The History

A. Burt Horsley, “The History,” in Peter and the Popes (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1989), 43–52.

The History​

According to Luke, the disciples of Jesus were first called Christians in the city of Antioch. And by coincidence, it was also in Antioch that the term catholic was first used by Bishop Ignatius in his epistle to the Smyrnaeans. About A.D. 107, he wrote with reference to the mainstream of Christianity, “Nobody must do anything that has to do with the Church without the Bishop’s approval. . . where the Bishop is present, there let the congregation gather just as where Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church” (Petry 10).

Before it formally became a part of the identifying label of the Christian church, the word catholic was used as a descriptive, uncapitalized adjective meaning the universal or world wide church, as opposed to a local community’s branch or congregation.

With the gradual strengthening of the power of the bishops, and a tendency on the part of some to look to Rome as the hub of the Church, as well as capital of the empire, a corresponding assertion by the bishop of Rome of his right to superintend the other bishops would provide the substructure, the fundament of the institution which would subsequently be known as the papacy.

Before the close of the third century, the word Catholic, now capitalized, had become a recognized part of the identifying label for the bulk of Christianity. It also set it apart as being orthodox and official in contrast to any heretical or unorthodox movements.

An end to many decades of hostility and persecution, which had kept the Church underground, was finally reached in the early part of the fourth century A.D. when Emperor Constantine and his associates issued the edict of toleration (Edict of Milan, A.D. 313).

Under imperial protection, but with some notable exceptions, the Catholic church expanded rapidly throughout this period of the Roman Empire. It was an official act of Constantine in that same century, however, that laid the foundation for the traditional Roman Catholic church as we know it, although it eventually separated from the Eastern or Greek church. By turning the imperial attention away from Rome and by moving the capital of the empire from Rome to Byzantium (A.D. 330), Constantine left Rome to its bishop.

Over the centuries, with persistent, but not unchallenged assertion of central authority, the Roman bishop acquired the title of papa or pope, father of fathers, father of bishops, and other secular and political titles. The traditional concept of the papacy as the supreme hierarchical authority of the Roman Catholic church was well established in the early part of the Middle Ages.

When Constantine moved the capital of the Roman Empire to Byzantium in the East and established the new capital, Constantinople, Rome declined as a commercial and political center. There are those historians who tell us that it was reduced in population within a matter of a few short years, becoming a mere “ghost town” of its former self. But, while declining as a political and economic hub, it became the religious and, betimes, the cultural center of the West.

The bishop of Rome particularly, because of the very lack of a strong political, temporal authority in the West, stepped in to fill the void of authority, thus strengthening the power of the Roman See even more. After the death of Constantine, there continued a definite trend towards centralization with the bishop of Rome assuming a dual role, not only as the ecclesiastical and religious leader of the people, but also as a secular authority in matters political and temporal. Two of the most striking examples are Pope Leo I and Gregory I. Both men represent excellent examples of great medieval figures, filling the role of the bishop of Rome in the best tradition of the popes. Of all of the approximately 264 men who have come into this position in its history, only three of them have been given the title “The Great” by the Catholic church. Two of these men, Leo the Great and Gregory the Great, played out their respective roles between the age of Constantine and the age of Charlemagne—or the rise of the Holy Roman Empire. Leo was a man with great ability and even greater determination who sought to strengthen the position of the church at Rome. He established the precedent of the popes as great letter writers, whereas, prior to his time, with few exceptions, the bishops of Rome had left very little evidence of their leadership via this medium. He is also credited with stabilizing the relationship between the church and the new Christian emperors.

A century and a half later, Gregory I, a successor in the papal office, was also confronted with the problem of perpetuating the power of the papacy in the matter of superintendency and Roman supremacy. The time span separating these great figures, between the middle of the fifth century and the end of the sixth, was filled with lesser lights whose contributions were, by contrast, sometimes negative; but the whole age reflects, to some degree, the issues and problems identified with the “great ones.” There was a constant conflict concerning the issue of the primacy of the See of Peter over the other churches, particularly with the patriarchates of the East. Although, there existed a generally close tie between the patriarchs and the emperors of the East, there was not the same congenial compatibility between the emperors and the bishop or the pope at Rome. In fact, it is a matter of historical record that the Emperor Mauritius referred to Gregory as “that simpleton.” In several instances there was assertion of authority in opposition to Rome. Notwithstanding the emperor’s unflattering reference to the pope, Gregory, a man of some prestige and affluence, heir to much of the wealth of one of the great families of Rome, was an outstanding example of personal piety and humility not always apparent in either his predecessors or those who came after him. He sold all that he could turn into money, gave the rest to the poor, took the money and established monasteries, and became a monk in one of them himself. Gradually, he rose up through the ranks to become the pope, although for years he declined the honor and resisted the attempt to put him into the “chair of Peter.” He was a man who wanted no high position. He sought no office and yet he became one of the leading religious figures of the entire Christian tradition. However, after he had once been installed in the papal office—to make of this responsibility nothing less than a divine calling, something which was to be before the world the actual representation of God on earth—he added dignity and prestige to the papal name.

