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In colloquial English, a pope is a person considered to have unquestioned authority, as in the pope of surrealism or the Taoist pope. But the Pope, in practice, nearly always refers to the bishop of Rome and head of the Roman Catholic Church, the largest Christian denomination in the world, and perhaps the largest denomination of any religion. The Roman Catholic Church has been led by the Papacy, with its administrative arm, the Roman Curia, for over 1600 years through a succession of nearly 300 different Popes. The Papacy became a temporal power in the early medieval period, and has remained so since. Especially in the Medieval period, the papacy represented such a key force in society and history, that it can be difficult to separate the history of the papacy from that of any part of Western Europe. Since 1929, the Roman Catholic Pope has had control of only the small Vatican city-state (located inside Rome), but has diplomatic relations with most nations. The Pope's power comes from his remarkable prestige among Catholics, his ability to speak for the Church, and his power to appoint all the bishops and cardinals. In 1870, the First Vatican Council proclaimed that certain official announcements of the Pope are infallible (and have always been so.)[1]

The Roman Popes of the 16th century were notable patrons of the arts, turning St. Peter's Church in Rome into an architectural wonder, especially known for the artwork in its Sistine Chapel.[2]

The Eastern Orthodox Churches broke away from the Western Church in 1054, denying that the primacy of the pope meant authority over the other patriarchs. The Eastern Orthodox churches are led, instead, by the patriarchs of Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria. The Patriarch of Alexandria of the Oriental Orthodox Church (Copts) is also sometimes styled Pope. The Protestant Reformation rebelled against the Papacy and theology of the Roman Catholic Church beginning in the 16th Century. As secular leaders, the Popes controlled Rome and the Papal States in central Italy until 1871.

In terms of personalities and morality, the 260-odd Popes were saints and sinners who ranged very widely indeed.[3]In recent centuries most have been holy men and in recent decades they have been linguists able to speak to Catholics in many languages. For centuries popes were selected from a rather narrow base: all from 741 to 2013 were European, and all from 1523 to 1978 Italian. Recently, however, the papacy has been reglobalizing with Pope John Paul II (1978-2005), the first Polish Pope, Benedict XVI (2005-2013), the first German since 1523, and the current Pope, Francis, from Argentina.


In the history of the church, the elevation of the bishop of Rome to a special position in the church hierarchy had two main justifications. For one, there is the explicit textual justification in the book of Matthew, where Christ states forcefully that "upon this rock I will build my church," and that whatever Peter was to bind or loose on earth, thus shall it also be done in heaven.

The second argument made in favor of the primacy of the bishop of Rome rests on what is called the Apostolic Succession. Though both apostles (especially Paul) traveled widely within the Roman Empire, ancient tradition maintained that both Peter and Paul died and were interred in Rome. By this line of thought, the bishop of Rome was, in some sense, supposed to have inherited the mantle of both apostles.

In addition to these arguments, the primacy of the Roman See was also bolstered by the canons of the disastrous Council of Sardica; which, out of pique, were tacked on to the records of the first Council of Nicaea in the Roman church. These canons were later, mistakenly, appealed to, and Roman primacy was backed by the prestige of the first ecumenical council.[4]

Catholic tradition argues that Christ told Peter to found a church, and that he built one in Rome, that the authority of the Popes is derived from him, and the bishop of Rome has divine authority to rule over the Church. Protestants say the Biblical texts are too short and obscure to bear the weight of an elaborate infrastructure that was erected many centuries after Christ, and that the Papacy interferes with the direct relationship between Christ and the sinner. Indeed, the history of the Reformation is the history of the rejection of the Papacy, while the history of the Counter-Reformation is the history of its reform and partial restoration to power using moral authority, diplomacy, and orders such as the Jesuits.

