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History of the Christian Church, Volume V: The Middle Ages. A.D. 1049-1294.
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§ 11. The Gregorian Theocracy.


The Hildebrandian or Gregorian Church ideal is a theocracy based upon the Mosaic model and the canon law. It is the absolute sovereignty of the Church in this world, commanding respect and obedience by her moral purity and ascetic piety. By the Church is meant the Roman Catholic organization headed by the pope as the vicar of Christ; and this hierarchical organization is identified with the Kingdom of God, in which men are saved from sin and death, and outside of which there is no ordinary salvation. No distinction is made between the Church and the Kingdom, nor between the visible and invisible Church. The Holy, Catholic, Apostolic, Roman Church has been to popes as visible and tangible as the German Empire, or the Kingdom of France, or the Republic of Venice. Besides this Church no other is recognized, not even the Greek, except as a schismatic branch of the Roman.

This ideal is the growth of ages. It was prepared for by pseudo-Isidor in the ninth, and by St. Augustine in the fifth century.

St. Augustine, the greatest theological authority of the Middle Ages, first identified the visible Catholic Church with the City or Kingdom of God. In his great apologetic work, De Civitate Dei, he traced the relation of this Kingdom to the changing and passing kingdoms of this world, and furnished, we may say, the programme of the mediaeval theocracy which, in theory, is adhered to by the Roman Church to this day.2929    Pope Leo XIII., in his encyclical concerning the Christian constitution of States (Immortale Dei, Nov. 1, 1885), defends the mediaeval theory of Church and State, and refers to the authority of St. Augustine, as having in his De Civitate Dei clearly set forth the true principles on this subject for all time to come. See Schaff’s edition of St. Augustine’s Works, pref. to vol. II. (New York, 1887). Comp. also Reuter, Augustinische Studien (Gotha, 1887), pp. 106-152, and Mirbt., l.c., who has industriously collected the quotations from Augustine by the friends and opponents of Gregory VII.s more interested in theology than Church policy; he had little to say about the papacy, and made a suggestive distinction between "the true body of Christ" and "the mixed body of Christ," which led the way to the Protestant distinction (first made by Zwingli) between the visible and invisible Church.3030    The influence of Augustine’s theory upon Wyclif, Hus, and the Reformers is shown in this Church History, vol. VI. 522 sqq.c theory of the apostolic right to depose temporal sovereigns.

The pseudo-Isidorian Decretals went further: they identified the Catholic Church with the dominion of the papal hierarchy, and by a series of literary fictions carried this system back to the second century; notwithstanding the fact that the Oriental Church never recognized the claims of the bishops of Rome beyond that of a mere primacy of honor among equal patriarchs.

Gregory VII. actualized this politico-ecclesiastical system more fully than any previous pope, and as far as human energy and prudence would admit. The glory of the Church was the all-controlling passion of his life. He held fast to it in the darkest hours, and he was greatest in adversity. Of earlier popes, Nicolas I. and Leo I. came nearest to him in lofty pretensions. But in him papal absolutism assumed flesh and blood. He was every inch a pope. He anticipated the Vatican system of 1870; in one point he fell short of it, in another point he went beyond it. He did not claim infallibility in theory, though he assumed it in fact; but he did claim and exercise, as far as he could, an absolute authority over the temporal powers of Christendom, which the popes have long since lost, and can never regain.

Hildebrand was convinced that, however unworthy personally, he was, in his official character, the successor of Peter, and as such the vicar of Christ in the militant Church.3131    Gregory again and again expressed his feeling of personal unworthiness in such expressions as cui licet indigni et nolentes praesidemus, Reg., I. 18, 70, etc.; Migne, 300, 344, etc.e Kingdom of Heaven; but he forgot that in temporal affairs Peter was an humble subject under a hostile government, and exhorted the Christians to honor the king (1 Pet. 2:17) at a time when a Nero sat on the throne. He constantly appealed to the famous words of Christ, Matt. 16:18, 19, as if they were said to himself. The pope inherits the lofty position of Peter. He is the Rock of the Church. He is the universal bishop, a title against which the first Gregory protested as an anti-Christian presumption. He is intrusted with the care of all Christendom (including the Greek Church, which never acknowledged him). He has absolute and final jurisdiction, and is responsible only to God, and to no earthly tribunal. He alone can depose and reinstate bishops, and his legates take precedence of all bishops. He is the supreme arbiter in questions of right and wrong in the whole Christian world. He is above all earthly sovereigns. He can wear the imperial insignia. He can depose kings and emperors, and absolve subjects from their oath of allegiance to unworthy sovereigns.

