Robert Grosseteste: Pillar of the Papacy
The Redemptorist Christian Encounter is one of the most widely read Sunday bulletins circulating in Britain. Its issue of 11 May 1975 contained a short account of the life of Robert Grosseteste, Bishop of Lincoln, who was born in 1175, or thereabouts, and died in 1253. The fact that 1975 may mark the eight centenary of his birth could account for the article.
It is a matter for regret that the few brief details given in the bulletin will be all that most of its readers will ever learn of Bishop Grosseteste; most Catholics will not know this much and the majority would not even recognize his name. This is a pity as Robert Grosseteste is quite possibly the greatest Catholic the English Church has yet produced, not excluding St. John Fisher, St. Thomas More, or Cardinal Newman. He is also one of England's truly outstanding scholars, famous throughout the world for his learning and intellect.
Among the details given in Christian Encounter is the fact that as well as being a great scholar and a great reformer, Robert Grosseteste "might have been canonized if he hadn't opposed the papacy in matter of Church practice.” This, then, is the explanation of his neglect among English Catholics - he did not simply oppose the Pope but refused to obey a papal command. "I disobey, I contradict, I rebel,” was his answer to an order from the Pope which had been phrased carefully to exclude any legal loophole which might provide an excuse not to comply. As every theologian is aware, it is possible for a pope to fall into error and it is a matter of free debate among theologians as to what, if any, action could be taken in such case. What is interesting in the case of Robert Grosseteste is that heresy was not involved. He was not claiming to defend Catholic doctrine, but refusing to implement a practical directive from the Pope which he considered harmful to the Church. The first and natural reaction of the Catholic reader will be to say: "Then he must have been wrong." When the facts have been presented it would be surprising to find even one who would not say without any hesitation: "He was certainly right."
Robert Grosseteste was born in very humble circumstances in the village of Stow in Suffolk. He has been described as "a man of universal genius" by one of England's outstanding modern historians, Sir Maurice Powicke, formerly Regius Professor of Modern History in the University of Oxford.1 As a student he was considered a prodigy of remarkable efficiency in the liberal arts and of wide learning and dexterity in legal and medical matters. He was one of the first chancellors of Oxford University and, according to Professor Powicke, perhaps "the greatest of her sons" - a truly staggering tribute when the list of those sons is considered. Had he not been a churchman he would still have a world reputation as a natural scientist, a man with a truly scientific mind at whose clear-headedness and insight contemporary historians of science are bound to marvel. He knew Greek and Hebrew, was an outstanding student of the Greek Fathers, and was responsible for many translations and commentaries including the first complete Latin version of Aristotle's Ethics. Notes in his handwriting demonstrate his familiarity with such authors as Boethius, Cicero, Horace, Seneca, Ptolemy, and the Christian poets.2
Bishop Grosseteste was also a great biblical scholar, "an unwearied student of the Scriptures," in the words of a contemporary who disagreed with him profoundly on some issues.3 He had a most exalted view of the Bible and considered it to be the basis, the primary source for the spiritual formation of the clergy and their preaching and teaching. "All pastors after reciting the offices in Church," he ordered, "are to give themselves diligently to prayer and reading Holy Scripture, that by understanding of the Scripture they may give satisfaction to any who demand a reason concerning hope and faith. They should be so versed in the teaching of Scripture that by reading of it their prayer may be nourished, as it were, by daily food."4
He became Bishop of Lincoln in 1235 at the age of sixty. As bishop he was distinguished by the "conviction that the cure of souls directed by a responsible and singleminded episcopate must be the aim of ecclesiastical policy...."5 This has always been the aim of the great Catholic reformers such as Pope Gregory the Great, but even this saint could not have been more determined or more consistent than Robert Grosseteste in making the salvation of souls the guiding principle of all his policies and actions. He regarded this duty as a truly fearful responsibility which he hardly dared accept: "I, as soon as I became bishop, considered myself to be the over-seer and pastor of souls, and lest the blood of the sheep be required at my hand at the strict Judgement, to visit the sheep committed to my charge."6 He not only set himself the highest possible standards of pastoral solicitude but demanded the same high standards from all those subordinate to him and from his superiors in the Church, including the Pope himself. Needless to say, such an attitude was not calculated to win popularity. His principal aim was to achieve "the reformation of society by a reformed clergy.''7 He was famous throughout England for the severity of his visitations. Strict continency was required from the clergy; they