Although William of Baskerville and Adso of Melk become embroiled in the mystery of Adelmo of Otranto’s murder, their original purpose in visiting the abbey was to attend a theological disputation on two subjects that caused significant controversy in the Catholic church in the early fourteenth century: the conflict between the pope and the Holy Roman Emperor, and “Apostolic poverty” (that is, the question of whether Jesus and his followers had renounced wealth and property). Both controversies center on discussions about the appropriate role of the church in political, economic, and intellectual life, since medieval popes and high-ranking clergymen possessed significant wealth, power, and sway in government, in addition to executing their duties as spiritual leaders. At the core of these conflicts, then, is a philosophical disagreement about the extent to which the church should be involved in earthly affairs at all—including issues of politics, the economy, and the private lives of citizens.
In the 1320s, the Holy Roman Emperor, Louis IV, was in active conflict with Pope John XXII. Since the Crusades, increasingly powerful popes had clashed with political leaders over the question of who held supreme authority in Europe. The Pope claimed supreme authority as head of Christendom, but the Emperor could also claim that God had given him complete dominion over his realm. When William weighs in on this question at the disputation, he comes down on the side of the Emperor, whom he believes must have supreme political power because “if the pope, the bishops, and the priests were not subject to the worldly and coercive power of the prince, the authority of the prince would be challenged”—and that authority, he alleges, has been “decreed by God.” The church cannot have dominion over secular matters because it is not decreed in scripture, William argues, asserting that “if Christ had wanted his priests to obtain coercive power, he would have laid down specific precepts.” The logical extension of this argument is that the church should stay out of politics, since issues of politics are not part of its spiritual purview.
The question of whether or not Jesus was poor—although seemingly an abstract theological debate—is closely related to the issue of the church’s power at the time the novel takes place. William argues that if the apostles did not have “worldly or coercive power,” then it follows that “the successors of the apostles should be relieved of any worldly or coercive power.” Likewise, if it can be proven that Jesus and his first followers did not own property, then the church leadership of the present day may appear less than Christian in their values because of their palaces, jewels, large landholdings, and luxurious lifestyles. This line of reasoning is why the Spiritualists—a faction of the Franciscan monastic order who advocate for a return to absolute poverty and renunciation of property—are so threatening to the establishment and face violent persecution. As Adso is told by a fellow audience member at the execution of a Spiritualist for heresy, “a monk who practices poverty sets a bad example for the populace, for then they cannot accept monks who do not practice it.” The debates on poverty are thus threatening to the wealth and land holdings of the church. But as William explains later, “’poor’ does not so much mean owning a palace or not; it means, rather, keeping or renouncing the right to legislate on earthly matters.” This, Adso says, is why Franciscans like Michael of Cesena and Ubertino of Casale have become the Emperor’s political allies. Arguments for apostolic poverty also have the effect of confining the church’s influence to spiritual affairs. This pleases the Emperor, whose aim is to reduce the power of the pope.
William’s arguments against the church’s “coercive” political power are even more radical than they may at first seem: not only does he believe that each member of the clergy “is on this earth to serve and not to be served,” but he also suggests that political power should reside with neither the pope nor the Emperor, but with an “elective general assembly.” Such an assembly should be “empowered to interpret, change, or suspend the law,” he argues, because when one person holds all the power there is potential for abuse. Thus, William also lays the groundwork for an argument for a much more egalitarian and democratic form of government than the regimes of either the pope or the Emperor.
In the theological disputation at the abbey, William argues for a radical separation between the institutions of religious and political power—a division that has become the cornerstone of post-Enlightenment governance, but was not at all obvious in the fourteenth century. At the same time, however, these debates show how deeply intertwined the institutions of religious and political power were at the time. At the heart of William’s argument is a rejection of the corrupting force of political and economic power, and a belief that the religious must be insulated from such influences if they are to have any legitimate claim to morality and righteousness.
Religion and Politics ThemeTracker
Religion and Politics Quotes in The Name of the Rose
Michael of Cesena […] proclaimed as a matter of faith and doctrine the poverty of Christ. A worth resolution, meant to safeguard the virtue and purity of the order, it highly displeased the Pope, who perhaps discerned in it a principle that would jeopardize the very claims that he, as head of the church, had made, denying the empire the right to elect bishops, and asserting on the contrary that the papal throne had the right to invest the emperor.
This is the illusion of heresy. The faith a movement proclaims doesn't count: what counts is the hope it offers. Scratch the heresy and you will find the leper. Every battle against heresy wants only to keep the leper as he is.
I did not understand then why the men of the church and of the secular arm were so violent against people who wanted to live in poverty […]. And I spoke of this with a man standing near me, for I could not keep silent any more. He smiled mockingly and said to me that a monk who practices poverty sets a bad example for the populace, for then they cannot accept monks who do not practice it.
[Jesus] did not want the apostles to have command and dominion, and therefore it seemed a wise thing that the successors of the apostles should be relieved of any worldly or coercive power. If the pope, the bishops, and the priests were not subject to the worldly and coercive power of the prince, the authority of the prince would be challenged, and thus, with it, an order would be challenged that […] had been decreed by God.
What Bernard wanted was clear. Without the slightest interest in knowing who had killed the other monks, he wanted only to show that Remigio somehow shared the ideas propounded by the Emperor's theologians. And once he had shown the connection between those ideas […] and had shown that one man in that abbey subscribed to all those heresies and had been the author of many crimes, he would thus have dealt a truly mortal blow to his adversaries.
This crypt is a beautiful epitome of the debates on poverty you have been following these past few days. And now you know why your brothers make mincemeat of one another as they aspire to the position of abbot.