Pope Francis refusing to let 19 people kiss his hand has sent critics reeling, the BBC reported Thursday, March 28. A Vatican spokesperson, Alessandro Gisotti, said he asked the pope about it, who responded that it was a “simple question of hygiene.” Where do historical expectations of the pope come from?
A video posted last week of Pope Francis recoiling from nearly 20 worshipers attempting to kiss his hand has gone viral, sparking outrage among critics who say it flies in the face of a centuries-old Catholic tradition that symbolizes respect for and deference to the pope’s authority. The BBC says that an extended video clip shows Pope Francis allowing dozens of others to kiss his hand freely at the same event. Gisotti maintained that the pope was concerned about “spreading germs,” prompting him to withdraw his hand. How has the figure of the pope ascended to such authority—and scrutiny?
Pope Gregory VII and the Investiture Controversy
The relationship between church and state has been complex and delicate since the origins of Christianity, which has rarely been evidenced more clearly than the latter part of the 11th century. Pope Gregory VII ascended to the papacy in 1075 and was one of the first to be elected under Italy’s rule that cardinals alone should elect the pope. “Before this time, papal elections often involved various rulers and nobles and the messy participation of the people of Rome,” said Dr. Luke Timothy Johnson, Robert W. Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology in Atlanta.
When Gregory VII was elected pope, he became very political and aggressive in asserting his authority. “In addition to Italy, the pope asserted papal control over Corsica, Sardinia, Spain, Hungary, and even Denmark,” Dr. Johnson said. He soon found himself butting heads with Philip I of France, condemning the king for Simony, or purchasing religious power with money; and with Henry IV over investitures, which involved whether the state or the church had greater power of appointment for bishops. In fact, Gregory VII and Henry IV each called for the other to be deposed from his position. “Gregory excommunicated Henry, divested him of his royal authority, and released his subjects of their fealty,” Dr. Johnson said. Then Henry made a lavish and showy expression of repentance and “When conflict again flares, Gregory seeks to excommunicate and depose Henry a second time, but this time the German princes rally to Henry. Henry enters Italy with an army in 1084 and Gregory is forced into exile.”
During this rocky time, Gregory made various internal reforms to the church that stressed the authority of the pope, such as decreeing that in a conflict between two clergymen of lower offices, the disagreeing parties should take their concerns directly to the pope instead of his synods. These reforms and his effects on Philip I and Henry IV made some of the boldest statements of papal authority in history until that time.
Pope Innocent III Appoints Kings, Declares Wars
At the dawn of the 13th century, Innocent III was elected pope. Obsessed with the power of the papacy, he declared the right to approve or disapprove of rulers who had been chosen for office by imperial electors. “Thus, he made Frederick II King of Sicily when that ruler showed fealty to the pope,” Dr. Johnson said. “Similarly, when King John of England was willing to recognize Innocent III as his feudal overlord, the pope helped establish [John] in his reign.” Around this time, Innocent III declared a crusade against Christians he deemed heretics—the Albigensians, who had been borne of Gnostic Christianity. This crusade lasted several decades.
“The high point of Innocent III’s papacy was the Fourth Lateran Council, called in 1213 and held in 1215,” Dr. Johnson said. “It was attended by many bishops, abbots, priors, and the representatives of several monarchs. The council, not surprisingly, ratified the primacy of the papacy over other patriarchates, and asserted its role in secular affairs.” In fact, this council was the assembly at which Pope Innocent III appointed Frederick II.
By today’s standards, Pope Francis’s refusal to allow well-wishers to kiss his ring may seem like an affront. However, looking back at the papacy to revolutionary figures like Gregory VII and Innocent III paints a very different picture of papal authority. Their far-reaching displays of power certainly influenced public perception of the head of the Catholic Church and may have invited the close scrutiny the pope faces today.
Dr. Luke Timothy Johnson contributed to this article. Dr. Johnson is the Robert W. Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology in Atlanta. He earned a Ph.D. in New Testament Studies from Yale University, as well as an M.A. in Religious Studies from Indiana University, and an M.Div. in Theology from Saint Meinrad School of Theology.