When Popes Were Papas

A History of the Popes
From Peter to the Present
John W. O’Malley, SJ
Sheed & Ward, $19.95, 368 pp.

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...

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About the Author

Bernard P. Prusak teaches theology at Villanova University.