John W. OMalleyApril 08, 2000

Everyone has been trying to see the big picture. We’ve been bombarded with a certain type of question. Who is the man or woman of the centurybetter, of the millennium? What are the happenings in the past thousand years that most changed the course of history and that explain how, for better or worse, we’ve ended up where we are? And perhaps the most tantalizing of allhow are we different from those who went before us? Even Catholics know that, though they profess the same faith and receive the same sacraments as Christians did a thousand years ago, they are to some extent different. Then comes the final and perhaps most unsettling questionhow different?

As a church historian I am on some days struck by the amazing continuity in faith and practice that has marked Catholicism through the ages. On other days I am so struck by the discontinuity, by the radical changes that have taken place, that I find it difficult to identify with the Catholic pastor, in other cases, difficult to identify with the Catholic present. Probably, like yourselves, I could come up with dozens of changes in how Christians live, believe and pray today that make us different from those of earlier times. There are certain obvious things: We worship in the vernacular, not Latin; we worship in a parish church, not in a manor chapel or in the oratory of our confraternity; we accept the Immaculate Conception and Assumption of Mary as defined dogmas of our faith; the Lenten fast, so central to Christian practice in bygone ages, has for all practical purposes disappeared; women are no longer expected to come to church with their heads covered.

We could probably go on and on, aware all the time that some differences are far more significant than others. What if you were asked, however, to single out from this long list the most important change of all"the change of the millennium"? I don’t know about you, but for me there is no contest. I would without hesitation name what I have come to call the papalization of Catholicism.

I coined that neologism because its very crudity shocks me to attention and because it expresses so directly the reality in question. At the beginning of the last millenniumindeed, as late as Luther’s posting of the Ninety-Five Thesesrelatively few Christians knew that the papacy existed, and surely only a minuscule percentage believed it had anything to do with the way they lived their lives. If the papacy figured at all in the way they conceived of themselves, it figured peripherally. Even for bishops and princes it was at best a remote institution, a possible court of appeal if things got rough at home. At worst it was a political rival and an expropriator of financial resources.

For the vast, vast majority of Christians, however, the papacy, if they ever heard it mentioned, meant about as much to them as names like Scotus and Ockham mean to Catholics today. But how and from whom would they ever have heard of it? Not from sermons. True, sermons on the feast of Saints Peter and Paul might in passing say a word about "the vicar of Peter," but even that would be exceptional indeed. At the beginning of the millennium, in any case, there were no sermons to be heard, and even 500 years later the record, though much improved, was spotty. This was especially true in the countryside, which is where most people lived.

During the Middle Ages catechetical instruction consisted in learning the Creed, basic prayers, and the Ten Commandments or seven capital sins, along perhaps with the Beatitudes and works of mercy. The best indication of how that content was conveyed comes from early printed catechisms, which presumably codified early teaching. The papacy is not mentioned. The obvious occasion for doing so would be in connection with the article of the Creed, "I believe in the holy, catholic church." Yet in answer to the question, "What is the church?" the catechisms stated simply, "The congregation of Christian faithful, governed and illumined by God our Lord." Nothing more. Perhaps we should not be surprisedthe papacy is barely mentioned by St. Thomas in all his Summa Theologiae.

To be a Catholic today, however, as most Catholics and surely everybody else would say, is "to believe in the pope." Rare are the practicing Catholics anywhere in the world who do not know that John Paul II is the name of the current pontiff. More important, Catholics know that John Paul II "runs the church." That means, among other things, that he appoints their bishop, who is, most seem to believe, "his representative." The bishop in turn appoints their pastor. Catholics (as well as interested outsiders) know that a clear line of authority runs downward from the unquestioned C.E.O. of the church all the way to their local parish. Every rectory, we can safely presume, somewhere prominently displays a portrait of the reigning pontiff. In the sanctuary of many churches hangs the papal flag.

Catholics also know they are supposed to "obey the pope’s teaching," not just on ethereal subjects of yesteryear like repudiating Marxism but on things as absolutely immediate to them as their sexual relations with their spouses. For many Catholics to say that "the church forbids this or that" is the equivalent of saying that the pope forbids it. In their publications theologians know that, quite unlike the situation in St. Thomas’s day, it is as important to quote writings of the current pontiff as it is to quote Scripture.

