How Did The Priesthood Arise?


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    The theologian may indulge in the pleasing task of describing Religion as she descended from Heaven, arrayed in her native purity. A more melancholy duty is imposed on the historian. He must discover the inevitable mixture of error and corruption which she contracted in a long residence upon earth, among a weak and degenerate race of beings.
    Edward Gibbon (1737-1794), The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire


    The origins of the Church hierarchy are not what most Christians might imagine. Here we shall see how the Church hierarchy originated, how and why it developed as it did, and how well its record matches its claims.



    Ecclesiastical Ranks and Titles

    Archbishop: A Christian ecclesiastic of a rank superior to that attained by Christ.
    H. L. Mencken (1880-1956)

    Over the centuries the Christian Churches have developed an elaborate hierarchy of priestly ranks. The following is a summary of some of the main ones.

    Deacons At the lower end of the modern hierarchy are deacons. They are mentioned both in the New Testament and in other early writings. Deaconesses are also mentioned and there is no reason to doubt that in the early Church they were exact counterparts of deacons. It is also notable that appointment as a deacon was apparently for life rather than a probationary stepping stone to higher office. The original duties of a deacon seem to have been the collection and distribution of alms.

    Priests The New Testament does not mention priests except in the sense that all believers are priests*; and believers were regarded as priests only in the sense that all Jews had been regarded as priests in the Old Testament (Exodus 19:6). Nowhere in the New Testament is the ministry of Jesus" followers described as a priesthood. Neither is any follower referred to as a priest, except in the general sense that all followers were priests.

    Some followers are referred to as presbyters. The Greek word presbyter means elder, and references in the New Testament to presbyters are not to priests but to community elders. Nevertheless, the early Church soon changed its presbyters into priests, borrowing much of the significance from pagan religions where priests were holy men who enjoyed a special relationship with God and made sacrifices to him. A priesthood was thus created without any biblical justification, a fact that may have contributed to the priesthood's reluctance to allow people to read the Bible. When people did read the Bible for themselves and failed to find the word sacerdos (priest), only presbyter (elder), the result was widespread anger. Indeed, the lack of biblical justification for a priesthood was one of the main complaints of Church dissidents and reformers, and it is for this reason that Presbyterian sects have rejected a priesthood in favour of lay leaders called elders. Other Churches suspicious of an official priesthood call their officers ministers or pastors.

    The Roman Church holds that presbyters developed into priests in the early Church with divine approval, and therefore retains them. Anglicans hover between the two extremes — high church priests and low church ministers. Many Anglican priests are more usually referred to by their specific role: rectors ("rulers") or vicars. A vicar is a rector's or a priest's deputy (vicarius sacerdos).

    Bishops. Bishops are mentioned in the New Testament, but their functions and status bear little similarity to those of modern bishops. The word bishop is derived from the Greek word episkopos, which can be translated literally as overseer or supervisor. In the Septuagint the word is used for minor taskmasters and petty officials. In the Authorised Version of the New Testament the word bishop is used to translate both episkopos and presbyter, but in most modern translations episkopos is generally rendered as overseer, and presbyter as elder. Modern translations are strictly more accurate, but the practice of Authorised Version translators is justifiable, since the two Greek words are both used for holders of the same office. Thus for example the same people are sometimes referred to by both titles*. In other words there was no separate rank of bishop in the modern sense. Bishop was simply an alternative name for a presbyter. This explains why early writings refer to a twofold arrangement of deacons and bishops* and why the epistle to the Philippians is addressed only to deacons and bishops. It also explains why the Roman Church technically recognises only two Holy Orders: deacons are in one, priests and bishops together in the other.

    Metropolitans, Primates and Archbishops The bishop of the metropolis of each imperial province came to be styled metropolitan. These metropolitans came to dominate their fellow bishops as the bishops had dominated their fellow presbyters. By the canons of the Ecumenical Council of Nicæa (325) they were given certain powers of veto.

    The bishop of the primary see in each state came to be styled primate ("first" or "principal"). Outside the Empire the title primate was used much as the title metropolitan was used within it. In England the bishops of Canterbury and York squabbled for centuries over the primacy, and are now both styled Primate. (The Archbishop of York is Primate of England, and the Archbishop of Canterbury Primate of All England.)

    In the fourth and fifth centuries the bishops of important sees such as Alexandria and Antioch came to be considered super-bishops and started being styled archbishops. The custom was adopted by metropolitans and has since been extended to other important bishops.

    Cardinals The title cardinal was originally appliedto any priest permanently attached to a church. Later it was restricted to deacons, priests and local bishops in or near Rome. In practice the title has been used for centuries as a separate rank in the Roman Catholic hierarchy, though cardinals are still properly cardinal deacons, cardinal priests, or cardinal bishops. The observation that "there were no cardinals at Nicæa" has long been popular amongst those critical of the role of cardinals within the Roman Church.

    Popes In early times the title pope was widely used by leading figures in the Church. It is a variation of the Latin word papa, Greek pappas, English pa-pa. Bishops and patriarchs were accorded the title pope by those who stood in a filial relationship to them. Thus for example the African bishops addressed their own primate in Carthage as pope, but called the Bishop of Rome merely bishop. So too, a Patriarch of Alexandria could refer to his predecessor as "our blessed pope" in the third century*. There is no record of a bishop of Rome being accorded the title before the late fourth century , and it was not until the time of Leo the Great (pope 440-461) that the title started to be used by the Western Church specifically of the Bishop of Rome. In fact it was not claimed exclusively by the Bishop of Rome until 1073, and the Orthodox Church has never accepted this claim.

    Patriarchs The first centre of Christianity was Jerusalem. Jerusalem remained the natural centre until the Ebionites were expelled along with other Jews after the uprising in AD 135. Lacking a single focus, Christians from Egypt and Libya looked to Alexandria, those in Asia Minor (modern Turkey) to Antioch, and those in southern Italy to Rome. In the fourth century the heads of the churches in Rome, Alexandria and Antioch were all being accorded the honorific title of patriarch, and the Bishop of Constantinople soon joined them. In the fifth century Christian communities had again grown up around Jerusalem, and the Bishop of Jerusalem was also accorded the title*. The title was adopted from the Old Testament* and was universally accepted as the highest honorific available. In the East the Patriarch of Constantinople became first among equals and was accorded the style Ecumenical Patriarch.

    The bishops of Rome, keen to establish themselves as superior to their brother patriarchs, awarded themselves the same title, Ecumenical Patriarch, and later appointed their own patriarchs of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. Founders of religious orders were also called patriarchs.

    Modern patriarchs include the heads of the Russian and other Orthodox Churches, along with the heads of various other Churches that have accumulated over the centuries. The head of the Coptic Church, for example, is styled Patriarch of Alexandria, and the head of the Syrian Church, Patriarch of Antioch. There is also a patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

    The Biblical Hierarchy Nowhere in the gospels, the writings of the apostles, or the early Church Fathers is there a hint of the need for metropolitans, primates, archbishops, cardinals, popes or patriarchs. In the earliest times there were not even bishops or priests, merely people who acted as community elders or overseers. The whole edifice of ecclesiastical ranks and titles is a later development. On the other hand the Bible does explicitly mention a hierarchy of appointments sanctioned by God, with seven ranks. First are apostles, second prophets, third teachers, fourth miracle workers and healers, fifth helpers, sixth administrators, and seventh those who can speak in different tongues (1 Corinthians 12:28). For a generation or two this divinely sanctioned hierarchy seems to have operated well enough*. Why it disappeared is something of a mystery. There is a possibility that it was suppressed by the bishops, keen to promote their own power. In this respect, it is instructive to remember the "heretical" Montanists, who reacted against the increasing organisation of the early Church. Like other Gnostic Christians they challenged the authority of priests and bishops and were exterminated.

    This new hierarchy (of metropolitans, primates and so on) led to new forms of abuse, as powerful men sought ever more powerful positions. Many of the most famous Christian leaders were rich laymen whose offices were not gained by piety, merit, election, or hard work, but by influence and bribery. Rich families routinely bought Church offices: St Augustine, St Jerome, Origen and Eusebius were just a few of the lucky recipients. St Ambrose was consecrated Bishop of Milan a mere eight days after his baptism.

    By the Middle Ages the Church had implemented its own seven-fold hierarchy. Selected boys at the age of around seven started a thirty-year climb up the ladder of Ostiarius (doorkeeper), Exorcist, Lector, Acolyte, Subdeacon, Deacon, and Presbyter (or sacerdos, or priest). In the Western Church these positions were developed into minor orders (Ostiarius, Exorcist, Lector, and Acolyte) and major orders (Subdeacon, Deacon, Priest and Bishop). Some of these differed in the Eastern Churches, and some have now been abandoned. The existence of Exorcists for example became something of an embarrassment. In England, the exorcism of infants when they were baptised was dropped from the second Edwardian Prayer Book, and the minor orders, including the office of Exorcist, disappeared from the Ordinal (the book of instructions for daily services) in 1550. The Roman Church suppressed the offices of Ostiarius and Exorcist in 1972.


    The Acquisition Of Power By Ecclesiastics

    What village parson would not like to be a pope?
    Voltaire (1694-1778), Letters on the English

    There is no suggestion that the earliest elders/overseers went through any sort of ordination or consecration, that they wore special garb, or that they wielded significant power. At some stage leading elders/overseers seem to have monopolised the title bishop, and acquired pre-eminence over their fellows. Initially they were merely first among equals, and for centuries to come they would address other presbyters as "fellow presbyters". Soon St Ignatius of Antioch. (AD c.35-c.107) was claiming that "we ought to regard the bishop as the Lord himself"* and suggesting that bishops preside in the place of God*. The Orthodox Church still holds that a bishop is a living image of God upon Earth*, and a "monarch" in his own diocese*. Other clerics also liked the idea, and adapted it to their needs. According to St Benedict, for example, a monk must obey his abbot as Christ himself.

    Catholics are still encouraged to think of priests as representing Jesus Christ himself

    During the second century it came to be accepted that there should be only one bishop in each city, so avoiding conflicts of authority. As time went by bishops laid claim to more and more authority. Already around the end of the first century St Clement of Rome. had adopted the idea of apostolic succession*. The basic idea had been first developed by Gnostics who listed their teachers, and their teachers" teachers, and their teachers, all the way back to Jesus himself. This idea was developed into the proposition that the first bishops were the apostles (or at least were appointed by the apostles), and that all subsequent bishops were authorised by ones already appointed. Thus it should be possible to trace back a succession of bishops from any modern bishop to at least one of the apostles. Bishops became the spiritual heirs of their predecessors, so only bishops could consecrate new bishops. By the 250s apostles and bishops were being equated, and the chain of succession was being used as an explicit argument for authority and obedience

    In theory, this is true of all Churches that claim to be apostolic, including Eastern, Roman, and Anglican Churches. The authority of bishops is largely justified on this principle, although few bishops in the Western Churches, if any at all, can reliably trace their succession in this way. Nevertheless, the theoretical link to the apostles has allowed bishops to claim apostolic authority. Imperceptibly, there has been a change from a theme of service and humility to one of authority and command. Bishops were soon pointing out that disobedience to them amounted to disobedience to God. To fail to obey a priest or a judge was deserving of death, and bishops were both priests and judges. They quoted the text of Deuteronomy 17:12: "And the man that will do presumptuously, and will not hearken unto the priest that standeth to minister there before the Lord thy God, or unto the judge, even that man shall die: and thou shalt put away the evil from Israel". By the fifth century bishops were important people, expecting others to kiss their hands.

