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Hyperpapalism Under Pope St. Gregory VII (1015-1085)

Above: Canossa, Italy, where Emperor Henry IV did penance before Pope Gregory VII. Public Domain.

From Hypothetical Speculation to Fearful Reality

In light of the unprecedented centralization of authority under the Francis pontificate, discussions on the extent of papal power take on a fresh urgency. The question is not so much on the pope’s doctrinal authority as on the breadth of his disciplinary power. The novelties of the Francis pontificate have seemingly placed every Catholic discipline on the table. Could the pope, for example, dispense the entire Church from the Lenten fast? Could he add a clause to the Our Father? Or change the liturgical colors of the seasons? Questions of these sorts used to be academic thought exercises for manualists, hypotheticals discussed by scholastic specialists; now they are frighteningly relevant scenarios as the entire Church huddles in trepidation, waiting to see what our pope feels the God of Surprises wants to foist upon the Church from day to day.

There have been some excellent traditional responses to the dilemma of “hyperpapalism.” I would like especially to cite Dr. Peter Kwasniewski’s two volume set The Road from Hyperpapalism to Catholicism from Arouca Press, as well as the lecture “The Pope’s Boundedness to Tradition as a Legislative Limit,” by the same author. Mention also must be made of Dr. John Joy’s excellent series on this website addressing disputed questions on papal infallibility. These, and similar works of this nature, are of great utility in fleshing out the theoretical limits of papal authority.

Historical Precedents

In the realm of history, however, the problem has always been more muddled. Of course, the institution of the papacy came with no written constitution of clearly enumerated powers; Christ gave no dogmatic handbook when He handed St. Peter the keys of the kingdom. How, then, did the papacy delineate the scope of its actions?

Historically, papal power grew from implied authorityconcretized in particular historical circumstances that established precedents. The popes preferred precedent rather than theory to define the contours of their authority. That is to say, when the popes wanted to justify their authority at various junctures, their preferred approach was not an appeal to arguments dogmatic or theological (beyond the common Scriptural citations), but rather to examples historical, essentially saying, “I can do such-and-such because here’s some concrete examples of my predecessors doing the same thing.” When King Henry VIII made the theological objection that the pope could not dispense a man to marry his brother’s widow, one of the weightiest rebuttals of Queen Catherine’s defenders, such as St. John Fisher,  was to simply point out historical examples where prior popes had done just that.[1] When papal prerogatives were challenged, we could say that precedent took precedence.

But precedent also allowed room for development. Popes have traditionally pushed the boundaries, using one inherited precedent to build upon another in the expansion of authority. An excellent example is the case of the pallium, the woolen garment bestowed by the pope upon a metropolitan archbishop. The pallium was originally a sign of honor given by a pope to a newly consecrated archbishop. But over time it came to represent the archepiscopal office itself, and then finally to confer the archepiscopal office, such that an archbishop was not considered installed until he received the pallium from the pope. This fascinating development is well documented in Fr. Steven Schoenig’s book, Bonds of Wool: The Pallium and Papal Power in the Middle Ages (Catholic University of America, 2016).

The primacy of precedent in the development of papal authority simply means that the strongest argument that the popes can do something is the fact they have done something.

Thus, like the old Roman god Janus, the papacy looks backward and forward in wielding power: it looks backward to precedent to find stable footing for its current actions, and it looks forward by pushing its inherited precedential boundaries, thus expanding the scope of action for future popes.

Now it is critical to note here an important caveat: the growth in papal power, contra the claims of the Greek schismatics, was in large part to counter the ecclesiastical assertions of the eastern and (later) western Roman emperors promoting heresy or else caesaropapism, making the bishops into government bureaucrats. Each individual precedent must be evaluated separately according to its historical circumstances. As a result, Catholic history smiles upon the courage of Pope St. Gregory VII and Innocent III in growing papal power, even as it frowns upon the unjust excommunications decreed by Martin IV and Boniface VIII. But even this summarization is much too simplistic, as we’ll see presently.

