The Decretists and Decretalists

To understand the two groups of canon lawyers known as the “Decretists” and the “Decretalists,” it is first necessary to recount a bit of the history of the papacy from the beginning of the second Christian millennium.

As is covered elsewhere, the Investiture Contest radically reshaped the Western Church, “politicizing” it and opening the way for a subsequent “legalistic” turn. The Investiture Contest had turned upon the old question of the respective roles of the “two powers” in Christendom (the spiritual and the secular), an extremely difficult question to resolve. Thus it was that the Concordat of Worms (1122), which effectively ended the controversy, left open major questions premised on the two powers doctrine. The old imperialist option, which had been constructed and transmitted by the Carolingians and which had, interestingly, both made the Gregorian revolution possible (via Emperor Henry III’s rescue of the Roman See from its bondage to political forces) and then been destroyed by that revolution (in 1077 at Canossa, where the political forces were dramatically humbled, severely weakening the Empire), gave way to two distinct conceptual positions after the Gregorian revolution: papalism and clericalism. The former was a radical violation of the Gelasian dualist maxim, for as its theorists spun its principles out to their logical uttermost it posited that the Pope was not only the unchallengeable head of the Church, but of the entire Christian world, spiritual and temporal. The latter position, clericalism, was closer in spirit to Gelasian dualism but it could not compete with the noon-day glory of militant papalism.

The Empire, too, could not ultimately compete with the papacy. The humiliation of Henry IV in 1077 was followed by the weak rule of his son, Henry V, who barely managed to hold the Empire together through political compromises with his lesser nobles, who themselves began to grow more powerful than the emperor himself. When Henry V died in 1125, leaving no heir, control of the imperial throne became a matter not of hereditary succession but of elections manipulated by two powerful families, the Welfs of Saxony and the Hohenstaufens of Swabia. The only bright spot for the Empire came during the reign of the Hohenstaufen Frederick Barbarossa (1152-1190), who managed to rebuild the Empire’s power and prestige. Though he was bitterly opposed at every step by Popes Hadrian IV (r. 1154-1159) and Alexander III (r. 1159-1181), Barbarossa’s clever political and military maneuvering resulted in the geographical encirclement of Rome by the Empire.

But the popes were not powerless throughout this reinvigoration of the Empire. Following the new societal path inaugurated by the triumph of the Gregorian papacy, the first great canon lawyer of the High Middle Ages, Gratian of Bologna (fl. Early-mid 12th cent.) was destined to be a critical link in the chain leading to the Papal Theocracy. His work, the Harmony of Discordant Canons (or simply the Decretum), contains many canons which were (and in the modified and updated forms found in present day Roman Catholic canon law, still are) used to help construct the theocratic papalist ecclesiology of the later Middle Ages. We cannot discuss Gratian’s Decretum in depth here, so it will have to suffice to say that some parts of it give support to papal sovereignty while other parts of it give support to resistance to such sovereignty. For example, there are the two contradictory texts produced by Gratian regarding the ability of other authorities to judge the pope regarding errors in matters of faith: “The judge may not be judged by the Emperor, by all the clergy [combined], by kings, or by the people.”:”(My translation of the Latin text of Decretum D.9, q.3, c.13 supplied by Tierney’s “Ockham, the Conciliar Theory, and the Canonists”, in Journal of the History of Ideas Vol. 15 [1954], pg. 50: “Neque ab Augusto neque ab omni clero neque a regibus neque a populo iudex iudicatur.” It is common knowledge among medievalists that this canon was, unbenownst to Gratian, a sixth century forgery and not a genuine canon of the Church.)”: and “[The pope] may not be judged by anyone except he be found to be a deviant from the faith.”:”(My translation of the Latin text of Decretum D.40 c.6, supplied by ibid.: “[Papa] a nemine est iudicandus, nisi deprehendatur a fide devius.”)”: The latter text, especially, along with a decretal of Pope Gregory IX which states that “What is not licit by the letter of the law is made licit in times of necessity” would become important in later controversies over papal power.

What Gratian started many others–including some of the popes themselves–took up and expanded upon.:”(R.W. Southern notes that “every notable pope from 1159 to 1303 was a lawyer…Every circumstance of twelfth century society favoured the rapid growth of papal law, and this growth was given a steady impulse by the great succession of lawyer popes—Alexander III, Innocent III, Gregory IX, Innocent IV, Boniface VIII.” Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages [New York: Penguin Books, 1990], pp. 131-132.)”: The “Decretists” were the group of canonists who took as their starting point Gratian’s work and issued their own commentaries upon its passages, attempting to expound, explain, and perhaps even to transcend, the work of the great master of Bologna. The “Decretalists,” on the other hand, were the group of canonists who took their starting point in post-Gratian papal decretals and issued their own commentaries upon them. The sheer scope and volume of this new legal activity in the West is difficult to comprehend, even when such facts are adduced as that there are extant seven hundred decretals by Pope Alexander III (r. 1159-1181) alone and that scarcely fifty years later, under Pope Gregory IX (r. 1227-1241), a collection of nearly a century of decretal work containing two thousand sections was published. This framework of canon law—comprised of Gratian’s Decretum and the Decretales of Gregory IX would remain in force until 1918 when a new Code of Canon Law was promulgated by the Roman Church. Canon law, which came under the rubric of the “positive law,” was built atop multiple legal sources (classical Roman law, biblical law, and Germanic law). As Gelasian dualism progressively broke down in the period of the Papal Monarchy “the law of the Church” would become “the law of society.”