    Abject obedience is still expected in the Catholic Church and reflected in the practice of prostration

    The hierarchy of the Church grew by repeated applications of the principle that the first among equals becomes superior to his fellows. This was how priests had come to be above the common people, and how bishops had come to be placed above priests. It was how metropolitans came to be placed above bishops, and how patriarchs came to be placed above metropolitans. The Patriarch of Constantinople became Ecumenical Patriarch (i.e. universal patriarch) by the same process again. By the beginning of the fourth century it was apparent that ambitious bishops were coveting more powerful bishoprics. By moving to another see they could become a metropolitan or even a patriarch. To put a stop to this, in 325 the Nicene code of canon law forbade bishops moving from one see to another. But the practice continued. Bishops still jockeyed for position, "translating" from one see to a better one. As a council held at Sardica in 341 noted, the practice of translation was a wicked source of corruption: "all are aflame with the fires of greed, and are slaves of ambition". The sale of bishoprics was a scandal within the Church, and would remain so for many hundreds of years.

    From 451 Christianity was the official religion of the emperors. The Roman Empire, transformed into the Byzantine Empire, became a Christian theocracy. The Emperor was the head of the Christian Church, performing priestly and even semi-divine functions. He exercised supreme authority over the Church. He was responsible for all matters theological, including doctrine. From the time of Constantine, emperors possessed the power to call a Church Council. Constantine himself had called and presided over the Council of Nicæa and dictated its decisions. From his reign onwards the Church was effectively a Department of State advising the Emperor on matters spiritual. Noble families who had previously provided priests for the official pagan religions now provided the priests and bishops for the official Christian Church. Family property was transferred to the Church but kept under the control of the family, thus avoiding taxation on it. Generally, the more powerful the family, the greater the Church office conferred.

    The greatest Church officers, the patriarchs, were answerable directly to the Emperor. The Bishop of Rome was one of these patriarchs, and also a duke of the Empire, with control of a duchy and the rights and duties that went with it. When Constantine had moved his capital from Rome to Byzantium in 324 he had set in motion a train of events that resulted in the division of the Empire in 395, and the deposition of the last Western emperor in 476. After this date the Bishop of Rome was left as the most powerful individual in the old capital, and over the coming centuries he arrogated to himself more and more worldly power. The Emperor in Constantinople still nominally governed Rome, but papal claims multiplied. Pope Gregory I, who reigned from 590 to 604, increased and consolidated the Western Church's political power. In 756 the Frankish ruler Pepin III, deceived by a papal forgery, allowed the Pope to set up the first Papal State.

    The next step was to create a new empire, or at least to annex half of an existing one. Since the Emperor in Constantinople was usually crowned by the Ecumenical Patriarch (the Bishop of Constantinople), Pope Leo III hit upon the idea of crowning his own emperor. Thus it was that in St Peter's , on Christmas Eve in AD 800, Leo approached Charlemagne from behind while he was praying and, without Charlemagne expecting it, crowned him as Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. Copying an ancient Roman ceremony, the Pope then prostrated himself in an act of emperor worship. Western Christendom now had its own emperor, sanctified by his own patriarch. The real emperor in Constantinople and his patriarch could only fume impotently. In time popes would make increasingly ambitious claims of temporal power for themselves, notably that God had offered the imperial throne to the papacy, and that the Papal States were inherited from St Peter himself. Popes such as Innocent III claimed to have been given the whole world to rule over by God. Innocent thus considered himself qualified to offer the imperial throne to Otto IV and declared him to be King of the Romans, elected by the grace of God and of the Pope.

    As feudalism developed, it permeated Western Christianity. When a vassal paid homage to his lord, he knelt and put his hands together in front of him. His lord then put his hands around the vassal's as the feudal oath was sworn. This position of the vassal is the position still adopted by modern Christians at prayer, offering their hands for their lord to take between his, as though to renew a feudal bond. Ancient Christians had prayed in a quite different manner, standing and with their arms held out, palms upwards. The modern method dates from the flourishing of the feudal system in the twelfth century. Feudal ideas were so strong that they appeared everywhere. Christians even imagined witches paying feudal homage to Satan.

    Bishops praying the original Christian way and a little girl praying the feudal way

    The papacy occupied a pivotal role in the feudal system as intermediary between Heaven and the material world. Serfs owed allegiance to their local lords, who in turn owed their allegiance to barons. Barons owed their allegiance to the great lords. The great lords owed allegiance to the king (or emperor). Kings and emperors owed their allegiance to the Pope, who in turn held the whole world in fief from God. This system paralleled the Western Church hierarchy: believer, priest, bishop, metropolitan, patriarch and pope. Directly or indirectly, everyone in Western Christendom was therefore subordinate, both spiritually and temporally, to the Pope. In theory the rest of the world was too, and still is; but God omitted to mention this important intelligence to anyone outside the Catholic Church.

    Feudal hierarchies were more of a network than a pair of distinct hierarchies. For example new bishops and abbots paid feudal homage to the king, swearing feudal fealty like any other feudal tenant. Bishops were royal functionaries. They helped kings to govern, they ran chanceries and exchequers; they were politicians and judges, local potentates and tax collectors, diplomats and royal emissaries. In many respects kings were senior churchmen, often having total control over the Church within their realm. On formal occasions kings dressed like senior bishops, and the ceremony of crowning a European monarch was similar to that of consecrating a bishop. Both involved ritual processions to a cathedral church followed by a formal ceremony. The new king or bishop dressed almost identically. In the course of the ceremony there was the same formal confirmation of religious orthodoxy, followed by the anointing with holy oil, modelled on the ancient Jewish practice of anointing messiahs. The monarch or bishop was then invested with a ring and staff, and the ceremony concluded with a kiss of peace and a Mass.

    When the Pope sat at the pinnacle of the feudal pyramid of worldly power, monarchs vied with each other for papal favours. Powerful men applied to the Pope for the title of King , as Alfonso-Henry, Count of Portugal, did when he thought he had earned the right to be King of Portugal. Once they had a crown, kings vied for other honours. Henry VIII of England was famously awarded the title of Defender of the Faith by the Pope, before his problems with the Roman Church. The King of France was styled "His Most Christian Majesty" and the King of Spain was, and still is, "His Catholic Majesty". The courts of worldly rulers were seen as reflections of God's divine court. The heavenly king sat on his throne, wearing a gold crown, dressed in ermine-lined robes, holding a bejewelled sceptre and orb, surrounded by courtiers — and so did earthly kings. By copying each other's trappings God and kings validated each other's rights and each other's hierarchies. Popes were especially fond of stressing how their role paralleled that of God. In some late medieval art God was portrayed like a pope. The Eastern Church used a similar technique: in Byzantine art Christ and emperor are often indistinguishable.

    God was a bigger and better king than any earthly monarch, but he was still a king. Medieval men followed the same conventions in respect to both earthly and heavenly monarchs. In their presence they took off their hats, bowed their heads and knelt. Kings of Heaven and Earth were treated in the same way because, essentially, they were the same. The civil crown and the heavenly crown were almost identical. The divinely appointed earthly hierarchy mirrored the divinely appointed heavenly hierarchy. It must have been difficult for many Christians to distinguish fully between the members of these hierarchies, especially when they were all addressed as Lord: My Lord Earl and My Lord Bishop wielded almost indistinguishable temporal and spiritual swords. They were answerable to My Lord the King and My Lord the Pope, both on behalf of the Lord God.

    Jesus-God wearing a royal crown

    Jesus-God wearing two royal crowns


    When they had first appeared as a separate rank in the early Church, bishops had been freely elected by the Christian community. Once the Church hierarchy was in place, senior members of it started to interfere with these free elections and eventually won the right to appoint bishops themselves. The bishops of Rome for example had been elected by the citizens of Rome until the eighth century. Everywhere the franchise was gradually removed from the common people. By the third Lateran Council, called in 1179, lay influence had been eliminated in Western Christianity, and all power was now invested in the clergy. So it was that the whole ecclesiastical hierarchy became self-appointing, though vestiges of the original rights of free election remain in the East to this day*. With no accountability to its members, the Church potentates pursued for centuries a policy of self-enrichment. Bishoprics were valuable property, and in the tenth century the office of bishop could be left in wills to near relatives, even to female relatives*. Bishops and abbots lived like secular princes. They imposed taxes, sold offices, led armies, dispensed justice, maintained their own prisons, kept concubines, and traded in slaves. On their deaths, their sons often replaced them in the family business. While bishops ranked alongside earls, archbishops ranked alongside dukes. Both archbishops and dukes were, and still are, addressed as Your Grace. At the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520, archbishops and dukes were limitted by the two kings to 20 horses and 50 servants, Bishops and earles were allowed a mere 10 horses and 30 servants.


    The Papacy

    The Papacy is not other than the Ghost of the deceased Roman Empire, sitting crowned upon the grave thereof.
    Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), Leviathan

    The traditional position of the Church is that bishops are called by God, and that they represent him here in the observable world. One might therefore expect that bishops would be, as they have claimed to be, more holy, more wholesome, more moral, more just, and less fallible than those who are not inspired by God. It is not always easy to square these expectations with the historical record. From the third century onwards we find all manner of venality and immoral behaviour. We find bishops leading heresies and schisms, and executing each other. We find every sort of criminal activity from piracy to incest. We find bishops selling Church offices. We find them appointing their sons and other relatives to rich offices. We find them acquiring and misusing power over the secular authorities — their actions frequently driven by political considerations.

    We have already seen how the power play between the patriarchies largely determined the development of Christian orthodoxy. The patriarchs jockeyed for position while fighting off threats from their own flock. Their position was precarious, even up to recent times. As one authority noted of the Bishop of Constantinople (the Ecumenical Patriarch) "Out of 159 patriarchs who have held office between the fifteenth and the twentieth century, the Turks have on 105 occasions driven patriarchs from their throne; there have been 27 abdications, often involuntary; 6 patriarchs have suffered violent deaths by hanging, poisoning, or drowning; and only 21 have died natural deaths while in office" *. Offices were often bought and sold. For many centuries after the Turks took Constantinople, the ecumenical patriarchs bought their Offices from the Sultan * , bishops bought theirs from patriarchs, priests paid their bishops, and the priests raised the money by taxing the laity.

