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The German pope who took on the secular world

The statue of St Peter in St Peter’s Square: Gregory VII pushed his vision of an aggressively proactive papacy to its ultimate conclusions (Photo: CNS)

For 100 years or more, most western countries have worked on the axiom that our common life together ought to be deliberately secular. Religion in a free society may be acceptable as a private activity, like knitting or going to the gym, but it has no proper place in the spheres of politics, economics or citizenship.

The rise of militant Islam, like the influence of the Christian Right on American foreign policy and, perhaps more encouragingly, the role of the Catholic Church in the overthrow of Polish Communism, might suggest that in the real world things are not necessarily quite so simple.

That much, at any rate, was understood in the Middle Ages, where everyone accepted that religion – the fundamental understanding of life, death, the Universe and everything – was liable to have an impact on the way that society was organised. Furthermore, for almost 1,000 years the Church was deeply embedded in every social structure. The bishops and abbots of the great monasteries were powerful landowners, commanding armies of tenants and dependants, deploying vast resources and sitting alongside barons in the councils of kings. Schools, universities, hospitals and orphanages were founded, inspired or managed by the Church. Religion was as inescapable as the church towers that dominated the local landscape, pointing the way to heaven but resting on solid, earthly foundations.

If the Church impinged on the world, the world also impinged on the Church. The Church was rich,
so men who cared little for Christ’s message still wanted a slice of the action. Wealthy families endowed charities for their souls’ sakes, but they also jostled to have their sons made bishops and abbots, to tap
the Church’s wealth and influence. The distinctions between prayer and profit became blurred. Religious office was bought and sold. The clergy were supposed to be celibate, set apart for God’s work, but in practice many had common-law wives or were legally married, and were as preoccupied as anyone else by material anxieties and family ambitions, and just as liable to corruption.

From these entanglements not even the papacy was exempt. Central Italy was in political chaos at the end of the first millennium and the popes were forced to rely on powerful families around Rome to protect and enable their work. Since there is no such thing as a free lunch, the result was a century of aristocratic nonentities appointed pope by local mafiosi. Most of these popes were mediocre; some were very bad indeed. The papacy retained symbolic prestige as custodian of the heritage and tomb of Peter, but its moral stature shrank as it dwindled to an insular Italian possession.

All that changed for ever in the year 1046 when the German king, Henry III, came to Rome to be anointed Holy Roman Emperor. The popes had invented the Empire two and a half centuries earlier to recruit a powerful ruler as God’s policeman. The Emperor was charged with suppressing the Church’s enemies and promoting its work of education and conversion. In return he received the prestige of divine sanction for his rule in the shape of solemn papal coronation.

Henry III took this role as protector of the Church to unprecedented heights. The earnest German king was appalled by the squalid state of the papacy, and concerned that his own legitimacy as Emperor would be undermined if he were anointed by a suspect pope. So he deposed the pope and put in his place an edifying German bishop. Popes were short-lived in those days; over the next 10 years Henry appointed four such German popes, all men of moral stature, all zealously committed to the reform of Church and society.

In a five-year whirlwind pontificate, the greatest of these German popes, St Leo IX, who also happened to be the Emperor’s cousin, went a long way towards reviving the glory days of papal prestige. He travelled tirelessly to northern Italy, France and Germany to hold reforming synods, attacking corruption wherever he found it, deposing bishops and archbishops who had bought their jobs and asserting papal authority as it had not been asserted for centuries.

Within a generation a new breed of pope had seized control of the reform movement. In this moral and institutional renewal one man played a unique backstage role. His name was Hildebrand. Hildebrand was the son of Tuscan peasants, but he had been educated in one of the strictest Roman monasteries and was devoted with a convert’s passion to the Church and bishopric of Rome. He was also dedicated to the reform of the Church. He had seen the imperial court in Cologne and had lived as a monk in a reformed monastic house in France, probably at Cluny. Most importantly, as Archdeacon of Rome he served a succession of holy popes with titanic energy as ideas man, cheerleader and enforcer. By 1073, when Hildebrand himself was elected pope, as Gregory VII, he was the reform movement, and over the next 12 years he would shake Europe to its foundations as he pushed the logic of a new vision of an aggressively proactive papacy to its ultimate conclusions.

Gregory VII identified three issues as key to the Church’s corruption: the sale of sacred office, the marriage of priests and, above all, the interference of powerful laymen in clerical appointments. If the Church could not choose its own leaders, free from such interference, it would always remain tangled in the web of politics and money, never able to promote priests fit and willing to preach a demanding Gospel to a reluctant world.

As Pope, Gregory pursued relentlessly what one historian has called the “moral rearmament” of Latin Christendom, a comprehensive campaign to restore the Church, the bride of Christ, to her original purity. He summoned bishops, priests and monks from all over Italy and beyond to a series of twice-yearly synods in Rome. Gregory used these synods to map out the reforms, which participants were then expected to implement in their own regions: the purging of unchaste clergy, the ordination of devout and competent priests, the abolition of the sale of sacred things and offices. He targeted the laity too, attacking corruption among lawyers, administrators and merchants, and planning a more regular and demanding use of the Sacrament of Confession as a means of converting minds and hearts.