After the Gregorian revolution settled into its victorious position of norming the whole Church-society, the general theme of absolute monarchy, particularly centered on the Bishop of Rome, came to the foreground of Christian political thinking. The pope arrogated to himself the powers of “supreme rulership” (imperium) of the Church, “fullness of authority” (plenitudo auctoritatis), and “fullness of power” (plenitudo potestatis). Jurisdictional thinking became the dominant theme of the Christian society, and so the pope was considered to have these various “fullnesses” not merely because he was ordained to be the Bishop of Rome (potestate ordinis) but because he possessed comprehensive jurisdiction (potestate jurisdictionis). This distinction between ordination and jurisdiction was made for the first time in this period. As it came to fundamentally underlie the entire constitution of the Roman Church it went along with such interesting and far-reaching developments as the pope becoming for the first time the sole lawful summoner and approver of General Councils, the sole arbiter of saint-canonization, and the collapse of “appellate” jurisdiction into “initial” jurisdiction. As the “supreme officer of the church”, the Roman Bishop had what Gratian called the “execution of power” (executio potestatis), which meant that he possessed supreme right to judge cases and his decisions became the positive law and remained so until such time as his successors might modify or revoke them.:”(See Harold J. Berman, Law and Revolution: The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983], pp. 203-207.)”: The new systems of law were so powerful that “There was no need for Popes to seek for business—they were overwhelmed by it.”:”(R. W. Southern, The Making of the Middle Ages [New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1992], pg. 151.)”:

Indeed, matters became so serious early on that Bernard of Clairvaux felt obligated to chastise his former pupil, Pope Eugene III (r. 1145-1153) regarding the terrible distractions from the spiritual duties of the Pope that “this damnable [legal] business” represented:

Where shall I begin? Let me begin with the pressure of business. If you hate it, I sympathize with you. If you don’t, I mourn all the more, because the unconscious patient is in the greater danger….See where all this damnable business is leading you! You are wasting your time! I will speak to you as Jethro spoke to Moses and say, ‘What is this thing that you are doing to the people? Why do you sit from morning to evening listening to litigants?’ What fruit is there in these things? They can only create cobwebs.:”(De consideratione 1.1-2, as cited by Southern, Western Society and the Church, pg. 111. It is important to recognize, however, that Bernard’s concern with the new legalism of the papacy is contextualized by his hierocratic insistence that “mundane” duties are “beneath” the “dignity” of the papal throne because such have been committed to the “auxiliary” of the papacy, the temporal ruler. See Walter Ullmann, The Growth of Papal Government in the West [New York: Barnes and Noble, Inc., 1953], pp. 426-437.)”:

The popes, alas, did not heed Bernard’s advice. Armed with their new vast array of systematized law—which increased all the time due to its nature as a “living law,” constantly adapting to new situations—popes and their defenders began to press their claims to possess “fullness of power” (plenitudo potestatis). Just as with the Decretum and its commentators, the “Decretists,” the Decretals began to be commented upon by the “Decretalists,” and these commentaries inevitably brought about expansions in the logic and applications of the decrees. Despite attempts by such brilliant Popes as Innocent IV to be reserved, papal power ballooned outward in epic works produced by papal publicists such as Giles of Rome (ca. 1243-1316) and his pupil James of Viterbo (ca. 1260-1307), Hostiensis (d. 1271), and Augustinus Triumphus (ca. 1270-1328). A major result of this work was the formulation of what has been called the “hierocratic theory” of Church government, namely, the theory that because the spiritual is supposedly ontologically superior to the temporal, the spiritual order is the ultimate governor of the temporal order. Adhering closely to a form of Platonism, this theory sees all power in society flowing downward from the “greater” One at the top through a graded hierarchy of “lesser” authorities. Ultimately, if polemical needs require it, this theory is prepared to say that all lesser authorities are mere creatures of the One at the top, mere auxiliaries which may be disposed of as the One pleases. It is not hard to see what happened to the papacy under the influence of this theory.

