Why I Attempted a History of the Papacy


Mr. Collins is the author of Keepers of the Keys of Heaven: A History of the Papacy (Basic Books, 2009).

The great outpouring of public grief that followed the news of the death of Pope John Paul II in April 2005 showed the remarkable impact he had made on millions of people across the world, partly through his numerous ground breaking journeys, partly through the sympathy felt for his increasing physical frailty in his later years, and partly through the greater accessibility to him provided by a media coverage unlike that available to any of his predecessors.  Many who never met him clearly felt they knew him from the television pictures of his travels, his annual blessings and his appearances in Vatican ceremonies.  Messages and statements, both pastoral and political, were broadcast around the world, and not just read out in parishes, as once would have been the way.  The strength of his personality, his courage and endurance were manifest.  His election in 1978 and subsequent high profile involvement in support for anti-communist resistance in Poland is credited with a key part in the collapse of the Soviet Empire, and contrasts with what has been presented as the tepid and vacillating stances of some of his predecessors in confronting the European dictatorships of the earlier twentieth century.  No pope in history, including his successor, has been as visible and only one has enjoyed a longer pontifical reign. 

This greater visibility of the Pope was matched by that of the Vatican itself.  A sophisticated website now provides immediate access to all the major documents being issued by the various bodies that direct the administration of the Catholic Church.  Clips from Vatican Television are permanently available, and even John Paul II’s death certificate was placed online for all to read.  The Vatican has not ignored other possibilities of modern technology.  Major collections of documents are being rapidly made available online, and others are sold on CD.  As disseminator of information and as a business, the Vatican is showing a very twenty-first century face.

But in the obituaries and the commentaries that accompanied the late Pope’s death and funeral, there were muted hints of criticism, and the Vatican’s attempts to control its own image-making is far from disinterested. While John Paul II transformed the role of the Pope in the world, in a way that any successor will find hard to reverse, he also established a degree of centralized authority and a conservatism in matters of doctrine and discipline that seem to be a throw back to earlier more autocratic styles of papal rule. They have certainly gone a long way to further reduce the liberalizing  tendencies that marked many of the decisions of the Second Vatican Council of 1962-1966. His handling of issues such as birth control and HIV (a topic made controversial again by his successor's remarks at the start of his visit to Africa this very month), clerical celibacy, the admission of women to the clergy, and the abuse of children by pedophile priests all aroused severe criticism, especially in the USA and Europe, and the consequences are being felt in terms of falling church attendance, declining numbers of ordinations and the rising levels of compensation payments being made to victims of sexual abuse by members of the clergy.  These issues and the effects of the way they have been handled still confront Benedict XVI, though the apologies he issued on the issue of abuse during his visits to the USA and Australia in 2008 marked a welcome change in the nature of the Vatican's reactions.

The roots of these and the other controversial features of John Paul II's pontificate are embedded in the history of the institution over which he presided.  The Papacy was the driving force in establishing clerical celibacy around a thousand years ago, in defiance of both previous practice in the Church and the tradition of married priests that continues to be the norm in the Orthodox confession. John Paul’s exalted view of papal authority is inherited from a line of articulate predecessors extending back to at least the second century; many of whom would have expressed it in language even more autocratic than his. Even from these examples, it can be seen that to understand the positions the church has taken on social issues it is necessary to know something of the history of this extraordinary institution and of the men who have shaped it.

To see why the Papacy claims its unique authority, we have to understand its history, as this is at the heart of how successive popes have seen their powers and responsibilities.  Few other institutions have lasted as long, and are as historically minded as the Papacy.  The choice of John Paul II’s successor was made on the basis of an electoral system established in 1179, and by men whose offices can be traced back even earlier. To look at any of the recent documents on the Vatican website, such as those relating to the role of women, homosexuality or relations with other churches, is to see that the rules they lay down are buttressed by quotations from Scripture and from the decrees of earlier Popes from as long ago as the fourth and fifth centuries.  While the Vatican may take advantage of the technology of the modern world, it does so in defense of what it believes to be immutable truths received and passed on unchanging from Antiquity, the Middle Ages and the Counter Reformation. 

The history of the institution and its leading personalities, cardinals as well as popes, is at the heart of any explanation of where it is now and how it got there.  That history has sometimes been misinterpreted or manipulated, and its reality is far more complex and uncertain than some papal theorists and Vatican theologians would imply.  For several centuries forged documents that were accepted as authentic supported the Papacy’s claim to and exercise of a political power greater than that of most secular rulers.  Protection of its extensive territories, lost only as recently as 1870, was a major factor in its decision-making for over a thousand years, and the cause of frequent wars and much bloodshed.  These and other features seemingly forgotten in its past have helped make the Papacy as we now know it. If the nature of papal authority is going to be reassessed in the twenty first century, it has to be on the strengths or weaknesses of the historical basis of its own claims to "a plenitude of power."  Even if a single volume of nearly six hundred pages may be too short a compass to cover the extraordinary and complex two thousand year history of an institution that has played such an important role in world history, and continues to do so, it is at least worth making the attempt.

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