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Conclaves and papal elections: what, why, how, who?

March 3, 2013

In the early and medieval church the practice had evolved by which the leader of the church, the local bishop (episcopos - 'overseer' in Greek) had come to his office by election at the hands of the local clergy and people. "Let the bishop be ordained after he has been chosen by all the people;" ['Apostolic Tradition' of the third century]. This tradition was reinforced by the reform pope, Leo IX, in 1049 at the Council of Rheims which decreed: 'that no one should be advanced to the rule of a church without election by clergy and people'. Thus a tradition had evolved into law. There was then great need of this law since it had often happened that local rulers and kings for some time had pretty much considered positions in the church of their area as under their authority and control and so they could do with these as they wished. The call for reform of the church in the eleventh century was phrased in terms of restoring the Libertas Ecclesiae (the liberty of the church) which meant 'free election' rather than appointment by the powerful secular rulers. It also resonated against the common abuse whereby someone who wanted to be appointed to a particular office attained his goal by paying off the ruler. This evil practice of buying a position in the church had come to be known as simony.



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