A tale of two Gregorys

WITH THE MIDDLE AGES CAME THE IMPERIAL PAPACY, the rise of powerful feudal lords with secular interests, and a contest over who ultimately controlled the ministers and other resources of the church. Lost in the shuffle was any notion that ordinary Christians might have a privileged voice in the proceedings.

Pope Gregory the Great (reigned 590-604), the first monk to become pope, held up the monastic ideal as a model for priests to follow. Under his pontificate, writes the venerable church historian W.H.C. Frend, the papacy emerged as the central institution in the secular and ecclesiastical life of Italy and the West. Responsible for maintaining Rome's defenses against the invading Lombards, Gregory organized charity for the destitute population of the city, provided outlying villages with clergy, kept the affairs of the churches under his immediate control, and conducted an extensive correspondence with various bishops across Europe.

He also ingeniously administered the papal estates—15 patrimonies scattered throughout every province in the West, with particularly large holdings in Southern Italy, Sicily, and North Africa. To govern these vast lands, Gregory appointed his personal agents—most of whom were monks and priests—as rectors. To them he assigned a hierarchy of clerical administrators—guardians, agents, and bailiffs—who served, in effect, as a clerical civil service.

These clerics settled property disputes and lawsuits, sold off unprofitable herds, managed church hostels, built monasteries, and paid poor relief. Not even the financial officers of Gregory's empire were laymen. The pope, Frend reports, "stressed the antithesis between ecclesiastical and pagan learning" and cultivated the priestly caste through the establishment of episcopal schools dedicated to their training and their eventual isolation from the life of the common layperson.

Despite the success of the Gregorian strategy, the church experienced difficulty in planting the moral ideals of the gospel in the soil of feudal society. By the time of Pope Gregory VII (reigned 1073-1085), a monk cast in the mold of his sixth-century namesake had become contaminated by secular influence. There was simply too much glory, wealth, and power available to a bishop, Frend notes wryly, for ambition and greed not to arise and for scoundrels not to find a way to ascend to the episcopal throne.

The church had once again become highly localized, as it was in apostolic times, but with an important difference: now its leadership was beholden not to the will of the people, but to the whimsy of kings and feudal lords who rewarded their supporters with the grant of a cozy bishopric—a practice known as "lay investiture" and roundly condemned by the zealous Gregory VII.

In his battle for control over ecclesiastical benefices and church affairs in general, Gregory VII was not above playing the supernatural card—the papacy's undisputed (at the time) right to withhold forgiveness of sins and thus jeopardize a soul's chance for eternal life—and he did so brilliantly in bringing the disobedient German emperor Henry IV to heel, literally, in the snows outside the papal retreat at Canossa.

Despite various setbacks Gregory VII was ultimately victorious in liberating the church from the control of lay princes. His Dictatus papae (in 1075), a compilation of previous papal teachings and rulings, provided a blueprint of the church as a divinely instituted society, independent of earthly kingdoms but exercising sovereign authority over them, with its own internal laws and principles.

The cumulative effect of the pontificates of the two Gregorys was the establishment of the Roman Catholic Church as the dominant legal institution of Western society, with a monarchical form of government rivalling the authority of emperors and kings. During the ensuing centuries of the High Middle Ages, a period known as Christendom and characterized by exaggerated papal claims to temporal sovereignty by politically ambitious popes, the church set itself on a course it would travel for the next millennium.

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