History of the Church: Later Middle Ages - Notre Dame

Struggle of the Church for Independence

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I. The Contest of Investitures

A new era dawned for Western Catholicism when Gregory VII. ascended the Papal throne. His influence had been at work long before he was raised to the Pontificate, but the results of his labours were too far-reaching to be visible during his own lifetime. In order to understand all that this grand medieval Pope did for the Church, it will be necessary to give a short account of his earlier career, and of the difficulties with which he had to contend after his election.

Gregory VII., almost better known in general history as Hildebrand, was the son of a Tuscan craftsman. He passed the whole of his boyhood and youth in the shelter of the cloister, commencing his studies at St. Mary's on the Aventine In Rome, and completing them at the famous monastery of Cluny, under the Abbot St. Odilo, who foretold that the youthful religious would do good service for the Church. From Cluny he passed to the Court of Henry III. of Germany, where his preaching struck everyone by its apostolic vehemence. We next find him in Rome, where he assisted Pope Gregory VI. till his abdication, and continued with him till his death, when he once more took up his abode at Cluny with the intention of spending the remainder of his life in that holy solitude. But as Pope Leo IX. passed to Rome some years later, on his way to take possession of the Holy See, to which he had been nominated by Henry IV., son and successor of Henry III., he called at Cluny, and was so struck with Hildebrand's power and zeal that he took him to Rome, ordained him deacon, and soon after promoted him to the Cardinalate. But Hildebrand had not been idle during the months that preceded his elevation to the Sacred College. He had induced Pope Leo to submit to canonical election by the clergy and people of Rome in spite of the imperial nomination which had selected him for the office. This was the first of the long series of Hildebrand's hard-won victories over the encroachments of the temporal power on the rights of the Church.

For twenty-five years Hildebrand was the counsellor and support of the Popes, six of whom followed one another in rapid succession. Most of these Pontiffs were elected at the suggestion or by the influence of Hildebrand. During these years he was employed as Legate of the Holy See in Germany and France, where he strove to carry out the reforms decreed by the Pope.

The feudal system had given rise to many abuses, the Church being almost at the mercy of the sovereigns and greater nobles. This had resulted in unworthy persons being nominated to sees, abbeys, and other benefices. Besides these lay nominees being too often men of scandalous lives, many had purchased the presentation to benefices by heavy bribes. This practice was so common, that even the better-disposed princes connived at it, as they drew most of their revenues from this source, while the most shameless openly sold the benefices to the highest bidder.

Moreover, sovereigns not only exercised their pretended right of nomination, but they claimed that of investiture also. This was another feudal custom—whenever a suzerain conferred a fief upon a vassal, he did so by handing him some symbol by which the transfer of property and of rights was not only signified, but actually conferred. Then the vassal did homage for the grant, and swore to be the lord's man, and to defend him and his rights against all comers. As long as temporal possessions and powers were thus granted and acknowledged, all was well. But an abuse had arisen by which sovereigns took to themselves the right of giving the ring and crosier to the men they had selected as bishops or abbots. These objects are symbols of spiritual powers, the ring denoting the espousal of a bishop to his diocese, the crosier the office of shepherd of the fold of Christ. As this investiture was made, and the homage was rendered, before consecration, there was great danger that it would get to be held that ecclesiastics received their spiritual powers from the sovereign. That some such idea did gain ground may account for the fact that in our own country, as late as the reign of Henry VIII., it was not all at once understood that the King was claiming a new power when he called himself Head of the Church in England. As the "man" was bound in honour to uphold his "lord," it can easily be seen that the very idea of right and wrong would become confused, and a loyal ecclesiastical vassal would find himself in a strange predicament whenever the interests of the Church and those of the suzerain conflicted. There could have been little liberty of conscience among men of such a character in such a position —thus it was that the Church was often at the mercy of the sovereign.