Despite this apparently one-sided magnification of papal power, which would eventually produce what some scholars today refer to as “the Papal World Monarchy,” even in the works just mentioned we find significant nods of the head to the older dualistic theory of power in Christendom. For example, we find one of the greatest of the Decretalists, Augustinus Triumphus, commenting in one place that “whenever it seems to him [the pope] to be in the interest of the church and the peace of of the Christian people, he can deprive them [the princes] of this right, just as for such a reason he granted it to them.”:”(Summa de ecclesiastica potestate q. 35.1, ad 1, as cited in William D. McCready, “The Problem of the Empire in Augustinus Triumphus and Late Medieval Papal Hierocratic Theory”, in Traditio 30 [New York: Fordham University Press, 1974], pg. 329)”: and yet in another place that “the spiritual man should not implicate himself in worldly affairs.”:”(McCready, ibid., pg. 342, citing Augustinus Triumphus’ Summa q. 35.6: “spiritualis homo non implicet se negociis secularibus”, my translation above.)”:

Other Decretalists spelled out the total dominion of the pope over both spiritual and secular spheres. Giles of Rome argued that “priestly power and especially the pope’s power, which are known to have dominion over our soul, have authority and dominion over our bodies and temporal things ordered to bodies.”:”(On Ecclesiastical Power, By Giles of Rome, trans. Arthur P. Monahan [Lewiston, NY: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1990], pp. 74-75.)”: At the same time, he admitted that “some have wished to say that both priestly and royal and imperial power are immediately from God, and that neither is through or from the other, and they purport to conclude from this that the pope does not possess both swords.”:”(Ibid., pg. 80.)”: But because of Old Testament precedents such as Moses creating subordinate judges [Ex. 18] and Samuel ordaining Israel’s first king [I Kings 8], it must be seen, Giles argues, that “these two powers are not equally immediately from God; rather, the former [temporal] is through the latter [spiritual], and consequently is subordinate to it.”:”(Ibid., pg. 83; the Old Testament arguments are summarized on pp. 80-82.)”: And yet, apparently aware of the tension such hierocraticism creates with dualism, Giles remarks, following Bede, that of the two swords in Luke 22, one remains “sheathed” and is “not for use but at its [the Church’s] command”, so that “the Church should possess all things and possess nothing.”:”(Ibid., pgs. 83 and 87 respectively. On page 88 he summarizes: “although she possesses all things in terms of dominion, the Church should restrict her concern only to spiritual things and leave concern for temporal things to others.”)”: Such right hand / left hand dichotomies appear throughout the works of the Decretalists, but the general tenor of their works is the magnification of papal power to such an extent that, as one has summarized, “His very will, without any rational justification, was sufficient to establish a binding law, and even his unjust commands were to be obeyed for no one on earth could say to him cur ita facis? ["Why have you done this?"]:”( Brian Tierney, Foundations of The Conciliar Theory [Leiden, New York, Koln: Brill, 1998], pp. 81-82.)”:

Throughout the thirteenth century the pope was widely thought to reign supreme over the world–to the extent that “no one on earth could say to him cur ita facis?” The papalist position as articulated by the Decretalists in the fourteenth century (in the wake of the controversies between Pope Boniface VIII and Philip IV and between Pope John XXII and Emperor Lewis of Bavaria) can be summed up this way: papal power in temporal matters is not “indirect” (potestas indirecta), but is “direct” (potestas directa). However, its “direct” nature is expressed “by means of redundancy” (propter redundantium), that is, as a sort of “last resort” designed to preserve the whole societas Christiana from harm in the event of dire temporal circumstances requiring sovereign intervention from on high. It is a “double power” (potestas duplex) in terms of its effects, but a single power, fundamentally spiritual, in terms of its nature. All of this may be seen as the abstract theoretical foundations of the commonplace metaphors used by papalist apologists throughout the central and high Middle Ages, namely, the metaphors of “the two swords” and “the Sun and the Moon.”

The extension of the papal hierocratic doctrine to the uttermost of its logical implications would have serious repercussions during the period of the Avignonese Papacy (“The Babylonian Captivity of the Church”), and would form the focal point for some of the fourteenth century’s most brilliant political theorizing (i.e., Marsilius of Padua and William of Ockham). The work of the Decretists and Decretalists was instrumental in producing what has been called the “Corporation Theory” of ecclesiology, which would be put to very effective use in the fifteenth century by the advocates of the Conciliar Movement. Like most everything under the sun, then, we see that the group of canon lawyers that today we know as the Decretists and Decretalists are a mixed blessing.

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2 Responses to The Decretists and Decretalists

  1. Kevin says:


    Is there 1 or 2 books that would give the best view on “this is what Rome believed, or the range of acceptable beliefs, at the time of the reformation?”


  2. Kevin says:

    Tim – I meant concerning Papal power and authority

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