Midnight of December 31, 1999 is the symbolic ending of one Christian millennium and the beginning of another. (We say “symbolic,” being well aware of the scholarly consensus regarding the date of Christ’s birth, and the literal claim that the second millennium ends with the end of the year 2000.) Thinking about where we are at the end of the millennium assumes an understanding of who “we” are. We are those who have been formed, in ways beyond our sure discerning, by the thousand years now coming to a close. Our thinking about what may be requires a knowledge of what has been. The following is the first in a millennium series that will examine each century through the prism of a key figure. Robert Wilken considers the eleventh century and Pope Gregory VII. Next month: David Novak on the twelfth century and Maimonides.
Every marking of time has an arbitrariness about it, yet there seems to be something so large in its proportions about the commencement of a year that begins a century that inaugurates a millennium that it beguiles otherwise reasonable folk to imagine they are prophets. It is a temptation to be resisted. As enticing as it is to don the mantle of the seer and predict what will happen in the century to come, the greater part of wisdom is to look back, even far back, and greet the future with eyes focused by the past. The gift of discernment must be learned and if our eyes have not been trained to make out where we have been, they will be insentient to what is yet to be.
As we look back, however, what we see will be filtered inevitably through the prism of our own time. For there is no past that does not have our present as its future, just as there is no future that will not have our present as its past. The story is told of the distinguished French medievalist, Jean Leclercq, who was interviewed by journalists at Boston’s Logan airport on his arrival in the United States for a lecture tour. One member of the press raised his hand and asked: “Tell me, sir, what century do you think was the most important?” Leclercq listened intently to the question, paused for a moment, and then softly replied: “Dees wun!”
No apology is needed to begin with the present. So let us first fasten on those things in former times that seem uncannily familiar to sensibilities attuned to the experiences of our century. The exercise should prove an instructive introduction to the topic at hand, the great pope of the eleventh century, Gregory VII.
In thinking about the eleventh century, the first century of the present millennium, consider the following:
The Crusades began in the eleventh century. In 1095 Pope Urban II preached his famous sermon to a large crowd in a meadow in Clermont, France calling on Christians of the West to come to the aid of their brothers and sisters in the East and to recover the holy city of Jerusalem for Christian civilization. Four centuries earlier, in 634, Muslim armies had burst without warning out of the deserts of Arabia to conquer Damascus (635), Jerusalem (638), and other Christian cities in the Middle East, and within a few short years the vanguard of the new religion had swiftly swept across the ancient Christian lands, Palestine, Syria, Asia Minor (Turkey), Egypt, North Africa (Tunisia, Algeria), only to be stopped by Charles Martel in 732 at the battle of Poitiers in southern France.
In the face of such energy and determination the settled Christian world, with the exception of Constantinople, seemed defenseless, and a great curtain was soon drawn across the Mediterranean Sea, Christianity on the northern shore, Islam on the eastern and southern shores. Not until the eleventh century was Christian civilization capable of mounting a countermovement. Many in the West today, embarrassed by the militancy and brutality of the Crusades, would prefer to forget them, but the idea of liberating the Holy Land united Europe in a collective effort that altered the course of our history. And Islam has not forgotten the Crusades. When Mehmet Ali Agca tried to kill the Pope in May 1981 a letter was found among his papers with the words: “I have decided to kill John Paul II, supreme commander of the Crusades.”
Item: The conflict between Christianity and Islam promises to be the dominant religious struggle at the start of the new millennium.
The eleventh century also gave birth to scholasticism, a way of reasoning that was to shape the course of Western philosophy and theology through the seventeenth century and even into modern times.
St. Anselm, the most original Christian thinker between Augustine in the fifth century and Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century, was born in 1033 and his intellectual activity spanned the eleventh century. His philosophical essays Monologion and Proslogion and his theological treatise Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Man) helped lay the foundation for the great flowering of Western thought in the next three centuries.