Biblical texts

Catholics emphasize that Jesus told Simon Peter:

thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven.[5]

Development of hierarchy in the early church

Especially since the discovery of the documents, including many Gnostic texts, at Nag Hammadi in 1945, it has become clear that those calling themselves Christians in the early centuries of our era represented a very diverse group in regards not only to their beliefs, but also their manner of worship and the way in which they organized or structured their communities. In fact, it was only with the Council of Nicaea in 325 that the beginnings of a common doctrine were finally agreed upon and then, not all accepted the new Creed.

The original "Christians", who initially at least did not even call themselves Christians, were a Jewish sect, and within a generation, became a Jewish heresy. This early community was apocalyptic, living in expectation of the imminent end of the world. In addition, the sect was heavily persecuted, and both these factors militated against detailed record keeping (or the survival of such records). Most of the texts we now possess which speak of those days were written down only several decades afterwards. As a result, only a hazy and speculative picture of the actual "organization" of these very early communities can be discerned.

What is absolutely clear, however, is that a fully developed hierarchical structure such as is seen in the present day Roman Catholic Church did not exist at that time, nor could it have. This does not mean, however, that present day Roman Catholic teachings (see above) are necessarily incorrect. For, although the doctrine may never change, the full understanding and implications of the doctrine may only become evident through their gradual unfolding in history.

Modern Catholic doctrine holds that the full authority of the papal privilege has been present from the beginning of the Church, although the actual exercise of this power has been a function of history and conditioned by the times or, as Gustav Weigel, in an essay on "The Significance of Papal Pronoucements" contained in The Papal Encyclicals (ed Anne Fremantle), puts it:, there is a ". . . new expression of the old doctrine in the light of the impact of historical forces. The doctrine is the same but deeper and wider levels of its meaning are grasped and expressed.".

In any case, the actual exercise of Papal power, as it developed over the years, was met with resistance and denial from other elements in the Church many of whom saw assertions on behalf of the bishop of Rome as a power grab.

Let us now turn to the actual events of history. In the Didache, one of the most significant writings of early Christian literature, a work which traditionally originated between 60 and 70 AD, a dating questioned by scholars, we read[6]:

"Accordingly, elect for yourselves bishops and deacons, men who are in honor to the Lord, of gentle dispostion, not attached to money, honest and well-tried; for they too render you the sacred service of the prophets and teachers. Do not, then, despise them; after all, they are your dignitaries together with the prophets and teachers."

This instruction is included as part of a litany of other instructions relating to Church teachings, morality, and liturgy, composed as a kind of catechism directed to new converts from the pagan world. It would be a mistake to assume that the mere usage of terms such as bishop or deacon is evidence of the existence of offices similar in function and postition to those of the modern church designated by the same terms. That "bishops" and "deacons" existed at that time is clear from the document, but what their function was, what their duties, powers, rights and privileges were, is quite another.

What seems significant for the history of the development of Papal power is that the individuals holding these postitions were apparently "elected" by the community. Further, their status within the community may not have been all that high, as evidenced by the admonition to not despise them!

The Pope and the other Patriarchs in the Early Church

Over the course of some centuries, there came to be five bishoprics recognized as of central importance. Their bishops were known as patriarchs. Rome, Alexandria and Antioch were large, important cities in the Roman Empire, and they boasted influential Christian communities. Almost with its founding in the fourth century, Constantinople became one of the central cities of Christendom. This authority was made explicit at the Council of Chalcedon. Rounding out the five, Jerusalem was also included in this group, but by virtue of its historical importance rather than its later vitality. It is evident in the writings of Eusebius, for example, that Jerusalem had come to be something of a backwater.

The word papa (which became the modern word 'pope') has no intrinsic doctrinal significance, but was rather a father's nickname. Interestingly, this title was applied to the bishops of both Rome and Alexandria.

Power and the Papacy

In the course of its history, the papacy has had power in two distinct spheres. The first, which has almost always persisted through the history of the papacy, is the control the papacy has had over its immediate surroundings.

