Notes on POPE BONIFACE VIII (Benedetto Caetani or Gaetano)


On November 18, 1302, Pope Boniface VIII published a bull titled Unam sanctam. Its claims generate deep controversy. The bull denies salvation to any human being who does not submit to the Roman Catholic Church and its head, the pope.

"There is one holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, outside of which there is neither salvation nor remission of sins...  Indeed we declare, say, pronounce, and define that it is altogether necessary to salvation for every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff."

A bull is a solemn papal letter. The form was given this name because it was sealed with a bulla, a round lead seal. This particular bull was written as the latest round in an ongoing war of words between the pope and King Philip IV "the Fair" of France.

The pope had denounced the sins of Philip as a bad example to the nation he ruled. Boniface called a council of bishops to consider reform of the French church. Philip refused to allow French bishops to attend. Philip said that the pope claimed feudal lordship over of France. Boniface denied this but acknowledged that he was prepared to depose the French king just as earlier popes had deposed other French kings.

The date of the council came and Philip still refused to allow his bishops to attend. Pope Boniface VIII then published Unam sanctam.

Apologists for the Roman Church now say that it applied only to Catholics, who were all under the jurisdiction of the Roman church. Protestantism had not yet appeared on the scene, they note. And only the last line, they insist, provides a new statement of doctrine--saying there is salvation only for those who submit to the pope.

Protestants find that last line the most troubling, of course. They can agree that salvation is possible only in the church, because they define the true church as everyone who loves Christ and lives in him. They can accept Unam sanctam's lines about the Greeks, because Greek bishops can demonstrate succession back to the apostles. What they cannot agree upon is that all must submit to the pope.

Unam sanctam also seems to disagree with decisions of Vatican II, which acknowledge that some Protestants--and even some pagans--will be saved. According to Vatican II, the divine design of salvation embraces all human beings; and those "who without fault on their part do not know the Gospel of Christ and His Church but seek God with a sincere heart, and under the influence of grace endeavor to do His will as recognized through the prompting of their conscience," they too in a manner known only to God "can obtain eternal salvation."

Boniface's bull raises controversy about the infallibility of the popes. Because it has implications for other doctrines of the Roman Church, as well as on the possibility of ecumenical cooperation, a true interpretation of Unam sanctam remains important to ecclesiastical scholars to this day.


23kb jpg portrait of Saint Boniface VIII
Son of Loffred, descendant of a noble Spanish family, related to Pope Innocent III, Pope Gregory IX, and Pope Alexander IV.

As cardinal,  he stayed out of the Vatican court politics. He was elected Pope when the pious and incompetent Celestine V abdicated. Fearing the opposition of Celestine's supporters and beneficiaries, Boniface scandalously kept Celestine imprisoned for the rest of his life.

Boniface's nine years as pope were a time of crisis in Europe, and he was not equal to those great challenges. He interfered in Sicily, but the Sicilians forced Boniface to recognize Frederick as king. He brought Charles of Valois into Italy to pacify Florence, but this only stirred up more trouble. He tried to stop Philip IV of France from taking his illegal levies on the clergy, enunciating the principle that laymen could not tax clerics without the consent of the Holy See. In return, Philip cut off the contributions of the French church to Rome. In England he faced an equally resistant Edward I, and in 1297 Boniface relaxed his ruling. The dispute began again with the trial of Bernard Saisset in 1301, and this time Boniface would not yield.

He summoned a French synod to meet at Rome in 1301 to discuss the reformation of French affairs. In the bull Unam sanctam in 1302 he expounded the principle that Catholic princes are subject to the pope in temporal (moral) and religious matters. Philip paid no attention, and in 1303 he sent Nogaret to Italy to depose Boniface. The pope stood firm and, according to tradition, was slapped by Nogaretís companion, Sciarra Colonna. The outraged people of Anagni attacked the soldiers, rescued Boniface, and escorted him to Rome where he died a month later, the cause of his death uncertain.

Philip pursued Boniface even in death. In 1310 he forced Clement V to start an investigation to determine if Boniface was a heretic. This was was abandoned, but Clement repudiated Boniface's acts that had hurt Philip.
1235 at Anagni, Italy as Benedetto Caetani
Papal Ascension
December 24, 1294.

Summoning of Dante and occupation of Florence

October 11, 1303 at Rome.
Unam Sanctam: One God, One Faith, One Spiritual Authority, November 18, 1302.
O Lord God, who for our Redemption, wast pleased to be reproved by the Jews, to be betrayed by the kiss of Judas, to be bound with cords, to be led as to a sacrifice, innocent and faultless conducted into the presence of Annas, Caiphas, Pilate and Herod, to be accused by false witnesses, to be pierced by sharp nails, to be scourged, to be loaded with opprobrium, crowned with thorns, to be struck with the hands, to be raised on the Cross between two thieves, to be given gall and vinegar to drink, to be pierced by a lance; O Lord God, by these most holy sufferings, to which I have recourse, Thy unworthy servant, and by the holy Cross, deliver me from all danger, assist me in my necessities whilst I live in this world; and at my death deliver me from the pains of Hell, and deign to lead me a poor sinner to that place where Thou didst lead the crucified thief, and where Thou livest and reignest with the Father and the Holy Ghost, true God forever and ever. Amen.

