Catholic replies has this to say to an inquiry about the many years that saw emperors appoint popes:
Q. What do you say to someone who tells you that Popes were appointed by emperors for a long time? How did the Church approve the appointment of a Pope by an emperor? — E.G., Florida.
A. The first thing we would say is, “So what? What point are you trying to make? Are you trying to say that the papacy was not established by Christ to govern His Church? But that’s not true. Are you trying to say that Popes do not have the authority to teach in the name of Christ? That’s not true either. Or are you trying to say that Popes put into office by secular rulers were not protected by the Holy Spirit from teaching error? That’s false as well. In other words, your statement is irrelevant.”
Second, we would suggest that this person take a look at the history of the Church. For example, James Hitchcock has pointed out in his History of the Catholic Church that Church and state were interconnected during much of the Church’s history. He said that “beginning in the mid-fifth century, the emperors were crowned by the patriarch, but it was the emperors who were responsible for preserving the integrity of the faith and who often regulated church life by their decrees. They had the authority to summon councils, as Constantine had done at Nicaea [in 325], but doctrinal issues had to be decided by the assembled bishops” (p. 188).
Hitchcock also described the dreadful condition of the papacy in the ninth and tenth centuries, “when it fell under the control of murderous factions. Some popes were notorious, and few could exercise even the least spiritual authority. Kings and emperors often treated the papacy as under their control, and popes in turn intrigued in secular politics” (p. 120).
He said that “the low point in the history of the entire papacy was reached in 897, when the body of Pope Formosus (891-896) was exhumed by orders of Pope Stephen VI (896-897), placed upon the papal throne in its vestments, formally ‘tried’ for violations of Church law, found guilty, stripped of its vestments, and desecrated. Stephen himself was strangled in prison later that year, and Formosus’ honor was restored” (pp. 120-121).
There were more “bad Popes” in the 15th century, for example, Sixtus IV (1471-1484) and Alexander VI (1492-1503), but the vast majority of the 265 Pontiffs have been men of great virtue and holiness, many of whom are venerated today as saints.
With emperors like that, who needs popes?
The problem is that popes, like Gregory VII, objected precisely to emperors and kings interfering in the selection of bishops:
As early as the Synod of Reims (1049) anti-investiture legislation had been enacted, but had never been enforced. Investiture at this period meant that on the death of a bishop or abbot, the king was accustomed to select a successor and to bestow on him the ring and staff with the words: Accipe ecclesiam (accept this church). Henry III was wont to consider the ecclesiastical fitness of the candidate; Henry IV, on the other hand, declared in 1073: “We have sold the churches”. Since Otto the Great (936-72) the bishops had been princes of the empire, had secured many privileges, and had become to a great extent feudal lords over great districts of the imperial territory. The control of these great units of economic and military power was for the king a question of primary importance, affecting as it did the foundations and even the existence of the imperial authority; in those days men had not yet learned to distinguish between the grant of the episcopal office and the grant of its temporalities (regalia). Thus minded, Henry IV held that it was impossible for him to acknowledge the papal prohibition of investiture.
We must bear carefully in mind that in the given circumstances there was a certain justification for both parties: the pope’s object was to save the Church from the dangers that arose from the undue influence of the laity, and especially of the king, in strictly ecclesiastical affairs; the king, on the other hand, considered that he was contending for the indispensable means of civil government, apart from which his supreme authority was at that period inconceivable.
Ignoring the prohibition of Gregory, as also the latter’s effort at a mitigation of the same, Henry continued to appoint bishops in Germany and in Italy. Towards the end of December, 1075, Gregory delivered his ultimatum: the king was called upon to observe the papal decree, as based on the laws and teachings of the Fathers; otherwise, at the following Lenten Synod, he would be not only “excommunicated until he had given proper satisfaction, but also deprived of his kingdom without hope of recovering it”.
E.G. from Florida asked a good question. Catholic Replies only added to the velocity of the pitch.