The Pope: History & Timeline

Instructor: Cassie Beyer

Cassie holds a master's degree in history and has spent five years teaching history and the humanities from ancient times to the Renaissance.

Today, the pope is the supreme authority among Catholic Christians. This was not, however, always the case. Learn how the popes rose to power and fell again.

Origins: The Bishop of Rome

You have probably heard of Pope Francis. He oversees the spiritual needs of all one billion Catholics in the world and was elected in 2013 by a council of cardinals, who are high ranking bishops. Today, the pope is recognized throughout the world as the supreme spiritual authority in the Catholic Christian Church. In previous centuries, the popes were so powerful even kings and emperors thought twice about crossing them. However, did you know that there was a span of many centuries where very few Catholics cared what the pope said or even who he was?

Pope Francis, current pope and leader of the Catholic Church
Pope Francis

The term pope is derived from the Latin word papa, meaning 'father.' In the early centuries of Christianity, it was commonly used by many Christian bishops, who are high ranking priests who administer urban areas and surrounding territories. Eventually, however, the term 'pope' became associated with only one bishop, the bishop of Rome, and his authority came to cover all Catholics, not just those in Rome. Here, we will only use the term 'pope' to refer to the bishop of Rome.

Some facts about early bishops of Rome:

  • The Catholic Church considers St. Peter, one of Jesus's followers, to be the first bishop of Rome and, thus, the first pope.
  • St. Peter was crucified upside down so he would not die in the same manner of Jesus, who was crucified standing up. Today, an upside down cross is one of the symbols of the papacy.
  • Because Christians refused to worship the pagan gods of Rome, they were often executed for treason until the 4th century when Christianity became legalized. For this reason, many early popes were executed. They became known as martyrs, people who die for the faith.
  • Because Rome was the largest city in Europe, the bishop of Rome has always been a very powerful bishop.

Painting depicting St. Peter being crucified upside down.
Caravaggio painting depicting the crucifixion of St. Peter

The Pope Claims Authority Over All Bishops

Starting in the 5th century, the powerful bishop of Rome (i.e. the pope) starting putting forth the Petrine Doctrine, which stated that Jesus wished St. Peter - and therefore, all bishops of Rome after him - to head the entire Church.

At this time, the Roman Empire had collapsed in Western Europe, and there was not a lot of long distance communication. Not only did few people take notice of the doctrine, but it was practically impossible to enforce anyway.

Who Appoints Bishops? Kings Vs. Popes

As Europe became more organized, the pope became more and more influential, and the Petrine Doctrine was put to practical use. Now the pope was truly seen as the spiritual authority over all Catholics, not just those in Rome.

He was so powerful that, by the 11th century, there was considerable struggle between kings and popes over ultimate authority. One of the biggest issues was the Investiture Controversy. This concerned who would appoint local bishops. The problem is when a bishop was appointed, he gained land within a king's territory, so that brought up the question of who - the king or the pope - should get to choose who would be a bishop.

The most well-known conflict on the matter happened between Emperor Henry IV of the Holy Roman Empire and Pope Gregory VII. Gregory excommunicated Henry, meaning Henry could not partake of Church rituals. Fearing for his soul, Henry begged for forgiveness, and Gregory gave it. Henry then immediately began attempting to overthrow the pope, and Gregory did similarly in response.

The Pope Declares Supreme Authority Over All

By the early 14th century, the Church was at the height of its power. In 1302, Pope Boniface VIII issued Unam Sanctum, which declared submission to the pope was vital for salvation. It also stated spiritual authority was more powerful than secular authority, thus claiming supreme authority over even kings.

King Philip IV of France, with whom Boniface had already been feuding, responded with a variety of criminal and immoral accusations against the pope, and many bishops sided with him. The pope was captured, beaten, and died shortly afterward, and no pope attempted to put forth a claim similar to Unam Sanctum again.

Breaking Up the Catholic Church

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