Gregory II, Pope, St.
GREGORY II, POPE, ST.
Pontificate: May 19, 715 to Feb. 11, 731. Born c. 669, Gregory was a member of a wealthy noble Roman family. At a young age he entered the papal curia where he was educated for service in the papal bureaucracy. He was made a subdeacon and appointed to a major financial office (sacellarius ) responsible for dispensing the funds of the papal government by Pope sergius i (687–701); subsequently he served the curia as librarian (bibliothecarius ). As a deacon he accompanied Pope constantine I (708–715) to Constantinople in 710 where he played an important role in negotiations with Emperor justinian ii that addressed issues arising from the disputed canons of the quinisext Council in Trullo of 692.
Gregory II's pontificate was one of the most important of the 8th century, marked by the confluence of several trends that redefined the position of the papacy in the political and religious scene. The forces that had been working for some time to dissolve the ties linking the papacy to the imperial regime in Constantinople were dramatically accentuated during Gregory II's pontificate, a development that pointed toward greater independence for the papacy but also threatened to deprive Rome of its long-time protector, the emperor. In no small part because of the decline of imperial power in Italy, the Lombard kingdom became increasingly aggressive to the point where it threatened to absorb the duchy of Rome and to reduce the Pope to the status of a regional bishop. But there were new opportunities that allowed the papacy to expand its influence north of the Alps into the world dominated by the Franks. Gregory II responded to the changing scene with actions that marked a decisive point in establishing the independence of the papacy, securing its control over Rome and the surrounding territory, and expanding its ties with the Frankish world.
The Clash with Constantinople. The most dramatic events of Gregory II's pontificate centered around his confrontations with the eastern Roman emperor. The relationship between Rome and Constantinople had been relatively peaceful since the settlement of the Monothelete dispute at the Council of constantinople in 680–681. In part, the peace was due to the weakness of the eastern Roman Empire, under attack from external enemies, especially the triumphant Muslim forces, and torn by internal dissent. All that changed with the accession of Emperor leo iii (717–741). His reign began with a decisive victory over the Muslim forces besieging Constantinople that blunted their westward advance into the heart of the empire. Following that victory, he initiated measures to restore internal order in the empire, including reforms of the military and administrative systems. In 717 he decided to replenish the imperial treasury by imposing new taxes, especially on his Italian subjects. Faced with a major loss of revenue resulting from the new burden on the papal patrimonies, Gregory II refused to comply with imperial orders. His defiance earned him a hero's role among all in Byzantine Italy who were opposed to paying taxes imposed by a distant ruler whose policies had little bearing on their interests or well-being in Italy. Leo III and his agents responded by organizing plots aimed at murdering Gregory II, but those plans were repeatedly thwarted by local military forces in Rome and elsewhere in Italy which came to the defense of the Pope. That resistance made it clear that the imperial military establishment in Italy could no longer be trusted to defend imperial interests or enforce imperial policies; its concerns, interests, and allegiances had become local.
Leo III soon provided an even stronger cause for challenging his authority. In 726 he undertook on his own authority to introduce a major change in religious policy aimed at ending the use of images (icons) in religious ceremonies and church decoration. This was a policy fraught with major doctrinal implications, certain to threaten deeply rooted cult practices sacred to many of the faithful, and destined to alienate important elements in the Byzantine ecclesiastical system, especially the monastic establishment. In the face of an imperial order to recognize the new policy, Gregory II denounced iconoclasm as heresy. He dispatched two letters to the emperor the authenticity of which is highly doubtful in the form in which they have survived, but which likely reflected the papal position on the theological error involved in Leo's position on icons and the papal challenge to the competence of a secular ruler to define orthodox doctrine. For the remainder of his pontificate the pope stood fast in his opposition to iconoclasm, denouncing Leo's decree of 730 making iconoclasm official policy, protesting his deposition of Patriarch germanus for resisting iconoclasm, and refusing to recognize the new patriarch chosen by Leo. Gregory II's stance won wide approval in Italy, greatly enhancing the papal position as defender of orthodoxy and further weakening the ability of the emperor to direct affairs in Italy. However, despite the hostility between the Pope and the emperor over taxation, doctrine, and ecclesiology, Gregory II repeatedly acted in ways that demonstrated his deep commitment to the papacy's traditional place in Roman imperial structure and his respect for the imperial office as the key agency sustaining civilized Christian society. Among other things, he thwarted an attempt by Italian separatist factions to elect a new emperor to replace Leo III, and he brought pressure to bear on the Lombards to restore to their rightful owner territories seized from the empire, including Ravenna. In reality, however, Rome and Constantinople were parting company politically and religiously, and the papacy as represented by Gregory II was increasingly a major force in shaping and giving momentum to that trend.
