From New World Encyclopedia
(Redirected from Popes)
Saint Peter's Square in Vatican City, the seat of the papacy
Seal of the papacy

The papacy is the office of the pope (from Latin: "papa" or "father"), the bishop of Rome, who is the leader of the Roman Catholic Church and head of state of Vatican City. The pope's ecclesiastical jurisdiction is called the "Holy See" or "Apostolic See."

The importance of the Roman bishop is largely derived from his role as the traditional successor to Saint Peter, to whom Jesus gave the keys of heaven and the powers of "binding and loosing," naming him as the "rock" upon which the church would be built.

After Christianity became the favored religion of the Roman emperors in the fourth century, the papacy was involved in a period of close interaction with the rulers of the West, while often struggling for supremacy with the eastern emperors and the patriarch of Constantinople. In medieval times, popes played powerful political roles in Western Europe, crowning emperors, ruling the papal states, and regulating disputes among secular rulers. After the Protestant Reformation and the rise of powerful nation-states successfully challenged the authority of the papacy in the West, the popes gradually gave up secular power. In the modern period the papacy has come to focus almost exclusively on spiritual matters.

Over the centuries, the papacy's claim of spiritual authority has been ever more clearly expressed, culminating in the proclamation of the dogma of papal infallibility for those rare occasions the pope speaks ex cathedra when issuing a statement of faith or morals.

Today, the pope is the leader of the largest organized body of religious believers of the world, and arguably the single most powerful voice in moral and spiritual affairs. He has become a major figure in the ecumenical movement, whose voice commands the attention of leaders of virtually every faith. The papacy remains one of the most influential institutions of any kind in today's world.


Earliest church

In Catholic tradition, Peter is recognized as the first pope, who was martyred in Rome. Yet the early bishops of Rome were not yet "popes" as the word is understood today. Rather, the Roman church seems to have had a collective leadership involving a council of elders or bishops until the mid-second century.

In the earliest Christianity, however, it was Jerusalem, not Rome, that served as the Christian movement's central city, from which missionaries were dispatched and to which delegates came to resolve disputes. James the Just, known as "the brother of the Lord," served as head of the Jerusalem church, which is still honored as the "mother church" in Orthodox tradition. Antioch and Alexandria also had important Christian congregations. Rome, the capital of the Roman Empire, was one of the first Gentile cities to develop a substantial church early in the apostolic period, and it was at Rome that the Apostle Paul was martyred, soon followed by Peter, according to tradition.

Until around 130 C.E., there are few if any references to Rome's primacy among the churches, and even the idea of Peter's acting as "bishop of Rome" is heavily disputed. However, after the Jerusalem church was disbanded in the wake of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., Rome gradually came to the fore. In the last years of the first century, Clement of Rome, probably one of a collective group of Roman church leaders but traditionally recognized as the fourth pope, wrote on behalf of Rome's congregation to the church in Corinth to intervene in an internal dispute there.

The papacy emerges

In the second century, Roman bishops received visits and letters from other Christian churches, indicating that Rome held a position of increasing centrality and respect. By the second half of the century, it is probable that the tradition of collective leadership at Rome had given way to a single ruling bishop, as was the case in several other major cities. Because of the relative wealth of the Roman church, the early popes were in a position to assist other churches financially and help spread Christianity abroad. They were also instrumental in resolving doctrinal disputes, both because of Rome's position as capital of the empire and on the basis of Rome's connection with Saint Peter. In the late second century, Bishop Irenaeus of Lyons wrote: "Because of its superior origin, all the churches must agree [with Rome]... and it is in her that the faithful everywhere have maintained the apostolic tradition." (Against Heresies 3:3:2) However, in 195, when Pope Victor I excommunicated several Eastern churches for observing Easter on the Jewish Passover, Irenaeus himself disagreed with this action, which was later rescinded.

In the third century, several writers appealed to the authority of the Rome's tradition to justify their theological views and ecclesiastical practices. At the same time, the pope's office was sometimes the victim of factional strife, with popes and antipopes vying for recognition. The first antipope, Hippolytus (d. 250), was later recognized as a saint. Pope Marcellinus (d. 304) was the first bishop of Rome whom sources show actually used the title of "pope."

When Emperor Constantine I legalized Christianity and showed special favor to the Christian churches, the office of the papacy became a major political and financial prize. Though the progressive Christianization of the Roman Empire in the fourth century did not confer upon bishops any direct civil authority within the state, the gradual withdrawal of imperial authority during the fifth century left the pope in the de facto position of the senior imperial civilian official in Rome. During the Arian controversy of the fourth century and other theological controversies, Rome's relatively steady position further developed its reputation as a bastion of orthodoxy.

