Marsilius of Padua: Defensor pacis (1324)




By the early fourteenth century, the medieval dominance of papal authority was being undermined by the growing independence of kings and princes across Europe.  Intellectuals such as Marsilius of Padua (c. 1290-1343), would challenge the church in such a way as to give impetus to both the western concept of separation of church and state as well as the modern proclivity of consensual over singular rule.


As the result of some costly wars during the 1290s, Philip IV of France (1285-1314) decided to collect additional revenue by taxing the church.  The church, however, prohibited taxing its property without papal permission and Pope Boniface VIII (1294-1303) threatened excommunication to those who would tax the clergy and those clergy who paid.  In response Philip stopped all papal revenue from France and imprisoned a French bishop.  In 1303 Boniface issued Unam sanctam which held that the pope had the power to appoint or remove temporal rulers, which prompted Philip to attack the papal palace at Anagni in September 1303 and capture the pope, who died a short time later.


At the heart of this struggle was determining the proper relationship between the church and the state.  For centuries the papacy had exercised control over secular rulers.  In his 1075 Dictatus papae Pope Gregory VII argued that the pope had the power to depose emperors and could be judged by no one.  Such was the influence of the medieval papacy that Urban II was able to call Europeans together for the First Crusade in 1095, raising some 35,000 men at arms.


Europe suffered devastating consequences over the course of this century-long struggle between the papacy and secular rulers following Unam sanctam.  During this time the papal residence moved to Avignon, France for nearly seven decades of what became known as the “Babylonian Captivity;” Europe lost as much as a third of its population during the Black Death; and, after 1378, the Great Schism occurred in which there were two or, at one point, three popes claiming the title until 1417. As a result the church and, specifically, the papacy suffered an irreversible decline in prestige during this period.


In the early part of this struggle, Paris was royalist, anti-papal, and was abandoning its dogged medieval scholasticism in favor of the idea that humans could use reason to create a rational society.  It was here in 1324 that Marsilius of Padua, rector of the University of Paris, wrote Defensor pacis, which lays out a series of arguments against the power of the church and in favor of a purely secular state.


Departing from traditional arguments regarding papal power, Marsilius asserts that the civil community, or state is the cohesive and most powerful element in society.  He agrees with Conciliarists that as in the early church, decisions should be reached by periodic assemblies or church councils.  Like Humanists after him, Marsilius turns back to original sources to substantiate his argument that even the church should be subject to the state.  This is clear when he references Christ, who allowed himself to be judged and punished by a representative of the Roman emperor.  Marsilius claims, therefore, that because the state operates with the consent of the people and exercises coercive authority over the political community, it has the same authority regarding the church, which becomes for Marsilius a state institution that should not even own property. Not until the Reformation was anyone willing to go as far in subjecting the church to state authority.


Marsilius also attacks the power of the church on a theological level.  Predating Martin Luther by two centuries, he states that eternal life is not won through meritorious works but through God’s grace.  While he concedes that priests perform a service in the administration of sacraments, they have no claim to authority since, citing Ambrose, “the word of God remits sins.”  Building on this lack of authority, he argues that there is no scriptural basis for the preeminence of the pope over other bishops in Christianity and ultimately denies the premise of medieval papal political theory that, as God’s vicar on earth, the pope has power over kings and princes.


Shortly after writing his treatise, Marsilius fled to Nuremberg and the protection of Emperor Louis of Bavaria, who was at war the current pope.  He was excommunicated in 1327.  While the papacy would regain some prestige and power by the end of the fifteenth century, much had been lost.  Marsilius, in fact, unwittingly characterizes the papacy of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries when he states “temporal power and greed, and lust of authority and rule is not the spouse of Christ … but has expressly repudiated it.” 



Marsilius of Padua: Defensor pacis (1324)


Now we declare according to the truth and on the authority of Aristotle that the law-making power or the first and real effective source of law is the people or the body of citizens or the prevailing part of the people according to its election or its will expressed in general convention by vote, commanding or deciding that something be done or omitted in regard to human civil acts under penalty or temporal punishment; by the prevailing part of the people I mean that part of the community by whom the law is made, whether the whole body of citizens or the main part do this or commit it to some person or persons to be done; these last are not nor can be the real law-making power, but can only act according to instructions as to subject-matter and time, and by the authority of the primal law-making power. . . . On the authority of Aristotle by a citizen I mean him who has a part in the civil community, either in the government, or the council, or the judiciary, according to his position. By this definition boys, slaves, foreigners, and women are excluded, though according to different limitations. Having thus defined citizen and the prevailing section of the citizens, let us return to the object proposed, namely to demonstrate that the human authority of making laws belongs only to the whole body of citizens as the prevailing part of it.


