ERA 4—Medieval Church (2): Growth & Decline of the Papacy
(AD 1000–1500)


Growth of Papal Power


A long string of weak popes ended by the middle of the 10th-century when some monks gained control of the papacy. Starting with Pope Leo IX [1049–1054], some reform minded popes began a period of renewal. Pope Gregory VII [1073–1085, Hildebrand] moved to reform the church with emphasis on priestly celibacy and the abolition of simony. The struggle to free the church from political control continued for a long time and was best illustrated by the humiliation of the powerful Emperor Henry IV by Gregory VII at Canossa [1077]. Eventually, a compromise was signed with the Concordat of Worms [1122], separating ecclesiastical and civil authorities.


The growing dominance of the popes and bishops in social and political affairs reached its peak with Pope Innocent III [1198–1216]. Not only did he wield authority over monarchs of all Europe in an unprecedented manner, but he presided over the most significant gathering of the church in the medieval period, the Fourth Lateran Council [1215]. Transubstantiation of communion was declared, auricular confession was mandated, and military crusades were sanctioned against dissidents within the church and against Islam. Papal bull Unam sanctum [1302] pronounced the highest papal claims to supremacy.


The positive side of this church renewal, however, was a new surge in missions that penetrated into Scandinavia. Missionary work from both the Western and the Eastern churches also brought an increasing number of eastern European and Slavic people into Christianity. The conversion of Russia led eventually to the establishment of the Russian Orthodox Church [1448].


East-West Schism


The Western church centred in Rome and the Eastern church centred in Constantinople had long been competing for dominance. The Eastern church recognized the decisions and creeds of only 7 ecumenical councils: the 2 councils of Nicea [325 and 787], the 3 councils of Constantinople [381, 553, and 680–681], and the councils of Ephesus [431] and Chalcedon [451]. They permitted lower ranks of clergy to marry, whereas celibacy had become an institutionalized requirement from the time of the monastic renewal in the West. The Eastern church’s more mystical outlook and veneration of icons caused open strife at times in the 8th and 9th centuries during the Iconoclastic Controversy. The two churches even differed over the type of bread to be served in the communion.


An even older feud had to do with a seemingly minor point of understanding regarding the Trinity. The Eastern church held that the Holy Spirit was proceeded from the Father alone, through the Son. The Western held that the Spirit proceeded from both the Father and the Son. An earlier conflict over spiritual jurisdiction and the doctrine of Trinity occurred when Photius (820–895), a renowned scholar, became Patriarch of Constantinople [858].


With the renewal of the church and growing papal fortunes in the West, the hostilities between Eastern and Western churches once again surfaced. Popes in Rome demanded that the Eastern church acknowledge the supremacy of Rome, but this was unacceptable to the Eastern patriarchs. Finally the simmering conflict boiled over into a permanent schism [1054]. The Western (Catholic) Church and the Eastern (Orthodox) churches went their separate ways and the division has lasted to the present.


Crusades against Islamic invasion


The vitality of the Western church, as well as its increased political strength, was manifested clearly in its ability to deal with the Islamic threat. When Jerusalem was under the conquest of Islam, Pope Urban II proclaimed the First Crusade to reclaim Jerusalem from the Muslims [1095]. Armies from various Christian countries united and marched to the East in an effort to stem the tide of Islamic encroachment on Christian territories. Jerusalem was recaptured [1099], a Latin kingdom established, and holy sites recovered throughout Palestine. Yet the Muslim invaders would return to sack Jerusalem again and again. These huge military activities would last two centuries. In all, there were 8 crusades between 1096 and 1270. Eventually, the Crusader presence in Holy Land would end with the fall of Acra [1291].


A more successful front was the expulsion of Muslims from Spain and Sicily. The Christian kings joined to defeat the Moors [1212]. By 1248, the only Moorish state in Spain was the kingdom of Granada which eventually fell to the army of Ferdinand and Isabella [1492].


The atrocities and bloodshed of these wars were to cause permanent tensions between Muslims and Christians. However, the Crusades did stop the expansion of Islam into Europe.


Expansion and Scholasticism


The political and economic stability in Western European society after the 10th-century hastened the emergence of nation-states and the building of magnificent Gothic churches throughout Europe. Within these huge structures emerged the cathedral schools, the seeds of the universities, whose educational methods and philosophy stood in contrast to the monastic schools of previous centuries. A new approach to academic training emerged, created in part by the need to answer the intellectual and philosophical challenges posed by Islam.


