Boniface VIII’s Two Swords and the Theologians

by Matthew Gaetano

In the excellent dialogue hosted at the Regensburg Forum several months ago about Vatican II, religious freedom, and political theology, Boniface VIII seems (quite understandably) to have been in the background. His 1308 bull Unam Sanctam makes several claims that remain important to contemporary theological discussion. Boniface speaks of two swords: the spiritual and the temporal. Both are in the power of the Church. The temporal or material sword is wielded “by the hands of kings and soldiers, but at the will and sufferance of the priest.” And, of course, there is the final sentence:  “we declare, we proclaim, we define that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff.”

Since Vatican II’s statements about religious freedom and the possibility of salvation for those who are not Roman Catholics, efforts have been made to qualify, interpret, and refine the claims of Unam Sanctam.  But I want to set aside the extensive debates about the authority of this bull and its proper interpretation over the past few decades and show that major theologians long before the 1960s realized that some of the claims made in Unam Sanctam were at least in need of clarification. The focus here is especially on the notion of the two swords, which is, at least on the surface, grounded in the text of Sacred Scripture. The main goal is to present several key passages from a few major theologians for future discussion.

John of Paris

John of Paris or Jean Quidort (d. 1306) was a Dominican friar at the University of Paris and a defender of Thomas Aquinas after the Condemnation of 1277.  (It is perhaps worth noting that John of Paris’s Eucharistic teachings were censured.) I hope to discuss Quidort’s On Royal and Papal Power in future posts, but this treatise is, according to the O’Donovans, the “most learned and able theoretical response to Rome from the French camp” during the controversy between Boniface VIII and Philip the Fair.

In reference to St. Bernard of Clairvaux’s “dictum that the pope has the material sword at his behest,” Quidort says that “this opinion .. is not … of great authority’ (126 in Watt translation). He then goes on to use Bernard against the hierocrats, i.e., some theologians and canon lawyers who made the pope the lord of the world and who held that secular authority was essentially derived from the Church and even from the pope himself, etc. According to Quidort, “Bernard says expressly … that the pope has the material sword at his behest, because on the pope’s indication that the spiritual good demands it, the emperor ought to exercise secular jurisdiction. If however the emperor is unwilling to act or it seems to him inexpedient to act, there is nothing more the pope can do Hence he is saying that it is the emperor only, not the pope, who has the material sword at command” (126).

John of Paris quotes Bernard’s opinion from Bk. 4 of his To Pope Eugenius at length (136), much of which can be found in Unam Sanctam. Quidort interprets the “two sword” idea as merely supporting the obligation of the spiritual and temporal power to “lend help to each other in that common charity which united the members of the Church” (159).

But Quidort’s most significant response to the use of “two swords” by hierocrats and even Bernard begins with a statement that “there is nothing here except a certain allegorical reading from which no convincing argument can be drawn” (196). Theological argumentation should be based on the literal sense of Scripture. Quidort shows that other allegorical interpretations are possible; indeed, “I can go further and say that the two swords of this text are not to be understood as referring in the mystical sense to the two powers, especially as none of the saints whose teaching is approved and confirmed by the Church explains the text according to that particular mystical interpretation” (196). So, it’s not even a reliable allegorical interpretation.

Even if one concedes that the two swords are appropriately allegorized as the spiritual and temporal power (and one gave the mystical more authority in theological debate than was customary), Quidort argues that there are still significant problems. The text does not say that the two swords are Peter’s. He only had the spiritual sword (and Quidort provides a number of arguments for why Peter only had one sword), and it was this sword that he was told to “put up … into the scabbard’ (197). “An ecclesiastical judge,” Quidort says, “ought not to use his spiritual sword precipitately for fear it might be despised, but only after much consideration and in circumstances of great necessity” (197).

