State VS Church during Medieval Period

After reading this article you will learn about the relationship between state and church during medieval period.

First we shall consider how St. Augustine (354-430) viewed the state and its relationship with the church. He believed that both the society and the state were created by God as a punitive and remedial institution.

Originally men lived in the state of nature. They were innocent and pure-hearted. Sin did not overpower them. But personal greediness and self-aggrandizement ultimately overpowered them to defy the will of God and, finally, they disobeyed their own noble and good sense.

God, out of mercy, created an institution, namely, the state to bring these persons in order and to force them to deviate from the path of sin and ungodliness. God also sent a man to rule and punish them. This, Augustine called, is the City of Earth.

He also created another institution which was City of Heaven. In the City of Earth there were self-interest seeking persons and, in the latter, there were angels who always sacrificed their personal interests. So in Augustine’s view the earthly state was purely a reformative political organisation.

According to Augustine the church was the representative of God on earth and the only spokesman so far as the sermons or orders of God were concerned. Since the Augustine’s state was a religious one the king had no authority to defy the order or advice of the church.

Moreover, the king was sent by God to punish the sinners. He was accountable only to God. This view of Augustine indicates that the state had no separate existence outside the church.

John of Salisbury (1120-1180) was another medieval thinker who said that the authority of the state must accept the supremacy of the church. He denied the supremacy of the emperor. Though he was the supporter of the doctrine of two swords he believed that the king would receive the temporal sword from the Pope or church and will rule the state in accordance with the advice of the church. Ownership of the sword could not be entrusted to the king.

St. Thomas Aquinas (1227-1274) was another renowned medieval thinker. In his writings, especially On Kingship, he had elaborated the controversial issue of the relationship between the church and the state. St. Thomas Aquinas was an orthodox Christian and, naturally, it could not be expected that he would support the supremacy of the secular authority.

He, however, believed that the secular authority must have certain amount of autonomy without which he could not administer the state.

The emperor could claim allegiance from the individuals but he must recognize the hegemony of the church. Estimating his position between the church and the state, Sabine states that his position may be described as that of a moderate populist.

He did not take any extreme stand as to the conflict between the two institutions. Thomas adopted the Aristotelian technique of middle-way.

He said that it would be the duty of the government to see that the true end is achieved and, according to Thomas, this true end is the realization of honesty, goodness, virtue and, to attain the blessings of God. From this it is obvious that Thomas Aquinas had softened the earlier stands of medieval thinkers. He intended to give autonomy to the secular authority.

We now come to Dante Alighieri (1268-1321). He was a thinker of late 13th and early 14th century. We know that in these two centuries the importance of the church declined considerably.

The kings began to exert their authority over the society step by step and the church was compelled to accept this new phenomenon.

In the early 14th century, because of several reasons, a new class—the bourgeois class—emerged and it started to dominate the economic affairs of the state. Before long it established an entente with the state authority for the realization of its own pecuniary benefits. All these factors finally strengthened the position of the state’s secular authority and enhanced its image.

Dante also categorically said that the unity of the state is of primary importance and, for this purpose, the king must have a final say in temporal matters. Again, there might arise controversy and it is the duty of the king to settle this. This requires the supremacy of the king over all other authorities. Dante thus did not recognize the absolute authority of the church.

We shall now focus our attention to Marsilius of Padua (1270-1340) that, according to Berki, was a renowned figure of medieval political thought. He invested his thought and energy for a fruitful separation between the church and the state. His famous book Defensor of Pads (published in 1324) was written to refute the claims of the Pope over the state.

This book was written 50 years after the death of Aquinas. Marsilius’s stand is quite different from that of St. Augustine or of Aquinas: He strongly emphasized the idea that the secular authority, that is, the state, should not interfere with the ecclesiastical affairs of the church and, on the other hand, the church should not have any business with the secular or political activities of the state. It is the primary duty of the church to give instructions to individuals so far as salvation is concerned.

Marsilius (or it is also spelt as Marsilio) also believed that the church had no rightful claim to any kind of immunity from or independence of secular authority. It implies that the authority of the church must remain under the authority of the king—which is secular in nature. It cannot claim any special status.

The Church is simply an ordinary organisation. He also denied any special status to the Pope. In this way Marsilio reduced the lofty position of the church. It must abide by the rules of the secular authority like other citizens.

Marsilius has also said that the church had no right to teach the public or to preach sermons. Who will preach sermons to common people that will be decided by the state? The secular authority shall set up temples and churches and bishops will perform only the religious functions.

Though Marsilius was against the supremacy of the church he recognised the church’s authority to settle the polemical or religious conflicts or issues. Sabine says “His theory is a root and branch attack upon the ecclesiastical hierarchy and especially upon a papal plentitudo potestatis, but he recognized that, even for spiritual purposes and to resolve spiritual questions, the church requires some organization distinct from the civil community”

Though Marsilio of Padua vehemently opposed the supremacy of the church over all secular affairs, it cannot be said that he affected a final divorce between the church and the state or he was in strong favour of secularisation of politics.

However, considering his background and the religico-political affairs of his contemporary society it may be observed that Marsilio’s opinion regarding the position of church vis-a-vis state was undoubtedly revolutionary.

Towards the declining years of the medieval period the importance of the church ebbed remarkably which encouraged the secular authority to exert its authority. Marsilio’s opinion about the relationship between the church and the state was merely a compromise. But at the hands of Machiavelli the church was practically reduced to an ordinary religious institution.

Today we believe that the separation between the two is necessary and several thinkers of the later medieval period realized this. It is true that if there were no conflict between the church and the state the nature of political science and that of the state would assume different colour:

In the concluding phase of the analysis of the church and the state in medieval period we may take note of William of Ockam (1280-1347). William was not a renowned thinker and his work is not worth mentioning. Following Marsilius of Padua, William said that though the chief function of the state is to legislate, the more important function is to maintain justice and moral standard among the citizens. A very important duty of the state is to punish the offenders.

William said that the church cannot claim absolute power over the subjects. They would be allowed to follow their own faith and to act accordingly. He was also not in favour of the state’s absolute authority. He has said that the church has no power to punish the religious offenders. This function falls within the jurisdiction of state.

Though William refused to grant supreme power to the church and the emperor it is not very clear what his exact stand on the location of sovereignty was. Gettell observes “For a century the ideas of Marsilius and William of Ockam concerning the location of authority and the system of representation in the church was subject to violent debate in the ecclesiastical world. They were incorporated by the jurists into the civil and canon law and their application to issues of purely political significance gained great importance”.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a bachelor's degree in political science and international relations as well as a Master's degree in international security studies, alongside a passion for web development. During my studies, I gained a strong understanding of key political concepts, theories in international relations, security and strategic studies, as well as the tools and research methods used in these fields.

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