Resistance to Precedents: St. Gregory VII

How does this bode for traditionalists seeking to push back against the brute force of papal absolutism? Where does it leave us in the face of a pope determined to wield his authority to impose every manner of crude novelty on the Church?

Precedent is a two-sided coin. On the one hand, the tremendous danger is obvious. If the Church meekly accepts the expansion of authority accomplished under Francis, then this will create a precedent for future popes to claim these powers as part of the legislative patrimony of the Petrine office. It leaves the door open for future pontificates to reorder every facet of Catholic life according to whatever fads are popular at the time. In short, as awful as it is that Pope Francis should presume to outlaw the traditional Roman rite, subvert religious orders’ autonomy, or sack bishops like they are corporate middle managers, the long-term threat is that such deeds enter the stream of papal precedent—that a kind of historical consensus sprouts up that these are actions proper to papal governance itself.

But now, the other side of the coin: though papal power has grown by appeal to precedent, there have been occasions where papal overreach has failed to become precedent by stiff resistance. Let us  consider one of the examples from above to demonstrate the complexity of the historical precedents. Pope St. Gregory VII (1073-1085) is rightly praised for his courage against the western temporal powers. We rightly praise the Gregorian Reform as the Church’s pushback against the abuse of lay investiture and the tyranny of the Holy Roman Emperors over the papacy.

However, what we often forget is that the reforms of Gregory VII were not simply meant to free the Church from lay tyranny; Gregory’s philosophy envisioned an inversion of the entire relationship between the spiritual (clerical) and temporal (lay) powers within Christendom,, substituting imperial dominance of the Church with clerical dominance of the empire.[2]

In pursuit of this, Gregory promoted ideas that even the most ardent hyperpapalists today would shrink from. We need only look at the Gregorian document Dictatus papae (1075) which claimed, among other things, that the pope was de facto a saint by the grace of the Petrine office, that he had the right to use the imperial insignia, that he possessed unilateral authority to depose any bishop, to divide or combine dioceses at will, and that his name alone should be said during the liturgy.[3] A follow up to Dictatus papae was Propriae auctoritates apostolicae sedis. Issued sometime prior to 1085, this document argued that even if the pope apostatized and renounced the Christian faith entirely, he would not be liable to any judgment.

Gregory certainly had his supporters, but his initiatives were not universally embraced; some were resisted vigorously, not only by the Holy Roman Emperor, but by a broad coalition of bishops—especially those of northern Europe—who pushed back against the novelties they felt that Gregory was imposing on the Church.[4] Among such, he  had the reputation of being a radical ideologue, pushing impracticable ideals that were guaranteed to sow confusion and chaos.[5] The eminent Bishop Ivo of Chartres protested that the pre-Gregorian social arrangement had broad support from clergy and laity alike, and was not contrary to canon law. Custom, he argued, ought to prevail over the radical agenda of the pope. If the pope and his supporters wanted reform, Ivo argued they should be content with incremental changes over time. Rome, irked by his moderate but persistent criticism, told him to keep silent. Today, Ivo is venerated as a saint; his feast day is on May 23.[6]

Another powerful opponent of the pope was the prominent Cluniac, Hugh of Fleury. Hugh wrote a treatise against the pope’s pretensions to temporal authority, arguing that the pope was injuriously disrupting the right ordering of society.[7] Cluny was at the time the most prestigious monastery in Christendom; the opposition of a man of the caliber of Hugh held considerable weight.

Of course, most German bishops opposed Gregory as well, usually from fidelity to the Holy Roman Emperor, but in some cases from genuine theological opposition to the pope’s claims.[8] But it was not only the Germans who opposed the pope: the episcopate of Lombardy resisted the pope en masse an incurred excommunication for their obstinacy. In faraway England, Gerard, Archbishop of York and chancellor of England, published a tract bitterly contesting Gregory’s claims to temporal supremacy.[9] Gerard’s tract was so polemical he published it anonymously so his name would not be associated with it.