Under the influence of Hildebrand, one Pope after another promulgated decrees forbidding simony, as the sale of benefices was called, and renewing the ancient canons which enforced celibacy on the clergy, for this law of the Church also was constantly set aside at this period. The greatest service was rendered to the cause of virtue by the Monastic Institutes. A high standard of pure living was kept up, and those who endeavoured to carry out papal injunctions found their firmest support in the monks. The Cluniacs were in the vanguard of the defenders of the Holy See, but the new orders springing up at the time lent important aid. These were the Carnaldolese, the Monks of Vallombrosa, the Carthusians, and the Cistercians, all founded in the eleventh century. A marked improvement began to make itself felt, especially in the lower classes of the laity.

Another important point gained by the strenuous action of Hildebrand was the decree issued in 1059 by Pope Nicholas II. vesting the right of papal elections in the College of Cardinals alone.

At the funeral of Alexander II. in 1073, a singular scene occurred. The assembled people became excited, cries of "Hildebrand Pope!" were heard. Hildebrand attempted to mount the pulpit to calm and silence them, but a Cardinal forestalled him. The members of the Sacred College present had hastily consulted together and determined on their course of action. This prelate was their spokesman. He told the people that the Cardinals also chose Hildebrand, and that he was therefore Pope. Immediately Hildebrand, "unwilling and sad," says the chronicle, was vested and enthroned.

When the news spread, and Henry IV., setting aside Hildebrand's appeal against it, confirmed the election, men felt that the time had come for a great trial of strength between the ecclesiastical and the civil powers. They were not mistaken. The twelve years that followed were one long struggle for the freedom of the Church. The Pope chose his counsellors from the great abbeys, Hugh of Cluny and Hugh of Burgundy being the most prominent. The religious orders, and laymen of good lives, both nobles and peasants, took the part of the Pope. Among his most influential supporters were the Countess Matilda of Tuscany, and the Margrave Leopold of Austria. Ranged against the Pope were the great Western princes, among whom Henry IV. of Germany was prominent. He was the third sovereign of the House of Franconia, which had succeeded the House of Saxony in possession of the imperial crown. For though the German throne was elective, force or policy frequently succeeded in keeping it in the same family for several generations. The moral ascendancy of Henry III. had secured the Empire to his son, who mounted the throne when he was only six years old. The young Henry was flattered and courted till he could brook no opposition, and, when he took up the reins of government, though he was a most able Prince, he became utterly tyrannical and unscrupulous in attaining his aims. As the cessation of the abuses already spoken of would mean to them considerable loss of money and power, the great nobles, lay and ecclesiastic, and the towns, which were growing in importance, sided with the Emperor. But Henry could not count on all his immediate vassals, as, during his long minority, many nobles had taken the opportunity of securing greater independence, and they were glad of any pretext that would enable them to oppose their sovereign. Thus political as well as religious motives urged some to espouse the Pope's cause.

In England, William Rufus, and subsequently Henry I., strongly opposed the reforms. In France, while the nobles were on the side of the continuance of the innovations, the King, Philip I., appears to have taken little part in the struggle.

The Pope inaugurated a better state of things by personal visitations, exhortations, encyclicals, and decrees, all having for object the suppression of simony and the enforcement of celibacy of the clergy. But his principal aim was to destroy the practice of Lay Investiture, which he felt was at the bottom of all the other evils. It was thus that the great contest began. In 1074 Gregory solemnly forbade the conferring of ecclesiastical investiture by laymen, and declared both the donor and the receiver excommunicated. In the following year Gregory formally excommunicated some of Henry's subjects who had disobeyed. The Emperor protected his vassals, and about the same time his Saxon subjects revolted and appealed to the Pope against him. Henry refused to go to Rome when summoned, and instigated one of his partisans to seize the Pope's person. This brigand noble, Cenci by name, actually succeeded in entering St. Peter's on Christmas night when the Pope was saying Midnight Mass. He had turned to give Holy Communion, when he was seized and carried off to a dungeon, where, in cold and hunger, he passed his Christmas Day. Late in the evening the faithful subjects of the Pope rescued him, and immediately Gregory returned to the church and completed the interrupted sacrifice.