    The position was much the same throughout Christendom at least until the Reformation, but one patriarch excelled his brothers in many respects. The bishops of Rome were over-achievers, needing to match the ecumenical patriarchs in all respects. We have already seen how Pope Leo III created his own emperor, Charlemagne, in Rome to match the real emperor in Constantinople.

    We will look more carefully at the Bishop of Rome, not only because as Pope he is the head of the Roman Church, but also because he is one of the five great patriarchs of the undivided Orthodox Church, and is even recognised by the Anglican Church as a valid bishop. We will, however, concentrate on beliefs held by many Roman Catholic adherents. They are

    • that the Pope is the head of the whole Church.
    • that Popes have always been elected according to fixed rules, in elections assisted by God.
    • that there has been a continuous line of known, canonically appointed popes since St Peter.
    • that popes have been uniformly pious, their records being consistent with God's involvement in their selection.

    Let's look at some of the evidence that historians have claimed to be at odds with these beliefs. Most of the information concerning the records of the popes can be verified in The Oxford Dictionary of Popes by J. N. D. Kelly, which gives a comprehensive list of original sources. Much of the most interesting information comes from records left by authorities such as Bishop Liutprand of Cremona.


    Papal Claims to Pre-eminence

    Early Christian writers agreed that all bishops were equal. But metropolitans and patriarchs soon established themselves as superior to ordinary bishops. Roman patriarchs were particularly adept at advancing their own status, helped along by the fact that their city had been the capital of the Empire. As other bishops took over the role of governors, the bishops of Rome gradually took over the role of the emperors. They made many claims for themselves. They alone, they said, are entitled to be called Pope. They are above their fellow patriarchs. They are God's deputies on Earth. They are superhuman. They must have not merely their hands, but also their toes kissed by ordinary people. They are infallible. They rule the whole Universe. How did all this come about?

    In the earliest years there do not seem to have been any remarkable claims about the position of the Bishop of Rome. Indeed there is no reason to believe that there was a bishop in Rome. The only "bishop" in early times was the leader of Jesus" followers in Jerusalem. Other bishops were invented in the East generations after Jesus" lifetime. The idea that St Peter had been the first Bishop of Rome seems to have been invented around AD 220. Soon tentative efforts were being made by bishops of Rome to establish themselves as special. In the middle of the same century Pope Stephen I developed an ingenious argument to support his claim to pre-eminence. His argument was later developed by other popes, and is now enshrined in canon law*. It may be summarised as follows :

    • The apostle Peter had enjoyed pre-eminence among the apostles.
    • Peter had been Bishop of Rome.
    • Subsequent bishops of Rome were successors to Peter and so enjoyed the same pre-eminence that he had.

    Prelude To Dogmatic Papal Infallibility from Qui pluribus,
    On Faith And Religion, Encyclical of Pope Pius IX, November 9, 1846.
    Although it is not immediate obvious, this text summarises the three-part argument justifying the Papal claims to supremacy and infallibility.

    God Himself has set up a living authority to establish and teach the true and legitimate meaning of His heavenly revelation. This authority judges infallibly all disputes which concern matters of faith and morals, lest the faithful be swirled around by every wind of doctrine which springs from the evilness of men in encompassing error. And this living infallible authority is active only in that Church which was built by Christ the Lord upon Peter, the head of the entire Church, leader and shepherd, whose faith He promised would never fail. This Church has had an unbroken line of succession from Peter himself; these legitimate pontiffs are the heirs and defenders of the same teaching, rank, office and power. And the Church is where Peter is, and Peter speaks in the Roman Pontiff, living at all times in his successors and making judgment, providing the truth of the faith to those who seek it. The divine words therefore mean what this Roman See of the most blessed Peter holds and has held.

    All three of the elements of this argument are questionable. First, the proposition that the apostle Peter had enjoyed pre-eminence among the apostles. The most common view in early times in the Pauline faction of the Church was that all the apostles shared power equally. In the wider Church if any one had enjoyed pre-eminence it was undoubtedly Jesus" brother James, who headed the Christian community at Jerusalem, the centre of Christianity. The earliest Church historians refer to the throne of the see at Jerusalem but to no other bishop's throne. It is clear enough that Peter had no special legislative power* and that if anything Peter felt himself subordinate to James. Despite the evidence Stephen found support for his claims in the Matthew gospel, where Jesus addresses Peter:

    And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. Matthew 16:18

    The passage relies heavily upon a pun that works in both Aramaic and Greek (and other languages) in which the name Peter is the same as the word for a rock: Aramaic Cephas, Greek Petros. Many of the earliest Church Fathers had considered this passage, but none had interpreted it as Stephen did. The next verse of the Matthew gospel was also taken as supporting papal aspirations:

    And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whosoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven Matthew 16:19

    The "power of the keys" was interpreted as disciplinary power and was enjoyed by all bishops in the early church, and the power to bind and loose was not peculiar to Peter either. Jesus granted it to the disciples generally in Matthew 18:18. Roman Catholic apologists have cited Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, as affirming that Jesus had set up a single bishopric (unam cathedram) and had given the primacy to Peter, who enjoyed jurisdiction over the other apostles. But these details are found only in the papal version of the text in question. In the received text these statements are not made. On the other hand the received text states that all of the apostles enjoyed the same authority*. It is not known how the papal version came into being, but it may be significant that the idea that the Bishop of Rome enjoyed any special power was a product of forged documents such as the Capitularies of Benedict the Levite, included in the Pseudo-Isidorian Decretals.

    Second, the proposition that Peter had been Bishop of Rome. It is not at all certain that the apostles regarded themselves as belonging to any Christian Church. If they did, there is no reason to suppose that they took charge of particular parts of it. Early Christians seem to have thought that the apostles had belonged to the whole Church. As far as is known, no one thought of them as belonging to geographic regions as bishops were later to do. The identification of apostles with specific places seems to have developed over the first few centuries. (Although James had been based in Jerusalem, his authority extended over the whole Christian community, worldwide.) Ironically, one of the earliest geographical identifications was that St Peter had been the head of the Christian community in Antioch, and he was thus referred to as the first Bishop of Antioch*. There is not even a hint in the New Testament that Peter was Bishop of Rome. Neither is there any contemporary evidence that he was, or that he took charge of the Christian community there. Indeed Peter seems to have spent only a short time in Rome*. His name does not appear amongst those addressed in St Paul's letter to the Christian community there: St Paul sends greetings to many individuals in Rome (Romans 16:1-16), but nowhere mentions Peter. Worse, there is an early record that the first Bishop of Rome was called Linus. His name appeared first on the earliest lists of bishops of Rome, and also in 2 Timothy 4:21, where final greetings are sent to Christian notables in Rome. Again Peter's name did not appear at all. Irenaeus of Lyons, writing before the year 200, confirms Linus as the first Bishop of Rome, and so did a solemn decree (an Apostolic Constitution) issued in 270. Only later did the convention arise of describing Peter as a bishop of Rome.

    Third, the proposition that subsequent bishops of Rome were successors to Peter and so enjoyed the same pre-eminence that he had. Even if Peter had been granted some special position by the words reported in Matthew 18, it is still far from clear that they can be applied to anyone else. The passage in question is addressed specifically to Peter. Stephen's argument depends on an extension of the principle of apostolic succession. By virtue of being Bishop of Rome he claimed to inherit St Peter's power. But there is no suggestion in the gospels, or anywhere else, that such power could be inherited. The principle of apostolic succession is no use in itself, for this principle shows only that bishops are successors to the apostles generally. Not one of the great Fathers of the Church recognised any special mode of succession for the bishops of Rome. None refers to them as Peter's successors. There is no suggestion of any special office, or of any inheritance, or of any bishop being identified as a rock like Peter*.

    Those who conceded that Rome has special rights did so specifically on the grounds that it was the centre of the Empire (which it was until Constantine moved his capital to Byzantium in 324). The claim to special pre-eminence by virtue of a link with Peter had not occurred to earlier bishops of Rome, even when they needed it to bolster their claims. For example, towards the end of the second century, a bishop of Rome (Victor) purported to excommunicate some fellow Christians in Asia for failing to follow his own innovations concerning the date of Easter. He was "sternly rebuked" by other bishops in the West and was obliged to stop*.

    Many years were to pass before Stephen developed his argument and asserted his unique authority. His claim carried spectacularly little weight when it was first used. Stephen was trying to establish his authority over Cyprian, the Bishop of Carthage. But Cyprian would have none of it and affirmed the orthodox view (still held by the Orthodox Church) that all bishops were equal*. Stephen backed off when another patriarch, Dionysius the Bishop of Alexandria, intervened. It was to be many years before Stephen's claim swayed an argument even within Western Christianity. Constant repetition, the dimming of memories, constructive forgery, and a respectable patina of time seems to have lent authority to it. The Eastern Church has held the same position ever since the claims were first made: it rejects them absolutely. None of the Greek Fathers of the Church mentions, or even suggests, that they considered themselves subject to the Bishop of Rome. No one at all in the whole of the early Church appealed to Rome as final arbiter to settle disputes concerning matters of faith. Indeed parts even of the Western Church rejected the views of the bishops of Rome, as the African Church had done when Stephen had tried to settle Cyprian's baptismal problem*. Of the scores of controversies in the first six centuries of the Christian Church, not a single one was settled by reference to the Bishop of Rome.

    It is clear that in early times Rome did not enjoy supremacy over the other patriarchies. Even after the fall of Jerusalem, Rome was no more important than Antioch or Alexandria although, as the capital of the Empire, its name was usually listed first. These great centres did not lay claim to dictate doctrine. Ecumenical councils settled doctrine, and these councils were not called by the bishops of Rome. In fact the bishops of Rome did not even attend many of them, including the most important, the Ecumenical Council of Nicæa in 325. At this council just two presbyters represented the Bishop of Rome. At the next ecumenical council, there were no bishops from Western Christendom present at all*.

    Eastern bishops always regarded the bishops of Rome as analogous to other patriarchs, and they continued to do so, being successively bemused and outraged by Rome's increasing claims, and the forgeries that were produced to support them. Over the centuries the Roman Church manufactured a large number of forgeries. Even the decisions of the Council of Nicæa were tampered with. For example the sixth canon confirmed that the bishops of Alexandria enjoyed authority similar to that of the bishops of Rome and Antioch. Clerks in the papal chancery added the words "The Roman Church has always had the primacy". The faithful in the West believed it, having no way of spotting the imposture, but the Eastern Churches knew better because they had original documents. In time the fraudulent version would be cited at Chalcedon, though it fooled no one, and failed to stop Constantinople being established as the court of appeal from provincial synods*.

