History of the Catholic Church - J. MacCaffrey

The Struggle for Liberty

Policy of Gregory VII

The break up of the Empire and the introduction of the Feudal System deprived the Church of liberty to elect good Popes and bishops, and as a consequence, prepared the way for a general decay of discipline and for the corruption of the morals of both clergy and people. From the beginning of the eleventh century a change for the better might be noticed, but it was only when the great monk, Hildebrand, had been appointed Pope with the title Gregory the Seventh that the real work of reformation began.

Hildebrand, an Italian himself, was educated at the monastery of Clugny—the monastery to which in great part is due the movement for reform—and had served as legate of the Holy See and as adviser for more than one Pope. His abilities and zeal were so well known to everybody that on the death of Alexander II. clergy and people were unanimous that none but Hildebrand should succeed (1073). Against his will he accepted the office and took the title by which he is known in history, Gregory the Seventh.

The knowledge which he had acquired as legate and in the various offices that he held at the Roman court now stood him in good stead. He issued immediately very stringent laws against immorality, and warned the people not to receive the ministrations of religion from those clergy who were neglectful of their vows of chastity. The vice of simony which was then only too prevalent received his severest condemnation. The legates whom he sent to enforce these decrees, returned to report what Gregory himself had realised, that so long as the bishops and clergy were appointed by the influence of princes rather than by free canonical election it was impossible to hope for reform. The Pope at once rose to the occasion and struck a blow at the very root of the evil by forbidding investiture. Investiture was the ceremony by which the feudal lord conferred the ownership of property upon his tenants, and in the case of bishops and abbots it consisted in the giving to them of the ring and crozier.

The aim of this decree was merely to secure the freedom of election, but it was opposed by the lay rulers as an infringement of their rights, and by a certain number of unworthy bishops who wished for some protector to shield them from the authority of the Pope. Henry IV., who was emperor of Germany at that time, refused to accept these decrees, and knowing well that he could count upon a large body of the bishops, he convoked an assembly at Worms which decreed the deposition of the Pope. Gregory replied to this by excommunicating Henry, as well as his principal ecclesiastical supporters. The news of this excommunication made a profound impression upon the princes and people of Germany. They were unwilling to have as emperor a man who was cut off from the Church, and at the Diet of Tribur (1076) they decreed that unless Henry were reconciled to the Pope within one year he should be deposed. The unhappy emperor, deserted by all his friends and fearing for the result of the Diet, determined to make his way into Italy and to seek a reconciliation with the Pope. Accompanied by a few attendants he crossed the Alps, and presented himself as a penitent at the gates of the castle of Canossa where the Pope had taken refuge. Gregory VII., touched by his prayers and promises of repentance, absolved him from the censures that he had incurred on condition that he should attend the approaching Diet and abide by its decision.

Hardly had the emperor left the presence of the Pope than, casting his pledges to the winds, he returned to his old policy, and the princes of Germany in spite of the intervention of the Pope deposed him and elected Rudolph in his place. A civil war raged in Germany until the death of Rudolph, in 1080, when Henry marched to Rome bringing with him an anti-pope whom he determined to set up in the Vatican. After much futile discussion the forces of the emperor laid siege to the castle of St. Angelo whither Gregory had fled, but Robert Guiscard, leader of the Normans of Southern Italy, marched to the rescue of the Pope and obliged the imperial troops to retire. Gregory accompanied his liberator to Salerno where he died in ro83. "I have loved justice," he said, shortly before his death, "and hated iniquity, therefore do I die in exile."

Gregory fought not for the enslavement of the State, but for the liberty of the Church, and though he did not live to witness the triumph of his policy, yet he had given such a lead that his successors could never again tamely permit the Church to be held in a state of bondage. In a few years investiture, against which he struggled, was abandoned by most of the rulers of Europe. The king of France granted free canonical election, In England, St. Anselm, archbishop of Canterbury, championed the cause of the Church with considerable success, and finally peace was made between the Papacy and Germany by the Concordat of Worms in rm. According to this concordat the emperor agreed to give up investiture by the ring and crozier and to permit free canonical election, while, on the other hand, the Pope allowed investiture by the sceptre and permitted representatives of the emperor to be present at elections. Investiture by the sceptre was not so dangerous as investiture by the ring and crozier, because it indicated clearly that the king conferred on the bishops authority only over the temporal possessions of their Sees.

The Papacy and the Empire

The controversy about investiture was only a preliminary trial of strength between the Papacy and the Empire. They were the two great powers of the middle ages, and the emperors were resolved to assert their control over the Church, while the Popes were equally determined to uphold its liberty. In order to have the Popes completely at their mercy the emperors endeavoured to establish their authority over the whole of Italy; while the Popes, on the other hand, anxious to have some power to rely upon against the emperors and against German invasion, strove to prevent the union of southern Italy and Sicily, known as the kingdom of the two Sicilies, with the empire, and encouraged the Lombard cities in the north to form a league for their own defence and the defence of Italy and the Church.

