A Papal Revolt Created Europe’s First Bureaucracy

Frederic Köberl/European Parliament

The heterodox socialist thinker, Georges Sorel, once compared the proletarian revolution to the revolutionary transformations of European society undertaken by the Catholic Church over many centuries. He advised the proletarians to imitate the methods of the Church by reserving the hard work of class warfare to a carefully chosen elite, rather than seeking to enlist all the masses in the ranks of those going into combat. In the Church, Sorel observed, the role of combatant had been reserved for those trained in monastic life. Thus, he wrote in his book, Reflections on Violence: 

It is with elite troops, perfectly trained through monastic life, ready to face all the obstacles and filled with an absolute confidence in victory, that Catholicism has until now been able to triumph over all its enemies. Every time that a formidable peril has confronted the Church, men particularly adept, like great captains, at discerning the weak points in the opposing army have created new religious orders appropriate to the tactics demanded by the new struggle.

One of these “great captains” whom Sorel credits with inventing such tactics was Benedict of Nursia. Born soon after the collapse of the Roman Empire in western Europe, it was Benedict who preserved Christianity from destruction in the safety of his monasteries, enabling Christianity to be the driving force for the construction of a cultural and political order that lasted for centuries. Western civilization as we know it would not have existed were it not for the founding of the Benedictine order. 

But the Benedictines could not have achieved what they did without engaging in complex forms of political conflict and social innovation. After all, revolutions don’t just happen on their own. They require the emergence of new “great captains” to lead the world through periods of intense political conflict and oversee great epochal transitions in the course of history. What such figures oversee is the creation of powerful new institutions with a strong sense of identity and internal organization, free from the social and political fetters of the old society, with the capacity to effect change on a large scale through the force of collective action.

By the eleventh century, the Benedictine order had undergone such a transformation in its own internal organization that the monks it produced were well-equipped to build such institutions to meet the challenges then facing the Church. As battles between popes and emperors came to a head, it was poised to become a vanguard of revolution from above.

The Investiture Controversy

The Investiture Controversy of eleventh-century Europe was the beginning of a series of transformations that would ultimately overturn the feudal system. It was a time of intense conflict, much bloodshed, and civil strife, but by the same token also a time of great heroes and reformers. 

The situation that prevailed up until then was one where bishops and clergymen were often chosen by laymen, with kings and feudal lords overseeing local regions in their jurisdiction. But from the standpoint of the Church, this situation was scandalous. Priests were not merely engaging in secretive sexual relations behind the scenes: they were openly marrying into the families of the feudal nobility themselves.

This meant that the feudal lords had a highly charged political interest in who should be ordained as clergymen. Given the critical role that family ties and kinship played in the feudal political system, the inclusion of the priesthood within the family structure of the nobility gave the lords considerable power over the churches in their regions. Thus, it was in their interest to pick and choose who they wanted to be in the clergy. The offspring of married clergy were also entitled to certain family inheritances, which meant that the noble families could maintain a multigenerational hold over the churches themselves, and ultimately over the Catholic Church.

Not only was this a moral and spiritual problem that contradicted the Church’s long-held ideal of priestly celibacy, but it was also a political threat: it meant that the Church throughout Europe was, almost everywhere, the vassal of secular rulers. The Church’s autonomy as an institution was at stake.

Even though almost the whole of medieval Europe at that time was Catholic, giving it a kind of “translocal” unity, the Catholic world prior to the eleventh century lacked the centralized political sovereignty that once characterized the ancient Roman Empire. Even Emperor Charlemagne, the archetypal Holy Roman Emperor, did not enjoy anything approaching the universal power and jurisdiction of the ancient Caesars. The legal scholar Harold Berman described the situation in his treatise Law and Revolution: The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition

Although an illusion of continuity with ancient Rome was maintained, the Carolingian term “empire” (imperium) referred not to a territory or a federation of peoples but rather to the nature of the emperor’s authority, which was in fact very different from that of the earlier Roman emperors. Unlike Caesar, Charlemagne and his successors did not rule their subjects through an imperial bureaucracy. There was no capital city comparable to Rome or Constantinople indeed, in sharp contrast to Caesar’s city-studded empire, Charlemagne and his successors had hardly any cities at all. Instead, the emperor and his household traveled through his vast realm from one principal locality to another. He was constantly on the move, traveling in France, Burgundy, Italy, Hungary, as well as in his Frankish German homeland.

