The dates of the pontificate of this Gregory are 590-604. Thus a hundred and fourteen years intervened between the death of Leo The Great and the commencement of Gregory’s career as Pontiff. In these intervening years, the successors of Leo in the papal chair were more or less unimportant persons. Some of them were not alone mediocre but carnal as well. Men they were whose administrations are among the darkest in the annals of the papacy. As we saw, Leo The Great laid claim to a universal jurisdiction over the whole church. Few of his successors in this century had either the courage or the energy of will to reassert this claim, and by none of them was the power of the papacy advanced. The few who tried to rule upon the principles of Leo were Hilary, Leo’s immediate successor; Felix II; Gelasius I; and Agapetus. Hilary asserted the authority of the primacy of Peter in Gaul (the modern France). Felix II continued the war against the Monophysites in the East, thus in the domain of bishop Acacius of Constantinople. He ventured even the excommunication of Acacius but only to his own hurt however. For Acacius, as supported by the Eastern Bishops, replied with a counter anathema and thereby broke off all relations with Rome. This rupture between the two churches lasted some thirty years. Gelasius I (492-496) set forth the principle that the priestly power is above the lay ruler in the state, and that from the chair of the Roman bishop there is no appeal. Agapetus (535-536) fearlessly resisted the state-church despotism of the emperor at Constantinople, on whom the popes had fallen into a perilous and disgraceful dependence. What is more, by protest he prevented the elevation of the Eutychian Anthimus to the patriarchal see of Constantinople. But, as was said, by none of the popes of this century was the papal power advanced. By the doings of Pelagius I (554-560) Papal power and influence was greatly diminished even, not only in the East but in Italy as well. By his approval of the fifth ecumenical council, which had made a concession to the heretical Christology of Eutychius and had brought the council of Chalcedon under a cloud, he induced many Western Bishops, even in Italy, to sever their connection with Rome. And it was only by military force that their subjection could be secured.
But with Gregory I a remarkable change set in. The consensus of opinion among historians seems to be that next to Leo I he was the greatest of the ancient bishops, that “among all the popes of the sixth and following centuries, he shines as a star of the first magnitude.” It is also said of him that he came with more modest claims than Leo, but this is only apparently true. As well as Leo, he laid claim to universal jurisdiction over the whole church. He, too, was convinced that “to all who know the gospel it is apparent that by the Lord’s voice the care of the whole church was committed to the holy Apostle and prince of all the apostles, Peter” and that this function had been transferred solely to the bishop of Rome. For, in one of his letters he asks, “With respect to the church of Constantinople, who doubts that it is subject to the apostolic see”. And in another letter, “I know not what bishop is not subject to it, if fault is found in him.” In a word, every bishop, according to this statement from Gregory’s pen, is subject to it, that is to the see of the popes or bishops of Rome, for that is the “apostolic see”. Gregory, in a word, claimed and exercised, as far as he was able, the authority and oversight over the whole Christian, church, East and West. Yet, he would not apply to himself the title of universal pope or bishop, and opposed in strongest terms its assumption by the Eastern patriarchs. Such presumption he characterized as a blasphemous and diabolical usurpation and declared that “whosoever calls himself a universal priest, or desires to be so called, was the forerunner of the Antichrist.” He even threatened to break off communion with the patriarch of Constantinople, should the latter refuse to disclaim the title. But it is hard to believe that in these declamations he was moved by true humility and righteous indignation and not by carnal lust of power and jealousy; for, though he, too, rejected the title, he claimed the thing—claimed it for himself only—and used every opportunity to make it real in his own pontificate. In making good his claims, he was as bold as Leo. He appointed, censured, and deposed bishops, and sent the pallium (from the Latin word for cloak) to some archbishops in token of their being confirmed in their office by the pope, and forbade the clergy to accept fees for their services.
Gregory is one of the doctors or fathers of the church. But it is folly to rank him, as some do, with Augustine. For he was a teacher of little originality and in his theology he was a semi-Pelagian. In his conception, foreknowledge is the basis of predestination; fallen nature is sick only, not dead; and good works have meritorious virtue. He held firmly to the doctrine of purgatorial fire, and he was an ardent exponent of the masses for the benefit of the souls in purgatory. This was the system of theology that he represented, and as its exponent his influence was far reaching. For his literary labors were considerable. And he corresponded with kings in the West and with emperors and patriarchs in the East. But his real strength lay in his administrative ability. His claim to fame rests chiefly on his accomplishments as manager of the real estate of the papacy, of its buildings and numerous large farms in Sicily, Italy, and in southern France and Northern Africa. Under his lordship their revenues increased. And he used this huge income with liberality in good works of all kinds, while he himself lived the austere life of a monk. He was accustomed to this kind of life, for he was a monk before he was elected pope. Early in life he had broken with the world in his father’s palace, where he was born from a wealthy senatorial family of Rome. Through all these doings, he commanded the highest respect. He was considered a great character with great plans. In his station he was suited to the temper of his times. Men said of him that he was wise and good, kind and mild of heart but never weak, righteous and inflexibly just, though lenient to the repentant, a warm friend to his friends, yet holding righteousness and the weal of the church higher than friendship, unbounded in his charities to the poor, and continually interposing in favor of injured widows and orphans.