John of Paris concludes his discussion of the two swords and Bernard’s use of the allegory as follows:

It can also be claimed that the authority of Bernard is on our side because he says: ‘Both swords belong to the Church, but the material sword ought to be used on behalf of the Church, the spiritual sword by the Church; the one is wielded by the priest, the other by the soldier, but of course at the request of the priest and the command of the emperor’. Bernard says expressly, ‘at the request of the priest and the command of the emperor’ and not ‘by his own hand or at his command’, because here he has no authority to command or compel, but only to intimate. Command is only if the emperor wishes it.

Later in the text, John of Paris writes, “For there is nothing in Scripture, which is the rule of faith, to say that the pope has two sword” (219).

So, the strong claim about “two swords” employed in Unam Sanctam was being questioned by theologians in the very years in which the bull was issued.

Francisco de Vitoria

Francisco de Vitoria, one of the greatest figures in the School of Salamanca, takes up “whether the pope’s word on temporal matters is to be heeded more than a king’s” in his On the Power of the Church (q. 5, art. 9, p. 95 in the Pagden edition). He mentions Boniface VIII’s use of the two swords in two sections of this article (96, 99). He doesn’t criticize the bull, but towards the end of the article (100), he says,

As for the ‘two swords,’ it is clear that the literal meaning of the passage lends no support to the present argument. What happened was that Christ revealed that the apostles would meet opposition and that they needed some defence; they misunderstood Him and replied: ‘Lord, behold, here are two swords’ (Luke 22:38).

So, Vitoria also thinks that the literal sense of this passage doesn’t really support its usage by later theologians and canon lawyers.

Vitoria does quote the use of the “two swords” idea by canonists as supporting that “the pope has plenitude of temporal power over all princes, kings and emperors” but only “in regard to spiritual ends” (92). This is an articulation of the notion of the indirect power of the pope in temporal matters. This doctrine has its own difficulties, but Vitoria (like John of Paris) uses it against the hierocrats.  In his work On the American Indians, Vitoria rejects the notion that Christians could claim American lands as a possessions of the papacy. The pope is not temporal monarch of the whole world. Indeed, Vitoria states that Christ Himself had no temporal dominion” (260).  Now, Vitoria does think that “the pope has temporal power only insofar as it concerns spiritual matters; that is, as far as it is necessary for the administration of spiritual things” (261). This is the only way of understanding “the many laws which talk of the pope ‘holding both swords'” (262).

In reply to those who might argue that the pope then could use temporal power for the salvation of the native Americans, Vitoria replies that the pope “has no spiritual power” over these non-Christians” (262). His support for this is 1 Cor. 5:12: “For what have I to do to judge them also that are without? do not ye judge them that are within?”

Vitoria raises questions about the use of Luke 22 in this debate. He interprets the many references to the “two swords” as pertaining only to the papacy’s indirect power in temporal matters for spiritual ends.

Robert Bellarmine

Like John of Paris and Vitoria, the great Jesuit theologian, Robert Bellarmine (d. 1621), rejects the hierocratic position that the pope is the lord of the world. He defended a “middle opinion” and one that he believed to be “common for Catholic theologians” that rejects the extreme idea that the pope is the lord of the world and the other extreme that the pope has no temporal power whatsoever.

In his On the Temporal Power of the Pope against William Barclay, Bellarmine uses Unam Sanctam. Bellarmine makes clear that “we do not make our argument from the words of the Gospel but from the words of St. Bernard and Boniface VIII, who, explaining the words of the Gospel in a mystical sense, taught that by the two swords the two authorities were meant” (284 in Tutino’s Liberty Fund edition; see also 160). “Whatever the explanation of this very obscure passage might be,” Bellarmine states, “St. Bernard and Pope Boniface mystically but aptly and elegantly referred what is said about the two swords to the two authorities, that is, the ecclesiastical and the political.” Thus, Bellarmine acknowledges that the idea of the “two swords” is an allegorical interpretation, but he is less concerned about it than John of Paris and even Vitoria. He thinks that authority of Bernard and Boniface made it appropriate to make use of this allegorical interpretation in clarifying the nature of the pope’s relationship to temporal political power. Bellarmine argues–drawing on the reasoning of Unam Sanctam–that “the material [sword] is under the spiritual, and both are in the hand, that is, in the power of the Pontiff” (285).

