I have come to the conclusion that the relationship of the Fourteenth Century and the Reformation is so multidimensional that it will take several posts to sort it out. When the author Barbara Tuchman described the Fourteenth as “the calamitous century” in A Distant Mirror, she was if anything engaging in understatement. It is not enough to say that secular leaders and popes of this time made remarkably poor decisions; it is not even enough to say that two of Europe’s major entities, England and France, began a military engagement which came to be called “The Hundred Years War.” It is not enough to blame it on the weather, although the “Little Ice Age” is dated today from about 1300 and wet climate led to a European famine from 1315-1317. Perhaps the best metaphor for the fourteenth century is the records of notary publics who faithfully tallied the deaths and burials of about 50% of Europe’s population between 1347 and 1351.
The century began, strangely enough, with a Jubilee Year [or Holy Year] in 1300, the first of its kind, proclaimed by the controversial Pope Boniface VIII. The papacy had fallen quite a distance from the imperial Innocent III a century earlier. In 1292 the cardinals debated two years over the nomination of a successor to the deceased Nicholas IV, and somewhat impulsively elected a famous monk, Celestine V. Celestine’s termination is better remembered than his reign, which lasted all of six months. He retired, to return to a simple life of monastic penance. He sought the advice of a noted Roman lawyer/canonist Benedetto Caetani, who counseled that a papal resignation was legal. Caetani himself was subsequently elected and took the name Boniface VIII.
The very election of Boniface and his legitimacy became a major factor when Boniface exercised his office, to the point that open city-state warfare was waged for a time over the pontiff’s legitimacy. Boniface envisioned himself enjoying the secular power that his predecessors such as Innocent had enjoyed, but historian Kevin Madigan describes him as “among the most unsuitable men to be pope” for his time. (Medieval Christianity, p. 370). Boniface ruled with an ignorance of his precarious position, excommunicating the Kingdom of Sicily and the City of Florence in his political machinations. Neither population took notice of his actions, an indication that the office of the papacy had lost both its swords, so to speak, the secular and the spiritual.
Boniface’s greatest struggle involved the French, and specifically Phillip IV. Phillip’s relationship with the Church is worth considering, for it is a pointed episode in the break of secular power from the authority of the Church. Phillip removed all canon or church lawyers, and eventually all clergy, from civil administration. Phillip began taxation of clergy and church institutions, and ended French fiscal support of Rome, which enraged Boniface, perhaps more so when he realized there was not a great deal he could do about it. What he could do was declare the Jubilee Year of 1300. An expected influx of pilgrims spending money in Rome would offset the lost revenue withheld by Phillip IV, but in addition, he bought good will for the Church and partially offset his earlier missteps.
The Jubilee did not improve Boniface’s problems with France, where bishops were aligning themselves with Phillip and continuing the life of the Church independently. [This was not a uniquely French situation, as national identity was commanding more civilian loyalty as the middle ages progressed.] Given this turn of events, Boniface issued his most famous bull or directive, Unam Sanctam (1302). Madigan writes that Boniface’s teaching can be “interpreted as a loud jeremiad against the destruction of Christendom and its fragmentation into independent and hostile nation-states.” (p. 373) Boniface, borrowing language from Aquinas, writes “It is altogether necessary for every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff.”
Unam Sanctam is generally regarded as the greatest claim of authority ever put forward by a pope. Unfortunately for Boniface, he made the claim with little or nothing of practical help to back his assertion. Sadly for the pope, henchmen of Phillip seized the pontiff who was traveling to his home town. He was held captive and possibly physically assaulted. him. It took several days for the local citizenry to extricate him from his situation, but the trauma led to his death soon after. Boniface’s successor, Clement V (r. 1305-1314) adopted an opposite position to that of Boniface; Madigan uses the term “puppet” to describe Phillip’s control of the papacy under Clement after the newly elected pope decided to rule from his native France, specifically to the town of Avignon, bringing the entire Vatican bureaucracy with him.
I would bet that very few Catholics are aware that the papacy governed for nearly 80 years—most of the fourteenth century—outside of Italy and within the provenance of the French, more specifically the southern, more independent region of the Gallic state. Was there a bitter outcry about the removal of the papacy from Rome? The Curia itself welcomed the freedom from the contentions of warring Roman cardinals, and business was conducted “as usual” to the degree possible. The bigger factor was the explosion of multiple issues of war, religious dispute, natural disasters, and other events that distracted bishops and regional churches; there was no period where the Church could sit down in Council and sort out its papal situation; this would not happen until the Council of Constance in 1415.
The Avignon Papacy ended in 1377 when Gregory XI moved the papacy back to Rome. However, within a year Gregory died and Cardinals divided their votes between a Roman and an Avignon candidate. Neither would back off, resulting in The Great Schism, a period of four decades in which two and three men claimed rightful possession of the papacy. The fourteenth century was thus a trying one for the papacy, and any hopes of retaining secular power died, despite the claims of Unam Sanctam.
By the time of the Protestant Reformation in 1517, dissenters from Roman Catholicism had taken several different lessons from Boniface VIII. John Calvin saw the enforcement of doctrine and morals as a duty of the state. Other faith traditions endorsed separation of church and state. Catholics coped with the question in several ways: it embraced the power of a Church Council as the final authority in the restoration of the papacy in the 15th century. In the face of Protestant revolt the power of the pope was restored in reforming the Church. In the 1700’s and 1800’s, given the chaos of the French Revolution, the Enlightenment, and growing independence movements, the papacy was strengthened to the point of declaration of infallibility in 1870.
That said, discussion of church power was generally institutional and spiritual. No official document in use today endorses Unam Sanctam’s claim of universal authority over the secular and the spiritual. While Catholics are encouraged in the direction of responsible citizenship and state duty, Vatican II explicitly refused to extend the power of coercion over individual conscience.