Pontifex Maximus—Days of Glory and Papal Power

A. Burt Horsley, “Pontifex Maximux—Days of Glory and Papal Power,” in Peter and the Popes (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1989), 79–89.

Although a connection may be made between the secularization of the church and the depths of moral corruption; and dearth of piety and spirituality, the opposite may be true as well. The secularization of papal power also made possible the restoration of priestly integrity, spiritual reform, moral regeneration and general Christian fidelity to some degree. At least some reform has been directly identified with the temporary concentration of power in the office of the pope.

The historical apogee of pontifical power was reached in the papal reign of Pope Innocent III. Never before or after was there vested in any single pope such a potency of political-ecclesiastical sovereignty. Yet, a forerunner, Gregory VII (Hildebrand) 1073–1085, had set the stage a century earlier for the eventual fulfillment of the full sovereign potential of the office.

Extreme assertion of papal prerogative and undying devotion to reform had elevated Hildebrand to the status of one of the greatest and most powerful of the popes. The devotion to reform spanned half a century and influenced nine other popes prior to Hildebrand’s own assumption of the papacy. But those same policies and virtues, and the attempt to enforce them throughout Europe, eventually stirred up sufficient reaction among powerful anti-reformists and lay princes to force a premature end to his leadership and his reforms.

Although reference has already been made in chapter 5 to the showdown between Gregory VII, 1073–1085, and the German King Henry IV over the issue of lay investiture, some of the special events and ideas identified with his reign deserve to be detailed as setting precedent for the subsequent pontifical accomplishments of Innocent III, 1198–1216.

Except for the popes identified with the period of Catholic revival during the sixteenth century, the name Hildebrand, in all probability, has been linked with the word reform more prominently than that of any other papal figure.

Born Ildebrando in Florence, Italy, on an unknown date, he came up the line from a family of religious reputation, which was singular in itself in that age of pornocracy. He was brought up, however, by the Benedictine monks in a monastery in Italy and was very much aware at an early age of the general impiety of the time, including specific examples of violation of clerical vows and church regulations.

He later went to Cluny, France, where the Benedictine abbey was the major center of a reform movement of which he eventually became the great driving force, influencing all subsequent popes until his own election 22 April 1073. He had repeatedly refused the pleas of reformers to accept the papal crown until he had assurance that there was no suggestion of simony in his own election.

Although he had the support of the laity and general populace of Rome, his greatest support among the clergy was found outside of the city. In Rome, the buying and selling of clerical office had become so common a practice among the so-called simoniac leaders of the several branches of church government that he found his bitterest enemies in these circles. Indeed, the words of support at his election read:

We, the cardinals, clerks, acolytes, sub-deacons and priests, with the bishops, abbots, and many others, both of the laity and clergy, do choose this day (April 22, at the Church of St. Peter in Chains in the year 1073), as Christ’s true vicar, Archdeacon Hildebrand, a man of much learning, piety, prudence, justice, constancy, religion, modesty, sobriety, and continency, who governs his family well.

These words were privately disavowed by those who resented the imposition of his orders forbidding simony, lay investiture, and enjoining celibacy (Petry 226–30; 235–39).

In the wake of several Episcopal excommunications culminating in the eventual excommunication of the king himself, the pope’s opponents took revenge upon him. On Christmas Eve 1075 while Gregory was celebrating Mass in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore, his enemies dragged him by his hair out of the church into the street where he was further abused and insulted before being pummeled off to prison. On the following day after having been delivered by the enraged people of Rome, who mobbed the prison and carried him back to the church, he continued the celebration of the Mass picking up where he had left off at the moment of the assault upon him.

Subsequently, Gregory was exiled to Salerno before he could experience the full sovereign potential of the office for himself. It was here, in Salerno, that he died in 1085. It has been recorded that his last words were, “I loved justice and hated injustice, I die in exile” (Kuhner 74).

During the twelve year reign of this pope, much had been accomplished in the restoration of dignity and sovereignty to the papal office. His influence was felt and remembered by several of his successors who, although sometimes but feebly, attempted to continue his policies until the most renowned defender of the papal idea came along in the person of Innocent III.