In other contexts, Bellarmine clarifies that this submission does not take away from the genuine authority of temporal rulers or magistrates. Christ, Bellarmine says, “did not come to build a political kingdom, but a spiritual and heavenly one” (11). The apostles were “occupied in spreading and propagating this spiritual kingdom and left the political one as it was before” (11). Thus, refounding political authority was not the concern of Christ or Peter. Bellarmine states that “political authority considered in general … comes immediately from God alone, since it follows necessarily from the nature of man” (21). But this divine source of political authority is not mediated by the pope. Rather, “this authority immediately resides in the entire multitude as its subject” (22).

Francisco Suarez

Suarez (d. 1617), another major Jesuit theologian–perhaps the most important scholastic theologian and philosopher of his era–qualified talk of “two swords.” Now, it is important to note that Suarez employs Boniface VIII’s deposition of Philip the Fair as an example of the pope’s proper use of coercive power against kings (793 in Pink’s Liberty Fund edition of Suarez’s Selections from Three Works). In Bk. 3 of his Defense of the Catholic and Apostolic Faith in Refutation of the Errors of the Anglican Sect (chap. 22, n10), interprets Unam Sanctam as a tacit approval of Bernard’s view that the See of Peter has a spiritual and temporal sword. He does not elaborate, but Suarez actually connects this claim to Boniface VIII’s conclusion that “it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff.” He does so in a perhaps noteworthy manner. The two swords (and the ordering of the material sword under the spiritual sword) are required for the papacy to maintain the “due institution of the Church.” Apparently, it is the “due institution of the Church” by the papacy and its way of ordering the two swords that is necessary for salvation.

But while Suarez affirms the interpretation of two swords as giving the pope “indirect power” in temporal matters, the pope does not have direct temporal power. Suarez says, “we must assert that Christian kings do possess supreme civil power within their own order and that they recognize no other person, within that same temporal or civil order, as a direct superior upon whom they essentially depend in the exercise of their own proper power. Whence it follows that there exists within the Church no one supreme temporal prince over that whole body, that is to say, over all the kingdoms of the Church; but that, on the contrary, there are as many princes as there are kingdoms, or sovereign states” (766). Neither the pope nor the emperor compromise the possession of supreme civil power by rulers like the king of England or the king of France. After working through some of the arguments regarding the pope’s authority, Suarez states, “Christ Himself, in His humanity, did not take for Himself an earthly or temporal kingdom with direct, temporal dominion and jurisdiction  such as the emperor or other human princes possess, so that, consequently, He did not bestow that jurisdiction upon His earthly vicar” (773). He continues, “Just as it was expedient that Christ Himself should not assume temporal jurisdiction, so also was it fitting that he should refrain from communicating such jurisdiction to His Vicar, lest He should disturb the kings of the earth, or should seem to mingle the spiritual with the secular” (776).

While Suarez endorses the use of the language of “two swords” as allowing for indirect use of temporal authority for spirtual ends, he makes it clear that supreme temporal jurisdiction is in the hands of secular magistrates.  The pope’s authority, in his view, would not interfere in that domain. This temporal authority is not derived from the pope–it is not a sword handed to a king by the bishop of Rome–but from the political community and ultimately from God Himself.

Bishop Francis Kenrick

Kenrick (1797-1863) was an Irish-born theologian who became bishop of Philadelphia and died as archbishop of Baltimore.  He is known as a defender of papal authority in the years before the First Vatican Council. But in Kenrick’s Primacy of the Apostolic See, Vindicated, his interpretation of the “two swords” and Unam Sanctam are a bit more direct than anything we saw in the Jesuits Bellarmine and Suarez. While Bellarmine and Suarez clarify that the language of “two swords” could not mean the derivation of all authority from a pope who ends up becoming lord of the world (in the hierocratic account), they do not (in these passages) directly apply their account of the “indirect power” to Unam Sanctam itself. Kenrick does.

