Nicholas I, Pope, St.
NICHOLAS I, POPE, ST.
Pontificate: April 24, 858 to Nov. 13, 867. The son of an important Roman official, Nicholas entered the papal administration after receiving a good education. Made subdeacon by Pope sergius ii and deacon by Pope leo iv, he served as chief adviser to Pope benedict iii. The efforts to extend the authority of the papal office made by these pontiffs, especially Leo IV, played a role in shaping Nicholas' concept of that office. His election had wide support, including that of Emperor Louis II, who was to remain a challenging presence throughout Nicholas' pontificate.
The first few years of Nicholas' reign passed quietly. But then a variety of appeals reflecting many of the tensions of the later Carolingian period began to reach Rome. Nicholas was seldom reluctant to become engaged. The result was an almost frenzied outburst of activity proceeding simultaneously on several fronts, which was to occupy Nicholas during the last five years of his pontificate.
One such case pitted Nicholas I against the eastern emperor and the patriarch of constantinople in an encounter in which jurisdictional primacy in the religious realm and the relationship between church and state were at issue. That clash began when Patriarch ignatius was deposed in 858 by Emperor michael iii for political reasons and replaced by photius, an experienced figure at the imperial court who, because he was a layman, was canonically ineligible for the patriarchal office. Ignatius' deposition produced two factions in Constantinople, each of which turned to Rome. Photius was first to do so, joining Michael III in requesting papal confirmation of his election. Nicholas declined to do so, partly because he received news that raised questions about Ignatius' depostion. Rather he decided to send legates to Constantinople to gain more information about that matter and to renew the papacy's claims to jurisdiction over Illyricum and to revenues from papal patrimonies in Sicily and southern Italy, both of which Emperor Leo III (717–741) had taken from the papacy. The papal legates overstepped their fact-finding commission and became parties to a synod in 861 which confirmed Ignatius' deposition. Nicholas responded in 863 by deposing Photius and declaring Ignatius restored to office. Despite the emperor's refusal to comply, Nicholas stood by his decision, letting the emperor know in strong language of the primacy of St. Peter's successor. But he left the case open by inviting the parties to present their cases once again, this time in Rome.
Perhaps Nicholas' leniency was a consequence of a new development affecting relations between Rome and Constantinople: the Christianization of Bulgaria, already in progress through the efforts of missionaries sent from Constantinople by Photius. But then the recently converted Bulgar king, Boris, irked by Photius' refusal to sanction an autonomous ecclesiastical establishment in Bulgaria, decided in 866 to turn to Rome. Welcoming the opportunity to become a party in the expansion of Christendom, Nicholas promptly summoned his own missionary party to Bulgaria along with his famous "Responses" to a series of questions Boris had posed about the conduct of Christian life; some of Nicholas' answers attacked Greek teaching and practices. The Roman newcomers immediately established themselves in Bulgaria at the expense of Greek missionaries who were expelled. Prompted by what he considered Rome's usurpation of his patriarchal jurisdiction and concerned about the threat to the Empire posed by a hostile Bulgar state allied with Rome, Photius now decided to take the offensive. He dispatched an encyclical to the eastern patriarchs summoning them to a council to be held in Constantinople in the summer of 867 to discuss Rome's intrusion into Bulgaria. At its meeting the council outlined a long list of irregularities in doctrine, liturgy, and moral usage sanctioned by the Roman Church and ended by excommunicating and deposing Nicholas, a move that posed a direct challenge to the pope's claim of primacy. Photius also took steps to rally Nicholas' many enemies in the West, including Emperor Louis II, against the pope. Although Nicholas was dead before the council's official acts reached Rome, he did have some inkling of what had happened. One of his last acts was to issue a call to western leaders to join in refuting the charges made by the Greeks against the Roman Church and its practices. While the excommunicated pope seemed to have met his match in Photius, events soon proved otherwise. Just before Nicholas' death, a palace revolt produced a new emperor, Basil I, and soon thereafter Photius was deposed and Ignatius reinstalled as patriarch of Constantinople. Nicholas' successors were left to take the necessary actions to end the Photian schism and resolve the Bulgar issue, but he had defined the principles upon which that settlement was based.
