Papal Reformation and the Great Schism: I
Fr. John Strickland · March 7, 2014
Fr. John discusses the spiritual decline of the Church in the West and the attempt to reform this degradation.
It was the year 1053, and the pope of Rome was a prisoner of war. Leo IX, the most active and energetic and ambitious and self-confident pope in nearly two centuries, was languishing in prison exactly at the time when Western Christendom needed him most. In the middle of the eleventh century, Western Christendom was in great need of reform, of reformation, reformatio in Latin. For many in the West, the past two centuries had brought about the degradation of Western Christendom, this due in part to the impact of the Viking invasions which had begun in the ninth century, and the simultaneous dissolution of the Carolingian empire, the empire of Charlemagne.
Everywhere throughout Western Christendom, there were problems in Church life. For instance, the laity in the form of the nobility were in many places in control of the monasteries and parish churches, a condition called by German historians the Eigenkirche, the proprietary church under the control of local nobility. An expression of despair in the face of this lay control of monasteries and parish churches was given by a group of bishops early in the tenth century, the 900s, in the following statement:
The cities are depopulated (they wrote), the monasteries ruined and burned. The land is reduced to a solitude. As the first men lived without law or constraint, abandoned to their passions, so now every man does what pleases him, despising the laws of God and man and the ordinances of the Church. The powerful oppress the weak, the land is full of violence against the poor and the plunder of the goods of the Church. Men devour one another like the fishes in the sea. In the case of the monasteries, some have been destroyed by the heathen; others have been deprived of their property and reduced to nothing. In those that remain, there is no longer any observance of the rule. They no longer have legitimate superiors, owing to the abuse of submitting to secular domination. We see in the monasteries lay abbots with their wives and their children, their soldiers, and their dogs.
This is a statement by bishops in the West in the early tenth century, but in addition to lay control of monasteries and parish churches, there was also a phenomenon called simony, after Simon Magus in the book of the apostles, who seeks a church appointment in order to make money. What this meant in the vocabulary of the eleventh century was the practice of buying clerical office, often by noblemen, in order to make money. They would pay for a given office, expecting a return through their clerical office, usually as a bishop or an abbot.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, there was a phenomenon called lay investiture. What this was was the control over the appointment of bishops by the ruler, especially the Holy Roman Emperor. Lay investiture: the emperor would control what bishops would serve in what diocese, according, usually, to his own political interests and needs. The result was to take the appointment of bishops out of the hands of fellow bishops and even out of the hands of the laity who, according to the canons of traditional Christianity, were supposed to participate in the election of bishops.
Another example of spiritual degradation in the West, at least one perceived by contemporaries, was what was something called Nicolaitanism. Nicolaitanism was the practice of Western clergy, especially parish priests, of keeping a wife or a concubine. From the earliest times, traditional Christianity had supported a married priesthood. Even Peter himself was said, in the book of the Acts of the Apostles, to have a wife; his mother-in-law is referenced there. But in the West, at a relatively early date—the early fourth century—there began to be a record of an effort to establish a celibate standard for priests.
In the 33rd canon of the Council of Elvira, which was a local Western council in about the year 305 or so—we don’t really know exactly when it took place, but about that time—there was a ban on priests who were already married—clearly most priests, or many of them, were married when they were ordained—there was a ban on them continuing to have conjugal relations with their wives after their ordination. In other words, if a priest was to be married, he was to be celibate in his marriage.
This presented, as can be imagined, all sorts of burdens on the priesthood in the West, a problem that was identified by Pope Gregory the Great in the sixth century. Gregory the Great warned against ordaining men who were already married to the priesthood if they were expected to live by a rule of celibacy within that marriage, and therefore at about this time there began to be an effort to assure that no married priests existed in the West, that all men would live by a celibate standard of life.
