Secular Clergy: Reform and Reaction

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Secular Clergy: Reform and Reaction

Simplicity and Celibacy.

The eleventh-century clerical reforms directed by the papacy called for a new discipline among secular priests. Proponents of reform stressed simplicity of lifestyle and singular dedication (including celibacy), as well as the need to break ties with secular interests and worldliness. The two most troublesome issues involving corruptions of the priesthood at this time were those related to simony (the buying or selling of church office) and clerical marriage. The momentum of reform also ushered in a rise in the number of individuals seeking the monastic life at places like Cluny. The character of priesthood was also an issue, but more importantly the social distinctions between the powers of the church and the laity were being clarified during this time. Pope Nicholas II's legislation of 1059 reflects Rome's awareness of the acute need for clerical reform at the most basic level. It is also a reminder of the growing power of organized religion and its competition with the laity for control of society.

Education and Restraints on Personal Behavior.

The need for more systematic clerical reform was the agenda of twelfth-century bishops. They were charged with personally controlling the quality of candidates for the priesthood as well as their instruction. Education of the clergy was a major issue since many clerics in the more rural areas often had not received a thorough theological or scriptural orientation. The Third Lateran Council of 1179 decreed that each cathedral should have a master for the instruction of grammar and each major city a master of theology. They assisted the priests in their understanding of the scriptures and the nature of the sacraments. These teachers also ensured that the clergy not only had training in the implementation of ritual, but also knew something about the proper care of souls. An educated clergy also needed to combat the erroneous teachings of self-styled wandering preachers and zealots, who themselves quite often lacked formal religious education. At this time, control over localized preaching was a problem not only for local priests but bishops as well. Parochial jurisdictions seemed to be an important but often criticized aspect of clerical life. With the advent of the Crusades, the issue of whether or not clerics could bear arms or participate in an excursion of holy war came to public attention as well. Other behavioral issues, including excessive immoral public displays, such as drinking or concubinage, were also addressed by the councils. The more extreme monastic reform movements like Cistercians and Carthusians served as a gentle reminder that the secular clergy were certainly not living the most ideal or perfect Christian lives.

Awareness of Institutional Problems.

The thirteenth-century reforms of the secular clergy were spurred by the realization that the church in its domination of European culture had become more institutional than spiritual. The 1215 Magna Carta, an English document laying out the rights of free men, even included provisions for relief of the institutional church by the crown. Despite the power amassed by the church, however, it was the increasingly frequent development of lay spiritual movements and the establishment of four new mendicant orders that finally delivered the wake-up call to the hierarchy, who were inundated with requests for confirmation of new religious lifestyles. Canon 16, decreed by the Fourth Lateran Council, sheds some light on the problems of the day:

Clerics shall not hold secular office nor indulge in commerce, especially unseemly commerce. They shall not attend performances of mimes, jesters or plays and shall avoid taverns except only out of necessity while traveling. Nor shall they play with dice; they should not even be present at such games. They should wear the clerical tonsure and be zealous in the performance of their divine offices and in other responsibilities. Moreover, they shall wear their garments clasped and neither too short nor too long. And they shall eschew bright colors such as red and green as well as ornamentation on their gloves and shoes. [Canon 16]

Another passage (Canon 17) suggests that even within the cloister, behavior was often inappropriate:

We regret that not only some clerics in minor orders but also some of the prelates of churches spend half of the night eating and talking, not to mention other things that they are doing, and get to sleep so late that they are scarcely wakened by the birds singing and they mumble their way hurriedly through morning prayers. There are some clerics who celebrate Mass only four times a year, what is worse, they disdain even attending Mass. And, if they happen to be present at Mass, they flee the silence of the choir to go outside to talk with laymen, preferring things frivolous to things divine. These and similar practices we totally forbid under penalty of suspension.

