How a Medieval Pope Launched the First Reformation and Saved the Church’s Freedom

Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV kneeling in the snow, asking forgiveness from Pope Gregory VII

By John Zmirak Published on April 22, 2022

The Christian Church that had converted the whole Roman empire developed quite differently in each of its two halves. In the East, where imperial authority managed to survive until 1453, the church had to operate within the framework of a powerful, bureaucratic state. The populace was deeply attached to its clergy, especially to the monks who stood out for their asceticism and holiness. That meant that the church played a key role in maintaining social cohesion — and could, in principle, tear society apart.

This made itself clear during the crisis caused by Iconoclasm. In the wake of the sudden, overwhelming conquest of two-thirds of Byzantium’s territory by idol-smashing Muslims, several Byzantine emperors adopted a theory. They interpreted Islam’s conquests not as in part a result of their empire’s persecution of heretics (as I’ve argued) — with dissenting Christians viewing Muslims as liberators from oppressive Byzantine bishops.

A New State Persecution

Instead, these emperors decided that God was passing judgment upon the region’s Christians for their attachment to religious imagery — to statues, icons, stained glass and other representations of the sacred. The Muslims, who scorned all imagery, were winning wars after all. Perhaps God was telling us something. So emperors starting with Leo III (d. 741) high-handedly banished from churches the icons beloved of ordinary Christians, destroying or white-washing ancient images of Jesus and the saints.

The popular reaction against this imperial move was overpowering and enduring. Monks led mobs of believers against their iconoclastic bishops. Iconoclastic emperors found themselves denounced from popular pulpits. Even their efforts to persecute, imprison, banish, or kill pro-icon clergy had little effect. Eventually Byzantine elites saw that Iconoclastic policies couldn’t endure, and pro-icon emperors returned to the throne.

Time for a Tame, Domesticated Church

But political elites took from this whole crisis a lesson: control of the Church was essential to the smooth function of the state. So emperors from that time on took a powerful interest in choosing which clergy rose in the ranks, to become local bishops or (especially) Patriarch of Constantinople. The already close relationship between Church and state in the East became even closer — and Church leaders become increasingly the creatures of the state. (See even today the slavish support of Russian Orthodox bishops for the policies of their government.)

The survival of the Empire in the East also allowed a curious theological development. The emperor was seen not merely as the guarantor of public order, ensuring that citizens rendered unto Caesar what was Caesar’s. Instead, the ruler of the secular state was seen in a quasi-priestly role. He was the mediator of justice between heaven and earth, a figure of solemn religious importance. He summoned church councils. He appointed and could remove Patriarchs of Constantinople. The emperor’s role was sacred, as well as profane.

Churchmen Were the Only Literate Citizens

No such institutions survived the collapse of imperial authority in the West. In Gaul, Italy, Spain, and England, non-literate tribes of non-Christian barbarians replaced the Roman state. Clergy were left as often the only educated people in a province. They became the leaders and tribunes of the Latin-speaking population, who faced new barbarian rulers. In cities like Rome, it was often the bishop — such as Pope Gregory the Great (590-604) — who took it upon himself to keep the aqueducts flowing with water, the roads repaired, and some measure of law and order.

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The first successful effort to build an extensive secular state in the West was the kingdom of the Franks. It covered what today is France, Germany, the Low Countries, Switzerland, Austria and northern Italy. The Frankish monarchs had forged a partnership with the papacy, replacing the distant Byzantines as protectors of Rome against invasion. The close cooperation between Frankish kings and popes culminated in 800 with Pope Leo III crowning the Frankish monarch Charles (later Charlemagne) as “Emperor.” In other words, the heir to the long-vacant authority of Constantine, the highest Christian monarch in the West.

The Clergy as Caesar’s Helpmates

While not a man of peace or a perfect husband, Charlemagne was a devoted monarch with a deep concern for the restoration of culture, and a fervent religious commitment. He tasked the Christian clergy with opening a network of schools, reorganizing Christian worship, and evangelizing pagans. He granted lands and wealth to clergy to make this possible, and the result was what scholars have called the “Carolingian Renaissance.”

Charlemagne’s empire shattered pretty quickly. But the pattern of the clergy working alongside kings and higher nobles to govern and educate the populace was set. In the West, monastics followed St. Benedict of Nursia’s injunction of “work and prayer.” Instead of solitary devotion and extreme acts such as living on pillars, monks aimed to serve their local communities. They opened schools, recopied ancient books (that would otherwise have vanished), pioneered new farming techniques that doubled food production, and preached to “unreached” tribes to the east of Charlemagne’s territory. For a full appreciation of the technical innovation that exploded during the “Dark Ages,” led by the clergy, see historian Rodney Stark’s pioneering The Victory of Reason.