Kenrick states that Boniface VIII is “considered as having most formally asserted, if he did not define, the right to depose sovereigns” (361). “The famous bull, Unam Sanctam,” Kenrick continues, “affirms that the temporal power is of its nature subordinate to the ecclesiastical, as earthly are to heavenly things, and defines the necessity which is incumbent on rulers as well as their subjects of admitting the authority of the chief bishop.” Kenrick then quotes the final declaration of the bull and says, “Beyond this the definition does not go, so that no more is taught as of faith than what all Catholics hold, namely, that subjection to the Pope in matters of salvation, is a necessary duty of a true Christian” (362). So, Bishop Kenrick limits subjection to the Pope to matters of salvation.

Kenrick then shows his willingness to refine the teaching on the two swords. He says, “The allegorical reasoning” – a point that we saw being made by the medieval and early modern theologians as well — “contained in the Bull concerning the two swords … is taken from St. Bernard, who means no more than that princes should use their power justly, and protect the ministers of religion in the exercise of their sacred functions. The power of deposing sovereigns is not at all asserted, much less is it defined in this decree” (362-63).

When it comes to the “superiority” of priests to princes, Kenrick claims that this could only be a reference to “moral excellence, not of temporal relation” (363). In the years leading up to Vatican I, Kenrick defended the authority of the papacy against Protestant criticisms but also wanted to make sure that Boniface VIII’s bull was not read as a document supporting the hierocrats. Kenrick wants to distinguish secular from spiritual things: “To defend the government of the Church as a pure monarchic, or as an aristocratic, or as a republican system, or as resulting from any temperament of these three forms, must necessarily lead into error; and so far, must estrange the mind from the whole of the salutary and everlasting purposes of the Gospel, which, except in the Catholic Church, are not known or cannot be realized” (21). The pope is not lord of the world; indeed, “there is no monarchy in the Christian Church but that of Christ” (21).


If one holds that a hierocratic interpretation of Unam Sanctam is the straightforward one, where the pope is lord of the world who can freely depose sovereigns, divide empires, grant territories, and so on, then it is at least worth knowing that Catholic theologians have long questioned this conclusion. While many did not see the “two swords” as a literal interpretation of Scripture, they certainly did not reject Unam Sanctam‘s authority. They offered an interpretation or refinement of the document as consistent with a view of the pope–in his role as bishop of Rome and supreme pastor, setting aside his accidental role as prince in central Italy–as having no merely temporal power. As a consequence, the pope’s interventions in temporal matters must be directed to spiritual ends. Moreover, all of these theologians argued that the authority of temporal or civil powers came from God and the people, not from a grant of the pope.

And all five of these theologians had rather high views of papal authority. I could have drawn from Conciliarist, Gallicans, and others who had an even more limited view of papal authority in temporal matters.

In future posts, I hope to discuss some twentieth-century critiques of this account of the “indirect power” of the papacy. But it is important to remember that challenges to the hierocratic position were widespread, even dominant, among major theologians for centuries before the Second Vatican Council.

One thought on “Boniface VIII’s Two Swords and the Theologians

  1. In reply to some questions received, I want to clarify that there are important precursors for elements of Boniface VIII’s views (besides Bernard of Clairvaux, who I mention a number of times). Gelasius’s idea of the two powers, Gregory VII’s deposition of Henry IV, etc., are all in the background.

    Suarez and Bellarmine spend a good deal of time defending the authority of popes to depose rulers. But this is an exercise of indirect power (for them) for spiritual ends. They reject the strong hieocratic position which holds that the pope is the lord of the world and can thus depose rulers because their authority is derived from the pope’s authority.

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