The papacy is “the oldest living institution in the Western world,” John O’Malley notes in his introduction to A History of the Popes, and “as vital today as perhaps ever in its history.” Given the negative attributes that the book ascribes to various popes over the centuries, the papacy’s ongoing vitality is indeed remarkable, but also somewhat contextual. As O’Malley observes, “for the past hundred years, the papacy has played a larger role in Catholics’ self-definition than ever before.” Modern means of communication and travel have been a significant factor—and have enabled ever more centralization. By contrast, “in the year 1200, for instance, perhaps 2 percent of the population knew there was such an institution as the papacy or believed it had anything significant to do with their religion.” 

The bishops of Rome, called popes (from the Latin papa or father) since the fifth century, have always cared for and been linked to the tombs of Peter and Paul. From the time of Leo the Great (440–461) they claimed to be “the vicar of Peter.” Only with Innocent III (1198–1216) did they exclusively claim the title “vicar of Christ.” Especially after the fall of the Roman empires, they provided for the needy in their city and sought to protect Rome and surrounding territories from foreign invaders, which involved having an army. For many centuries before 1870, popes were also temporal monarchs ruling the papal states that extended from Naples north and east across the peninsula toward Venice. They claimed the power to crown kings and emperors. Such functions have not been part of the job description for popes of the past century. Significantly, in the wake of Vatican II, Paul VI gave renewed emphasis to the title “Servant of the Servants of God.” 

O’Malley makes clear that he writes as a historian, not a theologian. He tells a pared-down story of the papacy, skipping over long periods to focus on defining moments of papal history. His approach is effective and the historical anecdotes provide a very readable insight into the development of the papacy.

The first chapter reviews the biblical and archeological evidence regarding Peter’s role and his link to the city of Rome. In asking whether Peter was the first bishop (Greek episkopos or overseer) of Rome and thus the first pope, O’Malley maintains that “the Christian community at Rome well into the second century operated as a collection of separate communities without any central structure,” and concedes, “if a bishop is an overseer who leads all the Christian communities within a city, then it seems Peter was not the bishop of Rome.” But he immediately labels that position “narrow and unimaginative,” arguing that, if Peter has eaten and drunk with Jesus, and witnessed the resurrection, he must have exercised a leadership role greater than that of a single presbyter. “If that is true, then it follows that Peter can, with qualification but justly, be called the first bishop of Rome. And if he is the first bishop of Rome, then he is the first pope.” In the second century, Linus was listed as the first bishop of Rome; Peter was considered an apostle, a higher status than bishop. While other historians follow that list, O’Malley follows the Vatican’s Annuario Pontificio in listing Peter as the first pope, reaffirming at the end of the book his argument that Peter “presumably exercised a special leadership role in the community, which is what we mean by a bishop.” However, in the second chapter, the author acknowledges that the second-century text The Shepherd of Hermas spoke of the Church of Rome having many rulers, and adds that Rome eventually followed the pattern of a single bishop that had emerged in other churches. Such details seem to counter stretching the meaning of the term “bishop” so that Peter can be called the first bishop of Rome.

Turning to the late second and third centuries, the author notes that a number of the bishops of Rome were married, and a few were descendants of previous popes. We are introduced to Victor, Callixtus (and his rigorist opponent, Hippolytus, the first antipope), and Stephen, the first pope to invoke Matthew 16:18, “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church,” as a basis for papal primacy over other churches.  

Some dark hours in papal history are detailed. Pope John VIII (872–882) was poisoned and clubbed to death by one or more of his clerics. From his death to the death of John XII in 964, the papacy was immersed in plots, counterplots, bribes, threats, choreographed violence, and shifting alliances between factions and Roman families. While noting that there were some decent and hard-working popes, the author catalogues the intrigues of this scandalous era, which includes a pope who was the son of a previous pope’s mistress.

The book offers many interesting tidbits. The first pope-elect who took a new name was Mercury in 533, who, being named after a pagan god, assumed the name John II. Most remember Gregory VII as a reformer pope who brought the emperor Henry to repentance at Canossa for his practice of lay investiture—naming unworthy bishops. In his Dictatus papae from 1075, Gregory claimed “that the pope is the only one whose feet are kissed by all princes” and “that he may depose emperors.” We learn that Gregory’s close collaborator, St. Peter Damian, once called him “my holy Satan,” and that no pope died hated by more people than Gregory VII. In 1215, the year in which he convoked the Fourth Lateran Council, Innocent III sided with the king of England and declared the Magna Carta void because it had been extorted from the king by his barons without papal consent. Innocent VIII (1484–92) was the first pope to acknowledge openly that he had fathered two children before he was ordained. In 1492, Alexander VI was elected. “He fathered nine children by different women and, most scandalous, two while he was pope.” The Reformation was looming.

Pius VII, elected in 1799, “imbibed a love of learning that was broader than was common among Italian clerics of the time.” He read Locke and Diderot, and quoted Rousseau in a homily. He was respected even in Protestant lands for the way he had dealt with Napoleon and for the priestly view he took of his office. By contrast, Pius VIII (1829–30) imposed a harsh police regime whose puritanical extremes would have been ludicrous had they not been so fanatically enforced. He put Jews back in the ghettos and had the gates fitted with locks. Gregory XVI, elected in 1831, was a person of narrow vision who banned railroads in the papal states. His first encyclical, Mirari vos, issued in 1832, viewed freedom of conscience, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and separation of church and state as false ideas. Leo XIII, elected in 1878 made John Henry Newman, who wrote a book arguing that doctrine changed over time, a cardinal. Leo also issued Rerum novarum, the first encyclical on social questions such as a just wage and the right of workers to organize, providing a model for subsequent popes. However, “Leo saw the papacy as having the answers to all questions, and he did all in his power to underscore its absolute authority.”

Turning to more recent popes, O’Malley says that John XXIII, who convened Vatican II, was himself, as he said of the church, “benign, patient, full of mercy and goodness.” The author documents Pope John Paul II’s accomplishments but also notes that in the bishops synods he convoked in the Vatican, it became clear that his mind was made up on most of the questions before the bishops had a chance to speak. “National episcopal conferences gradually lost what little margin they had for independent decision-making.” That stood in contrast with the Second Vatican Council’s attempts to reverse the centralizing process in church governance. The author reports that the pope sometimes displayed a willfulness that startled even his most fervent admirers, as in the case of appointing and then refusing to remove a radical reactionary Swiss bishop. That indicated “his determination to demand unquestioned acceptance of papal decisions, cost what it may.” Under John Paul’s leadership, the Holy See

seemed all too often prematurely to have taken sides. The result of this strategy was counterproductive. Rather than ensure unity, it sharpened differences within Catholicism and engendered rancor and suspicion. ‘Real Catholics’ accused those with whom they disagreed of disloyalty and even heresy, and they felt they had backup in the highest quarters.

With regard to Pope Benedict XVI, O’Malley writes, “we wait to see what he will make” of his time as Servant of the Servants of God.

Published in the 2012-06-15 issue: View Contents
Bernard P. Prusak teaches theology at Villanova University.
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