Item: At the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the new millennium we are witnessing a major rethinking of the nature of human reason, and in particular how it functions in religious thought. The hegemony of the Enlightenment model of autonomous and critical reason, reason disengaged from its object, is swiftly coming to an end. We are, perhaps, living at a time when the understanding of reason and its relation to faith will be transformed as profoundly as it was in Anselm’s day. Last fall Pope John Paul II issued a new encyclical, Fides et Ratio. It may be the last papal encyclical of the millennium, and it is not insignificant that it deals with the relation of faith and reason, anticipating a discussion that will certainly accelerate in the new century.
The eleventh century was a period of intense spiritual vitality, particularly within the monastic communities. Monasticism changes the society even as it retreats from the world, and the changes in the monasteries provided the immediate background for the reforms of the popes. At the Benedictine monastery at Cluny in France, under the leadership of abbots Odilo and Hugh, a great reform movement reached the zenith of its influence in the Church and on society. St. Bernard, one of the most charismatic figures in Christian history, was born in 1090, and the Cistercians, the monastic movement with which he became associated, was founded in 1098 at Citeaux (Cistercium in Latin, hence the name Cistercians) by Robert of Molesme. Within a few decades the Cistercians, who practiced a more austere (and in their view more authentic) form of Benedictine monasticism, established hundreds of religious communities all over Europe where men and women quietly pursued a life of prayer and contemplation. Over the centuries contemplative monasticism as represented by the Benedictines and Cistercians has displayed remarkable staying power and today remains a vital feature of Christian life.
Item: At the turn of the millennium even activist Americans are discovering the contemplative side of religion, as books about its many offshoots—meditation, centering prayer, solitude, and silence—beckon the browser in the religion and spirituality sections of our bookstores. In her best-selling book Dakota: A Spiritual Biography, Kathleen Norris found a kinship between life in her parental home in an isolated town on the border of North and South Dakota and a Benedictine monastery. In places “where nothing ever happens, that the world calls dull,” she learned, like the monks, to wait for God and listen. The success of her book suggests that it is a message many are eager to hear on the eve of the new century.
The eleventh century marked the official division between the Eastern Christian Churches, what is today known as Eastern Orthodoxy, and the Catholic Church of the West claimed by Roman Catholicism and critiqued by the churches of the Reformation. For centuries these two large branches of Christianity had developed in different directions, in worship, in church organization, in language and culture, and in 1054 Rome and Constantinople formally broke off fellowship.
Item: As we look to the new millennium these two Christian communions are slowly and gingerly moving toward one another and looking anew at the obstacles that created and sustained the division, the filioque for example. It is too early to say that this deepest of all Christian divisions is beginning to heal, but there are signs that even if the twenty-first century does not bring reunion, it will lead to much closer rapprochement.
The eleventh century was a period of profound change and creativity in the understanding of ecclesiastical as well as civil law. For the first time in centuries legal scholars began to collect ancient Roman law codes, and at Bologna in northern Italy in the 1080s the inventive Guarnerius (Irnerius) attracted students from all over the Christian world to hear his lectures on Roman law. Prior to the eleventh century there was no concept of law as a body of principles, no one had attempted to organize and codify the prevailing laws, and there was no class of trained lawyers. Law had been seen as a product of the common conscience, not an expression of conscious reason or will, and legal scholars set about the task of reconciling contradictions, deriving principles, and drawing out conceptual implications of the ancient law codes. In the eleventh century law became a separate field of study with its own cadre of interpreters who applied the law to new areas of life.
Item: In our litigious society there is no area where the influence of the changes begun in the eleventh century is more obvious than in the practice of the law. Everything from the relation of members of a family to one another to the culture of the workplace in large corporations, from the great moral issues of our time to rights of professional athletes, becomes a matter to be adjudicated by lawyers and judges.
Yet, as significant as these developments were and continue to be, the commanding narrative of the eleventh century takes place in the life of a single person, a man who was more original than Anselm, more imperious than Bernard, and more courageous than a Crusader knight: the pope Gregory VII, also known as Hildebrand. So far-reaching was his effect on society and so eventful his influence on the Church that many have called him a revolutionary.
