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Great Religious Traditions: Christianity--The Papacy

Figure 1.--The illumination of Bibles contibued to be practiced in the Renaissance, Alexander VI was one of the two great Renaissance Borgia popes. No history of the Papacy is complete without an account of Alexander coloful pontoficate. Alexander and his Uncle Calixtus III, the other Borgia pope, were enthralled with the drama of the liturgy, but in fact had no real religious convictions. Here Alexander is seen saying mass. Note the altar boys or are they choristers. I am not sure which. While no religious, Alexander insisted on observing the feasts and demanded the cardinals attend church services.

The primacy of the papacy in the Roman Catholic or Western Church is based on authority conveyed to the apostle Peter by Jesus who told him that hecwould be the rock upon which the Church would be built. Peter was the first bishop of Rome. Subsequent popes were primarily bishops of Rome in a Curch that was not centralized in any real way. This of course made in difficult for the Roman Empire to effectivdely supress the early Church. The Roman Empire itself was, however, highly centralized. Even with limited reak authority, the Bishop of Rome had enormous influence in an empire centered on Rome. The first pope who attempted to aggresively exert his authority as pope was Victor I (189-198). Without the authority of the state, such authority was limited. Victor attempted to secure uniformity in Church practice and took issue with the differeing practices in the East such as the date for Easter. The first clearly defined powerful pope was Leo I (440-61). Leo attempted to establish a system of papal vicariates through which Roman church oractice could be inforced. While information on may early popes is sparse, by the time of Gregory I the Great (590-604) we know much more about the papacy. The papacy at this time had extensive land holdings in North Africa, Sicily, and Gaul. Gergory not onlt managed to preserve these land holdings throgh the tumultous period of babarain invasioins, but laid the ground work for the conversion of the pagan tribes and the authority of the papacy as new Feudal states and principalities arose in the West.

Chronolgical Trends

Saint Peter is generally considered to be the first pope because Christ designated him as his most important desciple. Very little is known, however about the early popes. Leo played a major role in establishing the prestige of the papasct when he managed to disuade Atila from sacking Rome. As Europe emerged from the Dark Ages, the papacy endured a very difficult period. One source estimates that about a third of the popes selected from 872-1012 died violently, often at the hands of successors. The Church attempted to regularize the selection of popes by creating the College of Cardinals (1059). This innovation was not as significant as might be expected. The popes even after the creation of the College continued to be chosen from the same nobel Roman families from which earlier popes were selected. The papacy reached the zenith of its power at the beginning of the second millenium. Popes promoted crusades to the Holy Land. They struggled with empeors and kings over tempral matters. The pope had begun as the bishop of Rome came to claim almost imperial power, claiming both spirtual and temporal power over all Christendom. The Church was rent by the Great Schism (1303-1417). The split in the Church was resoved by the Council of Constance which also acted to stuffle dissent in the Church, an important step leading to the Reformation. Thus as Europe was being stimulated by the Renaissance, the Church and the papacy was trending toward limitations on thought and inquiry.

Individual Popes

Most students of history have a much better understanding of national monarchies than the papacy. This is in part there have been so many popes, many of extremely short pontificates. This is because the history of the papacy is longer than any country or states. Even more importantly, the nature of the papacy means that most popes come to office as elderly men. Many national monarchs come to the throne as children. Some of have reigns of over 50 years. This is not the case of popes, As they come to the pontifacte as elderly men, there reign for relatively short periods. The average potificate is less than 6 years. This affects both the outlook and temperment of the men who serve as well as increasing the importance of Vatican institutions over individual popes. Here we do not want to survey each pope, but we do want to provide a thumb-nail sketch of the most important popes who have played major roles in the events discussed in our HBC website.


Collins, Roger. Keepers of the Keys of Heaven.

Cornwell, John. Hitler's Pope.

Dalin, David. The Myth of Hitler's Pope.

Eisner, Peter. The Pope's Last Crusade: How an American Jesuit Helped Pope Pius XI's Cmpaign to Stop Hitler (2013), 304p.

MacCulloch, Diarmaid. The Reformation: A History (Oxford University Press, 2004), 750p.

Nowich, John Julius. Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy (2011), 528p.

Sweeney, Jon M. The Pope Who Quit: A True Medieb\val Tale of Mystery, Death, and Salvation (2012), 304p.

Tobin, Greg. The Good Pope (2012), 288p.

Wells, HG. The Outline of History: The Whole Story of Mankind (New York: Doubleday & Company, 1971), 1103p.


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Created: January 15, 2004
Last updated: 2:30 AM 8/5/2016