Henry went further still. He summoned a council, and pretended to depose the Pope. This may serve to show to what even a Sovereign Pontiff would be exposed were he the vassal of an earthly lord. Such a crime deserved excommunication, and the sentence was pronounced. In order to understand what followed, we must remember that the faithful subjects of the Church held a doctrine exactly opposed to the pretensions of the Sovereign. They believed that all authority came from God, and that, as the chief delegate of God on earth, the Pope was the sovereign of sovereigns, and that he had the right to judge whether a man was fit to reign or not. A King swore at his coronation to govern according to the law of God and to protect the Church, and the common feeling was expressed by words: "Thou shalt be king if thou dost well; if thou dost ill, thou shalt be king no longer," which had passed into canon law at a very early date. By the law of Christendom an excommunicated person was literally cut off from intercourse with other men: a king could not legally reign or lead his army to battle. But to allow for appeal or repentance, a warning was always given before the sentence was to be considered binding. In this case a year was given.

The German nobles implored the Pope to come to Augsburg and judge between them and their King. Henry begged to be heard in Rome, but the Pope decided that it was better that the case should be tried in Germany, and he immediately set out towards the frontier. Henry, determining at any cost not to incur the disgrace of a trial in his own dominion, crossed the Alps and intercepted the Pope, who turned aside to the Countess Matilda's mountain fortress at Canossa. Here Henry appeared, and for three consecutive days he came into the snow-clad courtyard under the windows of the Pope's apartments in penitential garb, barefoot and bareheaded, to implore forgiveness. The Countess Matilda and Abbot Hugh of Cluny thought the Emperor sincere, and joined their entreaties with his. Gregory knew Henry too well to put much faith in his promises, but on the fourth day he pardoned him; and on Henry's agreeing to certain conditions, the Pope suspended the threatened excommunication. Henry had gained his end, and, hastening back to Germany, made head against his nobles, who were now furious at seeing their hopes of redress futile. They determined on electing a new Sovereign, for it must not be forgotten that Henry was only Emperor-elect; he had never received the Papal coronation, that alone could give him imperial power. The insurgent nobles chose Rudolph of Swabia, and a contest of nearly three years' duration ensued, ending only with the death of Rudolph.

Henry's continued misgovernment and his contempt of the Pope's reiterated condemnation of investitures and of simony drew on him a renewed sentence of excommunication, to which he retaliated by causing an antipope, Clement III., to be set up in Germany. This he followed up by besieging Gregory in Rome. Traitors within the walls admitted the imperial troops. Henry had himself crowned by the antipope, and Gregory retired to the fortified castle of St. Angelo. After a three years' siege, Robert Guiscard, Duke of the new Norman State in Sicily, advanced upon Rome, drove off the enemy, and rescued the Pope. The city had been reduced to such a miserable condition that Gregory was obliged to leave it. He first went to Monte Cassino, and then to Salerno, where, overcome by the sorrows and strifes of his twelve years' pontificate, he fell into mortal sickness, 1085. As he lay dying, he said to those around: "Behold, I have loved justice and hated iniquity, therefore I die in exile." A bishop who was present answered: "He cannot die in exile who has received the whole world as his inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for his possession."

After the death of St. Gregory, whose magnificent defence of the independence of the Church has at length been recognized in its true light by historians, his successors continued to struggle for the cause which had cost him his life. Urban II., at the Council of Clermont, 1095, condemned lay investitures anew by forbidding the usual oath of homage from ecclesiastics to laymen. Philip I. of France was the first to carry out the decree. He granted freedom of election throughout his kingdom, abolished investitures, requiring only an oath of fealty instead of the oath of homage. At a conference held at Bec, in Normandy, in 1106, Henry I. of England abandoned the greater part of his pretentious, but in Germany there was no prospect of amendment as long as Henry IV. lived. After a long series of reverses, the Emperor was deposed in 1104 by his son, who succeeded as Henry V. Two years later, the former master of the Empire fell down dead at Liege, unreconciled with the Church. The young sovereign, though far better disposed towards the Holy See than his father, could not be induced to give up the right of investiture till a compromise was effected by the Concordat of Worms, 1122, when the Emperor renounced his claim to investing with the ring and crosier, and agreed to grant freedom of election and of consecration, and "the Pope allowed investiture by the sceptre and the presence of the king at episcopal elections provided there was no simony or violence. At the ninth General Council, the first of Lateran, held the following year, the Concordat was confirmed, and from this time the investiture dispute may be considered as over.