Although Charlemagne nominally represented an imperial power blessed by the Church, the degree to which he could claim any real control or oversight over the people of Europe was quite limited. In practice, most of the actual business of governance was concentrated within the sphere of local kingdoms and dukedoms, more or less independently of the “universal” power of the emperor or the Pope. Consequently, there was practically nothing that the “universal Church” could actually do to manage the complete breakdown of discipline among the clergy in Europe. The Church found itself almost completely at the behest of the feudal nobility, its hands tied, with no real political power or influence to speak of. Not even in the emperor did the pope have a reliable ally. For the Church’s defenders, this situation was intolerable. 

There was, however, one notable exception to the reigning chaos of the clerical class throughout Europe. In France and other parts of Europe, the monks of the Benedictine order were governed by the centralized authority of the abbot of the Abbey of Cluny, a monastery with formidable political influence located in southern France. This was due to the generous benefaction of William the Pious, Duke of Aquitaine, who in 910 handed over a large portion of his lands to the first abbot of Cluny, Bernon. William conferred upon Bernon all the titles and rights of lordship, thereby securing its complete autonomy from local lords and bishops. It was to be directly under the jurisdiction of the Pope alone, forming a long-lasting bond between Cluny and Rome. 

Over the centuries, hundreds of churches and monasteries came under Cluny’s ownership. It developed these vast properties into highly productive and profitable agricultural enterprises. By the eleventh century, there were literally thousands of monasteries across Europe under the jurisdiction not of local bishops—who were likely involved with feudal clans—but of the abbot of Cluny. In the midst of the investiture crisis, the reigning abbot, Hugh the Great, made sure to reserve the appointment of Cluny’s clerics to Rome rather than to feudal lords. He could only do this because his legal jurisdiction extended so far that it was independent of local feudal loyalties.  

In effect, the Abbey of Cluny began to function like a centralized bureaucracy under the dictatorship of a single abbot. “For this reason,” Berman writes, “Cluny has been called the first translocal corporation; ultimately it served in this respect as a model for the Roman Catholic Church as a whole.” 

The Holy Devil of Cluny

By the mid-eleventh century, the reigning Holy Roman Emperor, Henry III, had gone the way of all the feudal lords and treated the papacy as a subordinate office, even arranging for the deposition of three rival popes and the appointment of two of his own in succession, though both were assassinated by pro-papal enemies of the imperial crown. A violent conflict arose between opposing factions: the party of the papacy, and the party of the emperor. The third pope whom Henry III appointed as his candidate was Pope Leo IX, who defected to the “party of the papacy” in an act of betrayal against the emperor, asserting the supremacy and independence of the papacy. Leo IX took the radical step of formally declaring himself the direct head of all the clergy, both within and outside the boundaries of the empire. This dramatically escalated the tensions between the Church and the secular rulers. 

The future Pope Gregory VII, then known as Hildebrand of Sovana, was a prominent member of the “papal party” in these conflicts. He was a friend and protegé of Pope Leo IX himself, even elevated by the pope to the rank of “cardinal subdeacon.” He had also been a monk at the Abbey at Cluny, and was thus a close friend to Hugh, the abbot at the time. Hildebrand was a fierce partisan for Leo’s doctrine of papal supremacy. It was largely under Hildebrand’s leadership that a militant party was formed with the purpose of issuing a major propaganda campaign on behalf of the pope. It urged Christians to refuse the sacraments from priests who violated their vows of celibacy and demanded the “freedom of the church” from the feudal lords. Hildebrand enlisted scores of monks and clerics to disseminate propagandist literature in schools, monasteries, churches, and on the streets; and he mobilized a revolutionary coalition of knights and plebs to stage riots and exert pressure upon the enemies of the pope, including unchaste clerics and insubordinate bishops. These tactics would continue into Hildebrand’s own pontificate.

Hildebrand remained the dominant force pulling the strings on behalf of five successive popes: Leo IX (1049-1054), Victor II (1055–1057), Stephen IX (1057–58), Nicholas II (1058-1061), and Alexander II (1061-1073). He was known by all as the major pillar of papal power during these turbulent years. His ability to accomplish his own will and that of the popes whom he served was unparalleled. 

A portrait of Hildebrand’s personality and strength of will is offered from one of his most important companions and friendly critics, the Benedictine reformer Peter Damian. A formidable master of theology and an austere monk, he had even taken up life in a hermitage to avoid what he saw as the material excesses of Cluny, where the monks controlled vast amounts of wealth in land and imports from the Byzantine east. Later, Pope Stephen IX appointed him cardinal-bishop of Ostia. 

