Mgr John Broadbent
2 August 2012
Gregory VII (1073-1085) oversaw what French Dominican theologian Cardinal Yves Congar has argued was ‘the great turning point in ecclesiology’ – the 11th century.
The idea has sparked lively discussion with American theologian Richard McBrien agreeing that some Catholics regard the 500 years from Gregory VII to the Protestant Reformation as the ‘apex of the papacy, whose glory, grandeur and power have only recently been restored by Pope John Paul II.
Others, however, regard the developments of this period as an aberration, albeit of many centuries’ duration.
Whatever one’s point of view, the period undoubtedly yielded men of unusual talent and ability, beginning with Gregory VII himself.’
Cambridge University’s Professor of the history of Christianity Eamon Duffy has just published Ten Popes Who Shook the World.
This article draws on a chapter of Duffy’s book on Gregory VII.
Duffy describes a time in which the church and the world impinge on each other with the church’s wealth making it a tempting target for men who cared little for Christ’s message.
‘Wealthy families endowed charities for their souls’ sake, but they also jostled to have their sons made bishops and abbots to tap the church’s wealth and influences.’
Simony was rife and many members of a clergy that was expected to be celibate were married or had common law wives.
The papacy itself was caught up in the confusion in which popes at the end of the first millennium found it necessary to rely on powerful families for protection.
‘Since there is no such thing as a free lunch, the result was a century of aristocratic nonentities appointed pope by local Mafiosi.’ The papacy lost its moral stature, retaining only ‘symbolic prestige as custodian of the heritage and tomb of Peter’.
All this changed when, in 1046, the German king Henry III was crowned Holy Roman Emperor.
The empire created by Pope Leo III to protect the church was by now over two centuries old.
In return, the Holy Roman Emperor ‘received the prestige of divine sanction for his rule in the shape of solemn papal coronation’.
In the face of ‘the squalid state of the papacy’, Henry was concerned that being anointed by a suspect pope would undermine his own legitimacy.
He deposed the pope – actually three competing popes – and appointed a German bishop as Clement II, the first of four reforming popes he appointed over the next decade including his cousin St Leo IX.
The reforming pope
This was the environment into which the monk Hildebrand of Sovana was elected Gregory VII in 1073.
The most important of his reforms cut the links between powerful laymen and the appointment of church leaders. He rooted out corruption and simony and ordered the ‘purging of an unchaste clergy’ as well as attacking corruption outside the church.
Henry III may have launched the purging of the papacy, but he had also appointed four popes, ‘a blatant example of lay interference in clerical matters, Gregory’s greatest hate’.
Henry’s son and successor Henry IV had, according to Duffy, ‘less exalted motives’.
Pope and king came ‘eyeball to eyeball with disastrous consequences for both’.
Henry IV was excommunicated twice, and Clement III installed as a rival pope. Gregory died in exile in 1085.
Duffy concludes that although Gregory was defeated in the short term, he still changed the world.
Future popes would avoid such confrontation but the church would never again ‘accept the right of kings and rulers to determine spiritual matters.
‘Whatever Gregory’s intentions, a lasting line had been drawn between the claims of conscience and the claims of state powers. And under this overbearing autocratic pope, human freedom took one small uncertain step forward.’
Richard McBrien says Gregory VII launched the second millennial papacy as a legalistic monarchical office, a concept foreign to the earlier church and to all the Eastern Orthodox churches, past and present.
Mgr Broadbent continues exploring the history of the papacy next month.