Marsilius of Padua: His View on Church Hierarchy



Marsilius of Padua 1275-1342 AD was the first Catholic thinker to deny there is any right to hierarchical authority within the church. Marsilius also contended there was no right within the church to punish heresy. And he said that the church has no right to establish an orthodox viewpoint on any doctrine. None of those powers were delegated by Jesus to the church.

Short Biography

Marsilius of Padua was a canon in the city of Padua, appointed by the pope. However, the Catholic church officially regards him as just a layman. (“Marsilius of Padua,” New Catholic Encyclopedia.) 
Marsilius became a medical doctor after training at Paris. He became a university teacher at Paris. His book Defensor pacis (The Defender of the Peace) criticises papal claims to authority within and without the church. 
In 1326, Pope John XXII condemned his book. Marsilius took refuge with Ludwig of Bavaria and lived in Germany until his death in 1342.

The Context: Papal Claims Power to Depose  Emperors and Kings

What prompted Marsilius to write the work that gained him fame were two events. First, the pope in essence ordered that the subjects of the king of France were released from any obedience to him. Then the next pope ordered the  emperor of Germany deposed for heresy. The New Catholic Encyclopedia admits the context, although expressed as obscurely as possible:
It was at this time that Louis of Bavaria was about to reopen against the pope the struggles of Philippe le Bel against Boniface VIII. John XXII had just denounced Louis as a supporter of heretics, excommunicated him, and ordered him to cease within three months administering the affairs of the Empire. (“Marsilius of Padua,” New Catholic Encyclopedia.)

Pope Boniface versus Philippe le Bel

The first episode involving the French king Philippe involved Pope Boniface extraordinarily seeking to order the deposition of a sitting king. From 1305 until 1378 the popes, although bishops of Rome, did not live in Rome, but in Avignon, a papal possession in France. Thus, the pope at Avignon was trying to undermine the authority of the King of France. Ferrante explains:
Perhaps the best known of Boniface’s authentic statements is the bull Unam Sanctam, 1302, claiming a divine hierarchy in which spiritual power excels any earthly power in dignity and nobility and establishing the earthly power; the spiritual power can judge the earthly, whereas only God can judge the spiritual. Anyone who does not accept the pope’s position is a heretic, and it is essential to the salvation of any human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff. (Joan Ferrante, The Political Vision of the Divine Comedy (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1993 at ch. 2.)
The text of Unam Sanctam can be found in Corpus iuris canonici (Extravagantes Communes, 1.8) ed. E. Friedberg, vol. 2, 1,245; the translation in S. Z. Ehler and J. B. Morrall, Church and State through the Centuries (New York: Biblo and Tannen, 1967) at 90-92. For a study of the background of the bull, see James Muldoon, “Boniface VIII’s Forty Years of Experience in the Law,” The Jurist 31 (1971), 449-77.
What led to this order of deposition were prior jurisdictional squabbles. King Philip le bel of France imposed taxes on the clergy without first getting papal permission. The pope responded by forbidding payment. (Clericos laicos, l296). King Philip then stopped all passage of money out of the country, “a blow to papal finances,” explains Ferrante at ch. 2. Next, to circumvent King Philip’s orders, “Boniface created a new bishopric separating Palmiers from Toulouse, and the bishop he appointed to it proclaimed that he was subject only to the pope, in temporal as well as spiritual matters, not in any way to the king, whom he went out of his way to insult; eventually the king had him arrested (Dupuy, Histoire du Differend, 197-98, Digard, Philippe le Bel vol. 2, 51 ff.).” (Ferrante, supra, at ch. 2.)
It was in this context that the emperor of France was looking for help, and “Marsilius, who had now begun the study of theology, joined with Jean de Jandun, canon of Senlis, in offering him his assistance.”  (“Marsilius of Padua,” New Catholic Encyclopedia.)
Meanwhile, Boniface tried to order all subjects of the emperor to renounce their oath to the emperor:
Boniface tried to excommunicate Philip at different times. On one occasion, 1301, when no one would publish the decree, the pope complained to a French official: “Nos habemus utramque potestatem” (“We have both powers,” spiritual and temporal); the Frenchman replied “Utique Domine, sed vestra est verbalis, nostra autem realis” (“That may well be, my Lord, but yours is verbal, ours is real,” Dupuy, Histoire du Differend 193, Riviere, Le. Probleme, 121). Boniface tried again, in 1303, to excommunicate Philip and place his subjects under anathema unless they renounced their oaths to the king; but before he could publish the bull, Philip had him captured in a rather blatant display of real power. Boniface’s position as pope was complicated by the fact that questions had been raised about his legitimacy because he had ascended while the previous pope, Celestine V, was alive. If the pope was the bridegroom of the church, there could be no other husband while he lived, divorce being frowned upon even in regard to an institution. 

 (Joan Ferrante, The Political Vision of the Divine Comedy (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1993 at ch. 2.)

Pope John v Ludwig of Bavaria

In Germany as of 1314 there were “electors” — German hereditary princes and bishops who had the right to choose the next emperor when the present emperor died.
In 1314 the seven electors of the Roman empire held an election in which a majority favoured Ludwig of Bavaria. A minority supported Frederick, Duke of Austria. They did not have the rule that the majority view prevails; unless there was unanimity the outcome of the election was regarded as being in dispute. The two rivals fought until Frederick was defeated in 1322. 
In 1316, after the papacy had been vacant two years (because the Cardinals had difficulty in agreeing on any candidate by the necessary majority of two thirds), Pope John XXII was elected. He asserted, as several of his predecessors had done, that the candidate elected by the electors of the Empire required papal confirmation before he could actually become emperor. 

