The Corruption of the Papal Court and the Roots of Modern Liberalism

by Ludwig von Pastor


Ludwig von Pastor’s History of the Popes from the Close of the Middle Ages is a great gem of recent Catholic scholarship.  Spanning forty volumes and five centuries, Pastor’s history traces the Papacy from the Babylonian Captivity at Avignon, through the Conciliarist crises of the mid 15th century, the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation, and beyond, up to the outbreak of the French Revolution.  For his work, Pastor was given free use of the Vatican Secret Archives, and was commended by both Leo XIII and Pius XI.

The excerpt below is taken from the first volume of the series, which discusses the Avignon Popes and the Great Schism.  Our readers will find it interesting for the light it throws on the relationship between the Franciscan Order of Friars Minor, the corruption of the Papal Court at Avignon, and the emergence of a school of political and religious thought identical in essence to the liberalism which still plagues the Church today.


Financial Difficulties at Avignon

The financial difficulties from which the Popes had suffered in the thirteenth century became much more serious after they had taken up their abode on French soil. On the one hand, the income they had drawn from Italy failed; and on the other, the tributary powers became much more irregular in the fulfillment of their obligations, because they feared that the greater part of the subsidies they paid would fall into the hands of France.

The Papal financiers adopted most questionable means of covering deficits. From the time of John XXII. especially, the hurtful system of Annates, Reservations, and Expectancies, came into play, and a multitude of abuses were its consequence. Alvaro Pelayo, the most devoted, perhaps even over-zealous, defender of the Papal power in the fourteenth century, justly considers the employment of this system, liable to excite the cupidity of the clergy, as one of the wounds which then afflicted the Church. His testimony is all the more worthy of consideration, because, as an official of many years’ standing in the Court, he describes the state of things at Avignon from his own most intimate knowledge. In his celebrated book, On the Lamentation of the Church, he says : “Whenever I entered the chambers of the ecclesiastics of the Papal Court, I found brokers and clergy, engaged in weighing and reckoning the money which lay in heaps before them.”

This system of taxation and its consequent abuses soon aroused passionate resentment. Dante, “consumed with zeal for the House of God,” expressed, in burning words, his deep indignation against the cupidity and nepotism of the Popes, always, however, carefully distinguishing between Pope and Papacy, person and office.

Conflict between the Empire and the Church

It was not long, however, before an opposition arose which made no such distinctions, and attacked not only the abuses which had crept in, but the Ecclesiastical authority Itself. The Avignon system of finance, which contributed more than has been generally supposed to the undermining of the Papal authority, greatly facilitated the attacks of this party.

From what has been said it will be clearly seen that the long-continued sojourn of the Popes in France, occasioned as it was by the confusion of Italian affairs, was an important turning-point in the history of the Papacy and of the Church. The course of development which had been going on for many centuries, was thereby almost abruptly interrupted, and a completely new state of things substituted for it. No one who has any idea of the nature and the necessity of historical continuity, can fail to perceive the danger of this transference of the centre of ecclesiastical unity to southern France. The Papal power and the general interests of the Church, which at that time required quiet progress and in many ways thorough reform, must inevitably in the long run be severely shaken.

To make matters worse, the conflict between the Empire and the Church now broke out with unexpected violence. The most prominent antagonists of the Papacy, both ecclesiastical and political, gathered around Louis of Bavaria, offering him their assistance against John XXII. At the head of the ecclesiastical opposition appeared the popular and influential order of the Friars Minor [the Franciscans], who at this very moment were at daggers drawn with the Pope.

The Friars Minor and John XXII.

The special occasion of this quarrel was a difference between them and him, regarding the meaning of evangelical poverty; and the great popularity of the Order made their hostility all the more formidable. The Minorites, who were irritated to the utmost against the Pope, succeeded in gaining great influence over Louis of Bavaria, an influence which is clearly traceable in the appeal published by him in 1324, at Sachenhausen, near Frankfort.

In this remarkable document, amongst the many serious charges brought against “John XXII., who calls himself Pope,” is that of heresy, and it is asserted that he exalts himself against the evangelical doctrines of perfect poverty, and thus against Christ, the Blessed Virgin, and the company of the Apostles, who all approved it by their lives. After a passionate dogmatic exposition of the poverty of Christ and a shower of reproaches, comes the appeal to the Council, to a future legitimate Pope, to Holy Mother Church, to the Apostolic See, and to everyone in general to whom an appeal could be made.

