The Ascent of the Roman Church

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The Ascent of the Roman Church


Early Christian Roots. Throughout the early Christian era, the Church of Rome grew in importance within the Church at large. Because the apostle Peter had been martyred in Rome, the bishops of Rome, or popes, were seen as his successors. Even though the bishop of Rome was nominally the equal of any other bishop, a belief in the primacy of the bishop of Rome began to develop as early as the third century, when the North African Church Father Tertullian wrote of “Rome, from which there comes … the very authority of the apostles themselves.” Pope Leo I (reigned 440–461) became the first systematizer of papal primacy, interpreting older statements about the papal role in the Church by means of the principles of Roman law, according to which all the rights and duties of the deceased were transferred to the heir. Thus, the Pope was the heir to all St. Peter’s powers, but he did not receive the merits that came to Peter by his personal acknowledgment of Christ as the Son of God. Leo, who was also known as the Great, expressed this principle in a phrase that designated the Pope the “unworthy heir of St. Peter.” Leo’s views were accepted with great rapidity in the West; on 17 July 445 the western Roman emperor, Valentinian III (reigned 425–455), acknowledged and gave imperial sanction to the jurisdictional primacy of the Pope, asserting that “nothing is to be done against or without the authority of the Roman Church.” In 451 the Council of Chalcedon resolved a theological dispute by accepting a formula proposed by Leo and declaring “St Peter has spoken through Leo!” Another Pope who earned the soubriquet “the Great” was Gregory I (reigned 590–604), who asserted the primacy of the papacy over the entire Church (including the East) and established the independence of the Roman Church from both the Byzantine Empire and the Germanic tribes that had conquered Italy.

The Church and the Empire. During the ninth and tenth centuries the power of the papacy was in decline. Having created the Holy Roman Empire and placed the papacy under its protection when he crowned Charlemagne emperor in 800, Pope Leo III (reigned 795–816) established

a rival institution that sought, often successfully, to exert its power over the papacy. For example, both Otto I (reigned 912–973) and his grandson Otto III (reigned 983–1002) appointed and removed popes and presided over Church synods.

The Isidoran Decretals. Around 850 a collection of forged documents that were purported to be decrees by Popes and Church councils during the first seven centuries of Christianity began to circulate throughout Europe. By the end of the tenth century this collection, which was wrongly attributed to a scholar known as Isidore of Seville, had served to reinforce the authority of the Pope. Some twelfth-century critics began to question the authenticity of this collection, but the Isidoran Decretals were not fully discredited until the seventeenth century.

Expanding Church Authority. With Pope Leo IX (reigned 1049–1054) the papacy began to assert and widen its power. Leo made lengthy visits to Europe beyond the Alps, held regular synods to pass degrees on matters of disciple and doctrine, and began the practice of sending papal legates throughout Christendom to assure that his rulings were heeded and followed. He also began appointing non-Romans to posts in the papal administration (the curia). Pope Nicholas II (reigned 1059–1061) made another important contribution to papal independence when he decreed in 1059 that seven cardinal (preeminent) bishops were solely responsible for electing a new Pope, thus eliminating—in theory—the emperor or any other secular ruler from the selection process. His victory was short-lived. Two years later the German bishops, who were loyal to the emperor, declared the decree void, deposed Nicholas, and elected Pope Alexander II (reigned 1061–1073). Yet, Nicholas’s decree established the important precedent of reserving power within the Church to the ecclesiastical hierarchy.

Church Reform. Known for his attempts to rid the Church of simony (the buying and selling of ecclesiastical offices and influence) and married clergymen and for his long battle to end lay investiture of bishops and abbots, Pope Gregory VII (reigned 1073–1085) brought to the papacy a crusader’s zeal to spread Christianity, and with it papal authority, throughout the world. Gregory centralized the Church, claiming for the Pope such rights as direct control over bishops, canonical elections, synods, the publication of canon laws, and the issuing of manifestos. His reformist principles lived on after his death, influencing a new generation of bishops, who proved far more obedient to papal authority than their predecessors. Gregory indelibly impressed on his successors the idea that in his quest for establishing the ideal Christian empire the Pope ought to involve himself in secular as well as spiritual matters and assert his supremacy over secular rulers.

Papal Leadership. In 1095 Pope Urban II (reigned 1088–1099) demonstrated the growing power and prestige of the papacy in his ability to mobilize a large army of volunteers to wage a sacred—and ultimately unsuccessful—war to rid the Holy Land of Muslim “infidels.” He was the first Pope to head such a large European endeavor. During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries local churches looked more and more to the papacy for leadership. One result was the increase of the Pope’s judicial and legislative authority. Since every important Pope from 1159 until 1303 was a lawyer, the body of canon (ecclesiastical) law grew rapidly. After earlier unofficial attempts to collect and rationalize this huge number of degrees and rulings, Pope Gregory IX (reigned 1227–1241) produced the first official compilation of canon law in 1234.

