Frederick II clashed with the Pope, but he was no secularist

Frederick II

The Two Powers
By Brett Edward Whalen
University of Pennsylvania Press, 328pp, £70/$80

Pope Gregory IX (1227-1241) may not be among the most forgotten of the vicars of Christ, but neither is he remembered as well as might be expected for a pope who had such a decisive impact on the life of the Church. His patronage, first as Cardinal Hugolino dei Conti and then as occupant of the Chair of St Peter, was a key factor in the Dominicans and Franciscans’ rapid rise to become two of the largest and most influential religious orders, and he was later among the two popes who defended the rights of the Church during one of its most dramatic conflicts with the Holy Roman emperors.

It is in the latter role that Pope Gregory plays a leading part in Whalen’s book, a revisionist challenge to the dominant academic interpretation of Emperor Frederick II as a forerunner of secularist opposition to ecclesial authority. Two points are central to Whalen’s case. The first is that conflict broke out between Gregory and Frederick following disagreements over questions of public policy rather than because of a prior determination on either man’s part to force assent to his own real or putative authority.

Such matters of principle became a point of contention only after being brought to the fore by policy disagreements. During much of the conflict both were willing to make and maintain a peace provided that its provisions were in accord with their practical objectives; that they felt they could trust their adversary to keep the peace; and that the peace did not require repudiation of their own claims on issues of principle.

Periodic truces, treaties and negotiations did not prevent the recurrence of conflict – not because one side or the other was insincere, waiting for a favourable opportunity to return to the fray and assert supremacy, but because inevitable practical complications led back to the issue of authority as the core dispute.

Whalen’s second major claim is that the contentions over the nature of papal and imperial authority were not disputes between proto-secularism and the Church, but rather presupposed a common vision of a Christian confessional state in which civil and ecclesial authority were in some way unified. What was disputed was the nature of the relationship between pope and monarch within a unified Christendom. The popes asserted papal supremacy; Frederick’s beliefs weren’t clearly articulated but he seems to have accepted that the pope was in some sense the earthly head of Christ’s Church while acting as though he himself were arbiter of the relationship between the two powers and of the legitimacy of individual papal acts of ecclesial governance.

The first real break between pope and emperor, the fallout from which led to renewed conflict after a period of peace, was a matter for which Frederick really had only himself to blame. For years Frederick put off fulfilment of his crusader’s vow (partly because he was impeded by the spread of heresy and Islamic attacks in Sicily, and partly because, like many Catholic monarchs, he prioritised consolidation of his own power within Christian Europe over Christendom’s struggle against external enemies). But finally the condition was added that he would automatically incur excommunication if he did not depart for the Holy Land by mid-August 1227. Gregory did no more than confirm the penalty at the beginning of his pontificate.

Though Frederick condemned the excommunication as unjust, arguing that logistical difficulties and disease made it impossible for him to live up to his commitment, his subsequent behaviour did not argue in his favour, opposition to Pope Gregory evolving into a more general battle against the Catholic hierarchy which Frederick did not abandon even in the face of the Mongol invasions.

When the pope proposed allowing a general council of the Church to arbitrate the dispute, the emperor simply ordered all routes to Rome to be blockaded. Gregory’s proposal came to nothing after ships carrying leading prelates to the Eternal City were sunk by a naval force commanded by Frederick’s son.

Whalen presents a creditable case that Frederick desired rather than impeded the election of a new pope following the death of Gregory and his immediate successor, Celestine IV. If nothing else, only a pope would have the authority to bring a definitive resolution to the conflict. And both Frederick and Pope Innocent IV initially showed themselves desirous of retreating when the latter was elected after a year and a half’s vacancy in the papal office.

The problem was that Frederick wanted resolution on his own terms, inducing Pope Innocent to flee to the safety of Louis IX’s France and to continue the fight until the still-excommunicate emperor died in 1250.