Council of Verzy and Papal Claims (A.D. 991)


Pope St. Sylvester II (Gerbert of Aurillac)

But the Church of God is not subject to a wicked pope…” was the words stated by by Archbishop Arnulf of Orleans at the Council of Verzy, near Reims, in June of 991 [1]. What do we as Catholics make of this statement, and more importantly, of this Council which, as I will describe, ignored a mandate from Papal Rome? Of course, this moment in history afforded True Western Orthodoxy (a site devoted to preserving the Western/Latin Patrimony of the [Eastern] Orthodox Church) the opportunity to make note of it, and to emphasize the point that the Orthodox churches are even more justified in shedding off mandatory Papal obedience on the proper conditions. Allow me to explain the background briefly, and then explain why it is that, however much can be extracted from this historical situation contra-Papacy, it does not afford as much fodder for Eastern Orthodox interests, particularly because of how things ended. Ends do not justify the means, of course, but I would argue that there are two stories going on here, and one should take into account both sides rather than highlighting one as the auto-victor.

During the 10th century, the Papacy had been rocked with scandal after scandal with violence and the ambition of unrighteous men. It was in this same century that a controversy over the proper occupant of office to the Archepiscopal See of Reims, whose holder was the Primate of France. In 987, Hugh Capet had become King of France as well create a shift in dynastic succession since he was unrelated to Charlemagne, which was the Carolingian line. Seeking to conciliate with Carolingian loyalists, Capet appointed a Carolingian, Arnulf [different than Arnulf of Orleans already mentioned], to be the Archbishop of Reims (989). Due to the potential tension this might create, Arnulf took an oath of political allegiance to Capet. This would soon turn around later in the same year for, upon the invasion of a usurping King of France, Charles of Lorraine, who happened to be Arnulf’s uncle, the latter opened the gates of the city of Reims to allow the invasion to occur. When brought under questioning by Capet, Arnulf defended himself by saying that it was against his will. Following this, Capet, the King of France, knowing the jurisdiction of the Holy See, appealed to Pope John XV to depose the Archbishop for his alleged deceptive treason.  However, for whatever reason, the Pope made no reply to this. After about 2 years, Capet called a Council to meet at the monastery of Saint-Basle at Verzy, which gathered many French bishops and several abbots, to officially depose Arnulf, and a Gerbert of Aurillac, who would later become Pope Sylvester II, was chosen to take his place.

At the Council of Verzy, debates were launched. It was, interestingly enough, the abbots, who formed the papal-party and protested that such decisions as the deposition of the Archbishop of Reims and the appointment of a successor should not be made without Papal sanction. One abbot in particular, St. Abbo of Fleury , who happens to be a Saint venerated by the Eastern Orthodox churches (Feast Nov. 13th),  was among them. I think it would be useful to take a moment and examine what St. Abbo had to say about the divine institution of the Papacy to ecclesiastical government, since his viewpoint, not all that different from Arnulf of Orleans, yielded a different conclusion on the matter of the deposition of the Archbishop of Reims.

St. Abbo (+945-1004) was involved with politics in his day, and he even wrote an abridgement to the earlier Liber Pontificalis entitled Epitome de XCI Romanorum Pontificum Vitis, which was a work on the lives of the Popes.  In the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Richard W. Pfaff sums up the contribution of St. Abbo in these words: “One of the most versatile thinkers and writers of his time, Abbo put his mark on several areas of medieval life and thought, but none more so than in transmitting much that was valuable from the tradition of reformed French monasticism to the nascent monastic culture of late tenth-century England“. When it came to Papal authority in the case where the occupant of office was morally reprehensible, St. Abbo, in Letter 15, clearly distinguished between the office of Pope and the personal character. St. Abbot is also recorded in his Liber Apologeticus as telling an audience that Christ Himself had


St. Abbo of Fleury

said to Peter “thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church” . He also stated that Peter merited to be called “princeps ecclesiae” (Head of the Church) in Epistle V (PL 139.423D). For St. Abbo, St. Peter and his successors had an authority over the whole church derived from their Christ-given “principatus” (leadership) which truly is held by Christ Himself (PL 139.465d). In his Collectio Canonum, St. Abbo writes: “The authority of the Roman and Apostolic See shines over the universal Church of the whole world with the favor of Christ our Lord. And no wonder, when the pontiffs of the same See are seen to fill the place of St. Peter, who is the prince of the whole Church” (PL 139.479b). There is still much more to read from this saintly abbot, but I would not want to pass over a significant statement he makes, once again, in Epistle V: “Now, the Roman Church in its excellence over all the churches has this privilege that, as she holds the principate of the Apostolic head as key-bearer of the heavenly kingdom, the Roman church likewise bestows authority to virtually all her limbs, which are dispersed over the four corners of the whole earth. Who therefore contradicts the Roman, what are they but making themselves a portion of those who wander and become adversaries of Christ?!” [2]. Thus, even in the context of wicked Popes, there is this recognition of their office as being of divine institution. I have to say that I was quite surprised to find that he is venerated by the East. Perhaps there is a good reason. If we take all things into consideration, it should not surprise us, since what St. Abbo here claims about the divine institution of the Papacy was already loudly proclaimed by Pope St. Leo the Great over around 5 centuries prior, and many Pope’s before him claimed the same. Both Protestants and Eastern Orthodox scholars have discovered this, and several statements of St. Leo demonstrate the same.

