October 9, 2015

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Medieval Church: Romans and Germans fight over papacy

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

I’ll continue the story of the sad status of the papacy during the 11th century, when first it was controlled by Roman families and then by German emperors.

After Pope Leo IX died in April of 1054, Emperor Henry III conducted lengthy discussions with Roman legates led by the learned monk Hildebrand before nominating Bishop Gebhard of Eichstatt to be pope. It was the fourth and last pope he was to nominate because Henry died shortly thereafter. Bishop Gebhard took the name Pope Victor II. With Hildebrand’s advice, he began a program of Church reform, but he died after only two years in office, in 1057.

This seemed to be a chance for the papacy to get out of the control of secular influences, so the Church leaders in Rome quickly elected the abbot of the Benedictine abbey of Monte Cassino as pope, without notifying the German imperial family. He took the name Pope Stephen IX.

Again we had a case of a pope who showed great promise dying suddenly. This time it was during a trip to Florence, and it happened while Hildebrand was on a mission to the German court. When he realized he was dying, Pope Stephen bound the clergy not to elect a successor until Hildebrand returned.

While the clergy were waiting, some Roman nobles saw their chance to regain control of the papacy. They enthroned the cardinal of Velletri, who took the name Benedict X. It took the clergy nine months to elect their own pope, Nicholas II, in Siena. Nicholas gained possession of Rome and Benedict fled.

Strongly influenced by Hildebrand and the brilliant reformer St. Peter Damian, who would later be named a Doctor of the Church, Pope Nicholas reformed papal elections, decreeing that cardinal bishops should choose the pope and then the rest of the clergy and people should give their assent. However, the decree also had a clause that the emperor was to give his assent.

Another brief reign: two-and-a-half years. When Nicholas died, Hildebrand led the papal election reform Nicholas decreed and the cardinals elected Bishop Anselm of Lucca as Pope Alexander II. However, the election didn’t satisfy the German court, which elected Honorius II, who managed to defeat his rival’s troops and install himself in Rome.

Then Duke Godfrey of Lorraine arrived with superior forces, and convinced both popes to allow Archbishop Anno of Cologne to decide which should be pope. You might expect him to side with the German, but he did not. He ruled in favor of Alexander II in 1062.

That hardly settled the matter. Honorius attacked Rome and seized Castel Sant’Angelo. Both Alexander and Honorius continued to claim the papacy.

So Archbishop Anno convened a synod of Italian and German bishops, inviting both claimants to the papacy to attend. When only Alexander accepted the invitation, the synod acknowledged him as pope.

Guided by Hildebrand and Peter Damian, Alexander was a strong pope for 12 years. When he died in 1073, Hildebrand, who had so greatly influenced four popes, was finally elected pope and took the name Gregory VII. †

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