Meanwhile, after Constantine established his hew capital at Byzantium with the new name of Constantinople, the churches of the Greek East and a Latin West became increasingly divided. The popes, with some notable exceptions, achieved a growing independence from the emperor and became a major force in politics in the West. Meanwhile, the See of Constantinople emerged as the center of ecclesiastical authority in the East, often at odds with Rome over questions of jurisdiction, honor, authority, and even theology. During this period there were five metropolitan archbishops who held the title of "patriarch": Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem. While the papacy was universally afforded the primacy of honor, the other patriarchal sees did not recognize the right of the pope to determine policy, which was often decided at church councils, the most widely attended being recognized as "ecumenical," or universal, and thus more binding.

At the ecumenical Council of Chalcedon in 451, Pope Leo I (through his emissaries) stated that he was "speaking with the voice of Peter." At this same council, the patriarch of Constantinople was given a primacy of honor equal to that of the bishop of Rome, and Constantinople was declared the "New Rome." In practice, however, Rome and Constantinople continued to struggle for supremacy, and several schisms followed. Nor did the other major centers of Christianity always follow the pope's lead, either in administrative or theological matters.

In terms of the title of pope, the bishops of several cities in the West had been known by this title, which simply means "father." In the East, however, this title was generally reserved for the bishop of Alexandria. From the early sixth century the term began to be confined in the West to the bishop of Rome, a practice that was firmly in place by the eleventh century. However, the Alexandrian churches, both Coptic and Orthodox, still refer to their bishops as popes.

Medieval developments

Gregory the Great (c. 540-604)

After the fall of Rome to the "barbarians," the Roman church served as a source of knowledge, authority, and continuity in the West. Pope Gregory the Great (c. 540-604) administered the church with a stern, reforming spirit. However, his successors were sometimes dominated by the Eastern emperor. Pope Stephen II, seeking protection from the Lombards, appealed to the Franks to protect papal territory. In 754, Pepin the Short subdued the Lombards, giving the pope the conquered lands, which formed the core of the Papal States. In 800 C.E., Leo III crowned Charlemagne as holy Roman emperor, establishing the precedent in the West that no man would be emperor without anointment by a pope. The East, however, continued its imperial Christian tradition without papal authority, upon which it had never depended.

Around 850, a collection of church legislation was promulgated, known today as the False Decretals. Containing both forgeries and genuine documents, its principal aim was to free the church and its bishops from interference by the imperial state. The author, a French cleric calling himself Isidore Mercator, presented various documents purportedly by early popes, demonstrating that supremacy of the papacy dated back to the church's oldest traditions. The decretals also included the forged Donation of Constantine, in which Constantine supposedly granted Pope Sylvester I secular authority over all Western Europe. The "Pseudo-Isidorian" decretals provided support for papal authority for centuries.

Nevertheless, during the last two centuries of the first millennium, the popes came under the control of vying political factions, and the papacy's prestige was badly tarnished. Conflict between the emperor and the papacy continued, and eventually dukes, in league with the emperor, were buying bishops and popes almost openly. In 1049, Leo IX became pope and attempted serious reforms. He traveled to the major cities of Europe to deal with the church's moral problems firsthand, notably the sale of church offices or services and clerical marriage and concubinage.

Leo IX was pope during the Great Schism of 1054

The churches of the East and West split definitively in 1054. This "Great Schism" was caused more by political events than by diversities of creed, although the famous filioque clause inserted into the Nicene Creed by the popes played no small role in it. Shortly afterward, the papacy launched the Crusades, the ebbs and flows of which contributed to both the church's glory and its great shame. Increasing corruption of the clergy—including some of the popes themselves, as well as their administrative bureaucracy—also became a major challenge for the papacy. Several popes attempted to reform the situation, while others pursued wealth and power in a spirit much at odds with the poverty and humility of their apostolic forbears.

From 1309 to 1377, the pope resided not in Rome but in Avignon. The Avignon papacy was notorious for greed and corruption. During this period, the pope was effectively an ally of France, alienating France's enemies, such as England. Various antipopes also challenged papal authority, especially during the Western Schism (1378 - 1417). During this schism, one pope reigned in Avignon while another (or even two) popes reigned in Rome. While the papacy soon reunited, it continued to develop a reputation for wealth and corruption, even while supporting some of the great artistic and architectural projects of the Renaissance.

