Good popes, bad popes – the second millennium

Features Msgr John Broadbent3 July 2012 A reformist party sprang up around the reformed Benedictine monastery of Cluny founded in 910. Cluny was the first centralised order in the Church….


Msgr John Broadbent
3 July 2012

A reformist party sprang up around the reformed Benedictine monastery of Cluny founded in 910.

Cluny was the first centralised order in the Church. Although it remained a Benedictine abbey, its abbots were usually elected by the local community. The Abbot of Cluny founded many reformed and observant monasteries all under Cluny and monks could be moved from priory to priory.

Church and empire work together
The abbey produced many reformers such as St Peter Damian (died 1072) who aimed to reform the Church from the pope down. The reformers were now helped by the elected Holy Roman Emperors, starting with Otto I in the 900s; the empire itself had gradually shifted its centre from France to Germany.

Many bishops, priests and laity joining the movement were convinced that, by reforming the papacy, all else would work its way through the Church.

In 1059, Nicholas II (a French pope) restricted the election of a new pope to a College of Cardinals which helped enormously. More and more Cluny monks were given office in the Church, reaching its apex in 1073 with the election of the monk, Hildebrand of Sovana as St Gregory VII.

The 20th century Dominican theologian and historian, Yves Congar, said the great turning point of the Church in ecclesiology (theology of the Church) in the 11th century is embodied in the person of Gregory VII.

Change from the top
We have seen that simony, nepotism, violation of clerical celibacy and the interference of lay princes in the appointment and installation of bishops and abbots were the evils of the time. Gregory had his canon lawyers comb the archives for the kind of exercise of papal power that he deemed necessary to meet these challenges. In fact, though they sincerely believed all they read and the majority of the documents were authentic, there were glaring examples of forgery.

One significant forgery, the Donation of Constantine, wasn’t exposed until the 15th century by Lorenzo De Valla. This document was supposedly a record by Pope St Sylvester I (314-35) of the first Christian emperor’s conversion and endowment of central Italy to the Church.

In March 1075, Gregory issued his Dictatus Papae (Pronouncements of the Pope) containing 27 propositions about the powers of the pope, including such claims as ‘that he alone can use imperial insignia’, ‘that only the Popes’ feet are to be kissed by all princes’, ‘that it is licit for him to depose emperors’; ‘that it is licit for him to transfer bishops under pressure of need from see to see’, ‘that no synod ought to be called “general” without his command’ and ‘that he ought to be judged by no one’.

At the Lenten synods of 1074 and 1075 Gregory re-affirmed his predecessors’ decrees against clerical marriage and simony. The Lateran Synod of 1078 threatened to suspend bishops if they allowed their clergy to marry and remain in office.

Gregory fights opposition
Gregory’s prohibition of lay investiture provoked even stronger opposition, particularly of the emperor Henry IV who convoked a synod to depose the pope and set up his own anti-pope.

Gregory retaliated by excommunicating the emperor. As a political play, Henry IV dressed in penitential garb and knelt in the snow at Canossa near Reggio in northern Italy to beg forgiveness in January 1075. Gregory absolved the emperor.

But Henry IV continued his action against the pope once back in Germany and finally entered Rome in 1084. While Gregory was still in the fortress of San Angelo, the anti-pope Clement III crowned Henry emperor in the Lateran Basilica.

His triumph was short-lived because the norsemen who conquered Sicily and Southern Italy came to free Pope Gregory. But so violent were their attacks on Rome that the people blamed Gregory for their suffering and he had to flee Rome, dying in exile in Salerno on May 25, 1085, his feast day. He was beatified in 1584 and canonised in 1606.

More than any other, Gregory VII shaped the development of the papacy in the west in the second millennium.

Next month, Mgr Broadbent looks at the papacy up to the Reformation, including the Borgia period.