The second kind of authority is that which the pope has as the head of the church hierarchy. It is only in the second millennium of church history that the pope has had, at times, the authority and power to enforce his decisions on the rest of the church.

This is not to say that the pope had no influence whatsoever on the rest of the church, but rather that earlier his was a position of honor rather than of power. It was only with the growth of canon law and the growing sense of Christendom as an entity that the pope began to exercise his power more fully.

Council of Nicaea

In 312 AD, after nearly half a century of fierce persecutions in which an attempt was made to eradicate the Christian movement by brute force, one of the signal events in Church history occurred. The emperor Constantine was fighting to keep his empire from splitting apart. The night before his famous victory at the Mulvian Bridge, he reported seeing a vision of a cross in the sky surrounded by the words In hoc signo, vinces (In this sign, you shall conquer). He attributed his victory in the battle to the intercession of the Christian God and, soon thereafter, issued an edict of toleration of the Christian religion, although he himself would not be baptised until on his deathbed.

Constantine hoped to use the Christian religion as a unifying force in the empire, but at the time the religion was itself far from united, with various schisms and factions. It was against this backdrop that Constantine sent an invitation to all the bishops of the church to gather at a church Council in Nicaea.

Church of the Empire

For the first two and a half centuries of its existence, the bishops of Rome and the church co-existed uneasily with the Roman Empire. Christians were occasionally persecuted, but for the most part they were able to get by on the fringes of Roman religious tolerance.

When the Roman emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and made it the official religion of the Empire, the status of Christianity changed dramatically. Constantine's conversion also marked the beginning of the crucial period of Church history under the Later Roman Empire. Constantine sanctioned Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire, and gave it a large amount of money.

Though his comprehension of theology was probably shaky, that did not stop Constantine (and his mother) from getting involved in the doctrinal squabbles of the Church. Over the course of Constantine's life, and through much of the fourth century, imperial sanction also meant that the "official" position of the church changed along with the emperor. In the all-important Arian controversy, Constantine's position seems to have shifted back and forth in his lifetime. Until the death of Valens in 378, the official position of the church changed a number of times.

Like the emperor, the pope was also drawn into the Arian controversy; Pope Julius (337-52), in particular, drew the ire of opinionated eastern bishops. The papacy did manage to pick the side that ultimately won out, but the controversy and questionable conduct of Pope Liberius (352-66) and Pope Damasus (366-84) weakened the institution at an important juncture.

The status of the Roman bishop can also be seen by the importance that he had in comparison with other bishops. In particular, the authority of Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, came to overshadow that of the pope in the late fourth century. It was Ambrose who forced emperor Theodosius I to repent in 390 after the massacre at Thessalonike.

The Church, East and West

Although the pope had to struggle to assert his authority in the face of powerful bishops such as Ambrose, and upstart bishops, like Hilary of Arles, the greatest power struggle which confronted the papacy was with the churches of the East. As the theological debates raged on, mainly in the East, opposing factions appealed to the pope. While the faction he favored might be glad for the support, the opposite side railed against the intrusion. The pope had to tread delicately.

This struggle between East and West also had a geographic dimension, as the patriarchs of Rome and Constantinople squabbled over territory, and the Balkans in particular.

Contention had also arisen out of the Council of Constantinople in 381. Theodosius I convened a council to finally attempt to settle the Arian controversy, but Pope Damasus kept his legates home. Among other things, the council agreed on a canon about the relationship between Rome and Constantinople. It stated that "the Bishop of Constantinople shall have the pre-eminence in honour after the Bishop of Rome, for Constantinople is the new Rome."[7] The formulation rankled, and Eastern bishops were not above bringing it up when they felt Rome needed to be put in her place.[8]

The Fifth Century AD, and Leo the Great

The fifth century was a period of political chaos and social upheaval. The papacy no longer had to vie with powerful emperors for control of the church, and the popes were largely left to their own devices. The high point of the papacy in this period is the reign of Pope Leo I, (440-61) commonly known as Leo the Great.

