The Forgotten Pope who Invented Conclaves

In an age when the Pope is treated as a news item on a daily basis, as if he were just another secular leader, it is easy for us to take the papacy for granted. Yet, this unique institution should be seen by Catholics as something entirely different: first, as Christ’s restoration of the Davidic kingdom, when He entrusted the keys to Peter for the salvation of souls through His One Church (Matthew 16); and secondly, as the force bringing to completion a historical process that ultimately resulted in the unusual, Western distinction between political and religious spheres. If we wish to avoid the modernist myth of a papacy clinging to political power and only relinquishing it in the aftermath of the French Revolution, we need to somehow recover a sense of the much longer history of this distinction, as well as of the active role played by the Church to forge it. A good example and useful starting point could be the simple question: where does the idea of a conclave for the election of popes come from? Was this something imposed by modern secular states on the Church, or was it rather a much earlier attempt by the Church to free itself from secular interference? To answer this question, we should look at the brief pontificate of a forgotten Pope, Nicholas II (1059-1061), who lived during a momentous age of Catholic reform and spiritual renewal.

The series of reforms that transformed the spiritual and institutional life of the Catholic Church between the 1050s and the 12th century are usually associated with the figure of Hildebrand, who led the reform party in Rome for several decades and was eventually elected Pope as Gregory VII (1073-1085). In fact, this figure is so much larger than life that all students of medieval Europe have read the expression ‘Gregorian Reforms’, often juxtaposed with the idea of an ‘Investiture Controversy’. While it is true that Gregory showed awesome resolve to defend the freedom of the Church from secular interference, many of the reforming ideas that he held dear had been developed already during the previous pontificates. Furthermore, it is true that the issue of who should have the authority to invest the bishops would eventually usher in a struggle to disentangle the Church from the control of secular rulers – emperors, kings, and local lords. However, this conflict, fought by Gregory and his successors, could be conceivable only after a reform of the papacy itself.

The tenth century and the first half of the eleventh marked the lowest ebb in the prestige and authority of the papacy. In theory, the bishop of Rome was elected by the people and clergy of the city, with the approval of the Holy Roman Emperor. The reality was frequently different, with local noble families imposing their candidates and at times even resorting to bribes and violence to choose the next pope. It is therefore not surprising that in this period the other problems afflicting the Church remained unaddressed: lack of discipline in many dioceses, the buying and selling of ecclesiastical offices (simony), and a significant number of priests openly living in concubinage. Holy men and women who deeply loved the Church did not stand by idly: a monastic movement starting in Cluny swept across Europe and reformed hundreds of Benedictine monasteries; and a series of local councils and synods castigating corruption and attempting to impose discipline were held with the support of various Emperors and kings. At one point in the 11th century, Emperor Henry III even intervened militarily to wrestle the papacy away from the Roman nobility, and the result was a series of quite pious popes who initiated a reform of the curia and the recovery of Rome’s spiritual leadership. But this solution would have turned the papacy into a sort of imperial agency. It is at this point, when the Church in Western Europe seemed destined to be absorbed by the state much like in Constantinople, that in January 1059 Gerard of Burgundy was elected pope with the name of Nicholas II.

In the space of a few, intense months, Pope Nicholas managed to defeat an anti-pope who had been supported by some Italian nobles, draw a plan for the liberation of Sicily from Muslim invaders, and organize a council in Rome. Taking advantage of the death of Emperor Henry III and the minority of his heir, Nicholas first issued the bull In nomine Domini, which reformed future papal elections, and then concluded an alliance with the Norman leader Robert Guiscard at Melfi. The two moves were deeply connected. The bull established that from then on, the papacy’s independence would have been restored by a new system of election, that granted to the Cardinal bishops the authority to freely select the next pope: the damaging influence of the Roman nobility was destroyed, and the imperial approval became a mere formality. Because Nicholas knew that he had no troops at his disposal and that this reform risked remaining dead letter, he completed his second, shocking move by embracing the leader of the unruly Normans of Southern Italy, while simultaneously directing their military skills against the Islamic threat. This alliance had enormous consequences: the pope invested Robert Guiscard as Duke of Apulia, Calabria, and Sicily, but the legitimacy of this fiefdom rested upon a solemn oath by the Normans, who promised to offer protection to the Church if at the death of Nicholas any noble, king, or emperor attempted to intimidate the Cardinals, interfere with the new election process, or in any way deny the rights of the Church. Needless to say, the imperial court was astonished by Nicholas’ moves and by the new direction taken by the reform movement. The decision to befriend the Normans and legitimize the rule of Robert Guiscard was seen as especially distasteful, since the Germans saw themselves as the new Romans and the Normans as a new wave of barbarians. Just a few years earlier, Norman armies had even fought and imprisoned a pope! But Nicholas was skillfully advancing a reform that would save the papacy and usher in a broader conflict about the investiture of abbots and bishops throughout Latin Christendom.

Before the great and more famous struggle led by Gregory VII to liberate the whole Church from lay interferences could even be conceivable, the Papacy itself had to shake off both the insolence of the Roman nobility, which had done so much to damage its reputation, and the ‘protection’ of the German Empire, which risked to reduce it to utter dependence on the political power. This reform of the papacy was initiated by a forgotten Pope, Nicholas II, whose designation of the conclave of cardinals as the only, independent body with the authority to elect a new bishop of Rome truly changed History. Even this, of course, did not guarantee that only holy men would be elected as successors of St. Peter, because the Cardinals still have their free will intact and need to cooperate with God freely. Yet, surely Pope Nicholas created more space for the Holy Spirit to guide the Church, and the story of his brief pontificate is a good reminder that we should not take the papacy for granted, and that the distinction of Church and state was mostly a way for the Church to fend off invasions of the religious sphere by the state. Not the other way around.

Image: Pope Nicholas II in a early 12th century fresco at the Basilica of San Clemente al Laterano in Rome

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Dr. Matteo Salonia holds a PhD in History from the University of Liverpool and has taught at King’s College London and other British universities. He is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, and currently he is Assistant Professor in European and International History at the University of Nottingham Ningbo.

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