritance of the Gregorian Reform, had restored Rome to the center of influence in both a religious and secular sense. When Francis arrived, Innocent was a leader with much on his plate, including a concern about the propagation of many penitential and mystical groups across the European landscape who were fomenting unrest and heresy. Innocent and Francis engaged in a true dialogue; the pope requested that Francis assume the rule of the Augustinians; for his part Francis questioned the premise that it was impossible to live the very words of the Gospel. Innocent finally granted Francis his wish.
What is often overlooked in Franciscan and Catholic history was Innocent III’s approval of Francis’ idea that the Bible itself could provide unmitigated insights into the life of the Church in the present day. If this resonates with Luther’s later principle of sola scriptura, by the Scripture alone is man saved, then so be it. Francis, by throwing himself at the feet of Innocent, confirmed his status as a true son of the Church, so much so that some progressives in my lifetime have expressed disappointment that Francis was so much a “church man.” Of course, the same could be said of Luther in the sense that he was a devout Augustinian monk and scripture scholar throughout his life leading to his awakening to the vision of justification by faith, not works. Luther, like Francis, did engage with Church authorities, sending a copy of his 95-theses to his local bishop, Albrecht von Brandenburg, specifically to address the matter of indulgences. Luther’s discontent voiced itself at a time when the papal court was occupied by lesser men than Innocent III. One of the great “what ifs” of history is the question of how (or even if) the Protestant Reformation would have played out with better enlightened pastors at its helm.
There is nothing to suggest that Francis would have disobeyed Innocent had the pope commanded him to assume an Augustinian way of life. But it is worth noting that Francis, after his post-war conversion, had several choices of religious life in front of him and apparently found them all wanting in some respect. (In the 1960’s, we would have said they were all “establishment.”) That Francis began alone, in autonomy, by the lights of his own conscience, makes him something of an outlier for the post-Reformation age of freedom of conscience. His obedience to the Church and his love of its most sacred practices does not obliterate the fact that this love would always be focused by his own special lights.
There is more to the story of the Franciscans and the Reformation, which will involve posts on the tragic story of the Spiritual Franciscans, the most radical followers of Francis in the century after his death, and Innocent III, who worked to preserve orthodoxy and eradicate heresy. His template remained in place as the Protestant Reformation unfolded.
The Gregorian Reform established “mojo” for the Church in many respects and set patterns of thought and strategy that would come to a head with the Reformation itself. Last Thursday’s post spoke of the centralization of papal authority and disengagement from undue intrusion of kings and secular princes. Reformers of the eleventh century were profoundly impacted by the spirituality of the monastic life that spilled into the parochial life of the Church, such as it was then. Monastic spirituality—the mystical soul of the Gregorian Reform--was concrete, intense, and fervent. It blossomed and flourished in the medieval soil of hope for heaven and intense fear of hell. Repentant sinners traveled to far away shrines to make amends and avoid the fires, travels so dangerous that pilgrimages gave birth to the idea of life insurance as we know it. The most important of the holy places—the land where Jesus lived, died, and arose—was not accessible to Christians.
And thus, the Crusades.
Pope Urban II (r. 1088-1099 A.D.) came to the Chair of Peter about a decade after Gregory VII, who gave the name to this era of reform. He was another of the “Cluny monk” reformers of France, as was Gregory, who rewarded Urban with the cardinal’s red hat. Urban inherited the momentum of the renewal’s energy and strove to give it focus. A stronger papacy with newfound independence from its neighboring kingdoms made the Western Church a desirable partner to its Eastern half in Constantinople, under heavy siege from Muslim Turks. Although Leo IX had excommunicated the Eastern Church only four decades earlier, there was a mild thaw in relations during Urban’s reign. The Eastern enthusiasm for better relations was strategic, to be sure, a hope for military assistance.
The Roman Church’s reasons for considering military intervention are more complex. The religious nation of Islam had occupied Jerusalem since the 600’s. The fact of “infidels” holding the birthplace of Christianity had become an inherited shame for Christian believers who were in no way prepared to do much about it until Urban’s time at the end of the eleventh century. Christian belief of the time held that the Second Coming would take place in “the new and eternal Jerusalem.” To gain access and possession to the holy city carried apocalyptic hope. Access to the holy places became a dream now within reach. For Pope Urban, the possibilities of restoring union with the East loomed larger, as did his opportunities to flex muscles as an equal among equals in an international venture such as a crusade.