Like the other great pope who was to come a century and a half later, Leo was a vigorous leader in a variety of different areas. He cemented and increased the power of the papacy in the West; he maintained a careful balance with the East; he settled doctrinal disputes (at the Council of Chalcedon); and he negotiated with temporal leaders, traveling north in 452 to treat with Attila the Hun and pleading with Gaiseric the Vandal in 455. Like the best popes of every age, he adapted to his circumstances and applied himself energetically.

Early Middle Ages: 350-1000

Late Middle Ages: 1000-1500

The coat of arms of Pope Paul II depicted here with a late Mediaeval style tiara and two swords symbolic of the Supreme Pontiff's roles as Law-Giver and Potestate, points that Paul wished to emphasize during his conflicts with the College of Cardinals.

The 14th century was the scene of dramatic humiliations that reduced the secular power and religious prestige of the papacy. The French king made his man Pope and moved the papal court to Avignon in France, 1309-1377. During the "Babylonian Captivity" of the papacy, seven French popes were seen as mere tools of France. Avignon was not a holy city, like Rome, and the men there were scarcely concerned with holiness; the papal entourage demanded bribes and fees to deal with tens of thousands of petitions that flooded in. As the paperwork and expenses multiplied, the prestige of the Papacy slipped.[9] The return to Rome in 1378 was followed by an even greater catastrophe. A split between French and Italian factions in the Curia resulted in the "Great Schism" of 1378-1417, during which Rome and Avignon each had their own series of popes, who claimed legitimacy and authority over the church. After enormous confusion the decision was made to appeal to a church council. The Council of Constance healed the schism in 1415.

The Council issues the decree Sacrosancta, (April 1415) asserting that in matters touching the faith and the unification and reform of the Church, a general council stood above all other authority, including papal. Another decree Frequens, (October 1417) tried to set controls on the pope and cardinals and proposed that a new council meet within five years and be convened regularly every ten years thereafter. The Church was on the verge of a constitutional revolution that would have shifted power from the pope to the bishops. However the papal forces fought back and by defeating the Council of Basel (1431-1449) regained control.

It took years to rebuild the neglected infrastructure of the city of Rome. The papacy never regained the secular power it had lost, and the loosened religious authority allowed an opening for radical reformers such as John Wycliffe and the Hussites.

Reformation and Counter-Reformation: 1500-1700

By the 1580s the Pope was officially issuing Encyclicals.

Frommel (1986) shows the popes did not provide a coordinated policy for Roman urban development. Rather, they had their own building agendas, driven by an egocentric spontaneity to outdo predecessors and eternalize family glory. Their agendas did reflect papal prominence in the city and created an imperial aura.


1815 to 1914

Pius VII (1800-23) was stripped of powers by Napoleon but made a striking comeback after Napoleon's fall in 1815. Pius VII was a deeply religious Benedictine, and a theologian; he lived simply and avoided nepotism. His unusually able Secretary of State Cardinal Consalvi won the restoration to the Pope of most of the territories in Italy which Napoleon had seized. He reinvigorated numerous monastic orders and helped create new societies for men and women, especially those engaged in teaching and missionary work. Most important was the restoration of the Jesuits in 1814; they had been suppressed in most countries. They grew larger and even more influential in the 19th century. After 1800 the Papacy became the center of conservatism in Europe in reaction against the liberalism of the French Revolution and its admirers. The Papacy recognized that throughout Europe millions of peasants and poor folk were devoted to the saints and traditions of the Church; the Popes responded energetically by promoting new Marian devotions (such as the rosary). Rome had fallen into disrepair and Pius VII began the restoration of the city's artistic glories, an enterprise that continues into the 21st century. [10]

