The Myth Of The Papacy

You know by now that Benedict XVI has abdicated the papacy and the college of Cardinals have been preparing to elect a new pope. on Tuesday they are set to begin the process of actually electing a new pope. Over the next few days, news coverage will be intense and, until a pope is elected and if coverage follows the usual pattern, we will likely witness reporters standing outside the Vatican breathlessly saying or implying that this is the way things have been since the 1st century. Of course, nothing could be farther from the truth. As a matter of history, the papacy is a collection of myths.

Our word “myth” is derived from the Greek word muthos (μυθος). According to the Oxford English Dictionary, in English usage, “myth” denotes a

traditional story, typically involving supernatural beings or forces, which embodies and provides an explanation, aetiology, or justification for something such as the early history of a society, a religious belief or ritual, or a natural phenomenon.

This sense of the word “myth” partly captures what I mean by it here. The papacy is largely the result of a long series of practical and political developments that have been cloaked in the fabric of piety and supernaturalism. In that sense the current papacy invokes a myth involving supernatural explanations of the papacy when there are perfectly natural, historical explanations.

The OED adds a layer of explanation as it begins to list a series of definitions:

a. A widespread but untrue or erroneous story or belief; a widely held misconception; a misrepresentation of the truth. Also: something existing only in myth; a fictitious or imaginary person or thing.

This captures exactly what I mean by myth in this context. There is a widespread but untrue story about the papacy. It is partly the result of assumptions but it is partly the result of a grossly anachronistic story told by Romanist apologists.

The historical truth is that the papacy as we know it today did not begin to exist until Leo I, who was Bishop of Rome from 440–61.  In fact, the pope has not always been “the Pope.” There is absolutely no evidence in the Book of Acts that Peter had primacy among the apostles. Indeed, if we consider that Paul rebuked Peter at Antioch for denying the gospel (apparently “Peter” never learns), then the very notion of an unbroken succession of Petrine popes speaking infallibly from from a divinely instituted throne seems most unlikely indeed.

Though it is indeed possible and, depending upon how one reconstructs the patristic histories, even probable that Peter was in Rome, when the apostle Paul wrote to the congregation in Rome he made no mention of Peter, who, on this reconstruction, was in Rome under Claudius 14 years before. Were Peter regarded as primus inter pares (first among equals) then we would expect some recognition of that status but there is none nor do we find any such recognition in the rest of the NT. It’s at least possible that other NT documents were written to the congregation at Rome and yet there is no recognition of Peter’s alleged primacy. He certainly did not assert any such primacy in the two epistles under his name. In the gospel of Mark, likely written as a follow-on to his visit to Rome and closely associated with his ministry, gives not a hint of Petrine primacy.

The case for the papacy in the 2nd century (from 100 AD) is just as weak. There is no evidence in the so-called Apostolic Fathers (a somewhat arbitrary, if illuminating and important collection of texts from the early to mid-2nd century) that they regarded Peter as the first pope. Terrence Smith says, “There is an astonishing lack of of reference to Peter among ecclesiastical authors of the first half of the second century.”1

Robert Eno says,

The evidence (Clement, Hermas, Ignatius) points us in the direction of assuming that in the first century and into the second, that there was not bishop of Rome in the usual sense given to that title. The office of the single mon-episcopos was slowly emerging in the local Christian communities around the Mediterranean world.2

This is what one finds in the Apostolic Fathers. Because Patristic texts have sometimes been translated under what we might call an “Episcopal assumption,” i.e., under the assumption that when a text says “Episcopos” (επισκοπος) it signals a single, centralized regional manager of the church, we are sometimes left with a misimpression. If, however, we read the Apostolic Fathers in context it quickly appears that we cannot read into “episcopos” the later monepiscopal office and authority.

There was a variety of church governments in the second century. There is good evidence for a variety of ecclesiastical structures in the second century. Three offices are mentioned consistently, episcopos, presbyter, and deacon. These are often used in a non-hierachical sense and the plurality of presbyters is not uncommon.