This document, in which political and religious questions were mingled together, was sedulously disseminated in Germany and Italy. It must have greatly embittered the whole contest. A religious conflict was now added to the political one. Louis, a simple soldier, was unable to measure its consequences and powerless to control its progress. It grew more and more passionate and violent. The Minorites no longer confined themselves to the province of theology, in which the conflict between them and the Pope had at first arisen, but also took part in the political question. Led on by their theological antagonism, they proceeded to build up a political system resting on theories which threatened to disturb all existing ideas of law, and to shake the position of the Papacy to its verv foundations.

Subversive Doctrines of Occam, Marsiglio, and Jean de Jandun

The special importance of the action of the Minorites consists in the assertion and maintenance of these principles, which indeed did not at once come prominently forward, for the writings of the Englishman, William Occam, in which they are chiefly propounded, collectively date from a period subsequent to the Diet of Rhense. There can, however, be no doubt that the views which Occam afterwards expressed in his principal work, the Dialogus, had already at an earlier period exercised great influence.

According to the theory of Occam, who was deeply imbued with the political ideas of the ancients, the Emperor has a right to depose the Pope should he fall into heresy. Both General Councils and Popes may err, Holy Scripture and the beliefs held by the Church at all times and in all places, can alone be taken as the unalterable rule of Faith and Morals. The Primacy and Hierarchical Institutions in general are not necessary or essential to the subsistence of the Church; and the forms of the ecclesiastical, as of the political, constitution ought to vary with the varying needs of the time.

With the Minorites two other men soon came to the front, who may be considered as the spokesmen of the definite political opposition to the Papacy. It was probably in the summer of the year 1326 that the Professors of the University of Paris, Marsiglio of Padua and Jean de Jandun, made their appearance at the Royal Court of Nuremberg. The “Defender of Peace” (Defensor Pacis), the celebrated joint work of these two most important literary antagonists of the Popes of their day, is of so remarkable a character that we must not omit to give a further account of its subversive propositions. This work, which is full of violent invectives against John XXII., “the great dragon and the old serpent,” asserts the unconditional sovereignty of the people. The legislative power which is exercised through their elected representatives, belongs to them, also the appointment of the executive through their delegates. The ruler is merely the instrument of the legislature. He is subject to the law, from which no individual is exempt. If the ruler exceeds his authority, the people are justified in depriving him of his power, and deposing him. The jurisdiction of the civil power extends even to the determination of the number of men to be employed in every trade or profession. Individual liberty has no more place in Marsiglio’s state than it had in Sparta.

Still more radical, if possible, are the views regarding the doctrine and government of the Church put forth in this work. The sole foundation of faith and of the Church is Holy Scripture, which does not derive its authority from, her, but, on the contrary, confers on her that which she possesses. The only true interpretation of Scripture is not that of the Church, but that of the most intelligent people, so that the University of Paris may very well be superior to the Court of Rome. Questions concerning faith are to be decided, not by the Pope, but by a General Council.

This General Council is supreme over the whole Church, and is to be summoned by the State. It is to be composed not only of the clergy, but also of laymen elected by the people. As regards their office, all priests are equal; according to Divine right, no one of them is higher than another. The whole question of Church government is one of expediency, not of the faith necessary to salvation. The Primacy of the Pope is not founded on Scripture, nor on Divine right. His authority therefore can only, according to Marsiglio, be derived from a General Council and from the legislature of the State; and for the election of a Pope the authority of the Council requires confirmation from the State.

The office of the Pope is, with the College appointed for him by the Council or by the State, to signify to the State authority the necessity of summoning a Council, to preside at the Council, to draw up its decisions, to impart them to the different Churches, and to provide for their execution. The Pope represents the executive power, while the legislative power in its widest extent appertains to the Council. But a far higher and more influential position belongs to the Emperor in Marsiglio’s Church; the convocation and direction of the Council is his affair; he can punish priests and bishops, and even the Pope.

Ecclesiastics are subject to the temporal tribunals for transgressions of the law, the Pope himself is not exempt from penal justice, far less can he be permitted to judge his ecclesiastics, for this is the concern of the State. The property of the Church enjoys no immunity from taxation; the number of ecclesiastics in a country is to be limited by the pleasure of the State; the patronage of all benefices belongs to the State, and may be exercised either by Princes, or by the majority of the members of the parish to which an ecclesiastic is to be appointed. The parish has not only the right of election and appointment, but also the control of the official duties of the priest, and the ultimate power of dismissal. Exclusion from the Christian community, in so far as temporal and worldly interests are connected with it, requires its consent.

Like Calvin in later days, Marsiglio regards all the judicial and legislative power of the Church as inherent in the people, and delegated by them to the clergy. The community and the State are everything; the Church is put completely in the back-ground ; she has no legislature, no judicial power, and no property.