After the Fourth Lateran Council, the clergy were prohibited from having anything to do with the spilling of blood, including service as a soldier or a physician. Priests were not allowed to hunt or participate in fowling. The giving of a benefice (an ecclesiastical office to which an endowment is attached) to any unworthy cleric was also deemed an offense. In the late thirteenth century, the English bishop Robert Grosseteste wrote the Templum Dei (the Temple of God), a simple and clear guide for the performance of clerical duties including the distinctions among particular vices and virtues. Around the same time in France, Bishop William Durandus put together a work outlining priestly functions and the teaching mission of clergy.



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Uncloistered Religious Life.

An important outgrowth of the lay religious movements of the twelfth century was the notion of living an apostolic life outside the cloister. The practices of preaching, teaching, ministry, and living in simplicity or poverty, as well as performing charitable work, became focal points for some of the more socially oriented religious movements of the 1100s. One of the reasons behind such reform was the feeling that these were the very apostolic activities that

Battle over Magna Carta

The significance of the thirteenth-century English document called Magna Carta (the Great Charter) is often thought of not in relation to religion, but in terms of its influence upon the evolving notion of constitutional liberties. King John of England (1199–1216) was forced to admit that, even as king and lord, he had certain contractual obligations to individuals at many levels of society. On 15 June 1215 at Runnymede, under mounting pressure from the barons of England (led by Stephen Langton, the archbishop of Canterbury), King John set his seal to the document, consenting to certain rights and freedoms for the church, as well as his barons, and granting relief from unjust legal, financial and tax-based statutes for subjects of the crown. Magna Carta's provisions for trials by jury, consent to taxation by common council, fishing and hunting rights, the imposition of an aristocratic king's council, and adjustments to standard legal procedures created precedent for a more participatory government and set the stage for the necessary developments of a representative parliamentary process. Over the centuries, the precedent and spirit resulting from these events would continually remind the English people that even the king, like those over whom he ruled, should be subject to the law. Rather than being just a single document, Magna Carta actually went through several drafts and a period of negotiation, and its implementation led to further developments of parliamentary and constitutional governance in England. These events then influenced other European constitutional monarchies, but most significantly fostered the representative, constitutional, and republican ideals that gave birth to the government of the United States.

What is most interesting is the role played by the Roman Church in the whole chain of events. Some of this had to do with the tenuous nature of John's power in England. A rift between King John and Pope Innocent III (1198–1216) went back to the disputed election of the archbishop of Canterbury in 1205. Despite English clerical opposition, John had favored his secretary, the bishop of Norwich, for elevation to the vacant post and forced the clergy to elect his candidate. Innocent, however, invalidated the election and persuaded the Canterbury clerics to support Stephen Langton, an English scholar who was teaching university students at the time in Paris. (Tradition has suggested that Innocent and Stephen were friends while studying together at the University of Paris.) Despite the pope's consecration of Stephen as Canterbury's archbishop, King John would not allow Stephen to occupy that important ecclesiastical office. Langton remained in France for some six years until the pope forced John's hand in 1208 by excommunicating him and placing the entire English kingdom under interdict. John's response was an abusive taxation of church property, to which Innocent responded by authorizing the French king, Phillip Augustus, to depose John by force and take over England. John was eventually compelled to submit to the papacy and Stephen was placed in power. In addition, the kingdoms of England and Ireland were made subject to the papacy, and King John was only allowed to rule them as a vassal of Rome. This formal relationship of vassalage between England and the papacy continued for the next hundred years. (Events such as this leave little doubt as to why animosity persisted between the English monarchs and the papacy.)

Once at Canterbury, Langton quickly took the side of the barons in attempting to lessen the king's domination of the English people. It is quite clear that Stephen Langton, as archbishop, assisted the nobles in the drafting of Magna Carta, which included provisions to guard against excessive taxation of the church, even though this issue had been resolved long before the drafting of the document. In spite of this, Pope Innocent III, now symbolically entrusted with the care of England, was not in favor of many of the elements in the great charter. He particularly did not agree with the provisions in the document concerning the liberties of the barons. Powerful dukes and princes in Italy had caused much trouble for the church. In August of 1215, Innocent annulled Magna Carta. Some scholars have argued that the pope found the document too politically liberal. Others suggest that Innocent felt he needed John on his side in the implementation of the directives from the Fourth Lateran Council. Innocent called the king's "forced" concessions to the nobles which were set forth in the charter unjust, degrading, shameful and illegal. In fact, Langton was soon removed from his episcopal office by the pontiff. What is interesting to note is that this was a case in which the pope felt he not only had the authority to manipulate the running of a kingdom, but also the power to invalidate a secular legal document. After both Innocent and John died in 1216, Magna Carta was reissued, and Stephen Langton was eventually re-appointed as archbishop of Canterbury.

