Since the Council of Nicaea called in the fourth century by Constantine to the early eleventh century, the Church was never established as a free standing institution. For over eight hundred years the Church had been under the authority of secular powers. Charlemagne and the Carolingians emperors saw themselves as the ones to maintain the Church materially, organizationally, and spiritually, while the pope was only an example of ideal Christian living. Social deterioration led to the corruption of the Church and its offices; simony being the biggest problem. The papacy itself was corrupted by simony and Roman politics. While reform had been taking place in the local levels for some time, the papacy was the last part of the Church to be reformed. The papacy reformation came about through three major popes: Leo IX (1049-1054), Nicholas II (1059-1061), and Gregory VII (1073-1085). The actions by these popes in the eleventh century would root out the corruption within the church and cause conflict between the secular authorities and the papacy resulting in the separation and establishing of the Church as a power on its own.
After numerous corrupt popes, Leo IX is considered to be the pope that started the papacy reformation. Ironically, he was appointed pope by his cousin Emperor Henry III. After being coroneted, Leo spent less than six months in Rome traveling through Italy, Germany, France, and as far as Hungary ( Blum, 485). According to Backman, “Leo recognized two things from the very start: first, the papacy could not be properly reformed so long as it remained mired in Roman factional politics; and second, the papacy needed to be seen by the faithful in order to secure the gains of the reform” (Backman, 268). Leo was literally the first pope to be seen by most Christians (Backman, 268), and he wanted to “project an image of the papacy in action” (Blum, 485). For a long time the title of pope was just a name without any meaning or power; however, Leo would change that with his travels. Leo’s great accomplishments were abolishing simony, help ending the practice of clerical marriage, and improving the clergies training and education.
Pope Leo IX, through his travels had plans of establishing his authority while also rooting out corruption still in local churches. “Leo staged large-scale Masses, pronounced Peace and Truce decrees, and offered all the faithful the opportunity to air grievances about their local church and ecclesiastical leaders” (Backman, 269). Clergy that had obtained their position by way of simony were given the chance to retain their office only if the confessed their faults and swore publicly to dedicate themselves to the reformed Church.
According to Backman these acts were performed in public for two reasons: First, the people themselves got to hear the confession of their clergy, and second, the pope got the pleasure of having the faithful see the priest, bishops, and archbishops kneeling before Leo, in other words, used the reform-celebration itself as a means for establishing papal authority over the episcopacy. Henceforth, everyone understood that the bishops served as the legitimate leaders of the Church because the Holy Father himself had publically bestowed their office upon them. The papacy now stood at the head of a new hierarchy and determined its legitimacy. 269
The last major contributing act Leo had towards the reformation was the creation of the College of Cardinals. Leo saw that the Church was not intellectually able to deal with issue it was faced with. He created a body of advisors for the papacy that included theologians, lawyers, philosophers, historians, scientists, and diplomats. These handpicked advisors would lend expert council to the pope on settling and resolving doctrinal issues never really solved by the Church. One of the issues they dealt with was celibacy for the clergy; this would not be settled until Pope Nicholas II. The papacy was now the decision making center on doctrinal issues for the Church.
Leo IX was a major turning point for the Church, but unfortunately he would not finish what he started. The next pope to further the papal reformation was Nicholas II. Pope Nicholas II built upon what Leo IX had already done. Nicholas and a council produced the Lateran synod of April 1059. The synod ended clerical marriage and established clergy celibacy. It also added to the strict prevention of simony. Also with the synod, Nicholas and the council made two major decisions that would shape the papacy up until today. The first of these decisions was to condemn the practice of lay investiture. “The ritual by which a lay prince “invested” a priest or bishop with the insignia of his office suggested that the ecclesiastical authority was subordinate to the secular” (Backman, 270).
The papacy now condemned this seeing as the reforming popes were trying to establish the Church as an entity on its own. The Church wanted to control everything about itself and completely cut off any secular ties trying to control it. The second major decision Nicholas and the council made was mad in the Papal Election Decree of 1059. This was to ensure no pope could ever be placed in power by a secular ruler but only elected by the College of Cardinals. Backman describes it as this: …for all eternity the only way for any individual to become the legitimate pontiff of the Holy Catholic Church was to be freely elected to the position by the College of Cardinals. This decree removed the Holy See from the clutched of the Roman magnates, but it also declared the papacy’s independence from the imperial power. 270
These actions changed the state’s authority over the church that had been present since Constantine. When Henry IV came to power in 1056, he did not like the actions taken by the Church and trying to separate from his authority. The tension between the papacy and secular powers came to a high during the pontificate of Pope Gregory VII. Now Gregory VII had begun his career in Rome during the pontificate of Leo IX as Leo’s “‘secretary of state’ and author of his important papers” (Blum, 485). So Gregory had been around since the beginning of the papal reformation. His actions and policies would lead to the biggest conflict between the Church and State during this reformation.
After dealing with carious rebellions, Henry IV’s resent meant lead him to prepare to attack Rome and deal with the papacy’s action. Henry wanted to show that he had supremacy and was the ruler of both Church and State. Before Henry could attack, Gregory responded with a declaration called the Dictatus Papae. This was a list of twenty-seven single sentence decrees about papal power. Gaudemet defines them as, “lapidary and unrestrained terms the universal power of the pope; his authority over bishops, clerics and councils, and his right to depose the emperor, to certify every canonical text, to make law and to deliver judgment from which there is no appeal” (Gaudemet, 470). Gregory was trying to establish that he alone, as the pope, had complete supremacy over both Church and the emperor. Henry took these Dictates as a direct attack on his royal rights and power. This led to both Gregory and Henry writing letters back and forth to each other with increasing tensions with each letter. These letters led to both of them excommunicating and deposing the other from office at the end of 1076.
The excommunicating of each other would lead to a major event in establishing supremacy to the pope. Gregory, being the pope, was still head of the Church, and Henry found himself still excommunicated. Henry and his advisor devised a plan to get him forgiven and restored into the Church. Being the pope meant that Gregory was a priest, and he would have to forgive a penitent sinner. Gregory was caught off guard at his castle in Canossa, Italy by Henry’s arrival and asking of forgiveness.
This had made Gregory furious, but he had to forgive him. Gregory used this to his advantage, showing that he had supremacy over the emperor. Gregory made Henry stand outside his window barefoot wearing penitential rags for three days begging for forgiveness and pleading for restoration. While this move by Henry helped him with his enemies and restored him back into the Church, this move also hurt him. This move now shifted the supremacy towards the pope. The emperor was now seen as submissive to the pope and had to do what the pope said.
While more conflicts happened between Gregory VII and Henry IV, the investiture struggle would not end with them. It was officially ended in 1122 with Henry IV’s son, Henry the V, and Pope Calixtus II (1119-1124) with the Concordat of Worms. This allowed ecclesiastical appointment to be made by the Church alone but also allowed secular rulers to participate with the lands and appurtenances supplementary to the positions. The issue of papal supremacy over imperial supremacy was circumvented, only to erupt again in centuries later.
While Urban II (1088-1099) was able to finalize the reform of the Church during his pontificate, it wasn’t really until the end of the twelfth century that the Church reform came to a conclusion. Gregory VII and the popes following openly proclaimed the Church’s supremacy and sovereignty over the secular world. They had not only made the Church a standing institution on its own, but they had reversed the historical roles of the Church and State. Since the time of Gregory VII, the papacy had become a massive bureaucracy. The Church now had an ostentatious financial machinery, judicial system, bureaucratic structure, police network, and standing army. The Church was now its own free standing institution and would eventually become its own sovereign city-state.
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