September 4, 2015

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Medieval Church: Turbulent period for the papacy

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

The Catholic Church today is fortunate to have a pope who is widely admired. That hasn’t always been the case, especially during the medieval Church. And popes weren’t always as holy as they have been in recent centuries.

The period between Constantine’s death in 814 and the election of Pope Nicholas I in 858 was a particularly turbulent period for the papacy. During those 44 years, there were nine popes and two antipopes, some of whom reigned for very brief periods.

Emperor Louis the Pious succeeded Charlemagne, and Pope Paschal I succeeded Pope Leo III, who died in 816. However, anti-Frankish feelings existed in Rome, and two leaders of the pro-Frankish party were blinded and then beheaded. Pope Paschal himself was linked to the deed. When Emperor Louis sent an investigating commission to Rome, Paschal found it prudent to take an oath of purgation before a synod of 34 bishops.

Paschal was so detested by the end of his reign in 824 that a popular uproar prevented his body from being buried in St. Peter’s, and delayed the election of his successor, Pope Eugene, by several months. Pope Eugene was succeeded by Pope Valentine, who died less than a month after he was elected.

Then Pope Gregory IV got involved in the dynastic struggles between Emperor Louis and his three sons: Lothair, Pepin and Louis the German. Gregory supported Lothair, antagonizing the Frankish bishops by doing so. Louis the Pious was deposed by his sons in 833, but regained the throne a year later and reigned until his death in 840. Then Lothair succeeded him.

When Gregory IV died, the populace of Rome proclaimed a deacon named John as pope, seized the Lateran palace, and enthroned him. The aristocracy, though, elected a fellow Roman aristocrat, Sergius II, crushed the opposition, and confined the antipope John in a monastery. While Sergius was pope, simony (the buying of ecclesiastical preferment) flourished.

Pope Leo IV, who succeeded Sergius, was a strong pope in civic affairs who strengthened Rome’s city walls, organized a fleet of ships that defeated the Muslims in a sea battle, and rebuilt what is now Civitavecchia, a port city northwest of Rome.

Leo died in 855, and the clergy and people of Rome elected Benedict III. However, a group loyal to the emperor preferred Anastasius, a cardinal whom Leo had excommunicated. So they dragged Benedict from his throne, imprisoned him, and installed Anastasius. Anarchy reigned for three days.

When it became clear, though, that Benedict had wide support, the imperialists allowed him to become pope. Anastasius was expelled from the Lateran, and is considered an antipope. Amazingly, though, after spending Benedict’s reign in obscurity, he was to become an important counselor to the next three popes.

Benedict, however, died after only two-and-a-half years as pope. Pope Nicholas I was elected in 858. He proved to be an exceptionally strong pope. He firmly believed the pope to be God’s representative in Earth with authority over the whole Church, and he acted accordingly. The “whole Church” included the Church in the East, as we will see next week. †

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