For our purposes, it would be wrong to overlook religious zeal as a critical factor in the organization of a crusade or military excursion. Urban summoned a council to Clermont, France, where he preached one of history’s most remembered sermons, a call for the Christian West to undertake a Crusade to reclaim the lands of Jesus. His exclamation “Deus vult!” or “God wills it!” The response to Urban’s call exceeded anything he was prepared to deal with. Piety and enthusiasm have their own masters. Despite Urban’s insistence that the Crusade be fought exclusively by knights, there was no effective way to control the enlistment of monks, women, nobles, and the poor, who saw themselves as martyrs for the cross of Christ whose death on the venture would bring instant eternal salvation.
The First Crusade was primarily French, though some Germans and Italians participated as well. Historians have described the First Crusade as both heroic and barbaric, which seems fair enough. The First Crusade “operated” in several tiers; before the major components of skilled men were prepared, a grassroots army of generally unskilled foot soldiers, the poor, the elderly, and the young went forward under a charismatic but misguided mystic named Peter the Hermit. About 100,000 under Peter set out from France into the unknowns of Eastern Europe and eventually the lands around Constantinople, where a leery emperor Alexis kept them at arms’ length. The “peoples’ crusade,” or what was left of it after starvation and disease, was annihilated once it entered Muslim territory; it was in some ways a not-unexpected fate for an army that had massacred Jews throughout Europe on its march.
The numbers of “regular army” crusading soldiers are hard to specify, given that they were spread through multiple regional detachments, but German states alone sent 10,000 fighting warriors. Perhaps 75,000 actual troops made the trek with Constantinople as first stop. The actual fighting force, speaking as many as twenty languages, arrived in Constantinople where fault lines between the Eastern Empire and the Roman Catholics were intensifying. The rank-and-file Crusaders saw their focus as recovering Jerusalem; bailing out the Byzantine East was probably a purpose they had never been informed of. As a result, the First Crusade continued south through Moslem territory without promised help and supplies from Constantinople.
The European knights suffered terribly from heat and thirst in the Middle East, as well as the death of their horses. A key to the success of the campaign was the capture of Antioch (in modern Syria). The siege lasted a full year and though ultimately successful, had worn the suffering crusaders to less than 1500 to proceed the final grueling stretch. A hardened core army besieged the City of Jerusalem, and having entered the city, massacred all citizens with a violence that forever taints the word “Crusade.” The power of Islam had been broken for a time, but no one involved in the process felt the glory of the New Jerusalem. In fact, the conquering army was eager to return home, leaving one Godfrey of Bouillon and several hundred troops in charge of the new Kingdom of Jerusalem.
This new kingdom would not last, and three more major efforts would be made to establish a permanent Western Christian footing. The Fourth Crusade (1202-1204) would bring the original Crusading cause in general to ridicule. We will come back to Crusade IV later in discussion on the papacy. The First Crusade established a most unwelcome introduction to Western Christian heritage—the holy war. Had this Crusade been waged in a “chivalrous” fashion, it might have been tolerated as unavoidable. But Crusaders understood Pope Urban’s command as a call to arms of all non-Christian believers—particularly Jews. In Jerusalem the conquerors had killed Moslem, Jewish, and even Eastern Christian residents merciless with the idea that “God wills it.”
Just seven tears after the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, various regions took up the sword again and opened a period known—in an oxymoron, as it turns out—as “The Wars of Religion” which killed at least 50,000,000 persons in Europe between 1524 and 1648. This figure far exceeds those killed in the Crusades—but the former had set the ground rules for the latter. Instead of saving souls in the land of Western Christianity, the sword would destroy them.
For those interested in running ahead, I recommend the multi-volume history of the Crusades by the British historian Sir Steven Runciman. For a close look at the First Crusade, the 2004 volume by Thomas Asbridge is excellent, though subsequent books have disputed his hypotheses on how the Crusades began.