To St. Abbo and others, Arnulf of Orleans issues a thundering anti-Papal statement which goes down in history as one of the first clear signs of what later would be called Gallicanism which we have on the record.

(a view which saw great restraint on Papal authority), which would later claim that the Pope had no authority over the Church of France. He listed how one Pope after another was wicked and depraved, and concludes with a question: “To what city shall we be able Pope_John_XVto have recourse in the future, now that we see the mistress of all nations destitute of all resources whether human or divine” [3]. In any case, the accused Arnulf [of Reims] was deposed by the Council in Verzy, and a Gerbert of Aurillac was “appointed” Archbishop of Reims. To this, Arnulf of Reims appealed to the authority of the Pope for a re-opening of the case. Pope John XV responded and asked the bishops, along with the royal officials, who had deposed Arnulf to either meet in the city of Rome or to meet at Aachen with his legate,  Abbot Leo of Sant’Alessio all’Aventino, to hear the case. The bishops refused to abide by the authority of the Pope in this matter. This would be in violation of the ancient canons of Sardica (3/5) which permit any accused bishop to appeal to Rome, and for the latter to enact a process of re-examination. Those bishops and royal officials met against the former in a Council in Chelles (994), and in turn, Pope John XV had excommunicated them, and stated that Arnulf is still the Archbishop of Reims since there was no valid deposition. Gerbert was also suspended by Leo (the Papal legate) at a Synod in Mouzon, thus officially declaring null the decrees of Verzy.

Pope John XV died in 996, and Gregory V, who reaffirmed the status of Arnulf as Archbishop of Reims, succeeded to the papal throne. Arnulf, formerly being in prison for his treason, had been released with the enthronement of Robert, son of Hugh Capet, as King of France in 996. A new turn of events intertwined with the problem of Arnulf as the valid Archbishop contra Gerbert, the pretender. King Robert had divorced his wife Suzanne five years before being enthroned and was joined in “marriage” to another, Bertha of Chartres, just after becoming King. When Pope Gregory V heard of this in 997, he stated that the re-marriage was null and that he was still lawfully wedded to Suzanne, thus living in adultery.  The Pope threatened excommunication to Richard if he did not amend his life, but the King refused. Even Gerbert, the pretending Archbishop of Reims, condemned this 2nd union, and had to travel to a German court on the matter, to see Otto III. But Robert came to his senses and began negotiations with the Pope. Sending St. Abbo of Fleury as intermediary, he pleaded with the Pope to allow his second marriage with Bertha, and that Arnulf would be able to return peacefully to the Archepiscopal see of Reims. Pope Gregory V admired the King’s willingness to recognize Arnulf, but could not permit his union with Bertha, saying “What God has joined together, let no man put assunder“.

With great irony, Gerbert, the falsely elected Archbishop of Reims, by a series of events which transpired, was elected to succeed Pope Gregory V and chose the name Sylvester II in 999, and made a formal judgment recognizing the validity of Arnulf of Reims as the true and authentic Archbishop, and he stated that while Arnulf offended King Capet with his treason, he could be recognized as Archbishop because his “deposition” had not


Pope Sylvester II

obtained Rome’s assent. Therefore, what Gerbert, when he was rival to Arnulf, denied was in the authority of Rome, he unhesitatingly affirmed as Pope.  So within a matter of 8 years, a solid change of mind, and the one for whom the Arnulf of Orleans had argued vociferously against Papal authority in the case of moral detriment or other disqualifying conditions is now here dancing to a different tune. Oxford historian, J.N.D. Kelly, writes this of Pope Sylvester II: “Once installed a Pope, Sylvester showed himself an intransigent champion of the traditional rights of the papacy which he had earlier assailed. Thus he immediately authorized his old rival Arnulf to resume his functions as Archbishop of Rheims on the ground that his deposition had not been sanctioned by the Holy See, and proceeded to act with a high hand against metropolitans and bishops who incurred his disapproval.” [4]

While I personally believe that current Canon Law should use the development of doctrine from both Scripture, history, and the Tradition of the Church to validate certain codified boundaries of the Pope, what we see here is an instance of Gallicanism being overturned by providence, and the Papal principle is vindicated despite the appalling situation Rome was in. A Medievalist historian, Walter Ullman, described the situation of this time period in the following words: “…even at this nadir…the Papacy itself does not appear to have suffered in prestige and authority… What mattered to the outside world was the institution as such, not the personality of the Pope…In this way the ancient Papal principle of a distinction between the papal office and the individual incumbent, was vindicated in a most striking manner” [5].