    The claims of Rome continued to multiply. In 343 the synod at Sardica (modern Sofia) had laid down that appeals should be referred to the See of Rome. This convention was set out in the Sardican canons. As papal claims grew, it became expedient to claim this role for Rome not only within Western Christianity, but also throughout the whole Church. In the Roman chancery the Sardican canons were appended to those of the Ecumenical Council of Nicæa, so giving them spurious universal authority. Bishops of Rome then made claim on the strength of them. Zosimus for example tried to impose his rule in Africa on the basis of them, but the Africans obtained a true copy of the Nicæan canons from the East and revealed the imposture.

    As the centuries rolled by, the bishops of Rome made grander and grander claims about their rights and abilities. Around 378, Damasus I held a synod that declared he should not be compelled to appear in court. It was Damasus also who started to refer to his fellow bishops as sons rather than as brothers. Soon, bishop Siricius was self-titling himself "Pope" and claiming the status of imperial decrees for his edicts. In the fifth century Pope Boniface I made the claim that "it has never been lawful for what has once been decided by the apostolic see to be reconsidered".

    Further papal claims were bolstered by more forged documents. One such was produced by Pope Symmachus, who reigned between 498 and 514. He was charged by the Emperor with celebrating Easter at the wrong time, fornication, and the misuse of Church property. Symmachus's response was to produce what are now called the Symmachan Forgeries. This set of documents purported to demonstrate that a pope cannot be judged by mere human beings, no matter what he might have done. For centuries, popes would produce this work of fiction to prove that they were above human justice, sometimes with success. In 664, the argument about the Bishop of Rome being the successor of St Peter scored a major success. Roman representatives at the Council of Whitby convinced members of the Celtic Church that the Bishop of Rome was the successor to St Peter. Since he held the keys to the gates of Heaven, the Celtic Church abandoned its independence and, in effect, joined the Roman Church.

    Ever-increasing claims created friction with the other patriarchs. A particular problem was the title of Ecumenical Patriarch accorded to the Bishop of Constantinople. In the sixth century Pope Gregory I had warned his fellow patriarch about using such a proud and sinful title, but without effect. Within a century bishops of Rome were using the title for themselves. By 680, in the reign of Pope Agatho, the Easter synod was confident enough to assert for the first time that Rome enjoyed not merely primacy in the whole Church but supremacy over it. The identification of the Pope with St Peter continued. When in 710 the Pope ordered that the Archbishop of Ravenna be blinded, the verdict was presented as coming from St Peter himself.

    St Peter or not, the Pope was still a duke of the Empire. His duchy still belonged to the Emperor, and he still paid taxes accordingly. But by the first half of the eighth century popes felt powerful enough to stop paying. Now they were independent and able to exercise power on their own authority. Their new claims to additional power were supported by more forged documents. The most famous of these was the Donation of Constantine. This was a document, supposedly dating from 30 th March 315, that purported to confer on the reigning pope, and his successors, primacy over the patriarchs as well as temporal dominion over the West, along with the imperial insignia. The Cathic encyclopedia gives a fair summary of it:

    (Latin, Donatio Constantini).
    By this name is understood, since the end of the Middle Ages, a forged document of Emperor Constantine the Great, by which large privileges and rich possessions were conferred on the pope and the Roman Church. In the oldest known (ninth century) manuscript (Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, manuscript Latin 2777) and in many other manuscripts the document bears the title: "Constitutum domini Constantini imperatoris". It is addressed by Constantine to Pope Sylvester I (314-35) and consists of two parts. In the first (entitled "Confessio") the emperor relates how he was instructed in the Christian Faith by Sylvester, makes a full profession of faith, and tells of his baptism in Rome by that pope, and how he was thereby cured of leprosy. In the second part (the "Donatio") Constantine is made to confer on Sylvester and his successors the following privileges and possessions: the pope, as successor of St. Peter, has the primacy over the four Patriarchs of Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople, and Jerusalem, also over all the bishops in the world. The Lateran basilica at Rome, built by Constantine, shall surpass all churches as their head, similarly the churches of St. Peter and St. Paul shall be endowed with rich possessions. The chief Roman ecclesiastics (clerici cardinales), among whom senators may also be received, shall obtain the same honours and distinctions as the senators. Like the emperor the Roman Church shall have as functionaries cubicularii, ostiarii, and excubitores. The pope shall enjoy the same honorary rights as the emperor, among them the right to wear an imperial crown, a purple cloak and tunic, and in general all imperial insignia or signs of distinction; but as Sylvester refused to put on his head a golden crown, the emperor invested him with the high white cap (phrygium). Constantine, the document continues, rendered to the pope the service of a strator, i.e. he led the horse upon which the pope rode. Moreover, the emperor makes a present to the pope and his successors of the Lateran palace, of Rome and the provinces, districts, and towns of Italy and all the Western regions (tam palatium nostrum, ut prelatum est, quamque Romæ urbis et omnes Italiæ seu occidentalium regionum provincias loca et civitates). The document goes on to say that for himself the emperor has established in the East a new capital which bears his name, and thither he removes his government, since it is inconvenient that a secular emperor have power where God has established the residence of the head of the Christian religion. The document concludes with maledictions against all who dare to violate these donations and with the assurance that the emperor has signed them with his own hand and placed them on the tomb of St. Peter.

    This document is without doubt a forgery, fabricated somewhere between the years 750 and 850.

    What the encyclopedia does not mention is that the donation was apparently concocted in the papal chancery around AD 754, and was used by Pope Stephen II (III)* to deceive the Frankish King Pepin III. It was a great success. Not only did Pepin feel obliged to protect Stephen from his enemies, but he also wrote a new document, the Donation of Pepin, confirming the claims made in the fabricated Donation of Constantine. The Donation of Pepin was confirmed in turn by Charlemagne in 774.

    Using these documents, a long succession of popes claimed not only seniority over the Eastern patriarchs, but also the exclusive right to judge the clergy, and the right to the imperial crown. As the centuries passed the validity of the Donation of Constantine came to be widely accepted. However, the document was so badly fabricated that it was only a matter of time before it was exposed as a fraud. For example, it referred to Byzantium as Constantinople, a name acquired by the city after the time when the document was purportedly written. In 1439 a papal aide revealed it as a fraud by highlighting a variety of such blunders, but the truth was suppressed*. By the sixteenth century many scholars knew it to be a fraud, but Rome still asserted its authenticity. For centuries one infallible pope after another refused to acknowledge it as the fabrication that it is now universally accepted to be (a fact about which the Catholic Encycopedia is extremely evasive*)

    The ninth century saw another celebrated set of papal forgeries: the False Decretals (or Pseudo-Isidorian Decretals). These were attributed to St Isidore of Seville, who had died in 636. They consisted of hundreds of documents, some completely bogus, some genuine but tampered with. Once again they sought to enhance papal claims. They set out precedents defining the rights of bishops and asserting the superior authority of the reigning pope over synods and metropolitans, and indeed the whole Church. It affected all of Western Christendom, including England. As a legal authority puts it:

    The Isidorian forgeries were soon accepted at Rome. The popes profited by documents which taught that ever since the apostolic age the bishops of Rome had been declaring, or even making, law for the universal church. On this rock or on this sand a lofty edifice was reared*.

    The decretals were invoked by Pope Nicholas I (pope 858-867, now St Nicholas) to support his own claims. It is now known from forensic evidence that the decretals were compiled in France, probably around AD 850*. For centuries scholars have known them to be forgeries, but the Roman Church placed any writing that said so on the Index, its list of prohibited books. It was not until 1789 that Pope Pius VI admitted the truth.

    In the eleventh century Pope Gregory VII claimed that he had sole right to the title Pope, an honorific that had been widely used in the early church, and not conferred on the bishops of Rome until the second half of the fourth century. Gregory conceived of the whole world as a divinely established feudal state with himself at its head, in the role of St Peter, Christ's vicar on Earth. In the face of all precedents Gregory required all bishops to take an oath of personal loyalty to him. From that time onwards Roman Catholic bishops took their position not merely by apostolic succession, but by favour of the Pope. He also claimed that the Pope is incapable of making a mistake. In his Dictatus papae of 1075, largely based upon forged documents, Gregory spelled out the implications of this. Amongst them were:

    • The Pope cannot be judged by any other human being.
    • The Roman Church has never erred and never will.
    • The Pope alone is entitled to imperial insignia.
    • The Pope can depose emperors and kings and can absolve their subjects from allegiance.
    • All princes must kiss the Pope's feet.
    • By the merits of Peter, a properly elected pope is necessarily a saint.

    Gregory's exalted position guaranteed him personal sanctity inherited from Peter and supremacy over all earthly rulers, both spiritual and temporal. This last claim was undermined when the German King, Henry IV, deposed him.

    In 1123 Pope Callistus II became the first pope to convene a Church Council (the First Lateran Council) that was regarded as ecumenical in Western Christendom, though not of course in the East. The Blessed Eugene III, who ascended the papal throne in 1145, expounded the doctrine that Christ had devolved upon the Pope supreme authority in temporal, as well as spiritual, matters. Popes also expounded on their power in Heaven. For 1,000 years saints had been declared locally, or had simply arisen by common consent. Around 1170 Pope Alexander III tried to reserve to the papacy the power to create saints.

    This power was confirmed by Pope Innocent III, who ascended the papal throne in 1198. To his credit, one of his first acts was to root out the nest of forgers operating in the papal chancery. Innocent saw himself not as the Vicar of St Peter, but as the Vicar of Christ*. He claimed to be set midway between God and man, and to have been given not only the Church but also the whole world to govern. He succeeded in extending the papacy's feudal power, acquiring as fiefdoms Portugal, Aragon, Hungary and England , and purporting to reassign important feudal properties of Raimon VI of Toulouse — a precedent that is still mourned to this day. He stated that every cleric must obey the Pope, even if he commands what is evil, for no one may judge the Pope.

    Innocent IV (pope 1243-1254) confirmed his total dominion over all earthly rulers. Gregory IX (pope 1227-1241) declared himself to be the Lord and Master of the whole Universe, not merely of people, or of living creatures, but absolutely everything. Boniface VIII (pope 1294-1303) defined as official doctrine the proposition that every human being must do as the Pope tells him. The pontiff, he said, is the repository and fount of all law. From this he drew the conclusion, in the closing sentence of his bull Unam sanctum, that blind submission to his authority was necessary for salvation : ".... we declare, state, define and pronounce that for every human creature to be subject to the Roman pope is altogether necessary for salvation". It was heresy to deny this infallible truth. He also claimed to be the bodily presence of Christ. He would on occasion dress in imperial robes and claim to be Emperor as well.

    Papal claims were accompanied by appropriate symbolism. By the eleventh century a coronet had already been added to the rim of the papal tiara. A second was added around 1300, and a third a few years later, so producing the familiar triple crown, which symbolises papal dominion. These claims of dominion have never been rescinded, and popes still sport their triple crown, confirming their absolute rule. Similarly, they took to adopting other super-symbols. Since archbishops carried crosiers with one cross piece, and patriarchs carried crosiers with two cross pieces, the Roman popes adopted one with three cross pieces.

    supporters of papal claims often depicted emperors and kings humbling themselves before popes.