From his many letters, it is evident that Peter saw Hildebrand as the key figure pulling the strings from within the papal court, and he described Hildebrand as an “unmovable column of the Apostolic See.” Indeed, Peter found himself accountable to none other than Hildebrand for the performance of his episcopal duties, and it was to Hildebrand that he addressed many of his desperate pleas to be released from those duties. In at least two of those letters, he even addressed him as “my holy Satan.” Herbert Cowdrey, a biographer of Hildebrand, offers the following reflection on this striking title: 

Peter evidently had in mind the Satan of the book of Job (1:6-12, 2:1-7), the chief officer of God’s court who was God’s agent in afflicting a righteous man with plagues from which he was eventually delivered. Hildebrand was the key figure in holding him [Peter] to his episcopal duties; the letter ended with a prayer that God at whose command Herod’s prison stood open for the escape of the great Peter of old (Acts 12:7-10) would deliver the wretched Peter of today from Hildebrand’s hands.

Hildebrand treated many of the pope’s ministers with similar severity, bending them to his will through the sheer force of his giant personality. But it was not only by his personality that he governed so effectively: under the papacies of Nicholas and Alexander, he also served as the commander-in-chief of the pope’s own private army. In this role, he displayed a high degree of competence and on a number of occasions used his military prowess to intimidate rebels and rivals into submission to the Holy See. 

When it was Hildebrand’s turn to become pope, under the name of Gregory VII, he continued to fight for papal supremacy, pushing even further than his predecessors had done. He not only advocated the political independence of the Church but declared its supremacy over secular rulers themselves, even claiming the authority to depose the Holy Roman Emperor. In addition, he consolidated his authority over the clergy and bishops, enlisting willing secular powers to coerce defiant bishops when necessary, earning him the hatred and apprehension of bishops all throughout Europe. 

With the publication of the Dictatus Papae in 1075, he initiated a long period of history in which the Catholic Church claimed superiority over secular political powers. The dictates of Gregory VII bear all the marks of his Cluniac inheritance: a heavy emphasis on the centralization of all ecclesiastical and even political power in the hands of a single head, in this case the pope himself, whom Gregory declared to possess a universal and immediate power over the entire Catholic world: “The Roman pontiff alone can with right be called universal.” 

Gregory exercised the universal authority which he claimed through the frequent convening of synods to address major disciplinary, doctrinal, and administrative issues. The synods were attended by bishops, clergy, and laity, and the decisions issued from them were to represent the final ruling of the pope himself. The synods were simultaneously a symbol of the Church’s corporate nature at work, and also overshadowed by the figure of Gregory himself, who had the final word on all decisions. He exercised his universal authority by dispatching legates all throughout Europe to communicate his will in administrative and judicial matters to local dioceses. They were authorized to call regional synods in the pope’s name, constituting a real increase in papal power over those regions. The extension of these measures laid the groundwork for the creation of a vast papal bureaucracy in the years to come.

In 1078, Gregory tackled the main point of controversy in the investiture struggle: “We decree that no one of the clergy shall receive the investiture with a bishopric or abbey or church from the hand of an emperor or king or of any lay person, male or female. But if he shall presume to do so he shall clearly know that such investiture is bereft of apostolic authority, and that he himself shall lie under excommunication until fitting satisfaction shall have been rendered.” This prompted further resistance from the Emperor, then Henry IV, culminating in the highly controversial deposition and excommunication of Henry IV by the Pope. A series of bloody wars broke out between the imperial army and the allies of the pope, with no clear victory for either side, at least not immediately.

Despite the resistance, the reforms of Gregory VII would go on to revolutionarily transform medieval society,  signaling the end of feudalism and the transition to absolutism. Gregory’s second successor, Urban II, went on to found the early version of the Roman Curia, a collection of centralized administrative institutions that have since enabled popes to oversee the vast network that makes up the Catholic Church. As a large advisory body to the pope, the Curia essentially functioned as a regal court. Urban also followed in Gregory’s footsteps by making extensive use of military power to advance the Church’s empire, and it was he who called the first crusade against the Muslims in the year 1095. The extent of European mobilization that he catalyzed signaled the power of his influence. 

Similar measures were further extended by Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) at the Fourth Lateran Council with the creation of what was effectively a papal surveillance state: a network of intelligence officers appointed by the Pope in response to the Albigensian heresy, who scrutinized regional dioceses for their orthodoxy. On account of all these changes, Berman makes the surprising claim that the Papal Revolution was in many ways the origin of the modern institution we now know as “the state”: 

After Gregory VII, however, the church took on most of the distinctive characteristics of the modern state. It claimed to be an independent, hierarchical, public authority. Its head, the pope, had the right to legislate, and in fact Pope Gregory’s successors issued a steady stream of new laws, sometimes by their own authority, sometimes with the aid of church councils summoned by them. The church also executed its laws through an administrative hierarchy, through which the pope ruled as a modern sovereign rules through his or her representatives. Further, the church interpreted its laws, and applied them, through a judicial hierarchy culminating in the papal curia in Rome. Thus the church exercised the legislative, administrative, and judicial powers of a modern state. 

