Pope Boniface VIII

The Italian prelate Benedetto Caetani (1235?-1303) reigned as Pone Boniface VIII from 1294 to 1303. During his pontificate he issued a new addition to canon law, participated in Italian political and dynastic struggles, and opposed King Philip IV of France.

The son of Roffredo and Emilia Caetani, Benedetto Caetani was born at Anagni. His family had important political and ecclesiastical connections, and during the 1250s Benedetto was sent to live with his uncle, the bishop of Todi. There he probably began the study of law, which he continued at Spoleto and, between 1263 and 1274, at Bologna, the center of legal studies in Christendom. In 1264 Benedetto received his first ecclesiastical appointment, a junior secretarial post in the legation of Cardinal Simon of Brie (later Pope Martin IV) to France. In 1265 Benedetto joined another legation, led by Cardinal Ottoboni Fieschi (later Pope Adrian V) to England, where he remained probably until 1268.

In 1276 Benedetto's old master Ottoboni, now pope, assigned him the duty of collecting crusade revenues in France. From this date on, Benedetto obtained steady and increasingly more responsible employment in the vast administrative and diplomatic bureaucracy of the late-13th-century papacy. In 1281, not yet a priest, Benedetto became cardinal deacon of St. Nicholas in Carcere Tulliano; in 1290 he became papal legate to France. In 1291 he was finally ordained a priest and in the same year became cardinal of St. Martin in Montibus.

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Election as Pope

After the 6-month pontificate of the hermit-pope Celestine V ended with his resignation in December 1294, Benedetto Caetani was elected pope on December 24, and he took the name Boniface VIII. Celestine's brief pontificate and the unique circumstances of his resignation had created chaos in the world of ecclesiastical administration. Boniface first had to restore order in the papal system of government and justify the legality of his predecessor's resignation and, by implication, the legitimacy of his own election. As an administrator and legate, he was described by a contemporary as "a man of deep counsel, a man of trust, secret, industrious, circumspect."

Boniface had to defend himself against attacks within the Church from disaffected cardinals, particularly members of the powerful Colonna family, and from those ecclesiastical groups who had regarded Pope Celestine V as a saint and accused Boniface of having tricked the old pope into resigning. Boniface found supporters in his propaganda war with the Colonna cardinals, and in 1298 he promulgated his great law book, the Liber sextus, in which, among many other things, he recognized the legitimacy of papal resignation.

Conflict with Philip IV

In 1296, however, another problem had arisen, one which touched the very center of papal and temporal power: the question of taxation. The Church had long authorized, in certain cases, the collection of taxes on Church income and property by temporal authorities. The Church itself also collected taxes, and by the late 13th-century these early instances of taxation had become lucrative necessities to both the kings and the ecclesiastical powers who collected them. The taxes had begun as crusade subsidies, but they had become part of the financial transformation of 13th-century political and ecclesiastical organizations. The demand for a new tax on ecclesiastical revenues by King Philip IV of France elicited from Boniface VIII the bull (letter) Clericis laicos, in which the Pope not only forbade the collection of taxes from the clergy by laymen but also denied the French king authority over the clergy within his own realm.

Philip IV retaliated by forbidding the export of all money from France, and in 1297 Boniface came to terms with Philip by recognizing the technicality known as "necessity of state" as reason for emergency taxation, even of clergy, by an imperiled secular government. The position of France in Boniface's conflict with the Colonna cardinals and their allies, the Spiritual Franciscans, also contributed to the settlement between Boniface and Philip IV.

By 1300 Boniface had so successfully restored papal prestige that he proclaimed the first jubilee year. The crowds who flocked to Rome to receive the indulgences that accompanied a papal blessing must have received the impression that the Church and the papacy were indeed at the greatest point of their power in history.

In 1301 another phase of the quarrel between Boniface and Philip IV began. Philip arrested the bishop of Pamiers on charges of heresy and treason and demanded that the Pope recognize the legality of his act. Boniface responded by denouncing Philip's act, calling a council which would meet in 1302 to consider the state of the Church in France, and addressing Philip with a second admonitory letter, Ausculta fili, in which he outlined the traditional superiority of popes to kings and emperors. In 1302 Philip called an assembly of all ranks of French society at Paris, the first meeting in history of a representative Estates General, at which his supporters presented a distorted version of Boniface's letter and urged further royal action against the Pope.

In 1302, when his council to discuss religion in France proved a failure, Boniface issued Unam sanctam, perhaps the most famous papal letter ever written. In this document Boniface presented the traditional ecclesiastical view of papal authority in the Church and in the world: "Therefore, if the earthly power errs, it shall be judged by the spiritual power, if a lesser spiritual power errs it shall be judged by its superior, but if the supreme spiritual power errs it can be judged only by God not by man, as the apostle witnesses, 'The spiritual man judgeth all things and he himself is judged by no man."'

In 1303 Philip's minister Guillaume de Nogaret met Boniface at Anagni; there he held the Pope prisoner and insulted and abused him. Released by the local inhabitants, Boniface proceeded to Rome, where he died several weeks later.

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Assessment of Boniface's Life

Boniface was the target of much abuse both within and without the Church. His enemies portrayed him as a heretic, a sorcerer, a sodomite, and a traducer of the faith. His actions against the city of Florence earned him a place in Dante's Inferno, and between 1303 and 1311 Philip IV held the threat of a trial of Boniface and the possible repudiation of his pontificate by the Church over the heads of Boniface's weaker successors.

Boniface's conflict with Philip IV resulted in the Pope's public humiliation, the precipitous decline of papal prestige, and the first major affront to the late-13th-century concept of papal monarchy. Boniface has been described as carrying the medieval theory of papal authority to its highest point and at the same time has been condemned as rashly having thrown away both spiritual and temporal responsibility in what was essentially a political argument.

Yet Boniface's statements of Church policy, his stands against secular taxation of the clergy, and his defense of the legitimacy of his own election may also be understood as being well within ecclesiastical tradition and not exceptional for the period in which they occurred. By committing himself to power and law, Boniface became the greatest representative of the Church of order. His pontificate is one of the most important in the history of the medieval Church and has been the subject of a considerable body of scholarly and ecclesiastical works.

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Further Reading on Pope Boniface VIII

The texts in translation of Boniface's most famous letters are found in Brian Tierney, The Crisis of Church and State, 1050-1300 (1964). The best biography is Thomas S.R. Boase, Boniface VIII (1933). Another excellent study is Charles T. Wood, Philip the Fair and Boniface VIII: State vs. Papacy (1967), which contains an exhaustive bibliography.

Additional Biography Sources

Denton, Jeffrey Howard., Philip the Fair and the ecclesiastical assemblies of 1294-1295, Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1991.