One historian considers his “revolution” the first of six that were to alter the course of Western society. In reverse chronological order they are the following: the Russian Revolution, the French Revolution, the American Revolution, the English revolution of the seventeenth century, the Protestant Reformation, and the papal revolution that began with Gregory’s pontificate in 1073 and ended with the Concordat of Worms in 1122.
Just how deeply Gregory marked his age and the centuries to follow can be seen by sampling what some historians in recent generations have said about him. The social and economic historian Marc Bloch wrote: The Gregorian reform displayed “a spirit more revolutionary than contemporaries realized. . . . Its essence may be summed up in a few words: In a world where hitherto the sacred and profane had been almost inextricably mingled, the Gregorian reform proclaimed both the unique character and the supreme importance of the spiritual mission with which the Church was entrusted.” Joseph Strayer identified Gregory’s reforms with the origin and development of the idea of the modern secular state. Heinrich Mitteis spoke of a “constitutional revolution” and a “revolution in political thought.” Yves Congar, the theologian, argued that “the reform begun by St. Leo IX (1049-1054) and continued with such vigor by St. Gregory VII represents a decisive turning point from the point of view of ecclesiastical doctrine in general and of the notion of authority in particular.” Gerd Tellenbach had this to say: Pope Gregory VII “stands at the greatest . . . turning point in the history of Catholic Christendom. . . . He was at heart a revolutionary; reform in the ordinary sense of the world . . . could not satisfy him.” And Harold Berman, who proposed the scheme of six revolutions, wrote: “The first of the great revolutions of Western history was the revolution against domination of the clergy by emperors, kings, and lords and for the establishment of the Church of Rome as an independent, corporate, political, and legal entity, under the papacy.”
Gregory was born in a small town in Tuscany in Italy sometime between a.d. 1020-1025. As a boy he was sent to Rome to live in the Benedictine monastery of St. Mary on the Aventine hill. He took religious vows in the 1040s and in 1046 was asked to serve as chaplain to Pope Gregory VI, who had been sent into exile in Germany by King Henry III. Ironically, Gregory’s life would also end in exile. On the death of Gregory VI in 1049 Hildebrand returned to Rome and was soon made administrator of the papal patrimony, the vast estates in central Italy governed directly by the pope. (In the eleventh century the popes were no less temporal rulers than the kings and princes who governed the kingdoms of Europe.) Under the two popes who immediately preceded him, Gregory served as archdeacon of the Church of Rome and was a guiding spirit in the reform efforts of the papacy. In 1073 he was elected pope.
The capital fact of ecclesiastical life in the early Middle Ages was that the affairs of the Church were managed by kings and princes. This interference in the Church’s governance was not, however, viewed as a matter of political power muscling in on the authority of the Church; it was rather the king’s duty. Like the kings of ancient Israel, medieval kings were anointed at their coronation and invested with a spiritual as well as political mission. Among the peoples of northern Europe—the Germans, Franks, Celts, Welsh, Irish, Danes, Bulgars, et al.—the only real authority was that of the king or prince or khan, and missionaries soon learned that the way to reach the people was through the mind and heart of the king, or sometimes the body of the queen. (Some Christian queens, it was reported, refused to sleep with their husbands until they converted.) These new Christian kings became the Church’s defenders and bankers and overseers as they donated their own resources to build churches, endow monasteries, and in other ways lay the foundations for a Christian society. As the supreme religious head of the people, the king appointed bishops and abbots, ruled on religious and liturgical matters, and sometimes presided over ecclesiastical synods. Kings viewed the bishops as their adjutores, helpers. Christopher Dawson, the medieval historian, once remarked that Charlemagne viewed the pope as his private chaplain. It was the king’s business to govern, said Charlemagne, that of the pope to pray.
