musings from my rich inner world…

Church Reform in the 11th Century

The eleventh century saw a wave of reformers in the papacy that sought to effect changes in the way that ecclesial authority was realized. A series of popes including Leo IX, Gregory VII and Calixtus II worked to reform the election of church authority by stamping out simony (the practice of buying church offices) and enforcing celibacy for all priests (eliminating heirs to whom power could be passed down). In addition to these reforms, the church sought to establish itself as a separate spiritual authority superior to that of various European monarchs. At the zenith of papal authority, Innocent III enjoyed authority that extended over many of the secular rulers of Europe.

Leo IX, building on the reforms that had helped to restore order within the monastic tradition, began his reign by promoting clerical celibacy and outlawing simony (Gonzáles 283). A quick succession of popes continued these reforms and in 1059 Pope Nicholas II convened a synod at Lateran Cathedral on Easter where it was determined that election of popes would rest with the cardinals (Nicholas paragraph 3), removing the authority of appointment from the Holy Roman Emperors.

In 1073 Hildebrand, one of the reformers with whom Leo IX had previously surrounded himself, was elected as pope under the name Gregory VII. He continued reforms against simony and successfully promoted clerical celibacy in England (Gonzáles 286). However, Gregory met stiff resistance from Philip I in France and Henry IV in Germany. With Philip’s support, the French clergy refused to go along with Gregory’s reforms. In Germany, Henry IV continued to exert influence in the election of church leaders loyal to him (Gregory 322, 324) and to plunder and destroy churches (Gregory 319, 320) in open conflict with the Holy See. In response, Gregory excommunicated Henry twice from the church and released Henry’s subjects from their oath of allegiance (Gregory 319). In his Letter to Hermann of Metz, Gregory defended his actions, asserting that spiritual authority embodied in the papacy, with its power "of opening and shutting the gates of the celestial kingdom" (320) is above the secular authority of kings who "derive their origin from men ignorant of God" (321). Though Henry begged Gregory’s forgiveness after his first excommunication and was reinstated in the church, on his second expulsion he chose a military campaign against Gregory which resulted in Gregory’s death in exile in 1085 (Gonzáles 288).

Skirmishes between the church and secular authorities continued. In 1122 the Concordat of Worms laid the framework by which the election of bishops in Germany would take place in the presence of the emperor (at this point Henry V) without simony or violence (paragraph 1). The emperor would then in turn invest bishops with civil authority, "receiv[ing] regalia from [the emperor] through the lance" (Concordat paragraph 1). However, ecclesial authority, signified by the ring and staff would be conferred upon bishops by the pope (Concordat paragraph 2), thus providing a satisfactory division of power between church and state.

The struggle for supremacy continued over the next several years with Emperor Frederick Barbarossa and his son, Henry VI, both attempting once again to assert imperial authority in the election of a pope (Gonzáles 307, 308). However, with the unexpected death of Henry VI, the cardinals were again able to name a new pope, Innocent III (Gonzáles 308). Innocent enjoyed the height of papal power in the struggle between the Holy See and the Holy Roman Emperors. In 1198, shortly after his rise to power, Innocent set the tone for his reign in a letter to the prefect Acerbius and the nobles of Tuscany in which he claimed that, "just as the moon derives its light from the sun and is indeed lower than it in quantity and quality, in position and in power, so too the royal power derives the splendor of its dignity from the pontifical authority" (paragraph 1). Innocent outlawed usury in France (Innocent paragraph 3) and declared that feudal lords could not collect taxes from the church with a penalty of excommunication threatened against those who tried (Innocent paragraph 4). When the French King Philip Augustus set aside his second wife and married a Danish princess (Gonzáles 309), Innocent pronounced an interdict against all of France, closing the churches, forbidding the burial of the dead, and denying the sacrament of extreme unction to the dying (Innocent paragraphs 7,8). As a result, Philip’s nobles and bishops forced him to abandon his third wife and return to the second (Gonzáles 309).

In an ironic turnabout three years into his reign by papal decree Innocent set aside Henry VI’s son, Frederick II, and named Otto IV as Holy Roman Emperor (Innocent paragraph 10). Later, when a dispute flared concerning the legitimate archbishop of Canterbury, Innocent excommunicated the English ruler, John Lackland and declared a crusade against him to be led by Philip Augustus (Gonzáles 309). As a result, John surrendered his holdings as a fiefdom to the papacy (Innocent paragraph 11).

In our own place and time, we claim that the powers of Church and State are separate. However, many Christians give credence to the recommendations of their spiritual leaders when making political choices. For this reason even now in this run-up to the election season we see candidates for the office of United States president, the single most powerful position in our modern world, making overtures toward conservative religious figures in an attempt to secure votes. At the same time, we hear reports of the selective use of government authority in enforcing political neutrality for tax exempt religious institutions (Strom paragraph 1). Even in our own day, the dance between spiritual and political authorities continues.

Works Cited

"The Concordat of Worms." Jan 1996. 25 November 2007. <>.

"The Constitution of the United States of America." 25 November 2007. <>.

"Documents by or about Boniface VIII: Unam Sanctam; Account of Events at Anagni, 1303."  Readings in World Christian History. Ed. John W. Coakley and Andrea Sterk. Vol. 1. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2004. 397-402.

Gonzáles, Justo L. The Story of Christianity. Vol. 1. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1984.

Pope Gregory VII. "Letter to Hermann of Metz." Readings in World Christian History. Ed. John W. Coakley and Andrea Sterk. Vol. 1. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2004. 319-324.

Innocent III. "Letters on Papal Policies." Aug 1998. 25 November 2007. <>.

"Nicholas II." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica 2007 Ultimate Reference Suite. Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, 2007.

Strom, Stephanie. "Church Group Calls I.R.S. Unfair on Political Violations of Tax Code." The New York Times. 7 Apr 2006. 25 November 2007. <>.

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