Pope: Holy Father, Supreme Patriach, Leader Beloved and Reviled The
history, present status, and future of the papacy
title, "pope," (papa -- father) was first applied within the Christian church
to the leader of a cluster of local congregations in a specific region. The formal
title for such leaders was "bishop." In churches of the West, the bishop of Rome
gradually emerged as the "first among equals," a leader who exerted increasing
authority over the wider Christian community.
The Papacy Evolves
the second and third centuries (C.E.), the bishop of Rome was referred to with
increasing regularity as "the Pope." This was partly due the Rome's preeminence
as a center of power, but also because both Peter and Paul had been killed in
One sign of the bishop of Rome's increasing authority was his ability
to appoint bishops in other regions. The bishop of Rome was also seen as one who
could hear appeals and resolve disputes among Christians throughout the empire.
This authority was recognized formally in the early councils that might be thought
of as "constitutional" assemblies of Christians from around the world.
Pope's power and authority grow
The history of papal authority in one
of increasing claims to power, and the acceptance of that power by other Christians.
The climax of this history was reached in 1302 C.E. when Pope Boniface VIII issued
a decree, Unam Sanctam , that both spiritual and political authority were
vested by God in the church, thus making the Pope, not only the supreme head of
the church in ecclesiastical affairs, but the supreme political power in the world
In Unam Sanctam Boniface decreed that acceptance of
the authority of the Roman pontiff was a condition of salvation, not just for
Christians, but for all human beings.
In reality, Boniface could not
exert political authority across the entire world or even within the territories
of what was once the mighty Roman Empire. Political power had gradually shifted
away from Rome, and the very notion of a world wide empire centered there was
a thing of the past. With the steady erosion of Rome's political power well underway,
however, a series of Popes continued to insist upon supremacy in the spiritual
realm. In fact, these claims of authority escalated.
The apex of those
claims to theological and spiritual authority was formal approval by a Vatican
Council of the doctrine of papal infallibility in 1870.
as the position of the Pope as the "supreme patriarch" was emerging, and during
those first centuries when Rome was exerting its greatest influence, there were
Christians around the world who did not accept the Pope's authority. Churches
in the East, in centers such as Constantinople, saw their own bishops as having
a position equal to that of the Bishop of Rome. In fact, at various times, Orthodox
Christians asserted rival claims about the universal authority of their own "Pope."
The Protestant Reformation
The Protestant Reformation of
the sixteenth century began as a protest movement within the Catholic Church against
perceived abuses of power by the Popes. Attempts to reform the papacy had emerged
much earlier. In fact, some of the early Catholic reformers even began
referring to the Pope at the "anti-Christ." Such reform movements did not lead
to a major breakup of the Catholic Church until Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five
Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Church in Germany in 1517 C.E. That document
contained an attack on papal abuses, but did not contain a rejection of the authority
of the Pope. Luther wanted to reform the Papacy, rather than eliminate it.
the conflict escalated far beyond what Luther had intended. And eventually there
emerged a series of Protestant Churches, some of which were organized around principles
of government that seemed to be shaped more by the Enlightenment than by Medieval
A Democracy Movement For The People of God?
of the leading Protestant denominations are, essentially, representative democracies,
where power is derived from local communities of faith and individual believers
rather than being exerted from the top down. Other Protestant denominations have
retained the hierarchical structure of the Roman Catholic Church, and have maintained
the office of bishop, but do not have a single, supreme leader with authority
equivalent to that of the pope.
One of the great questions that Christians
will need to address in this century is how best to govern themselves at a time
when the nations are becoming more democratic. Does a top down model of government
with the Pope as Supreme Patriarch reflect God's will for the faithful, or is
the Spirit leading Catholics and non-Catholics alike toward more democratic forms
of government in which every member of the community, lay and clergy alike, has
an equal voice in determining the directions God's church should be taking?
If you want to talk with someone in person, please feel free to call 212-864-5436
The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and
Executive Director of CrossCurrents.
He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here. God and Science (Hypertext Edition,
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion: Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).
Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.