were somehow being neglected by the secular clergy. However, some of the lay spiritual movements that developed over the next several centuries, such as the Waldensians, Humiliati, Béguines, and Beghards, came under criticism from Rome or were even accused of heresy. Regardless, the laity throughout medieval Europe began to listen to these reforming voices for inspiration in their own spiritual lives. It was believed by many members of the church establishment that such loosely organized movements lacked the order, direction, and type of training or education necessary to carry out the orthodox mission of the church in a responsible way.

The Origins of the Friars.

As interest in religious reform increased, the growing urban cultures were giving rise to greater commerce, more mobile populations, an increase in education, and a broader distribution of wealth. With this rising prosperity came sophistication, greed, skepticism, and a growing distrust of wealthy and powerful religious institutions. An outgrowth of this skepticism was the development within the church itself of a new form of religious life emphasizing a combination of poverty and preaching. The friars, as they came to be known, proved to be an answer to some of the tensions being experienced both within institutional Christianity and outside it. On the one hand, the friars belonged to organized and papally sanctioned orders, yet on the other, they were not obligated to the Benedictine vow of cloistered stability. The two major movements of friars, the Dominicans and the Franciscans, were substantially different, both in their origin and character. The Dominicans evolved from canons regular (clergymen belonging to a cathedral or collegiate church) while the Franciscans were more akin to the simple lay spiritual movements. Once established and accepted by Rome, these friars were free to minister to the poor as well as preach, teach, and counter the spread of heretical ideas, all within the authority of the institutional church. With the benefit of theological education, the sanctioned orthodox preaching of the Dominicans was quite befitting of their name, Order of Preachers (O.P.).


The friars targeted urban areas in their ministry, supporting themselves by begging in communities along the major European trade routes. In these cities, where medieval commerce was thriving, there were large numbers of people with a certain amount of disposable income. Members of this rising merchant class needed direct and practical spiritual guidance, and they were open to hearing the messages of educated preachers. The preaching of homilies by secular clergy at Mass in both local churches and cathedrals had all but disappeared by this time. Among the Dominicans and Franciscans, however, the sermon became an art form. Manuals for preaching such as The Instruction of Preachers by the Dominican Humbert of Romans or The Art of Preaching by Thomas Waleys became important tools for evangelization. Exempla (moralizing anecdotes drawn from the lives of saints, animal fables, or wise sayings about everyday life) were used as effective aids in the delivery of clever sermons, while biblical concordances (books where all the key words in the Bible are arranged so that they might be referenced or cross-referenced) helped bolster the preacher's arsenal of effective speech. The message the friars brought to the laity incorporated a theology that was reasonable, optimistic, human, accommodating, and directed toward living a fruitful life in this world. These qualities made the laity more willing to confess their sins to the friars. In fact, Dominican convents gave their brothers regular instruction in the theology of penance.


Leonard Boyle, Pastoral Care, Clerical Education and Canon Law 1200–1400 (London: Variorum Reprints, 1981).

J. H. Burns, ed., Cambridge History of Medieval Political Thought (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

Gerhardt Ladner, The Idea of Reform (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1959).

F. Donald Logan, A History of the Church in the Middle Ages (New York: Routledge, 2002): 196.

Kenneth Pennington, Popes and Bishops: The Papal Monarchy in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries (Philadelphia, Pa.: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1984).

Norman Tanner, ed., Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils (Washington D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1990).

Brian Tierney, The Crisis of Church and State (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988).

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Secular Clergy: Reform and Reaction

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