While Nicholas was engaged in the Photian affair, he became embroiled with another ruler and his subservient clergymen. This case involved King lothair ii of Lotharingia, who in 860 put aside his wife, Theutberga, and sought to marry his mistress, Waldrada. While passion may have been involved, Lothair was driven by a more urgent consideration: assuring an heir to protect his realm from the clutches of his uncles, Charles the Bald and Louis the German. Theutberga was unable to produce a child, but Waldrada had already borne Lothair II a son. In order to sanction the dissolution of his marriage, Lothair enlisted the services of the Lotharingian episcopacy; under the leadership of Archbishops Gunther of Cologne and Theutgaud of Trier the bishops sitting in council accommodated the king by declaring his marriage to Theutberga
invalid on the basis of a trumped up charge of incest against Theutberga and authorized Lothair's marriage to Waldrada.
Upon receiving word of the case in the form of appeals from both Theutberga and Lothair II, Nicholas was faced with the issue of where according to canon law lay final authority in marriage cases. His first step was to announce in November 862 that a synod was to be held in the presence of papal legates to settle the issue; the synod's decisions were to be submitted to Rome for approval. In the meantime, Lothair II married Waldrada with Archbishop Gunther's blessing; in the eyes of Nicholas the king had by this act violated canon law and opened himself to ecclesiastical sanction. The synod met at Metz in June 863 with papal legates (probably bribed) present; it decreed that Theutberga was guilty and that Lothair's marriage to Waldrada was valid. Gunther and Theutgaud were commissioned to carry the synod's decisions to Rome for papal confirmation. There they received a rude shock. Nicholas summoned them before a Roman synod which not only voided the decisions taken at Metz but also excommunicated and deposed the archbishops. This unprecedented action prompted Archbishops Gunther and Theutgaud to mount a counterattack. They circulated their case widely, charging that Nicholas acted as if he were "emperor of the whole world" and urging that his tyranny be resisted. Their cause gained some support from Louis II, but little elsewhere, partly because Nicholas continued pursuing the case, writing letters to kings and major prelates seeking support for his position and to Lothair threatening him with excommunication. The pope finally decided to send another legate to enforce the papal decision. The mission, carried out in 865, succeeded in compelling Lothair to restore Theutberga as his legitimate wife and in arranging for the removal of Waldrada to Rome for judgment. But Nicholas' seeming victory was far from decisive. Waldrada fled Italy and renewed her liaison with Lothair; Nicholas responded by excommunicating her. Theutberga appealed to the pope, saying that she wished to come to Rome to have her intolerable marriage annulled; Nicholas refused her request, charging that he suspected that she had been forced to make her appeal by a husband still persisting in his defiant ways. And he continued to seek support in many quarters to bring pressure on Lothair II to abide by the papal decision. Nicholas also refused to restore the archbishops of Cologne and Trier to their sees. However, the situation remained uncertain. Only a few days before his death Nicholas wrote a series of letters indicating that he was not sure that Lothair had taken Theutberga back and insisting on canonically elected replacements for the sees of Cologne and Trier.
Nicholas' concept of the place of the papacy in the ecclesiastical hierarchy was demonstrated even more precisely in his involvement with two of the most powerful ecclesiastical figures of the era, Archbishops John VIII of Ravenna and Hincmar of Reims, both holders of metropolitan sees. As a result of the Carolingian religious reforms, metropolitan bishops steadily increased their authority over the bishops and other clergy of their provinces to the point where curbing their claims became a critical issue in the eyes of many, including the pope.
Archbishop John VIII was one of the more aggressive and capable in a long succession of prelates of Ravenna who sought by whatever means to resist submission to Rome and to carve a position of independence for their see. Immediately upon his succession in 850 John took actions that provoked many of his clerical and lay subjects to appeal to the pope for relief from his alleged tyranny. Between 861 and 863 Nicholas responded with a series of summons to John to appear in Rome, a sentence of excommunication, and a papal appearance in Ravenna. None of these measures constrained John, chiefly because he enjoyed the support of Emperor Louis II, until the emperor finally commanded him to make peace with Rome. Nicholas then compelled John to appear before a Roman synod which restored him to communion but required him to accept conditions that severely limited his powers over his suffragans and magnified his subservient position with respect to the bishop of Rome.
