Jim Gilbert
September 5, 2001

Church and State: The Medieval Papacy and the Balance of Power

The ability of any institution to endure the result adaptability and acclimatization. The papacy is no exception, having grown, shifted, and expanded from a bishopric to become one of the essential political offices in medieval Europe. Through the determined efforts of various popes and their lay and ecclesiastical supporters over the course of several centuries, the papacy was a position that came to wield unique and substantial political power as an office that required its holder to straddle two worlds: the spiritual and the secular.
As the bishop of Rome, the pope was of significant political significance long before the office held any real power. Schimmelpfennig contends that the papacy was a political pawn until the eleventh century. With the beginnings of Roman primacy in the Church, Rome itself offered the pope certain political and spiritual advantages, as it was a (if not the) world capital, and the city laying claim to apostles Peter and Paul. However, it was the Roman emperor, rather than the pope, who effectively controlled the Church until the fifth century. Without imperial assistance, for example, the nuclear councils (which even today are a significant component of Church law) might never have occurred. It is equally significant that the structural and organizational directions the Church followed mirrored those of the Roman Empire, which expedited a rapid dissemination of the faith and a battle-tested hierarchical system of governance. Yet despite this overarching initial contention, the early medieval period was not a time of utter impotence for the papacy; as time passed it gradually brought Rome and various small communities in nearby areas under papal jurisdiction, establishing a base for operations.
In the fifth century, a series of popes initiated he initial realignment of papal power by asserting that their spiritual power superceded the secular power of the civil authorities. Coupled with the waning central authority of the Western Empire, the papacy truly began to emerge as an independent entity. This extrication demonstrated the Church’s need to recognize that the papacy existed within the secular world, and that its successes and failures were mitigated by contemporary sociopolitical conditions.
The rise of the papacy was by no means a steady advance, however. After the initial successes of the fifth century, the pope found himself little more than a powerful vassal to Charlemagne; ironically the “defender of the Church” was also its subjugator, and the founding of the “independent” Papal States only reinforced these circumstances. Quite simply, even the pope was a vassal of the Emperor, required to offer personal allegiance and military support.
Medieval popes were required to act as priest, and statesman. The Investiture Controversy underscored this debate, and the measures of Gregorian reform and the establishment of standardized canonical practices raised the papacy from its prior setbacks to new heights despite the Holy Roman Emperors’ best efforts to impose their will on the papal elections. After Innocent III, popes were recognized not only as princes of the Church, but political figures with powers (particularly that of excommunication and the ability to both crown and depose kings) that transcended more conventional measures taken to ensure obedience and cooperation.
But with powers come responsibilities, and the papacy was no exception. Medieval popes were responsible for conducting “foreign policy” with a number of kingdoms, each of which had its own set of secular legislation and priorities. By its very nature the Church is an international entity, headed by a leader who was required to foster relationships with the various European rulers and to insure that the machinations of governance functioned properly. Quite simply, this spiritual entity (the Church) had manifested itself within physical entities (the realms of Christendom) and held land in all of these realms (the churches and their grounds) within their jurisdiction.
Additionally, the pope was a secular ruler in his own right, governing first Rome, and later the Papal States. Medieval popes needed to look after the spiritual and secular needs of some of their followers. In addition to the crusading forces Urban II demanded, the pope had subjects of his own. Popes could command armies, and could forge military, political, and economic alliances on behalf of their temporal realm.
However, this need for a symbiotic relationship was by no means for purely selfless reasons: the Church collected “taxes” (annates and servitia) particularly in France, Italy, and Spain and therefore had a vested interest in seeing that its collections continued unhindered. And, as might be expected, papal relations with these three realms varied considerably in terms of overall effectiveness and influence. These successes and failures demonstrate that the pope had to maintain working relationships with secular lords as pope and monarch held different facets of the same individuals. Similarly, outside of the Papal States, the pope required the backing of kings to support his position of power, particularly when the papacy was contested. To this end, relations between the pope and the various European monarchs required the maintenance of balance, lest a monarch “remove” papal jurisdiction from his kingdom, as was the case when “Charles VI solemnly proclaimed France’s withdrawl from its obedience to Benedict [XIII]” in 1398 amidst the contemporary papal schism.
The schism of the late fourteenth century marked yet another development in the papacy: it signified a need for reform. The waxing of papal authority had continued unchecked, and as has often been stated, “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Popes controlled finances across Europe, approved or rejected clerical appointments, and had a greater reach than any secular lords in Europe. And as Christianity dictated a policy of obedience to the pontiff in his capacity of vicarius Christi, he was vested with unparalleled authority. The power and influence the office wielded complicated the process of papal selection even after Innocent III. The fragmentation and infighting within the Church provoked a call for papal reform directed collectively by ecclesiastical and secular leaders.
The papacy by its “international” nature, slowly but surely found its way to the forefront of the burgeoning medieval field of international politics. First as a pawn of others, the pope later became a controlling piece on the chessboard. By the beginning of the twelfth century, popes dealt with monarchs not only as a spiritual advisor and authority, but also as international arbitrators, communicators, and diplomats. As their secular responsibilities and involvement increased so did the need to implement a system of checks and balances that would enable a fallible human to perform what had become a divine office.