October 16, 2015

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Medieval Church: Pope St. Gregory VII claimed secular supremacy

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

While writing about the turmoil of the papacy during the 11th century, last week I mentioned the Benedictine monk Hildebrand. He and St. Peter Damian, another Benedictine monk, counseled four popes before Hildebrand was finally elected pope in 1073. He took the name Pope Gregory VII and was canonized in 1728. (Peter Damian died in 1072.)

Gregory VII is considered one of the great figures of medieval time. As pope, he continued the reform of the Church he had advocated before becoming pope. He especially cracked down on clerical marriage and simony.

Unlike previous popes for centuries before him, Gregory strongly defended the authority of the papacy over the Church as a whole, including secular rulers, at least insofar as their decisions related to spiritual matters.

This brought him into conflict with Emperor Henry IV since the German kings were accustomed to appointing bishops. In 1075, Emperor Henry defeated the Saxons and proceeded to nominate bishops to sees in Germany and Italy. When Pope Gregory sharply told him that he had no right to do this, Henry convened a synod of bishops that called on Gregory to abdicate the papacy.

Gregory wasn’t about to do that. He excommunicated Henry. But that wasn’t all. Since his realm was considered part of the Church as a whole, Henry’s excommunication put him outside the Church and thus freed his subjects from allegiance to him.

Gregory seemed to win a great victory when Henry walked to the castle of Canossa in northern Italy, where the pope was staying. Wearing penitential garb and barefoot in snow, Henry stood outside the door for three days before he was admitted. He sought absolution from the pope, and promised obedience to him.

If he were a secular ruler, Gregory might have let Henry rot. But as Christ’s vicar on Earth, Gregory was bound to give forgiveness to those who sought it from him and so he absolved Henry, who promised to obey him.

For the next three years, Gregory tried to mediate between Henry and his rival, Rudolf of Swabia. Failing to get anywhere, Gregory again excommunicated Henry and again deposed him, recognizing Rudolf as the lawful king.

This time, Henry was in no mood to humble himself as he had done at Canossa. He called a council of imperial bishops in 1080 that declared Gregory deposed, and elected Guibert of Ravenna as Pope Clement III to replace him.

That’s how matters stood for four years. Then, in 1084, Henry seized Rome and Gregory was forced to flee. He went first to Monte Cassino and then to Salerno, where he died in 1085. It was a sad ending for a man who had exerted so much influence on the Church during much of the 11th century.

After Gregory’s death, Clement III, Henry’s man, ruled as pope in Rome while those loyal to Gregory elected the abbot of Monte Cassino, who reigned as Victor III. Both men had military forces, and each was successful in occupying Rome for various periods of time, but Pope Victor had to spend most of his time as pope at Monte Cassino.

Clement III is considered an antipope. During the next 80 years, there were 11 more antipopes who claimed the papacy at the same time as the same number of popes. †

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