Friday, September 02, 2022

Answering Objections about Hyperpapalism and Gregory VII

[Aug. 30, 2022] A few days ago, One Peter Five published an essay of mine entitled "Hyperpapalism Under Pope St. Gregory VII." While most feedback on the article was positive, I received some criticisms I'd like to address in a brief follow up. I don't usually respond to criticisms, but I am feeling saucy today.

The gist of the One Peter Five article is two-fold: 

(1) That historically the papal office has grown its authority by means of the gradual expansion of precedent—i.e., those prerogatives claimed by the popes by custom.

(2) While papal precedent has traditionally expanded, there were times when the popes were not successful at growing their precedential powers. A notable example was the pontificate of Gregory VII, who made radical claims about the powers of the papacy during the Investiture Controversy. Though the emperors eventually agreed to give up episcopal investiture with ring and staff, the push-back to Gregory's claims by significant segments of the Church (and state) was substantial enough that succeeding popes withdrew from Gregory's radical agenda, instead opting for a much more moderate version of his program.

I concluded with the observation that if we did not want Francis's actions to become established precedent, then we, too, need to offer "push-back" to the Franciscan program.

Regarding Dictatus papae

Some critiques I received were extremely particular gripes about my interpretation of Gregory's document Dictatus papae, specifically Article 10 ("That his name alone shall be spoken in the churches") and Article 23 ("That the Roman pontiff, if he have been canonically ordained, is undoubtedly made a saint by the merits of St. Peter, St. Ennodius, bishop of Pavia, bearing witness, and many holy fathers agreeing with him. As is contained in the decrees of St. Symmachus the pope.").

In my essay, I reference Article 10 briefly in summary, saying, "Dictatus papae claimed...that his name alone should be said during the liturgy," which is essentially just a paraphrase of the text of Article 10. The critique is that I am interpreting Article 10 too literally; that it does not mean literally that the pope's name is the only name to be said in the liturgy, but the only name to be said universally

I respond: I offered no interpretation of Article 10. I merely paraphrased what it stated as an example of the claims of Pope Gregory VII. I my discussion of Dictatus papae, I linked to a longer essay I wrote on Dictatus papae in 2012. If the critics had read this, they would have found my analysis of Article 10:

Two interesting statements are found in Articles 10 and 11. Article 10 states “[The pope’s] name alone shall be spoken in the churches.” This clearly refers to the practice of including the name of the reigning pontiff during the Roman Canon. This decree perhaps means that the pope’s name alone shall be mentioned universally (versus bishops or secular rulers, who are only mentioned within their respective territories). Eleven is of more interest, for after establishing that only the pope’s name shall be used universally, it goes on to say of the pope “that this is the only name in the world.”

This phrase sounds a little awkward in English and makes no sense on the literal level. The Latin says Quod hoc unicum est nomen in mundo, which can also be rendered “there is only one such name [pope]” or “the title [pope] is only to be used of the Roman pontiff”, which would be a declaration against both the Holy Roman Emperor and the Patriarch of Constantinople, both of whom had tried to usurp the title “Universal” in one way or another. This was already stated in article two, but perhaps it builds on Article 10, which stated that the pope’s name alone shall be spoken in the churches, and that in article eleven this is to be understood as applying universally and exclusively.

I think it is clear that I allow for varying interpretations of Article 10, none of which I argue for in my One Peter Five essay. At any rate, Dictatus papae did not come with any interpretive key, and the original context of its articles has long been lost. This is why it remains such a fascinating document—we know what it literally says, but its meaning is debated.

The second critique concerns Article 23, the strange clause where Gregory argues that a canonically elected pope "is undoubtedly made a saint by the merits of St. Peter." Of this I said that Gregory believed "the pope was de facto a saint by the grace of the Petrine office." The critique here was that, again, I was taking this passage too literally. It was argued that this is just another way of suggesting that the pope's authority comes by virtue of being successor of St. Peter. 