The system of ecclesiastical organization developed in northern Europe fragmented the Church into regional jurisdictions defined by the territorial authority of the king or prince. Churches were often established by a wealthy landowner on land that was family property. Because the landowner constructed a church on his land out of his own funds, he considered the church his own property and reserved the right to nominate a priest to serve the people living on his land. Monasteries were expected to provide goods and revenue to the lord, and on occasion were used as dowries in royal marriages or as a source of soldiers for the prince’s army.
The authority of the lord in ecclesiastical matters was symbolized by the practice of lay “investiture.” This term originally referred to the ceremony in which a lord handed over land to a vassal in exchange for an oath of fealty. As a symbol of the transfer the lord would give the new vassal a staff or a sword or a spear. In time a similar practice developed at the installation of a bishop. At the time of consecration the king or his representative handed over the symbols of the office to the bishop (or abbot), usually a staff or crozier and a ring, and the king said: “Receive the church.” The bishop was then consecrated in an ecclesiastical rite by other bishops, but the symbols of authority had been transmitted by the king, not the bishops. It was obvious that this system encouraged greater loyalty to the local lord than to the pope or to the Church as a universal communion.
Immediately before Gregory’s pontificate, and with his strong support, his predecessors had mounted an active program of reform, focusing particularly on simony (the buying and selling of ecclesiastical offices) and on putting an end to clerical marriage (which encouraged seeking office for the financial rewards it offered the bishop’s family). In 1049 celibacy was reaffirmed as mandatory for all clergy, and ten years later Pope Nicholas II laid down new rules that made the election of the pope the responsibility of the senior clergy of Rome, the cardinals (the term refers to the “hinges” between the bishop of Rome and the parishes), a practice that continues to this day (though cardinals today reside all over the world and merely hold title to parishes in Rome). By placing election of the pope solely in the hands of the cardinals, the new rules effectively excluded the emperor or a powerful king from controlling the election of a pope.
Even though Gregory had worked closely with his predecessors, he was dissatisfied with what they had accomplished. He was not a man of great learning, but he grasped what was before him in new ways. In his certitude about his mission, his decisiveness, and his personal charism, he stood apart from his fellows. His impatience with the pace of reform is evident in a letter he wrote to Hugo, abbot of the monastery at Cluny, two years after his election: “When I review in my mind the regions of the West, whether north or south, I find scarce any bishops who live or who were ordained according to law and who govern Christian people in the love of Christ and not for worldly ambition. And among secular princes I find none who prefer the honor of God to their own or righteousness to gain.” A contemporary described Gregory as a tiger tensed for the leap.
The defining moment in Gregory’s pontificate came over the election of a bishop in Milan in northern Italy, a city in the territory ruled by the German king Henry IV. At a synod in Rome in 1075, two years after his election as pope, Gregory issued a strongly worded condemnation of lay investiture. At first Henry IV, who hoped to be crowned emperor by the Pope, was accommodating. But when a dispute erupted in Milan over the appointment of the bishop, the King intervened to insure the consecration of his own nominee. Neither the King nor the Pope owned a character likely to allay strife. In a pointed letter Gregory reminded the King that he had no authority for such an action, and warned him that if he did not comply with the decree on lay investiture he would not only be excommunicated but also deposed. Here was a challenge without precedent. Popes had long been in the business of making kings and emperors, but no one imagined a pope could unmake a king. In Gregory’s view a king forfeited his throne if he opposed apostolic decrees issued from Rome.
The King responded by calling his own council of German bishops who defiantly refused to bow to what they considered Gregory’s imperious demands. One bishop was reported to have said that the Pope ordered bishops around as though they were his bailiffs. The King labeled Gregory a “false monk” who had “incited subjects to rebel against their prelates” and behaved as though the kingdom was his to give and take away and not at the disposal of God. He urged the Pope to step down. “Contrary to God’s ordinance he desires to be king and priest at once.” In words as mordant as anything Gregory wrote, the King taunted the Pope with “ Descende, descende!” (“Step down, step down!”)