A new breed of teachers, the scholastics, appeared. John Scotus Erigena (810–877), one of greatest theologians of early Middle Ages, helped pave the way for scholasticism which was characterized mainly by their method in dealing with theology, that is, the application of reason to questions of faith. Anselm (1033–1109), archbishop of Canterbury wrote Why Did God Become a Man? explaining the reasons for Christ’s death and formulated the ontological argument for the existence of God. Peter Abelard (1079–1142) wrote Yes and No which discussed how theological questions could have rational solutions. Peter Lombard (1095–1160) wrote Four Books of Sentences which became the precursor of systematic theology. Thomas Aquinas (1224–1274) was the foremost defender of the church and the greatest theologian in the Middle Ages. He summarized scholastic theology in his great work Summa Theologica [1265–1273].


Babylonian Captivity and Great Schism


The renewal movement lost its momentum after the 12th-century, and the church encountered many problems. The old question of the authority of church over state continued. Under threat from surrounding secular governments, Pope Clement V moved from Rome to Avignon in 1309. Successive popes increasingly became pawns under the control of the French king. Luther would later refer to the era as the “Babylonian Captivity of the church” [1309–1377] illustrating how the true church had been taken captive by the Roman hierarchy.


Under the urging of Catherine of Siena (1347–1380), the Pope returned officially to the Vatican [1377], but France simply installed a rival papacy at Avignon, resulting in the 40-year Great Schism [1378–1417]. During this era, there were two colleges of cardinals electing two popes. Multiple popes each claimed to hold Peter’s celestial keys and excommunicated all who refused to acknowledge them. Gradually, the church grew weary of the division. The Conciliar Movement, an effort to return to a single pope and unity in the church, succeeded in electing Martin V at the Council of Constance [1414–1418]. The right of general councils to take such action, however, would continue to be an unresolved issue.


Pre-Reformation Protests


The renewal of the Roman Church brought with it an attempt to deal with forces that threatened it both from within and without. Anti-clerical and anti-hierarchical movements emerged in the 10th-century. Among these were the Albigensians and the Waldensians [begun in 1173] who sought truth in the Bible rather than medieval tradition. They were branded as heretical and were subjected to cruel torture and execution. Later, Protestants came to regard the Waldensians as a positive response to the corruption in the church and as predecessors of Protestant reform.


The decline of prestige in the papacy was accompanied by cries for ecclesiastical and spiritual renewal. Echoing the complaint of the Waldensians, John Wycliffe (1329–1384) of Oxford wrote books calling for a more Bible-centred faith and for the deposing of unworthy priests, including popes. His ideas for reform led him to translate the Bible into English and to send out lay preachers, called Lollards. These efforts brought about the condemnation of his works after his death by the Council of Constance. The same council killed John Huss (1369–1415), a Bohemian reformer and follower of Wycliffe. Girolamo Savonarola (1452–1498) preached moral and political reform and instituted a theocratic government at Florence, only to be martyred. Change of direction was demanded, but there was no consensus on the kind of measures needed to correct the abuses.




While the papacy sank in the worst moral and spiritual decay, western civilization were stirred by a new movement, known as the Renaissance. This movement was spawned by humanists—the intellectual and artistic elite of the day—and it quickly spread across Europe. Ideas were disseminated widely with the invention of movable printing press by Gutenberg [1440]. The Renaissance, with its biting works of literature such as Boccaccio’s Decameron [1352] and Dante’s Divine Comedy [1421], proved to be a popular criticism of medieval decadence. Most importantly, the Renaissance emphasized that people could solve their own problems by reconnecting with the past, an idea that unwittingly undercut confidence in the church.


In Italy, the Renaissance focused on art, sculpture, and architecture along with a rediscovery of the Greco-Roman past. In northern Europe, however, humanism was identified with scholarship and with the return to original sources. This, in turn, brought about an increased emphasis on the study of biblical languages and the early Church Fathers. Scholars discovered that many of the problems in the church had come about because the church had deviated from its original teachings. Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus (1466–1536), the greatest of the Renaissance humanists, promoted renewal along Biblical lines with his critical edition of the Greek New Testament [1516] and editions of the Greek and Latin Fathers. He let the Scripture speak for themselves and used essays employing harsh sarcasm to criticize the church’s moral and intellectual failures.


Preoccupied with wars, political intrigues, and the building of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the papacy ignored pleas for renewal. By the 15th-century, the highest office of the church had become a model for the worst kind of moral degeneration. The ineffectiveness of centuries of attempted reform would result in the decisive Reformation.