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Church History: A Biblical View
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Part IV - The Middle Ages: Lesson No. 20 - The Political Papacy

I. Control of the Papacy

During the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries the Roman Catholic papacy fell into one of its darkest, most disgraceful periods. This debasement of the papacy resulted from, and consisted in, increasing secular control of the papacy and the employment of its powers for political purposes. Popes were becoming less and less spiritual leaders and more and more temporal rulers. The seeds for this transition in the nature of the papacy had been sown earlier in the form of territorial grants to the popes in virtual exchange for papal recognition of the status of temporal rulers. The time was quickly approaching when popes could rightly claim to be, not only spiritual leaders, but also temporal rulers, and the highest ranking ones at that. As the papacy continued to increase in political prominence and power it is not surprising that control of the papacy was a prize sought by any political faction.

Heretofore, the popes had been chosen by the clergy and people of Rome. In practical terms, then, the papacy fell under the control of whatever faction controlled Rome. The popes became nothing but political pawns. Between 897 and 955 there were no less than seventeen popes. This situation continued until John XII (955-964) called upon the German king, Otto I (936-973) for military aid. Otto I rendered the requested aid and was crowned Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire in 962, but all of this had the effect of bringing the papacy under the control of the German emperors. Therefore, it developed that the one who became pope was the one designated and supported by the German emperor. Political intrigue surrounded the papacy so that it was further debased. During a lull in German interference one party saw to it that a twelve-year-old boy, Benedict IX (1033-1048), became pope. He is said to have been one of the worst occupants of the papal throne. Probably planning to marry and threatened by another papal faction, he sold the papacy for one or two thousand pounds of silver but reneged and refused to give up his claim to the papal throne. Thus, the situation was such that there were three popes in Rome. Once again the strong German emperor, this time Henry III (1039-1056), intervened, had all three papal claimants deposed, and had a German bishop elected as pope in their places. A Roman synod in 1059 laid down some decrees regulating the election of popes. It was decreed that the election of the popes would be primarily in the hands of the cardinals who would reach their decision after consultation with the clergy and people. Furthermore, the synod provided that the pope could come from anywhere in the Church, could be elected outside Rome, and could assume papal powers immediately upon election. The decrees of this synod supposedly govern the election of popes to this day.

II. The Investiture Conflict

Hildebrand, an important and powerful figure behind the papacy for many years, was finally himself elected pope as Gregory VII (1073-1085). He was destined to be a strong and influential pope. He certainly had some strong ideas. Gregory VII's principles were that the Roman bishop had universal sovereignty, could depose or reinstate bishops (and he alone), could depose emperors, could be judged of no one, and could release subjects from their allegiance to wicked men. Such principles, if recognized and put into effect, would have made the pope the most powerful political ruler in the world.

Certain elements of the Catholic Church had been calling and working for reform for some time. The reform they sought involved a papacy independent of temporal political control.

Papal and civil power were bound to come into conflict under such circumstances and they did in what became known as "the investiture conflict." Investiture was the conferral of symbols of office and the commensurate powers upon someone. In order to consolidate their authority the German emperors had maintained the right to appoint men to high ecclesiastical offices within their realms. The reform party wanted this prerogative taken from the civil rulers. When Henry IV, the German emperor, appointed an archbishop, he was excommunicated by Gregory (Hildebrand), relieved of imperial authority, and denied the allegiance of his subjects. Henry replied that Gregory was no longer pope. Because Henry did not have a united Germany behind him the situation was in the Pope's favor. German nobles threatened to rebel if Henry's excommunication were not lifted. Consequently, in what thereafter was always remembered as the classic case of civil power cowering before ecclesiastical power, Henry came and stood barefooted in the snow as a penitent for three successive days before the castle gate in Canossa where the Pope was staying. He was finally released from excommunication and retained his throne.

This was not the end of the matter, however. The investiture issue was not settled due to the changing political fortunes of popes and emperors. Finally, a compromise was reached between Henry V and Pope Calixtus II in the Concordat of Worms in 1122. Essentially, it provided that the pope and emperor should operate in their own respective spheres. The emperor surrendered the right of investiture.

III. Exercises (Please click on "File" on your browser window, then "Print" to print out this page.)

(1) (T or F) There is much to vouch for the doctrine of papal infallibility from an historical viewpoint.

(2) (T or F) As the Roman Catholic popes became more deeply involved in political affairs they became more corrupt.

(3) What are some outstanding instances of corruption in the papacy?




(4) What was the "investiture conflict?"


(5) What are some Biblical principles that were violated during this period of papal history?



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