But by all accounts there continued to be a mixture: some celibate, some non-celibate, of the priests serving in the West, especially in the countryside. All of this is striking from an Orthodox point of view, obviously, for in the Eastern tradition a married priesthood was always the norm, and furthermore one in which the priest was expected, assumed, to be living in a non-celibate relationship with his wife. As a matter of fact, the Council in Trullo, from the seventh century, contained a canon, canon 13 of that council, which emphatically defended the existence of a married priesthood, one in which the priests were not required or obligated to be celibate at all times.
So in a variety of ways, the Western Church was perceived by contemporaries to have gone into decline, spiritual decline, and there was no one to rescue it. Even the papacy itself was in paralysis during these centuries. In Rome, the aristocracy, the local aristocracy, had long controlled papal elections, since the time of the vigorous Pope Nicholas I, who in his controversy with Patriarch Photios of Constantinople caused the Nicolaitan schism, about which I spoke in an earlier episode. Since the time of Nicholas I in the middle of the ninth century, the papacy had largely fallen into spiritual obscurity under the shadow of Roman politics.
The most notorious example of the degradation brought to the papacy by these economic and political forces in Rome was the case of Pope John XII, who reigned from 955 to 964. Elected pope at the ripe old age of 18 years old, he was the product of Roman power politics. It was his father, a Roman magnate, who had assured with his political and economic influence that his son would be elected pope. John had scarcely assumed papal throne when his reputation became tarnished by all sorts of allegations of sexual immorality. In fact, according to many accounts of the time, he died in the act of an adulterous relationship with the wife of a Roman magnate.
Things didn’t get better after that. In the early eleventh century, a series of popes were elected on the basis of nothing more than that they came from an important part of Italy, Tusculum, and they were the counts of that region. So these counts from Tusculum who one after another managed to be elected pope, became known as the Tusculan popes, who dominated the entire first half of the eleventh century all the way until 1048.
So to summarize, the Western Church was facing huge difficulties in the middle of the eleventh century. Lay control of monasteries, monetary acquisition of clerical office known as simony, royal control of episcopal appointments known as lay investiture, deviation by the clergy from Western canons about morality especially those regarding marriage, and finally the papacy itself in a condition of paralysis. For some, there was only one response to make to this situation, and that was contained in the Latin word reformatio. Reformatio, reformation.
The term “reformatio” had been used by Latin Fathers of the early Church and always with emphasis on restoration rather than innovation in Church life. An effort to restore that which is pure and which finds expression in the earliest records of Christianity, dating back to the time of the apostles, and not innovation: changes to the faith. The emphasis was on traditional Christianity, the Tradition of the Church. And this tendency to reform the Church, to seek a reformation of it from time to time, had gained momentum during the reign of Charlemagne who, as listeners will remember, enacted a policy of correction, or in the Latin, “correctio,” during his reign, to assure that Church life would reform itself to a correct rather than incorrect pattern.
But perhaps the most powerful resource that would-be reformers of Western Christendom in the middle of the eleventh century might draw upon would be the legacy of St. Augustine. In his famous book, The City of God, which almost every leading theologian of the Western Church was familiar with over the course of centuries in the West, Augustine had put forward a vision of a sort of social dualism within the Church. For Augustine, Christendom was inevitably entangled by what he called the city of man, the earthly city, and therefore it was corrupted by that primeval force of evil in the history of man, and that was concupiscence, an inordinate love for that which is not God himself. But Augustine had said in The City of God that the city of God itself has a power to inspire and dynamically to transform the city of man.
Here I can quote one of the most impressive historians of Western Christendom, Christopher Dawson. I discussed him briefly in the introduction to this podcast, which I realized this week was launched just about a year ago now, and I’m just now getting to the Great Schism, but such is the experience of telling the history of such a vast and fascinating civilization as Christendom. Well, Christopher Dawson wrote a lot. He was a graphomaniac; he just wrote and wrote and wrote his whole life—a really amazing scholar—on a lot of things, but especially on the history of Christendom. Some of his essays were collected in a very nice little book—a rather big book, actually: it’s about 500 pages long—called The Dynamics of World History.
