The Gregorian Reform Movement


Through the Gregorian Reform movement put forth by Pope Gregory VII, the Church successfully consolidated moral and political authority over European Christendom. The confluence of moral and political supremacy (over feudal lords and monarchs), located centrally in the office of the Pope, uniquely positioned Pope Urban II to call the First Crusade and for thousands and thousands of Europeans to heed his call. By reclaiming the Church’s moral and political supremacy through the specific reforms of Church celibacy, simony, and lay investiture, Pope Gregory successfully paved the way for the Church’s calls for Crusade. 

Pope Gregory VII’s goal of asserting papal supremacy necessitated a degree of centralization and unity within European Christendom that would require him to make moral demands of laymen. The promotion of a general mentality centered around ideals of charity, obedience, and faith in redemption allowed the Church to rein in the influence of fragmentary secular authorities and redirect cultural tensions within Western Europe towards outside threats. Scriptural justifications and explanations, largely drawn from Old Testament texts, worked in conjunction with an emphasis on spiritual salvation to facilitate the establishment of new theories and standards regarding the waging of war and the Christian understanding of “holy war”. The ideological aims underlying efforts within the Gregorian Reform movement were a necessary precursor to the development of a “Crusade mentality” among Europeans. A decade after the pontificate of Gregory VII, Pope Urban II would call for Christian participation and support in Byzantine military struggles, invoking the mistreatment of Middle Eastern Christians in the process. An overwhelming response to Urban II’s call proved that Gregory’s efforts had retained a lasting grip on the hearts and minds of Western Christians.

Historical Context

Interactive Timeline

The Gregorian Reforms are a series of Church reforms that took place during the 11th and 12th centuries. The reform movement arose out of a chaotic, morally-bankrupt Europe that stemmed from the dissolution of the Carolingian Empire in the 9th century. Without a central seat of authority to stabilize the continent, Europe fell into a period of decline. Authority and control over violence devolved into an increasingly local level in a period historians call the Feudal Revolution. 

Given the lack of stable authority, local, secular lords seized church property while Church offices were bought and sold (in a process called simony) by Church officials. In addition, secular noble families installed political allies in high-ranking Church offices (in a process called lay investiture) in order to influence Papal doctrine. Even the Papal office could be bought and sold by wealthy, powerful Roman families. The increasing prevalence of simony led to the increasing secular control over Church authority and general moral decline of Church offices.
In an order to reclaim some of the lost Church power, Church officials under Pope Leo IX (pontificate 1049-1054) began a series of reform efforts that would later be referred to as the Gregorian Reform. These reform efforts initially began when Pope Leo ordered the Roman clergy to renounce their wives and dismiss the church officials who had purchased their offices. This act served to curb the rampant Church corruption and send a powerful message to the secular leaders of Europe. In 1059, the Lateran Council decreed that only a select group of priests from the major churches of Rome could participate in the papal election process. This decree issued by the Lateran Council exemplifies one of the first legislative attempts to institutionalize the reform movement.

Pope Leo IX,

Named for Pope Leo’s successor, Pope Gregory VII (pontificate 1073-1085), the Gregorian Reforms represent a continuation of Pope Leo’s earlier reform work. Building off of Pope Leo’s ideological foundations, Pope Gregory advocated for the reform and expansion of papal powers by expelling secular influence within Papal and Church institutions. While noble families had grown used to buying influence within the Church, Pope Gregory threatened excommunication in to impose his reforms and centralize Church power.

The Reforms

Clerical Celibacy:

Clerical celibacy had been a part of canonical Church law for centuries before Leo IX and Gregory VII began their papacies. Celibacy was viewed as a necessary lifestyle for any priest who wanted to fully dedicate himself to the body of Christ, especially since St. Paul himself practiced it. However, clergymen were notoriously bad at following this particular statute; many priests were secretly married or lived with women. As a result, common folk had ample cause to accuse their local priests of immorality and hypocrisy. Clerical impurity thus hindered the moral case of the Church: how was the Roman Church to lead the West in peace and uprightness if its priests could not resist such a grievous sin? The unchaste behavior of the Church’s clergy was undercutting its claim to moral authority. Recognizing this as a serious detractor from Church power, Leo IX commanded the Roman clergymen to leave their wives. Gregory took things a step further by declaring that any married priest who did not leave his family behind would lose their priesthood. Though sexual immorality continued to plague the clergy, Gregory’s firm stance on the issue and his readiness to punish the disobedient helped re-establish the Church’s moral authority–an authority which was eventually used to convince religious pilgrims of the salvific nature of the First Crusade.


Simony is the act of selling Church offices, and it was practiced commonly in areas such as the Holy Roman Empire where local rulers had more power in the Church than the Roman pontiff did. Obviously, priests who purchased their offices were rarely of the moral character or spiritual refinement which Leo and Gregory were looking for. To further counteract the moral degradation of the church, Leo decreed that “no one should buy or sell sacred orders or ecclesiastical offices or churches; and that if any cleric had bought anything of the sort he was to hand it over to his bishop and do suitable penance.”  As he had with clerical celibacy, Gregory turned Leo’s more conservative “should” into a definitive “must.” But Leo and Gregory’s teamwork against simony was unique from their attacks on unchaste priests; because simony involved the exchange of money, resisting it meant challenging rulers’ established economic resources. The Roman pontiff was becoming increasingly bothersome to the lords and nobles of Europe, who had long assumed that the Church was easily controlled through money and land. Still, Leo IX was never viewed by his contemporaries as having challenged imperial authority. That judgment was saved for Gregory, whose emphasis on ending simony helped consolidate the Church’s political authority, which was later used to collectivize the noble families of Europe and convince them to leave behind their worldly possession and depart on a long and arduous pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

