Evangelistic efforts had all but ceased by A.D. 1300. Churchmen believed Europe knew the Gospel. No need to evangelize remained.

From mid-eleventh century on, Europe itself changed drastically. A new class, the bourgeois, arose with ties to developing towns rather than to the land. Europeans began considerable traveling and new building projects dotted the landscape. Even more important than the period's Crusades, nations began to rise and nationalistic sentiments took root. The papacy reached its pinnacle of power and fell to its lowest levels during this period.

We begin with the Middle Ages' most powerful Pope, then trace the papacy's rapid decline.

I. Innocent III: the pinnacle of the Medieval Papacy

All western church government centralized in the papacy during the Middle Ages. After 604 and before 1073, several factors contributed to the Pope's growing power. First, Roman Bishops became skilled politicians. They  skillfully balanced Italy's secular rulers against each other. Gregory I and his successors played papal enemies against one another keeping secular powers at bay through a series of strategic alliances. Second, feudalism represented a strong hierarchical concept. Theoretically, the chain of command descended from the Holy Roman Emperor to the serfs. Catholic organization, long organized much like the Empire, now saw power descend from the Pope to the lowliest communicant. Third, the Roman Bishop appeared the only "neutral" western power. He became the arbitrator in numerous differences. Fourth, the Popes extended political control over an ever widening area. The "Papal Estates" gave the Pope substantial temporal power. Fifth, Popes made use of the Pseudo-Isidorian Decretals and other documents discussed earlier.

Between 604-1073, Nicholas I was the most powerful Pope. He first used the Decretals to establish increased papal power. Nicholas deposed bishops and interfered in church business within the patriarchate of Constantinople.

Gregory VII (or Hildebrand) demonstrated great strength when he forced Henry IV to kneel before him as an excommunicant begging forgiveness. Other Popes followed, but none so significant as Innocent III (1160-1216).

Innocent, scion of a noble Roman family, received both a legal and theological education. He became Pope in 1198. He immediately set out to build a strong papal state in Italy free from incursions by secular rulers. Innocent maintained the right of jurisdiction over Kings and Princes as well as all church offices. He expressed his insistence in a now famous statement regarding the "sun and the moon." Innocent said:

In the same way for the firmament of the universal Church, which is spoken of as heaven, he appointed two great dignitaries; the greater to bear rule over souls (these being, as it were, days), the lesser to bear rule over bodies (those being, as it were, nights). These dignitaries are the pontifical authority and the royal power. Furthermore, the moon derives her light from the sun, and is in truth inferior to the sun in both size and quality, in position as well as effect. In the same way the royal power derives its dignity from the pontifical authority: and the more closely it cleaves to the sphere of that authority the less is the light with which it is adorned; the further it is removed, the more it increases in splendour.

In summary, Innocent said no King can rule unless he submits to the Pope. He lived it out, too. Innocent forced France's Phillip Augustus to reconcile to his wife, Ingeborg of Denmark. He accepted King John of England as a feudal vassal (John was seeking a means to avoid submission to a Parliament and the Magna Charta). Innocent later placed King John under interdict when John opposed an archbishop's papal appointment. Innocent used, or threatened, interdicts some 85 times during his papacy.

The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) marked Innocent's apex. This council formally stated such Catholic doctrines as transubstantiation. A reforming council, the Lateran Council formalized canons which made divorce more difficult, ordered bishops to inspect churches to assure the support of certain schools. The Council instructed the laity to respect church property, obey ecclesiastical courts and observe marriage rules. They also carefully examined clerical morals and ordered churchmen to end sexual immorality and drunkenness.

II. Boniface VII and Avignon: the decline of the papacy

Innocent died after sitting in Peter's chair for 19 years. After his death the papacy went from "perigee" to "apogee," its zenith to its lowest point outside the pornocracy and the immorality of later Renaissance Popes.

The decline began with Boniface (1294-1303). Boniface succeeded Celestine V, a Pope Dante placed at the very gate of Hell in his Inferno. Many historians call Boniface the last of the Medieval Popes. Boniface tried to rule European Kings like Innocent. Innocent's Europe no longer existed. Regions developed a sense of national identity and Popes no longer exercised total domination. Instead the people began to place their loyalty in national bodies or rulers.

From the outset Boniface had difficulty with France's Philip the Fair and England's Edward I. Both Kings levied taxes on the clergy. Boniface objected and in his papal bull (from bulla) Clericos Laicos promised excommunication to rulers who tried ecclesiastical taxation not approved by his office. Philip immediately retaliated forbidding the exportation of silver and gold. Philip cut off all papal revenues from France. King Edward refused to protect clergyman summoned to Rome, and act making travel impossible.

