The papal conception of the empire and the emperor as dominus mundi

De Baripedia

It is only recently that historians have become interested in the papal role of the empire and more precisely in canon law. If the Holy Roman Empire was marked by Roman law, the Church and the papal conception of the empire were marked by canon law. These are two legal lines of force that will mark the conception of empire.

It is interesting to ask what Christianity has brought to Western political and legal thought, what may be relevant to our purpose in Christian doctrine, what has Christianity brought that is essential for constructing the papal vision of empire.

Two particular specific contributions can be distinguished. Firstly, Christianity brought the duality of power between God and Caesar. Jesus said, "You must give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's". This dual vision of power is a very essential and important vision in history. The second contribution is the affirmation of the divine origin of power "omni potestas a deo" because all power comes from God. These two contributions are essential because it is on these two contributions that the papal conception of empire will be built.


Terrestrial City and Celestial City[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

Augustine as seen by Botticelli at Ognissanti (c. 1480).

In the writings of Saint Augustine, The City of God, written between 1413 and 1424, was to be one of the cornerstones of the papal vision of the Empire.[4][5] In The City of God, the first argument is that there are two worlds, the one we know, namely the earthly city, and the one we do not know, but represented by the community of Christians, which is the heavenly city. Saint Augustine divides the world into two. We now understand where Luther's idea between the world of worlds and the earthly world comes from, but it is St. Augustine who divides the world in two. The second argument is that St. Augustine does not set these two worlds against each other, but that the complementary judges who must work together do not want to set the earthly and the heavenly city against each other. For him, if all power comes from God, it is very clear that the holder and form of this power on earth depends on men. St. Augustine says that all power comes from God, but the holder and the form of power in the earthly city and in the sphere of competence of mankind. The two powers must live together and live together. The third point is that God has a goal for humanity, but his views and goals are impenetrable, referring to Luther's "Deus absconditus". One cannot claim from God to say that the papal conception is better than others because one knows absolutely nothing about it. The fourth argument is that if St. Augustine separates the two powers, if he asserts that they must collaborate, he proposes and defends an imperial conception of the Church in the sense that the Church is indeed the heir to the Roman Empire, the institution Church is the heir to the Roman Empire. The Heiress of Peter's Church is the heiress of the Roman Empire.

The papal conception of the empire, which puts the Church at the centre of power, will be taken up by the various popes and developed. It is necessary to insist on two stages which are a consolidation of the papal conception of the empire. Two popes are credited with consolidating, writing and theorising the papal conception based on the four great arguments of Saint Augustine.

The Papal conception of the Empire[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

The first pope to construct the papal conception of the Empire was Pope Gregory I (540 - 604), who was the first pope to develop an authentic theory of divine law on which the papal conception of the Empire was to be based, building his argument around a central idea, which was that the Church was certainly the basis of power, but above all, temporal power was only a department of spiritual power. He formulates a ministerial conception of empire, the organs of temporal power and therefore of empire are only a small part of the Church. The pope is the holder of the dominium mundi, i.e. the master of the world.

The second person to propose this papal conception of empire was Pope Gregory VII (1015 - 1085) who set up in the Church the second Gregorian reform, who proposed an authentic papal theory of empire in a text of 1075 entitled Dictatus papae affirming the primacy of the pope, the supremacy of papal power and the fact that the pope is the holder of the dominus mundi. The papal conception of the empire is based on three great princes :

  • the pope has universal jurisdiction to depose emperors;
  • the pope is the only one who can use imperial insignia;
  • the priests of Christ are the bishops are the fathers of kings.
Dictatus papæ, Vatican Archives.


