The first major Church reform of the second millennium dates to the end of the eleventh century. In my last post a few weeks ago, I introduced the papacies of Leo IX and Gregory VII. Leo (r. 1049-1054) and Gregory (r. 1073-1085) are the most significant figures in what history refers to as The Gregorian Reform. Raising the memories of this era is a two-edged sword for Catholicism, for studies of reform movements inevitably throw light on sins and errors in the Church that needed reform in the first place. On the other hand, particularly in Gregory’s case, the reform strengthened the governing role of the papacy and institutionalized some its most sacred practices, notably the practice of clerical celibacy in the West.
I bring Gregory into our stream on the Protestant Reformation four centuries down the road because many of Gregory’s causes were partially or totally reversed by Luther and Protestant thinkers who followed over four centuries later. Gregory is remembered for an elongated struggle with King Henry IV known as the Investiture Controversy (there is an excellent full explanation here.) At stake was the tradition of kings appointing bishops. Gregory came to see that the increasing submission of clergy to secular power limited the effectiveness of popes to exercise institutional powers and reforms within the Church. Gregory’s excommunication of King Henry for what he saw as undue interference in church matters led to the famous Canossa incident, where Henry was forced to wait several days in the snow outside Gregory’s residence for absolution. Gregory died before a lasting understanding of Church and civil boundaries was achieved, but he had successfully strengthened the hands of future Bishops of Rome.
Gregory’s other major contribution was his enforcement of the rule of celibacy for the ordained clergy. Celibacy was not a foundational universal norm, but the early Church quickly identified chastity with the imitation of Christ and St. Paul, and by the Council of Nicaea (325 A.D.) the mandate for celibacy was put to the floor, though not approved. There was a sense at the time of Nicaea that lifelong celibacy, because of its ascetical components, was more appropriate to groups of intensely committed religious, such as monks and hermits. Suffice to say that until the early middle ages the observance of celibacy among parish clergy was uneven. [The future Pope John XXIII, rescuing Jews in Bulgaria during World War II, was taken aback at the lackadaisical observance of clerical celibacy in Bulgaria even at this date. Encountering a priest with a mistress and children, he reportedly said, “If you can’t be chaste, be careful.”]
Gregory came to the papal office at a time when Church Law—or Canon Law, as we call it today—was becoming better organized and recognized as a unifying force in its own right. In 1074 Gregory summoned a council at the Church of St. John in Rome and successfully gathered promises and professions of clerical continence and the discontinuation of the sale of church offices. The year 1074 is often given as the origin of clerical celibacy, though it is more accurate to say that date marks the beginning of stricter enforcement.
Gregory’s work plays a major role in the Protestant Reformation of later time. Gregory’s model of church-state relations defined the state—with kings and princes—as helpers in matters of Church discipline and belief. When Joan of Arc was found guilty of heresy in 1431, for example, she was, in the words of her church court, “turned over to the secular arm” [i.e., civil authorities] for the actual execution by burning. One of the responsibilities of the state, in Catholic thought at the time, was assistance in suppressing heresy and other movements inimical to Catholic belief.
One might expect, then, that when Luther posted his 95 theses in 1517, the normal procedure would have followed, and they were attempted. After several overtures and debates, a papal approved assembly, the “Diet of Worms,” ordered Luther’s arrest, assuming the cooperation of the German region in carrying forth the work of “the secular arm.” Fortunately for Luther, local German authorities stepped in, not only to protect Luther but to provide him with safe and secure lodgings where he could develop his texts and recommendations for general Church reform. Later, the state would provide him with an empty monastery where he and his new wife (16 years his junior and a former nun) would bring six children into the world.
Luther, it seemed, was much liked and respected by the populace and his local rulers. If Luther was upset by the sale of indulgences, German princes had grown tired of Church taxation. In England, as we will see later, Henry VIII became frustrated with the Church’s hand in his dynastic dilemma of producing a son. Czechoslovakia felt stirrings of democracy and resented the clericalism of the Mass in which only the priest drank from the chalice. The Czechs were already upset that their national hero of Church reform, Jan Hus, had been burned in 1415 at the Council of Constance
Gregory VII’s vision of church-state cooperation was one of the first casualties of the Protestant Reformation. With a growing sense of national and regional pride, many secular entities began to put distance between themselves and Rome. As the Protestant Reformation unfolded with divisions within itself, the saying cuius regio, eius religio became common (“whose leader, his religion.”) Not all regions of Europe disengaged from Rome; France, “Daughter of the Church,” was an ally till the French Revolution of 1789. But the papacy’s control of affairs of state and society declined precipitously after Luther, and by 1870 when revolutionaries established a government for the entire Italian peninsula, the papacy turned its energies totally to internal governance of the Church.
Luther would also question Gregory’s contention that all priests of the Latin Western Rite live in unmarried celibacy. Monastic spirituality undoubtedly influenced Gregory, who envisioned the collective spirituality of the monastery as a template for a holy priesthood. Luther, himself a member of the Augustinian Order which required vows of celibacy, did not find to his satisfaction adequate Biblical proof for this Roman discipline. The matter of ministerial celibacy divides Catholics and Protestant Churches to this day, and is an issue we will return to in Reformation considerations.
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