How did such a profound revolution in consciousness and practice come about? How did an institution move from the outskirts of awareness, at best, to the defining center? How did Mt. 16:16"Thou art Peter"become the canon within the canon for Roman Catholics and become emblematic of their very identity?

Or, really, was it not always thus? Was not the papacy always as important to Catholics as it is today? I fear that the way most of us learned the history of the church and even "Western Civ" would lead us to believe that the papacy had from the beginning, or at least from the Investiture Controversy 1,000 years ago, been the determining factor in Catholic life. This is the impression left, unwittingly in many cases, by much of what we read and hear about the history of Christianity. The impression is caused in part by the almost ineradicable habit of teaching church history and Western Civ from the top downward. It is easier to teach it that way, rather than fussing with the often diffuse histories of "ordinary Christians." It is also important in history courses to give the top its due. We could hardly understand our present religious situation, for instance, if we did not study Luther and the popes who opposed him. Yet the top-down reading misleads us into thinking that just about everybody was as concerned about the popes as Luther was.

The situation is also caused in part by taking our own issues or situations as our starting point in ways that almost inevitably makes us distort the past. For the past 50 years, especially for the past 20 years, to speak of Catholicism has been to speak of the popeor at least it has not been possible to speak of Catholicism at any length without at some point speaking about the pope. Thus interest in the papacy is at an all time high. The number of biographies of Pope John Paul II is beyond all counting. Since 1997 four major histories of the papacy have appeared in English, beginning with Eamon Duffy’s highly successful Saints and Sinners. In these books some popes are obviously presented as more important than others, but the general impression left on the reader is that through the ages all eyes were fixed on these leaders of Christendom.

This impression tricks us into committing the fallacy of misplaced emphasis, the easiest and most pernicious fallacy for the historian to commitwhat the historian says is true, but by failing to indicate its place in a larger context he or she implicitly distorts its significance. Even during the height of the Investiture Controversy, for instance, when the emperor’s and the pope’s men under arms were hacking away at each other, 95 percent of Europe’s Christians did not know anything was amiss. But our history books leave us with the impression it was front-page news, though we at another level are quite aware that in the 11th century no front pages existed.

Three factors coalesce, I believe, to account for the present situation. The first is the one I just describedthe way our history has been written and the way we are predisposed to interpret it. The second is the one I suggested by mentioning front pagesthe increasing speed of communication beginning with the invention of printing in the 15th century and continuing to the development of electronic communication of all kinds, including the humble telephone. Today it is possible to keep track of almost every breath drawn by every world leader, including the pope. It is possible, conversely, for those leaders to keep track of almost every breath we draw. This is new in the history of the world. This is new in the history of the church.

The third factor is the way the papacy itself changed over the millennia. There is no need to insist with this readership that from the earliest centuries the bishop of Rome held a position of special respect and claimed, sometimes effectively, unique prerogatives. Yet in the first millennium popes did not "run the church," nor did they claim to. They defined no doctrines, they wrote no encyclicals, they called no bishops ad limina. They did not convoke ecumenical councils, and they did not preside at them. In fact their roles in the first eight councils were generally insignificant. In the early Middle Ages (and well beyond) the popes’ principal duty, many believed, was to guard the tombs of the Apostles and officiate at the solemn liturgies at the great basilicas. In that period, although some of the popes of course had a broad vision of their responsibilities and dealt about weighty matters with the leaders of society, for the most part they behaved as essentially local figures, intent on local issues.

Without doubt the decisive turn that has led to our present situation was taken with the Investiture Controversy, that is, the Gregorian reform of the 11th century, at the beginning of the millennium just ended. The Gregorian reformers, relying on both genuine and forged canonical sources, advanced claims for papal authority that were a curious mix of old prerogatives and startlingly new demands for submission by both secular and ecclesiastical leaders to papal decisions. The pope’s right to depose emperors was among the new claims. The ancient canonical axiom that the pope was to be judged by no one unless he should be found to deviate from the faith was shortened to simply "The pope is judged by no one."