Undaunted, Gregory declared Henry excommunicate and deposed him as king. In a letter defending his actions, he dwelt solely on the excommunication, tacitly acknowledging that he might have overstepped his authority in deposing the King. But the spiritual ban alarmed the bishops and nobles who had supported Henry. Within months they began to withdraw their fealty to Henry and urged him to seek absolution from the Pope. They issued an invitation for the Pope to come to a council at Augsburg in Germany.
But when the Pope reached northern Italy the promised escort had not arrived, and he took refuge in the castle of his friend Countess Matilda at Canossa. Here the famous confrontation between pope and king took place. The King, abandoned by his nobles and bishops, decided to approach the Pope as a penitent and ask forgiveness. In January 1077, in the dead of winter, he crossed the Alps and after reaching the courtyard of the castle where the Pope was staying, the King stood barefoot in the snow for three days waiting for Gregory to respond.
So unforgettable was the confrontation at Canossa that it has entered indelibly into the memory of Western civilization, especially among its statesmen and religious leaders. Some invoked Canossa when Fidel Castro met the Pope in Havana last January. In the Kulturkampf between Prussia and the Church in nineteenth-century Germany, Bismarck is reported to have said, “We will not go to Canossa.” There, at a castle in the mountains of northern Italy, the two great authorities of medieval society, pope and emperor, priest and king, sacerdotium and imperium, met face to face, each testing the other. The conventional retelling of the story focuses on the King standing barefoot in the courtyard, but the real drama may have been taking place in the Pope’s chambers within the castle. The three days’ wait was as much a sign of Gregory’s irresolution as of the King’s humility. Gregory knew full well that the King had made the journey in part because of his dwindling support in Germany, but once the political winds shifted, as they certainly would if he were absolved, the King could hardly be expected to be so compliant. Yet Henry came as a son of the Church asking absolution. How could a priest turn away a penitent? Finally the Pope called for him, the castle doors were opened, and the King was granted absolution—not, however, without the Pope extracting an oath from the King that he would abide by papal decisions in the future.
By coming to Canossa and submitting to Gregory Henry acknowledged the Pope’s right to judge kings. But Gregory’s victory was chimerical—at least in the short run. Once Henry was granted absolution, he returned to Germany as king, legitimated by the Pope. In the meantime, however, Henry’s enemies had elected a new king and presented the Pope with a dilemma. Whom should he recognize? Unfortunately, Gregory chose the new king, Rudolph; he even imprudently predicted Henry’s imminent death. Henry, however, remained robustly healthy, while Rudolph died in battle. This was a costly misstep and an ominous portent. Never again would Gregory regain his balance. Soon opinion began to shift away from the Pope toward Henry, and the King, riding a wave of popularity, appointed an anti-pope (Clement III). Abandoned by his cardinals, Gregory was forced to take refuge in the Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome near the Vatican, under the protection of the hated Normans who had occupied and sacked the city. He finally fled to Norman territory in the south of Italy, a state he would not have recognized a few years earlier. In May 1085 Gregory died in Salerno with the words of the psalmist on his lips, “‘I have loved justice and hated iniquity’; for that reason I die in exile.” Ironically, the pope who most identified with St. Peter did not die apud sanctum Petrum.
Clearly the measure of Gregory’s greatness is not to be sought in the immediate events that ended his pontificate. When he died there were few signs that his policies would triumph. Yet he knew the future belonged to him, and in his letters he seemed conscious his words would one day become authoritative. To some his final words are taken as a cry of defeat, even despair, but they might just as well be read as a shout of victory. Martyrdom is not a sign of defeat. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of justice, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” said Jesus in the beatitudes. Gregory’s words have been taken as an apt epitaph for martyrs, and they appear often in collections of famous last words. The great Belgian historian Henri Pirenne, who was deported to Germany during World War I, said that he found comfort in Gregory’s final words during his exile in Germany. As Gregory had demanded that kings and princes be obedient to truth, so he willingly imposed the same conditions on himself, remaining faithful to the end.
