The Fourteenth Century Controversies. The controversy between ecclesiastical and secular authority at the opening of the fourteenth century centered around the dispute between Pope Boniface and Philip the Fair, king of France. Unmindful of the growth of national states and of the popular support of royal power, the pope tried unsuccessfully to extend the ideals of ecclesiastical supremacy. After the death of Boniface, his successors, Clement V and John XXII, made peace with the powerful French kings and from 1309 to 1376 resided at Avignon under their protection and influence.
During this period they engaged in hot disputes with the German emperors, Henry VII and Lewis of Bavaria. On the papal side, the leading conversationalists were Pope Boniface; Egidius Colonna, who had been the tutor of the French king, but who abandoned him at the time of his quarrel with the pope; the friar Augustinius Triumphus; and Pope John XXII. On the side of the secular rulers appeared John of Paris,Pierre. Dubois, Dante, Marsilius of Padua, and William of Ockam.
During this period a decided change of attitude appeared in political thought. The French king was the strongest ruler in Christendom. He made no claim, however, to imperial power, and to that extent was able to assert the independence of secular authority without becoming involved in the traditions of the empire. So weak, indeed, had the emperor become that the church no longer feared him.
The pope, in his effort to weaken the position of the French ruler, even supported the imperial argument that all kings owed allegiance to the emperor. A growing spirit of national unity and the establishment of a centralized government had created a strong political system in France, and the claims of the French king were supported by practically all classes in the kingdom. The state was at last becoming more powerful than the church.
Uncritical appeals to history were made to prove that there had been a king of the Franks before the rise of the church. And the more modern argument was put forward that the French king should exercise independent authority because he controlled the actual physical force to carry out his commands, Elaborate plans to recover the Holy Land and to establish peace in Europe under French hegemony were drawn up, with the accusation that the popes had failed to accomplish these ends because of their feebleness and because of the disunity of Christendom.
The fact that the controversy between the French king and the pope arose Over a question of taxation, an issue distinctly secular in nature, strengthened the position of the royal supporters. It led to an extended discussion of the nature of property rights, in which the church party, putting forth the most extreme claims of papal supremacy, argued that the ultimate ownership of all temporal goods is in the church, and therefore subject to the pope.
The king’s followers argued that the property of laymen was individual, and that – the property of the clergy belonged to the church as a body. Of the church property the pope was steward, not owner. Elaborate legal analysis was made of the distinction between ownership and jurisdiction, and the right of the French king to jurisdiction over church property in his own territory was successfully advocated.
The supporters of secular authority, for centuries on the defensive, began to show growing self-confidence. While fantastic analogies and scholastic appeals to authority remained the basis of their reasoning, the emphasis placed upon the philosopher, Aristotle, and upon the Roman law, both of which were anti-ecclesiastical in spirit, had decided results. In France especially, where the jurisdiction of the royal courts was extended over both feudal vassals and the church, the influence of the juristic advisers of the king was powerful.
Pierre Du Bois even argued that the temporal power of the papacy should be transferred to the French king, and that by a series of marriages, alliances, and conquests France should rule the earth. The lawyers gave a marked stimulus to the consolidation of feudal Europe into national monarchies and to the destruction of the temporal power of the church.
The jurists supporting the French king brought forward another line of argument which became important in the following century. They asserted that if the pope failed to exercise his stewardship for the good of the church, he, like any tyrant, might be deposed. Having no theoretical basis to justify the placing of this power in the hands of the French king, they argued that the ultimate depository of ecclesiastical authority was a general church council, and that such a body might remove the pope.
In the controversy later between Pope John and the German emperor, this doctrine was again asserted, The opponents of the pope argued that final authority in the church rested in the whole body of believers, and that a heretical or tyrannical pope might be removed by a church council.
This idea had more weight with the empire as a background than it had twenty years earlier in the French monarchy, since the history of the early church contained records of church councils in which the emperor was the dominant figure.
The controversy between Pope John and the Emperor Lewis was complicated by several side issues that weakened the papal position. The pope had taken advantage of a disputed succession to enlarge his claims to interfere in German affairs. Behind the policy of the pope, then resident at Avignon, French influence was clearly evident, and the claims of papal authority were put forward to justify the extension of French dominion at the expense of Germany. In the same way the pope was involved in the internal politics of the Italian cities, supporting the Guelf party because he was no longer inclined to recognize the imperial power in Italy.
The free cities were more interested in maintaining their independence than they were in the controversy between emperor and pope, and they played off their stronger neighbors, one against the other. Besides, the Italian cities looked upon the pope with dislike because of his removal from Rome, with the resultant loss of the profitable stream of clergy and pilgrims, and of important church offices for the great Italian families.
A controversy within the church, caused by the pope’s decree attacking the doctrine of poverty of the Franciscan friars, turned a number of the ablest ecclesiastical writers into papal critics. These men took refuge in the court of the emperor and employed all their controversial skill in attacking the papacy.
They strengthened the position of the secular as against the ecclesiastical system and argued for the church council rather than the pope as the final authority in ecclesiastical matters, In England, the belief that the Pope was favoring the French strengthened the supporters of the king and led to the repudiation of John’s tribute, to the statutes of Provisors and Praemunire, and to the hostility toward the clergy manifested in the Peasants Revolt.
It was even proposed in Parliament that church property should be confiscated for political needs. All believers who held that Rome was the true capital of Christendom were scandalized by the “Babylonish Captivity” at Avignon and the Great Schism that followed, and the papacy lost Prestige which it was never able to recover.