  1. Quod Romana ecclesia a solo Domino sit fundata. - The Roman Church was founded by the Lord alone.
  2. Quod solus Romanus pontifex iure dicatur universalis. - Only the Roman pontiff is rightly said to be universal.
  3. Quod ille solus possit deponere episcopos vel reconciliare. - Alone, he can depose or absolve the bishops.
  4. Quod legatus eius omnibus episcopis presit in concilio etiam inferioris gradus et adversus eos sententia depositionis possit dare. - His legate, in a council, is above all the bishops, even if he is inferior to them by ordination, and he may depose a sentence of deposition against them.
  5. Quod absentes papa possit deponere. - The Pope may depose those who are absent.
  6. Quod cum excomminicatis ab illo inter caetera nec in eadem domo debemus manere. - With regard to those who have been excommunicated by him, among other things, one cannot live under the same roof.
  7. Quod illi soli licet pro temporis necessitate novas leges condere, novas plebes congregare, de canonica abbatiam facere et e contra, divitem episcopatum dividere et inopes unire. - Alone he can, according to the opportunity, establish new laws, reunite new peoples [or "new parishes"], transform a collegiate church into an abbey, divide a rich bishopric or unite poor bishoprics.
  8. Quod solus possit uti imperialibus insigniis. - Alone, he can use the imperial insignia.
  9. Quod solius papae pedes omnes principes deosculentur. - That all princes only kiss the pope's feet.
  10. Quod illius solius nomen in ecclesiis recitetur. - He is the only one whose name is pronounced in churches.
  11. Quod hoc unicum est nomen in mundo. - Its name is unique in the world.
  12. Quod illi liceat imperatores deponere. - He is allowed to depose emperors.
  13. Quod illi liceat de sede ad sedem, necessitate cogente, episcopos transmutare. - It is permitted to transfer bishops from one See to another, as necessary.
  14. Quod de omni ecclesia quocunque voluerit clericum valeat ordinare. - He has the right to ordain a cleric from any church, wherever he wants.
  15. Quod ab illo ordinatus alii ecclesie preesse potest, sed non militare ; et quod ab aliquo episcopo non debet superiorem gradum accipere. - He who has been ordained by him may govern the church of another, but may not wage war; he may not receive a higher rank from another bishop.
  16. Quod nulla synodus absque praecepto eius debet generalis vocari. - No synod can be called general without its order.
  17. Quod nullum capitulum nullusque liber canonicus habeatur absque illius auctoritate. - No canonical text exists outside its authority.
  18. Quod sententia illius a nullo debeat retractatari, et ipse omnium solus retractare possit. - His sentence is not to be overruled by anyone and only he can overrule the sentence of all.
  19. Quod a nemine ipse iudicari debeat. - He should not be judged by anyone.
  20. Quod nullus audeat condemnare apostolicam sedem appellantem. - No one can condemn anyone who appeals to the Apostolic See.
  21. Quod maiores causae cuiuscumque ecclesiae ad eam referri debeant. - The causæ majores of any church must be brought before him.
  22. Quod Romana ecclesia nunquam erravit nec in perpetuum, scriptura testante, errabit. - The Roman Church has never wandered, and, according to the testimony of Scripture, will never wander.
  23. Quod Romanus pontifex, si canonice fuerit ordinatus, meritis Beati Petri, indubitanter efficitur sanctus, testante sancto Ennodio Papiensi episcopo, ei multis sanctis patribus faventibus, sicut in decretis beati Symmachi continetur. - The Roman Pontiff, canonically ordained, is undoubtedly by the merits of St. Peter established in holiness, as witnessed by St. Ennodius, Bishop of Pavia, in agreement with many Fathers as can be seen in the decree of Blessed Pope Symmachus.
  24. Quod illius precepto et licentia subiectis liceat accusare. - On his order and with his consent, vassals may lay charges.
  25. Quod absque synodali conventu possit episcopos deponere et reconciliare. - The Pope may depose and absolve the bishops in the absence of a synod.
  26. Quod catholicus non habeatur, qui non concordat Romane ecclesie. - Whoever is not with the Roman Church is not considered Catholic.
  27. Quod a fidelitate iniquorum subiectos potest absolvere. - The Pope can release subjects from the oath of fidelity to the unjust. »
Bernard de Clairvaux preaching the Second Crusade at Vézelay, in 1146 (XIXème).