    In his bull Fidem catholicam, of 1338, Pope Benedict XII proclaimed that imperial authority derives directly from God himself. In fact there seems to have been some confusion between God and the Pope. In the late Middle Ages God was portrayed as the Pope, even wearing the pope's triple crown. Both Van Eyck and Botticelli painted pictures showing God sporting a papal tiara.

    Divine claims were at least partly responsible for the Reformation. "I do not know" wrote Luther "whether the Christian faith can bear it, that there should be any other head of the universal church on earth than Christ himself". But papal claims were not to be retracted. Pius V (pope 1566-1572) confirmed that he could appoint anyone, including emperors, for any reason and whenever he pleased. He also denied that it could ever be lawful to disobey unjust papal orders. For centuries, one pope after another was to confirm that, by virtue of his office, he enjoyed total dominion, both secular and religious. In 1568 Pius V stated that this was not merely law, but an eternal law.

    Popes had exercised absolute power over the Papal States, a large stretch of Italy that had been acquired by the sword, since the Middle Ages. A series of popes made increasingly unlikely claims about them. When Napoleon seized them in the nineteenth century, Pius VII demanded their return on the grounds that "they are not our personal inheritance, but the inheritance of St Peter who received them from Christ". By 1870 Garibaldi's army had captured the Papal States and unified Italy. In that year the dogma of papal infallibility was declared. According to this, when speaking ex cathedra on faith or morals the Pope is literally infallible.

    Leo XIII firmly believed that his power extended over the whole world. In 1900 he dedicated the whole human race to the sacred heart of Jesus. His successor Pius X convinced himself, and others, that he possessed supernatural powers, and was subsequently made a saint on the strength of them. Many papal claims have been replaced by more modest ones, but none has been explicitly abandoned. There may be more claims to come. To this day, Roman Catholic bishops take an oath to maintain, defend, increase and advance the rights, honours, privileges and authority of their lord the Pope.


    How Popes were Chosen

    Popes have not always been elected in the way they are now. In the earliest times they were elected, like other bishops, by local citizens. Pope Stephen III (IV) curtailed this right in 769. From then on the Roman clergy were, in theory, eligible to elect their bishop. A new system giving control to cardinal bishops was introduced at the Lateran Synod of 1059. Then in 1179 the cardinals won exclusive rights to elect their bishop, who by this time was reserving to himself the title of Pope.

    In practice neither the people nor the cardinals or other clergy were always able to elect the candidate they wanted. Sometimes Roman mobs took matters into their own hands. In 896 for example a rioting mob forced the election of Boniface VI, despite his having been twice degraded for immorality and defrocked. More often popes were appointed by whoever exercised the most power at the time. An Ostrogoth king had terrorised the electorate into choosing a Subdeacon, Silverius, as pope in the sixth century. The Empress Theodora wanted a more sympathetic bishop of Rome, so Silverius was arrested and deposed, and the Emperor forced through the election of Pope Vigilius. At the beginning of the tenth century the Western Emperor Otto took a dislike to the rightful pope, Benedict IV. Benedict grovelled at the Emperor's feet, declared himself to be an impostor, and claimed that the Emperor's man was the true pope. So it was that the Emperor's man became Pope Leo V in 903.

    At other times popes owed their position to some other European power, or to the influence of a powerful Italian family. Once in power, many popes did their best to keep the papacy in the family. Pope Silverius for example was the son of Pope Hormisdas. Pope Gregory I was directly descended from Felix III (II). Stephen IV (V), Sergius II and Hadrian II all belonged to the same aristocratic family. Alexander IV was the nephew of Gregory IX, himself the nephew of Innocent III, who in turn was the nephew of Pope Clement III. Hadrian V was a nephew of Innocent IV; Pius III of Pius II; Paul II of Eugene IV; Julius II of Sixtus IV, and so on.

    Jeremy Irons as Rodrigo Borgia (Pope Alexander VI ) an infamous libertine,
    depicted in The Borgias (TV Series 2011)

    For centuries, the papacy was passed around the leading families of Italy and Europe. The Colonnas tried hard for many years to place their man on the papal throne, finally succeeding with Martin V in 1417. Pope Alexander VI , a Borgia, was the nephew of Callistus III. Paul III , previously known as Cardinal Petticoat, owed his advancement to his sister who had been the mistress of Alexander. Pius IV in turn owed his position largely to his elder brother, who had married into the family of Paul. Both Leo X and Clement VII were members of the Medici family (they were cousins), and so was Leo XI , nephew of Leo X. The Orsini family managed to place on the papal throne Celestine III , Nicholas III and Benedict XIII.

    The Banquet of Chestnuts (or Ballet of Chestnuts), refers to a supper held in the Papal Palace by Cardinal Cesare Borgia, son of Pope Alexander VI on 30 October 1501. An account of the banquet is preserved in a Latin diary titled Liber Notarum, by Protonotary Apostolic and Master of Ceremonies Johann Burchard.

    "On the evening of the last day of October, 1501, Cesare Borgia arranged a banquet in his chambers in the Vatican with 'fifty honest prostitutes', called courtesans, who danced after dinner with the attendants and others who were present, at first in their garments, then naked. After dinner the candelabra with the burning candles were taken from the tables and placed on the floor, and chestnuts were strewn around, which the naked courtesans picked up, creeping on hands and knees between the chandeliers, while the Pope, Cesare, and his sister Lucretia looked on. Finally, prizes were announced for those who could perform the act most often with the courtesans, such as tunics of silk, shoes, barrets, and other things."


    At the beginning of the tenth century the papacy was controlled by a man called Theophylact and his wife Theodora. This period of dependency is generally known to historians as the pornocracy of the Holy See. It extended through the reigns of Popes Sergius III, Anastasius III, Lando, John X, Leo VI, Stephen VII (VIII) and John XI. According to Bishop Liutprand of Cremona, John XI was the illegitimate son of Pope Sergius III and Theodora's 15-year-old daughter. In 935 an influential aristocrat, Alberic II, prompted a revolt against Theophylact's puppet pope, John XI. John was imprisoned and treated like a slave, while Alberic appointed his own pope, Leo VII. Alberic was also responsible for the next pope, Stephen VIII (IX), who tried to exercise a measure of independence and as a result found himself imprisoned, mutilated and murdered. Alberic's next two popes, Marinus II and Agapetus II, were more amenable. Next came Alberic's own illegitimate son, Pope John XII, who was elected in accordance with his father's instructions and in contravention of existing election decrees. Alberic's family (the Alberics of Tusculum) managed to place 13 of their members on the papal throne over the centuries.

    Often, a number of valid popes were alive at the same time. For example, the Emperor Otto appointed Pope Leo VIII to replace Pope John XII after John had been deposed in 963. John subsequently returned to Rome and deposed Leo. After John's death in 964, the Romans elected a new pope, Benedict V. Otto now laid siege to Rome. The citizens handed Benedict over to the Emperor. He was deposed and degraded, stripped of his papal robes, and his papal staff broken over his head by Otto's nominee, Leo , who was then reinstated. John XII, Leo VIII and Benedict V are all now considered to have been valid popes.

    After Otto's death in 973, a faction of the Crescentii family tried to get their nominee on the papal throne as Boniface VII. The fact that Otto's nominee Benedict VI still occupied it had to be overcome by Boniface. He instructed a priest called Stephen to strangle Benedict, and the pious Stephen complied. But now another candidate appeared with more powerful backing, so Boniface fled with the papal treasure. The new pope was Benedict VII, another kinsman of Alberic, who enjoyed the support of the Emperor. When Benedict died in 983, the Emperor, Otto II, appointed Pope John XIV apparently without even consulting the people or clergy of Rome. Otto II died in December 983. Without his support John was vulnerable since the new Emperor was only three years old. Boniface VII soon reappeared, and had John imprisoned, deposed and murdered. Boniface himself died in 985, probably the victim of assassination. Pope John XV succeeded him with the approval of the Crescentii family. The period of Crescentii supremacy was turbulent, and by the age of 15 the new emperor, Otto III, felt obliged to visit Rome to attend to matters personally.

    The Pope died of a fever before Otto arrived, so Otto was free to appoint one of his own relatives, who became Pope Gregory V. Aged 24 he was Otto's senior by nine years. When Otto returned to Germany the Crescentii family drove Gregory from Rome, and put their own man, John Philagathos, on the papal throne. He lasted only until Otto could reassert his influence, after which Gregory V was restored. John was blinded, and his nose, tongue, lips and hands mutilated, then he was tried, condemned and imprisoned. After the death of Pope Gregory V in 999, Otto appointed a new pope, Sylvester II, who was popularly believed to have made a pact with Satan. Otto died without an heir in 1002 and when Sylvester followed him to the grave the following year, the Crescentii family were again able to put their puppet on the papal throne. The puppet Pope John XVII lasted only a few months and was succeeded by another Crescentii puppet pope, John XVIII. His reign ended in mysterious circumstances in 1009, although he kept his life for the time being. Another Crescentii puppet was then installed as Pope Sergius IV.

    In 1012 the house of Tusculum (descended from Theophylact) gained ascendancy over the Crescentii family. The reigning pope, Sergius, and his predecessor, John XVIII, were both murdered. The house of Tusculum placed its man on the papal throne as Pope Benedict VIII. On his death in 1024, his younger brother became Pope John XIX. Not being in Holy Orders, he was elevated from layman to pope in a single day. Such promotion was unusual and called for particularly lavish bribery. After John's death his brother, now head of the family, bribed the electorate once again and succeeded in getting his own son elected. The son was still a layman, or perhaps lay-child would be a more appropriate term. In the space of a single October day in 1032 this "mere urchin" became His Holiness Pope Benedict IX. He led a scandalous life, and when his family's fortunes were reversed in 1044 he was obliged to flee Rome.

    The Crescentii family regained power and promptly installed their own pope, Sylvester III, early in 1045. Within a few months Benedict's supporters expelled Sylvester, who also fled Rome to the safety of lands under Crescentii control. Benedict was restored as Pope, but within a few months he decided he had had enough of the papacy, and wanted to settle down with an attractive female cousin. He dispensed himself from his obligation of celibacy, and arranged to have himself bought off for over 1,000 lb of gold, though as he pointed out, he was only recovering his father's original expenditure. He then abdicated in favour of the man who bought him off, who happened to be his own godfather, and who now became Pope Gregory VI. Benedict's affection for his attractive female cousin was not reciprocated, so he changed his mind and sought to regain the papal throne. Details of his arrangement with Gregory became public. The German Emperor, Henry III, called a synod over which he presided himself. He assured himself that simony had been committed and deposed both Gregory VI and Benedict IX (and also a surviving Crescentii pope, Sylvester III). He then imposed a new pope, the first of a line of four German popes he was to nominate: Clement II, Damasus II, Leo IX (now a saint), and Victor II. Pope Victor II died in 1057, a year after the Emperor Henry III, while the new Emperor, Henry IV, was still a baby. Seizing their chance, the Romans conducted what seems to have been a fair election, and the product of this remarkable event was Pope Stephen IX (X).

