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The Pope: Holy Father, Supreme Patriach, Leader Beloved and Reviled
The history, present status, and future of the papacy

The informal 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

During 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 Rome.

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.

The 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 as well.

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.

For more on the doctrine of papal infallibility

Even 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.

But 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 Christianity.

A Democracy Movement For The People of God?

Some 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?

What are the prospects for a democracy movement in the church?

Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.

For further information about Charles Henderson.