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Papal Power in the First Millennium

Revised:  18 January, A.D. 2002
St. Peter's Chair at Rome
St. Prisca, Virgin & Martyr

From: Charles T. Brusca,  Boniface VIII: The Decline of Papal Power
Florida Atlantic University, December 1993


    The effort of the papacy to hold widespread temporal power was an innovation which developed with the Gregorian (named for Pope St. Gregory VII) reform movement that culminated in the Pontificate of Pope Innocent III, during the second Millennium. Christianity sprang from Judaism and accepted the Jewish idea that God might intervene directly in human governments. Yet, Christianity did not start out with any pretensions of its own to temporal power.

    Indeed, temporal power was unknown in the early Church. It was not desired. Jesus Christ was not a revolutionary. He left His followers with broad moral principles aimed at eternal salvation rather than a political plan. When the Pharisees tried to force Him into making a statement against either the temple or the Roman government, He gave his followers the famous maxim, "Render therefore to Caesar, the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's."1

    Even more explicitly, St. Paul advised the Christians of Rome, "Let every soul be subject to higher powers: for there is no power but from God: and those that are, are ordained of God.... princes are not a terror to the good work, but to the evil."2 Writing within the Roman Empire during the winter of 56-57 A.D., Paul could not have even been thinking that these princes ruled by virtue of the Church's approval. Paul did not deny that a Christian could hold public office but generally advised believers to avoid involving themselves in the affairs of unbelievers.3 He advised his followers to avoid worldly affairs in general.4

    Although St. Peter could claim to have authority from Christ, binding in heaven whatever he bound on earth,5 according to St. Luke his authoritative decisions were restricted exclusively to such religious matters as Apostolic succession, the Kosher food laws, and the circumcision of gentile converts.6 With regard to politics, he held no pretensions: "be subject to every human creature for God's sake: whether it be to the king as excelling; or to governors...."7 Of course, those wishing to remain Christians were expected to persevere in the Church's moral and doctrinal teachings, even in the face of civil persecution.

    Legalization of Christianity in 313 A.D. by the Emperor Constantine brought civil status to the Church.8 It could own property, draw state salaries for its ministers, and often received lavish gifts from the imperial family. Constantine exercised the temporal power and occasionally meddled in church affairs.9

    It is tempting to think that Constantine was simply following the traditions of the empire, exercising an old prerogative in a new state religion. However, Constantine did not interfere in theological matters and contented himself to supervise the Church in matters affecting civil affairs.10 He, and not the pope, called the Council of Nicea in 325.11 Constantine was more concerned with civil order and prosperity than theological orthodoxy. He did not become a Christian until his deathbed baptism at the hands of Bishop Eusebius, the Arian bishop of the imperial capital. He sent Athanasius, the Patriarch of Alexandria, into exile in response to Arian complaints that Catholics were hoarding grain, not for religious reasons.12  Imperial councils, summoned by the emperor and presided over jointly by the emperor and the pope, continued until 1055.13

    Constantine's son, Constantius II, attempted to insinuate himself in the Church hierarchy as its chief bishop but was vigorously resisted.14  The Church recognized the rights of the emperor over civil affairs. Athanasius protested when Constantius II transferred church buildings to the Arians but never disputed the emperor's right to do so. The buildings were, after all, "civil property."15

    At the end of the fourth century the Church still demanded exclusive control of its spiritual affairs. Clerics were subject to the civil authority for civil crimes but to the Church for spiritual crimes. The emperor would not be a religious figure until the sixth century and St. Ambrose could still accept the idea that future emperors might be pagans.16  In the following century, St. Augustine, wrote The City of God, (413-426) to refute claims that Christianity was responsible for the anger of the gods and the consequent decline in the empire. He held that there were two quite distinct "cities," carefully distinguishing the Church from "the World." In his Tract on the Gospel of John - VI, he discusses the reliance of Christians, even on pagan emperors, for civil law and justice.17

    In 494, the emperor Anastasius' involvement in the Acacian schism (an attempt to raise Constantinople and its patriarch in rank above all the other patriarchal sees) drew strongly worded criticism. Pope Gelasius I (492-496), writing to the emperor, held that there are two separate spheres of authority, the twin "swords" of spiritual and secular power, the "auctoritas sacrata" of the priesthood and the "regalis potestas" of the king. The priesthood is more important, precisely because its major concerns are with things beyond this world. The imperial office is "conferred by divine disposition."18 Christ, as the last priest-king of the Old Testament, eternally separated priesthood and kingship.19

Gelasius' words are significant, for in writing of the Church's "sacred authority," he implied a divine commission to rule. He contrasted this with mere royal power, as though the emperor's position was derived from wealth or military might. His statement was bold, in that it indirectly attacked the Roman "imperium," the power and authority of the Roman people and body politic embodied in the emperor. Gelasius' letter would be quoted again by future commentators but did not materially change the status quo.20

    Gelasius' concept of separate civil and religious authority appeared in the writings of the emperor Justinian (527-565). In Novella VI, a preface to the Corpus Juris Civilis, Justinian distinguished "sacerdotium et imperium" -- "priesthood and empire." He held that both came from God and should be mutually supportive. Cooperation between the clergy and civil leaders was necessary for the well-being of humanity.21

    Barbarian invasions brought a relative decline in the western empire that sometimes left prelates as the only indigenous authority, negotiating with the invaders, administering relief, and protecting the interests of the poor.22  At least in tradition, it was the Pope, Leo the Great, who met Atilla the Hun at the gates of the City in 451 and persuaded him to go elsewhere.23  Around 490 Laurentius, the Metropolitan of Milan allied with the Ostrogoth Theodoric and protected his charges.24  The popes filled a vacuum of power in central Italy, as did other bishops elsewhere.

