May 5, 2005
The Two Swords of Pope Benedict XVI
Ken A. Grant
Wading into the turbulent waters of the relationship between church and state is always a treacherous affair, whether entering from the church or state side. With the installation of Pope Benedict XVI, we might be reminded of this fact.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger entered into these deeps during the last presidential election cycle, as Martin Marty has noted with "grumbles" to which I would add my own ("Considering Pope Benedict XVI," April 25). Cardinal Ratzinger raised the specter of excommunication for those Catholic politicians who did not steer clear of a pro-choice position. This brought to my mind the actions of Pope Gregory VII (1073-1085), who dove headfirst into church-state relations with the express intent of ensuring a church completely free of any secular entanglements.
Gregory VII rendered much subsequent tinkering with the church-state line to be just that -- mere tinkering by comparison. He not only excommunicated King Henry IV at the Lenten Synod of 1076 (the result of a long-brewing confrontation between the two), but took the additional step of deposing him. He obliterated the line between church and state, and was soundly and widely criticized for his glaring innovation and revolutionary use of papal authority.
Previously, Pope Gelasius I (492-496) had commented on the relationship between the church and the empire: "[T]here are two powers by which chiefly this world is ruled: the sacred authority of the priesthood and the authority of kings. And of these the authority of the priests is so much the weightier, as they must render before the tribunal of an account even for the kings of men." While this might at first seem to support the position of Gregory VII, it was widely believed that the Gelasian "two swords" theory maintained that these two powers -- political and religious -- should not be held by the same person.
This battle culminated in the eleventh century, as the papacy attempted to wrest control away from the king and other secular rulers who were practicing Lay Investiture. That is, they had begun to name bishops, who were thereby invested with secular and sacred authority. The Investiture Controversy -- the title often given to the hubbub surrounding the late eleventh-century reform movement that sought to rectify this practice, and which reached its peak during the pontificate of Gregory VII -- was settled in 1122 with the Concordat of Worms. The Concordat stated that the king had the right to invest bishops with authority in the secular realm, while the church would endow bishops with the signs of sacred authority. The separation of the two swords was regarded as the most palatable compromise, as each side realized that the chaos following Gregory's political use of papal authority was detrimental to all.
Pope Benedict XVI ascends to the papal see amid a set of public attitudes that differs dramatically from Gregory's day, most notably in that a great many people outside the church seem to be quite sanguine about the former cardinal's foray into the political calculus of the United States. Inserting himself into the campaign, Cardinal Ratzinger did not only attempt to sway, through intimations of excommunication, Catholics whose beliefs regarding abortion he found to be completely out of line with Catholic teaching (wholly and rightfully within his purview). He also attempted to affect the outcome of the presidential election, knowing that the threat alone would change the way certain parts of the electorate would look at the candidates in question.
The most significant problem with such action on the state side of the church-state line is straightforward. When the popes of the thirteenth century acted on the precedent set by popes such as Gregory VII and Innocent III, secular powers began to treat them as just one more common prince to combat, bargain with, or vanquish. Similarly, today the church might come to be viewed as simply one more group which both politicians and the general populace either pander to, co-opt, or, perhaps worst of all, ignore.
A complementary effect is produced on the church side. When so involved in the secular fray, the church loses its voice; the Gospel itself is simply tuned out, as cynics regard its preaching to be one more way to produce a victor aligned with a particular political perspective.
The church, I think, cannot afford this kind of diminishment. So we might hope, then, that Pope Benedict XVI will relinquish the political sword he is poised to use. His hands will be full enough without it.
Ken A. Grant is a doctoral candidate in church history at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.