Bishops Leading Armies

In the West as in the East, however, the involvement of clergymen in worldly affairs carried its dangers. Yes, a bishop who became the feudal lord of a region (as happened in Germany) might rule it more justly than an ordinary baron. On the other hand, he might begin to act and live like nothing more than a baron. Forbidden by canon law from carrying swords, warrior bishops would wield a mace, smashing heads in battle with all the gusto of any warlord.

Priests abandoned the apostolic practice of celibacy, and began to widely marry, often deeding “their” parish to their first-born sons, as if the Christian priesthood were a Brahmin-style hereditary caste.

The Church Annexed by the State

Insofar as clergy filled vital roles in governance and wielded power, kings and lesser nobles sought to control them. The emperors in Germany, for instance, demanded and got the power to pick their local bishops — exactly as the emperors did in faraway Constantinople. By the tenth century, the papacy itself had fallen completely under the control of local warlords and aristocrats, who picked the popes — choosing pliant, corrupt puppets to serve as earthly head of the Church. The only way to rescue the papacy from these small-time hoodlums? The German emperor invaded Italy, deposed several venal popes, and appointed better ones.

And you thought that the Johnson Amendment was bad!

Now, a similar pattern had emerged in the Muslim caliphate, the highest religious authority for Sunni Muslims worldwide. Early on, this exalted office had fallen under the control of the most powerful Arab dynasty. (It would later migrate to the domain and control of the Turks.)

A Pope Who Changed History

Had the West followed this pattern, the spiritual authority of the Church would have become completely intertwined with that of the state. The embrace of Christianity by the ruling class would have become ever more suffocating, as religious practice and even doctrine found itself bent and twisted to serve the king’s perception of the common good — or merely his power.

One man led a movement that halted this corruption. A learned and pious monk named Hildebrand was active in fighting worldliness and corruption among the clergy. He became so beloved in Rome, that when the reigning pope died, the common people acclaimed Hildebrand as his successor. He took the name Pope Gregory VII in 1073.

A Wave of Church Reform

Read Tom Holland’s extraordinary retelling of Church history, Dominion, for the full story of the revolution Pope Gregory led. Put briefly, Gregory decided that the Church had become entirely too comfortable, too this-worldly, too engaged in social work and power politics, to accomplish its sacred mission. He led a movement of fellow reform-minded clergy, dedicated to marking off very clearly the spheres proper to Church and to State.

Gregory enforced the long-neglected rule of clerical celibacy, which marked off priests as quite separate from the rest of feudal society. He insisted on higher levels of education for clergy, so they could preach competently.

A Power Higher Than Caesar’s

Most importantly for subsequent history, Gregory announced that the spiritual power of the Church was separate from and higher than the authority of kings. While they might claim to derive their power from God, popes and bishops derived their missions and offices from Christ. Secular kings could no longer be allowed to control which bishops served in their lands, much less to depose and appoint the popes.

This decree put Gregory on a collision course with the most powerful monarch in the West, the emperor Henry IV. To Henry, it was absurd that his government granted all manner of power and privileges to bishops, but might lack the power to choose them. What if a bishop should dare to oppose the king? What if a pope did?

And Gregory did. He insisted on his decree liberating the Church from secular control. Henry responded by summoning his bishops and ordering them to declare Gregory deposed. A monarch with an army faced a lonely Roman cleric who had only his moral authority.

A Pope and an Emperor, at War

But such was the prestige and respect that Gregory had earned, that he prevailed. He decreed that Henry was excommunicated, and deposed from his throne. This freed Henry’s subjects from their oaths of loyalty to him, and unwound his hold on his realm. Thus it came about in 1077, that Emperor Henry had to travel the Alps in winter to the pope’s residence in Canossa. The Emperor of the West knelt for three days in the snow before the pope emerged to absolve him. (This scene is depicted in the main image above.)

It was clear from this moment on that in the West, the Church and her moral authority would compete via sheer influence against the power of warlords, kings, even emperors. In subsequent centuries, Christians disillusioned by the papacy itself would follow in Gregory’s footsteps, insisting that the spiritual claims of the Christian conscience transcended the power and jurisdiction of the state. We might be tempted to say that Gregory laid the egg that Martin Luther would hatch.

But the question is much more complicated than that, as we will see.


John Zmirak is a senior editor at The Stream and author or co-author of ten books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Immigration and The Politically Incorrect Guide to Catholicism. He is co-author with Jason Jones of “God, Guns, & the Government.”

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