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Western Europe was shaken to the heart in the eleventh century by the investiture conflict. It saw kings humbled by popes, popes driven out by kings, wars between armies, dissensions within the church, and, ultimately, a new Europe.

A theological dispute pulsed at the center of the conflict. To understand it, we have to step back even further in time to the development of feudalism. The Roman Empire’s disintegration in the West, from the fifth century on, gave birth to a new social landscape, where ownership of land rather than money or political office was all-important. More-powerful figures made grants of land to lesser figures, who in turn swore personal loyalty to their superiors. The Latin for “grant” is feudum — hence “feudalism.” At the top of this chain of “land and loyalty” were the king and his chief nobles. At the bottom were the peasants. In between were layers of lesser figures: minor nobles, local knights.

This social structure of “land and loyalty” had a transforming impact on the church. A local landowner would build the local church or monastery on his own land at his own expense. It was only by grant from the local lord that the church’s land and landed property (for example, the manse) belonged to the clergy. Perhaps naturally, the lord saw it as his right to choose who would manage the local ecclesiastical property as priest, bishop, or abbot.

Feudalism therefore killed the ancient tradition of clergy being elected by church members and bishops being elected by clergy and people together. When the supreme feudal lord, the king — who was, of course, a layman — appointed or “invested” the man of his choosing as a bishop or abbot, this was called “lay investiture.” It took place through a ceremony in which the king bestowed on the bishop or abbot his ring and staff, the symbols of spiritual office. The bishop or abbot then swore loyalty to the king as his lord.

Not everyone, however, was happy with a feudalized church. In the mideleventh century, the papacy began to recover its integrity and power after a long, dismal period of corruption and impotence. A series of reforming popes, backed by a strong party in the church, made the papal court once again a body to be honored and feared. The dominant genius of this reform was a Tuscan of lowly birth named Hildebrand. After administering with brilliance various positions of trust under the reforming popes, he was himself elected pope by popular acclaim in 1073. He took the name Gregory VII . The reform movement he masterminded is known either as the Hildebrandine or Gregorian reform.

Hildebrand saw life in military terms — as a raging conflict between light and darkness. The chief agents of darkness were the secular rulers — the counts, dukes, princes, and kings. They were nothing but glorified thugs, who oppressed the poor and filled the earth with injustice. To bring about justice, the agents of light — the church, headed by the papacy — must take control of these evil rulers and force them to serve the cause of God.

Hildebrand’s negative view of kingship was a radical break with the earlier medieval tradition, which saw the Christian king as the brightest hope for the creation of a society based on Christian values. In Hildebrand’s thinking, the papacy itself, not the Christian king, was God’s agent for erecting His kingdom on earth.

As pope, Hildebrand was determined to destroy the power that feudalism had given to secular rulers over the church. The point at which Hildebrand chose to strike was lay investiture. He particularly objected to the ceremony in which a king bestowed on a bishop or abbot his ring and staff. This implied that bishops and abbots owed their spiritual authority to the king — which is indeed what Western kings believed.

In 1075, Hildebrand decreed that the Holy Roman emperor, Henry IV (1065–1105), must cease from lay investiture. He picked on the emperor precisely because he was the most important of the Western monarchs, claiming to represent the authority of a reborn Roman Empire. (His territory was basically Germany.) Hildebrand knew that if he could defeat Henry, he could defeat anyone.

When Hildebrand issued his challenge, the German bishops at first supported the emperor. They followed the tradition that saw the king as the proper center of a Christian society. Emboldened, Henry summoned a council at Worms in January 1076. Here, most of his bishops joined him in rejecting Hildebrand. Henry sent an awesome letter to Hildebrand from the council:

I, Henry, king by the grace of God, with all my bishops, say to you — come down, come down from the papal throne, and be damned through all ages!