But despite Gregory’s vaunted greatness and nobility of character and the arguments that were being advanced in support of the papal claims to universal dominion over the whole church, the failure of Gregory to fasten his authority on Eastern Christianity was as conspicuous as that of Leo the Great of the preceding century. The argument of the primacy of Peter and of the apostolic see made no impression on the East. The other patriarchs ranked their patriarchates likewise sees of Peter. And they were as little induced to acknowledge papal authority by the old glory of Rome, by its name and prestige as the erstwhile political center of the world. After the erasure of Jerusalem and Antioch from the ecclesiastical map of the world, the Eastern church sought its center of unity in Constantinople, in the patriarch who reigned there—Constantinople, constituted, in 330, by Constantine The Great, its builder and founder, the new capital of the Roman empire. Failing to make good its claim In the East, the papacy henceforth addressed itself to the task of extending its jurisdiction over the Christianized barbarian races of western and northern Europe, brought into the fold of the church from the sixth to the tenth century. It was a wholesale conversion of nations under the compulsion of their rulers, carried on not only by spiritual means but by military means as well. These races, as converted, did not demur when brought under papal jurisdiction. For they had been prepared for its reception by Roman missionaries, who had labored among them in the interest of the papacy. In the gospel that was brought to them the pope stood out in all his pretentions. Their conversion was not to the pure Christianity of inspired apostles, as laid down in the Scriptures, but to the Christianity of ecclesiastical tradition, as taught by the fathers, monks, and popes. It is not to the credit of the papacy that, after having failed to make good its claims in the Eastern church, among a people formed of Christians versed in the doctrine of the Scriptures, it fastened itself upon half converted and grossly ignorant heathen—ignorant with respect to the truth of God’s word—and this by means fair and foul. The preceding instruction amounted to nothing. Even the baptismal formula was not understood, as it was recited in Latin. Already then Rome was taking away from men the Bible. This is characteristic of Rome, for she thrives on the ignorance of her devotees. As has already been observed, the papacy, as representative of the Roman hierarchy, is an unscriptural institution. This being true, it is inherently evil, and it bears fruit after its kind and this fruit is evil. The way of the papacy with those teutonic savage races—our forefathers—races by which the Roman empire was, at that time being whelmed,—is evil fruit. With the history of this way before our mind, and as aware of the corruption that has characterized the papacy through the ages of the past, and as aware also of the state of affairs among the Roman Clergy and monks at the dawn of the Reformation, we perceive that Christ could have been addressing the papacy when he said to the scribes and to the Pharisees, “Woe unto you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites; for ye compass land and sea to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves.” But so God, according to His determinate will and in His inscrutable wisdom, wanted it. And like all things evil, the papacy, too, in all its corruption, worked for good to God’s people. From those heathen races, made to pass under the jurisdiction of the papacy by the pope’s lieutenants on the mission field, and who are now the nations of modern Europe, God has been gathering His church through the ages of the past to the present.
From the death of Gregory I or The Great in 604 to the commencement of the reign of pope Gregory II in 715 is one hundred and eleven years. In this century the incumbents of the papal chair—there were twenty five of them—were with perhaps three exceptions obscure men, whose average reign lasted less than four years. Of the few exceptions there was but one—pope Martin I (649-655)—who attracts attention on account of heroism of faith. Martin endured persecution in behalf of a pure doctrine—that of the two wills of Christ. But Honorius (625-638) was a Monothelite heretic and condemned as such by an ecumenical council. Sabanius (604) was hard and avaricious. But all loved power and followed the inland Northern Europe progressed, papal jurisdiction progressed with it until, by the tenth century, it reached the limit of its expansion in Europe. By this time the papacy was exercising legal jurisdiction over the churches in Spain, Italy, France, Germany, Scan- din via, the Netherlands, and the British Isles.
