Archive Ecclesiastical Polity Steven Wedgeworth The Two Kingdoms

Happy Anniversary Unam Sanctam

Today marks the 711th anniversary of Boniface VIII’s infamous bull. Richard Cavendish wrote a summary of the bull and its historical occasioning a few years ago, and the full text of Unam Sanctam can be found here. Few people are aware of this document today, and many of those who are would rather that they not be. Most defenders of the current state of the papacy attempt to dismiss Unam Sanctam as either purely historical (and not de fide) or as an infelicitous example of the ecclesial statesmanship of less mature times, which we have now, thankfully, developed beyond. Even the editorial preface at the Fordham website says this: “The statements concerning the relations between the spiritual and the secular power are of a purely historical character, so far as they do not refer to the nature of the spiritual power, and are based on the actual conditions of medieval Europe.” This is, of course, flatly contradicted by the actual text of the bull, some of which we will highlight below. It is also important to understand the broader theological (not just historical) context which produced Unam Sanctam. J A Watt’s essay, “Spiritual and Temporal Powers,” is perhaps the best introduction to that.

Let us make just a few observations to demonstrate that Boniface’s bull was not merely a historical or “political” document, but rather that it was founded on exegesis, traditional Roman Catholic philosophy, and its understanding of the nature of both spiritual and temporal power. The bull even concludes with a moral and soteriological imperative, thus giving it the character of a de fide proclamation.

Exegetical Grounding for the Unity and Singularity of the Church

The bull begins with the defense of the unity of the Church, but it makes it clear that this unity is summed up in Petrine primacy and that those who are not under the jurisdiction of Peter and his successors are not members of the Church:

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.’

Exegetical Grounding for the “Two Swords”

Next comes the defense of the Two Swords doctrine. This doctrine, it must be understood, is not an affirmation of the separation of the swords, but, at least in the case of Unam Sanctam, the unity of the two swords. And this too is grounded by the bull in the text of Scripture:

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].

There is no need to defend the quality of this exegesis. We frankly believe it to be ridiculous, severed entirely from both the literary and historical-grammatical context of the gospels. All that is necessary is to show that Unam Sanctam was citing these verses in defense of its doctrine. The argument is that Christ himself gave both swords, understood to symbolize the two kinds of government, to Peter and then, through him, to his successors.

The bull continues to explain that the swords exist in a hierarchical relationship with the temporal in submission to the spiritual:

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.

Three claims are made here. 1) Both swords, the spiritual and material, belong to the power of the Church, 2) The material sword is administered by the kings and soldiers as they are guided and instructed by the will of the clergy, 3) Temporal authority must be subordinated to spiritual. This is the clear meaning of the text and certainly the sense which the pope intended. All three claims are grounded in the Holy Scriptures.

The Divine Hierarchy

To this (rather questionable) exegesis, Unam Sanctam adds the philosophical framework of a distinct strand of the Roman tradition, its reading of Dionysius and the “law of divinity”:

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.

From this hierarchy, two privileges are concluded for the ministry of the church: the tithe and the establishment and continual confirmation of temporal power:

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 judgement if it has not been good.

Additional exegetical grounding is also given to these claims with citations of Jeremiah 1:10 and 1 Corinthians 2:15. This is finally summed up in the nature of the authority itself:

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].

This is all based on claims regarding the nature of law itself. The universe is created in this manner, and the added “divine word” gave such authority to the chair of Peter.


Unam Sanctam concludes with a clear and definitive statement about the necessity to submit to the pope in order to be saved:

Furthermore, we declare, we proclaim, we define that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff.

Notice the key terms: “declare,” “proclaim,” “define,” and “absolutely necessary for salvation.” This was not merely earthly politics, nor was it meant to be the opinion of only one administration. Unam Sanctam is a dogmatic declaration if ever any existed, meant to claim universal jurisdiction over the church with an absolute and perpetually binding authority. Failure to comply with this declaration is, according to its claims, a damning offense.

Practically speaking, Unam Sanctam is simply ignored. It was this way from the beginning, as Philip IV’s response was to sack the Lateran palace and create a new papacy for himself. Still, the claims have never been renounced by the Roman church, and after the definition of papal infallibility at Vatican I, it does not seem that they can be. While it is not necessary for Protestants to try to insist that individual Roman Catholics affirm and embrace Unam Sanctam, the very nature of truth and intelligibility does make it necessary for contemporary Roman Catholics to give some rational account of its doctrine. Unam Sanctam ought to be recognized for what it is, a dogmatic statement about both faith and the nature of political power, and not hidden, ignored, or brushed aside.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the Rector of Christ Church Anglican in South Bend, Indiana. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a founding member of the Davenant Institute.