Gradually, however, in the face of the pressure of persecution, through the third century the churches began to gather around pastors in leading cities (Rome, Antioch, Alexandria, Jerusalem) and those pastors began to exert more authority in the organization of the church. The rise of a bishop-centered polity, where a regional pastor exercised authority over local pastors and elders, was a pragmatic, development that modeled itself not on the New Testament pattern but on the prevailing pattern of (Roman) civil government. This, by the way, is yet another reason why Christians need to think carefully, historically, and intelligently about the problem of Christ and culture. When imitate the surrounding culture, when we fail to criticize the influence of the culture in the church, and when we baptize the prevailing culture—under whatever pretense—it has typically not gone well for the church.

The papacy as we know it today is a medieval creature. It did not exist in the first century, the second, the third, the fourth, the fifth, or even the sixth. It was Damasus I, who served 366–84, who first asserted the title “Pope” (Papa) and there was nothing like the papacy as we know it until Gregory I, who was in office from 590–604. As we will see in the series the power and influence of the papacy grew, gradually, by steps until the early 14th century, when, in 1302, in the papal decree (Unam Sanctam) the papacy asserted its primacy against Philip of France. That was likely the highpoint of genuine papal authority and the beginning of a long, ugly decline.

It seems likely that, if the college of cardinals (a medieval development), elects a pope, it will likely be the cardinal protodeacon who announces “Habemus papam” (“We have a pope”). That announcement is symbolic of the myth of the papacy. Reporters intone about the ancient rituals, about St Peter’s Basilica, as if things have always been this way. It just isn’t so, however. During this week of March-Papal-Madness, I’ll try to add some historical perspective.

Above I began to sketch a way of looking at the papacy that peers through the popular and Romanist myth of the papacy to the historical reality.

The point of this essay is to be suggestive, to alert the reader to the reality that the papacy is a very human, not a divine institution, that developed in response to external and internal stimuli. It wasn’t established by Christ. It doesn’t exist in the Acts of the Apostles. It did not exist in the 2nd or even 3rd centuries. Even when the Bishop (pastor) of Rome begins to be called “pope” that does not mean that he either actually was “pope” or that he was regarded as the universal vicar (representative) of Christ on the earth with authority to speak infallibly for Christ from an episcopal throne. Those are much later notions that cannot be read back into the late Patristic and early medieval periods.

One of the aspects of the development of the papacy that fascinates me is the existence of anti-popes. According to Romanist scholars there have been no fewer than 46 anti-popes in the history of the papacy. Of course that count includes figures that pre-date the actual existence of a “papacy.” One Romanist writer defines an anti-pope thus:

Any person who took the name of pope and exercised or claimed to exercise his functions without canonical foundation.

The definition is as problematic as it is interesting. It is problematic because it fails to recognize that the method of electing popes developed. Gregory I, probably the first Roman Bishop with anything like genuine papal power, was not elected by a college of cardinals. That institution did not develop for centuries. Gregory (Regula Pastoralis), by his own account, thrust into office by popular and priestly acclaim.

A cardinal Bishop is a papal elector. “Cardinal” was originally used adjectivally of any priest permanently attached to a church. Then it became restricted to priests, deacons, and bishops in and around Rome. Cardinal is derived from cardo (hinge, axis). By the 11th century “cardinal” became a noun. In 1059 Nicholas II (contra Henry IV of England), in In Nomine Domine, gave Cardinal Bishops the sole right to elect popes. Cardinal priests and deacons were to give assent. Thus, the process we are witnessing this week is an 11th century process, not an apostolic, patristic, or even early medieval process. It is a high medieval process. Study the history of the Western church and it soon becomes quite clear that the features that distinguish the Roman communion, that make Rome what it is, her claims to primacy, authority, her sacerdotal sacramental ministry, the papacy, and her doctrines—they are largely medieval creatures. The Roman sacramental system was not consolidated until the 4th Lateran Council in 1215. Thus, when the Reformation rejected those innovations they were no farther away chronologically than say Jonathan Edwards is from us. Even after the 4th Lateran, it is Trent, a 16th-century reaction to the Reformation that, as much as anything makes the Roman communion, including the papacy, what it is. In short: the antiquity of Romanism is a myth. It is a medieval and Tridentine creature.

Though we associate the papacy with Rome, it has not always resided in there. From 1305–78, the papacy relocated to Avignon, on the election of Clement V. He needed to stay near France but outside of Rome for fear of violence in Rome. He settled the Papacy in Avignon because it was an imperial city and he was trying to gain the support of France and England to resume the crusades.

