Pope Gregory VII Reigns, 12th & 13th Century, A History of the Christian Church, Lesson 11, 1-2

Before going into the details of the history of the Church during the 12th and 13th centuries, there are a few remarks we should make to broaden our view of the whole church during these times.

From the time of Charlemagne, who was born in 768 AD, for about 300 years until his empire was finally broken up, the position of the Pope in relation to the secular governments was one of subordination. That is, Charlemagne and his descendants were such strong supporters of the church that the church could not be independent of, nor superior to, the secular governments. After this period, there was a period of about 100 years in the 10th Century in which the secular governments of Europe were broken up into small, independent governments and their relation to the Pope was one in which each attempted to remain supreme in its field. Beginning in the 11th Century and extending for three centuries, or until the time of the Reformation, was a period in which Papacy was supreme. This is not to say that the Pope exerted absolute authority over the secular empires, but during this time, there were few Kings and Emperors who were able to successfully dispute with the Pope.

An example of this occurred when Pope Gregory VII excommunicated King Henry IV in a dispute with the king over the authority to invest the Bishops with their office. Pope Gregory VII was on a journey to Germany on Church business when he was met at Canossa by Henry IV, who came to have the sentence of excommunication removed. The Pope would not see Henry for three days during which Henry stood in the courtyard in penitent garb waiting to kneel at the Pope’s feet. Finally, on the fourth day, he was admitted and the sentence of excommunication removed.

Pope Gregory VII had been an official of the Papal office for more than 20 years when he was made Pope in 1073 AD, and his conception of the Papal office will light the way for our study of the Church during these next 300 years. Gregory said, ” The Roman Church was founded by God alone. The Roman Pope alone can, with right, be called universal. He alone may use the imperial insignia. His feet only shall be kissed by all princes. He may depose the emperors. He himself may be judged by no one. The Roman Church has never erred, nor will it err in all eternity.” In spite of the fact that we may think that Gregory VII had an exalted idea of his office, he did do much to straighten out the activities of the monks and bishops. It is well for the world that he was never able to bring to a full conclusion his ideas of the superiority of the Pope, for the secular governments never were weak enough for the Popes to completely dominate them.

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