Once he had ascended to the throne of the See of Peter, he dealt steadfastly with all who sought to undermine his position, and he defended his office with all firmness. He is noted for his attack upon Donatism in Africa. His refusal to recognize the patriarch of Constantinople as ecumenical proved to be one of the acts which widened the split between East and West. He was able to deal with the attacking Lombards after the imperial exarch, the representative of the crown in the West, had failed. Because of his particular way of doing things, together with his interest in music, in literature, and his versatility in general, he actually shaped the history of the church for centuries. So influential was he, and such a great figure, that even the emperors of his time fared rather shabbily by comparison in terms of the imprint they made on history. He was one who stood out for his time.

He established rules for the lives of the clergy, sent missionaries to England, and wrote much and well. He enjoined the members of the church to keep their lives sanctified before God, and implored and appealed to the clergy to live lives of saints. He instructed the other bishops in their responsibilities as to pastoral care and contributed to the development of what we know as the Gregorian chant which remains in the liturgy of the Roman mass even in modern times.

These two men have been singled out for special attention because they present a traditional image of the popes in this early power-struggle setting, particularly in their relationship to other bishops and other centers of Christian influence.

Beginning with the middle of the eighth century, there was a great deal of papal discord. Pope Paul I was succeeded in 757 by Constantine, who was a layman of the military party. Little more than a century later, there began, with the murder of Pope John VIII, such a constant turnover of popes so that thirty-seven popes came to the throne of Peter within a period of about 160 years. These popes were identified with an age where there was little regard for the things to which the papacy had previously been dedicated.

The final split between the culturally incompatible Eastern and Roman churches did not come until the eleventh century. Notwithstanding recurrent periods of infamy within its hierarchical ranks, including an age of great worldliness, the Roman Catholic church emerged from the Middle Ages as the all embracing Christian establishment of Central and Western Europe. It had acquired a sacerdotal image consistent with the sacramentalism and ritual which made up a large part of its system, and the pope was the predominant and crowning figure of that image as it was projected to the world.

The Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century was directed mostly against that highly developed sacramentalism by protestors who wanted to return to early medieval emphasis upon salvation by grace and justification by faith. The protestors believed that man had a direct relationship to God, without the indirect channeling of grace from God to the individual, both through the pope, and through the sacraments and ordinances over which he presided.

 Despite the great inroads made by that Protestant Reformation and the resulting breakdown of the medieval monolithic church, Roman Catholicism experienced its own revival and reform. It eventually recovered some of the territory lost to Protestantism and, through renewed zeal and missionary effort, continued into our own time as the largest of all Christian denominations of the world.

With its headquarters at the Vatican, a city of 108 acres within the city of Rome, it has established dioceses (bishoprics) in every corner of the world where clergy and missionaries have had contact with people.

Historically, it seems to have been able to gain adherents in one part of the world when there have been losses in other parts. Within the last three decades, the gradual, and at times abrupt, decline of influence in places such as Asia or in eastern European countries has been offset in part by the rise of Catholic influence in America and other areas.

Still at the head of the church today is the pope, who, as bishop of Rome, claims direct apostolic succession from Peter as representative or Vicar of Christ on earth, with full authority to preside over the whole of Christendom. He is elected to the office by the College of Cardinals assembled in conclave after the death of his predecessor.

Thus, over the centuries, the bishops of Rome have come and gone, but the institution of the papacy has endured the erosion of time and weathered the storms of circumstance and human relationships.

Like a roster of kings in a vast time-encompassing dynasty, the men who have occupied the throne of Peter have been listed in chronological order by those who presume to account for such things. So-called official and unofficial listings, both including and excluding the anti-popes (those not recognized subsequently as “true popes”), tend, after centuries of examination and inflection by degrees of comparison and contrast, to contain the same names in approximately the same order. About 264 pontiffs have been recognized as “true popes”; the roll usually begins with Peter and ends in our time with the currently presiding Pope John Paul II.

Among those who have attempted to account, historically, for the biographies of the popes, only the most recent have succeeded in maintaining some degree of acceptable standards of objectivity and scientific disclosures of the available data. Early lists of the Roman bishops had been prepared by chronographers, such as the second century Irenaeus, bishop of Lyon. But Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 263–339), in his Ecclesiastical History, probably produced the first account of what might reasonably be called—within its scope—a papal history. However, his strong Arian leanings, together with certain other prejudices recognized by students and scholars since the earliest times, have weakened his reliability as an objective historian.

