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.