Gregory II's somewhat ambivalent relationship with the imperial regime in Constantinople was due in part to his deep commitment to the Roman imperial tradition. But it was also prompted by his concern with the growing power of the lombards and the consequent threat to the autonomy of Rome and its de facto ruler, the Pope. That prospect forced Gregory to be hesitant in cutting off all ties with Rome's long-time protector, the eastern emperor. Although Gregory II's relations with the Lombards was generally peaceful, in part because the Lombards shared papal opposition to iconoclasm, the Lombard threat became ever clearer as Gregory's pontificate advanced. For the papacy the matter of finding a new protector loomed ever more urgent.
Growing Ties with the North. Gregory II contributed in significant ways to expanding ties with northern Europe from whence a papal protector would eventually come. He received numerous pilgrims from north of the Alps, including King ine of Wessex, whose visit to Rome symbolized a growing reverence throughout the West for St. Peter and his successors. Duke Theodo of Bavaria came to Rome to pray and to seek papal assistance in organizing the church in his still not completely Christianized principality. Of especially great significance was the support that Gregory II gave to St. boniface for his missionary work in Germany. Even before the Anglo-Saxon monk began his evangelizing effort there, he came to Rome in 719 to seek papal blessing, which he received along with letters authorizing him to preach in Germany. Upon learning of Boniface' successes in Germany, Gregory II commanded him to return to Rome in 722 to receive consecration as bishop and to swear an oath of allegiance to the Roman pontiff; the new bishop left Rome with canon law books containing guidelines for imposing discipline on his converts and with a letter of introduction to charles martel, mayor of the palace in the kingdom of the Franks, who in turn provided letters indicating his support of Boniface's missionary effort. On several occasions Gregory II supplied Boniface with directions on how to proceed in winning converts and in drawing them into full participation in Christian life; in their substance these instructions demonstrated Gregory's firm grip on Christian tradition relative to such matters as marriage, liturgy, and theology. His guidance assured that the religious establishment which Boniface was creating in Germany would bear a strong Roman mark. Eventually, Boniface utilized that model when he became the directive figure in the carolingian reform of the Frankish church, thereby establishing another important link between the papacy and the Franks.
Gregory II was active in other spheres. He undertook to strengthen the fortifications of Rome. He continued the work of his predecessors as a builder and restorer of churches, contributing substantially to the physical transformation of Rome into a Christian city. He took an interest in promoting monastic life in Rome and elsewhere. His action in coping with a major flood of the Tiber demonstrated the extent to which the papacy had assumed responsibility for civil administration and public welfare in Rome. His ability to muster resources for such activities indicates that he was an effective manager of papal revenues. He was willing to intervene in ecclesiastical affairs outside Rome to assure the well-being of the Church, illustrated not only by his support of Boniface but also his role in ending a conflict between the sees of Aquileia and Grado. In every way his pontificate marked a strengthening of the papal role as ruler of Rome and its surrounding territory, as a moving force in the tangled web of Italian politics, and as an authority figure in spiritual affairs affecting Christian life in the West
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[r. e. sullivan]