must reside in their benefices; they must reach a required standard in learning; they must not take fees for enjoining penances or any other sacred ministration; directions are given regarding reverence in celebrating Mass and carrying the Blessed Sacrament to the sick; care must be taken that the Canon of the Mass is correctly transcribed; since the observance of the ten commandments is vital to the salvation of souls, they must be expounded to the people frequently; the divine office is to be recited in its entirety with devout attention to the meaning of the words so that there is a living offering and not a dead one; parish priests must be ready to visit the sick day or night lest anyone should die without the Sacraments; special attention must be given to the religious education of children; and, as was mentioned above, great stress was laid upon the importance of Holy Scripture. His objective was to "raise the standard of the clergy alike in their preaching and teaching as well as in their moral conduct."8 Bishop Grosseteste's concept of the pastoral ideal was set out in his famous "sermon" which he delivered in person at the Council of Lyons in 1250 at the age of seventy-five:
The pastoral charge does not consist merely in administering the sacraments, saying the canonical hours, celebrating Masses, but in the truthful teaching of the living truth, in the awe-inspiring condemnation of vice and severe punishment of it when necessary. It consists also in feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, covering the naked, receiving guests, visiting the sick and those in prison, especially those who belong to the parish, who have a claim upon the endowments of their church. By the doing of these things is the people to be taught the holy duties of the active life.9
Another notable characteristic of Bishop Grosseteste was "his mystical veneration for the plenitude of papal power."10 This veneration for the pope's plenitude of power, plenitudo potestatis, is of paramount importance in considering his subsequent refusal to obey Pope Innocent IV. Attempts have been made to portray him as some sort of proto-Anglican, which may account for the fact that he is held in greater esteem in the Church of England than among English Catholics. The truth is that: "The most striking feature about Grosseteste's theory of the constitution and function of ecclesiastical hierarchy is his exaltation of the papacy. He was probably the most fervent and thoroughgoing papalist among medieval English writers."11 In 1239, in a discourse on the ecclesiastical hierarchy addressed to the Dean and Chapter of Lincoln, he wrote:
For this reason after the pattern of the ordinance made in the Old Testament, the Lord Pope has the fullness of power over the nations and over kingdoms, to root up and to pull down, and to waste and destroy, and to build and to plant....Samuel was like the sun of the people, among the people of Israel, just as the lord Pope is in the universal Church and every bishop in his diocese.12
For Robert Grosseteste: The Vicar of Christ was the lynch pin upon which the whole fabric of the Church depended; but he was the Vicar of Christ and woe betide if he fell short of his awful responsibilities. Orthodox minds were more outspoken then they were in post-Tridentine days in their criticism of papal behavior.13
In a letter to a papal legate written in about 1237 he warns:
But God forbid, God forbid that this most Holy See and those who preside in it, who are commonly to be obeyed in all their commands, by commanding anything contrary to Christ's precepts and will, should be the cause of a falling away. God forbid that to any who are truly united to Christ, not willing to go in any way against His will, this See and those who preside in it should be a cause of falling away or apparent schism, by commanding such men to do what is opposed to Christ's will.14
Bishop Grosseteste regarded with horror even the idea of disobeying the legitimate use of any lawful authority in the Church or State. He considered us bound by God 's Commandments to honor and obey our spiritual parents even more than our earthly parents. He was fond of quoting the text that the sin of disobedience is the sin of witchcraft (1 Samuel 15:23).15 Obedience is the only response to legitimate authority exercising itself within its competence. But authority only exists within its limits, set by commission or delegation, and always by the law of God. There is no authority outside those limits - ultra vires - and the answer to an invocation of authority beyond them can be a refusal which is not disobedience but an affirmation that the person giving the command is abusing his power. To give an obvious example, Catholics are bound to obey the civil authority but when, under Elizabeth I, the government made assisting at Mass illegal, those Catholics who continued doing so were not disobedient. The government had exceeded its authority and was guilty of an abuse of power; a refusal to submit to abuse of power is not disobedience. Medieval political theory included the right of resistance to tyranny which was "imported into the domain of ecclesiastical polity."16 It is the common teaching of some of the greatest Catholic theologians that, in the words of Suarez, it is licit to resist the Pope "if he tried to do something manifestly opposed to justice and the common good."