For the primal human authority of making laws belongs to that body by whom the best laws can be made. This, however, is the whole body of citizens or its better part which represents the whole. . . . I now prove the second proposition, namely that the best law will result from the deliberation and decision of the whole body. . . . That this can be done best by the citizens as a whole or the better part of them, I demonstrate thus, since the truth of anything will be judged more accurately, and its common advantage be studied more diligently, if the whole body of citizens discuss it with intelligence and feeling. . . . So the reality of a general law will be best attended to by the whole people, because no one consciously injures himself.


On the other side we desire to adduce in witness the truths of the holy Scripture, teaching and counseling expressly, both in the literal sense and in the mystical according to the interpretation of the saints and the exposition of other authorized teachers of the Christian faith, that neither the Roman bishop, called the pope, nor any other bishop, presbyter, or deacon, ought to have the ruling or judgment or coercive jurisdiction of any priest, prince, community, society or single person of any rank whatsoever.


. . . For the present purposes, it suffices to show, and I will first show, that Christ Himself did not come into the world to rule men, or to judge them by civil judgment, nor to govern in a temporal sense, but rather to subject Himself to the state and condition of this world; that indeed from such judgment and rule He wished to exclude and did exclude Himself and His apostles and disciples, and that He excluded their successors, the bishops and presbyters, by His example, and word and counsel and command from all governing and worldly, that is, coercive rule. I will also show that the apostles were true imitators of Christ in this, and that they taught their successors to be so. I will further demonstrate that Christ arid His apostles desired to be subject and were subject continually to the coercive jurisdiction of the princes of the world in reality and in person, and that they taught and commanded all others to whom they gave the law of truth by word or letter, to do the same thing, under penalty of eternal condemnation. Then I will give a section to considering the power or authority of the keys, given by Christ to the apostles and to their successors in offices, the bishops and presbyters, in order that we may see the real character of that power, both of the Roman bishop and of the others.


We wish, therefore, first to demonstrate that Christ wished to exclude and did exclude both Himself and His apostles from the office of ruler. This appears in John, 18. For when Christ

was accused before Pontius Pilate, vicar of the Roman emperor in Judea, for saying that he was king of the Jews, and Pilate asked Him if He had said that, or if He had called Himself a king, He replied to the question of Pilate: “My kingdom is not of this world;” that is, I am come not to reign by temporal rule and dominion, as the kings of the world reign It remains to show that Christ not only refused the rule of this world and coercive jurisdiction on earth, whereby He gave an example for action to His apostles and disciples and their successors, but that He also taught by word and showed by example that all, whether priests or not, should be subject in reality and in person to the coercive judgment of the princes of this world. By His word and example Christ demonstrated this first in physical things, in the incident contained in Matthew 22, when to the Jews asking Him: “Tell us, therefore, what thinkest Thou; is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar or not?” looking at the penny and its superscription, he replied: “Render, therefore, unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things which are God’s.” . . .


Further not only in physical things did Christ show that He was subject to the coercive jurisdiction of a prince of the world, but He showed it also in Himself for it plainly appears that He permitted Himself to be taken and led to the court of Pilate, vicar of the Roman emperor, and endured that He be condemned and handed over by the same judge to the extreme punishment.


Following upon this, it remains to demonstrate what power, authority and judgment Christ wished to give to the apostles and their successors, and did in fact give according to the words of the holy Scripture. Among other things which seem to have direct reference to this are the words which Christ spoke to Peter, Math. 16: “I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven;” also those spoken by Him to all the apostles, when He said: “Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” On these words especially is based the claim and title to the plenitude of power, which the Roman bishop ascribes to himself.