It’s got a lot of stuff in it, but among them are essays, articles, on history, on the study of history and especially the Christian study of history. Dawson can be called—one of his biographers recently called him an Augustinian when it came to his study of history, especially the history of the Church in the West. In one of those articles, entitled, “The Christian View of History,” Dawson argued that Augustine’s thought in The City of God, when drawn upon by Church leaders, became a kind of resource of reform. It possessed a kind of dynamic power insofar as it understood the city of God, as it were, standing transcendently over this world and offering it inspiration to transform it spiritually. So let me quote here, Dawson, from that essay.
This view of history (he wrote) found its classical expression in St. Augustine’s work, On the City of God, which interprets the course of universal history as an unceasing conflict between two dynamic principles embodied in two societies and social orders: the city of man and the city of God, Babylon and Jerusalem, which run their course side by side, intermingling with one another and sharing the same temporal goods and the same temporal evils, but separated from one another by an infinite spiritual gulf.
So for Dawson, Augustine’s theology of history, found within the city of God, offered an understanding of the cosmos and the place of Christendom within it as one in which there were two societies, two orders: the city of God and the city of man, and they were in conflict with one another, and through this conflict, the city of God could transform, could inspire and transform the city of man, raising it to higher and higher and more spiritual levels.
This is something that was inherited by the would-be reformers of eleventh-century Western Christendom, and those reformers were not slow to appear. As early as the tenth century, a new movement within monasticism in the West began to appear, and it was a movement specifically for reformation, a movement we can call a monastic reformation. It was inspired by the legacy of the Western Frankish monastic reformer, Benedict of Aniane, who died in 821 and who played an important role in the rise of Frankish Christendom. But it was centered in the monastery known as Cluny, which is located in modern France, a part of Burgundy.
At Cluny, a new form of monastic life appeared in the early tenth century. The monastery was placed when it was founded under the direct administration of the pope in Rome, according to the monastery’s charter of 910, and this precluded any noble domination of it of the kind that was described earlier in that document lamenting the noble and lay control of monasteries in the tenth century. Furthermore, Cluny attracted some very visionary and ambitious reforming abbots. One of these was named Odo, who was abbot there from 927 to 942, and Abbot Odo wrote works of moral exhortation that drew upon the Augustinian inheritance of Western Christendom and the social dualism that I described earlier. Let me quote here, again, Christopher Dawson, but this time from another work, a book called, Religion and the Rise of Western Culture, about the Augustinian influence and inspiration of the monastic reformation at Cluny, led by Abbot Odo.
No doubt the monk was concerned primarily during this time with the salvation of his own soul rather than with any program of ecclesiastical reform. (These are Dawson’s words.) But Western monasticism always possessed a strong consciousness of its social responsibility and its missionary functions.
Perhaps at another time I can bring attention to Dawson’s fascinating distinction between what he considers Eastern monasticism and Western monasticism, the latter for him being much more dynamic in its relationship with surrounding society historically. Dawson continues here:
If on the one hand it was based on the tradition of the Fathers of the desert (he’s talking about Western monasticism here), it was inspired still more by the ideals of St. Augustine and St. Gregory (the pope of Rome). The Augustinian theology and philosophy of history, with their intense realization of the burden of inherited evil under which the human race labored and their conception of divine grace as a continually renewed source of supernatural energy which transformed human nature and changes the course of history—all this had become part of the spiritual patrimony of the Western Church and above all of Western monasticism, and Christendom had only to return to this tradition to recover its dynamic energy.