I respond, in my 2012 essay I offer three possible interpretations of this bizarre phrase, which in Latin reads "meritis beati Petri indubitanter efficitur sanctus." In 2012 I was unsure whether Gregory meant efficitur sanctus ("he becomes a saint") in the sense of literal, personal holiness. After studying Gregory's other writings, however, I am convinced this is what he meant indeed. This is corroborated by Gregory's letter to Bishop Hermann of Metz. Penned in 1081, a lengthy treatise penned in defense of Pope Gregory's policies. In this letter, Gregory expands upon the concept of efficitur sanctus. Commenting on the superiority of popes over kings, he says:

If, then, men who fear God come under compulsion with fear and trembling to the Apostolic See where those who are properly ordained become stronger through the merits of the blessed Apostle Peter, with what awe and hesitation should men ascend to the throne of a king where even good and humble men like Saul and David become worse! What we have said above is thus stated in the decrees of the blessed pope Symmachus—though we have learned it through experience: "He, that is, St. Peter, transmitted to his successors an unfailing endowment of merit together with an inheritance of innocence;" and again: "For who can doubt that he is holy who is raised to the height of such an office, in which if he is lacking in virtue acquired by his own merits, that which is handed down from his predecessor is sufficient. For either he [Peter] raises men of distinction to bear this burden or he glorifies them after they are raised up. 

The quote above can be found in “Letter to Hermann of Metz, Registrum, Book VIII, Letter 21, as found in The Correspondence of Pope Gregory VII, translated with an introduction by Ephraim Emerton (W.W. Norton & Company: New York, 1969), pg. 174. 

We know Gregory is speaking of the same concept as Article 23 because both his letter to Hermann and Article 23 reference Pope Symmachus. This passage strongly suggests Gregory does indeed take efficitur sanctus to mean personal holiness. This is evident in several ways:

First, consider the contrast: Gregory contrasts kings who are "made worse" by their office with popes who "become stronger" through the merits of Peter. The references to Saul and David becoming "worse" is clearly a reference to their personal sins. Ergo, for the contrast to make sense, Gregory must be contrasting personal vices with personal virtues. Kingly office makes one "become worse" by temptation to personal vice; the occupant of the Apostolic See will "become stronger" by being supplied with personal virtue through the merits of Peter.

Second, notice that Gregory is speaking of the popes' personal merit. Each successor of Peter receives "an unfailing endowment of merit," but also "an inheritance of innocence." The phrase "inheritance of innocence" is awkward, but I think it is clear that he is referring to a pontiff's personal innocence, which he is provided by virtue of holding the Apostolic See. This is made explicit with his final clause, a striking passage that merits close attention:

For who can doubt that he is holy who is raised to the height of such an office, in which if he is lacking in virtue acquired by his own merits, that which is handed down from his predecessor is sufficient. For either he [Peter] raises men of distinction to bear this burden or he glorifies them after they are raised up.

Again, he says that "he is holy" by virtue of being raised to the Apostolic See. This is understood in such a sense that even if the pope lacks this virtue in a personal sense, it is provided for through the office, a Petrine "inheritance" that "glorifies" the pope after his canonical election.

This all suggests that Gregory believed that one who ascends to the papacy is possessed of a kind of "supplied holiness" by the merits of St. Peter. This sanctity is described with the words "holy," "endowment of merit," "inheritance of innocence," "virtue," and "glorifies," all of which are used in a personal sense. This letter provides the context for Dictatus papae Article 23, and anyone suggesting Gregory does not mean this must offer a better interpretation of this passage. At any rate, I do not think I am amiss for taking the obvious interpretation, and I cited this passage as support in my One Peter Five essay.

I will grant that it is an admittedly obscure text and concept; but if it is so, it is precisely because it was not reaffirmed by successive popes, which was the point I was trying to establish by citing it to begin with.

Supporting Heretics

One critique I predicted when I wrote the essay is that the argument "supports heretics" by citing the enemies of Pope St. Gregory VII to establish a point. After all, these opponents of Gregory were arguing in favor of Emperor Henry IV, a repeat excommunicate. And they supported a practice (lay investiture) that was ultimately condemned by the Church. What sort of pathetic point must I be trying to make if I am enlisting these chaps in my corner?