    In the thirteenth century the Kings of Sicily managed to get their nominees on the papal throne as Hadrian V, Martin IV and Celestine V. The pope who succeeded Celestine V, Boniface VIII, is reported to have gained his throne in 1294 by taking advantage of Celestine's naïveté. He bored a hole into the wall of Celestine's bedroom at the Castel Nuovo in Naples, then, in the middle of the night, he whispered through the hole a message that Celestine should lay down his office as it was too great a burden for him. In obedience to the Holy Ghost, as he thought, Celestine abdicated, and the perpetrator of the fraud reaped the fruits of his deception by taking his place on the papal throne. Celestine lived out the rest of his life imprisoned by Boniface in a castle tower.


    Popes and Anti-popes

    In the popular mind there has always been an undoubted line of valid popes in Rome and for a short while also a line of anti-popes, a succession of rivals who set up shop in Avignon in defiance of the true popes. This conception is wrong in almost every respect.

    The fact is that often there were two or more papal claimants, and no one knew who the real pope was. This happened countless times, and the city in which the claimants lived was not much of a guide. Many men now considered to have been valid popes never even visited Rome, or Avignon for that matter. What generally happened was that two men would claim to be the rightful pope, each denouncing the other as an impostor. Often they both had as good a claim as each other, having been elected by different groups of electors. Election rules were continually changing, and different factions naturally tended to support sets of rules that favoured their own candidates. On occasion two popes could both claim to have been elected by the same electors. On many occasions one pope was deposed and replaced by another. If the first one was not murdered or imprisoned (as he often was) he would do his best to get himself reinstated. All he needed to do was to rally support from the political factions he was likely to favour if he regained power.

    So how did Avignon come into it? The story is this: Pope Boniface VIII annoyed a number of monarchs by his papal claims. Early in the fourteenth century an agent of Philip, King of France, accompanied by the head of the Colonna family, captured Boniface with the intention of trying him for murder, idolatry, sodomy, simony and heresy. Within a month he was dead, but he was posthumously put on trial. His successor Benedict XI failed to appease the king, and soon he too was dead. The cardinals chose as the next pope Clement V, whom they expected to stand up to Philip, but Philip bought him off without too much trouble. Clement was obliged to stay in France for years, before being allowed to move to the safety of Avignon, not then in France, but under the watchful eye of the French King. Once the papacy was in the pocket of the King, there followed a string of French popes, whose election became successively easier as the college of cardinals was packed with Frenchmen: of the 134 cardinals appointed while the papacy was held by Frenchmen, 112 were French.

    So it was that a succession of perfectly valid popes never set foot in Rome. Altogether there were seven French popes in a row, all based in Avignon: Clement V, John XXII, Benedict XII, Clement VI, Innocent VI, Urban V and Gregory XI. This long absence from Rome, extending from 1305 to 1378, is generally known as the Babylonian Captivity of the Papacy. The last of these popes in Avignon, Gregory XI, returned to Rome, and when he died in 1378 the Romans let it be known that they wanted a Roman pope, even though there were no realistic candidates. Indeed there were only four Italian cardinals left. 16 cardinals met in conclave to elect a new pope, knowing that their lives depended on their decision. They duly elected an Italian, Urban VI, an event that apparently tipped the balance of his mind. The French cardinals immediately made off to safety, where they claimed that they had acted under duress. They denied that Urban was the rightful pope and elected another one, a cousin of the King of France, who took the style Pope Clement VII. As usual, Christendom divided on political lines: the French and their allies Scotland, Spain and Naples supported Clement, while the Italians supported the increasingly insane Urban, as did England and other northern countries, apparently on the grounds that anything was preferable to another French pope. Over the next 30 years there were two lines of popes: Urban VI in Rome was succeeded by Boniface IX, Innocent VII and Gregory XII, while Clement in Avignon was succeeded by Benedict XIII.

    In 1409 a council was convoked at Pisa by leading churchmen of the day who felt that this schism had gone on long enough. They solemnly declared that both reigning popes (Gregory XII and Benedict XIII) were heretics and schismatics, and they elected a new pope, Alexander V. Neither Gregory nor Benedict recognised the council, so now there were three popes. Each claimed absolute authority, and each excommunicated the other two. Another council was called at Constance in 1414, this time with more success. In 1415 Gregory abdicated, and Benedict was deposed, as was Alexander's successor, John XXIII. A new pope, Martin V, was elected in 1417, and generally accepted throughout Western Christendom, although a line of successors to Benedict continued for many years, gradually sinking into historical oblivion.

    Views as to who was the rightful pope changed as often as the balance of power, as did views as to who had been rightful popes previously. When the appointee of one family became pope, he would often make adjustments to the historical record to reinstate his papal relatives. Over the centuries the same claimant could be regarded as a rightful pope, then as an heretical anti-pope, then as pope again, then as anti-pope, and so on. Evidence of the level of uncertainty about who was, and who was not, a rightful pope is not difficult to find. For example a pope called Stephen, who reigned for three or four days in 752, was not counted as a pope immediately after his death. Later he was recognised as a pope and designated Stephen II. Then, in 1961, he was dropped again, so at the time of writing he is not counted as a pope. The effect of this has been to confuse the numbering of subsequent popes called Stephen. His successor, who also took the name Stephen, was originally designated Stephen II. Later, when the short-lived earlier Stephen was reinstated as Stephen II, his successor had to be upgraded to Stephen III. Now that the first Stephen has been dropped again his successor has gone back to being Stephen II, but to avoid confusion he is generally known as Stephen II (III). Subsequent Stephens are now known as Stephen III (IV), Stephen IV (V) and so on right up to Stephen IX (X). Similar problems occur with popes called Felix.

    Another indicator of the confusion is the fact that current lists of past popes have no John XX. It seems that the numerous papal claimants who took the name John led to such a mess that no one even claimed the number XX. Neither was there a John XVI, although there are Johns up to XXIII. Indeed, there have been two John XXIIIs. There had been one in the fifteenth century, but a new pope took the name and style of John XXIII in 1958. There was widespread surprise and puzzlement, since it was well known that there had already been a John XXIII. In fact there is little doubt that the first John XXIII had been the rightful pope, but he had been an acute embarrassment and had been deposed by a council in 1415. (Actually he got off lightly: only 5 of the 54 charges against him were pursued. As Gibbon noted: "The most scandalous charges were suppressed; the Vicar of Christ was only accused of piracy, murder, rape, sodomy and incest".) In 1958 cathedrals suddenly had to revise their lists, as the fifteenth century John XXIII was now deemed to be an anti-pope.

    The tomb of the first Pope John XXIII, in the Florence Baptistry adjacent to the Duomo. It reads
    "John the former pope XXIII. Died in Florence A.D. 1419, on 11th day before the Calends of January"
    The Catholic Church now considers this pope to have been an anti-pope.


    Again, according to modern official lists, there was never a valid pope called Alexander V, although there was one with this designation who is now considered an anti-pope and there were also Alexanders VI, VII, and VIII. Neither was there a valid Benedict X, though there have been Benedicts numbered up to Benedict XVI (who became pope in 2005). Another oddity is that some anti-popes are regarded as saints, even by the modern papacy, which simultaneously dismisses them as pretenders to St Peter's throne. For example, St Hippolytus, one of the most important figures in the Western Church in the early third century, was elected as Bishop of Rome in competition to Callistus. Each regarded the other as a heretic. Callistus is now reckoned a true pope and St Hippolytus merely an anti-pope.

    It is clear that some properly elected popes are now on the list of anti-popes while many (perhaps most) of the official popes were elected irregularly. One of the most striking examples of a rightful pope being regarded today as an anti-pope is one called Celestine. An old man, he was elected, properly and unanimously, on 15 th December 1124. During his installation an armed gang broke in on the ceremony, acclaimed their own man as Pope Honorius II, and attacked Celestine, who died of his injuries soon afterwards. Yet Honorius is now considered a rightful pope, while Celestine is a mere anti-pope.

    It is of little relevance to consider which of two contenders reigned as de facto pope in Rome. Often the pope now considered the real pope was a powerless exile, while the one considered the anti-pope was happily ensconced in Rome and exercising his office. Pope Victor III, for example, was obliged by rioting mobs to flee from Rome in 1086 before he had even been consecrated. A rival claimant, Clement III, was installed in the Lateran basilica. He was highly regarded, and managed the papal office far better than many others. For example, he was strongly opposed to the simony that had characterised the papacy for so long. He carried out papal functions with success and performed the customary crowning of a new emperor. He also instigated reforms that in time would lead to the founding of the college of cardinals. Victor meanwhile languished in exile. At times he gave up his papal claim and returned to his previous career as an abbot. There is no record that he achieved anything of any significance. Clement exercised the office of pope right through the reign of Victor, and through much of the reign of his successor. Nevertheless we are assured that Clement was an anti-pope, and the blessed Victor was a real pope.

    Some claimants are considered popes even though their elections were clearly invalid, and some had little or no experience in the Church. Many had not been bishops, some had not been priests or even deacons before their elevation. Pope Leo VIII was a layman who was rushed through religious orders in a single day. Pope Gregory X, by inclination a warrior rather than a holy man, was ordained as a priest and consecrated as Pope on a single day in March 1271. Hadrian V, who reigned for a few weeks in 1276, was never made Bishop of Rome. The simple fact is that there is no objective way of knowing which of two or more claimants was the rightful pope. Official lists are of little use since they have been changed so often, and might change again tomorrow.

    Even after 1,000 years, the truth can easily be massaged. A man who was universally recognised as pope can suddenly be demoted to an anti-pope. Take for example Boniface VII. He became Pope in 974 after having Benedict VI murdered. When the locals turned against him he fled with the papal treasure and was excommunicated. In 980 he returned to Rome and re-established himself, displacing his successor Benedict VII, but fled again when the Emperor turned up with an army. In 984 he returned once again and deposed, imprisoned and murdered his new replacement, Pope John XIV. Boniface himself died suddenly the following year, possibly the victim of a palace conspiracy. His body was stripped and dragged through the streets of Rome, and then left, naked, for public ridicule. Grateful for the opportunity, citizens amused themselves by trampling and stabbing it. None of this is remarkable, and it is easy to find other popes whose reigns were far less illustrious, and whose crimes were far greater. In old official lists he was invariably agreed to have been a valid pope. Nevertheless, it was announced in 1904 that Boniface VII had not been a real pope at all, merely an anti-pope, so God had managed without a personal deputy on Earth for a year, from August 984 to August 985.