To Gregory’s credit it must also be said that, as long as he was able, he strove to establish a foundation for the the doctrine of the two powers, reasserting to his death the power priestly over the political. Included in the legacy of example and instruction which he left for those who came after him was a wealth of literature by his own hand.

In his Dictatus Papae, a summary of guideline principles for supporters of the Hildebrandine reform, it is boldly asserted that the Roman church was founded by God alone, that the Roman pontiff alone is rightly to be called universal, that he alone may use the imperial insignia, that he may depose emperors, and that the pope may absolve subjects of unjust men from their fealty. He insisted that the bishop of Rome, if canonically ordained, is sanctified by the apostolic merits of Saint Peter and, therefore, cannot err by the witness of scripture in matters of faith and morals. Although controversial, it was finally declared to be the official position of the church and announced to the world as the doctrine of infallibility by the Vatican Council of 1870.

In many ways Innocent III was a second Hildebrand, succeeding in the accomplishment of the things Hildebrand had dreamed about but had never been able to fulfill completely. One of the most prominent figures of medieval history, he was born in 1160 in Bavignano, Italy, of noble parentage. His father was Count Trasimondo of the house of Segni; and among other relatives of prominent noble Roman families was his uncle, Pope Clement III, who no doubt had much to do with the education and career of this young nephew, who had been baptized Lotario di Segni.

After having studied theology in Paris and canon law in Bologna, he was raised to the cardinalate by his uncle the pope. He wrote several works on theology and religion before turning his attention to the ecclesiastical affairs of the papacy and its relationship to the state. He was raised to the papal throne in 1198 being only thirty-seven years of age at the time. Though some contemporaries complained of his “too great youth,” he had already gained wide recognition as a theologian and as a lawyer with unusual intellectual talent.

As he moved to effectuate his theory of papal supremacy, he arbitrated disputes in the Holy Roman Empire, set aside claimants to archbishoprics, influenced the election of emperors, declared the Magna Carta invalid since it was extorted by force, and reclaimed, reorganized papal territories.

His Italian nationalist sentiment led him to refocus attention on Rome itself, but more significantly, to build the foundation of the secular papal states with the pope as absolute monarch. As promoter of the fourth crusade, he asserted his papal power in calling many princes and sovereigns to show forth their allegiance to the cause of Christianity and to the papacy. He protested the attack on Byzantium as a wicked and unnecessary side excursion and recognized the Latin Kingdom of Constantinople once it had been set up. His influence dominated the fourth Lateran Council in the same way that it dominated in affairs generally throughout the Christian world.

Innocent III represents the ultimate in papal authority not only with respect to Roman supremacy and the doctrine of Petrine priority, but also with respect to the relationship of the papacy to the empire in an era of great triumph for the church over the state.

Almost four hundred years earlier, Charlemagne and his father had promised the eventual papal control of the secular papal states. That promise had never really been fulfilled until Innocent III. After ten years of civil war, he overcame Roman independence and imperial and monarchial opposition. His majestic character commanded the respect and admiration of even his opponents and made more tolerable some of the severe policies imposed by him as he not only secured the patrimony of Saint Peter, but also consolidated and strengthened the papal states over which he reigned as absolute monarch. He also brought under his control Poland, Sweden, Denmark, Portugal, Aragon, Sicily, and Naples, using and manipulating their kings like pawns in a grand pan-European game with the Continent and Britain as his chess board.

The interpretation and imposition of the doctrine of the two powers by Innocent has become classic. Although both secular and spiritual powers coming from God should complement each other, no emperor or king may assume divine right except as it is granted and sanctioned by the Vicar of Christ on earth, the pope. With the anointing of the new emperor, he declared the empire itself to be a stewardship—a trust conveyed by the church—and the emperor a vassal tethered to the throne of Saint Peter.

All men, even princes and potentates, must come back to God through the sacraments dispensed by the church and through its priesthood. Therefore, of the two powers, the spiritual power of the scepter is greater than the secular power of the sword.