During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the conciliar movement attempted to reform corruption within the papacy by affirming the ancient tradition of church councils as the supreme ecclesiastical authority. However, the councils condemned more fundamental reforms promoted by such leaders as John Wycliffe (1330-1384) and Jan Hus (1373-1415), who was burned at the stake at the Council of Constance. In the end, the papacy was able to reassert its authority but did not succeed in reforming the culture of the Church.

Reformation to the present

Spiritually, the pope was understood to have the power to draw on the "treasury" of merit built up by the saints and by Christ, so that he could grant indulgences, to reduce one's time in purgatory. The concept of indulgences involving a monetary donation accompanied by contrition, confession, and prayer eventually gave way to the common understanding that indulgences depended on a simple monetary payment. Popes condemned such misunderstandings and abuses of the practice, but were too pressed for income to reign in their most effective fundraisers, thus providing the basis for Martin Luther's famous 95 Theses against indulgences, sparking the Protestant Reformation.

As part of the Counter Reformation, Pope Paul III (1534-1549) initiated the Council of Trent (1545-1563).

The Reformation criticized the papacy as corrupt and challenged to idea of papal authority both administratively and theologically. The movement succeeded in establishing several national churches in Europe independent of the papacy and led to Protestantism emerging as a major force in the western world.

The papacy instituted the Counter Reformation (1560-1648) to address this challenge and institute internal reforms. Pope Paul III (1534-1549) initiated the Council of Trent (1545-1563), which succeeded in the papacy's retaining control over southern and much of central Europe. Gradually, however, the papacy was forced to give up secular power, focusing increasingly on spiritual issues. Meanwhile, missionary efforts succeeded in winning millions of new converts to the Catholic Church outside of Europe.

In 1870, the First Vatican Council proclaimed the dogma of papal infallibility for those rare occasions the pope speaks ex cathedra (literally "from the chair (of Peter)") when issuing a solemn definition of faith or morals.

Later in 1870, King Victor Emmanuel II seized Rome from the pope's control and substantially completed the unification of Italy. In 1929, the Lateran Treaty between Italy and Pope Pius XI established the Vatican state and guaranteed papal independence from secular rule.

In Roman Catholic ecclesiology

The Giving of the Keys to Saint Peter painted by Pietro Perugino (1492)

According to Roman Catholic tradition, the institution of the papacy was first mandated by Jesus through his words to Peter, who would later become the first pope:

"And I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." (Matt.16:18-19)

John 21:15-17 further shows Jesus as appointing Peter as the primary "shepherd" of Christ's flock. Peter is thus the rock upon which Christ's church was built, and his successors at Rome stand in his position as the "vicar of Christ," acting on Jesus' behalf. The reference to the "keys of the kingdom of heaven" here is the basis for keys often found in Catholic papal symbolism, such as in the Vatican Coat of Arms.


The conclave in Konstanz where Pope Martin V was elected
The formal declaration of "Habemus Papam" after the election of Pope Martin V

In the early church, the popes were chosen by those senior clergymen resident in and near Rome. The elections were often contentious, resulting in schisms between factions, and sometimes involved imperial intervention. In 1059 the electors were restricted to the cardinals. The Second Council of Lyons (1274) decreed that the cardinal electors must meet within ten days of the pope's death and that they must remain in seclusion until a pope has been elected. By the mid-sixteenth century, the electoral process had more or less evolved into its present form.

Under present canon law, the pope is elected by those cardinals who are under the age of 80. The election normally takes place in the Sistine Chapel, in a sequestered meeting called a "conclave." Each elector writes the name of his choice on his ballot and pledges aloud that he is voting for "one whom under God I think ought to be elected." Each ballot is read aloud by the presiding cardinal, and voting continues until a pope is elected by a two-thirds majority.

Once the ballots are counted, they are burned in a special stove, with the smoke escaping through a small chimney visible from St. Peter's Square. If no pope is elected yet, a chemical compound is added to the fire to produce black smoke. When a vote is successful, the ballots are burned alone, sending white smoke through the chimney and announcing to the world the election of a new pope.

The dean of the College of Cardinals then asks the one who was elected two solemn questions. First he asks, "Do you freely accept your election?" If he replies with the word Accepto, his reign as pope begins at that instant. The dean then asks, "By what name shall you be called?" The new pope then announces the regnal name he has chosen for himself. The pope is then led to a dressing room in which three sets of white papal vestments await: small, medium, and large. Donning the appropriate vestments and reemerging into the Sistine Chapel, the new pope is given the "Fisherman's Ring" and receives the obeisance of his former colleagues.