Another protagonist allowed the papal conception of the Empire to be definitively established because he founded a theory that was to be very successful. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (1091 - 1143) was the last great theorist of the papal conception of the Empire, who in 1149 set out the theory of the two swords. The theory of the two swords will establish the papal conception of the empire and tries to make the pope the holder of the dominius mundi. This theory says three very simple things which are three quite essential arguments:

  • it takes up the discourse of the Christ of the Last Supper where he distinguishes two swords. They represent spiritual and temporal power;
  • the temporal power is delegated to a political authority;
  • as the biblical text shows, the sword is drawn for and by the Church, which is therefore superior to temporal power.

Saint Bernard Clervaux will wonder who is drawing the sword of stone as Jesus is about to be arrested. We see very clearly when we see the story of the arrest of Jesus; the sword is drawn by Saint Peter who is the founder of the Church and for the Church which is the spiritual power. Spiritual power should be superior to temporal power because it is he who made the decision to act or not to act. According to the biblical text, the sword is drawn for and by the Church, which is therefore superior to the temporal power, which must obey the spiritual power that is superior to it.

« Both swords belong to the Church, the spiritual and the material sword; one is to be drawn for her, the other by her; one by the hand of the priest, the other by the hand of the knight, but at the request of the priest and by order of the emperor [...] whoever denies that the sword is yours, appears not to give sufficient consideration to the word of the lord saying, "Put your sword back into the sheath. […] » »

It is very clear from this text that the supreme authority is Jesus and therefore it is spiritual power that is superior to temporal power. This papal conception of empire is a centralised conception where spiritual power is superior to temporal power, where the power of kings is inferior to the power of popes. It is a conception in which Christian doctrine finds its place.

The phenomenon of the double external and internal contestation was also present in the papal conception of the empire being contested externally by the emperors, but also from within. The papal conception of the empire was contested by members of the Church itself. The centralisation of power was challenged from within.

Bernard de Clairvaux teaching in the chapter house, Heures d'Étienne Chevalier, illuminated by Jean Fouquet, Musée Condé, Chantilly.

The first contestation took place within the Church through a movement that would emerge between the 9th and 10th centuries, which would see the birth of small entities. The famous religious orders were born in Europe from the 10th century onwards, the Cistercian Order of Citeaux, the Benedictine Order, long before the Jesuit Order. The birth of monastic orders is an important source of contestation of the papal vision of the empire. The very functioning of these monasteries was extremely "democratic", i.e. these religious orders would defend obedience to the word of God, would consecrate the famous orare and laborare, but above all would consecrate a horizontal mode of decision-making within these orders. The papal vision is based on a vertical vision, but with the internal contestation within the Church, the religious orders will defend a horizontal vision of power. In French, the expression "avoir voix au chapitre" is used. These religious orders have a horizontal decision-making process by meaning that everyone can express themselves and one votes, one decides ideally in the form of a consensus otherwise by majority. It is a vision of power that the monastic orders have defended coming into confrontation with the papal vision of empire so that Benedictine and Cistercian orders will attack it without success.

At the end of the 15th century, despite internal disputes, the two imperial and papal conceptions of the empire clashed over supreme authority, over power, defending two radically opposed visions of the empire. A historical fact will shatter these two conceptions that have been in conflict for almost eight centuries. A major historical fact that would completely redefine the vision and conception of the empire was the discovery of the New World in 1492. There were no longer two conceptions of empires that were going to confront each other, but a multitude of conceptions that would have to respond to a certain number of conceptions of authority and power.

Annexes[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

References[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

  1. Alexis Keller - Wikipedia
  2. Alexis Keller - Faculté de droit - UNIGE
  3. Alexis Keller | International Center for Transitional Justice
  4. O’Daly, G. (2020). Augustine’s City of God: A reader’s guide. Oxford University Press.
  5. Mommsen, Theodor E. “St. Augustine and the Christian Idea of Progress: The Background of the City of God.” Journal of the History of Ideas, vol. 12, no. 3, 1951, pp. 346–374. JSTOR,