World History


Then Again




Ethical Analysis Essay




A. Goodstudent
HIST 0101
Fall 1975

Western Europe in the 11th century was largely a land of chaos.  Following the collapse of Charlemagne's empire and the Viking invasions, the Roman Catholic Church had come increasingly under secular control and the papacy had lost much authority within the Church. Many religious institutions were controlled by noble families. Throughout most of Europe, what little political authority that existed was in the hands of local lords.  Most of the population were peasants or serfs, trying to earn a subsistence living working the land.  What little learning there was could be found in the Church.  But the Church was largely under the control of local lords.  Most churches and monasteries had been founded by members of the nobility who often exerted control over the institutions they had established.  The Cluniac reforms had begun a revival movement within the Church, but it had had little effect on the institutional structures of the Church.  This changed in 1073 when a Cluniac monk was elected pope and took the name Gregory VII.  Upon assuming office, Gregory began a program of reforming the Church. As we can see in his Dictatus papae, Gregory's reforms were driven by a vision of society in which the pope would provide leadership not only over the Church, but over temporal authorities as well.  It was only in this way, so Gregory believed, would society be god-pleasing.

The Dictatus papae was a set of propositions written by Pope Gregory VII in 1075.   These propositions set out Gregory's understanding of his authority as pope.  The very first proposition asserted that the office of the pope is established by God alone.  By this he meant to assert that the papacy was not a human institution, but was rather of divine origin.  At minimum this was to counter any claims by secular rulers that the papacy was answerable to them.  In the second proposition, Gregory asserted the pope's authority over the secular government.  He wrote, "The Roman pontiff alone can with right be called universal."  The proposition countered the claim made by the Byzantine Emperor that he, as head of a universal empire, had universal authority.  He also claimed authority over secular governments in propositions 8 and 9, where he claimed the exclusive right to the imperial insignia and that all princes "shall kiss his feet"--that is, show that they are subordinate to him.  Indeed, he later the claimed the ability to depose emperors.  In the third proposition, he claimed the exclusive power to "depose or reinstate bishops."  This was clearly intended to assert the pope's authority over the hierarchy of the Church.  This same desire to gain control over the institutions of the Church can be seen in propositions 4 and 5, where he asserts the authority of his legates and his ability to depose members of the clergy who are not fulfilling their jobs.  

While these claims to authority may appear to be establishing a dictatorship, Gregory was attempting to establish the authority of the papacy so that he could change society.  If he was simply concerned with temporal power, he would not have had to reform the Church.  If he was simply concerned with reforming the Church, he would not have had to assert authority over emperors and princes.  It is also clear that Gregory was not trying to increase his own personal power because he is making claims for the office of pope, not himself.  He finds society in chaos and the Church in disarray and needs to find some way to restore order.  On the one hand, he needs to have authority over the Church so that he can bring about a more peaceful, orderly and god-pleasing society.  But he cannot use the Church to bring peace if much of the Church is controlled by the temporal powers.  Therefore, to bring peace, he needs to assert authority over both the temporal and spiritual realms.  He appears to believe that only the pope has both the institutional authority and the understanding of God's will to be able to bring peace.  While the document appears to be about power, it is really about who should have the authority to shape society.

Besides attempting to consolidate authority in the hands of the papacy, Gregory could have worked to increase the authority of the emperor.  This would have furthered the goal of bringing order to the chaos of society and, assuming that the emperor was a good Christian, could also have contributed to reform of the Church.  This was the direction taken in the Byzantine Empire.  Beginning with the Emperor Constantine, the Byzantine Emperor has assumed authority over not just the government, but also over the Church.  Eusebius, in his biography of Constantine, presents an image of Constantine as a divinely appointed ruler, much as David was the divinely appointed ruler of the Hebrew kingdom.  This idea, often known caesero-papism, is also seen in the mosaic Justinian and his Courtiers.  In this work, Justinian is pictured as a Christ-figure, centered between representative of both the Church and the State.

Given his beliefs and moral principles, it is unlikely that Gregory would have chosen to follow the path of the Byzantine Empire.  In the first place, popes had asserted their independence from the emperor since the time of the Roman Empire.  Pope Gelasius, for example, in 494, had asserted that the priesthood had to answer to God for their actions of emperors while Emperors had no authority for divine things.  It is clear Gregory shares that understanding of the pope's authority.   In the second place, Gregory did not share Constantine's belief the office of emperor had a divine origin.  The office of Holy Roman Emperor was created by Pope Leo III when he crowned Charlemagne in AD 800.  Moreover, the Donation of Constantine clearly gave authority over the emperor to the pope.  While it is true that that document was a forgery, it was generally accepted as genuine and Gregory undoubtedly believed its claims.

Based on my own beliefs, I am of two minds about Gregory's claims.  On the one hand, I do believe that peace is desirable and that society should be god-pleasing.  But, on the other hand, I do not think that the pope should exercise authority in order to bring it about.  I do not share Gregory's belief in the divine origin of the office of pope, but rather believe, following Martin Luther, in the priesthood of all believers.  If we are to have a god-pleasing society, it should be because the people of the society have chosen to make it so, rather than because a pope tells us to.  At the same time, I do not share the Byzantine view that the Church should be subordinate to the State.  It seems to me that this would lead the Church to be too closely connected to the aims of the State.  I do not want the Church to be corrupted by a concern over keeping and maintaining political power.  Therefore, I agree with Gregory that the Church must be independent of the state, but cannot agree that the Church must be over the state.  Somehow, it is important to find a creative tension between these two authorities.

Pope Gregory asserted the authority of the papacy over temporal authorities because he wished to create a god-pleasing society.  This required, in his mind, that the Church to take a leadership role.  In turn, this meant that the Pope, as head of the Church, needed to be in control of the Church.  While I can certainly agree with his desire for a god-pleasing and peaceful society, I cannot agree with his methods for obtaining it.

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