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The Thrilling Tale of the “Great” Pope You’ve Never Heard Of

Peter Paul Rubens

Brantly Millegan - published on 11/20/13

But Lothair kept pursuing an annulment, which he was eventually able to convince his local clergymen to grant. The bishops of France convened a synod and confirmed the annulment despite the fact that it did not meet the requirements of ecclesiastical law. Another synod was held in France on the matter a year later and was attended by papal legates sent by Pope Nicholas, but they were bribed by King Lothair II and supported the annulment. Teutberga appealed her case to Charles the Bald, King of West Francia, and the case was eventually brought to Nicholas himself in Rome.

Two archbishops from Germany were sent with the support of Emperor Louis II to argue the case in favor of the annulment. Nicholas not only ruled the annulment invalid, but he also condemned and deposed the two archbishops.

Angered by the decision, King Lothair II sent his army to Rome and laid siege to the city, demanding that Pope Nicholas grant him the annulment. Despite being confined to the old St. Peter’s Basilica as a prisoner for two days without food, Nicholas refused to budge. When it became clear that the annulment was a lost cause and that he was obviously risking excommunication by his actions, Lothair reconciled himself with Nicholas, withdrew his armies, and took back his wife Teutberga. Emperor Louis II ordered the two deposed archbishops to return to their homes. All of Pope Nicholas’ decisions stood.

Not an Unfamiliar Story

If it all sounds familiar, it’s because it is: a very similar situation precipitated the Anglican schism in the 16th century. But whereas Lothair II ultimately accepted the authority of the pope, King Henry VIII decided to go the route of creating his own religion, one that would conveniently allow him to divorce his wife as he wanted.

Can you imagine if something like this happened today? Local bishops upholding an illegitimate annulment, the pope’s legates being bribed, the pope overturning all of it and deposing archbishops, the disgruntled leader of a major world power sending an army to lay siege to Rome and imprison the pope – the media would be having a field day. The New York Times would be declaring the end of the Catholic Church, the Huffington Post would be blasting the pope’s backward stance on marriage, and CNN experts would be talking about whether the next pope would be a liberal and bring the Church up-to-date. And that’s all on top of the doctrinal confusion that such disunity among bishops would cause and the fear that such intense persecution of the Holy Father could bring to Catholics worldwide.

Yet the Church survived, and instead of being remembered as a conservative gadfly, Pope Nicholas came out of it all with two of the highest honors possible: sainthood and the exclusive title “Great”, marking him as one of the best popes ever.

Brantly Milleganis Assistant Editor for Aleteia. He is also Co-Editor of Second Nature and Co-Director of the International Institute for the Study of Technology and Christianity. He is finishing up a M.A. in Theology at the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity and will begin working on a Ph.D. in theology at the Catholic University of America this fall. He lives with his wife and children in South St. Paul, MN. His personal website is brantlymillegan.com.

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MarriagePopePope John Paul II
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