By the sacrament of baptism, which Christ commanded to be administered by the apostles, He caused them to understand also the administration of the other sacraments instituted for the eternal salvation of mankind; one of these is the sacrament of repentance by which the actual guilt of the human soul, both mortal and venial, is destroyed, and the soul, corrupt in itself through guilt, is restored by the grace of God, without any human effort, God ordaining that meritorious works should not win eternal life. Hence it is written in Romans VI: “The gift of God is eternal life.” The ministers of this sacrament, as of the others, are the priests and presbyters, as successors of the apostles of Christ, to all of whom it is shown by the aforesaid words of Scripture the power of the keys was given, that is, the power of conferring the sacrament of repentance, in other words, the power of loosing and binding men in regard to their sins It will appear later how it is possible for priests to receive into or exclude from the kingdom ; and from this also the character and extent of the power of those keys, given by Christ to Peter and the other apostles By his guilt the sinner is under the bond of eternal condemnation for the future life, and if he persists in his guilt, he is cast off from the association of the faithful in this world, by a kind of punishment resting with the believers of Christ, called excommunication. And on the other hand we should notice that the sinner receives a three-fold benefit through his sorrow for sin and open confession to the priests, to which acts, both singly and taken together, the name repentance is given. The first benefit is that he is cleansed from his inner guilt and restored to himself by the grace of God; the second, that he is freed from the bond of eternal damnation, to which he was bound by his guilt; and the third, that he is reconciled to the church, that is, he is reunited or ought to be reunited to the body of believers. . . .


From these words of the saints . . . it clearly appears that God alone remits to the truly penitent sinner his guilt and his debt of eternal condemnation, and that without any office of the priest preceding or intervening, as has been demonstrated above. For it is God alone who cannot err as to whose sin should be remitted or retained. For He alone is not moved by unfair feeling nor judges unjustly. Not of such character is the church or the priest whoever he may be, even the Roman bishop The anathema of the church inflicts upon those who are justly expelled, this punishment: that the grace and protection of God is withdrawn from them and is abandoned by them themselves, so that they are free to rush into the destruction of sin, and greater power of destroying them is given to the devil.


Ambrose says that “the word of God remits sins; the priest performs his service but has no right of authority. But we may say that the priest is as it were the turnkey of the heavenly judge, so that he frees the sinner in the same sense that the turnkey of an earthly judge frees a prisoner. For just as the guilty man is condemned to or released from guilt and civil penalty by the word or sentence of a judge of this world, so by the divine word anyone is either to be freed from or condemned to guilt and the debt of damnation and the punishment of the future life. And just as no one is freed from guilt and penalty or condemned by the action of the turnkey of a worldly judge, and yet by his action in closing or opening the prison the guilty one is shown to be freed or condemned, so no one is freed from or bound to guilt and the debt of eternal condemnation by the action of the priest, but it is demonstrated before the eyes of the church who is held bound or freed by God, when he receives the benediction of the priest, or is admitted to the communion of the sacraments.” . . . Therefore just as the turnkey of an earthly judge fulfills his office in opening and closing the prison, but exercises no right of judicial authority of condemning or pardoning, since even if he actually opened the prison for a criminal not pardoned by the judge and announced to the people with his own voice that the man was free, the guilty man would not on this account be freed from his guilt and the civil penalty, or on the other hand if he refused to open the prison and declared with his own words that he whom the judge had freed by his sentence was not pardoned but condemned, that man would not on this account be held subject to the guilt and penalty; so likewise the priest, the turnkey of the heavenly judge, performs his duty by the verbal pronunciation of the absolution or malediction. But if those who ought to be condemned by the divine judge or are already condemned, the priest should pronounce as not worthy to be condemned or as not condemned, or vice versa, through ignorance or deceit or both, not on this account would the former be dissolved or the latter damned, because the priest had not handled the key or keys with discretion according to the merits of the accused.


