Development Of The Papacy From Gregory VII To Boniface VIII
British Church Newspaper – October 2007
British Church Newspaper
Now to the last great struggle. There lacked one grade of power to crown this stupendous fabric of papal dominion. Spiritual Supremacy was achieved in the seventh century, the temporal sovereignty in the eighth; it wanted only the pontifical supremacy, known as the temporal supremacy, to make the Pope supreme over kings, as he had already become over peoples and bishops, and to vest in him a jurisdiction that has not its like on earth - a unique jurisdiction arrogating all powers, absorbing all rights, and spurning all limits. Destined, before terminating its career, to crush beneath its iron foot thrones and nations, and masking ambition as astute as Lucifer's with dissimulation as profound, this power advanced at first with noiseless steps. It stole upon the world as night. Its strides grew longer and swifter as it reached its goal finally vaulting over the throne of monarchs into the seat of God.
Claiming to be the vicars of Christ, the popes knew that it would be imprudent, indeed impossible, yet to assert it in actual fact. Their prudent motto was Spes messis in semine. Discerning "the harvest in the seed", they skillfully and perservingly lodged the principle of supremacy both in their creed, and in the European mind, knowing future ages would ripen it.
Papal daring and ambition
At length came overt measures. It was 1073. Perhaps the greatest of all the Popes, Gregory VII, the noted Hildebrand, held the papal chair. Daring and ambitious beyond all preceding, and beyond most to follow, Gregory fully grasped the Theocratic concept. He equated the reign of the Pope with the reign of God. He tirelessly sought the subjection of all authority and power, spiritual and temporal, to Peter's chair. "When he drew out the whole system of Papal omnipotence in twenty-seven theses in his Dictatus, he repeated the Isidorian decretals giving them the appearance of antiquity by new fictions." For example the eleventh maxim says, "the Pope's name is the chief name in the world;" the twelfth teaches that, "it is lawful for him to depose emperors;" the eighteenth affirms that "his decision is to be withstood by none, but he alone may annul those of all men". The nineteenth declares that, "he can be judged by no one". The twenty-fifth vests in him the absolute power of deposing and restoring bishops, and the twenty-seventh the power of annulling the allegiance of subjects. Gregory flung down this gage before kings and nations - for the pontifical supremacy embraces all who dwell upon the earth.
POPE v EMPIRE
The mitre and the (Holy Roman) empire were now at war. Gregory sought to wrest from the emperors the power of appointing the bishops and the clergy, assuming into his sole and irresponsible hands all the intellectual and spiritual machinery by which Christendom was governed. The strife was bloody. The mitre nevertheless continued to gain steadily upon the empire. The superstitious spirit of the times helped the priesthood struggle with the civil power. Superstitious to the core, the age was nevertheless thoroughly ecclesiastical. The crusades broke the spirit and drained the wealth of the princes. The growing power and riches of the clergy militated ever more against the State.
Gregory VII briefly tasted this immortal power. He saw Henry IV of Germany, whom he had smitten with excommunication, stand barefooted in sackcloth, waiting three days and nights at the castle-gates of Canossa, amid winter drifts, suing for forgiveness. Hildebrand stood on this dazzling pinnacle for a moment only. Fortunes of war quickly turned. Henry once humiliated became victor in his turn. Gregory died in exile upon Salerno's promontory. But his successors strove by wiles, by arms, and by anathemas, to reduce the world under the sceptre of the Papal Theocracy. For two dismal centuries melancholy, stricken and bloody fields, empty thrones and sacked cities were beheld!
But through all this misery the idea of Gregory was perseveringly pursued, till at last the mitre triumphed over the (Holy Roman) empire and Innocent III. (1198-1216) celebrated this great victory. Pontifical supremacy had reached its fullness. One man and one will governed the world. In stupefied awe we see that colossus, Innocent III, rearing up, all the mitres of the Church on his head, all the sceptres of the State in his hand. "In each of the three leading objects which Rome has pursued, independent sovereignty, supremacy over the Christian Church, control over the princes of the earth it was the fortune of this pontiff to conquer. "Rome then inspired all the terror of her ancient name; she was once more mistress of the world, and kings were her vassals." Innocent appointed all bishops and presided over all tribunals, from the mightiest to the humblest cause. He claimed all kingdoms as his fiefs, all monarchs as his vassals; and launched with unsparing hand the bolts of excommunication against all who withstood his pontifical will. Hildebrand's idea was now fully realized. The pontifical supremacy was beheld both in the fullness of spiritual and temporal power. But the noon of the Papacy was the midnight of the world.