-prayer by Pope Boniface VIII

Life of Boniface:

Unam Sanctam

Papal Bull of Boniface VIII
in which he asserted his rights against King Philip

November 18, 1302

Urged by faith, we are obliged to believe and to maintain that the Church is one, holy, catholic, and also apostolic. We believe in her firmly and we confess with simplicity that outside of her there is neither salvation nor the remission of sins, as the Spouse in the Canticles (Sgs 6:8) proclaims: "One is my dove, my perfect one. She is the only one, the chosen of her who bore her", and she represents one sole mystical body whose Head is Christ and the head of Christ is God (1 Cor 11:3). In her then is one Lord, one faith, one baptism (Eph 4:5). There had been at the time of the deluge only one ark of Noah, prefiguring the one Church, which ark, having been finished to a single cubit, had only one pilot and guide, i.e., Noah, and we read that, outside of this ark, all that subsisted on the earth was destroyed.

We venerate this Church as one, the Lord having said by the mouth of the prophet: "Deliver, O God, my soul from the sword and my only one from the hand of the dog" (Ps 21:20). He has prayed for his soul, that is for himself, heart and body; and this body, that is to say, the Church, He has called one because of the unity of the Spouse, of the faith, of the sacraments, and of the charity of the Church. This is the tunic of the Lord, the seamless tunic, which was not rent but which was cast by lot (Jn 19:23- 24). Therefore, of the one and only Church there is one body and one head, not two heads like a monster; that is, Christ and the Vicar of Christ, Peter and the successor of Peter, since the Lord speaking to Peter Himself said: "Feed my sheep" (Jn 21:17), meaning, my sheep in general, not these, nor those in particular, whence we understand that He entrusted all to him (Peter). Therefore, if the Greeks or others should say that they are not confided to Peter and to his successors, they must confess not being the sheep of Christ, since Our Lord says in John "there is one sheepfold and one shepherd". We are informed by the texts of the gospels that in this Church and in its power are two swords; namely, the spiritual and the temporal. For when the Apostles say: "Behold, here are two swords" (Lk 22:38) that is to say, in the Church, since the Apostles were speaking, the Lord did not reply that there were too many, but sufficient. Certainly the one who denies that the temporal sword is in the power of Peter has not listened well to the word of the Lord commanding: "Put up thy sword into thy scabbard" (Mt 26:52). Both, therefore, are in the power of the Church, that is to say, the spiritual and the material sword, but the former is to be administered for the Church but the latter by the Church; the former in the hands of the priest; the latter by the hands of kings and soldiers, but at the will and sufferance of the priest.

However, one sword ought to be subordinated to the other and temporal authority, subjected to spiritual power. For since the Apostle said: "There is no power except from God and the things that are, are ordained of God" (Rom 13:1-2), but they would not be ordained if one sword were not subordinated to the other and if the inferior one, as it were, were not led upwards by the other.

For, according to the Blessed Dionysius, it is a law of the divinity that the lowest things reach the highest place by intermediaries. Then, according to the order of the universe, all things are not led back to order equally and immediately, but the lowest by the intermediary, and the inferior by the superior. Hence we must recognize the more clearly that spiritual power surpasses in dignity and in nobility any temporal power whatever, as spiritual things surpass the temporal. This we see very clearly also by the payment, benediction, and consecration of the tithes, but the acceptance of power itself and by the government even of things. For with truth as our witness, it belongs to spiritual power to establish the terrestrial power and to pass judgment if it has not been good. Thus is accomplished the prophecy of Jeremiah concerning the Church and the ecclesiastical power: "Behold today I have placed you over nations, and over kingdoms and the rest." Therefore, if the terrestrial power err, it will be judged by the spiritual power; but if a minor spiritual power err, it will be judged by a superior spiritual power; but if the highest power of all err, it can be judged only by God, and not by man, according to the testimony of the Apostle: "The spiritual man judgeth of all things and he himself is judged by no man" (1 Cor 2:15). This authority, however, (though it has been given to man and is exercised by man), is not human but rather divine, granted to Peter by a divine word and reaffirmed to him (Peter) and his successors by the One Whom Peter confessed, the Lord saying to Peter himself, "Whatsoever you shall bind on earth, shall be bound also in Heaven," etc. (Mt 16:19). Therefore whoever resists this power thus ordained by God, resists the ordinance of God (Rom 13:2) , unless he invent like Manicheus two beginnings, which is false and judged by us heretical, since according to the testimony of Moses, it is not in the beginnings but in the beginning that God created heaven and earth (Gen 1:1). Furthermore, we declare, we proclaim, we define that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff.

Below: Ambrogio Lorenzetti. St. Louis of Toulouse Bids Farewell to Boniface VIII. Fresco. San Francesco, Siena, Italy.

Ambrogio Lorenzetti. St. Louis of Toulouse Bids Farewell to Boniface VIII.