When Ludwig exercised some of the powers of the Emperor without papal confirmation John excommunicated him (1324). Ludwig led an armed force into Italy to help his allies there. In Rome he had himself crowned Emperor, not by the pope but by representatives of the Roman people, and set up there a rival pope. One of his advisers at this time was Marsilius of Padua. After eight months in Rome Ludwig retreated to Pisa and then to Germany; his ‘pope’ made his peace with John XXII. Ludwig made many efforts to reach an agreement with John XXII and his successors Benedict XII and Clement VI but without success. He died, still excommunicate, in 1347. This was the last major conflict between Emperor and Pope; the issue was whether the pope had power to confirm or disallow the election made by the Imperial electors. The papal claim implied that the Empire was subject to the pope. (See Offler, ‘Empire and papacy: the last struggle’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, n.s. 5, vol. 6, 1956, pp. 21-47.) ( R.J. Kilcullen, “Tape 8: Marsilius of Padua,” Macquarie University
POL167: Introduction to Political Theory (1996).)

Marsilius’s Defensor Pacis


1. Introduction

Jandun and Marsilius together wrote Defensor pacis at Paris. They set out for Germany, and presented their work to the emperor. “They became his intimate friends, and on several occasions expounded their teaching to him.”  (“Marsilius of Padua,” New Catholic Encyclopedia.)
In Defenso Pacis, Marsilius quotes Aristotle’s Politics and then offers his own book as a supplement to Aristotle’s discussion on revolution (Pol., V). However, Marsilius says Aristotle did not know of one evil that only exists in the modern world — “a certain perverted opinion… which came to be adopted as an aftermath of the miraculous effect [the Christian Church] produced by the supreme cause [God] long after Aristotle’s time.” (Marsilius of Padua, In Defense of the Peace (trans. Alan Gewirth)(N.Y.: Columbia University Press, 1956) at 5.). What was this opinion?
That the pope has coercive power — a “plenitude” or “fullness” of power. Popes “assert that they are over all the other bishops and priests in the world, with respect to every kind of jurisdictional authority. And some of the more recent Roman bishops make this claim not only with regard to bishops and priests, but even with regard to all the rulers, communities, and individuals in the world.”‘ (Id., at 93.) They arrogate to themselves “‘universal coercive jurisdiction over the whole world under [the] all-embracing title ‘plenitude of power’… limited by no human law.” (Id., at 94). He proves his case by references to Pope Boniface’s bull, Unam sanctam discussed above.

2. The Church Has No Right To Coercive Power

Marsilius contends no pope or other churchman has any coercive power. There is no plenitude of power over even the clergy in Church matters. In any state there can be no more than one government. Since the clergy have no coercive power, the state must be secular and non-religious. From the single secular government all coercive power in the territory is derived. But he places the source of political power upon an election (i.e., choice) by the whole people (or its greater number). Marsilius bases this upon Aristotle Pol. III.11 (although Marsilius’ version numbers this chapter six.)  
The first proposition is that secular power derives from the people’s decision.
R.J. Kilcullen in “Tape 8: Marsilius of Padua,” Macquarie University POL167: Introduction to Political Theory (1996) explains Marsilius’s democratic impulse:
The whole community is the Legislator. It establishes a Ruler (pars principans), who executes the decisions of the Legislator about the offices needed in the state (including the priesthood). Marsilius argues (I.xvi) that it is better to elect each ruler individually, rather than to elect a ruler to be succeeded by his heirs; e.g., an elective monarchy (as the Roman Empire was) is better than an hereditary monarchy. However, the Legislator may decide to establish an hereditary monarchy. It may also choose to establish a collective Ruler (e.g., an aristocracy). At all events, the constitution which the Ruler must execute is decided on by the whole multitude or its weightier part. Id., summarizing Marsilius, supra, at 49-54.
The second proposition is that priests have no coercive power: “Marsilius argues that Christ came into the world not to dominate men, nor to wield temporal rule; and he excluded himself, his apostles and disciples and their successors, bishops and priests, from all coercive authority and worldly rule,” says Kilcullen, citing Marsilius, supra, at 114.
Marsilius used Bible texts as proof: “My kingdom is not of this world.” Marsillius adds: “When Jesus therefore knew that they would come to take him by force and make him king, he fled again into the mountain’; ‘Man, who hath appointed me judge or divider over you?’; ‘Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s’.”   
Most important, Marsilius said “That Christ meant to exclude his apostles from worldly rule is proved by: ‘The kings of the gentiles lord it over them… But you not so.” (R.J. Kilcullen in “Tape 8: Marsilius of Padua,” Macquarie University POL167: Introduction to Political Theory (1996) quoting/discussing Marsilius of Padua, In Defense of the Peace (trans. Alan Gewirth)(N.Y.: Columbia University Press, 1956) at 113-40.
Marsilius cites in support Jerome, Origen, Chrysostom, Bernard and other Church writers. 
Marsilius also contended that Christ’s law in relation to the present world is not a law in the sense of rules coercively enforced; the priests who teach Christ’s law are not judges with power to coerce, though they may be judges in some other sense. (Marsilius of Padua, In Defense of the Peace (trans. Alan Gewirth)(N.Y.: Columbia University Press, 1956) at 35-36.)

Further Reading

See Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey, editors, History of Political Philosophy (2d ed.)(Chicago: Rand McNally College Publishing, 1972) at 251 et seq.

Marsilius,”The Beginning of the Modern Theory of the State” (transl. excerpt) in Thatcher, Library of Original Sources (1907) at 424.