To make matters worse, Philip arrested Bernard, the Bishop of Pamiers and a papal legate, on a charge of treason in 1301. When the courts convicted Bernard, Boniface stated the state could not judge clerics. That had been true in the past, but Philip held sufficient national support to reject papal demands. On December 5, 1301, Boniface issued Ausculta fili, in which he argued the church's superiority over the state. France and England ignored it. On November 18, 1302, the Pope issued Unam Sanctam. French leaders burned it. Boniface set September 8, 1303, as the day he would depose Philip and place France under interdict. The Estates General (the French Parliament) declared the Pope without authority in civil matters and the King responsible to none but God.

Philip grew tired of Boniface's blustering and sent men to Italy in 1303 to capture him. Philip's men held Boniface prisoner in Anagni for three days and then the Anagni townspeople rescued him. In the interval, Philip's men had beaten and treated Boniface shamefully and he died within a month.

Benedict IX (1303-1304) followed Boniface but someone poisoned him after a nine month reign. Cardinals wrestled with the challenge of whether or not to choose another hard line Pope. After deliberating for almost a year they selected Clement V (1305-1314), a friend of the French King. Clement agreed to be crowned in France. After his coronation, political considerations kept him in France. He ultimately moved the entire papal court to the city of Avignon. At that time Avignon rested outside French borders and on papal territory. The community was close enough, however, for strong French influence. The papacy remained in Avignon for almost seventy years.

This relocation of the papal court was not a new idea. Popes often moved papal courts. Between 1100 and 1304, the papacy spent a total of 122 years outside Rome. Avignon's significance is  the fact that this seventy year period constitutes the longest unbroken period when the papal court remains away from Rome.

Clement could not be called a French puppet, but he was in the French orbit. The French dominated the church during the whole Avignon period. All seven Popes during the period are French making this the longest string of non-Italian Popes on record. Under Clement, and his successor, John XXII (1316-1334), financial corruption became characteristic.

Neither Clement nor John were evil men but they were worldly and lived a scandalously wealthy lifestyle. Their lifestyles required money. John XXII became a master of fundraising. During John's papacy he developed new sources of income. John demanded annates, a tenth of all clerical income, along with the full first year's income from any new office holder. The Pope claimed the house and possessions of any deceased bishop. Income from vacant offices went directly to the Pope. John also originated Peter's pence, the payment of one penny per household throughout most of Europe.

While the Popes resided at Avignon, Rome stagnated. Population dwindled, older buildings fell apart and conditions got very bad. Romans called for the Pope's return as early as 1305, but deteriorating Italian politics mitigated against it. In 1365 Pope Urban V (1362-1370) prepared to return. He ordered the Vatican repaired and in May, 1367, he set sail for Rome. Roman citizens rejoiced.

Three years later Urban returned to Avignon because of difficulties between France and England. He arrived in Avignon in September. He took sick in November and he died in December. Canon law requires Cardinals to elect the next Pope where the previous Pope died. They selected Gregory XI (1370-1378). Gregory committed himself to return to Rome, but again political difficulties prevented his return until 1377. When Gregory returned to Rome the Avignon period ended. Gregory died in late March, 1378.

Since he died in Rome, the Cardinals could select the new Pope in the Eternal City. Most Cardinals were French and wanted the papal court returned to Avignon. Since the Cardinals had not held a papal election in Rome for almost 75 years, the Romans were determined to see the papacy remain and an Italian elected. As the Cardinals went their way to the Vatican, citizens threatened, "Give us a Roman pope or we will make your heads redder than your hats!" The Cardinals met in an upper room within the Vatican. Roman citizens stacked flammable material in the rooms below. The Cardinals, aware that the selection of a French Pope would precipitate a massacre, elected the Archbishop of Bari who took the name Urban VI (1378-1389).

Urban hated French domination. He spent his early church service in bureaucratic positions where he grew suspicious of everyone. As Pope he was tyrannical. Rather than seeking good relations with French Cardinals, he accused them of greed, immorality, simony or neglect of office. His charges were unquestionably accurate but his methodology was vicious. Throughout the summer of 1378, things worsened until the French Cardinals left Rome and reassembled in Anagni. They declared Urban's election invalid because of Roman duress. They declared the papal chair empty and appointed a Frenchman, Clement VII, as Pope. They returned to Avignon with their new "Pope." Urban dismissed all French Cardinals and replaced them with Italians.

Europe then began choosing sides. Poland, Hungary, Germany, England, most of Italy, and the Scandinavian countries sided with Rome. France, Scotland, Spain, southern Italy, and France sided with Avignon. Marking the lowest point of the papacy, this schism lasted over 40 years and caused tremendous confusion in Europe. Today the Catholic Church recognizes Urban VI as the true pope and Clement VII as an anti-Pope.

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