As is the case today, the Italians, who regarded the papacy as theirs, were not happy about this move but the papacy remained in Avignon until 1377. The Italians did not take this lying down. They installed Nicholas V from 1328–30 so that briefly, there were two popes, both elected by papal electors. Gregory XI attempted to return the papacy to Rome, if only to reassert papal and Roman control of the peninsula. On Gregory’s death, in 1378, the problem of anti-popes intensified with the election of Urban VI, in Rome. He was so unpopular with the people that the cardinals lied about whom they had elected. He was also unpopular with some of the cardinals because he was said to have a temper and most outrageously, because he accused the cardinals of living ostentatiously. In retaliation, some electors accused him of being insane.

In reaction to his election, some of the papal electors decamped to Avignon, where the papacy had been from 1305–77 and elected Robert of Geneva as Clement VII. Here’s the rub. Clement VII gets the asterisk as the antipope. Why? Romanist historians can’t say. There’s no objective ground for disqualifying him other than that he was not in Rome, but the papacy had been in Avignon for decades and that is not regarded as illegitimate and the one competitor elected in Rome in 1328 gets an asterisk as an antipope so location isn’t definitive. Apparently a pope is antipope if Rome later says he was even if Rome cannot say how or why. Fiat!

There followed a succession of popes and “antipopes” in Rome and Avignon between 1378 and 1409, when things took an even stranger twist. It was then that the Council of Pisa, at which 22 cardinal Bishops were in attendance, elected Alexander V (June 1409–May 1410). Benedict XIII, who had been in Avignon fled Spain. Alexander V was succeeded by John XXIII,

By this time, there had already been multiple successions in both Rome and the Avignon. There had been mutual excommunications and depositions of competing popes by the Council of Pisa. At the Council of Constance (1414–18) John XXIII was arrested, brought back to Constance, and imprisoned until 1419 (but he was later made a Cardinal, so, as they say, “it’s all good”). Benedict XIII (in Spain) were deposed and Gregory XII abdicated. The council then elected Odo Colonna as Martin V on 11 November, 1417, ending the schism. Rome has never pronounced on the canonicity of Urban VI’s election or the legitimacy of Pisa.

One of my students showed me a news story yesterday which described the “ancient” rituals being enacted in the Vatican this week. Competition among competing popes, elected by competing gatherings of cardinal Bishops, is another ancient ritual but not one that will get much coverage this week. Those, however, who are interested in the history of the papacy should know that there was a severe crisis in the papacy in the 14th and 15th centuries that provoked grave doubts among honest, fair-minded Christians in the late medieval period. Indeed, without the gross corruption of the church “in head and members”(Fifth Lateran Council) the Reformation might have been less plausible.

The existence of simultaneous popes in Rome, Avignon, and Pisa also illustrates the grave problem of the very notion of an unbroken Petrine succession. There is no unbroken succession, first because the papacy has not always existed. Second, because there is no biblical or early evidence of Petrine primacy, and third, because the post-Avignon papacy is an orphan who has no idea who his father was in the 14th and 15th century.

UPDATE 13 March 2013

In researching an answer to another question I ran across some interesting stuff. First, on the “Catholic Answers” Forum. There it is asserted that Martin V was not a true pope because he was deposed. Gregory XII is said to have been a true pope because he resigned. So, deposition by a council nullifies a papacy but then they claim that no council can depose a pope. Never mind the fact that Constance decreed that all, including popes, must submit to councils. It’s okay if you find that confusing. It is.

Second, Eamon Duffy’s account of the Avignon crisis attempts to vindicate the Roman popes by trashing the Avignon popes as if the latter were less fit for office than the former. That’s a strange argument to make and not one that will favor the Renaissance papacy at all.


1. Terrence V. Smith, Petrine Controversies in Early Christianity: Attitudes Towards Peter in Christian Writings of the First Two Centuries (Tübingen: Mohr, 1985), 174 cited in Robert Eno, The Rise of the Papcy (Eugene: W & S, 1990), 15.

2. Eno, Ibid, 29.

This essay was originally published in two parts 11-13 March, 2013 at Heidelblog.net