Msgr John Broadbent
3 September 2012
The changes instigated by Gregory VII (1073-1085), which altered the papacy from what it had been in its first thousand years, placed a burden on his successors.
In changing the papacy from a last court of appeal when heresy raised its head to a centre of imperial dignity telling people that only the pope should have his foot kissed, that he could command all everywhere and that he could punish without even getting advice, the burden for a human grew.
But perhaps a greater burden for any human was the corrupting influence of absolute power resting in one man’s hands – he could be swayed by the wealth, exaltation and prestige accompanying the role.
Gregory’s successors were good men who belonged mainly to his reforming party and they included Blessed Urban II (1088-1099). Like Gregory, Urban had to fight several anti-popes who the emperor often placed in Rome while the pope had to live outside the city.
Realising how rich and powerful the church was becoming, the zealous pope, Paschal II (1099-1118), announced at his crowning of the Roman Emperor Henry V in 1111, that the German churches would surrender all properties, rights and privileges they had received from the empire except for tithes given for ecclesiastical revenues.
The German bishops, part of a vast feudal system, were outraged; they refused to obey and chaos followed.
Under Calixtus II (1119-1124), the Concordat of Worms was signed in 1122 and affirmed by the First Lateran Council. The emperor renounced his right to invest bishops and abbots with ring and crosier and the free elections and consecration of bishops and abbots was guaranteed. The Pope conceded to Henry V these elections could take place in his presence and the king could invest the new bishop with the sceptre – the sign of temporal authority.
A succession of fairly mediocre popes followed. These continued to quarrel with the emperors and their anti-popes, puppets of the emperor or the Roman aristocracy.
Good popes included Blessed Eugenius III (1145-53), the first Cistercian pope and Adrian IV (1154-1159), the only English pope, who had done great work in Scandinavia before his election.
The first lawyer to be elected pope, Alexander III (1159-81), imposed a penance on England’s King Henry II for ordering the killing of St Thomas á Beckett. Alexander presided over the Third Lateran Council (1179) which decreed that the pope should be elected by a two-thirds majority of the cardinals.
One of the great popes
One of the great popes, Innocent III (1198-1216) was elected unanimously at the age of 37. Like Gregory VII, Innocent believed that every person should look up to the pope as universal head of the Church, even above all kings. He helped shape the Fourth Crusade to the Holy Land in 1204 which, unbeknown to the pope, plotted to conquer Constantinople on the way and take over the Eastern Empire. The crusaders did not understand that the Eastern Church was in schism rather than in heresy. It remained under Latin or western rule until it freed itself in 1264.
Innocent III intervened in the choice of emperor between two claimants to the title saying that, as pope, he had power above all others over the nomination for emperor. He excommunicated the first nominee when he went back on the promises to respect the boundaries of the Papal States.
He also excommunicated King John of England for refusing to recognise Stephen Langton as Archbishop of Canterbury. John made his submission by handing over his Anglo-Irish domains as a papal fief.
He opposed heresy in the south of France and in 1215, the great Fourth Lateran Council made confession and communion compulsory at least annually. Innocent died soon after, in 1216.
A really long election
None of the subsequent popes was outstanding until Blessed Gregory X (1272-76). His three-year election was the longest in history.
Gregory called a council at Lyons in 1274 and there was a tentative union with the Greek Church plus a call for another crusade. He died soon after, in 1276, and was beatified in 1713.
The Portuguese John XXI (1276-77) was the only medical doctor to be elected pope.
In 1294 an unusual conclave of cardinals was unable after some time to agree on a two-thirds majority. A prophecy from an old hermit Pietro da Morrone was read out to them, saying the cardinals would suffer divine retribution if they did not elect a pope soon.
‘Let’s elect a holy man for pope,’ called the Cardinal Dean and they elected Pietro da Morrone.
Hailed as ‘angel pope’, da Morrone took the name of Celestine V but proved to be an inept administrator.
When he resigned after constantly muddling appointments, the strong cardinal who advised him was elected as Boniface VIII.
However, this irascible man was bent on the acquisition of wealth and power for himself and his family.
Boniface went a step further than Innocent III, declaring every creature to be subject to the pope. His attempts to end hostilities between France and England brought him into conflict with King Philip the Fair of France.
One positive aspect of his reign was his starting of the first Holy Year in 1300. As his quarrels with Philip and the Colonna family in Rome grew worse, he was badly injured in an encounter with a gang of roughs and died three weeks later in 1303.
The next pope, Blessed Benedict XI, worked hard to appease King Philip but died after only 10 months. His successor, Clement V (1305-1314), was elected after an 11-month deadlock between the pro-Boniface VIII cardinals and those favouring Philip. Eventually, the pro-Boniface cardinals split. The Frenchman Clement V was crowned in the presence of Philip in Lyons. Within a month he had created 10 cardinals, including nine French.
Clement moved the papacy to Avignon in France where it stayed for nearly 70 years, a period often called the ‘Babylonian captivity of the papacy’. Seven popes reigned in Avignon, with Gregory XI moving the Curia back to Roma in 1377.
The period after 1378 was, as we shall see, often called the Great Schism.