On the death of Emperor Henry VI, two claimants contended for the throne of the Holy Roman Empire. The German prince Philip of Swabia, a brother of the deceased emperor and a Hohenstaufen, was elected, but was opposed by Otto IV, a member of the House of Guelf. Otto, who had been recognized by Innocent III, was formally crowned by the pope on 9 October 1209, but subsequently lost favor when he attempted the conquest of Sicily, which was the stewardship of Frederick II, the pope’s ward. It was also rumored that Otto may have been implicated in the assassination of Philip.

The kings of England, because of that country’s distance from Rome, had generally been able to ignore the intervening influence of the papacy in matters of both church and state. King John, 1167–1216, brother of Richard the Lion Hearted, however, was forced to submit to Pope Innocent in an unprecedented example of the exercise of the pope’s power. Consistent with the reform repudiation of lay investiture, clerics and monks at Canterbury had chosen their own archbishop without consulting King John. In retaliation John chose his own archbishop and drove the monks of Canterbury out of England, but not before Innocent III had intervened to reject both choices, and place Stephen Langton on the Episcopal throne of Canterbury.

John’s continued defiance brought about his excommunication and the placing of all England under the interdict—an ecclesiastical punishment barring the subjects of the church who came under it from certain sacred rights and sacraments. Moreover, King John was told by the pope that he must recant or his dominion and stewardship would be given to Phillip August of France. Innocent prevailed and John delivered the stewardship of England over to the pope, receiving it back as an estate in trust held in feudal tenure.

Another great triumph of Innocent III was the calling of the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, over which he presided. It actually functioned more as an international congress than a mere plenary assembly of bishops and cardinals. It was attended not only by those high ranking clerics but also by legates of kings, princes and other feudal lords.

The agenda included both political and religious problems involving abuses of church and state, and matters of heresy. Among the decrees handed down by the council were the confirmation of Frederick II as king and the excommunication of Otto IV.

Papal power had reached its zenith in the reign of Innocent III. Yet, his successors continued to enjoy the carry-over effect of his policies and practices in their relationship with the empire for the next half century.

The ward of Innocent III, Frederick II, in whom Innocent had placed much confidence and who was certainly indebted to the pope not only for his stewardship and eventual imperial status but also for his very upbringing and education, proved to be more of a problem than a help.

Even before the death of Innocent in 1216, Frederick’s assertion of independence and defiance of papal direction had caused a severe breach in their relationship. After Innocent’s death, the young emperor moved quickly to more firmly establish his sovereignty and show his independence of papal influence. His actions set up a confrontation which threatened to become another mortal struggle between church and state. The Caesaro-papal conflict, now revived with greater intensity, occupied the stage for another two generations.

Sometimes referred to as the “first modern King,” Frederick II was the pride of the imperial Hohenstaufen dynasty, comprising emperors and kings from 1138 to 1254. During much of that time, the empire under the Hohenstaufens had extended from Germany through Italy, including the Norman kingdom of Sicily.

Frederick was only three years old when, at the death of his father, he was left under the guardianship of his foster father the pope. He grew up in Sicily where certain feudal families already had a reputation for secret alliances, intrigue, and defiance of the law. Although well educated and a brilliant student, craftiness and deceit were part of his character before he was old enough to take over, from an interim regency, the reigns of government.

Trusting no one and convinced that everyone had his price, he was made King of the Germans at Aachen while only seventeen years of age, and ascended the throne of the Holy Roman Empire just a few years later at Rome.

Moving quickly to make himself secure in the empire, he gave much time to the affairs of state, neglecting a promise made to Innocent that he would become a soldier of the cross. The far flung reaches of his domain, from Germany on the north to Sicily on the south, made it difficult for him to be present everywhere and territorial conditions required diverse solutions and programs. Often his policies were not in harmony with the pope’s, particularly with reference to Frederick’s home kingdom of Sicily. Here a strong centralized bureaucracy produced a wealthy country wholly responsible to the emperor. The papal states and much of the rest of Italy tried to constrain him and eventually the power of the scepter would prove to be more than the Hohenstaufens could contend with.