[1] Speech by Archbishop Arnulf of Orleans (+1003AD), Synod of Verzy in 991 AD; quoted in Schaff’s “History of the Christian Church, Volume 4”, pages 290-292

[2] The Political Theology of Abbo of Fleury, Marco Mostert, p. 128-9; Latin translation of the entire letter: “Opportunitas temporis solet quaeri ad exsequendam (0423C) efficaciam eiuslibet negotii, quandoquidem nihil fit quod eo carere possit. Quod ideo vestrae charitati obieci, quia plus aequo distulistis mittere indiculum vestrae legationis: ac idcirco vobis parere mihi fuit impossibile, quibus placere omnimodis gestio, nec unquam bonorum praeceptis inobediens apparebo, nisi constrictus aut religionis proposito, aut temporis articulo. Verum cum charitative ad expeditum iter monuissetis, haec adeo demiror, cur causam promotionis in vestris litteris non significastis: nam auctoritates sanctorum Patrum, quas specialiter deferri iussistis, quoquo locorum prae manibus habeo, ne decipiar aemulorum lenocinio, qui fratri parant foveam, et fortassis incident in eam (Eccle. X, 8). Unum quasi ex vulgi opinione addidici, (0423D) domnum videlicet AR. archiepiscopum contradicere privilegiis sancti M. communis patroni; quod quis desipiens crederet, ut vir tantae auctoritatis et mansuetudinis contraire velit Romanorum pontificum decretis et sanctorum canonum institutis? Siquidem Romana Ecclesia sua super omnes Ecclesias excellentia hoc habet privilegii, ut, sicut claviger regni coelestis obtinet principatum apostolici culminis, ita eadem Romana Ecclesia auctoritatem tribuat omnibus quasi suis membris, quae sunt per quatuor climata totius orbis. Qui ergo Romanae Ecclesiae contradicit, quid aliud quam se a membris eius subtrahit, ut fiat portio adversariorum Christi? Certe unicuique Ecclesiae suum iubet servari privilegium, (0424A) illud magnum et inviolabile Nicaenum concilium, quod sanctissimus papa Gregorius ita se fatetur venerari, ac si sanctum Evangelium. De privilegiis quoque idem papa venerabilis scribit episcopo Ioanni, inquiens: Grave nimis et contra sacerdotale constat esse propositum, cuiusquam monasterii privilegia olim indulta confundere, et arritum (sic) quae sunt pro quiete disposita niti deducere (lib VII, epist. 33). Et infra: Proinde his fraternitatem vestram hortamur affatibus, ut a monasterii molestia se sine aliqua excusatione contineat, et quae eis sunt diutius custodita, nullius occasionis tentet usurpatione convellere, sed cuncta illibate et sine aliqua studeat refragatione servare; et plus sibi in eodem monasterio, quam, praedecessoribus (0424B) suis licuit, noverit non licere. Absit itaque, absit ut sanctorum virorum, et maxime antiquorum pontificum Romanorum scripta modernorum sustineant praeiudicia, et floccipendant posteriorum sensa, quorum venerantur memorias! Si enim iuniores tempore veterum aspernantur edicta, quibus assensum praebere debuerant, quid restat, nisi ut plumbum aquis supernatet, lignum vero fundo tenus mersum dehiscat? praesertim cum scriptum sit: Ne transgrediaris terminos quos posuerunt patres tui (Prov. XXII, 28). Hoc unum suadeo, ut perquiratis merita Turonensium et Romanorum pontificum, quorum alter edixit, alter conscripsit, et postea utrum illis a contradicentium industria prae pondere diiudicare poteritis. Valete.”, and can be accessed here.

[3] Popes in the Middle Ages, vol 5, Horace Mann – pp. 358-359

[4] Oxford Dictionary of Popes, p. 137

[5] “A Short History of the Papacy in the Middle Ages” by Walter Ullman, page 123

1 thought on “Council of Verzy and Papal Claims (A.D. 991)

  1. Was it “providential” that Abbo quoted the spurious decretals of Isidore to make his argument? A house built on sand cannot stand.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s