Thus, although the efforts of the reformers of the tenth century were primarily devoted to the cause of monastic reform, they involved far wider issues. These men were not mere self-centered ascetics, but prophets of righteousness who defended the weak and the oppressed and spoke boldly against evil in high places. We see this above all in the writings of St. Odo, the second abbot of Cluny who was one of the greatest of the early leaders in the reforming movement. His chief work is based on the Augustinian conception of the two cities, or rather of the two races: the children of Abel and the children of Cain, whose warfare must endure to the end of time. But while St. Augustine conceives this opposition primarily as a conflict between the Christian Church and the heathen world (after all, Augustine had been writing in the early fifth century, before the whole conversion of the empire had been accomplished), St. Odo was concerned above all with the forces of evil that flourish within the Church.
So for Odo of Cluny and other monastic reformers like him, inspired by Augustine’s City of God, the Church was facing a struggle against worldly, material, and sinful forces that could be overcome only through divine grace, only through contact with and the experience of the city of God, the transcendent city of God. And it can be said that this Augustinian inheritance of Western Christendom ranks—at least I would say it does—as the most theologically sophisticated expression of traditional Christianity’s transformational imperative. I spoke about this transformational imperative in the first episodes of the podcast, when traditional Christianity as a subculture was confronting the surrounding pagan world in the first centuries of the Church.
But in the case of Augustine, so different really than the case of Eusebius and other theologians of the Eastern Church, who saw through a principle that I called heavenly immanence, the manifestation of the kingdom of heaven in the existing, worldly order in a variety of ways, but especially in the experience of the statecraft, the Christian statecraft of Byzantium—well, so different from that is Augustine’s conception of a struggle even, in Dawson’s words, of a warfare that takes place between these two cities, these two forces within this world, within Christendom itself.
So armed with this conception, both of Christendom and of its place historically over time with the potential to be changed and transformed spiritually, monastic reformers like Odo developed a growing optimism, at least ambition, in confronting the degraded state of the Church of their time. Many of these reformers came from Cluny or one of its many daughter-houses that were established over the course of the tenth and eleventh centuries.
As a matter of fact, by the end of the eleventh century, there were hundreds of monasteries planted by Cluny, and all of them incorporated within a very centralized and hierarchical network that traced its way back to the very abbot of Cluny himself, who represented a kind of monarch over the entire network of the Cluny monasteries. Some have even spoken about a Cluny empire throughout Western Europe, where all the lands of Western Europe, more or less, were penetrated by Cluny monasteries who themselves, living within Western Christendom, had a very separate identity from it, tracing their authority structure back to the abbot of Cluny himself, all of this offering a model to the papacy later on in its monarchical sense of supreme authority over Western Christendom, but we’ll talk about that development a little bit later.
For the time being, let me bring attention to one other leader of the monastic reformation of the eleventh century, and that’s Peter Damian. He was actually an Italian monk. He lived at a monastery called Fonte Avellana in northern Italy. He had come from Ravenna where he had early in his life been a teacher of rhetoric, and then he kind of repented of this worldly practice, of this worldly experience, quite successful at rhetoric, actually. As one reads his writings, they’re just incredibly powerful to read. Well, he entered a monastery, and he became a real proponent of a return to hermetic monasticism, monasticism emphasizing the individual experience of ascetical struggle. He was inspired by the Desert Fathers, for instance, of the early Church, very much in contrast with the Benedictine legacy in Western Christendom, which had emphasized the community experience of monastic life, as well as the monastic life described by St. Basil the Great in the East.
He introduced, Peter did, very severe standards of ascetical life, and propagated them, advanced them, promoted them, not only in his own monastery where he was abbot, but in other monasteries throughout the West. Among his practices were very strict fasting, fasting throughout the week, bread and water only on certain days of the week, fasting even during the Pentecost season, fasting, fasting at a level that was really uncommon in the typical monastic life of the West, certainly that following the Benedictine tradition which dominated there. So much so, actually, that when he came to Cluny itself one day and advised, I think, without being asked to, the abbot there, Abbot Hugh at that time—his name was Hugh—[Peter Damian] advised him to introduce stricter standards of fasting for his monks at Cluny, Abbot Hugh kind of reprimanded him and told him to mind his own business and asked him how can he possibly know what’s best for the monks at Cluny without having actually experienced life there and just stepping in from his own monastic background and proposing that that be adopted by another monastery.
