The Uneasy Relationship Between Church and State

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The Uneasy Relationship Between Church and State

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In the 11th century, during the reign of Henry III as Holy Roman emperor, the split between East and West was formalized when the pope at Rome and the patriarch of Constantinople excommunicated each other. Division had existed for centuries, but this was a formal break that still remains. It has had major political consequences throughout history. More recently, the East-West divide of the Cold War arguably had some of its roots in the church split of the 11th century. Additionally, the ethnic conflict in the Balkans in the 1990s goes back to ancient religious rivalries.

A major struggle between Germany and Rome was started by the Lateran Council of 1059, which decreed that future popes would be elected by a college of cardinals, removing the influence of the emperor. This was to have a long-lasting effect and was a portent of conflict to come.

The crowning of Charlemagne by Pope Leo III in A.D. 800 had led to a close alliance between church and state, which can be likened to a marriage. The church at Rome was considered the spiritual authority over men’s lives, whereas the emperor was the head of the political organization to which men submitted. The church taught the people that they must obey the emperor, whereas the emperor enforced the authority of the church over the people in spiritual matters. It was the emperor’s job to ensure religious conformity and the unity of the faith, with force when necessary.

Between them, they controlled most of the peoples of Europe for centuries. Only with the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century was any progress made toward religious freedom.

Pope Leo XIII, late in the 19th century, summed it up this way: “The Almighty has appointed the charge of the human race between two powers, the ecclesiastical and the civil, the one being set over divine, the other over human things.” He also said: “Church and State are like soul and body and both must be united in order to live and function rightly.”

But harmony between the two was rare.

Pope Gregory VII came to the throne in 1073 and declared that “the Pope is the master of Emperors!” His proof for this was that the popes were the ones who crowned the emperors, not the other way around. Emperor Henry IV (1056-1106) clashed with the pope on the issue of lay investitures. For centuries the secular leaders appointed bishops and abbots, investing them with spiritual authority. The pope wanted this to end, so that only he could make such appointments.

Henry would not yield and was finally excommunicated by the pope. This action meant that Henry’s subjects were absolved by the church of all loyalty to the emperor, provoking a revolt by his barons. In order to save his throne, Henry had to grovel before the pope, begging his forgiveness.

In January 1077 Henry traveled to a castle at Canossa in northern Italy where the pope was staying. For three days he humiliated himself by standing barefoot and wearing sackcloth in the snow in full view of Gregory’s window. Gregory finally granted him absolution and Henry was reconciled to the church.

No event of the medieval period showed so clearly the supremacy of the church. However, remember that the story of the empire is a history of “discontinuity”—nothing remained the same for long. The Holy Roman Empire may have lasted for a thousand years, but it was never fully united or totally stable.

Beyond the empire, church-state conflict also occurred. In 1205 England’s King John quarreled with the church. In 1208 the kingdom was placed under an interdict, in which the country was denied some of the sacraments of the church to force it into submission to papal authority. John retaliated by seizing church property. One year later, he was excommunicated. In 1212 the pope issued a bull deposing him, forcing John to make abject submission to Rome. In May 1213 he agreed to hold his kingdom as a fief of the papacy and to pay a thousand marks a year as tribute.

Ironically, the church came to his rescue two years later. After the barons forced John in June 1215 to sign the Magna Carta, the document that is the basis of the British and American constitutions, the pope in August of the same year annulled it, declaring that no people ever had the right to demand anything of their king. The principle of the divine right of kings had to be upheld by the church, lest the authority of the pope also be questioned.

Today, the sovereign state of the Vatican City is the last remaining absolute monarchy in Europe. WNP

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