    Another difficulty with the idea that bishops of Rome owe their appointment to God is that, if this is the case, then God seems to have displayed a certain lack of foresight. He failed to foresee not only the amount of crime and venality that his elect would become involved in but also the fact that in some cases, such as Urban VI and Stephen VI (VII), they might promptly lose their minds. Others had limited lifespans. The Stephen who was elected Pope in 752 suffered a stroke three days after his election and died the day after. Boniface VI died of gout 15 days after his election in April 896. Celestine IV fell ill two days after his election in 1241 and died a few days later, apparently without having performed any official act, or even having been consecrated. Urban VII fell ill with malaria the day after his election on 15 th September 1590 and died a few days later, before his coronation. In 1978 "God's candidate" John Paul I died in his bed just three weeks after his investiture, having achieved none of his planned reforms.


    "Papal Crimes" and Popular Opinion

    Simony has always been common in Rome. It would be a bold historian who asserted that more popes have gained the throne through merit than by bribery. From the fourth century onwards Roman nobles were exchanging their secular robes for clerical ones, or rather their priestly robes of the old religion for new priestly robes of the new Christian one.

    The modern Roman Church was essentially a creation of the Roman nobility. For many centuries the papacy was to be a prize, awarded to the currently most powerful Roman noble family, that enabled the winner to extort vast sums from the whole of Western Christendom. The sale of cardinals" hats and other Church offices has been a bottomless well of treasure. Simony is still commonly known as one of the two papal crimes, the other being nepotism. Many popes had illegitimate children, and the convention was to call them nephews. Numerous popes advanced the careers of their nominal nephews, and their real nephews, giving them cardinals" hats, and preparing the way for their succession. The word nepotism was coined to describe this scandal. It is derived from the Latin word for a nephew, nepos.

    Sergius II, who ascended the papal throne in 844, made his brother a bishop, and the two of them sold bishoprics and other Church offices to the highest bidder. Clement V appointed five close relatives as cardinals and misused the papal treasures to such an extent that his successor instituted legal proceedings against his family to recover some of them. Boniface IX, who ascended the papal throne in 1389, was an outstanding nepotist and simonist — arguably the worst ever. He raised vast amounts of money by auctioning Church offices and marketed indulgences in ways that were considered outrageous even by papal standards.

    Pius II created a nephew, the future Pius III, an archbishop and cardinal at the age of 21. The fifteenth century pope Sixtus IV appointed numerous relatives (three sons and six others) as cardinals, one of them the future Julius II. The chief interest of the Borgia Pope Alexander VI seems to have been the promotion of his family's wealth and influence. Indeed he appears to have aspired to keep the papacy in the family indefinitely. To this end he attempted to crush all potential opposition by murdering members of other leading Roman families and seizing their property. He appointed his own son to several bishoprics at the age of 18 and gave him a cardinal's hat the following year. This reign is generally recognised as marking the high point of papal greed and corruption.

    Paul III gave important parts of the Papal States to his son Pierluigi, and gave cardinals" hats to two grandsons aged 14 and 16. His main interest seems to have been to establish his family among the great houses of Italy. Urban VIII was so extravagant a nepotist that his successor Innocent X, who ascended the papal throne in 1644, tried to recover some of the illegal gifts distributed to Urban's relatives. Almost any high Church office could become a sinecure. Such offices were often granted to provide their holders with incomes. Even children could be given them. For example, Pope Leo X , the second son of Lorenzo de" Medici (Lorenzo the Magnificent) was appointed a cardinal at the age of 13, before having the papacy purchased for him by his father.

    Far from being elected by their flocks, many popes were positively hated by them. Sabinian, for example, had incurred the hatred of Romans by profiteering during a famine. After his death in 606 they tried to seize and dismember his corpse, and his funeral procession was obliged to pass outside the city walls. In 799 Pope Leo III, an extremely unpopular man, was attacked by a mob, which tried to cut off his tongue and tear out his eyes. Pope Paschal I was given to blinding and beheading his opponents. He was so unpopular that when he died in 824 a public uproar prevented his body being buried in St Peter's . John VIII was poisoned by members of his own entourage in 882, and was then finished off by being clubbed to death. Stephen VI (VII), arguably the most insane of all popes, was deposed by a Roman mob, gaoled, and strangled in 897. The next pope, Romanus, was also deposed after a reign of a few months, and the next one, Theodore II, died of causes unknown after a reign of 20 days. Leo V managed only 30 days as pope before being overthrown by his own clergy in 903 and subsequently murdered.

    John XIII, who ascended the papal throne in 965, was widely hated. The citizens of Rome attacked, imprisoned and banished him. They probably regretted that they did not kill him, for he returned with the protection of the Emperor, and punished them with a brutality that was considered remarkable, even by papal standards. Gregory VII was less disliked, but was denounced at the Synod of Brixen in 1080 for having studied magic at Toledo and for having taken up necromancy. Pope Lucius II, in an attempt to assert his authority over the self-governing commune that had been established in Rome, led an armed force on the Capitol in 1145. Unimpressed by His Holiness, the opposition forces stoned him to death. Alexander III was also obliged to leave Rome, but after his death in 1181 his body was returned for burial. The low opinion of him held by the citizens of Rome was reflected by the insulting graffiti lavished on his tomb. Pope Urban III lived in Verona, since popular hostility in Rome prevented him from living there.

    J H W Tischbein Conradin of Swabia and Frederick of Baden
    Being Informed of Their Execution in Prison in Naples
    , 1783

    Clement III, who reigned from 1187 to 1191, was the first pope for decades to establish himself safely in Rome, a feat he achieved by the liberal distribution of bribes. Urban IV (pope 1261-1264) was so unpopular that he was never able to reside in Rome and never even visited the place. Neither did his successor Clement IV, again because of popular hostility towards him. One of his less endearing acts was to engineer the execution of the popular young prince Conradin, a ward of the Holy See, whose rights the papacy had sworn to protect. Martin IV, who became pope in 1281, was another who was so unpopular that he was unable to live in Rome.

    Urban VI was clearly insane. Because of the circumstances of his election, most of his cardinals deserted him and purported to depose him. Although he appointed new cardinals, they soon became acquainted with his mental incompetence and paranoia, and so started considering a council of regency. Learning of this he had six leading cardinals tortured. Only one escaped with his life. Despite his mental state, Urban reigned for 11 years, at the end of which he died in suspicious circumstances, possibly the victim of poisoning. Who was responsible is difficult to assess, for he was detested not only by the cardinals who had originally elected him under duress, but also by his own new cardinals (such as survived). He was loathed by the clergy at large, the citizens of Rome, many of the monarchs of Europe, and even his own mercenaries.

    Innocent VII was exceptionally unpopular and was able to remain in Rome only because of protection from the King of Naples. As a favour to him, one of his nephews had eleven leading citizens murdered. A violent mob stormed the Vatican, and Innocent was lucky to escape with his life. Eugene IV was also the victim of mob violence, and was obliged to leave Rome in disguise. Paul IV, a man of exceeding brutality, had earned his reputation, like many popes-to-be, as head of the Inquisition before ascending the throne in 1555. He had several claims to fame: he was a spectacularly successful simonist, he burned more books than any other pope, and he created the Jewish ghetto. He was feared and hated throughout his four-year reign, but only after his death did the citizens of Rome dare to express their opinion of him. A mob attacked the Inquisition's offices, released its victims, and overturned and mutilated His Holiness's statue on the Capitol.

    Pope Sixtus V had already earned a fearful reputation as an inquisitor. As pope he had thousands publicly executed in the Papal States. Loathed by the people of Rome, his statue was torn down from the Capitol by a rioting mob when they learned of his death. Pius IX was yet another extremely unpopular pope. His Prime Minister was murdered, and Pius was obliged to flee Rome in disguise. His reign generated a great deal of anticlerical feeling throughout Europe. When he died in 1878 a Roman mob tried to seize his body and throw it into the Tiber.

    It is difficult to find more than a handful of popes who led lives that could be objectively assessed as other than scandalous. Even the most revered seem to have been not quite as they are often portrayed. Pope Gregory I (St Gregory the Great), for example, who is often described as the greatest pope ever, owed his election in 590 to his connections. He belonged to Rome's richest family, the same one as Popes Felix III and Agapetus I. He devoted much time to writing accounts of monstrous births (which he believed to be omens) and other bizarre phenomena. He urged the sequestration of pagan temples and encouraged the bribery of Jews to assist conversion. He expressed delight at the murder of the Emperor in 602, apparently because the Emperor had failed to accept Gregory's claim to primacy over the Eastern Church.

    It is true that Gregory stands out as exceptionally competent, but that is only because of the comparisons available. The following selection is not untypical. St Callistus was an embezzler and a bankrupt who had fled his creditors. He became Bishop of Rome in 217. John XII, a "dissolute boy", became Pope at the age of 16 in 955. The citizens of Rome said that he slept with his mother, that he had turned the Lateran Palace into a brothel, and that he toasted the Devil at the High Altar. His behaviour was so bad that a synod was convoked. A bishop recorded the charges, all confirmed under oath: he was a simonist, he had had sex with numerous women including a relative, he had blinded one cleric and castrated another (a cardinal who had died as a result). Otto I, the Holy Roman Emperor, felt obliged to write to him saying that everyone accused him of homicide, perjury, sacrilege, incest with his relatives, including two of his sisters, and with having invoked Jupiter, Venus and other demons. John refused to answer the charges, so Otto deposed him and a new pope, Leo VIII, was installed. John went into exile until Otto left Rome, then he returned to torture, maim and murder those he felt had not been sufficiently understanding with regard to his behaviour. Leo fled to the imperial court, and in his absence John deposed and excommunicated him. When Otto returned to sort matters out, John fled once again. Soon afterwards, in 964 John was suddenly incapacitated as he lay in bed with a married woman and died a week later. Some said that he had suffered a stroke. Since he was only 24 at the time, the more likely account was that his stroke had been assisted by a hammer blow to the back of the head, delivered by the man whose wife His Holiness had been ministering to at the time.

    Stephen VI (VII) was one of the more colourful popes. In 897 he had the body of Formosus, an earlier pope, exhumed. He then had it dressed in pontifical vestments and placed on the papal throne in the Basilica of St. John Lateran. He presided over a trial of the dead pope, found him guilty, hacked a few fingers off the corpse, and had it thrown into the Tiber. This event is generally known as the Cadaver Synodor (or in Latin, the Synodus horrenda). Stephen was himself deposed by a Roman mob and strangled. What was left of Formosus's rotting body was recovered and allowed to rest peacefully for a few years, until another pope, Sergius III (who had been present at the Cadaver Synod) had it exhumed and condemned again. This time it was beheaded, and a few more fingers were hacked off. Once more it was cast into the Tiber, and once again it was recovered.

    detail from Le Pape Formose et Étienne VII ("Pope Formosus and Stephen VII"),
    by Jean-Paul Laurens,1870.

