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Medieval Geopolitics: James of Viterbo and More Papal Supremacy

By Andrew Latham

The struggle between the Papacy and the King of France over who wielded political supremacy would see many in medieval Europe take sides. In the last column the views of Giles of Rome were outlined. This piece follows Giles’ Augustinian colleague at the University of Paris, James of Viterbo, who also argued around this time for papal supremacy, but did so on grounds very different from Giles.  

In his 1302 tract, De regimine christiano (“On Christian Government”), James developed what has been characterized as a Thomistic-Aristotelian version of the hierocratic perspective. He began by invoking the Aristotelian premise that political community is natural – i.e., that the fulfillment of human nature can only be achieved within societies.  As James put it:

The institution of communities or societies proceeded from the natural inclination itself of men, as the Aristotle shows in the first book of The Politics. For man is by nature a social animal and living in a multitude, which results from natural necessity, in that one man cannot live in self-sufficiency on his own, but needs help form another.

But whereas Aristotle had maintained that only the polis or city-state could be a “perfect society” – that is, an ideal self-sufficient society within which human nature could be fully realized – James, in common with most of his Aristotelian contemporaries, argued that the regnum or kingdom was in fact the highest form of human society, for it alone (in their eyes, at least) had the necessary scale, self-sufficiency and orientation toward the common good.  He then went on to argue that the Church (in the broad sense of all the faithful) had all the defining characteristics of a regnum: it was a self-sufficient unity, governed by a supreme authority and ordered toward the goal of promoting a life of virtue (the good life) amongst its members.  This being the case, James concluded that the Church must be considered a true kingdom – a regnum ecclesiae.

Not satisfied with establishing that the Church was a regnum ecclesiae, James next proceeded to establish that the Church was in fact the only perfect regnum, superior in all ways to merely temporal kingdoms.  Drawing on the Aristotelian principle that “that which is prior in perfection is posterior in generation and time”, he first argued that households (which came into existence first) are less perfect cities (which came second); cities less perfect than kingdoms (which came next); and kingdoms less perfect than the regnum ecclesiae (which came last).

Moreover, he argued, the regnum ecclesiae was the most self-sufficient, for it alone provided not only for physical needs, but also “everything which suffices for the salvation of men and the spiritual life”.  The church was also, he argued, superior to other kingdoms in that it was “holy, catholic and apostolic” and thus ordered toward the most virtuous end or purpose. In a related vein, James drew on Augustine’s interpretation of Cicero to argue that, “no community is called a true res publica, except the ecclesiastical, because in it alone exists true justice, true utility and true communion.”

And finally, James argued that the regnum ecclesiae was superior to temporal kingdoms because, whereas the latter had merely natural origins (in the Aristotelian sense), the Church had spiritual origins as well. Citing the Thomistic principle that “grace does not abolish nature, but perfects and forms it”, he concluded that while temporal powers were natural and therefore legitimate, the Church had both natural and spiritual origins and was therefore perfect. He further concluded from this line of reasoning that the Church could both sanctify kingdoms, thereby making them more perfect (if not as perfect as the Church), and withdraw that sanctification if the lesser power fails to act properly.

Temporal and spiritual power

In the second part of De regimine christiano, James turned his attention from ecclesiology toward what was clearly the prime motivating question behind this work: what was the locus, source and character of “the power of Christ the king and His vicar”?  In order to answer this question, he first established that power comes in three forms: the power to work miracles; the power to pray and administer the sacraments (sacramental power); and the power of jurisdiction (royal power).  James himself set aside the power to work miracles as not being germane to his purpose, and for the purposes of this study we can further set aside his discussion of sacramental power as being similarly immaterial. How, then, did James conceive of the pope’s royal power – that is, his power to judge?

He began by exploring the nature of royal power qua royal power. It was, he concluded, essentially a coercive power, wielded by a public authority and directed toward the common good.  Its efficient cause or source was God. James then argued that this essentially governmental power came in two distinct forms: royal power over temporal matters (potestas regia temporalis) and royal power over spiritual matters (potestas regia spiritualis).  The former, he argued, was the power usually wielded by kings governing the temporal affairs of the regnum; the latter, the power wielded by clergy to judge in matters of sin. To be sure, James argued, these two forms of royal power differed in terms of their “mode of action”: “the one determines spiritual causes, the other temporal; the one imposes temporal or corporal penalties, the other spiritual… The temporal feeds in a bodily fashion and the spiritual in a spiritual….” But, he insisted, they were essentially similar in kind or nature.

