Pope vs State: The Medieval Catholic Church as an International Governmental Organization
By Elizabeth K.C. Eager
Seniors Honors Thesis, Sweet Briar College, 2005
Introduction: The conflicts between the medieval Catholic Church, more specifically, medieval popes, and the European monarchs of the Middle Ages resulted in sovereignty disputes between church and state. The object of this thesis is to understand the nature of these power struggles and to demonstrate that the medieval Church functioned in many ways like a prototype IGO. In order to do this, an analogy will be drawn between the medieval Church and modern international governmental organizations, specifically the United Nations. The nature of the power of these two entities, and the struggles in application of their power, are similar in many ways. The goal of this project is to make church-state conflict, as well as the major figures in these episodes, more accessible. By using this IGO model, the medieval Church, as well as papal and monarchical policies and power, can be better understood by the modern reader.
Both the medieval church and IGOs have very ideological bases of power. For the Church, the Bible, as well as Church doctrines and cannons, established the Church’s claims to authority. For example, the Petrine doctrine, promulgated in the mid-fifth century, claimed that the Roman pontiff was the successor of Saint Peter, and that Peter was designated by Christ to be the head of the Church on earth. Also, the doctrine of plenitudo potestatis, meaning plenitude of power, was developed during the medieval period, and eventually it came to be understood as giving the pope full authority in both spiritual and temporal matters. All Christians, who at the time were almost all Western Europeans, acknowledged these doctrines by belonging to the Catholic Church. These doctrines became the foundations for claims that popes could permit or prohibit taxation, and crown or depose kings. However, when a pope attempted to exercise these powers, it often conflicted with the interests of monarchs. When papal commands did not serve the interests of kings, they were often ignored, which created the great power struggles of the period. There were consequences for such rebellion, but many times, without the backing of a secular lord, the condemnation of the papacy had little effect.
Similarly, international governmental organizations have doctrines of power, namely their charters and international law, which claim to have global authority. For example, the UN Charter, as well as resolutions passed by the General Assembly, function as the laws of the United Nations. States, by membership in the UN, submit themselves to the authority of the Charter, yet when the doctrines of the Charter are in conflict with an individual state’s objective, the charter is often ignored. This can occur without consequence, unless other member states are willing to supply the UN with a means to force compliance to Charter principles.
There are many differences in these two organizations, yet there are enough similarities that using the IGO and UN model, the conflicts between church and state can be more accessible and easily understood. The same struggles for power and superiority that are at work in the international arena today were in effect a thousand years ago.