After reading this article you will learn about the conflict between the church and the state during medieval period.
The most important feature of the medieval political thought is the long-standing conflict between the church and the state.
Before the centralization of the church system and the advent of the ecclesiastical primacy the emperor was the head of both the secular and spiritual worlds and the church did not hesitate to show obligations to the secular power. But when the supremacy of the spiritual organization was established beyond doubt, the church fathers proceeded to bring the political world under their full control and then commenced the conflict between the two.
With the recognition of Christianity as state religion and rise of papacy a unified Christian world was established and the boundaries of the Roman Empire and the Christian world ultimately coincided. The powers of the two authorities were never clearly demarcated. This resulted in the overlapping of the powers.
Again the field of implementation of the powers of both the spiritual and temporal authorities was poised for conflict. Any compromised formula was unacceptable to both of them. Relations became strained and the conflict appeared inevitable.
The accumulation of wealth in the hands of the church fathers may be regarded as another cause of conflict between the two. There was a gulf of difference between what the church preached and what it practiced.
While the church advised the people to adopt plain living and high thinking, it itself led a very luxurious and comfortable life and for that purpose it received monetary donations from the people.
Gradually wealth began to be accumulated in the fund of the church and before long it became the owner of fabulous amount of wealth which inspired the church fathers to participate actively in politics and in other non-spiritual functions.
Involvement in politics considerably curtailed the emperor’s sphere of action and freedom which ultimately led to antagonistic relations.
The power of the Pope to excommunicate any temporal person—particularly a person of the royal family—provided a source of conflict between the king and the church. The power of excommunication was coupled with dangerous consequences.
If a member of the royal family or prince came under excommunication he was deprived of throne and he could not claim any allegiance from his subjects. Pope was not content with interfering with politics only; he ventured to interfere with the personal matters of the king. For example, king Lothaire of Lorraine once decided to divorce his wife and marry his mistress. Pope Nicholas I strongly objected to it on the ground of immorality.
A long-drawn struggle could not settle the dispute between the king and the Pope and finally the king was forced by the Pope to take back his wife. The attitude and interference of the Pope was accepted by weak emperors. But emperors with strong personality resisted the church and this facilitated the struggle between the two.
Consolidation of the royal power may be regarded as another cause of conflict between the church and the state. Historians proceed to state that by the fourteenth century the emperors were able to consolidate their strength. The feudal lords and nobles in the past took the side of the church.
Towards the end of the thirteenth century their power was reduced and the Pope’s influence over them also tended to decline. This enhanced the authority of the king and he refused to declare himself a subordinate agent of the church.
The Church thought it an audacity on the part of the king and it became infuriated and declared crusade against temporal power. Over the question of investiture, a fierce controversy arose between Pope Gregory VII and Emperor Henry IV. Being afraid of excommunication the emperor kneeled before the Pope.
But when the political situation changed Henry IV captured Rome and sent Gregory into exile. The Church faced the challenge posed by the king. National monarchs also became adamant. Enhanced strength encouraged them to risk the excommunication, interdict and other papal weapons.
Economic factors also fuelled the bitterness between church and monarch. Church had amassed a vast amount of property and wealth over which the temporal authority wanted to impose tax. The church, through its powerful organization, exerted tremendous influence upon the masses and threats of excommunication resisted all the moves of taxation.
The king as head of the state and in charge of all political and civil functions proceeded to coin money and collect taxes. Here again, the church stood in the way of the temporal authority.
The argument of the king was that the imposition and collection of taxes fell within his jurisdiction and the church had nothing to do with it. But the church refused to oblige the monarch and a cold war became inevitable.
The interpretation of an emphasis on the divine right theory served another cause of conflict. Kings in the Middle Ages claimed that the source of power and authority of both the king and the church was God and naturally the final responsibility for all the activities was to God alone and under no circumstances to the church.
For any failures or misdeeds he was accountable to God alone and the Pope had no right to interfere with the functions of the king. But this claim was challenged by the church. In no case the power of the Pope could be limited and his decision be contradicted.
“The decrees of the princes do not take precedence over, but follow the decrees of the church.” To this argument of the Pope, the emperor’s reply was that his jurisdiction extended to the entire Roman world and not to any particular region.
The claims and counterclaims however failed to solve the conflict and ultimately both stood face to face.