Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss

Benedict XVI on TwitterBenedict XVI, who turns 86 in April, will abdicate the papacy at the end of this month. The election of a new pope is a good opportunity for a brief tutorial on some of the aspects of the papacy that the mass media likely won’t tell you. As I write there is an American Bishop on television speaking in hushed, reverential tones about Benedict XVI as he interviewed politely by a deferential Roman Catholic reporter.

First, when television reporters talk about the antiquity of the papacy, don’t you believe them. The Book of Acts knows nothing about a papacy. The second century church (the so-called Apostolic Fathers) know nothing about a papacy. The institution that we know as the papacy came into being gradually over a period of several centuries. Indeed, the episcopal (bishop-centered) system itself developed gradually.

In the 2nd century (100–200 AD) there may have been “Bishops” in the monepiscopal sense of the word, a regional church leader, but the noun translated as “Bishop” in 2nd century texts just as frequently denotes “pastor.” There is evidence in the apostolic fathers, e.g., Ignatius, that there were pastors, elders, and deacons and that churches were governed collegially rather than by one person. It wasn’t until the middle of the 3rd century (c. 250) that monepiscopal was dominant in the western church. It was probably the Roman Bishop Damasus I (c. 305–84) who first adopted the the title Papa or Pope and it was probably Leo I (d. 461) who first adopted the old pagan Roman title of Pontifex Maximus (High Priest) as a way of asserting his primacy over all the other Bishops. The Bishop of Rome was an influential figure in the Western Church by the 4th century (primus inter pares) but the papacy as we know it did not exist until perhaps the late sixth or early 7th century.

Second, when you see reporters on television going on about how popes have been elected in the Vatican since the second century (see above) please remember that the Vatican itself, as we see it today, did not begin to come into existence until 1506. The Papacy sold plenary indulgences (and this) in order to raise funds to build “New St Peter’s” Basilica. To be sure, there has been a church on Vatican Hill since the 4th century but there has not been a continuous history of papal attendance in St Peter’s. The papal headquarters only moved to Vatican Hill after the 14th-century Avignon Papacy, about which I’ll explain below. The Archbasilica St John Lateran is the Diocesan seat of the pope as the Bishop of Rome and the oldest of the papal basilicas in Rome. Some of the most important councils in the history of the medieval church are associated with St John Lateran and it papal headquarters were located here until the Avignon Papacy.

Third, popes are elected by a college of cardinals or the papal electoral college. We tend to use “cardinal” as a title but it was originally used adjectivally of any priest permanently attached to a church—a cardinal priest. Later, it was restricted to priests, deacons, and bishops in and around Rome. Cardinal is derived from the Latin noun cardo (hinge, axis). By the 11th century “cardinal” became a noun. In 1059 Nicholas II (contra Henry IV of England), in In Nomine Domine, gave Cardinal Bishops the sole right to elect popes. Cardinal priests and deacons were to give assent. By 1150 Cardinal Bishops were to reside in Rome and took up administrative positions there. In 1163 they were allowed, in some cases, to return to their sees. Since the 12th century Cardinal Bishops have had precedence over Archbishops and even, since the 15th century, patriarchs. They began wearing the red (cardinal) hat in 1254. In short, the process that we know, where papal electors gather to choose a pope did not begin in the apostolic period or even in the early church. Like much of what makes Rome what it is, this practice is medieval in origin.

Fourth, something you are not likely to hear or read in the popular media is that the lineage of popes is quite a lot more uncertain than it is made to seem. Benedict XVI’s abdication takes us back to the last pope to abdicate, Gregory XII (1415) and the marvelously messy history of the Avignon papacy (1378–1417), a story of competing “popes” and “anti-popes.” Here’s a chart of the “popes” and “anti-popes” in the period. You might want to print it, like a roster at a football game, so you can follow along.

Popes have not always resided in Rome. The papacy was moved to Avignon in 1305, when Clement V was elected. He needed to stay near France but outside of Rome for fear of violence in Rome. He settled the papacy in Avignon because it was an imperial city and he was trying to gain the support of France and England to resume the crusades. The papacy would remain in Avignon until 1377. The Italians did not take this lying down, however. In retaliation, the Italians installed an “anti-Pope” (Nicholas V) in Rome in 1328.