Robert Grosseteste certainly believed that the Pope possessed the plenitude of power which he had the right to exercise freely; but he accepted the medieval view that this was not arbitrary power given to the Pope to use as he liked, but was an office entrusted to him and "instituted for the service of the whole Body."17 The Pope's power had been given to him for the cure of souls, to build up the Body of Christ and not to destroy it. He was the Vicar of Christ, not Christ Himself, and must exercise his power in accordance with the will of Christ and never in manifest opposition to it. God forbid, as he had said, that the Holy See should be the one cause of an apparent schism by commanding faithful Catholics to do what was contrary to Christ's will.
The issue which provoked Bishop Grosseteste's refusal to comply with what he considered to be an abuse of papal power was that of the papal provision of benefices. He was a man who would allow no compromise on a matter of principle and this was a question which could not have been more directly concerned with the cure of souls. Where he was concerned, there were two considerations which must come before all else when appointing a priest who was to be a true pastor of his people - the pastor must be spiritually worthy of his awe-inspiring office and must live among his flock. This will seem so obvious to a contemporary Catholic that it hardly needs stating, but at that time there were many who did not consider that the cure of souls was the only or even the prime function of a benefice. A system existed in which certain benefices came under the "patronage" of important figures in Church and State who were entitled to appoint their nominees when a vacancy occurred, subject to certain conditions. These patrons often used the livings they controlled to provide a source of income for men who would never even visit their flocks, let alone offer them any form of pastoral care. "It would be wrong to regard this system simply as an abuse; it must have seemed to contemporaries the only way of supporting the necessary bureaucracy in Church and State."18 It must be remembered that almost all the offices in what would now be considered as the state bureaucracy (a term which is not intended to be pejorative) were filled by clerics who had to get an income from somewhere. It is obvious that in both Church and State the Pope and King alike would find it more convenient if the incomes of these bureaucrats could be paid from a source other than their own pockets. But to Robert Grosseteste this was a perversion in the precise meaning of the term, "it reduced the pastoral care to a thing of secondary importance, whereas in his view only the best brains and energy available were good enough for the work of saving souls."19
The Bishop had:
...no hesitation in rejecting presentations to benefices, if those who were presented lacked the qualifications which he considered necessary for the cure of souls, whoever were the patrons, whether laymen, friends of his own, monastic bodies, or even in the last resort, as time went on, the Pope himself.20
A papal provision took the form of a request from the Pope to an ecclesiastic to appoint a papal nominee to a canonry, a prebend, or a benefice. The process began as a trickle, became a stream, and the stream a flood. Executors were appointed to insure that papal mandates were obeyed and this led to a great deal of subsidiary corruption; for example, they would use their authority to obtain benefices for their own friends or in return for a bribe. The papal nominees rarely resided in their benefices, could not speak the language of the country if they did, and spent most of their revenues in Italy. It was Robert Grosseteste's elevated concept of both the pastoral and papal office which led him to oppose such practices. He accepted that, in virtue of his plenitude of power, the Pope had the right to make nominations to benefices and where this right was properly exercised he was prepared to accept it.21 But both papal power and the provision to a benefice had one end - the salvation of souls. The Pope had been given the power to nominate men to pastoral offices only to build up the Body of Christ through the effective cure of souls; and how could the cure of souls be advanced by alien pastors, who never even saw their flocks and were interested only in the gold they could obtain from them? "Where Grosseteste showed his originality and clear-sightedness was in seeing this system of exploitation as one of the root causes of spiritual inefficiency."22 He was a man of genius and vision who thought not simply of the contemporary situation but of the future, and of the corrupting effect such a system must have upon the life of the Church, an insight which time proved to be only too accurate.
He resisted these papal provisions by every legitimate means at his disposal, particularly by the skillful use of Canon Law to defer the need to comply. In 1250, at the age of eighty, he made a journey to the papal court at Lyon and confronted the Pope in person.
He stood up alone, attended by nobody but his official Robert Marsh....Pope Innocent IV sat there with his cardinals and the members of his household to hear the most thorough and vehement attack that any great Pope can ever have heard at the height of his power.23
The gist of his accusation was that the Church was suffering because of the decline in pastoral care.
