A freso in the Basilica of San Martino in Rome
of Saint John Lateran Basilica as it appeared in
the Middle Ages. In the eleventh century three
Councils met in this Church.
We left off our saga of the Ecclesia semper reformans semper reformanda (The Church, always reforming, always in need of reform) with Gregory VII. Gregory died in defeat, an exile from Rome where his nemesis, the Emperor Henry IV, had declared Gregory deposed and had installed Guibert of Ravenna as (anti)Pope Clement III. History, however, doesn’t give the laurels to the winner of a battle but only to the winner of the war and Gregory’s cause of making the papacy independent of (and to some extent superior to) the Empire would prevail. Had Gregory not succeeded, posthumously of course, the Catholic Church would have been no different than the Orthodox Churches of Constantinople and Russia—a pawn of their respective imperial crowns. This victory of the papacy over empire has implications far beyond Catholicism. An imperial Church would never have tolerated a Luther and perhaps even Calvin and Zwingli may not have been able to escape the clutch of the crown. Who knows? The What-ifs are great fun to play but since any one variable opens up dozens of alternative doors for history to have gone through, one really cannot trace a new path for humankind should any one factor have been different. Anyway, let’s move on towards Innocent. It will take us long enough as it is to get there because while there is a natural progression from the Gregorian Reform to the Reforms of Innocent III, there is a good deal of historical development to span.
One of the effects of the Gregorian Reform was a renewed interest in canon law—actually almost an obsession with canon law. There was at the time no unified code of canon law (that would come only in 1917 and again in 1983). A canonist had to know the decrees of a wide spectrum of councils and synods ranging from the great Ecumenical Councils to numerous local synods that spanned a thousand years of European history. The same canonist would also have to know countless papal decrees, unwritten traditions from Rome and elsewhere, and have familiarity with the Church Father’s whose teachings bore great authority. As all these sources were often in contradiction with one another, they had to be balanced out and weighted with regard to the relative authority they bore. Canon law was not unlike the rabbinic arguing over the Talmudic tradition in medieval Judaism and like rabbinic authority among orthodox Judaism, canon law came to have more and more bearing on the daily lives of everyday Catholics in the eleventh and twelfth centuries.
The twelfth century saw a procession of canon-lawyer popes and ecumenical councils. Callistus III convoked the First Lateran Council in 1123 to solidify the gains of the Gregorian Reform, particularly in regards to the independence of the Church from Imperial and Royal control in the naming and investing of prelates. In 1139 Pope Innocent II convoked the Second Lateran Council. Over a thousand churchmen—bishops, abbots, theologians—clerical and lay—attended. It called on the clergy to dress simply and modestly and it reinforced the requirements of celibacy. Forty years later in 1179 Pope Alexander III summoned the third Lateran Council which reaffirmed the exclusive right of the College of Cardinals to elect the pope and introduced a wide variety of reforms. (We will have to do a separate entry just on Lateran III because its legislation is so extensive and so important). Lateran III also tried to deal with some current dissent in the Church that was rooted in the widespread financial excesses and moral failures of clergy and religious. There were devout laity who were genuinely shocked and distressed by the condition of the Church and many bishops lacked the moral credibility for effective leadership. It was a dangerous situation and we will talk about it in our next posting.