Hildebrand’s response was like a bolt of lightning. He excommunicated Henry and released all his subjects from their oath of feudal loyalty to him. The German bishops were stunned; now afraid for their own positions, they refused further cooperation with Henry. At one stroke, he lost two-thirds of his army, which came from church lands. Henry’s truculent German nobles also seized this chance to rebel. They invited Hildebrand to come to another council, where it looked as if the rebellious nobles would elect a new emperor, with Hildebrand presiding over the election.

Henry was desperate. With a few loyal supporters, he journeyed down into northern Italy to meet Hildebrand at Canossa Castle. Hildebrand had taken refuge there, protected by his wealthy friend the countess of Tuscany, because he feared Henry would take military action against him. For three days in January 1077, Henry stood outside the castle gate, barefoot in the snow, crying out to Hildebrand that he had repented. Inside the castle, Hugh the Great, the abbot of Cluny, interceded with Hildebrand on Henry’s behalf. An important figure in the church, Hugh was as opposed to lay investiture as Hildebrand, but he was also a more moderate person who wanted to see friendly cooperation between church and state.

For three days the pope hesitated, but he finally allowed Henry into the castle. Weeping, the emperor promised to cease from lay investiture. Hildebrand received him back into the church. From one point of view, this was the ultimate example of church triumphing over state: the Holy Roman emperor, supreme ruler of the Western world, lay prostrate at the feet of the pope.

Hildebrand’s forgiveness restored Henry’s power in Germany, giving him back his army from church lands. But civil war erupted. Henry’s foes among the nobility elected Rudolf of Swabia as emperor. Both Henry and Rudolf looked to Hildebrand for support; for three years, Hildebrand wavered between them as the war raged. At last, in March 1080, provoked by a highhanded demand from Henry that Hildebrand must excommunicate Rudolf, the pope came down on Rudolf’s side and excommunicated Henry again.

This time, however, the German bishops stayed loyal to Henry. They did not recognize Rudolf’s claim to the throne and saw Henry as the only hope for stability in Germany. Henry convened a council in June that deposed Hildebrand. In October, Henry won the war when Rudolf was killed in battle. The victorious emperor then invaded Italy and in 1084 captured Rome itself. Here he placed the archbishop of Ravenna on the papal throne as Pope Clement III ; Clement then crowned Henry as emperor. Hildebrand went into exile, to Salerno in southern Italy, dying there in 1085. His famous last words were: “I have loved righteousness and hated iniquity; therefore I die in exile.”

For some time, there were two rival popes, one in Rome chosen by Henry, the other in exile chosen by reformers loyal to Hildebrand’s ideals — Pope Urban II (1088–99). Urban finally ousted his ecclesiastical rival.

The investiture conflict continued unabated. Urban’s successor, Paschal II (1099–1118), was so committed to the independence of church from state that in 1110 he offered an astonishing proposal to the new emperor, Henry V. If Henry would give up all pretence of investing bishops with spiritual authority, Paschal would surrender all the church’s possessions in Germany to the emperor; bishops would live in simple poverty.

This proposal was not to the liking of most German bishops, and Paschal had to withdraw it. However, the distinction Paschal made between the spiritual and secular aspects of investiture provided the key to the settlement of the controversy in 1122. At Worms that year, Pope Calixtus II and Henry V agreed on two points:

(i) The emperor would invest a bishop or abbot with his authority over the land that went with his office.

(ii) The bishop’s spiritual superior (his archbishop) would invest him with his spiritual authority over the church — the emperor would no longer confer the ring and staff.

Such a compromise would have disappointed Hildebrand, but it secured for the church much more independence than it had enjoyed under feudalism. It also dealt a crushing blow to the idea that bishops owed their spiritual office to the king.

The investiture conflict teaches us to distinguish carefully the proper boundaries of church and state. Making that distinction can be fraught with problems. We applaud the medieval papacy for insisting on the church’s independence. But to secure that independence, the papacy often swung to an opposite theocratic extreme, wishing to control the state. Great wisdom is needed in discerning how rightly to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17). May God grant us that wisdom today.