These examples are not cited to argue that the positions of the pope’s opponents were correct. Many of them had their own problems (like Gerard’s assertion that kings were not lay people), and their hostility to Pope Gregory was seldom motivated by pure doctrinal considerations, often being mixed up with political considerations. And not a few of them ended up on the wrong side of the argument on the question of the Church’s independence from lay control. This is all irrelevant; the point is simply that there was significant, sustained opposition from the European episcopate.

In the end, Gregory’s pontificate was  a mixed bag. He was thankfully successful in getting the emperors to renounce the right to invest bishops with ring and staff; he also undertook a very salutary reform of the sacrament of penance and may have died in odium fidei. The Church rightly venerates him as a saintly pope.

But many of his other initiatives were abandoned by future pontiffs. His successors Clement III, Urban II, and Paschal II prudently stepped back from Gregory’s more outlandish propositions, having little desire to revisit the chaos of Gregory’s pontificate. We can see this, for example, in Alexander III’s prudently diplomatic approach to the dispute between St. Thomas Becket and Henry II of England, in which he preferred negotiated settlements rather than risk an open breach with the powerful Angevin king. As for the teachings of Gregory’s pontificate, neither Dictatus papae nor Propriae auctoritates passed into papal precedent. The documents do not appear in Denzinger, nor are they cited as dogmatic or canonical sources in Vatican I’s teaching on papal infallibility.[10] The Church simply abandoned the documents and the ideology they represented.

The Critical Juncture: Resistance Now

My apologies if this historical detour seems tedious, but it is highly relevant. The take away is this: while theologians continue to delineate the theoretical limits of papal power—and I think Dr. Kwasniewski’s argument on the legislative limit posed by tradition is the correct answer—it is of utmost importance to make our opposition known to these actions now, before this becomes history. But more importantly, it is urgent that theologians and bishops voice their protest. If the global episcopate, for example, does not protest the pope’s arbitrary firing of Bishop Daniel Torres of Puerto Rico, it will become precedent that this, too, is within the scope of papal power.

In the 11th century, the popes who followed Gregory VII stepped back from his platform because the late pontiff’s measures had riled up too much opposition from bishops, theologians, and emperors, causing chaos throughout the Church. Our current pope has stated that he welcomes disorder. “Hagan lio!” he proclaimed in 2013. “Make a mess!” If we don’t want these novelties to become precedent, the best thing we can do at this point is stir up our own lio—respectfully, reasonably, but vigorously.


[1] See J.J. Scarisbrick, Henry VIII (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1970), 177-178. Popes Martin V, Alexander VI, Leo X, and even Clement VII himself had done the same on other occasions.

[2] See Jacques LeGoff, Medieval Civilization, trans. Julia Barrow (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1999), 96-97; 271: “This is an essential aspect of the Gregorian Reform—it proclaimed itself to be the head of the lay as well as of the religious hierarchy.”

[3] The holiness of the pope by virtue of the Petrine office is also reaffirmed in Gregory VII’s, “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), 166-175.

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

[5] Medievalist Norman F. Cantor suggests that Gregory VII knew his teachings would be received as radical and was fully cognizant of their revolutionary nature: “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.” (ibid).

[6] Ibid., 292.

[7] Robert L. Benson, The Gelasian Doctrine: Uses and Transformations  (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1982), pp 34-35

[8] Such as Bishop Wido of Osnabrück, who wrote a treatise against Gregory’s assertions (Le Goff, 268).

[9] Norman F. Cantor, Church, Kingship, and Lay Investiture in England, 1089-1135 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1958), 191. Another prominent English opponent of the pope was Herbert, Bishop of Norwich.

[10] Pastor Aeternus cites four popes, but Gregory VII is not among them. It also cites eight councils, ecumenical and regional, but none date from the period of the Gregorian Reform. Certainly the fathers of Vatican I were familiar with the Gregorian documents but preferred not to use them in support of so weighty a doctrine. Though conjecture, I venture this is because of the Gregorian documents’ claims about the temporal authority of the papacy. As Pastor Aeternus concerns only the teaching authority of the pope, appeals to Gregorian documents could have obfuscated the teaching of Vatican I about the role of the papacy.

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