The pastoral office is straitened. And the source of the evil is to be found in the papal Curia, not merely in its indifference but in its dispensations and provisions of the pastoral care. It provides bad shepherds for the flock. What is the pastoral office? Its duties are numerous, and in particular include the duty of visitation....24
How an absentee pastor could visit his flock was something beyond even the Pope's power to explain! It is worth noting that, as in all things, Bishop Grosseteste taught by example as well as by precept and, in an unprecedented act, had resigned all his own prebends, but for the one in his own Cathedral Church of Lincoln, a step which evoked ridicule rather than respect from his more worldly contemporaries. "If I am more despicable in the eyes of the world," he wrote, "I am more acceptable to the citizens of heaven."25
Unfortunately his heroic visit to Lyon was of no avail, and it was heroic not simply for the manner in which he pointed out the failings of the Pope and his court to their faces, but for the very fact that a man of his age even undertook such an arduous journey under thirteenth-century conditions. The priorities of the Pope differed from those of the Bishop. Innocent IV had become dependent upon the system of papal provisions to maintain his Curia and to bribe allies to fight in his interminable wars with the Emperor Frederick II. His political ambitions took precedence over the cure of souls.
In 1253, the Pope nominated his own nephew, Frederick of Lavagna, to a vacant canonry in Lincoln Cathedral. The mandate ordering Bishop Grosseteste to appoint him was something of a legal masterpiece in which the careful use of non obstante clauses ruled out every legal ground for refusal or delay. This, then, was the Bishop's dilemma. He was faced with a perfectly legal command from the Sovereign Pontiff, which apparently must be obeyed, and yet the demand, though legal, was obviously immoral, a clear abuse of power. The Pope was using his office as Vicar of Christ in a sense quite contrary to the purpose for which it had been entrusted to him. The Bishop saw clearly that there is an important distinction between what a pope has a legal right to do and what he has a moral right to do. His response was a direct refusal to obey an order which constituted an abuse of authority. The Pope was acting ultra vires, beyond the limits of his authority, and hence his subjects were not bound to obey him.
It is of great importance to note that Robert Grosseteste made this stand not because he failed to appreciate or to respect the papal office but as a result of his exalted appreciation of and respect for papal authority.
In his attitude to the papacy Grosseteste was at once loyal and critical. It was just because he believed so passionately in the papal power that he hated to see it misused....If there had been more loyal and disinterested critics like Grosseteste, it would have been better for all concerned.26
Lesser men could and did acquiesce in what was wrong, using a facile concept of obedience as their justification. True loyalty does not consist in sycophancy, in telling a superior what he probably wants to hear, in using obedience as an excuse for a quiet life. Had there been more "loyal and disinterested critics" like Bishop Grosseteste, prepared to stand up to the Pope and tell him where his own policies or those of his advisors were wrong, then the Reformation might never have taken place. But men of courage and principle will always be the exception, even in the episcopate, as was made clear in England when the Reformation did come and only St. John Fisher made a stand for the Holy See.
Bishop Grosseteste refused to appoint Frederick of Lavagna to the canonry in Lincoln Cathedral. The letter in which he expressed most strongly his resistance to what he considered to be the unrighteous demands of the Pope was addressed to "Master Innocent," a papal secretary then resident in England. (Some historians have mistakenly concluded that the letter was addressed to Pope Innocent IV himself.) This is his answer to the papal mandate:
No faithful subject of the Holy See, no man who is not cut away by schism from the Body of Christ and the same Holy See, can submit to mandates, precepts, or any other demonstrations of this kind, no, not even if the authors were the most high body of angels. He must needs repudiate them and rebel against them with all his strength. Because of the obedience by which I am bound, and of my love of my union with the Holy See in the Body of Christ, as an obedient son I disobey, I contradict, I rebel. You cannot take action against me, for my every word and act is not rebellion but the filial honor due by God's command to father and mother. As I have said, the Apostolic See in its holiness cannot destroy, it can only build. This is what the plentitude of power means; it can do all things to edification. But these so-called provisions do not build up, they destroy. They cannot be the works of the blessed Apostolic See, for "flesh and blood," which do not possess the Kingdom of God "hath revealed them," not "our Father which is in heaven."27
Commenting on this letter in his study, Grosseteste's Relations With The Papacy and The Crown, W. A. Pantin writes:
There seem to be two lines of argument here. The first is that since the plenitudo potestatis exists for the purpose of edification and not destruction, any act which tends to the destruction or the ruin of souls cannot be a genuine exercise of the plenitudo potestatis....The second line of argument is that if the Pope, or anyone else, should command anything contrary to Divine Law, then it will be wrong to obey, and in the last resort, while protesting one's loyalty, one must refuse to obey. The fundamental problem was that while the Church's teaching is supernaturally guaranteed against error, the Church's ministers, from the Pope downwards, are not impeccable, and are capable of making wrong judgements or giving wrong commands.28
"You cannot take action against me," Bishop Grosseteste had warned - and events proved him to be correct. Innocent IV was beside himself with fury when he received the Bishop's letter. His first impulse was to order his "vassal the king" to imprison the old prelate - but his cardinals persuaded him to take no action.