The senior cardinal then announces from a balcony over St. Peter's Square: Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum! Habemus Papam!—"I announce to you a great joy! We have a pope!" Until 1978 the pope's election was followed in a few days by the papal coronation, which has since been suspended.

For centuries, the papacy was dominated by Italians. Prior to the election of the Polish cardinal Karol Wojtyla as Pope John Paul II in 1978, the last non-Italian was Pope Adrian VI of the Netherlands, elected in 1522. John Paul II was followed by the German-born Benedict XVI, leading some to believe the age of Italian domination of the papacy to be over.

Abdication and death

Gregory XII was the last pope to abdicate.

The pope's term of office is for life. The Code of Canon Law states, "If it happens that the Roman Pontiff resigns his office, it is required for validity that the resignation is made freely and properly manifested but not that it is accepted by anyone." The canonical right to abdicate has been exercised by Pope Celestine V in 1294 and Pope Gregory XII in 1409, who was the last pope to do so. The first pope to abdicate was Pontian in 235, although he did not do so freely, but under the duress of a sentence of exile.

The current regulations regarding a papal interregnum were promulgated by John Paul II in his 1996 document Universi Dominici Gregis. During the vacancy caused by a pope's death the College of Cardinals is collectively responsible for the government of the Catholic Church and of the Vatican itself, under the direction of the Cardinal Chamberlain. Canon law specifically forbids the cardinals from introducing any innovation in the government of the Church during the vacancy of the Holy See.

A dead pope's body then lies in state for a number of days before being interred in the crypt of a leading church or cathedral. The popes of the twentieth century were all interred in St. Peter's Basilica. A nine-day period of mourning (novem dialis) follows after the interment of the late pope. Vatican tradition holds that no autopsy is to be performed on the body of a dead pope.


Pope Benedict XVI

The titles of the Pope, in the order they are used in the Annuario Pontificio:

  • Bishop of Rome
  • Vicar of Christ
  • Successor of the Prince of the Apostles
  • Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church
  • Primate of Italy
  • Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman Province
  • Sovereign of the State of the Vatican City
  • Servant of the Servants of God

The ancient title Pontifex Maximus, which was formerly associated with the pagan Roman emperors, was used until Gratian (359-383), who formally renounced the title. The title "Servant of the Servants of God," although used by other church leaders including Augustine of Hippo and Saint Benedict, was first used by Pope St. Gregory the Great in his dispute with the Patriarch of Constantinople after the latter assumed the title "Ecumenical Patriarch." It was not reserved for the pope until the thirteenth century. The pope is addressed as "Your Holiness" or "Holy Father."

Since, in the Eastern churches, the title "pope" does not unambiguously refer to the bishop of Rome, these churches often use the expression "pope of Rome" to refer to Roman pontiff.

Regalia and insignia

Coat of arms of the Holy See.
Pope Pius VII, seated, wearing the pallium
  • "Triregnum," also called the papal tiara or triple crown, represents the pope's three functions as "supreme pastor," "supreme teacher," and "supreme priest." Recent popes have not worn the triregnum, although it remains the official symbol of the papacy. In liturgical ceremonies, today's popes wear an episcopal mitre (an erect cloth hat).
  • Pastoral Staff topped by a crucifix, a custom established before the thirteenth century.
  • The pallium, a circular band or stole worn around the neck, breast and shoulders, with two pendants hanging down in front and behind, and is ornamented with six crosses. Until recently, the pallium worn by the pope was identical to those he granted to the primates, but in 2005 Pope Benedict XVI began to use a larger papal pallium adorned with red crosses instead of black.
  • "Keys to the Kingdom of Heaven," the image of two keys, one gold and one silver, symbolizing the power to "bind and loose" on earth and in heaven.
  • Ring of the Fisherman, a gold ring decorated with a depiction of St. Peter in a boat casting his net, with the name of the reigning pope around it.
  • Umbraculum, a canopy or umbrella consisting of alternating red and gold stripes, which used to be carried above the pope in processions.
  • Sedia gestatoria (now discontinued), a mobile throne carried by 12 footmen in red uniforms, accompanied by two attendants bearing fans made of white ostrich feathers, and sometimes a large canopy carried by eight attendants. The use of the flabella was discontinued by Pope John Paul I, and the use of the sedia gestatoria was discontinued by Pope John Paul II, being replaced by the so-called Popemobile.

In heraldry, each pope has his own coat of arms, which includes the aforementioned two keys behind the escutcheon (shield), and above them a silver triregnum with three gold crowns.

