(An important source for this post is Karl F. Morrison’s “The Gregorian Reform” published in Christian Spirituality, Origins to the Twelfth Century, New York, 1988.)

The Gregorian reform is an important event in the story of Western Christianity. The initial aim of these reforms (which lasted from the Council of Reims in 1049 under Pope Leo IX until the first Lateran Council in 1123 under Pope Calixtus II) was two-fold: in Morrison’s words, it first sought “to realize on earth patterns of life set forth in Scripture” and, second, to achieve church unity. In theory, then, the aim was a positive one. The driving thought of these reforms were two principles that had always been present in the Church of Rome, but could nver be implemented: sacerdotalism (the clergy as apart from and beyond the laity) and church unity realized in papal monarchy.

In these two principles, the reformers sought to purify the church from worldly influence: influence from secular authorities in the first place (hence the doctrine that the Pope of Rome, himself at the head of all other bishops due to Peter’s confession of faith to Christ, was also above secular governments, and had the right and duty to depose them if they failed in their function), but also simony and the investiture of the clergy by laymen.

The starting-point of all the programs of reform started with the doctrine that the Church is the Body of Christ. The issue at stake is participation in that Body. Thus we can distinguish three areas in which the Gregorian reformers acted out this participation.

The first can be termed “participation by calling.” Because all political offices, secular and ecclesiastical, were called by God, so the Pope, the head of the Church, was therefore to become “king of kings and prince of princes.” All were accountable to the person of the Pope, who had the power to depose any ruler deemed by him unworthy of his office–as the German emperor Henry IV would experience himself. The Pope, in turn, was accountable to no one. Morrison describes the Papal idea in these terms:

“Gregorian doctrines of accountability resemble the later idea of the absolute state. They portrayed the Body of Christ as a corporation over which the Pope had been called by God to exercise arbitrary judgement, transcending all other rights. […] The set forth a poitical order ruled by the inspired judgement of one man rather than by the inherited rule of the whole community. Their doctrine that the Pope was dominant over all and accountable to none by divine vocation required the use of coercion against dissidents.

The second area is related to the first. Since the Pope was dominant over the other bishops, he was also in ‘control’ of the sacraments administered by these bishops. Hence, the Gregorian Popes could now declare that the Sacraments were null when performed by simoniac and Nicolaite clergy, or forbid lay investiture. The argument was that the sacrament was impaired by the moral defects of the celebrants. Also, because the Church was one, the sacraments and rites were to be the same everywhere, hence the gradual imposition of the Roman rite everywhere in Western Christendom.


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