THE CHURCH MY SPOUSE
Pope Innocent III. affirmed "that the pontifical authority so much exceeded the royal power as the sun doth the moon". As Jehovah said to his prophet Jeremiah: "See, I have set thee over the nations and over the kingdoms, to root out, and to pull down, and to destroy, and to throw down". Innocent boasted "The Church my spouse is not married to me without bringing me something. She hath given me a dowry of a price beyond all price, the plenitude of spiritual things, and the extent of things temporal, the greatness and abundance of both. She hath given me the mitre in token of things spiritual, the crown in token of the temporal; the mitre for the priesthood, and the crown for the kingdom; making me the lieutenant of him who hath written upon his vesture, and on his thigh, the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords. I enjoy alone the plenitude of power, that others may say of me, next to God, and out of his fullness have we received".
Boniface VIII added in his bull Unum sanctum, "We declare define, pronounce it to be necessary to salvation for every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff". This subjection is declared in the bull to extend to all affairs. "One sword," says the Pope, "must be under another, and the temporal authority must be subject to the spiritual power; whence, if the earthly power go astray, it must be judged by the spiritual". Such are only a few of the "great words" heard to issue from the Vatican Mount, that new Sinai.
Such contrast between the first and the last estate of the pastors of the Roman Church is lamented by the poet Dante. Addressing Peter, he says:
"E'en thou went'st forth in poverty and hunger
To set the goodly plant that,
From the vine it once was,
Now is grown unsightly bramble".
Petrarch the poet amplifies the same theme:
"The fire of wrathful heaven alight,
And all thy harlot tresses smite,
Base city! Thou from humble fare,
Thy acorns and thy water, rose
To greatness, rich with others' woes".
There is something here out of the ordinary course. For of the 130 Popes between Boniface III. (606), who, in partnership with Phocas, laid the foundations of the Papal grandeur, and Gregory VII, who realized it, onward through another two centuries to Innocent III. (1216) and Boniface VIII. (1303), who at last put the top-stone upon it, not one lost an inch of ground which his predecessor had gained! There is nothing like it in the history of the world. This success was audaciously interpreted proof of the divinity of the Papacy. Behold, it has been said, when the throne of Caesar was overturned, how the chair of Peter stood erect! Is not (this proof that the Church of Rome is) the Church of which Christ said, "The gates of hell shall not prevail against it?"
Boasting of a supposed donation of the kingdom of Hungary to the Roman See by Stephen, a Romanist historian says, "It fell out by a wonderful providence of God, that at the very time when the Roman Church might appear ready to fall and perish, even then distant kings approach the Apostolic See, which they acknowledge and venerate as the only temple of the universe, the sanctuary of piety, the pillar of truth, the immovable rock. Behold, kings - not from the East, as of old they came to the cradle of Christ, but from the North - led by faith, they humbly approach the cottage of the fisher, the Church of Rome herself, offering not only gifts out of their treasures, but bringing even kingdoms to her, and asking kingdoms from her. Whoso is wise, and will record these things, even he shall understand the loving kindness of the Lord."
THE RUIN OF ALL SAVE HER OWN
But the apparent success of the Papacy when closely examined cannot be justly pronounced legitimate, or fairly won. Rome ever swims with the tide. The evils and passions of society, which a true benefactress would have made it her business to cure - at least, to alleviate - Rome has studied rather to foster into strength, that she might be borne to power on the foul current which she herself had created. Amid battles, bloodshed, and confusion, has her path lain. The edicts of subservient Councils, the forgeries of hireling priests, the arms of craven monarchs, and the thunderbolts of excommunication have never been wanting to open her path. Exploits won by weapons of this sort are what her historians delight to chronicle. These are the victories that constitute her glory! Yet another great deduction from the apparent grandeur of her success is the success the clergy. During her early career, the Roman Church rendered certain important services to society but when she grew to maturity all acknowledge that her principles implied the ruin of all interests save her own.
But the career of Rome, with all the fictitious brilliance that encompasses it, is utterly eclipsed when placed beside the silent and sublime progress of the Gospel. The latter we see winning its way over mighty obstacles solely by the force and sweetness of its own truth. It touches the deep wounds of society only to heal them. It speaks not to awaken but to hush the rough voice of strife and war. It enlightens, purifies, and blesses men wherever it comes, and it does all this so gently and unboastingly! Reviled, it reviles not again. For curses it returns blessings. It unsheathes no sword; it spills no blood. Cast into chains, its victories are as many as when free, and more glorious; dragged to the stake and burned, from the ashes of the martyr there start up a thousand confessors, to speed on its career and swell the glory of its triumph. Compared with this how different has been the career of Rome! - as different, in fact, as the thundercloud which comes onward, mantling the skies in gloom and scathing the earth with fiery bolts, is different from the morning descending from the mountain-tops, scattering around it the silvery light, and awakening at its presence songs of joy.
(From Wylie's History of Protestantism, edited by Dr Clive Gillis.)