In 1370, Gregory XI attempted to relocate the papacy to Rome but failed when Florence opposed him because they enjoyed control of the Italian peninsula. Indeed, Florence invaded Rome in 1377 to retain control of the peninsula. On the death of Gregory XI in 1378, the Roman cardinals elected Urban VI in an unpopular election —in fact he was so unpopular that the cardinals lied to the people about whom they had elected. When some of the cardinals decided that Urban VI was insane (he was given to violent tirades and he proposed a “radical simplification of the cardinals’ life-style”), they moved to Avignon and elected an anti-Pope (Robert of Geneva) as Clement VII (Avignon). Boniface IX (Rome) succeeded Urban VI in 1389 and Benedict XIII (Avignon) succeeded Clement VII in 1394.

Each pope claimed the papacy, each excommunicating those nations who sided with the wrong pope. Each, however, was elected by papal electors, i.e., cardinal bishops creating an enormous crisis of legitimacy. Who was the proper pope, the vicar of Christ on the earth? At one point All of Europe was excommunicated by one “pope” or the other. This created an intolerable situation.

Things became even more complicated. The first “third pope” was Alexander V (June 1409—May 1410) was elected by the Council of Pisa, who replaced Benedict XIII in Avignon (Benedict XIII having fled to Peniscola) in 1409–10. His successor, John XXIII (1410–15), was elected in the Council of Pisa (1409–10), the other two having been deposed by the Council (and Benedict XIII having fled to Aragon).

By this time, there had already been multiple successions in both the Roman and the Avignon papacy. At that time, they were Gregory XII and Benedict XIII respectively. At the Council of Constance (1414–18) John XXIII (who fled to Austria, was arrested, brought back to Constance, and imprisoned until 1419 and later made a Cardinal) and Benedict XIII (in Aragon) were deposed again and Gregory XII abdicated. The council then elected Odo Colonna, Martin V on 11 Nov, 1417, ending the schism. Helene Millet says that Rome has never pronounced on the canonicity of Urban VI’s election or the legitimacy of Pisa. Traditionally, the lineage of popes who are counted legitimate after the Avignon Papacy are those who were pope in Rome. There is, however, no unambiguous answer to the question of why so-called “anti-popes” should be regarded as such. The designation “anti-pope” seems arbitrary and the legitimacy of the successors to the papacy since the Council of Constance is dubious.

Rome likes to present herself as if she were a grand dame sweeping through the corridors of history, as if things have always been as they are now in Rome. That story  makes for good television—Rome does pageantry well but that is the papacy of faith, not the papacy of history. The truth is that the Roman communion as we know it now is a creature of the high and late middle ages and in essential ways, of the Lateran IV (1215), Trent (1545–63), Vatican I (1868–70), and Vatican II (1962–65). The real story of the papacy is a story of occasional virtue and piety but more frequently of venal characters, of power politics, of intrigue, and not even downright deceit. Remind me to tell you sometime the story of the Donation of Constantine.

And now, to cleanse the palate and to fulfill the promise implied in the title: a little reward for the persevering reader:

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  1. As the nature of the Roman Church has morphed through the middle ages up to our day, it would seem that by nature she will continue onward in the same manner. I wonder if within our lifetimes there won’t be a major upheaval and new schism due to the tensions between the old school Benedict-types and the new school Boston College-types. I can’t say I wouldn’t welcome it – a sort of public rending of the veil of pageantry over the eyes of the world.

  2. It has to basically stay a semi-Pelagian system…or the whole thing will collapse.

    With slight changes in form, it will basically remain a ‘clergy club’.

  3. I read to the end just to get to the song… 😉

    the cry of Reformed Christians – “We won’t get fooled again!”

    You pack a lot of history into this helpful survey. Thanks, Dr. Clark.

  4. Great article. With your permission I would like to use this as a supplement in the High School Church History class that I teach.


  5. You are correct to say that the Early Church Fathers in the 2nd century didn’t know about the papacy but you’re incorrect that the episcopal system developed gradually. As it says in Acts, James the brother of Jesus was the bishop of Jerusalem, and had the first Apostolic counsel and presided over it. Peter was the first bishop of Antioch and there isn’t much evidence that he was bishop of Rome. So the episcopal system started when the Apostles started churches. None of the ecumenical councils prior to the schism recognized the universal jurisdiction of the pope. The Fourth Council in Chalcedon recognized the primacy of honor, first among equals, never head of the church or “universal jurisdiction.”

  6. Thanks for this post, Scott. I wish I could give it to my friend who swam from Geneva across the Tiber and has become a Roman Catholic missionary. But she unfriended me from Facebook and I have no way to get it to her now. So much for dialogue.

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