Jesus punishing for simony,

Lay Investiture:

Up to this point, we have seen that Leo IX was as much a player in reforming the medieval Church as Gregory VII was (although Gregory did take Leo’s campaigns against simony and clerical marriage to a new level). However, in the area of lay investiture, Gregory is unquestionably our protagonist. Lay investiture is the practice of a secular authority—a “laymen”—appointing another person to a position or an office in the Church. Lay investiture was running rampant in medieval Europe at the time; feudal lords and nobles placed their family members or political allies in Church positions to collect Church taxes and shape Church policy to their will. Even some of the medieval popes were invested by laymen who were just looking for another political edge. As with the other reforms, Gregory’s indictment of lay investiture was nothing new–this crime had been prohibited by canon law centuries beforehand. What was special about Gregory’s efforts were the punishments he threatened and the aggressive responses which he received. In the February of 1075, Gregory made the bold announcement: “we decree that no one of the clergy shall receive the investiture with a bishopric or abbey or church from the hand of an emperor or king or of any lay person, male or female. But if he shall presume to do so he shall clearly know that such investiture is bereft of apostolic authority, and that he himself shall lie under excommunication until fitting satisfaction shall have been rendered.”

Suddenly, what had been common practice across Europe for centuries was suddenly being threatened with dismissal and excommunication. Of course, there was resistance to Gregory’s threats: as historian Brian Tierney comments, “The prohibition of lay investiture was of the essence of Gregory’s program, and it was a demand that no king of that time could have accepted. No king did accept it.” Gregory’s ban of lay investiture was a step too far for Europe’s nobility. They refused to let the pope take the political power of the Church from them. The most significant resistance came from Henry IV of the Holy Roman Empire, whose rebellion against Gregory began the infamous Investiture Controversy (1075-1122). The Controversy, though one of the most significant periods in the history of the Church, ended well after Gregory’s death and deserves a separate treatment from this discussion. In terms of the Gregorian Reforms, lay investiture is most importantly understood as an effort on the part of the Church to separate itself from the complex political networks of fiefs and kingdoms and to establish itself as the supreme political power in Latin Christendom. By doing just this, the Church was then able to amass enough political support to collective Europe against their enemies in the Holy Land.

Dictatus Papae

Dictatus Papae,

Gregory’s reformative work culminated in the magnificent Dictatus Papae (“Dictates of the Pope”) of 1075, a short document of 27 decrees concerning the Roman Pontiff and the papacy. Though the specific nature of the Dictatus is puzzling, it seems likely that the 27 points were intended as chapter headings for a new set of canonical laws. Below is an English translation of select points of the Dictatus:

That the Roman Pontiff alone is rightly to be called universal.

That he alone can depose or reinstate bishops.

That the pope is the only one whose feet are to be kissed by all princes.

That his title is unique in the world.

That he may depose Emperors.

That no chapter or book may be regarded as canonical without his authority.That he himself may be judged by no one.

That the Roman Church has never erred, nor ever, by the witness of Scripture, shall err to all eternity.

That the Roman Pontiff, if canonically ordained, is undoubtedly sanctified by the merits of St. Peter…

That without convening a synod he can depose and reinstate bishops.

That he should not be considered as Catholic who is not in conformity with the Roman Church.

That the Pope may absolve subjects of unjust men from their fealty.

In this brief document, Gregory makes it obvious that his reforms were aimed at more than just cleaning up the clergy or getting the nobility out of the church. Gregory sought to redefine the power of the Church–and most importantly, he wanted to put the Pope of Rome at the Church’s head. The boldness of the Dictatus Papae is staggering; Gregory wanted the pope to have the power to depose Emperors!

Gregory’s reforms–and his greater goal of placing the Church over all secular authority–were a necessary prerequisite to the Church authority that Urban II drew upon when he called the First Crusade.


In the eyes of Pope Gregory VII, the struggles and desires afflicting inhabitants of the mortal world would prove completely insignificant upon the Last Judgement, which general belief and Gregory himself both understood to be fast approaching. Envisioning his role in leading the direction of the Church as akin to those of Old Testament prophets, Gregory VII encouraged the abandonment of worldly desires and individual imitation of Christ through suffering. Thousands upon thousands of Christians would embody this ideal in taking up the cross following Urban II’s calling of the First Crusade, embarking on the perilous journey for salvation and the quest to assume the role of righteous actors pushing forward the course of Biblical history.

Works Consulted

Decrees against lay investiture, trans. E. F. Henderson, Documents (London, 1892), pp. 365-66.

Decrees of the Council of Rheims (1049). J. D. Mansi, Sacrorum Conciliorum Nova et Amplissima Collectio, XIX (Venice, 1774), col. 741-42.

McKay, John P., Bennet D. Hill, John Buckler, Clare Haru Crowston, Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks, and Joe Perry. A History of Western Society. Vol. 1. 11th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2014.

The Dictatus Papae (March 1075), trans. S. Z. Ehler and J. B. Morrall, Church and State Through the Centuries (London, 1954), pp. 43-44.

Tierney, Brian. The Crisis of Church and State 1050-1300. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988.Decrees against lay investiture, trans. E. F. Henderson, Documents (London, 1892), pp. 365-66.