The Zenith of the Medieval Papacy. Under Innocent III (reigned 1198–1216), the papacy reached the height of its prestige and power. He took advantage of an ongoing dispute over the election of a successor to Henry VI, king of Germany and Holy Roman emperor (reigned 1190–1197), to assert the principle of papal authority over the emperor and ultimately to place his own choice of successor on the throne. His zeal to extend Roman Christianity resulted in his calling the Fourth Crusade (1202–1204). Though he did not plan the Crusaders’ sack of Constantinople in 1204 and the establishment of the Roman Church in that center of Eastern Christianity, he nonetheless welcomed this forced (and relatively brief) union of the two Christian Churches. He also instituted a crusade against the so-called Albigensian heretics, or Cathars (1209). Yet, at the same time he declared all-out war on these enemies of the Church, he gave his official approval to the monastic orders founded by Francis of Assisi (1210) and Dominic (1216), who had been mistrusted for their espousal of poverty and self-sacrifice in imitation of Jesus. Innocent also called the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), which established the dogma of transubstantiation (the belief that in Communion the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ), and established fundamental rules of Christian practice and belief that are still followed today. The council included representatives from all regions to which Christianity had stretched, reinforcing the notion that the Church of Rome was indeed the Church Universal.

New Challenges. The seeds for a decline in papal prestige, however, may be seen in Innocent’s triumphs. By the middle of the thirteenth century, as several heretical movements denied basic tenets of Church theology, a new generation of reformers were criticizing the corruption of Church officeholders and calling for a return to the poverty and piety of the Franciscans and Dominicans. Furthermore, the involvement of Innocent’s successors in secular politics weakened the papacy. In 1303 Pope Boniface VIII attempted to end a war between France and the Holy Roman Empire through an agreement that restated the Pope’s supremacy to all secular rulers and made the emperor overlord to all the kings of Europe. Philip IV (the Fair) of France (reigned 1285–1314)—who had been at odds with the Pope before—retaliated by launching a mission to undermine the papacy in Italy. Demonstrating the relative hollowness of the Pope’s claim to secular supremacy, one of Philip’s councillors and a member of a powerful Italian family kidnapped Boniface, physically abused him, and held him captive for two days. Boniface died soon after, and the prestige of the papacy was severely damaged.

The Avignon Papacy. In 1309 Pope Clement V (reigned 1305–1314), who was English by birth but brought up in France, sought to assuage the anger of Philip IV, who was calling for the posthumous trial of Boniface on charges that included heresy and fornication, by moving the papal seat to Avignon in France. From that time until Pope Gregory XI (reigned 1370–1378) moved the papacy back to Rome in 1377, all seven new Popes and 111 of 134 new cardinals were French, and the power exerted by Philip and his successors served to limit the temporal power of the papacy—as well as increasing French power within the Church of Rome.

Attacks on the Papacy. During this time the papacy also came under fire from intellectuals within and without religious orders. In II convivio (The Banquet, circa 1304-1307) and De monarchia (On Monarchy, circa 1313) Dante blamed political chaos in Italy on papal interference in secular government and argued that the Pope should confine his interest to spiritual matters. A few years later his fellow Italian, philosopher Marsilius of Padua, completed his Defensor Pacis (Defender of the Peace, 1324) in which he contended that the Pope had no authority in secular affairs and that his spiritual authority must be subordinated to that of temporal rulers. In his three-part Dialogus de Potestate Papae (Dialogue on the Power of the Pope, 1332–1346) and other works, William of Ockham, a member of the Franciscan order, questioned the doctrine of papal infallibility in religious as well as secular matters.

The Religion of the Common People. While politicians and intellectuals attacked the papacy, however, most medieval Christians remained firm in their devotion to the Church and its leaders throughout the first half of the fourteenth century. A large number of parish churches were built during this period, and many popular prayers, hymns, and carols also date to this time. Moreover, the Church earned the loyalty of its communicants by reforming and reorganizing its administration, cracking down on clerical excesses, and founding many almshouses and hospitals. It also expanded its missionary activities, sending representatives as far away as China. Despite these positive achievements, however, the removal of the papacy to Avignon and criticism of its claims to supremacy in all secular and ecclesiastical affairs damaged the prestige of the papacy and lay the groundwork for the division of the Church during the sixteenth century.


Adriaan H. Bredero, Christendom and Christianity in the Middle Ages: The Relations Between Religion, Church, and Society, translated by Reinder Bruinsma (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1994).

F. Donald Logan, ed., A History of the Medieval Church: An Introduction (London & New York: Routledge, 1999).

R. W. Southern, Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages (H armondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1970).

Walter Ullmann, The Growth of Papal Government in the Middle Ages. A Study in the Ideological Relation of Clerical to Lay Power (London: Methuen, 1955).

Ullmann, A Short History of the Papacy in the Middle Ages (London: Methuen, 1972).

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The Ascent of the Roman Church

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