"You must do nothing. It is true. We cannot condemn him. He is a Catholic and a holy man, a better man that we are. He has not got his equal among the prelates. All the French and English clergy know this and our contradiction would be of no avail. The truth of this letter which is probably known to many, might move many against us. He is esteemed as a great philosopher, learned in Greek and Latin literature, zealous for justice, a reader in the schools of theology, a preacher to the people, an active enemy of abuses."29
This account was written by a man who had no love for the bishop - Matthew Paris, executor of the mandate which Grosseteste had refused to implement. But Matthew recognized the greatness and sincerity of Robert Grosseteste and was stirred by it.
Innocent IV decided that the most prudent course would be to take no action and in that same year the aged Bishop of Lincoln died. Robert Grosseteste was a great scholar, a great Englishman, a universal genius, perhaps the greatest son of Oxford, and above all one of the greatest of all Catholic bishops, a true bonus pastor who would willingly have laid down his life for his flock.
He knew everybody and feared nobody. At King Henry's request he instructed him on the nature of an anointed king, and in so doing courteously reminded him of his responsibility for the maintenance of his subjects in peace and justice and of his duty to refrain from any interference with the cure of souls. He would allow no compromise on matters of principle. The common law of the land should be applied in the light of equity, the dictate of conscience, and the teaching of the natural law, as revealed in the Scriptures, implicit in the working of a Divine Providence, and conformable to the teaching and guidance of Christ in the Church Militant on earth.30
There were many reports of miracles at his tomb in Lincoln, which soon became a center of veneration and pilgrimage. Repeated attempts were made to secure his canonization; but these were met with little sympathy by the Holy See.31 His only rival as the greatest of all English bishops is St. John Fisher, whose loyalty and love for the Holy See certainly did not exceed that of Bishop Grosseteste. It is quite certain that had this thirteenth-century bishop occupied his see under Henry VIII he would have joined St. John Fisher on the scaffold and died for the Pope. It seems equally certain that had the bishop of Rochester lived during the pontificate of Innocent IV he would have joined Robert Grosseteste in opposing a flagrant abuse of papal power. Who knows, the saintly Bishop of Lincoln may yet be canonized.
The following works are referred to in the notes as indicated:
RG D. A. Callus, ed., Robert Grosseteste (Oxford, 1955). KHLE F. M. Powicke, King Henry III and the Lord Edward (Oxford, 1950). RGBL M. Powicke, Robert Grosseteste, Bishop of Lincoln, Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, Manchester, Vol. 35, No. 2, March 1953. 1. RGBL, p.482.
2. D. A. Callus, "Robert Grosseteste as Scholar," RG, pp. 1-69. A. C. Crobie, "Grosseteste's Position in the History of Science," RG, pp. 98-120. B. Smalley, "The Biblical Scholar" RG, pp. 70-97
3. Matthew Paris, executor of the papal mandate which Robert Grosseteste refused to implement, RG, p. 170.
4. RG, pp. 168-169.
5. KHLE, p. 287.
6. RG, p. 150.
7. RG, p. 85.
8. RG, p. 146ff.
9. RG, p. 170.
10. KHLE, p. 287.
11. RG, p. 183.
12. RG, p. 185.
13. RGBL, p. 503.
14. RG, p. 189.
15. RG, p. 188.
16. O. Gierke, Political Theory of the Middle Ages (Cambridge, 1968), p. 36.
18. RG, p. 181.
19. RG, p. 182.
20. RG, p. 158.
21. RG, pp. 158-159.
22. RG, p. 182.
23. RGBL, p. 504.
24. KHLE, p. 284.
25. RG, xix.
26. RG, p. 197.
27. KHLE, p. 286.
28. RG, pp. 190-191.
29. KHLE, p. 287.
30. RG, xxi.
31. E. W. Kemp, "The Attempted Canonization of Robert Grosseteste," RG, pp. 241-246.