So he sometimes ran into trouble because of his severity and intensity, and that severity and intensity really comes out in the writings that he produced. He produced a lot, all of them advancing monastic reform, and not just reform of monasteries, but the monk being the reformer of Christendom itself. Peter took it on himself to travel to different parts of Western Christendom and to confront what he considered to be the degraded state of Church life there.
For him, one of the most important problems was what I called earlier Nicolaitanism, that is, the practice of priests being married. Now in the East, of course, this was, and still is, the common practice. Most parish priests have a wife with whom they have a normal, conjugal relationship and with whom, if God blesses them, they produce children. For Peter, the severe monastic that he was, this was outrageous. This was nothing short of outrageous, an abomination before God, because in his Western context the practice of a married priesthood had been challenged for so many centuries. But the fact was, it was still being practiced in his time.
So on one particular case he came to a community in which the priests were largely married, and he confronted them. He kind of shook them up by proposing that they leave their wives, and their wives their husbands. What is interesting is that he actually addressed in a very eloquent—obnoxious from an Orthodox point of view, for sure, but in a very eloquent and powerful way, rhetorically speaking—he addressed the clergy wives, what we call in the Orthodox Church today the [presvyteres], the matushki, and the khouriyes, and so forth, the popadije. This is what he had to say to the married priests of the eleventh century West, writing to them.
And now, let me speak to you, you charmers of clerics, tasty tidbits of the devil, expulsion from paradise, venom of the mind, sword that kills souls, poison in the drink, toxin in the food, source of sinning, and occasion of damnation. I am talking to you, you female branch of the ancient enemy, hoopoes, screech-owls, night-hawks, she-wolves, leeches, nymphs, sirens, witches, vile tigresses whose cruel jaws can be sated only on human blood, harpies flying about the sacrifice of the Lord to snatch those who are offered to God and cruelly devour them, lionesses, sirens, furious vipers who by the ardor of your impatient lust dismember your lovers by cutting them off from Christ who is the head of the clergy.
So very, very powerful words by Peter Damian who, by the way, is a canonized Roman Catholic saint. Very powerful words against the wives of clergy in his program to reform Western Christendom from his monastic point of view.
Well, it wasn’t just monks who undertook the reformation of Western Christendom in the middle of the eleventh century. It was also, interestingly, the imperial authorities themselves, specifically the person of the emperor. And we can speak also of an imperial reformation, reformatio, that was underway in the early eleventh century. The Holy Roman Empire, as we traced its development from the time after the dissolution of Charlemagne’s empire through the actions of Otto the Great and then culminating by the end of the tenth century, the 900s, in the Emperor Otto III, whose vision of a Western empire had been inspired by Byzantium itself.
In fact, I called Otto III’s Holy Roman Empire a kind of New Byzantium insofar as it clearly was modeled upon the Byzantine state. Otto III was, after all, the son of a Byzantine empress, and because it was modeled on the Byzantine state, there was the principle of symphony at work, namely, that the emperor would take it upon himself to advance the interests of the Church, the Church leadership, working closely with and harmoniously with the bishops of the Church for the benefit of the Church. Symphony, a principle I described in an earlier episode on the rise of Christian statecraft in Byzantium, in part one of this podcast.
Well, Otto III had a very illustrious successor in the person of Emperor Henry II, who reigned from 1014 to 1024. Henry II lived his life in celibacy with his wife Cunigunde and therefore earned the reputation of being a very pious emperor, and it was partly for this reason that he was actually canonized a saint. He’s a Roman Catholic saint as well, Henry II, Emperor Henry II. He is noteworthy for having renewed the papal alliance that had been forged between, at its earliest stage Pope Stephen II and the Frankish King Pepin, and then, more dramatically demonstrated in the crowning on Christmas Day in the year 800 of Charlemagne by Pope Leo III.