But the spirit of hostility to the Holy See which had sprung from these contests did not die out with the investiture dispute. The struggle against ecclesiastical independence was kept up in some measure in the principal European States, but it was in Germany that the movement was most active. With Henry V. the Franconian Line came to an end. After the short reign of the Swabian Lothaire, the Hohenstaufen family occupied the throne for over a hundred years, a period sometimes known as the Hundred Years' War between the Papacy and the Empire. Like the Franconians, these princes endeavoured to subjugate the Church to the State, a policy which has come to be named in history, Caesarism. The subject of contest was sometimes purely ecclesiastical, and sometimes political, but gradually the various points at issue became merged in the famous struggle of the Guelfs and Ghibellines. When Conrad, the Hohenstaufen, became possessor of the Empire, his claim was contested by Henry, Duke of Saxony. At the Battle of Weinsburg in Swabia, Conrad's troops were opposed by those of Welf, uncle of Henry of Saxony. The story goes that the rival leaders rallied their followers with the cry "Hie Waiblingen!" "Hie Well!" the former being the name of a small territory in the Hohenstaufen domains. The war-cry thus adopted by the Emperor characterized for centuries the party that supported the German Sovereign, no matter what was the subject of dispute, his opponents being as consistently called Welfs. The scene of strife was speedily transferred to Italy, and it is in a semi-Italianized form that the famous party names have reached us, Guelfs and Ghibellines.

It will be remembered that Otto I. of Germany had resumed imperial sway over Italy. His pretensions were continued by his successors, but the greater Italian nobles secured, one after another, the independence of their domains. To check their power, Otto had granted considerable privileges to the Lombard cities, which profited by every opportunity to increase their freedom. When the Hohenstaufen Sovereigns sought to subject the towns anew to imperial exactions, they united into a treaty of mutual defence known as the Lombard League. In this they were joined by the lesser principalities, and naturally took the Guelf side in any struggle. In a short time the peninsula was divided among the adherents of the two parties. But towns and Princes would change sides as their own private ends suggested, and in the course of time the contest lost all trace of the original subject of dispute.

Under Frederic I. (1155–1190), surnamed Barbarossa, the strife ran high. This Prince conceived the vast design of putting himself at the head of the Empire of Charlemagne, and of exercising absolute control over Church and State. He showed his aim by violating the Concordat of Worms, and by seeking every pretext of quarrelling with the Holy See and of humbling the Lombard cities. Three times he invaded Italy with the intention of chastising the Pope and the League, and he gave consistent support to the antipopes who, for a quarter of a century, contested the Papal Throne. The Popes Hadrian IV. and Alexander III. were the champions of popular freedom, which ultimately triumphed at the Battle of Legnano, 1176. By the Treaty of Constance in 1183, the Empire recognized the rights of the Holy See and the liberty of the Lombard Republics. It was subsequent to these events, and, some say, in reparation for his conduct to the Popes, that Frederic Barbarossa took the Cross and set out on the Crusade in which he perished. The remaining Princes of the Hohenstaufen line all kept up, more or less, a spirit of hostility to the Papacy.

II. Ecclesiastical Independence Secured

In 1198 Cardinal Lothaire, one of the most powerful intellects of the day, as well as a prelate of deep and varied learning, was elected Pope, as Innocent III. In his reign, and by his efforts, was secured the independence of the Holy See which his predecessors had striven so long to attain, and never has a Pontiff held more absolute mastery over the sovereigns of Europe than Innocent III. He was really the lord of lords, appealed to and deciding the course to be followed in every dispute, not only in ecclesiastical affairs, but in political contests as well.

In Germany, Innocent claimed the right of arbitrating between the two claimants for the imperial throne on the death of Henry VI., son of Frederic Barbarossa. Through his influence, the youthful son of Henry VI., already by right of his mother King of Sicily, was ultimately chosen Emperor of Germany. He was crowned as Frederic II.