The flag most frequently associated with the pope is the yellow and white flag of Vatican City, with the arms of the Holy See on the right-hand side. Although Pope Benedict XVI replaced the triregnum with a mitre on his personal coat of arms, the triregnum has been retained on the flag.

Offices and residences

The pope's official seat or cathedral is the Basilica of St. John Lateran, and his official residence is the Palace of the Vatican. He also possesses a summer residence at Castel Gandolfo. Until the time of the Avignon Papacy, the residence of the pope was the Lateran Palace, donated by the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great. The pope's specific ecclesiastical jurisdiction, the Holy See, is distinct from his secular jurisdiction of Vatican City.

Infallible authority

The status and authority of the pope in the Catholic Church was dogmatically defined by the First Vatican Council on July 18, 1870. In its Dogmatic Constitution of the Church of Christ, the council established that:

  • Peter was established by Christ as the chief of the apostles, and the visible head of the whole church.
  • It is heresy to deny that the Roman Pontiff is the successor of Peter holding the same primacy as him.
  • It is also heresy to deny that pope's authority pertains not only to matters of faith and morals, but also to the discipline and government of the Church throughout the whole world.
  • The Roman Pontiff, when he speaks ex cathedra, operates with infallibility, and his decisions are unalterable.

The Second Vatican Council, while not repeating the anathemas directed by its predecessor against "heretics" who deny papal infallibility, nevertheless reaffirmed the doctrine. In 1964, this council declared:

"…In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent. This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra… His definitions, of themselves, and not from the consent of the Church, are justly styled irreformable, since they are pronounced with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, promised to him in blessed Peter, and therefore they need no approval of others, nor do they allow an appeal to any other judgment.

The Papacy today

Pope Benedict XVI greets former US President Bush.

While the papacy has lost considerable political power in recent centuries, its prestige as a moral and spiritual authority has grown considerable. The pope remains the sole ruler of the Catholic Church, which is not only the largest Christian denomination, but the largest organized body of any world religion, with over one billion members, accounting for approximately one in six of the world's population. No longer a primarily European faith, the majority the pope's flock hail from Latin America, Africa, and Asia. The papacy also controls or supervises a vast network of Catholic financial institutions, religious orders, real estate holdings, schools, monasteries and convents, charitable organizations, museums, hospitals, retirement homes, youth organizations, and social groups.

The pope commands huge audiences of up to and over a million people when he travels, notably including many young people. His moral teachings remain highly influential, probably more so than any single individual in the world today. Politically, the papacy of John Paul II is considered to have been a major factor in the fall of the Soviet Union.

The pope is a major figure in the ecumenical movement, whose voice commands the attention of leaders of virtually every faith. He frequently meets with the presidents of the greatest nations of the world. It is no exaggeration to say that the papacy remains one of the world's most important world institutions today.

See also

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Chapman, John. Studies on the Early Papacy. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1971. ISBN 9780804611398
  • Duffy, Eamon. Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002. ISBN 0300091656
  • Fortescue, Adrian, and Scott M. P. Reid. The Early Papacy: To the Synod of Chalcedon in 451. Southampton: Saint Austin Press, 1997. ISBN 9781901157604
  • Kelly, John N. D., and Michael J. Walsh. The Oxford Dictionary of Popes. Oxford [u.a.]: Oxford Univ. Press, 2005. ISBN 9780198614333
  • Loomis, Louise Ropes. The Book of Popes (Liber Pontificalis). Merchantville, NJ: Evolution Publishing. ISBN 1889758868
  • Maxwell-Stuart, P. G. Chronicle of the Popes: The Reign-by-Reign Record of the Papacy from St. Peter to the Present. New York, NY: Thames and Hudson, 1997. ISBN 0500017980.
  • Walsh, Michael J. An Illustrated History of the Popes: Saint Peter to John Paul II. Bonanza Books, 1980. ISBN 9780312408176

External links

All links retrieved November 18, 2022.


New World Encyclopedia writers and editors rewrote and completed the Wikipedia article in accordance with New World Encyclopedia standards. This article abides by terms of the Creative Commons CC-by-sa 3.0 License (CC-by-sa), which may be used and disseminated with proper attribution. Credit is due under the terms of this license that can reference both the New World Encyclopedia contributors and the selfless volunteer contributors of the Wikimedia Foundation. To cite this article click here for a list of acceptable citing formats.The history of earlier contributions by wikipedians is accessible to researchers here:

The history of this article since it was imported to New World Encyclopedia:

Note: Some restrictions may apply to use of individual images which are separately licensed.