Gregory II: the schism begins

The pontificate of pope Gregory II marked the beginning of the end of the old “Byzantine papacy,” and the start of a new, western-facing papacy. Gregory opposed the Byzantine emperor on new taxes, inaugurated a muscular regional policy to oppose Lombard expansionism, and implacably fought the eastern empire’s policy of Iconoclasm. The popes that succeeded Gregory continued his policies, eventually culminating the coronation of Pepin the Short and the establishment of the ‘Papal States’ that continued until the 20th century. Let’s take a look.

Gregory II (his original name is not known) was born to a noble Roman family in 669. After holding a number of ecclesiastical posts he was elected pope on 19 May 715, and held the papacy until his death on 11 February 731. He is first notable to history for his work with Boniface, the English monk who proselytized among the Germans. During this period the papacy became increasingly concerned with converting German lands.1.Riche, Family Who Forged Europe, p.32. Boniface, then named Wynfrith, first worked among the Frisians, then traveled to Rome in 717. Wynfrith impressed Gregory, who renamed him Boniface and sent him to Germany.

Boniface returned to Rome in 722, evidently a man on the rise. Gregory made him bishop of Germany and in December of that year sent him back with a packet of letters of introduction. One letter enjoined all who encountered the new bishop to give their full support.

Hearing, to our great distress, that certain peoples in Germany on the eastern side of the Rhone are wandering in the shadow of death at the instigation of the ancient enemy and, as it were under the form of the Christian faith, are still in slavery to the worship of idols, wile others who have not as yet any knowledge of God an dhave not been cleansed by the water of holy baptism but as pagans to be likened unto the brutes, do not acknowledge their Creator, we have determined to send the bearer of these presents our brother the reverend Bishop Boniface, into that country, for the enlightenment of both classes, to preach the word of the true faith…2.Letters of Boniface, IX, p.20.

Another of the letters is addressed to Charles Martel, who had “shown a religious spirit upon many occasions,” then Mayor of the Palace of the Franks.3.Letters of Boniface, XII, p.23. It does make one wonder if the pope would also remark that Charles had demonstrated a religious aversion on other occasions. Charles, freshly emergent from a civil war that left him in sole control of Neustria and Austrasia, was the perfect patron and protector for Boniface. Gregory had cleverly tied Rome’s emissary to the new power in the west. This theme would continue and grow over the coming decades.

Gregory continued to support and encourage Boniface. The pope wrote two letters to the magnates of Thuringia, an area under loose Frankish authority. In the first, another in the batch penned in December of 722, he congratulated the leaders of Thuringia for stating “that you would rather die than break the faith in Christ you had once accepted.” Also, he advised, Boniface was coming, and that they should “accept obediently” his teachings.4.Letters of Boniface, XI, p.22. Two years later Gregory again wrote to the Thuringians, for evidently Boniface’s teaching was not taking hold. The pope again commended Boniface to the leaders, and instructed them to “[w]orship not idols, neither sacrifice offerings of flesh to them…”5.Letters of Boniface, XVII, p.30.

When stymied with real-world complications, Boniface would write to Gregory for advice on a range of theological issues. Gregory’s answers illustrate not only eighth century doctrine and dogma, but the kinds of controversies that arose in that time and place. Marriage is lawful within the fourth degree; a man whose wife is “unable to fulfill her wifely duty” should remain continent, but “since this is a matter of great difficulty” he can take another wife; children who were given to a monastery cannot marry when they reach age, for “it is an impious thing that the restraints of desire should be relaxed for children offered to God by their parents”; lepers may receive communion, “but they may not take food together with persons in health”; and trying to escape a plague through flight is the height of folly, “for no one can escape from the hand of God.”6.Letters of Boniface, XVIII, p.31-33.

Interestingly enough Gregory’s vita mentions none of these German adventures. The two concerns that most troubled Gregory in Rome were the demands, theological and secular, of the Byzantine empire, and, to a much lesser extent, the continued expansion of the Lombards. Gregory’s great task was to balance these competing forces, without an army of his own.

Leo III, known as the Isaurian, came to power in Constantinople in 717, just a couple of years after Gregory was invested, having forced the abdication of the previous emperor. Naturally some of his first thoughts were around money, and he ordered an increase in taxation throughout the empire, which included Rome and Italy. Gregory defended the Roman people against this new taxation, and in the process accelerated the schism between east and west. In response to this resistance the empire’s representatives in Italy organized actual assassination attempts against Gregory.