James thus established that both priests and princes wielded jurisdictional power – they both possessed the royal power to judge, even if they judged in respect of different matters.  Having done so, he then set about exploring the differences between these two forms of power. This he did primarily in terms of their respective purposes and jurisdictions. The temporal power (or, as James sometimes refers to it, the “secular power”) was by its very nature ordered to the earthly goods necessary for men to lead lives of virtue.  Its purpose was the regulation of the things of this world, rather than the next. It had jurisdiction only over the laity, and then only in connection with the administration of temporal affairs. In Aristotelian terms, the temporal power had to do with nature.

17th century painting of James of Viterbo – photo by ALESSANDROMARCOA / Wikimedia Commons

The spiritual power, on the other hand, was by nature ordered toward the spiritual goods necessary eternal salvation. Its purpose was the regulation of heavenly things, rather than earthly. The spiritual power had jurisdiction over clergy and laity alike. It was primarily concerned with grace and the supernatural, rather than with power and the natural.

Perhaps predictably, James concluded that of these two forms of royal power, potestas regia spiritualis was superior.  While he conceded that the temporal power was prior in time, he insisted that spiritual power was superior with respect to dignity and causality.  The spiritual power, James asserted, was “simply and absolutely” superior in dignity because the spiritual is ordered toward a higher end, supernatural blessedness, than the temporal, and because the object of temporal power is man as a natural being whereas the object of spiritual power is man as a supernatural being – that is, “man as perfectible by grace”.  The spiritual power, he argued, was superior with respect to causality in that the “temporal power exists for the end of the spiritual”, and “the higher is that to the end of which the end of the other is ordered.”

Moreover, while conceding that the temporal power arises out of men’s natural inclinations, he argued that this power remains imperfect and unformed unless perfected and formed by grace.  As it was the spiritual power that conferred this perfecting and forming grace on the temporal, the former was necessarily superior to the latter. Finally, James argued that the spiritual power, having perfected the temporal power through grace, could withdraw that grace if it judged that the temporal power had acted “unworthily.”  As it is in the nature of things that superiors judge inferiors (and not the reverse), this proved that the spiritual power was superior to the temporal.

King of kings

Having established the superiority of the royal or jurisdictional power possessed by clergy, James proceeded to demonstrate that the royal power possessed by the pope is superior to that possessed by all other priests and prelates. The Church, he argued, is organized as a hierarchy in which priests are inferior to bishops, bishops to archbishops, and so on. As in all hierarchies, in this hierarchy there must be one who is primary and supreme – that is, one who holds the spiritual power “in the highest degree and principally and according to fullness” and who is the source of all such power.  In the Church, this primary and supreme power was Christ.

However, James argued, because Christ’s “bodily presence was withdrawn from the Church, it was fitting that the entire government of the Church should be committed to some one person, who should rule the Church in His place and on His behalf.”  This person was Peter, upon whom Christ conferred the fullness of power (plenitudo potestatis) necessary for the salvation of men.  All spiritual power within the Church was subsequently derived from him and all members of the clergy subject to his jurisdiction. The pope was the supreme judge in spiritual matters, his rulings subject to no appeal because there were none superior to him to whom an appeal might be made.  For similar reasons, a pope could not be judged. Christ further willed, James asserted, that this fullness of power might be passed on the Peter’s successors so that there would always be a single, omnipotent “Vicar of Christ” mediating between Christ and His Church.

Drawing the threads of his argument together, James concluded that the pope had superior jurisdiction not only over all spiritual affairs, but over all temporal ones as well.  He exercised his plenitudo potestatis over all members of the church militant – secular princes no less than clerical ones.  Temporal rulers derived their royal power from the pope and possessed this power only in diminished and derivative form from him.  The pope had the right to intervene in any temporal matter, ratione peccati.  No member of the Church (in the broad sense of the community of all the faithful) was exempt from his jurisdiction and all were obliged to obey his commands – even if they contradicted those of the temporal power.  The pope possessed the power to judge all and to impose both spiritual and temporal penalties whenever he considered it necessary for the salvation of the faithful.

Saint Peter as the First Pope, created in Catalonia before 1348 . – now on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

James conceded that there was still an important role to be played by the temporal power.  Ordinarily, popes would leave the administration of temporal affairs to the immediate agency of the temporal power, both out of respect for the hierarchy of powers and in order to free the clergy to attend to spiritual matters. In other words, he accepted that there were two swords, the material and the spiritual, and that they were ordinarily wielded by the temporal and spiritual powers respectively.  Ultimately, though, he argued that both swords belong to the pope, one (the spiritual) to use and the other (the material) to command. Indeed, it is possible to read James as arguing that the two powers are not really two powers at all, but actually only two parts of the same unified power in possession of the “king of kings” (the pope).

Andrew Latham is a professor of political science at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He is the author, most recently, of The Idea of Sovereignty At the Turn of the 14th Century. You can visit Andrew’s website at www.aalatham.com or follow Andrew on Twitter @aalatham 

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