But, one might ask, faithful to what? Gregory would have said: to the freedom of the Church, an ecclesia libera, casta, et catholica, a Church that is free, pure, and catholic. His predecessors had centered their reform efforts on simony and clerical marriage, and Gregory was not indifferent to these problems. But the circumstances of his pontificate as well as his own genius led him to frame the issues in a new way. In his hands reform was not primarily an affair of the moral or spiritual life; it had to do with the right ordering of Church and society. In a radical departure from recent ecclesiastical custom, Gregory had stripped the king of his spiritual authority and reduced him to the status of a simple layman. The old complementarity of pope and emperor came to an end. Once the king had been directly accountable to God; now he was accountable to the pope.
By desacralizing the authority of the king, Gregory disengaged the spiritual world from political control (at least in theory) and set in motion forces that would alter not only the self-understanding of the Church but also of the state. The medieval kingdoms were religious states and the king, as head of the people, was the supreme authority in religious as well as in political matters. If spiritual governance was now solely in the hands of the bishops and pope, kingship had to be understood differently and new foundations laid for the political authority of the state. Paradoxically, as the Church became a sovereign body with its own head, administrative structure, body of law, and courts, its very existence gave impetus to new political ideas that would eventually give rise to the modern state. As the medieval historian K. Leyser has written, “Political ideas in the classical sense only appear in the polemics of the eleventh and early twelfth centuries incoherently, in flashes. . . . There [was at that time] no theory of the secular state as such, but as a result of the great crisis it was all ready to be born.” Deprived of its spiritual authority, the state was forced to conceive of itself anew as a corporate body independent of the Church. In this sense the origins of the modern (and secular) state are to be traced to Gregory VII and the Investiture Controversy.
Gregory knew that the customs prevailing in the Church and society in his day had no foundation in ancient Christian tradition. In one of his letters he says: “Christ did not say ‘I am custom,’ but ‘I am truth.’” The words are not original. They go back to Augustine, and can be found in earlier writers, Cyprian and Tertullian. But their application is new. What was considered ancient tradition, Gregory denominated custom—practices that had developed over the last several centuries in northern Europe. They were not apostolic. Like all great figures in the Church’s history, Gregory knew that faithfulness did not mean slavish obedience to current practice. Faithfulness to tradition, by contrast to preservation of custom, required discernment of the deeper meaning of the faith amidst the vicissitudes of time. By challenging the customs of his time Gregory wished to build a bridge over the centuries to the more authentic truths that animate Christian life.
Gregory’s letters reproach the King with pronouncements on the freedom of the Church. “Let him [Henry] no longer imagine that Holy Church is his subject or his handmaid but rather let him recognize her as his superior and his mistress.” He speaks plainly and bluntly, eschewing euphemisms. But his imperiousness is not just a polemical strategy. He has a vision of the Church as a corporate and sovereign body in its own right. Christianity is not just the spiritual dimension of the social order; it creates its own social and political order. Bishops and pope, not princes, constitute the Church; they, not kings, stand in succession from the apostles. Only bishops can invest bishops in their office; kings have no such authority. Investiture, if you will, comes from Christ; it is not mediated by the king. The authority of the bishop is not conferred from above; it comes through the line of bishops stretching back through time to the apostles and to Christ. Hence the one who bears office is not simply a spokesman for the apostles; in his person he is their embodiment and sacramentally makes present the reality of Christ in the world.
Like any corporate body, the Church could not exist without a head. In 1075, two years after he became pope, Gregory jotted down a series of theses, a set of talking points for his own reference to be drawn on in letters or set forth in canonical form in papal decrees. Some of the points are the following: That the Roman bishop alone is by right called universal; that his legate, even if of lower grade, takes precedence in a council over all bishops and may render a sentence of deposition against them; that the Bishop of Rome alone may depose and reinstate bishops; that to him alone is it permitted to make new laws according to the needs of the times; that he may depose emperors; that no judgment of his may be revised by anyone, and that he alone may revise the judgments of all.