The Gregorians set a powerful ideological machine in motion. While even for them the pope was still only "the vicar of Peter," a little over a century later Pope Innocent III designated himself "the vicar of Christ." The title stuck, and is today much better known than the more venerable "servant of the servants of God." As the monarchies of England and France emerged from an amorphous feudalism, the papacy developed a similarly monarchical structure and self-definition. During their residency in Avignon in the 14th century, the popes even led the way in the creation of effective bureaucracy.

The next great change came with the Reformation. The Protestants’ utter rejection of the papacy thrust it into a new prominence in Catholic consciousness. Catholics, identified by their enemies as papists, began to glory in the insult. By the middle of the 16th century Catholic catechisms had added to the traditional definition of the church the significant qualification "under the governance of Peter and his successors, the vicar of Christ." A momentous shift in self-understanding was taking place.

There were ironies. Although every Protestant church and sect utterly repudiated the papacy and wanted to obliterate the office, the Council of Trent was unable in its 18-year history directly to address the issue. The precise nature and extent of papal authority was too contentious an issue even among Catholics for the council to venture a statement. The council fathers went home, but the popes remained at their post. More ironiesnot only had the Reformation actually strengthened the papacy in those parts of Europe that remained Catholic, but by saying nothing the Council of Trent had done the same.

Nonetheless, in important areas of Catholic life the papacy neither had nor claimed any interest. The great missionary ventures remained under the direction of the religious orders and of the kings of Spain, Portugal and France. The establishment by the popes in 1622 of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith did not for a long time substantially change that situation. The universities the Jesuits established around the globe were responsible only to themselves and to their superior general.

The Enlightenment, the French Revolution and early 19th-century liberals dealt heavy blows to the papacy, but again an enemy, the Risorgimento, infused new life into it. When in 1870 Garibaldi’s troops entered Rome, Pius IX dramatized the event by enclosing himself within the Vatican sector of the city. Catholics throughout the world, aware through telegraph (transatlantic cable, 1866) and thence through newspapers that the pope was now "the prisoner of the Vatican," poured out their sympathy for him. They knew the pope’s name, and they might even have seen a photograph of him. The cult of a papal personality began to take shape for the first time. Pius IX drew more attention to himself and boldly advanced the claims of his office through the first papal definition of dogma, the Immaculate Conception, and by being the pope under whom the dogma of papal infallibility was defined.

Popes had meanwhile begun to issue encyclicals. That is to say, they no longer were merely the judges in cases of contested doctrine; they had themselves become teachers. By the middle of the 19th century publishing encyclicals had become part of the papal job description. So had the appointment of bishops. In the 11th century the popes of the Gregorian reform campaigned vigorously for "canonical election" of bishops, that is, campaigned for bishops to be elected by their clergy and not simply appointed by the local magnate or king. By the end of the 20th century the few remaining vestiges of the tradition of election had been wiped out. The pope chooses bishopsno votes, please.

Meanwhile, in 1929 the doors of the Vatican prison had swung open by virtue of the agreements between the papacy and the Italian government. Movie cameras were admitted into Saint Peter’s and into the Apostolic Palace, and millions upon millions of people throughout the world could see Pius XI, Pius XII and John XXIII bestow their blessings. The popes, no longer prisoners, began to travel. Jets made it easy. Popemobiles did the same.

And the rest, as they say, is history. What most fascinates me, however, is not how much the papacy changed in the course of the past millennium but how much its changes have changed us. The papacy isn’t what it used to be. But, largely for that reason, neither are we.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
14 years 2 months ago
The article by John O’Malley, S.J., (4/8) gives rise to the hope that our best kept secret—that the church is an institution that lives in history and has changed—will finally be appreciated. What a blessing a dedicated church historian is.

14 years 2 months ago
The article by John O’Malley, S.J., (4/8) gives rise to the hope that our best kept secret—that the church is an institution that lives in history and has changed—will finally be appreciated. What a blessing a dedicated church historian is.

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