Meanwhile, in Germany, the many independent city-states, duchies, bishoprics, counties and baronies required policies in direct contrast to those employed in southern Italy. Frederick, although remaining all powerful, granted the exercise of even greater power to the nobility than they had known before.

Two successors of Innocent III waited impatiently for Frederick to undertake the crusade he had promised. His constant deferring of the expedition prompted Pope Gregory IX to excommunicate him in 1228. Under the pressure of excommunication, Frederick attempted a reconciliation with the pope by starting out on his long delayed crusade. Some termed it little more than a state visit, since there was little or no combat involved and the cession of Jerusalem, Nazareth, and Bethlehem plus his coronation as King of Jerusalem was obtained by peaceful means.

After being excommunicated a second time for having started out on a crusade while still an excommunicant, Frederick returned home in 1230 to make temporary peace with the pope and to be received back into communion until 1239, when he broke with the church and was excommunicated a third time by Pope Gregory IX for his military attempt to enslave all Italy.

Although Frederick’s power had been acknowledged and dreaded by kings and feudal lords throughout Europe, having acquired much of it by diplomacy and alliance as well as by force of arms, still the papacy stood firm in opposition, refusing to cower before him. Rome had found itself surrounded by strong kingdoms, and the pressure to succumb to imperial domination was at its height by 1245, when the new pope, Innocent IV, called the Council of Lyons, which put Sicily under the interdict and excommunicated Frederick for the fourth time.

Having also been deposed by the council, Frederick was forced to abandon his position in Italy and retreat to Germany, which remained his stronghold until his death in 1250. With the beheading of Conradin, Frederick’s sixteen year old grandson, in Naples in 1268, the Hohenstaufen dynasty came to an end.

The German kings of the new Hapsburg dynasty continued to call themselves emperors but mostly without papal sanction, and the empire itself was a mere hollow shell. The independence of many political and territorial entities in Northern Italy and throughout Germany left Italy not re-conquered and Germany divided and without an unopposed sovereign. It would be centuries before either of these countries would develop into strong nations. However, although the pope’s cause appeared to have been victorious and the political triumph over the Hohenstaufens decisive, the very forces which had contributed to the strengthening of the papacy and the weakening of the empire would also bring about the eventual erosion of papal political power and the end of the papal states. Nationalism, a growing spirit of individualism among nations and people, would take its toll.

Moreover, while exalting itself secularly over a period of several generations through an aggressive policy in temporal affairs, such distractions from things spiritual and ecclesiastical had again left the papacy discredited in the eyes of clerics and laymen alike throughout Europe. Even the Crusades, the pet projects of several popes, had contributed to a dearth of spirituality, contrary to their supposed intent and purpose.

In spite of the retrieving of certain classic treasures and the introduction of some new ideas and luxuries from the East, the Crusaders succeeded in doing very little for the glory of Christ and the preservation of Christian values. Lusty peasants interpreted the call to deliver the Holy Land out of the hands of the infidel as a justification for the abandonment of family and responsibilities which had tied them to the soil. As a consequence, large areas of European farmland were left uncultivated and neglected. The treasuries of the West were depleted. Eastern Catholics having been plundered and exploited by their western brethren in the march to the Holy Land were even further alienated, while the supposed adversaries, the Moslem nations and feudal groups, suffered relatively little.

When all was said and done, except for temporary possession, the Christian shrines and treasures of tradition, including the Holy Land itself, remained in the hands of the infidels. Spirituality and religious integrity had indeed suffered a setback. Thousands had confused religious zeal with spiritual stamina, and the Crusader’s pilgrimage with largeness of soul. While religious excuses were given, the real motivating reasons for participation on the part of kings and princes were dynastic and territorial. On the other hand, dreams of adventure and anticipation of plunder may well have aroused the fighting spirit of the common peasant and the soldier.

In retrospect, it must be concluded that this age of glory and papal power was also a period of exploitation of the weak by the strong. Serfdom and illiteracy among the masses increased even more, although, some popes and monks in their respective settings were struggling to gain power and preserve morals; and to retrieve letters and learning out of the milieu which surrounded them.