Among the most illustrious protagonists of Church reform in the XI and XII centuries, one that stands out is the figure of St. Bruno, Bishop of Segni and Abbot of Montecassino.
Bruno was born around 1045 in Solero, near Asti, in Piedmont. After his studies in Bologna, he was ordained a priest of the Roman clergy and enthusiastically adhered to the Gregorian reform. Pope Gregory VII (1073-1085) appointed him Bishop of Segni and had him among his most faithful collaborators. Also his successors, Victor III (1086-1087) and Urban II (1088-1089) availed themselves of the Bishop of Segni’s assistance, who combined his scholarly work with an intrepid apostolate in defense of the Primate of Rome.
Bruno participated in the Councils of Piacenza and Clermont, when Urban II proclaimed the First Crusade and in the following years he was legate for the Holy See in France and Sicily. In 1107, under the new Pontiff, Paschal II (1099-1118) he became Abbot of Montecassino, an office which made him one of the most authoritative ecclesiastical personalities of his time. A great theologian and exegete, resplendent in doctrine, as Cardinal Baronio writes in his Annali (Tome XI, year 1079) he is considered one of the best commentators of Holy Scripture of the Middle Ages (Réginald Grégoire, Bruno de Segni, exégète médiéval et théologien monastique, Italian Centre of Studies on the High Middle Ages, Spoleto 1965).
It was an age of political disputes and deep moral and spiritual crisis. In his work, De Simoniacis, Bruno offers us a dramatic picture of the disfigured Church of his times. Already at the time of Pope St. Leo IX (1049- 1054) “Mundus totus in maligno positus erat: there was no longer any holiness; justice was failing and truth buried. Iniquity reigned, avarice ruled; Simon Magus possessed the Church, the Bishops and priests were given over to sensual pleasure and fornication. The priests were not ashamed of taking wives, of celebrating their weddings openly and contracting nefarious marriages. (…) Such was the Church, such were the Bishops and priests, such were some among the Roman Pontiffs” (S. Leonis papae Vita in Patrologia Latina (= PL), vol. 165, col. 110).
At the centre of the crisis, besides the problem of simony and the concubinage of priests, there was the question of the investiture of bishops. The Dictatus Papae (1075), wherein St. Gregory VII had affirmed the rights of the Church against imperial demands, constituted the magna carta to which Victor III and Urban II referred, but Paschal II abandoned the intransigent position of his predecessors and tried in every way to come to an agreement with the future Emperor Henry V.
At the beginning of February 1111, at Sutri, he asked the German sovereign to renounce the right of investitures, offering him in exchange the Church’s renunciation of all temporal rights and goods. The negotiations went up in smoke, and, yielding to the king’s intimidations, Paschal II accepted a humiliating compromise, signed at Ponte Mammolo on April 12th 1111. The Pope conceded the privilege of the investitures of bishops, prior to their pontifical consecration, to Henry V, with the ring and the crosier which symbolized both temporal and spiritual power, promising never to excommunicate the sovereign. Paschal then crowned Henry V Emperor in St. Peter’s.
This concession provoked a multitude of protests in Christendom, since it overturned the position of Gregory VII. According to the Chronicon Cassinense (PL, vol. 173, col. 868 C-D),the Abbot of Montecassino protested vigorously against what he defined as not a privilegium, but a pravilegium, and promoted a movement of resistance against the papal compliancy. In a letter addressed to Peter, Bishop of Porto, he defined the treatise of Ponte Mammolo as a “heresy”, by referring to the definitions [made] in many councils:
“Whoever defends heresy – he writes – is a heretic. Nobody can say that this is not heresy” (Letter Audivimus quod , in PL, vol. 165, col.1139 B). Turning directly to the Pope, Bruno states: “My enemies say that I do not love thee and that I am speaking badly of thee behind thy back, but they are lying. I indeed, love thee, as I must love a Father and lord. To thee living, I do not desire another Pontiff, as I promised thee along with many others. Nevertheless, I obey Our Savior Who says to me: “Whoever loves father and mother more than me, is not worthy of me.” (…) I must love thee, but greater yet must I love Him who made thee and me.” (Mathew 10-37). With the same tone of filial candor, Bruno invited the Pope to condemn the heresy, as “whoever defends heresy is a heretic” (Letter Inimici mei, in PL, vol. 163, col. 463 A-D).
Paschal II did not tolerate this voice of dissent and removed him from his office as Abbot of Montecassino. However, St. Bruno’s example pushed some other prelates into asking with insistence for the Pope’s revocation of the pravilegium,. Some years later, in a Council which met at the Lateran in March 1116, Paschal II withdrew the agreement of Ponte Mammolo. The same Lateran Synod condemned the pauperistic conception of the Church in the Sutri agreement. The Concordat of Worms (1122), stipulated between Henry V and Pope Callixtus II (1119-1124), ended – at least momentarily – the fight over the investitures. Bruno died on July 18th 1123. His body was buried in the Cathedral of Segni and, through his intercession, there were immediately many miracles. In 1181, or, more probably, in 1183, Pope Lucius III placed him among the Saints.
There are those who will object [saying] that Paschal II (like Pope John XXII later on with regard to the Beatific Vision) never fell into formal heresy. This, however, is not the heart of the problem. In the Middle Ages, the term heresy was used in a wide sense, whilst theological language was becoming more refined especially after the Council of Trent, and precise theological distinctions were introduced among heretical propositions i.e. near to heresy, erroneous, scandalous, and so on.
We are not interested in defining the nature of the theological censures that would apply to Paschal II and John XXII’s errors, but in establishing if be licit to resist these errors. Such errors certainly were not pronounced ex-cathedra, but theology and history teach us that if a declaration by the Supreme Pontiff contains censurable elements on the doctrinal level, it is licit and may be right and proper to criticize it, even if it is not a formal heresy, solemnly articulated. That is what St. Bruno of Segni did against Pasqual II and the Dominicans in the 14th century against John XXII. They were not in error, but the Popes of that time were, and in fact withdrew their positions before their deaths.
The fact should be stressed, that those who resisted with the most determination the Pope deviating from the faith, were precisely the most ardent defenders of Papal Supremacy. The opportunistic and servile prelates of that time, adapted themselves to the fluctuations of men and events, by placing the person of the Pope before the Magisterium of the Church. Bruno of Segni, on the other hand, like many other champions of Catholic Orthodoxy, placed the faith of Peter before the person of Peter and reproached Paschal II with the same respectful determination which Paul had directed to Peter (Galatians 2, 11-14). In his exegetical comment on Mathew 16, 18, Bruno explains that the foundation of the Church is not Peter, but the faith confessed by Peter. Christ, in fact, states that He will build His Church, not on the person of Peter, but on the faith that Peter manifested saying: “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” To this profession of faith, Jesus responds: “it is upon this rock and upon this faith that I will build My Church” (Comment.. in Matth., Pars III, cap. XVI, in PL, vol. 165, col. 213).
By elevating Bruno of Segni to the honors of the altar the Church sealed his doctrine and his behaviour.