The "ultramontane" tendency in the Church centralized more power and authority in the Papacy. It was opposed by the "Gallican" tendency, especially in France, to give national churches more control over their affairs. The ultramontane forces generally won out, especially with the declaration of papal infallibility at the First Vatican Council in 1870. The ultramontane forces cited the old doctrines of Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621) and Francisco de Suárez (1548-1617) to bolster the papal claim to absolute power in spiritual matters.[11]

Despite dire predictions, the Church adapted to modernity in its own way and increased its role in people's lives in the 19th century. The Church escaped irrelevance by using the same means as did emerging nation-states; establishing more administrative and doctrinal centralization in Rome; establishing a homogeneous culture, aided especially by almost universal use of Latin; promoting new rites and folk devotions, especially those focused on Mary and other favored saints; promoting pilgrimages to holy sites; encouraging clergy to endorse and lead regional nationalist movements that focused on historic languages and cultures; creating many new teaching orders and establishing Catholic schools and colleges; supporting intellectuals and publishing houses; enhancing papal power; and cultivating an image of both theological, canonical, and moral superiority. Of special importance was the missionary activity, based especially in Germany, that was in competition with Protestant missions in China, India, Africa and other non-Christian lands. The Jesuits proved highly adept at promoting the Papal cause. The Pope thereby became less symbolic and more powerful. There was internal dissent among some Catholic intellectuals, such as the historian Lord Acton in Britain and theologian Ignaz von Döllinger in Germany, who opposed the declaration of the dogma of papal infallibility.

Burns (1990) takes a sociological perspective on the Papacy's long battle with liberalism. He shows how the papacy, in reaction to the rise of the liberal states of the 19th and 20th centuries, gradually reformulated Catholic ideology within the limited autonomy they possessed and carefully subordinated social and political issues to more purely religious and moral issues as they constructed an ideological opposition to liberalism.

In Germany in the 1840s the ultramontane movement used mass meetings and pilgrimages to combat the growth of liberalism and modernism. However the anti-clerical liberal press attacked these mass meetings, and in response a large number of Catholic newspapers emerged in Germany starting in the 1840s. To ensure their own survival, these newspapers championed the liberal idea of press freedom. In addition, local clubs were established to mobilize the Catholic working class. These clubs tried to end discrimination against ordinary Catholics by working to establish freedom of religion and freedom of thought and by entering the electoral process. With the unification of Germany in 1871, the new nation faced the problems of consolidation, one of which was secularization. The laws dealing with secularization opened a political battle with Bismarck and the Protestants and liberals on one side, and the Catholics on the other, called the "Kulturkampf." The Catholics organized their own political parties and protected their interests by voting as a bloc into the 1930s, when the Nazis closed down all other parties.

The Syllabus of Errors of Pope Pius IX in 1864 rejected the liberal doctrines of the modern world.[12] It denounced pantheism, naturalism, nationalism, indifferentism, socialism, communism, freemasonry, and other modern views. The Pope claimed for the Catholic Church total control over science and culture. The liberals viewed this as a declaration of war by the Church on modern civilization. Its repercussions within France, the United States, Britain and other countries were resounding, nearly destroying the liberal Catholic movement and furnishing a powerful weapon to the anticlerical faction, or (in the U.S.) to anti-Catholic Protestants. Opponents stressed the Papacy had become intolerant and medieval and largely political in nature.[13]

In many countries the Church faced off against the Freemasons, a secret society that was politically active in numerous countries. The Papacy coordinated a counterattack. For example in Brazil, the religious question in the 1870s centered on the Masonic controversy and the struggle between regalist and ultramontane forces. One method of counterattack was to found Catholic universities. Thus Mgr. Ignace Bourget, second bishop of Montreal, Canada, founded Laval University, as a Catholic ultramontane reaction to a liberal and secularist outburst in Quebec. Bourget said the university would be the principal instrument for "wresting the elite from the clutches of liberalism." The French inhabitants of Quebec became staunch ultramontanes.

