The Augustinian Order and Papal Power

The papacy created the Augustinian Order; the Augustinians in turn created the papacy. By the Augustinian Order I mean Ordo Eremetarum Sancti Augustini (OESA, today OSA), the Order of the Hermits of Saint Augustine. The hermits part distinguished them from the other Augustinian Order, the Canons Regular of Saint Augustine (CRSA), with whom they often squabbled, debating who had the better claim on Augustine’s legacy. The Hermits came into being when Pope Alexander IV gathered representatives from several hermetic groups and announced that they would all be fused into a single, new religious order under the Rule of St. Augustine. He confirmed this a bit later in the bull Licet ecclesiae catholicae (1256).

Boniface VIII helped the newly formed order gain parity with other orders. His Ad consequendam gloriam (1295) prohibited other orders from building establishments within 140 rods of an Augustinian church. His Sacrae religionis merita (1298) allowed them to elect their own prior general. His Tenerem cuiusdam constitutionem (1298) protected them from the forced consolidation of newer religious orders decreed by the Second Council of Lyons. Sacer ordo vester (1299) placed the Augustinians and Carmelites under his personal rather than diocesan jurisdiction. Inter sollicitudines (1303) allowed the Order to preach and hear confessions, protected their burial spaces, and generally granted them the same privileges enjoyed by the Franciscans and Dominicans.

The summit of papal favor toward the Augustinians was John XXII’s bull Veneranda sanctorum (1327). The bull ordered the Canons Regular to share with the Hermits the religious services at San Pietro, the tomb of Augustine. By giving the Hermits partial custody of Augustine’s body, the pope acknowledged them as true heirs of Augustine, reinforcing the corporate identity they had spent the last 70 years crafting. Thus both their existence and their identity were secured through the beneficence of the papacy.

The Augustinians merited the popes’ grace. From the beginning, they were staunch supporters of the papacy, despite its sometimes scandalous condition in this period.  Doubtless political maneuvering and quid pro quo considerations factored into their tenacious support, but the DNA of the Order also disposed them to lean toward the pope. Unlike the Dominicans and the Franciscans, the Augustinians had a bishop as their founding figure. Whereas modern people tend to encounter Augustine as the introspective, poetic voice in Confessions, medievals knew him in many ways, perhaps primarily as the bastion of church authority against heretics. The Augustinians, seeking to be true sons of their father, developed an ideal of Christian perfection that was as much ecclesiastical as it was communal. Church reform was envisioned as the task of bishops, and above all of the bishop of Rome. The Augustinians, a relatively new order, set about constructing an ecclesiology that made room for them in the Church, one that matched their ideal of Christian perfection.

Giles of Rome (1243-1316) set the theological course of the Augustinian Order. He was a distinguished theologian throughout much of his career, becoming prior general of the Augustinians in 1292 and archbishop of Bourges in 1295. He worked tirelessly to articulate the role of his fledgling order in the Church, and a vision of the Church amenable to the ideals of his order. His De renuntiatione papae (1297–1298) defended the legitimacy of Boniface VIII’s papacy. His most notable work on the Church was De ecclesiastica potestate (On the Church’s Power, 1302), which may have even been a source for Boniface’s bull Unam sanctam (1303), one of the strongest claims to papal power in the middle ages.

De ecclesiastica potestate was a sweeping synthesis, as was typical of high scholasticism. In such a work, earth mirrors heaven, the physical moves to the rhythm of the spiritual. Two arguments in particular stand out. The first rests on the spirit/body relationship. As the human soul is meant to rule the human body, so the spiritual power of the Christian empire (the Church) is meant to direct the physical power (the civil magistrates). Any other state of affairs would flout virtue. In this way, Augustine’s doctrine of the ordered soul was transposed into politics. The second argument relates the hierarchy of the Church to the hierarchy of angels outlined by Pseudo-Dionysius’ Celestial Hierarchy. (Of course, it is quite likely that Giles believed the document to have been written by Dionysius, the disciple of Paul mentioned in Acts 17:34.) The threefold division of angels matches the threefold division of the Church (bishops, priests, deacons). Erik Saak summarizes Giles’ position:

Just as God sits at the helm of the angelic hierarchy, so does the pope, as God’s vicar on earth, preside over the ecclesiastical hierarchy, which is synonymous with Christian society. As God’s vicar, the pope is the spiritual being that judges all and can be judged by no one. And just as God has complete and supreme sovereignty over all creation, so does the pope have complete sovereignty on earth, a true fullness of power. Moreover, the pope possesses the same divine discrimination in the exercise of his authority as does God. Just as God by his absolute power can do whatever God chooses to do immediately without secondary causes, so the pope, who in the usual administrartion of his authority employs secondary causes as his instruments, can by his absolute power affect whatever he chooses immediately and directly in his plenitude of power. Only thus, based on the pope’s ordained powers, does temporal sovereignty come into being and exercise a distinct realm of jurisdiction…. The pope, as pope, is the embodiment of the Church, the embodiment of God’s reign of earth, exercising the authority of Christ himself, through whose Passion all will be saved who will be saved, in the final triumph of the kingdom of God (High Way to Heaven, 38-39).

Several other Augustinians contributed to the extreme theory of papal power. Augustinus of Ancona’s Summa de potestate ecclesiastica (Summary of the Church’s Power, 1326) awarded the pope infinite power, placing him above all law and human judgment. William of Cremona’s Reprobatio errorum (1327) defended the Church’s hierarchy against the more egalitarian theory of Marsiglio of Padua.

Thus the Augustinians gave back to the papacy by establishing a theology that bolstered its claims to supremacy over both princes and councils. Giles’ analogy between the celestial hierarchy and the Church became a stock argument even through the Reformation. In all these documents, a particular interpretation of Augustine’s legacy is evident. Augustine reforming the Church as bishop became the inspiration for a theology of top-down reform. The Church was its hierarchy for the Augustinians, and it was through this hierarchy, particularly through the vicar of God on earth, that God would reform his Church. This was the position of the Augustinians until one Augustinian, Martin Luther, superseded it, appealing beyond the pope to God himself.

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Published in: on October 24, 2012 at 8:39 am  Comments (3)  
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