These and similar claims are formulated in a document of twenty-seven brief propositions preserved among Gregory’s letters, which are of doubtful genuineness, but correctly express his views,3232    Dictatus Papae, Migne, 148, 407 sq.; Mirbt, Quellen, p. 113. Comp: the note of Gieseler, II. B. 7 (Germ. ed.). I quote a few: 12. Quod illi liceat imperatores deponere. 22. Quod Romana Ecclesia numquam erravit, nec in perpetuum, Scriptura testante, errabit. 26. Quod catholicus non habeatur, qui non concordat Ecclesiae Romanae. 27. Quod a fidelitate iniquorum subjectos potest absolvere famous letter to Hermann, bishop of Metz.

Among his favorite Scripture quotations, besides the prophecy about Peter (Matt. 16:18, 19), are two passages from the Old Testament: the words of the prophet Samuel to Saul, which suited his attitude to rebellious kings (1 Sam. 15:23): "Rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as idolatry and teraphim; because thou hast rejected the word of the Lord, he has also rejected thee from being king;" and the words of the prophet Jeremiah (48:10): "Cursed be he that doeth the work of the Lord negligently, and cursed be he that keepeth back his sword from blood." He meant the spiritual sword chiefly, but also the temporal, if necessary. He would have liked to lead an army of soldiers of St. Peter for the conquest of the Holy Land, and the subjection of all rebellious monarchs. He projected the first crusade, which his second successor carried out.

We must consider more particularly his views on the relation of Church and State. Public opinion in the Middle Ages believed neither in co-ordination nor separation of the two powers, but in the subordination of one to the other on the basis of union. Church and State were inseparably interwoven from the days of Charlemagne and even of Constantine, and both together constituted the Christian commonwealth, respublica Christiana. There was also a general agreement that the Church was the spiritual, the State, the temporal power.

But the parties divided on the question of the precise boundary line.3333    See Mirbt, Publizistik, 572-579.uperiority of the State, or at least the equality of the two powers. It was a conflict between priestcraft and statecraft, between sacerdotium and imperium, the clergy and the laity. The imperialists emphasized the divine origin and superior antiquity of the civil government, to which even Christ and the Apostles were subject; the hierarchical party disparaged the State, and put the Church above it even in temporal affairs, when they conflicted with the spiritual. Emperors like Otto I. and Henry III. deposed and elected popes; while popes like Gregory VII. and Innocent III. deposed and elected emperors.

Gregory compares the Church to the sun, the State to the moon, which borrows her light from the sun.3434    Letter of May 8, 1080, to William of England. Jaffé, 419 sq.; Migne, 148, 569. Gregory also compared the priesthood to gold and royalty to lead, Reg., IV. 2. dignity, as heaven is above the earth. He admits the necessity of the State for the temporal government of men; but in his conflict with the civil power he takes the pessimistic view that the State is the product of robbery, murder, and all sorts of crimes, and a disturbance of the original equality, which must be restored by the priestly power. He combined the highest view of the Church and the papacy with the lowest view of the State and the empire.3535    In a letter to Bishop Hermann of Metz, March 15, 1081 (Reg., VIII. 21). "Quis nesciat reges et duces ab illis habuisse principium, qui, Deum ignorantes, superbia, rapinis, perfidia, homicidiis, postremo universis pene sceleribus, mundi principe Diabolo videlicet agitante, super pares scilicet homines, dominari caeca cupidine etintolerabili presumptione affectaverunt," St. Augustine likewise combines the two views of the origin of the State, and calls it both a divine ordinance and a "grande latrocinium," an enslavement of men in consequence of sin. See Reuter,August. Studien, l.c., 135 sq. The letter to Hermann is also given in Mirbt, Quellen, 105-112.

His theory of the papal power could not have been more explicitly stated than when, writing to Sancho, king of Aragon, he said that Jesus, the king of glory, had made Peter lord over the kingdoms of the world. This principle he consistently acted upon.3636    Petrum dominus Jesus Christus, rex gloriae, principem super regna mundi constituit, Reg., I. 63; Migne, 148, 339. subjects from allegiance to him. He concluded his second excommunication of Henry IV., at the synod in Lent, March 7, 1080, with this startling peroration: —

"And now, O ye princes and fathers, most holy Apostles Peter and Paul, deal ye with us in such wise that all the world may know and understand that, having the power to bind and to loose in heaven, you have the like power to take away empires, kingdoms, principalities, duchies, marquisates, earldoms, and all manner of human rights and properties .... Having such mighty power in spiritual things, what is there on earth that may transcend your authority in temporal things? And if ye judge the angels, who are high above the proudest of princes, what may ye not do unto those beneath them? Let the kings and princes of the earth know and feel how great ye are—how exalted your power! Let them tremble to despise the commands of your Church!

"But upon the said Henry do judgment quickly, that all men may know that it is not by fortune or chance, but by your power, that he has fallen! May he thus be confounded unto repentance, that his soul may be saved in the day of the Lord!"