Camp (1990) traces the treatment of women. In the late 19th century the papacy began to revise its public teachings about the proper role of women in the Church and society. From Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903) to Pope John Paul II (1978-2005), papal social pronouncements reveal an evolution in attitudes toward a woman's proper "place" from the view that women are passive subordinates to men in all spheres of life to the current teaching that lay and clerical women are equal but complementary partners with men in religious, political, economic, and social endeavors. Popes Paul VI and John Paul II added three women to the existing list of thirty male Doctors of the Church. However, the papacy has remained firm in the conviction that ordination to the priesthood is for men only.

Since 1914

Student and youth groups were formed in major countries, with Papal blessing. For example the French Federation of Catholic Students (FFEC) was formed in 1922 to keep college graduates within the orbit of the Church, shield them from hostile ideological and political influences, and deepen their spiritual experience. It was a conservative movement, ultramontane in outlook; and boasted 16,000 members in 1939. During the Vichy years 1940-42 it was politically active at first in support of Vichy before being won over by nationalist ideology at the instigation of spiritual leaders and joining the underground resistance movement.

John XXIII (1958-63) enjoyed uniformly favorable, if sometimes puzzled, treatment from the English-language media. Initially, the focus was on his wit and warm personality. His unexpected calling of Vatican Council II and his major encyclicals - Mater et Magistra and Pacem in Terris - transformed his image into that of a bold innovator. In the end, it was his concern for world peace at the height of the Cold War and his effort to reach beyond Catholics to address all people of good will that won Pope John XXIII universal praise and affection.

Holocaust issues

Coppa (2005) reassesses the attitudes and policies toward Nazi racism of Pope Pius XI (1922-1939). Although Pius XI accepted and practiced religious anti-Judaism, he consistently opposed racial anti-Semitism on theological grounds throughout his papacy. As a result, he resisted the course of accommodation and conciliation favored by others within the Catholic Church, including Eugenio Pacelli (1876-1958), who served as papal secretary of state from 1930 prior to succeeding Pius XI as Pope Pius XII in 1939. Between 1933 and 1939 Pius XI waged a campaign against Nazi and Fascist racism and anti-Semitism that included public speeches and published condemnations denouncing the division of humanity on the basis of race as well as the commission of a "secret" encyclical on the incompatibility of racism and Catholicism that remained unpublished until 1995. His confrontational stance therefore sharply contrasted with the silence of Pope Pius XII during the Holocaust.


  1. See P.J. Toner, "Infallibility" in Catholic Encyclopedia (1910) explains the Church position.
  2. Famous patrons of the arts include Sixtus IV (1471-1484), Julius II (1503-1513), and Clement VII (1523-1534)
  3. They were all men. The story of Joan who disguised herself as a man and became Pope sometime between 850 and 1050 was exposed as a false myth in 1650, but still circulates. Kelly (1998) 331-32.
  4. p. 31, Eamon Duffy, 'Saints & Sinners: A History of the Popes', 2nd ed., Yale University Press, 2001.
  5. Gospel of Matthew: Chapter 16, Verse 18; see also 1 Corinthians 3:11, Ephesians 2:20, 1 Peter 2:5–6, and Revelation 21:14.
  6. For a detailed and quite accesible discussion of the Didache, see, e.g., John Dominic Crossan, The Birth of Christianity, esp. chapters 20 and 21
  7. cit. at Duffy, p. 34
  8. This happened at the Council of Chalcedon, where the Council acclaimed Leo the Great's formulation but disputed his primacy. Cf. discussion at Duffy, p. 45 f.
  9. Ullmann (2002) p. 287
  10. Kelly (1999); Duffy (2006); Latourette (1958) vol 1.
  11. After Vatican II, 1962-65, the multiple and often confused controversy over papal authority and infallibility ended quietly.
  12. see text at [1]
  13. Latourette (1958) vol 1 ch. 6