Gregory believed himself to be God’s watchman, charged with responsibility for the whole Church. He despatched hundreds of letters to bishops and secular rulers – to Iceland, Denmark and Sweden, where he tried to ensure the support of the monarchy for the clergy; to Hungary, where he tried to consolidate a succession of Christian kings loyal to Rome in a country newly converted from paganism; and to North Africa, where he tried to protect the rights of Christian minorities in Muslim territory.

The tone of these letters was seldom conciliatory – Gregory had an exalted sense of his office as Vicar of St Peter. An extraordinary document among his papers, the so-called Dictatus papae, or aphorisms of the Pope, indicates the radical direction of his thinking:

– That the Roman Pontiff alone can depose or reinstate bishops.
– That of the Pope alone all princes shall kiss the feet.
– That it may be permitted to him to depose emperors.
– That a sentence passed by him may be retracted by no one.
– That the Roman Church has never erred; nor will it err to all eternity.
– That the Roman Pontiff, if he have been canonically ordained, is undoubtedly made a saint by the merits of St Peter.
– That he may absolve subjects from their fealty to wicked men.

These ideas were reflected in Gregory’s actions, leading the German bishops to complain that he bossed them around like bailiffs on his estate.

And it was a German king who tested this vision of the papacy to breaking point. The Emperor Henry III had launched the reform movement with a purge of the papacy, but that purge, of course, and his subsequent appointment of four popes, was itself a blatant example of lay interference in clerical matters, Gregory’s greatest hate. The purity of Henry’s intentions and the calibre of the popes he appointed excused his actions, but when his son, Henry IV, tried a repeat performance with less exalted motives, Pope and King came eyeball to eyeball, with disastrous consequences for both.

The German kings ruled northern Italy. For years, reforming popes had supported radical criticism of the unreformed Church establishment in Lombardy, and encouraged lay people there to refuse the sacraments from married clergy or from those who had bought their positions. In the resulting tensions Milan cathedral was burned down. Unsurprisingly, the Lombard bishops resented this encouragement of anarchy and looked to the King for support. In 1075 Henry IV intervened in a dispute over the succession to the Archbishopric of Milan: he sacked both candidates and appointed his own man, without consulting the Pope. The German monarchy now appeared as the enemy, not the activator, of papal reform.

Predictably, Gregory threatened Henry with excommunication and deposition from his kingship; equally predictably, the King retaliated. In 1076 he summoned a synod of German bishops to Worms. They obediently denounced Gregory as a false monk and declared him deposed from the papacy. But Henry had overplayed his hand: the popes had grown in stature since the days when his father could hire or fire them like private chaplains. The German princes seized on Henry’s excommunication as an excuse to shake off royal authority, issuing an ultimatum threatening rebellion unless he made his peace with the pope within a year.

Forced into a humiliating climbdown, in January 1077 Henry travelled to Canossa in the Italian Apennines where Gregory was staying for Christmas. The most powerful monarch in Europe stood, barefoot and penitent in the snow, until the Pope reluctantly absolved him and the political unity of Germany was saved. It was eloquent proof that no Christian king could rule in defiance of the Pope, and that kings indeed might have to bow to kiss the pope’s foot.

But Gregory’s victory at Canossa was soon undone. The German princes rebelled anyway, electing their own king. In 1080, Gregory, unable to resolve his long-term differences with Henry, excommunicated him and declared him deposed, predicting his imminent death for good measure. Henry declined to oblige, however, and the world, which by and large had applauded the pope’s victory at Canossa, now saw Gregory as the aggressor, supporting opportunist rebels against their anointed king. Henry invaded Rome and installed the Archbishop of Ravenna as a rival pope, Clement III, who duly crowned him Emperor in St Peter’s. Gregory fled south and appealed for help from the Norman rulers of Sicily. Little better than pirates, they eagerly invaded Rome, burning, raping and pillaging. Gregory was not restored and died in 1085 at Salerno, reviled by the suffering Romans, defeated, but utterly untroubled by self-doubt: “I have loved righteousness and hated iniquity: therefore I die in exile.”

The conflict at Canossa would haunt the political imagination of Europe for centuries. To 19th-century Protestant politicians like Bismarck, it embodied the overweening claims of a power-mad Church, a humiliating defeat for the autonomy of the secular world that must never be repeated. But if Gregory’s inflated claims do indeed look alien now, his attack on the unlimited power of monarchy has a more modern ring. Henry’s bishops were shocked by the pope’s actions because they thought that kings ruled by divine right, and reverenced their very word as law. Gregory would have none of this: divine right belonged to the realm of the spirit. Like every other earthly institution, monarchy had to be fit for purpose. If they proved untrue to that purpose, kings could be set aside.

“Who does not know, that kings and rulers are sprung from men … who by pride, robbery, and murder … have striven with blind greed to dominate over their equals, that is, mankind?”

Gregory was defeated in the short term, but he changed the world all the same. Other popes would avoid such all-out confrontation, but never again would the Church accept the right of kings and rulers to determine spiritual matters. Whatever Gregory’s intentions, a lasting line had been drawn between the claims of conscience and the claims of state power. And under this overbearing autocratic pope, human freedom took one small, uncertain step forward.

This is an extract from 10 Popes Who Shook the World by Eamon Duffy, published by Yale University Press, priced £14.99