    Pius II had been a well-known libertine before he ascended the papal throne in 1458. The father of a number of illegitimate children, he was also the author of celebrated erotic works such as Lucretia and Euryalus and the comedy Chrysis. Julius III (pope 1550-1555) was a well-known paedophile. He created a scandal by picking up from the streets a boy called Innocenzo. Unaffected by public opinion he made Innocenzo a cardinal.

    The idea that priests have always been expected to be chaste, or even celibate, is severely compromised by the record of the papacy. St Peter (whether one counts him as a pope or not) had been a married man before he became an apostle. Hadrian II had been married before he became Pope in 867. So had Clement IV before his election in 1265. He is known to have had two daughters. Many popes were the sons of priests and bishops, and many were married and had children themselves. For example, Felix III (pope 483-492) was the son of a priest and had at least two children of his own. The sixth century pope, St Agapetus, was also the son of a priest. The next pope, St Silverius, was the son of St Hormisdas (pope 514-523). Theodore I (pope 642-649) was the son of a bishop, as was Boniface VI. The only English pope, Nicholas Breakspear, who became Hadrian IV in 1154, was the son of a monk at St Albans. Other popes were renowned libertines and had impressive broods of illegitimate children. For example, the late fifteenth century pope Alexander VI had a large but unknown number. The sixteenth century pope Paul III kept a mistress by whom he is known to have fathered at least four children. Innocent X (pope 1644-1655) was unusually dependent upon his sister-in-law and was so close to her that their mutual interests were widely believed to extend well beyond Church matters.

    Popes were also murderers in great style. Often they murdered each other. In 366 Damasus had himself proclaimed Bishop of Rome, having hired a gang of thugs to expel Ursicinus, who had just been elected. Damasus's mob climbed onto the roof of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, where his opponent's supporters were gathered, stripped off the lead tiles, and hurled them down on the congregation below, killing over a hundred. Damasus was later charged with murder but escaped through the intervention of powerful friends. He is now revered as pope and saint. In 537 Pope Silverius was murdered by Pope Vigilius, who in turn was later murdered by Pelagius I. In 653 Martin I was accused of treason, tried, convicted and sentenced to death. He was publicly flogged and his sentence commuted to banishment. Abandoned by his Church and its new pope, he soon died under the harsh conditions to which he was subjected. Both Leo V and the anti-pope Christopher were murdered by Sergius III in 904. Pope Benedict VI was charged with unknown crimes, imprisoned, and strangled on the orders of his successor (Boniface VII), who also had John XIV murdered. John XVIII and Sergius IV were both murdered by Benedict VIII in 1012. Clement II was reputedly poisoned by Benedict IX in 1047. The Borgia Pope Alexander VI enjoys the distinction of being the only pope to have murdered himself. He seems to have intended to poison a cardinal one day in 1503, but somehow the poison was mistakenly given to Alexander and his son instead.



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    See page 150 for an explanation of the numbering of popes called Stephen

    *. 1 Peter 2:9 and 2:5, Revelation 1:6, 5:10 and 20:6

    §. The titles presbyter (elder) and episkopos (overseer) are used of the same people in Acts 20:17 and 20:28 and again in Titus 1:6 and 1:7 (cf. 1 Timothy 3:2). See the NIV or other modern translations.

    §. A New Testament example showing that the ministry was two-fold, not three-fold, is 1 Timothy 3. The two-fold ministry is confirmed by the Didache and a letter from St Clement of Rome. (fl. c. AD 96) to the Corinthians 42.

    . Eusebius, The History of the Church, 7:7 , citing Dionysius writing about Heraclas.

    §. Special honours accorded to the patriarchies were confirmed by Church Councils: Rome, Alexandria and Antioch in canon 6 of the Council of Nicæa (AD 325), Constantinople in canon 3 of the First Ecumenical Council of Constantinople (AD 381), and Jerusalem at the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon (AD 451).

    §. The word patriarch really means head or ruler of a family. It is used in Acts 2:29 and 7:8 of Old Testament characters.

    §. Echoes of the original seven-fold ministry may be found in the Didache. See Andrew Louth (ed.), Maxwell Staniforth (trans.) Early Christian Writings, p 188.

    §. Ignatius, Epistle to the Ephesians 6. See Andrew Louth (ed.), Maxwell Staniforth (trans.) Early Christian Writings, p 63. Ignatius also advocated obedience to bishops as though they were Jesus Christ himself, and also held that believers should hold deacons in as great respect as Jesus Christ. Ignatius, Epistle to the Trallians 2 and 3. See Andrew Louth (ed.), Maxwell Staniforth (trans.) Early Christian Writings, p 79.

    §. Ignatius, Epistle to the Magnesians 6. See Andrew Louth (ed.), Maxwell Staniforth (trans.) Early Christian Writings, p 72.

    §. Dositheus (Patriarch of Jerusalem 1669 to 1707) asserts in his Confession (decree 10) that a bishop is a living image of God upon Earth, and this Confession was ratified by the Orthodox Church at the Council of Jerusalem in 1672. Ware, The Orthodox Church, pp 107 and 253.

    §. Ware, The Orthodox Church, p 253.

    §. St Clement of Rome., First Epistle to the Corinthians 44 (see Andrew Louth (ed.), Maxwell Staniforth (trans.) Early Christian Writings, p 41). Ignatius of Antioch. gives no hint of the idea of apostolic succession.

    §. Modified systems of election survive for example in the Orthodox Churches of Antioch and Cyprus. Ware, The Orthodox Church, p 299.

    §. For example the Viscount of Béziers left in his will, as family property, Béziers and Agde, along with their bishoprics, to his wife and daughter in AD 990. Michael Costen, The Cathars and the Albigensian Crusade, p 22.

    §. B. J. Kidd, The Churches of Eastern Christendom ( London, 1927), p 304.

    §. For centuries the Sultan sold to the highest bidder a document called a berat to allow them to take office as bishop of Constantinople whenever the position became available.

    §. "The office uniquely committed by the Lord to Peter, the first of the Apostles, and to be transmitted to his successors, abides in the Bishop of the Church of Rome.... ". Canon 331 of the code of canon law, cf. Canon 330.

    §. In passages such as Acts 15:13-19 and Galatians 2:11ff. it is apparent that Peter neither enjoyed nor claimed any special authority.

    §. Cyprian, De Catholicae Ecclesiae Unitatel, 4. See Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, p 205.

    §. "…Ignatius, the second to be appointed to the bishopric of Antioch in succession to Peter" Eusebius, The History of the Church, 3:36. By contrast he says elsewhere that "After the martyrdom of Paul and Peter, the first man to be appointed Bishop of Rome was Linus". The first represents Peter as Bishop of Antioch, the second does not represent him as Bishop of Rome, although a passage in 3:4 referring back to the second passage quoted is more ambiguous.

    §. Eusebius reported that Peter spent his time preaching to Jews in Pontus, Galatia and Bithyna, Cappadocia and Asia, and that he was tarrying at Rome when he was crucified there. Eusebius, The History of the Church, 3:1.

    §. Cyprian, Origen, Cyril, Hilary, Jerome, Ambrose and Augustine all considered the words "Thou art Peter", but none of them applied the words to anyone except Peter.

    §. Eusebius, The History of the Church, 5:23-25.

    §. St Cyprian De Catholicae Ecclesiae Unitate 4.: " ... to all the apostles after the resurrection he [Jesus Christ] gives his power equally ... The other apostles also were what Peter was, endowed with an equal share both of honour and power; ...". The Orthodox Church still holds that, as one bishop puts it: "all bishops are essentially equal, however humble or exalted the city over which each presides. All bishops share equally in the apostolic succession, all have the same sacramental powers, all are divinely appointed teachers of the faith." Ware, The Orthodox Church, p 35.

    §. St Augustine thought that the Africans were right to reject the Pope's view. This is significant because a phrase of Augustine's " Rome has spoken, the dispute is at an end" is often taken out of context by Roman Catholics apologists to defend Papal claims. ( Rome had been the last of a number of authorities to concur, and Augustine thought that that was enough.)

    §. The Roman Church, like all mainstream churches, recognises the First Ecumenical Council of Constantinople held in AD 381 as the second Ecumenical (or General) Council of the Church.

    §. Chadwick, The Early Church, p 204-5.

    §. That the Donation of Constantine was a forgery was exposed by Lorenzo Valla in a treatise of 1439. He also exposed the letter to King Abagus purportedly written by Jesus, and also the correspondence between Seneca and St Paul. He also pointed out a number of errors in Jerome's Vulgate. He escaped the Inquisition only because he was protected by Alfonso V of Aragon and Naples.

    §. The 1912 edition of the Catholic Encyclopedia freely admits that the document is a forgery, but clearly suggests that the Church has openly recognised it as such since the fifteenth century, which is misleading, since (a) the donation was still cited as genuine by Catholic authorities for at least two centuries (b) No one admitted the error on the part of the Papacy (c) Popes themselves stopped referring to the donation at all, and (d) works like Valla's treatise exposing the fraud remained on the Index for centuries to come.

    This document is without doubt a forgery, fabricated somewhere between the years 750 and 850. As early as the fifteenth century its falsity was known and demonstrated. Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa (De Concordantiâ Catholicâ, III, ii, in the Basle ed. of his Opera, 1565, I) spoke of it as a dictamen apocryphum. Some years later (1440) Lorenzo Valla (De falso credita et ementita Constantini donatione declamatio, Mainz, 1518) proved the forgery with certainty. Independently of both his predecessors, Reginald Pecocke, Bishop of Chichester (1450-57), reached a similar conclusion in his work, "The Repressor of over much Blaming of the Clergy", Rolls Series, II, 351-366. Its genuinity was yet occasionally defended, and the document still further used as authentic, until Baronius in his "Annales Ecclesiastici" (ad an. 324) admitted that the "Donatio" was a forgery, whereafter it was soon universally admitted to be such. It is so clearly a fabrication that there is no reason to wonder that, with the revival of historical criticism in the fifteenth century, the true character of the document was at once recognized.

    §. Pollock and Maitland, The History of English Law, Bk. 1, Ch 1 (p 17).

    §. The False decretals attributed to Isidore Mercator, Bishop of Seville, were actually compiled between 847 and 852 at Le Mans, by a group of clerics who were by contemporary standards very skilful forgers. These decretals were later incorporated into Gratian's Decretum and thus into canon law.

    §. Patrogia Latinae cursus completus, series Latina, 221 vols., ed. J-P Migne (1844-64), Paris, vol. 214:col 292. Incidentally, in a sense all bishops are vicars of Christ. The term had apparently first been used of St Gelasius I, a bishop of Rome in the late fifth century, but it does not seem to have been adopted as a title, nor invested with the significance that Innocent accorded to it.


















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