A more formidable adversary was Archbishop hincmar of reims, who after his election to that see in 845 established himself as a potent force in the religious affairs not only in his own province but also everywhere north of the Alps. Hincmar was a dedicated prelate, seriously concerned about maintaining the right order in the Church, but he was also particularly aggressive in expanding and enforcing his metropolitan authority. That effort led to a long and complex confrontation with Nicholas. The issues at stake emerged most clearly in two cases involving Hincmar's rights over clergy under his metropolitan authority.
The first centered around Bishop Rothad of Soissons who earned Hincmar's enmity by resisting what the archbishop claimed were his metropolitan rights over his suffragans. With the support of a provincial synod Hincmar finally deposed Rothad. When he learned of the case, Nicholas immediately raised the issue of Hincmar's authority in such cases. After an extended exchange with Hincmar, Nicholas finally ordered that Rothad be restored to his see, arguing that Hincmar had failed to recognize that all bishops had a right to appeal to Rome before being sentenced, that the pope had final jurisdiction over all cases involving bishops, and that the actions of all councils were subject to papal confirmation.
The second case involved a group of clerics, including a certain Wulfrad, who had been ordained by Archbishop Ebbo of Reims before his second deposition in 843. One of Hincmar's first acts as Ebbo's successor was to suspend the clerics ordained by Ebbo, a decision approved by a synod held at Soissons in 853; the synod's acts were confirmed by Pope Benedict III and by Nicholas himself. In the interval Wulfrad became a favorite of Charles the Bald and with the king's support was elected archbishop of Bourges, a move opposed by Hincmar. Wulfrad's eligibility for election hinged on whether he was a cleric or a layman, thus posing once again the question of the validity of Hincmar's deposition of the clerics ordained by Ebbo. The case eventually came to Nicholas' attention. He launched an effort to compel Hincmar to reverse his earlier decision on the clerics ordained by Ebbo. In the ensuing duel the combatants played ecclesiastical politics to secure their positions and exchanged letters, often vituperative, in which both parties sought to justify their actions in terms of their canonical rights. Their cases depended heavily on their exploitation of traditions defining the relationships between various officials in the ecclesiastical system and upon newly minted forgeries which produced texts supporting one or another cause. The most famous such forgery, known as the False Decretals of Pseudo-Isidore, consisted of a collection of pronouncements on ecclesiastical governance purportedly made by various authorities (popes, councils, Church fathers, emperors) in the distant past which sanctioned the ultimate authority of the bishop of Rome but which were actually fabricated in the mid-ninth century as a means of defining an authority that could protect the Church from intrusion into its affairs by secular authorities and their clerical supporters. Eventually Nicholas with the support of Charles the Bald was able to compel Hincmar to accept the consecration of Wulfrad as archbishop of Bourges and to admit that cases involving bishops were reserved to the pope, but the pope also accepted Hincmar's explanation of his action in deposing the clerics ordained by Ebbo. That act of reconciliation, taken just before Nicholas' death, came at a time when the pope needed the archbishop's support to rally opinion in the West against the charges brought by Photius against the Roman Church in the council held in Constantinople in 867. Nicholas had certainly not defeated the redoubtable archbishop, but his efforts had placed clear boundaries around the authority of metropolitans in the affairs of their provinces.
The dramatic encounters described above in which the extent and the nature of papal, episcopal, conciliar, and secular authority were at stake by no means occupied all of Nicholas' attention. He was actively involved in directing the activities of his own suffragans in Italy. He dealt with numerous other appeals from everywhere in the West involving a wide range of problems concerning doctrinal matters, Church governance, and discipline. He acted to promote Christian expansion not only by supporting the activity of his missionaries in Bulgaria but also that of Anskar in Scandinavia and of Cyril and Methodius among the Slavs in Moravia. He interacted constantly with the Carolingian rulers of his time, acting chiefly as an arbiter in their increasingly tangled and embittered relationships but almost never seeking a directive role in secular affairs. However, he was always quick to remind kings of their duties toward the Church and of the pope's right to judge their conduct as Christians. He maintained firm control over the governance of the Papal State and its resources, a policy that on several occasions led to confrontations with Emperor Louis II, who took seriously his rights and responsibilities as protector of the people and the lands of St. Peter. In short, through his numerous activities the papal presence was felt in a wide range of matters affecting all Christendom.