    In the sixth century, Franks replaced Romans as the source of political "stability" in western Europe. The Church took at least a symbolic role in the replacement of the Merovingians with the Carolingians. Pepin was crowned king of the Franks by St. Boniface in 751 and anointed by Pope Stephen II in 754. In return the papacy received what is called the "Donation of Pepin," the lands of the former Byzantine exarchate which extended from Ravenna to Sinigaglia.25  The Roman Church came to rely on the Carolingians for military support. Charlemagne came to the aid of Leo III, who then (25 December 800) crowned him (perhaps by surprise) Roman Emperor.

    This papal crowning might suggest that the emperor received his authority from the pope. Yet at the beginning of the ninth century no such theory of papal supremacy existed. The pope in crowning the emperor was conferring a sacramental rite.26  (A sacramental -- not one of the seven Sacraments.) Coronation and anointing, like all sacramental rites, were actually the works of Christ being performed through His human instruments, priests, bishops, or popes. The bishop of Ostia had the traditional right to consecrate and crown a newly elected pope; yet, no one claimed that he was above the papacy. In crowning the emperor, the pope acted in a similar fashion.27

    Coronation seemed to give a king a sort of priestly nature. He wore priestly vestments, an alb, a stole crossed in the priestly manner, a cincture, and a cope.28   He fasted and was anointed and crowned during solemn Mass. Throughout his reign as king or emperor he would be commemorated by special collects added to the prayers of the Mass, and his name would follow those of the pope and bishop in the Canon.29  He would be prayed for and praised in litanies.30 In theory, the emperor was a canon of St. Peter's in Rome, and kings might hold similar canonries within their realms.31  Over the centuries the priestly nature of the king might be more or less emphasized, accepted or debated; but the powerful symbolism would remain.32   Even though popes at the height of the investiture contest were insistent that the king was merely a layman,33 many of these liturgical trappings remained until well into the twentieth century.

    The historian Ernst Kantorowicz points out the quasi-sacred character of the king lasted at least until the reign of Pope Gregory VII (1073-1085). He cites Wipo, the tenth century historian, speaking of Conrad II (1024-1039) as "vicar of Christ." Deusdedit quotes John VIII (872-882) as praising Charles II (843-877) as the "salvator mundi." Even St. Peter Damian refers to the king, in whom "truly, Christ is recognized to reign."34

    The alleged ability to work miracles contributed to the authority of medieval kings. The kings of France, as early as Robert "the Pious" (996-1031) claimed miraculous power over disease. Scrofula, a disease of the lymph glands, was said to be cured by the "king's touch."34


    1. Matthew xxii, Mark xi, Luke xx. Scriptural quotations are taken from the Douay Rheims version of the Bible.
    2. Romans xiii.
    3. c.f. 1 Corinthians vi, 2 Corinthians vi, Colossians ii.
    4. 2 Timothy ii
    5. Matthew xvi.
    6. Acts of the Apostles, chapters i, xi, x and xv respectively.
    7. 1 Peter ii.
    8. Constantine, Edict of Milan, in Barry, Readings in Church History, 76-78.
    9. Philip Hughes, A History of the Church, 1: 187-213.
    10. Karl F. Morrison, "Rome and the City of God: An Essay on the Constitutional Relationship of Empire and Church in the Fourth Century." Transactions of the American Philosophical Society. Vol. 54, Pt. 1., (1964), 6. Hereafter referred to as Morrison, "Rome and the City of God."
    11. Hughes, History, 1: 190.
    12. Hughes, History, 1: 199.
    13. Robinson, The Papacy, 122.
    14. Morrison, "Rome and the City of God," 6. Constantius conducted himself as though the Church were an arm of the state and he its chief bishop. In this he had virtually no support among the bishops and clergy.
    15. Ibid., 24.
    16. Ibid., 51. Morrison suggests the sixth century Justinian as an early example of an emperor who became a religious figure as a "likeness of Christ."
    17. Augustine, In Joannis Evangelium, Tractatus VI, 413 A.D., in Tierney, Crisis, Doc. No. 2., 13.
    18. Gelasius I, Letter to Anastasius, 494 A.D., in Tierney, Crisis, Doc. No. 3. 13-14
   19. On Gelasius' theories see A.K. Ziegler, "Pope Gelasius I and His Teaching on the Relation of Church and State," The Catholic Historical Review 27 (1942): 412-437.
    20. Gerd Tellenbach, Church, State and Christian Society at the Time of the Investiture Contest, R.F. Bennett, trans. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991) 35. Hereafter referred to as Tellenbach, Church, State and Christian Society.
21. Justinian, Novella VI, 535 A.D., in Tierney, Crisis, Doc. No. 4a. 15.
   22. Jacques Le Goff, Medieval Civilization, Julia Barrow, trans. (Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd., 1988) 33-34.    
   23. Hughes, History, 2: 59.
   24. Giovanni Tabacco, The Struggle for Power in Medieval Italy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 62. Hereafter cited as Tabacco, The Struggle for Power.
   25. Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. "Pepin."
   26. Gerd Tellenbach, Church, State and Christian Society, 65.
   27. Ibid.
28. c.f. A picture of the coronation regalia in Abulafia, Fredrick II, 10.
   29. The collects for the Roman Emperor, and another set for the King could be found in the Missale Romanum until the 1960 edition of Pope John XXIII.
   30. Ernst H. Kantorowicz, Laudes Regiæ (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1958), 65-111.
   31. Tellenbach, Church, State and Christian Society, 57.
   32. Ibid., 112.
   33. Ibid., 147-149.
   34. Kantorowicz, The King's Two Bodies, 87.
   35. Hallam, Capetian France, 70.  


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