It was at the instigation of this Pontiff that Richard of England was set free from the captivity into which he had been trapped on his way home from the Crusades. It was Innocent, again, who obliged John to accept Langton as Archbishop of Canterbury, who received England as a fief from the same King, and who, as guardian of Henry III., defended his ward's rights against Philip Augustus of France. The French monarch was destined to find his desires once again stopped by the intrepid Pontiff. Philip had repudiated his beautiful and virtuous Queen, and taken another lady in her place. By excommunication and interdict the French Sovereign was forced to take back his lawful wife. Two Kings of Spain were arrested in a like career of wickedness. The encroachments on the rights of the Church practised by the Kings of Portugal, Norway, Sweden, and Poland were also restrained. The long-continued dispute about the allegiance of the Bulgarian Church was brought to a close by the submission of that princedom to Rome. The only unsuccessful enterprises undertaken by Innocent were the attempt to win back Russia to the unity of the Church, and the fourth Crusade, which, instead of freeing the Holy Land, resulted in the establishment of the Latin Empire of Constantinople.

In 1213 Innocent convoked the twelfth General Council. As in the three preceding Councils, the sessions were held in the Lateran Basilica; hence the Council is known as the fourth Lateran. During its sittings a new Crusade was decided on, the Albigenses were condemned, and several points of doctrine were defined. It was then that the word "Transubstantiation," already used by private theologians, was adopted by the Church to express with perfect precision the doctrine which teaches that, "by the words of consecration pronounced by the priest in the Mass, the whole substance of the bread is changed into the Body of Christ, and the whole substance of the wine into the Blood of Christ." The doctrine is, of course, as old as the Blessed Eucharist itself. A number of important decisions on matters of ecclesiastical discipline were also promulgated, among others the precept of Annual Confession and Paschal Communion, under pain of excommunication.

After a Pontificate of eighteen years, Innocent died in 1216. He was certainly the greatest of medieval Popes, but few men have been more variously estimated by historians. All alike acknowledge his genius, his learning, and his masterful character, but Protestant historians ascribe to unbounded ambition his intrepid action with regard to European Sovereigns. There is, however, little doubt that Innocent III. only carried out, with a view to the general good, the belief held by all in those ages, that the Pope was the supreme ruler on earth, not only of the Church, but of all peoples, the guardian of justice and virtue, the refuge to whom all in distress could flee for aid. What others held a Pope ought to be, that Innocent strove to realize. That his vigorous and uncompromising measures should have provoked complaint from those he condemned is not extraordinary, but that some such powerful barrier against unbridled licence was very much needed in those lawless days, few will doubt who have studied the period in detail.

The struggle between the Papacy and the German Empire was to break out again with fresh force when Innocent died. Frederic II., who owed his throne to this Pontiff, was one of the most brilliant of European Sovereigns, but his desires of supreme dominion brought him into collision with the superior claims of the Holy See. The Guelf and Ghibelline warfare was renewed with terrible earnestness on both sides. Frederic repeatedly promised to lead a Crusade to the East, but his evasions on the subject, the cruelties perpetrated on the clergy and the defenceless during his military expeditions, his determined opposition to the meeting of a General Council which went so far as to destroy the fleet conveying the prelates thither, and a scandalous licence of conduct, all combined to make him odious to his subjects, and he was excommunicated and deposed, in 1245, at the Council of Lyons. Though he affected to despise the sentence, his day of triumph was over. From that moment failure attended all his enterprises, and in 1250 he died. Conrad IV., his son, reigned for four years, and with him ended the Hohenstaufen line and the glory of the German Empire. Conrad's death was followed by a period of anarchy, known in German history as the "Great Interregnum." The power of Germany as the dominant State in Europe was over. The Holy Roman Empire was soon a thing of the past, except in name. When, in 1273, the imperial title was resumed by the House of Hapsburg, it had passed to the Austrian section of the Germanic States. The year 1871 witnessed its resumption by the House of Prussia.

Though German dominion gradually lost its hold over Italy, it left that nation a fearful legacy in the Guelf and Ghibelline faction fights. Every trace of the original subject of dispute was gone, but men fought for a name of which the very significance was lost. The Popes laboured strenuously to stem the tide of party fury, and in 1334 even forbade the use of the name Guelf and Ghibelline. Saints like St. Antony of Padua and St. Catherine of Siena often succeeded for a time in restoring peace in certain localities, but centuries passed before the movement wore itself out and peace reigned in the Italian peninsula.

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