In those days on the order of the emperors Paul the patrician who had been exarch was attempting to kill the pontiff for the reason that he was preventing the imposition of tax in the province, strip the churches of their wealth as had been done elsewhere, and ordain someone else in his place.7.Liber Pontificalis, life 91, ch.16, p.10.

Not long after the demands for new taxation, Leo launched one of the most famous religious disputes in western history, the Iconoclast movement. We won’t go into the details here, but Gregory strenuously opposed Leo’s efforts to regain favor with God by a zealous adherence to the letter of the first commandment.

In the mandates he later sent, the emperor had decreed that no church image of any saint, martyr or angel should be kept, as he declared them all accursed; if the pontiff would agree he would have the emperor’s favour; if he prevented this being carried out as well he would be degraded from his office. So the pious man despised the prince’s profane mandate, and now he armed himself against the emperor as against an enemy, denouncing his heresy and writing that Christians everywhere must guard against the impiety that had arised.8.Liber Pontificalis, life 91, ch.17, p.11.

Modern scholars agree that it was Leo who made unacceptable demands, and that Gregory resisted across the board. “[I]t is important to note that the plots against Gregory began before the emperor Leo III issued the first of the inconoclast edicts – Gregory’s resistance to Constantinople began on economic, not theological, grounds.”9.Liber Pontificalis, life 91, ch.14, n.40, p.10.. “As Leo’s efforts to enforce Iconoclasm increased so did Italian opposition, checked only by the pope. …a proposal was made to nominate an emperor and lead him to Constantinople but this Gregory restrained.”10.Llewelyn, Rome in the Dark Ages, p.167.

Gregory’s response to this and other Byzantine demands remained mild, at least according to the author of his life.11.“The author’s loyalties naturally lay with Rome, not with Byzantium or the Lombards, and he stresses Gregory’s efforts to contain Lombard expansion in Italy and his loyalty to the empire, despite imperial plans to have him deposed or murdered.” Liber Pontificalis, life 91, introduction, p.1. For example, Gregory’s letters continued to be dated from the accession of the Byzantine emperor. He could not definitively break with Byzantium, because to do so would leave him at the mercy of the Lombards.12.Riche, Family Who Forged Europe, p.48.

At the time of Gregory’s accession the Lombard kingdom had undergone a period of internal tumult, out of which king Liutprand emerged to rule from 712 – 744. Liutprand was an ally of Charles Martel, but also kept his eye open for opportunities unfolding as Byzantine authority in Italy unraveled. He naturally watched the growing discord between the eastern and western churches with some interest. He was also, however, a Christian, at least on some level.

While Liutprand did gobble up some Byzantine possessions, he also gave back to Rome. North of Rome at the town of Sutri in 728 he gave the town and other possessions to Gregory. This transaction, along with the acquisition of Cumae, south of Rome, with the help of the dukes of Naples and 70 pounds of gold, expanded not only the land, but the idea of the Duchy of Rome. The germ of the Papal States had been born.13.Noble, Republic of St. Peter, p.26.

Gregory did not face the full array of new forces that were gathering in Europe. The Lombards were not as aggressive, and the Byzantines not as weak. But he was the first pope forced to come to grips with the facts of the new age. He laid the foundation for a new papacy, western-oriented, with powers and lands of its own.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Riche, Family Who Forged Europe, p.32.
2. Letters of Boniface, IX, p.20.
3. Letters of Boniface, XII, p.23. It does make one wonder if the pope would also remark that Charles had demonstrated a religious aversion on other occasions.
4. Letters of Boniface, XI, p.22.
5. Letters of Boniface, XVII, p.30.
6. Letters of Boniface, XVIII, p.31-33.
7. Liber Pontificalis, life 91, ch.16, p.10.
8. Liber Pontificalis, life 91, ch.17, p.11.
9. Liber Pontificalis, life 91, ch.14, n.40, p.10.
10. Llewelyn, Rome in the Dark Ages, p.167.
11. “The author’s loyalties naturally lay with Rome, not with Byzantium or the Lombards, and he stresses Gregory’s efforts to contain Lombard expansion in Italy and his loyalty to the empire, despite imperial plans to have him deposed or murdered.” Liber Pontificalis, life 91, introduction, p.1.
12. Riche, Family Who Forged Europe, p.48.
13. Noble, Republic of St. Peter, p.26.

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