We must now direct our attention to a new state of things of vast importance. Leo I and his successors down to pope Zacharias (741-752) had limited their ambition to the extension of key power over the whole Christian church. Key power, as was said, is the right and duty to administer the word and the sacraments and to excommunicate out of the Christian church. The error of Leo was not that he laid claim to key power. Being the pastor of a flock of God, he had this power to exercise, however, in conjunction with the other pastors, only in his own congregation in Rome. Leo’s error was that he laid claim to a universal key power over all the churches in Christendom. In what measure the papacy was able to realize this power, we have just seen. The matter to which we must now have regard is, that, in the person of pope Zacharias, the ambitions of the papacy became unbounded. He was the first pope to appropriate also magisterial power. According to Scripture, magisterial power is the right and duty to govern by laws and policies, punish crime and protect them that do well. Magisterial power, therefore, includes sword power. This power was given to the civil magistrate. It does not belong to the office of the ruling and teaching ministry in the church. To this ministry was given the key power. Yet, in the person of pope Zacharias the papacy began to exercise also magisterial power not only in its own states, “the States of the Church,” but in the world at large as well, as the sovereign lord of every worldly kingdom, vested with the power to appoint and depose its kings at will. It came about in this way. If the papacy was about to reach out for the sword power, the emperor, who sat in Constantinople, had appropriated the key power and extended it over the popes of Rome, and thus made them his spiritual as well as his political subjects. Zacharias could, therefore, chose between obeying his edicts even in spiritual matters or being deposed and exiled. Such was the state of affairs in that age. As was observed in a previous article, church and state were conceived of as forming two sides to the spiritual kingdom of Christ on earth. The pope laid claim to the supreme seat of judicial power in this kingdom, to a lordship over all that be surveyed; all power on earth was his, both the key and the magisterial power. So he imagined. The emperor laid claim to identical prerogatives. Each regarded the other as his legal inferior and dependent in this kingdom. And each strove to set the other in his place. Hence, the two were always at war with each other. The Church history of the Middle Ages is largely a record of this war.
Pope Zacharias was being hard-pressed by still another foe. Aistulf (749-756), the king of the Lombards, a half Christianized barbarian race, was threatening the capture of Rome. Zacharias was in a quandary. He would not appeal for protection to the emperor, who sat in Constantinople, for he had concluded, and rightly so, that if the papacy, as he conceived of it, was to survive, it must free itself from that tyrannical power. Relief came to him from France. The Franks were friendly to Rome. The churches in France had already been brought under Rome’s jurisdiction. The king of France was Childeric III, the last of the Merovingian dynasty. Pepin the Short, a gallant warrior and able statesman, and the father of Charles The Great, wanted to be king, and determined upon a revolution to realize his ambition. Doubtful whether the people would approve his tactic, he besought the pope to sanction the change. The pope promptly granted his approval. The spiritual father of the church sanctioning a political revolution! Pepin was elected king by the declamation of the people and, like the kings of Israel, was anointed with holy oil by some bishop representing the pope. So did the pope place his moral sanction upon the contemplated rebellion of a usurper, virtually depose one king and appoint in his room another. This is the meaning of the transaction. Still historians, Protestant and Catholic alike, insist that, in the Middle Ages especially, the papacy was an indispensable institution. The pope had acted as if it was within his power to give and withhold kingdoms, and to enthrone and dethrone its kings, even as their sovereign lord. It is upon this idea of papal power that the popes now began to rule. But Gregory VII and Innocent III were the only popes who were able to carry out the idea with any measure of success.
Zacharias besought Pepin to return the favor he had granted him by protecting the pope against the Lombards. But Pepin took no action. Two years later Stephen III, who succeeded Zacharias, paid Pepin a personal visit, anointed him again, and even promised to perpetuate his dynasty by the power of the interdict and excommunication. This proved a sufficient inducement. Pepin marched into Italy and defeated the Lombards, but they soon recovered and renewed the war. The pope wrote letter upon letter to Pepin, imploring him to save Rome. But in order to get action, he had to come with new inducements. He promised Pepin long life and the most glorious places in heaven, if he quickly came, as if it was within the power of the pope to dispense not only worldly kingdoms and crowns but temporal life as well and even eternal salvation. Such blasphemy! Pepin once more took action. Crossing the Alps, he defeated the Lombards (755) and gave all the conquered territory to the pope. The pope was already in the possession of enormous tracts of land in Italy, France, and North Africa, but by this gift, known in history as ”The donation of Pepin” he became the absolute sovereign, the independent ruler, of a large part of Italy, known in history a s the “states of the Church”, Though the pope was now a territorial ruler, his lust for power was far from satisfied, judged from the forgery known as the “Donation of Constantine.” This is a document in the form of a charter, the authorship of which is unknown, that orders all the dignitaries in the church to be in subjection to pope Sylvester and his successors and bequeaths upon them all the city of Rome and the whole of Italy with all its provinces and cities. The “Donation” was shown to be a fraud in 1433 but at the time of its appearance it was generally believed.
As can be expected, these gifts to the pope thoroughly corrupted the church and the papacy. They involved it in all the political interests, intrigues, and wars of Europe. For the papal chair was now not only the seat of spiritual power of the church but the seat of temporal power of a large worldly kingdom as well. It therefore became the coveted prize of wicked men and the plaything of political faction. The “Donation of Pipen” is perhaps the most significant event of the Middle Ages. The papacy continued in the possession of its “States of the Church” for several centuries, until 1870 in fact. In this year, Victor Emanuel gained possession of Rome as the first king of a united Italy, freed from the lordship of the pope. It meant that, the temporal power of the pope was ended.