The significance of Nicholas' pontificate cannot be measured simply by a triumphant cataloging of his confrontations with various foes. In fact, his victories were limited; his death left his successors with major conflicts still unresolved. In several instances the success or failure of Nicholas' clashes depended on the support or lack of support from political leaders seeking to achieve ends that had little to do with the pope's goals. Nicholas was never reluctant to seek out the support of rulers willing to further papal causes. But after all these factors are taken into account, there still remains a distinctive and unique dimension to his pontificate that made him the most significant pope between gregory i the great (590–604) and gregory vii (1073–1085). That special feature was provided by the conceptual framework that motivated and guided his actions in the face of situations arising in the world in which he found himself.
The foundation stone of Nicholas' position was his firm conviction that all who were Christians constituted a single, God-ordained body, which required a single head to guide it. Acting through Jesus, God commissioned St. Peter and his successors as bishops of Rome to fill that role. As monarch of the Christian community, the bishop of Rome was responsible before God for the spiritual welfare of every Christian and was endowed with certain powers assuring that that responsibility was met. The pope had the final say in defining what constituted true faith and right conduct. He was obligated to take whatever steps were necessary to judge and correct all whose behavior threatened orthodox belief and violated right conduct. The pope's power to serve as final judge extended over all other ecclesiastical officials, including patriarchs, metropolitans, and bishops, and over the acts of all Church councils. Papal judgments had binding power, so that in effect they became authoritative legislation defining how the affairs of the Christian community were to be conducted. Anyone, especially bishops, who felt maltreated by higher ecclesiastical officials or by the decisions of councils had a right to appeal to the bishop of Rome for judgment, but there was no appeal beyond that; only God could judge the pope's discharge of his pastoral duties. Nicholas had a place in his concept of the cosmic order for secular rulers. God had ordained separate spheres in human affairs: the spiritual and the secular, the former superior to the latter. Rulers in the secular sphere enjoyed the power to command in matters pertaining to that sphere, but they were obligated to promote the welfare of the religious community and to conduct their lives in accordance with right faith and morals as defined by spiritual authorities. If by their actions in these matters they failed to demonstrate their fitness for office, then they were subject to judgment and correction by ecclesiastical authorities, including ultimately the bishop of Rome.
Nicholas in no sense invented these concepts nor were any of them new; his position was solidly grounded in tradition. What was new was the coherence given to traditional concepts, the clarity with which they were articulated, and the relevance attached to them by the manner in which they were applied to real situations involving genuine clashes of interest. There remains the question of whether the ideas set forth so powerfully in his many letters and exemplified so dramatically in his actions were those of Nicholas himself. It has been argued, for instance, that the real mind behind his letters and actions was that of anastasius the librarian, a learned master of Church history, an astute ecclesiastical politician, and a highly effective writer who served as Nicholas' secretary after 862. Others have sought to demonstrate that Nicholas' ideas on papal authority were derived from a document that he knew was a forgery: the False Decretals of Pseudo-Isidore; consequently, Nicholas was little more than a dishonest manipulator of situations bent on gathering power into his own hands. Neither of these arguments has met the test of modern scholarship. Nicholas was his own man, piecing together from an almost inchoate body of traditional texts a consistent set of concepts that laid down the outlines of an ecclesiastical order that moved away from the caesaropapist and conciliar concepts that had held sway since the days of Constantine the Great toward a monarchical, hierarchical concept of ecclesiastical governance. For that reason, he found eager supporters in his own time when the unity of the Christian community was increasingly jeopardized by the fragmentation of authority, and he provided guidance for future generations of canonists and theologians in their efforts to shape the concepts of papal theocracy that so influenced the history of Western Christendom for several centuries to come.
Feast: Nov. 13.
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[r. e. sullivan]
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