The papacy is an institution that matters, whether or not one is a religious believer. The succession of the popes, all 262 of them, is the world’s most ancient dynasty. The Roman Empire was young when the popes first emerged on the stage of history, and the earliest references to them, in the late second century, already claim for the bishop of Rome a status greater than that of any other Christian leader. Eighteen centuries on, the popes exercise a quasi-monarchic rule over the world’s largest religious organization. They touch the consciences, or at any rate the opinions, of almost a fifth of the human race. The papacy has endured and flourished under emperors, kings, and robber barons, under republican senates and colonial occupations, in confrontation or collaboration with demagogues and democrats. And by hook or by crook, it has survived them all.
For non-Catholics, of course, the significance of the papacy stems not from its religious claims but from its impact on human affairs. Thomas Hobbes famously remarked that the papacy was “not other than the ghost of the deceased Roman Empire, sitting crowned on the grave thereof.” The comment was certainly not intended as a compliment, but it encapsulated an important historical reality nonetheless. Through no particular initiative of their own, the popes inherited the mantle of Empire in the West and the papacy became the conduit for Roman imperial values and symbolism into the European Middle Ages. In a time of...
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About the Author
Eamon Duffy is Reader in Church History in the University of Cambridge and Fellow of Magdalene College. He is the author of The Stripping of the Altars and Saints and Sinners, a history of the popes, both published by Yale University Press.