This is the extreme of hierarchical arrogance and severity. Gregory always assumed the air of supreme authority over kings and nobles as well as bishops and abbots, and expects from them absolute obedience.

Sardinia and Corsica he treated as fiefs.3737    Reg., I. 29, VII. 10; Migne, 148, 312, 584.er, and that it belonged to no mortal man but to the Apostolic see. For had not the Holy See made a grant of Spanish territory to a certain Evulus on condition of his conquering it from pagan hands?3838    Reg., I. 7; Migne, 289.at St. Paul had gone to Spain and that seven bishops, sent by Paul and Peter, had founded the Christian Church in Spain.3939    Reg., I. 64; Migne, 339. did not desist from simony, to place his realm under the interdict.4040    Reg., II. 5, 18, 32.4141    Lupus rapax, etc.ize the dependence of his kingdom upon Rome and to send his son to Rome that he might draw the sword against the enemies of God, promising the son a certain rich province in Italy for his services.4242    Reg., II. 51, 75; Migne, 403, 426.onies to the king of Russia, whose son, as we are informed in another letter, had come to Rome, to secure his throne from the pope.4343    Reg., II. 73, 74; Migne, 423 sq.ht to Rome,4444    Regnum Hungariae sanctae Romanae ecclesiae proprium est a rege Stephano beato Petri olim cum omni jure et potestate sua oblatum et devote traditum, Reg., II. 13; Migne, 373.ent of two hundred pieces of silver to himself and his papal successors. To Michael, Byzantine emperor, he wrote, expressing the hope that the Church of Constantinople as a true daughter might be reconciled to its mother, the Church of Rome.4545    Reg., I. 18; Migne, 300.munications to the emperor, Gregory made propositions concerning a crusade to rescue the Holy Land.

For William the Conqueror, Gregory expressed great affection, addressing him as "best beloved," carissime, but solemnly reminded him that he owed his promotion to the throne of England to the favor of the Roman see and bidding him be prompt in the payment of Peter’s Pence.4646    Reg., I. 70, VII. 23; Migne, 345, 565 sqq., etc. his predecessors had paid, but fealty he refused to pay as his predecessors had refused to pay it.4747    "Hubert, your legate in your behalf has bade me to do fealty to you and your successors, and to think better in the matter of the money which my predecessors were wont to send to the Roman Church. The one point I agreed to, the other I did not agree to. Fealty I refused to do, nor will I do it, nor do I find that my predecessors did it to your predecessors." The letter of William the Conqueror to Gregory, written after 1076, the date being uncertain. See Gee and Hardy, Documents of Eng. Ch. Hist., p. 57. The efforts of Gregory to secure William’s support in his controversy with Henry IV. failed. Reg., VI. 30, VII. 1; Migne, 535, 545.

Unbiblical and intolerable as is Hildebrand’s scheme of papal absolutism as a theory of abiding validity, for the Middle Ages it was better that the papacy should rule. It was, indeed, a spiritual despotism; but it checked a military despotism which was the only alternative, and would have been far worse. The Church, after all, represented the moral and intellectual interests over against rude force and passions. She could not discharge her full duty unless she was free and independent. The princes of the Middle Ages were mostly ignorant and licentious despots; while the popes, in their official character, advocated the cause of learning, the sanctity of marriage, and the rights of the people. It was a conflict of moral with physical power, of intelligence with ignorance, of religion with vice.

The theocratic system made religion the ruling factor in mediaeval Europe, and gave the Catholic Church an opportunity to do her best. Her influence was, upon the whole, beneficial. The enthusiasm for religion inspired the crusades, carried Christianity to heathen savages, built the cathedrals and innumerable churches, founded the universities and scholastic theology, multiplied monastic orders and charitable institutions, checked wild passions, softened manners, stimulated discoveries and inventions, preserved ancient classical and Christian literature, and promoted civilization. The papacy struck its roots deep in the past, even as far back as the second century. But it was based in part on pious frauds, as the pseudo-Isidorian Decretals and the false Donation of Constantine.

The mediaeval theocracy was at best a carnal anticipation of the millennial reign, when all the kingdoms of this world shall obey the peaceful sceptre of Christ. The papacy degenerated more and more into a worldly institution and an intolerable tyranny over the hearts and minds of men. Human nature is too noble to be ruled by despotism, and too weak to resist its temptations. The State has divine authority as well as the Church, and the laity have rights as well as the clergy. These rights came to the front as civilization advanced and as the hierarchy abused its power. It was the abuse of priestly authority for the enslavement of men, the worldliness of the Church, and the degradation and profanation of religion in the traffic of indulgences, which provoked the judgment of the Reformation.



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