The citation of men like Gerard of York, Hugh of Fleury, St. Ivo of Chartres, Wido of Osnabrück, et al is not meant to be taken as an endorsement of their ideas. I am not concerned with the content of their protest but the mere fact of their protest. As I stated in the One Peter Five essay:

These examples are not cited to argue that the positions of the pope’s opponents were correct. Many of them had their own problems...This is all irrelevant; the point is simply that there was significant, sustained opposition from the European episcopate.

Those who opposed Gregory VII did so for many reasons: some were political hacks just doing what Emperor Henry IV wanted them to do, some agreed in principle to Gregory's reforms but opposed the pace at which he sought to implement them; others affirmed Gregory's crusade against simony but opposed his ideas about lay investiture; some agreed that laymen should not dominate the Church but denied that kings and emperors were laymen; others believed that Gregory had valid points but that custom should take precedence; some denied the theoretical powers Gregory claimed; others affirmed Gregory's claims of spiritual authority but denied his aspirations to temporal supremacy; some, like St. Ivo of Chartres, were saintly men whose opposition was motivated by a sincere zeal for the good of the Church; others were just hoping to maintain their ill-gotten benefices obtained through bribery. The point is, we do ourselves much harm when we segregate historical characters into good guys and bad guys, especially within the Church. There is usually a diversity of motivations that need to be studied to truly understand the times. 

It is not "supporting heretics" to observe the phenomenon of broad opposition to Pope Gregory's ideas. I am not defending any specific rationale for their opposition, merely noting that Gregory's teaching provoked opposition and was considered radical. This is the common consensus of historians on this period. In the essay I cite medievalist Norman F. Cantor who, speaking of the ideals enshrined in Dictatus papae, said, “Dictatus papae was a sensational and extremely radical document, and it is inconceivable to think that Hildebrand [Gregory VII] was so naïve as to not realize that it would make that impression.” Gregory's document was radical and was perceived as such, most likely by the pope himself as well.

Ultimately, viewing Church history merely a series of villains and heroes isn't helpful if we want to truly understand the history. People are not dramatic foils, and even if one side was wrong on one point does not mean they were wrong on all points, nor that the "good guys" did not have their own problems. Not every historical observation is made to score a point for a side. 

"Scraping the Bottom of the Barrel"

Finally, my favorite: a critique of the overall thrust of the article, suggesting that I am pathetically scraping the bottom of the barrel by "going all the way back" to Gregory VII to find ammunition to attack contemporary Ultramontanism. This critique is annoying for two reasons:

My article is not a polemic against contemporary Ultramontanism. It is a historical observation about the ebb and flow of papal power in previous ages and how that may apply to current discussions about papal authority. It may have import in the current discussions about hyperpapalism, but that is secondary.

Furthermore, the charge of "going all the way back" to Gregory VII is confusing to me. As Catholics, "going all the way back" is what we do. The pontificate of Gregory VII was pivotal in the history of the Church, marking the turning point between two differing conceptions of ecclesiastical power that had characterized the first and second millennia of Christendom. This period was not inconsequential, and the implication that our history has less relevance the further back we go is not a Catholic approach. Ridiculing an argument because its source material is "old" is a tactic that has been used before, but not by serious Catholic scholars.

* * * * *  

I could say more but I think this is sufficient. Hopefully these concepts have provoked further discussion on these important matters we are all trying to understand.

[1] Norman Cantor, Medieval History, 2nd ed. (Toronto: MacMillan Co., 1971), 286


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The head of the Coptic Church is also referred to as Pope and has been since before the Bishop of Rome took that particular name. St. Heraclas of Alexandria can rightly be called Pope even though, and not to say was the same as the Bishop of Rome. St. Heraclas even helped pick the Bishop of Rome. "I received this rule and ordinance (Bishop of Rome) from our blessed Pope, Heraclas." -St. Dionysius. The term Pope actually started in the East not the West.