September 25, 2015

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Medieval Church: When faith and politics were intertwined

John F. Fink(Seventh in a series of columns)

We’re accustomed today to having popes who are only the spiritual leaders of the Church and politically independent. That wasn’t always the case, though, and the events of the 11th century are a good example. The popes were caught up in the politics of the time.

As the century began, the Roman people revolted against both the pope, Sylvester II, and the emperor, Otto III, who were close friends. They were forced to flee Rome.

The Crescentius family then ruled Rome, and it decided who would be the pope. After Pope Sylvester II died in 1003, John II Crescentius, the family’s patriarch, chose Pope John XVII and saw to it that he was elected. After John died less than six months after his election, the Crescentius family chose John XVIII, who lived for six years as pope. He was followed by Pope Sergius IV.

Then, in 1012, there was another political upheaval in Rome, and the Tusculan family took power. Both John II Crescentius and Pope Sergius IV died suddenly, and the Tusculan family installed a new pope, Benedict VIII, a layman when selected, the son of one of the counts of Tusculum.

The Crescentians weren’t finished, though. They elected their own pope, named Gregory. With the Tusculans ruling Rome, he traveled to Pohlde, in Saxony, to try to get the backing of the German king, Henry II. Henry told Gregory that he would settle the matter when he got to Rome. He did—by recognizing Benedict. Pope Benedict, in turn, crowned Henry emperor in 1014, and thereby cemented good relations with him.

Benedict VIII turned out to be a powerful pope—powerful in war, that is. He spent most of the next six years in military campaigns aimed at making Rome the political center of Italy. He defeated Arab invaders in northern Italy in a sea battle in which he personally took part.

In southern Italy, he fought Byzantine forces. When the battles there weren’t going well, he hightailed it to Germany to get Emperor Henry’s help. The emperor and the pope led a powerful army to southern Italy, and stopped the advance of the Byzantines.

However, they did something else, too—this time actually pertaining to the Church. At the Synod of Pavia in 1022, they promulgated canons that prohibited marriage for all priests, deacons and subdeacons. The emperor took the lead in this action, with Pope Benedict making it clear that his chief concern was for Church property, which could be dissipated when the clergy had families.

When Pope Benedict died in 1024, the leader of the Tusculan family had his younger brother Romanus elected and installed as pope. He reigned as John XIX for eight years. When he died in 1032, his brother Alberic ruled Rome, and he bribed the electors to have his son, the nephew of the two previous popes, elected pope.

A layman in his 20s when elected, Pope Benedict IX was known mainly for his dissolute life prior to becoming pope. He was to figure in one of the greatest scandals in Catholic history. †

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