While Adrian IV., an Englishman, was Pope and Frederick I. (Barbarossa) was emperor, the second chapter in the struggle between the Papacy and the Empire began. Both were determined men, not given to compromise on what they considered questions of principle. The first misunderstandings were settled easily enough, but Frederick continuing to invade the rights of the Papacy, Adrian sent him a letter of remonstrance, which was taken by the emperor and his advisers to mean that the Pope regarded himself as feudal lord of Germany. Notwithstanding the explanations given by the Pope, Frederick led his army into Italy to assert his rights as its absolute ruler. He interfered in the appointment of bishops, and claimed authority in the territories of the Holy See, and Adrian IV. was about to excommunicate him when he himself died (1159).

The election of his successor gave rise to new trouble. The majority of the cardinals, anxious to continue the policy of Adrian IV., elected Cardinal Roland who took the title of Alexander III., while a few of the cardinals, attached to the imperial interest, gave their votes to Cardinal Octavian who claimed to be Pope under the name of Victor IV. Frederick espoused the cause of the anti-pope, and Alexander was obliged to escape to France. But the cruelty of the emperor drove the Lombard cities to form a defensive league, and under the protection of this league, Alexander III. returned. Again and again the emperor led his forces across the Alps but with little permanent success, till at last after the dreadful defeat which he suffered at Legnano he was forced to make the Peace of Venice with the Pope (1177)

In the time of Innocent III. (11981216) the struggle was renewed. It was during the Pontificate of Innocent that the policy of Gregory VII. finally triumphed, and the temporal power of the Popes reached its highest level. Innocent was involved in many quarrels with the rulers of Europe—with John of England about the election of an archbishop of Canterbury, with Philip Augustus of France whom he forced to take back his lawful wife even at the risk of the separation of France from the Holy See, and with the rival claimants for the imperial throne.

Henry VI. died leaving an infant son Frederick, to whom was given the crown of the Two Sicilies. Some of the German electors wished to have Philip, the brother of Henry VI., as emperor, others of them gave their votes to Otho, who belonged to a rival family: Innocent supported the latter who promised obedience to the Holy See, but after his coronation he broke his promises and began to invade the territories of the Pope. Innocent III. excommunicated him and released his subjects from their allegiance. The princes met and elected the son of Henry VI., Frederick II. (1215–50), and Otho was obliged to withdraw.

Frederick, however, soon showed that he was determined to follow in the footsteps of his predecessors. Honorius III. (12161227) treated him with the greatest patience, and endeavoured to induce him to carry out his promise of undertaking a crusade. Finally, on account of his repeated delays in fulfilling his promise, he was excommunicated by Pope Gregory IX. (1227–1241), but notwithstanding the sentence of excommunication, he set out with an army for the Holy Land, concluded a truce with the Sultan and entered Jerusalem where he crowned himself as its king. On his return to Europe he was reconciled with the Pope by the Treaty of San Germano (1230).

But Frederick had no intention of changing his aims or his policy. He seized the papal territory of Sardinia for his illegitimate son, Enzio, and Gregory IX. excommunicated him once more. Frederick, instead of submitting, crossed the Alps determined to crush the Pope or to be crushed. While the army was in the vicinity of Rome, Gregory died and Innocent IV. was elected. The latter, fearing for his safety, fled to France where he convoked a general council at Lyons (1245). The bishops assembled at the council, having heard the best defence that could be made for Frederick by his chancellor, decreed his deposition and invited the electors of Germany to provide for the vacant throne.

But Frederick remained immovable, and instead of being dismayed by the dangers that surrounded him on all sides, roused himself to new activities. Leaving his son Conrad to keep in check his opponents in Germany, he himself led the flower of his troops into Italy, but disaster after disaster overtook him, till at last, while marching to the rescue of his son who had been captured, he died in 1250. Before his death he was reconciled to the Church. Conrad IV., his son and successor, died in 1254, leaving as his heir Conradin, a child of three years. The Pope anxious to secure the rights of the child appointed his uncle Manfred as regent of the Two Sicilies, but Manfred seized the throne for himself and in his treatment of the people showed himself to be a cruel tyrant. Finally, Urban IV. bestowed the crown of Sicily upon Charles of Anjou who defeated Manfred at the battle of Benevento. The people, disgusted with the rule of the French, turned to Conradin for assistance. In the struggle that ensued Conradin was captured, and in spite of the protests of the Pope, was beheaded, (1268). Thus ended the house of Hohenstaufen, and the long struggle between the Papacy and Empire seemed to have been decided finally in favour of the former.