More than a thousand years later, Pope Sixtus IV, in the midst of scandalous nepotism and simony, which at that time corrupted the hierarchy of the church, appointed Bartolomeo Sachi—known as Platina—to the office of director of the Vatican library and commissioned him to write a history of the popes. Needless to say, the spirit of the time and Platina’s personal involvement in the scandals of Rome would taint the work, however authentic and scholarly it might otherwise have been. Not only did he deliberately distort the image of the former Pope Paul II, whom he despised, but the manner in which he dealt with the complete absence of data concerning some of the popes of the first two centuries was manifestly irresponsible. Whereas both Catholic and Protestant modern writers have had the integrity to acknowledge in specific instances, “There are no records of his pontificate” (Kuhner 6–7). Platina took the liberty of inventing data and of padding a page or two wherever it seemed necessary.

A Lutheran reformer, Matthius Flacius, wrote prolifically on Christian history in the sixteenth century and exposed a great deal of historical error and useless tradition found in the prior Catholic versions, but his Protestant bias corrupted, at least partially, an otherwise valuable contribution. In that same century, a general Catholic reaction to the work of Flacius inspired the effort by the Vatican librarian, Caesar Baronius, who between the years 1588 and 1607 completed his monumental twelve-volume history of the church and the papacy through the twelfth century. This great work, one of the first genuine attempts to write history from an objective viewpoint, was somewhat marred by errors of ignorance, not intent. Nineteenth- and twentieth-century writers, including the two great German classicists, Leopold von Ranke and Ludwig von Pastor, have finally unfolded for the world, in multi-volume contributions and in objective scholarly fashion, the story of this at once famous and infamous institution.

From these materials, and from other extant primary sources, it has been possible to form both a collective and individual image of these “successors” of the fisherman, and to answer questions about their background, social status, nationality, education, spirituality, worldliness, personal weaknesses and strengths.

The chief interests of some have been intellectual and ethical rather than theological, while others pursued political and material interests instead of religious ones. There have been statesmen, reformers, humanitarians, educators, and arts patrons. But there have also been those whose personalities and examples have elicited contempt and disrespect, not because of their lowly origins and pedigrees, but because of apparent deficiencies of character and ability.

Whereas the official title of the pope is a highly exalting one, some have been given much less complimentary appellations by their associates or biographers, contemporary or subsequent. Some records describe Pius II as a “reformed rake,” while “Peter Pig’s Mouth” was a nickname attached to Sergius IV (Brusher 286, 416). It was said of the economist Pope John XXII, who manipulated high finance during his pontificate, that he was, indeed, the Bankier des Heiligen Stuhles (Banker of the Holy Chair or Holy See; Gontard 319). At the conclusion of the conclave which put Jacques Fburrier in “Peter’s Chair” as the newly elected Benedict XII, he declared of himself, “You have elected a jackass” (Brusher 390).

It is true that most have come from the clerical and priestly ranks or from the monasteries. But some have been laymen, totally lacking in preparation or training for such an office.

Any assumption that religious leadership and ecclesiastics have been exclusively the concern and preoccupation of priests and theologians ignores hundreds of years of history. It also forgets that religion has been a human experience responsible for much of the worst examples of man’s inhumanity to men. The popes have had their share in this.

There have been more Italians or Romans than any other nationality. However, the Greeks, the French, the Syrians and Germans have all contributed several to the papacy. At least two or more Spaniards, Africans, Sicilians, Portuguese and Sardinians have all aspired to wear the tiara, together with one from each of several other countries.

The names of these men, both the Christian names and the assumed new names, or papal names, have been as diverse as their nationalities and backgrounds. Twenty-three “true” popes have used the name John as have some anti-popes who were not officially recognized. Several have used the names Paul, Pius, Adrian, Gregory, Felix, Benedict, Clement, Leo or Nicholas.

Some of them took the world by its economic, political and moral tethers and shook it a bit. Their wisdom and benevolence have blessed respective generations while their mistakes and blunders have brought the world time and again to the brink of self-destruction. Their perspectives toward such human enterprises as education, economics, civics and even charity were as varied in detail as their backgrounds. Yet, most were Christian idealists.

But, to view them as merely pious, sanctimonious, timorous souls would belie their humanity and ignore the recorded examples of disposition to heresy, anger, despair, skepticism, and the temptations of the flesh.

Many of them wrote much, but very little of it could have made its way to the best seller list in any age, though some of it has become classic in theological contexts. They have been bound together through the centuries not by their personalities, nor religious conviction, neither by fidelity to each other, but rather by common commitment to the idea of the papacy itself—that was the common denominator.