Henry II likewise was crowned in St. Peter’s Basilica by the pope, but what’s significant is that, because of his influence in Church life, even with the pope himself, Henry II was able, finally, after a couple of centuries of struggle, finally able to achieve that long-term Frankish and German goal of having the pope in Rome adopt formally the filioque in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. That happened in 1014 at Henry II’s coronation. Henry II also distinguished himself in the leadership and reform of the Church by convening a reforming synod at Rome in that year, where he demanded clerical celibacy and an end to simony.
Henry II had left an important legacy that was taken up, fulfilled, in the person of Henry III, Emperor Henry III, who plays a very important and direct role in what we’re discussing in this episode, namely, the papal reformation and the Great Schism. Henry III reigned from 1039 to 1056. He had a very pious character, like Henry II. In fact, he married a descendant of the very founder of the monastery of Cluny, the founder having been William of Aquitaine, Duke of Aquitaine, in the early tenth century, while by the middle of the eleventh century a descendant of William was chosen as the wife of Henry III. And Henry III maintained a very close relationship with this monastic center of reformation.
Henry III practiced a very strict asceticism that earned the approval of monastic reformers like Peter Damian. He also had the practice of wearing monastic garments. He also, interestingly, discontinued, suspended to some degree, the imperial policy of using bishops for administration, a sign that he was willing to consider, at least to some degree, the demands being made for an end to lay investiture. He defended the practice of establishing independent ecclesiastical courts, and he campaigned vigorously against clerical simony, the sale of Church offices. It was actually this very issue which led him to convene a council at Sutri in 1046.
In 1046, the pious Emperor Henry III convened a synod of bishops in Sutri to address what he considered to be one of the chief problems of the degraded Christianity of Western Christendom: the paralyzed papacy. A recent pope had been accused of simony, so at Sutri Henry intervened and deposed three contending popes and established an imperial right of electing popes. So with this right he now was able to intervene in papal affairs and assure that popes of higher caliber could be elected free of the influence of local Roman magnates. This provided a definitive solution to the problem of the paralyzed papacy. Now the papacy would be liberated and freed to begin leading the reformation itself. Henry elected no fewer than four popes of Rome in sequence: Clement II, Damasus II, Leo IX with whom I’m mainly interested in this episode, and after Leo IX Victor II. The election of these popes played a very important role in the coming papal reformation. Let me quote again Christopher Dawson in his book, Religion and the Rise of Western Culture.
The action of Henry III (he writes) had a far-reaching effect on the course of the reforming movement. At first sight it might seem that it would reduce the papacy to complete dependence on the imperial power, for the three popes whom he nominated in rapid succession—Clement II, Damasus II, and Leo IX—were loyal prelates of the empire from Germany and Lorraine, who had no Italian connections and were consequently forced to rely on the material support of the emperor. Nevertheless, the mere fact that the papacy was taken out of the control of the Roman nobles and their factions and brought into intimate relations with northern and central Europe, where the monastic reformation was occurring, had an immediate effect on its international influence.
The most important of these popes, by far, was Leo IX, and what an ironic thing, really, that Leo IX, who had launched nothing short of a papal reformation, would be chosen by Henry III, because it was the successors to Leo IX, in the later eleventh century, that would become the archenemies of Henry III’s very successor and son, Henry IV, in an epic conflict known as the Investiture Controversy. But for the time being, Leo IX was now Pope of Rome, and set about to reform not only the papacy but all of Western Christendom, and not only all of Western Christendom, but the entire universal Church herself.
Join me next time when we explore the papacy of Leo IX and the reasons why, by 1053, just four years into the most energetic and ambitious and self-confident pontificate in two centuries, Leo found himself a prisoner of war.