Part IV - The Middle Ages: Lesson No. 24 - The Decline of the Papacy

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I. The Papacy at Its Height

During the tenure of Pope Innocent III (1198 - 1216) the papacy reached the peak of its temporal powers. However, this crest was not achieved without a terrific and tenacious struggle which dearly cost the Catholic Church a greater sacrifice of spiritual ideals. Worldly ambitions were realized at the expense of spiritual interests. Political intrigue became the modus operandi of the papacy in the achievement of its ambitions. Yet, even as the papacy reached its height, forces which would work its decline lay on the horizon. Its exaltation, and the means by which it was achieved, bore in it the seeds of its own decline. There was a growing sentiment that worldly affairs were not the proper sphere for the papacy, and papal interference in such only served to increase this feeling. Papal supremacy was thus short-lived. In the space of a century the pope would fall from power-broker to pawn in the political realm.

Though papal supremacy over civil rulers had been stoutly proclaimed before Innocent III, it had never been completely accepted in practice. Innocent and his successors tried to enforce the theory of papal supremacy by playing one civil ruler against another. The usual tactic was for an ambitious civil ruler to make certain concessions to the pope in exchange for papal support of his political claims. If the civil ruler reneged on his promises, as sometimes happened, the pope switched his support to the ruler's rival. The pope also used the threat of interdict or excommunication to enforce his will. An interdict was the withholding of sacraments and clerical offices from certain persons or territories. Excommunication was exclusion from communion with those regarded as the faithful and, in practical terms, a denial of the sacraments. Whereas, the latter was directed against individuals, the interdict was directed against the territories of rebellious rulers. For all practical purposes, it suspended religious services within their realms. Hence, it was a most powerful papal weapon. It is said that Innocent III used, or threatened to use, the interdict eighty-five times against disobedient rulers.

Innocent's best-known contests were with the German Emperors of the Holy Roman Empire. He would support one or the other of the claimants to the imperial throne until he found one who would agree to his demands. Thus, he successfully defended papal claims and practically dictated who would sit upon the imperial throne. He also humbled other sovereigns. Philip II of France was forced by threat of edict to take back the wife he had divorced. Alfonso IX of Leon was made to separate from a wife to whom he was too closely related. Peter of Aragon and John of England had to acknowledge their domains as fiefs of the papacy. Innocent also organized the military crusade which crushed the Cathari and their supporters. The policies and doctrines he supported were made Church law and made for a more centralized and powerful papacy. The decline of the Byzantine Empire, and ultimately the fall of Constantinople (1453), tended to bring the Greek Church into subjection to the Roman Church. In addition to all of this political power, it is said that during the Thirteenth Century the Catholic Church owned one third of the land in Europe.

II. Boniface VIII

Boniface VIII (1294-1303) was a pope who possessed conceptions and aspirations in regard to papal supremacy as lofty as any of his predecessors on the papal throne. However, it was with him that the Roman Catholic papacy reached one of its lowest points in its political endeavors. During the Thirteenth Century forces were at work to undermine the political power of the papacy. These included a growing spirit of nationalism, influence of Roman law and lay lawyers (who gradually replaced clerics as royal advisers), and a conviction that the popes should not delve into worldly affairs. Consequently, the papacy lacked the popular support which it once had for its political excursions.

In Philip IV of France (1285-1314) Boniface had a formidable opponent. When Philip had a papal envoy arrested and charged with treason, Boniface ordered him released and summoned Philip and the French bishops to Rome. Philip then called together the clergy, nobles, and commoners in the first States - General which supported his resistance. Boniface responded with the bull Unum sanctum, which has become known as the boldest claim to papal supremacy over civil power. It declared that temporal powers were subject to the pope, through whom God judged them. It further stated that subjection to the Roman pontiff was essential to salvation. Philip, in turn, charged Boniface with serious crimes, including heresy and immorality and issued a call for a general council to try him. Philip's forces made Boniface a prisoner in 1303 and he died shortly after his release. The papacy had placed all of its power against a strong civil ruler and had suffered defeat., It was a crippling blow to papal political ambitions.

III. The Avignon Papacy

The removal of the papal seat to Avignon, France made the papacy seem to be under French control. Indeed, while the papal seat was in Avignon (1309-1377) all of the popes were Frenchmen, and the first Avignon pope catered to Philip, canceling his interdicts and excommunications and modifying the bull Unum sanctum. The period while the papal seat was at Avignon has been known as the "Babylonian Captivity" of the papacy. Much literature both for and against papal supremacy over civil powers was produced during this period, but the trend was a general waning of papal powers. Believing the Avignon popes to be French puppets, some nations refused to be subject to them. The Avignon papacy also drew down sharp criticism for its taxations to support the extravagance of the papal court. Delinquent taxpayers were threatened with excommunication.

Not long after the return of the papal seat to Rome in 1377 the cardinals elected a pope whom they soon found to be much to their dislike. They declared their choice of him void, elected a new pope, and repaired with him to Avignon. The Roman pope refused to abdicate. This was the beginning of the "Great Schism." For years opposing popes sat in Avignon and Rome. Nations gave their allegiance to one or the other depending on what they conceived to be their best political interests. This was a scandal to the Church which was supposed to be visibly one.

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

(1) (T or F) Popes never interfered in the political affairs of nations.

(2) (T or F) Popes depended on the Scriptures and moral influence to advance their views.

(3) (T or F) Boniface VIII declared submission to the pope to be essential to salvation.

(4) (T or F) Papal elections and declarations have never been changed.

(5) What were some papal weapons, and how were they unscriptural?

(6) What were the "Babylonian Captivity" and the "Great Schism?"

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