The goods of the Church belong to the individuals who have devoted them to ecclesiastical uses, and then to the State. The State is to decide regarding sale and purchase, and to consider whether these goods are sufficient to provide for the needs of the clergy and of the poor. The State has also power, should it be necessary for the public good, to deprive the Church of her superfluities and limit her to what is necessary, and the State has the right to effect this secularization, notwithstanding the opposition of the Priests.

But never, Marsiglio teaches, is power over temporal goods to be conceded to the Roman Bishop, because experience has shown that he uses it in a manner dangerous to the public peace Like Valla and Macchiavelli, in later times, Marsiglio assumes the air of an Italian patriot, when he attributes all the troubles of Italy to the Popes. This is a palpable sophistry, for that reproach was in no way applicable to Marsiglio’s days. Italy was then under the sway of her most distinguished monarch, King Robert of Anjou, whom the Popes had protected to the best of their power, and Louis of Bavaria’s expedition to Rome was certainly neither their wish nor their work. On the contrary, at a later period, Pope John XXII. issued a Bull with the object of separating Italy from Germany, and thereby destroying the influence of the ” Ultramontanes,” or non-Italians in Italy.

In face of these outrageous attacks and this blank denial of the Divine institution of the Primacy and the Hierarchy, there were never wanting brave champions of the Apostolic See and of the doctrine of the Church. Most of them, unfortunately, were led by excess of zeal to formulate absurd and preposterous propositions. Agostino Trionfo, an Italian, and Alvaro Pelayo, a Spaniard, have, in this matter, gained a melancholy renown. As one extreme leads to another, in their opposition to the Caesaro-papacy of Marsiglio, they exalted the Pope into a kind of demigod, with absolute authority over the whole world. Evidently, exaggerations of this kind were not calculated to counteract the attacks of political skepticism in regard to the authority of the Holy See.

Envenomed Struggle between Church and State

The theory put forward in the Defensor Pacis, regarding the omnipotence of the State and the consequent annihilation of all individual and ecclesiastical liberty, far surpassed all preceding attacks on the position and constitution of the Church in audacity, novelty, and acrimony. Practically this doctrine, which was copied from the ancients, meant the overthrow of all existing institutions and the separation of Church and State. Many passages of the work go far beyond the subsequent utterances of Wyclif and Huss, or even those of Luther and Calvin, whose forerunner Marsiglio may be considered. The great French Revolution was a partial realization of his schemes, and, in these days, a powerful party is working for the accomplishment of the rest. Huss has been styled “the Precursor” of the Revolution, but the author of the Defensor Pacis might yet more justly claim the title.

Louis of Bavaria accepted the dedication of the book which brought these doctrines before the world and promulgated political principles of so questionable a character, but a still greater triumph was in store for Marsiglio. In union with the anti-papal Minorites and the Italian Ghibellines, he succeeded in inducing Louis to go to Rome and to engage in the Revolutionary proceedings of the year 1328. The collation of the Imperial Crown by the Roman people, their deposition of the Pope and election of an anti-Pope in the person of the Minorite, Pietro da Corvara, were the practical results of the teaching of the Defensor Pacis.

Some of the Emperors of the House of Hohenstaufen had been men of stronger characters than Louis was, yet none had ever gone to such extremes. He appealed to doctrines whose application to ecclesiastical matters was equivalent to revolution, and whose re-action on the sphere of politics after their triumph over the Church would have been rapid and incalculable. For a century and a half the Church had been free from schism; by his action he let loose this terrible evil upon her. His culpable rashness gave a revolutionary and democratic turn to the struggle between the Empire and the Papacy. He repudiated all the canonical decisions regarding the Supremacy of the Pope which the Emperors of the House of Hapsburg had accepted, degraded the Empire to a mere Investiture from the Capitol, and despoiled the Crown of Charles the Great, in the eyes of all who believed in the ancient imperial hierarchy, of the last ray of its majesty. It is strange that under Louis the Roman Empire should actually have been thus desecrated and degraded, so soon after Dante’s idealization had crowned it with a halo of glory.

It is impossible in the present retrospect to describe all the vicissitudes of Church and State during the struggle which was so disastrous to both. Envenomed by the dependence of the Popes on France, the exasperation on both sides was intense. The ecclesiastical power was implacable, lost to all sense of moderation, dignity, or charity. The secular power, cowardly but defiant, shrank from no extreme, sought the aid of the lowest demagogues, and by its vacillations frustrated each favourable chance that arose. The long and obstinate warfare, so little honourable to either party, could have no result save the equal humiliation of both and the complete ruin of social order in Church and State. John XXII., restless and active to the last, died at a great age on the 4th December, 1334.

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