By importing the Cluniac “corporate” model to the entire clergy, centralized under the headship of the pope, the clerical class became truly conscious for the first time. The development of this new clerical class consciousness was concomitant with the development of something very like a new state consciousness within the institutional structure of the Church itself. In Berman’s words, “The clergy became the first translocal, transtribal, transfeudal, transnational class in Europe to achieve political and legal unity.”  

Berman is adamant that the “Papal Revolution” inaugurated by Pope Gregory VII was indeed a “revolution” in the strict sense, even according to Marxist terminology—thereby vindicating Georges Sorel’s comparison of the proletariat to the monastic clergy. It was the rebellion of one class against another, the clerical class against the feudal nobility, and the eventual wresting of political power from the latter by the former. The only major difference is that the class distinction between the clergy and the nobility was not primarily based on their relationship to property. Rather, it was a political and religious difference. Nonetheless, the revolution achieved by the clergy, at the instigation of Gregory VII, was radical enough to count him among the ranks of history’s great revolutionary dictators.

Monks to Bureaucrats

In Outline of a Doctrine of French Policy, another Marxist philosopher, Alexandre Kojeve, made a remarkable contribution to the process that led to the establishment of the European Union. Kojeve called for the erection of a “Latin Empire,” composed of a federation between the “Catholic” countries of France, Spain, and Italy. This empire would be presided over by none other than the Catholic Church in cooperation with secular state institutions, precisely on account of the imperial and universal scope of the Church’s political framework. He saw Europe in the period following the two world wars as entering a new “age of empires,” having seen the breakdown of old barriers between the traditional nation-states. This new age of empires, he predicted, was itself but a transition on the way towards a totally globalized and universal political community. In one notable comment, Kojeve compared the new age of empires to the age of Pope Gregory VII, in which the terrain of political jurisdictions underwent a dramatic process of reorganization, reconfiguration, and centralization: 

In fact, precisely for the reason of its “catholicism,” the Church has always transcended the different frameworks imposed on and through the Nation, no matter which one. But it also underwent the backlash of the “anti-national” struggle. It is thus that the ancient dialectic of the (Catholic) Church and of the Nation-State finally led to the doctrine and to the practice of the “separation” of the liberal epoch. But with the liberal—not to say national or nationalist—period now complete, the whole problem is to see things from the imperial point of view again. To a certain degree, there is thus a return to the time of Gregory VII, with the difference, however, that the Church will henceforth deal, on the political plane, not with a pre-national, but a post-national Empire.

Kojeve’s choice of Gregory VII as a model statesman for the new imperial age is telling. Writing on Kojeve’s “post-historical” wisdom, the communist critic Boris Groys suggests that for Kojeve, the ideal candidate for the governance of the post-historical world is none other than the bureaucrat. Kojeve believed that such figures were “philosopher-tyrants”—figures capable of effecting a grand idea or plan in the world. As such, in the words of Groys, “the post-historical bureaucracy is the heir of revolutionary philosopher-tyrants who dominated the populations of their countries and changed the conditions of their existence. The bureaucracy upholds and executes the laws that were imposed by these tyrants.” 

The Benedictine Order, its reformers, and Pope Gregory VII himself accomplished their work based on a shared idea of not only their own church, but of their roles in it. The domination of local lords was unacceptable to them, even as monasteries like Cluny often ruled in a similar manner. The simple reason: the lords served only their own familial interests, whereas they saw themselves as agents of a divine plan. No mere ideology, these beliefs allowed them to cooperate throughout Europe, support one another’s political struggles, and build up institutions operating under monastic discipline and clerical laws independent of local jurisdictions.

In accord with this theory, Pope Gregory VII stands as a model of the philosopher-tyrant, the monk who became a dictator, whose will was preserved in the imperial formation of Catholic Europe by way of the vast ecclesial bureaucracy which he helped to found—a system that was the translation of Gregory’s own monastic heritage from Cluny into the realm of political action. That bureaucracy became the driving force behind the Church’s spread across other continents during the colonial period and into the modern era. To this day, the Catholic bishops have a direct responsibility to the Vatican that would have been impossible before Gregory’s reforms, making the Catholic Church truly universal. 

Jonathan Culbreath is a writer and researcher based in Southern California. He is an assistant editor at The Josias and can be found on Twitter at @maestrojmc.