Grosseteste, like Fisher after him, provides for us a model of a true Catholic bishop living in a time of crisis and uncertainty that starts at the Chair of Peter and works its way down to the pews. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, Grosseteste, the Bishop of Lincoln, was “one of the most learned men of the Middle Ages. He came from Stradbroke in the county of Suffolk. Little is known of his family, but it was certainly a poor one. The first definite date which we can connect with his life, is that of a letter written in 1199 by Giraldus Cambrensis to recommend him to the Bishop of Hereford. …[After his death], he was buried in his cathedral. Very soon he was regarded almost universally in England as a saint. The chroniclers tell of miracles at his tomb, and pilgrims visited it. Early in the following century a Bishop of Lincoln granted them an indulgence. Efforts were made by different prelates, by Edward I, and by the University of Oxford to procure his canonization by the pope.”
From here, Michael Davies’s article speaks for itself, we leave it to the reader to draw the obvious parallels. MJM
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 to benefices. He was a man who would allow no compromise on a matter of principle, and here was a question which could not have been more directly concerned with the care 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 to his people: the pastor must be spiritually worthy of his awe-inspiring office, and he 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 care 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”. 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 both in 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”.
He herefore had “no hesitation in rejecting presentations to benefices, if those who were presented lacked the qualifications which he considered necessary for the care 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.”
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 ensure 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 plentitude of power, the Pope had the right to make nominations to benefices, and, where this right was properly exercised, he was quite prepared to accept it. But for him both papal power and the provision to a benefice had but one end – the salvation of souls. The Pope, therefore, had been given the power to nominate men to pastoral offices only to build up the Body of Christ through the effective care of souls; and how could the care 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”. 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 at least defer the need to comply. In 1250, at the age of 80, 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”.
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 they include the duty of visitation…”. 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 pretends except 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.”
Unfortunately, his heroic visit to Lyon was to 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 13th-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 care 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 obstane 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 in this.
It is of great importance to note that Robert Grosseteste took this stand not because he failed to appreciate or 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”. Lesser men could and did acquiesce to 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 advisers 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.
In his reply to the papal command, Bishop Grosseteste accused Pope Innocent IV of disobedience to Christ and the destruction of the care of souls. “No faithful subject of the Holy See,” he wrote, “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 honour 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 plenitude of power means; it can do all things to edification. But these co-called provisions do not build up, they destroy. They cannot be the work 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’.”
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 plentitudo 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 plenitude potestatis …The second line of argument is that if the Pope, or anyone else, should command anything contrary to the 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 judgments or giving wrong commands.”
“You cannot take action against me,” bishop Grosseteste had warned the Pope – and events proved him to be correct. Innocent IV was beside himself with fury when he first 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 then 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.” This account was written by a man who had no love for the Bishop – Mathew Paris, executor of the mandate which the Bishop had refused to implement. But Mathew 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, and 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 his duty to refrain from any interference with the care of souls. He would allow no compromise on matters of principle. The common law of the Church 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.”
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 in the Holy See. His only rival as the greatest of all the 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 13th 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
Taken From The Remnant, September 6, 1975
Most of the material in the above article is based on the following works which are referred to in the notes as indicated: S.A. Callus, ed., Robert Grosseteste (Oxford, 1955) – RG. F.M. Powicke, King Henry III and the Lord Edward (Oxford, 1950) –KHLE. M. Powicke, Robert Grosseteste, Bishop of Lincoln, Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, Manchester, Vol. 35, No. 2, March 1953 – RGBL.