Grosseteste: Pillar of the Papacy
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."
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
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:
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
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
In 1239, in a discourse on the ecclesiastical hierarchy addressed
to the Dean and Chapter of Lincoln, he wrote:
For Robert Grosseteste:
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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:
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:
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
works are referred to in the notes as indicated:
A. Callus, ed., Robert Grosseteste (Oxford, 1955).
F. M. Powicke, King Henry III and the Lord Edward (Oxford,
Powicke, Robert Grosseteste, Bishop of Lincoln, Bulletin
of the John Rylands Library, Manchester, Vol. 35, No. 2, March
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,
Matthew Paris, executor of the papal mandate which Robert Grosseteste
refused to implement, RG, p. 170.
RG, pp. 168-169.
KHLE, p. 287.
RG, p. 150.
RG, p. 85.
RG, p. 146ff.
RG, p. 170.
KHLE, p. 287.
RG, p. 183.
RG, p. 185.
RGBL, p. 503.
RG, p. 189.
RG, p. 188.
O. Gierke, Political Theory of the Middle Ages (Cambridge,
1968), p. 36.
RG, p. 181.
RG, p. 182.
RG, p. 158.
RG, pp. 158-159.
RG, p. 182.
RGBL, p. 504.
KHLE, p. 284.
RG, p. 197.
KHLE, p. 286.
RG, pp. 190-191.
KHLE, p. 287.
E. W. Kemp, "The Attempted Canonization of Robert Grosseteste,"
RG, pp. 241-246.
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