By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Acts, Old Testament / New Testament


I've heard that the term "simony" has a New Testament origin. Could you tell me more about this?


"Simony" is defined as making a profit out of selling or buying spiritual things. These "things" can include spiritual favor, property, praise, homage, etc. It has been related to the incident in Acts 8:9-24 where Simon Magnus offers to pay Peter and John whatever they will accept for the ability to place his hands on anyone and have them receive the Holy Spirit. Peter is outraged, confronts him about his evil heart, and tells him to beg for forgiveness. Apparently, he did, but the issue of "simony" would play a critical role in the evolving church.

Scholars think the first three centuries passed without controversy mostly because the church leaders had little influence or wealth to bestow. By the fourth century, however, that became one of the issues legislated upon at the Council of Chalcedon (451 CE). The second of twenty-seven canons forbids simony, there defined as the paying for ecclesiastic office. It is not exactly clear what was happening at that time, but it is certainly clear that it was not the end of the matter.

By the eleventh century, it was a huge concern. It became known as the "Investiture Controversy." Some have likened it to a contest between church and state. At issue was who had the authority and control over appointments of church officials, such as bishops and abbots. In 1075, it spilled out into the open as Pope Gregory VII clashed with Henry IV, the Roman Emperor.

Prior to this conflict, secular authorities had assumed the duties of investiture. It was no secret that being a bishop or abbot had become a very lucrative position. Those wishing to attain such status offered considerable incentive to the secular leaders, many of whom had, in turn, come to expect a considerable and steady income from the process. Prime candidates for the bishopric were generally sons of nobility who were appointed, not on the basis of merit, but on the basis of their ability to pay a high price. Needless to say, those appointed clergy oftentimes remained loyal to the government that had chosen them.

Things began to change in 1056 CE when Henry IV assumed the throne at the age of six. His father had appointed several popes, some of whom had tried to make significant reforms against simony and clerical corruption. In 1057, the reigning pope died, giving the Roman reformers an opportunity to wrest control away from the young emperor. They did this by electing their own pope. Two years later, a church council declared that heretofore a College of Cardinals would elect the Pope, thereby sidestepping any imperial influence.

This matter was not well received, so the reigning Pope, Nicholas II, tried to garner support for this new electoral process by reaching out to the Norman knights of northern Italy. By recognizing key knights, the Pope gained their full support -- and a military stronghold for his spiritual agenda. When Nicholas died in 1061, his successor was elected by the cardinals. Over the next twelve years, both the papacy and the young emperor matured. The tipping point occurred with the election of Gregory VII in 1073. A strident reformer, Gregory believed he was God's vicar on earth, and that all clergy were accountable to him.

In 1075, Gregory issued the Dictatus Papae, which essentially stated that the Roman church had been founded by God and was not subject to any secular ruler. Not only did the Pope have the exclusive right to appoint or depose bishops, but he also had the authority to appoint or depose kings and Emperors, and to free their subjects at any time from allegiance to said leaders. Lastly, only God had the right to judge the Pope. The line between Church and State had been firmly drawn.

But, the German king, Henry IV, now mature, had no intention of backing off, and responded by immediately appointing a bishop for Milan. Gregory threatened to excommunicate him. The king convened the Council of Worms, which essentially deposed Gregory from the papacy. War was the result. The conflict lasted for several decades, each side winning and losing advantage over the years. It ended in 1106, when Henry V succeeded his father and sided with the papacy. By this time, the Pope (Urban II) had also dropped the claim to depose Emperors. Eventually, the kings of England and France concurred that the papacy would canonically elect the bishop who would, then, pay homage to the king as part of his full investiture. This paved the way for the church to become a freestanding institution that would soon evolve into the papal monarchy.

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