On first reading Gregory’s theses sound revolutionary, and there can be no question that in the annals of the Church’s earlier history there is nothing to match these extraordinary claims. Yet it was only as Gregory was faced with specific cases that he invoked his principles, and he was careful to document his claims by citing earlier canonical authorities and precedents. He saw, as no one had before him, that the pope had to be more than a symbolic head of the Church. The Bishop of Rome was not simply the court of last appeal; the pope was called to govern the universal Church. He alone was charged to care for all the churches. Unless the Church of Rome actually bound the churches in every part of the world together in an organic body and the pope exercised jurisdiction, all talk of the Church as a worldwide communion—i.e., as catholic—was illusory. The Church needs a real, not honorary, head.
Gregory had a kind of mystic identification with St. Peter. When his decrees are disregarded he says that Peter has been offended; he presides over synods “under the power of St. Peter”; he forbids a candidate for bishop to accept the office “by the apostolic authority of St. Peter”; and he asks bishops to “swear fealty to St. Peter.” So complete is the identification with St. Peter that he speaks of Peter “now living in the flesh.” In defending his deposition of Henry he cites the words of Jesus: “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of Heaven and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in Heaven and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in Heaven” (Matthew 16:18). And then he asks, “Are kings excepted here? Do they not belong to the sheep which the Son of God committed to St. Peter?”
Because Christ had given the rule of the Church to one man, Gregory reasoned that the Church was not a communion of local churches; it was a universal fellowship apostolic in origin and catholic in scope. Peter not only symbolized the unity of the Church, his authority allowed the pope to govern as its head. “God gave the power of binding and loosing in heaven and on earth to St. Peter”—and, Gregory adds, principaliter, as prince. As these ideas began to take root in the consciousness of the bishops and popes who followed him, the Church acted more and more as an independent corporation defined legally and administratively.
There was, however, a price to be paid. By conceiving of the Church in constitutional and juridical terms, albeit for the purposes of liberating the clergy to carry out their spiritual activities, Gregory set in motion ideas that subtly altered the way the Church was understood. In the centuries that followed, as canon lawyers scoured earlier sources to provide a legal basis for papal authority, the Church came to be viewed less as a spiritual fellowship than as a hierarchical and juridical corporation composed of clergy and bishops and pope. Gregory has little to say about the laity in his letters, and his reforms helped create a sense of the clergy as a distinct class united with the pope but separated from the laity, who occupy a lower place.
Yet Gregory’s preoccupation with the constitution of the Church cannot be dismissed simply as an unwelcome inheritance from medieval times that needs, in a more enlightened age, to be displaced by a spiritual conception of the Church. Religion, like culture, does not float free of institutions. Without the discipline of law and the structure of institutional life, our energies are dissipated and our lives impoverished. Whatever else the Church is, it is very much an institution. Nor are institutions simply instrumental. They tutor our affections and lift us beyond ourselves. As Cardinal Newman once remarked, we need objects on which our “holier and more generous feelings may rest. . . . Human nature is not republican.” It is one of the persistent falsehoods of our time that the less institutional the Church, the more spiritual it will be.
Augustine’s metaphor for the Church was a “city,” and one way of reading his great work the City of God is to see it as a defense of the social and even political character of Christianity. Christianity is not a set of ideas, it is a new kind of community. The philosophers, wrote Augustine, had taught that the “happy life is social.” But “we insist on that even more strongly than they.” “How could that City have made its first start, how could it have advanced along its course, how could it attain its appointed goal, if the life of the saints were not social?” What Augustine expressed theologically about the Church, Gregory VII understood juridically and legally. His genius was to discern that this body, this society, this city, required constitutional form. That his legacy, under different circumstances, may have seemed at times to alter in questionable ways the character of the community whose life he sought to order does not diminish the profundity of his insight nor obscure the clarity of his vision.
Robert Louis Wilken is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Virginia.