Proceeding from what has been demonstrated, we will show here first that no one of the apostles was given pre-eminence over the other in essential dignity by Christ For Christ, giving to the apostles the authority over the sacrament of the eucharist, said to them; “This is My Body which is given for you, this do in remembrance of Me.” . . . And he did not say these words more to Peter than to the others. For Christ did not say: “Do thou this, and give the right of doing it to the other apostles,” but He said, “Do” in the plural, and to all without distinction And later Christ said to the apostles: “As My Father has sent Me, even so send I you. He breathed on them and saith unto them, “Receive ye the Holy Ghost, whosesoever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them, and whosoever sins ye retain, they are retained.” Now Christ said: “I send you as My Father sent Me”; He did not say to Peter or to any other apostle in the singular, “I send thee as the Father, etc., do thou send the others.” Nor again did Christ breathe upon him, but upon them, not upon one through another. Nor did Christ say to Peter: “Receive the Holy Ghost, and afterwards give it to the others,” but he said, Receive, in the plural and speaking to all indifferently.


It likewise appears that neither St. Peter nor any one of the apostles had pre-eminence over the others in the right of distributing the temporal offerings of the primitive church; whence it is written in Acts IV: “For as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and laid them at the apostles’ feet, and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need.” Behold, the distribution of the temporal offerings of the church was made by the apostles in general, not by Peter alone; for it is not said: they laid them at the feet of Peter; but of the apostles. Nor it is said that “Peter distributed them,” but that “distribution was made.” . . .

But if Peter has been called the prince of the apostles by some of the saints, the term is used broadly and by a misuse of the word prince, otherwise it would be plainly opposed to the opinion and oracle of Christ, where He said: “The princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, but it shall not be so among you.” And it must be said that the saints spoke thus not because of any power given to him by Christ over the other apostles, but because perchance he was older than the others: or because he was the first to confess that Christ was the true consubstantial Son of God, or perhaps because he was more fervent and constant in faith, or because he was intimate with Christ and was more frequently called by Him into His counsel and secrets.


Moreover he did not have coercive jurisdiction over the rest of the apostles more than they over him, neither consequently have his successors. For Christ forbade this to them directly, as in Matt. 20, Luke 22: And there was also a strife among them, which of them should be counted the greatest. And He said unto them: The kings and princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them, but it shall not be so among you;” Christ could not have denied this more plainly. Why then should anyone in regard to this believe more in human tradition, than in the most evident word of Christ? . . .


Further, the Roman bishop is not nor should he be called the successor of St. Peter by the laying on of hands, for there has been a Roman bishop upon whom St. Peter has not laid his hand either directly or indirectly; nor again because of the seat or the determination of the place, first because no one of the apostles was appointed to any people or any place by divine law; for he said to all: “Go ye therefore and teach all nations”; and in the second place, St. Peter is said to have been at Antioch before he was at Rome.


The aforesaid plenitude of power the bishops of Rome have used continually up to the present and are now using for the worse, especially against the Roman prince and principality. For they are able to exercise against him this their wickedness, that is, the subjection of the empire to themselves, because of the division among the inhabitants of the empire, and are able by their so-called pastors and most holy fathers to stir up and nourish the discord already incited. For they further believe that, the empire once subdued, the way lies open for them to subject the rest of the kingdoms, although they are especially and peculiarly under obligation to the emperor and empire of the Romans, by reason of benefits received, as is known to all. But, to speak only of what is known to everyone and needs no word from us, smitten with cupidity and avarice, with pride and ambition, made even worse by ingratitude, they are seeking in every way to prevent the creation of a Roman emperor, and are striving either to break up the empire, or to transfer it in another form to their own control, lest the excesses which they have committed should be corrected by the power of the aforesaid princes and they should be subject to well merited discipline. But although with the purpose which we have mentioned they are placing obstructions in the way of the prince on every side, yet craftily hiding their object they say they are doing this to defend the rights of the spouse of Christ, that is the church, though such pious sophistry is ridiculous. For temporal power and greed, and lust of authority and rule is not the spouse of Christ, nor has He wedded such a spirit, but has expressly repudiated it, as has been shown from the divine Scriptures Nor is this the heritage of the apostles which they left to their true, not fictitious, successors. . . . And so by their striving for worldly things, the spouse of Christ is not truly defended. The recent Roman popes do not defend her who is the spouse of Christ, that is, the Catholic faith and the multitude of the believers, but offend her; they do not preserve her beauty, that is, the unity of the faith, but defile it; since by sowing tares and schisms they are tearing her limb from limb, and since they do not receive the true companions of Christ, poverty and humility, but shut them out entirely, they show themselves not servants but enemies of the husband.


—The Defender of the Faith.