Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

Upon This Rock

by Warren H. Carroll


In this brief essay on the papacy, noted historian Dr. Warren Carroll discusses its institution, its authority and its record of doctrinal orthodoxy.

Larger Work

Catholic Dossier

Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, March/April '98

The institution of the papacy is unique on earth. It is not necessary to refer to Catholic doctrine in order to uphold this premise. The facts would compel a truly objective secular or Protestant historian to assent to it as well.

First of all, there is the immense antiquity of the papacy. If the first Easter is dated in 30 A.D. (which seems most likely) and St. Peter’s assumption of primacy in the Church from Pentecost Sunday of that year, the papacy will be one thousand nine hundred and sixty-eight years old this spring. We may search the world today in vain for any institution, any unbroken chain of succession, which dates back anywhere near that far.

We are not speaking merely of a name or a title maintained because of a traditional veneration while its substance was fundamentally changed. The authority claimed and exercised by the Bishop of Rome has been essentially the same from the beginning. A careful reading of the first known papal document (excepting the two letters of St. Peter in the New Testament), the letter of the fourth Pope, St. Clement I, to the Corinthians about 95 A.D., shows the most remarkable similarities in tone and content to today’s public statements by Pope John Paul II. To appreciate the full force of this historical continuity, it should be contrasted with the enormous differences — the result of sweeping changes in culture — separating almost any other document of that period, whether political, literary or philosophical, from a document in the same field today.

What other historical institution anywhere in the world may be compared to the papacy? The titles and public ceremonial surrounding the offices of Pharaoh of Egypt and Emperor of China did endure for a longer period of years than the papacy has so far, in much slower-moving times: but where are they now? As an old prophecy of the Mongols of the steppes of Asia foretold, "the Son of Heaven has vanished, and the white Tsar is no more." The titles and ceremonials of Pharaoh and Son of Heaven were intimately bound up with the single long-lasting culture which sustained them; they did not survive its fall. The papacy survived one of the greatest catastrophes of history, the fall of the Western Roman Empire; it survived the breakaway of the Greek church of the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire; it endured essentially unchanged from one civilization (classical Graeco-Roman) to another, that of the modern West. And its authority is accepted by millions in lands which historically were not part of Western civilization at all, notably the Philippines, Korea, Vietnam, and central Africa.

Do other religions offer a parallel? There are not nearly so many of them as people tend to think. Universal religions — those with a substantial following in more than one culture — are the rarest of all historical phenomena. Excluding the special case of Judaism, mostly confined to one ethnic group though geographically widespread, there are only three: Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism.

Islam, in this as in many other ways a distorted echo of Christianity, had its partial counterpart to the Pope in the Khalif — the Commander of the Faithful — who was originally the supreme temporal head of the followers of Muhammad, and remained their spiritual leader for some time after losing temporal power. But where is the Khalif today? The office no longer exists.

Buddhism, which began as a world-denying nonreligious philosophy and developed into a complex mystical pantheism, has never had an international organization despite its international and intercultural spread in Asia, and never a single leader of its faithful.

Within Christianity itself there have been many churches which at various times have broken away from Catholic unity and denied the authority of the Pope Some have had no head and wanted none. Others have made a secular ruler their head. Others have attempted to maintain a patriarchal succession from early Christian times. But there are breaks in every chain, some lasting for centuries. The Russian Orthodox church, for example, has been trying to discover who its rightful head is, ever since the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453.

By contrast with these other Christian religious institutions which might seem to have points in common with it, the papacy has grown stronger and its followers more united with the passing years. The last antipope with a significant following abandoned his claims no less than 549 years ago. The moral character and personal courage of every Pope for the past two centuries, beginning with Pius VI who heroically resisted the efforts of the French Revolution to destroy the Church, has been beyond reproach. These last fifteen Popes have not only taught truth as Catholics know they must, but also have been shining examples of the Christian life in their own persons, which by no means all Popes have been. Our present Pope is, by any rational standard, the greatest man alive today.

In the 1968 years since the birthday of the Church on Pentecost Sunday, 264 men have sat in the Chair of Peter (the complete list of Popes used as a basis of this article appears in Newman G. Eberhardt, A Summary of Catholic History (1962) I, 824-830 and II, 815-816, with Popes after 1962 added). At least nine of them died as martyrs for the Faith; six more were assassinated. Twenty-four died before completing their first six months in office. Forty-nine men have challenged the right of one or more of these 264 to be Pope. On fourteen occasions this was done by attempting to depose a Pope whose valid election was admitted, while in the other cases the challenge was to the validity of his election or to that of one of his immediate predecessors. Seven Popes resigned their office. And out of all that list of 264, only four ever faced a serious challenge to their doctrinal orthodoxy from within the Church. Just one of the 49 antipopes based his claim in part on alleged heresy of the Pope — and that antipope was later reconciled to the Church and died a martyr literally at the side of a later Pope, and with him is venerated as a saint.

Out of this unique and fascinating historical record, several points deserve special comment. First of all is the record of doctrinal orthodoxy, so extraordinary as to be wholly inexplicable without the intervention of the Holy Spirit. That 264 men with the full power to define Christian doctrine should do so in such perfect harmony with each other over two thousand years, with only four instances in which their orthodoxy was even seriously questioned, is plainly and simply miraculous. Even the antipopes were rarely heretical. By contrast, the occupants of the patriarchal see of Alexandria during little more than two centuries (440-660) included eleven orthodox Catholics, thirteen Monophysite heretics, and two Monothelite heretics. The histories of the patriarchal sees of Antioch and Constantinople are similar. In the seventeenth century there was even a Patriarch of Constantinople (Cyril I Lucaris, 1620-35 and 1637-38) who was a Calvinist!

The four Popes whose orthodoxy was challenged were the 16th Pope, St. Callistus I (217-222); the 36th Pope, Liberius (352-366); the 71st Pope, Honorius I (625-638); and the 196th Pope, John XXII (1316-1334). According to his critic and rival, the first antipope, St. Hippolytus, Pope St. Callistus I favored the Monarchian heresy which in his time was circulating a profession of faith stating that as man Jesus is the Son, but as God he is the Father. Before becoming Pope, St. Callistus was closely associated with Sabellius, the leading promoter of this heresy. But after becoming Pope, St. Callistus condemned Sabellius for heresy and excommunicated him. St. Hippolytus was finally reconciled with the Church and papal authority, and died a martyr during one of the Roman imperial persecutions of the Church, along with Pope St. Pontian.

Liberius was Pope at the height of the Arian heresy, when at one point all the bishops in the Roman world who were allowed to function as such by the Emperor Constantius had been compelled to condemn St. Athanasius, who was upholding the orthodox faith almost alone except for the common people. Liberius was imprisoned, certainly ill-treated, probably tortured. He agreed to condemn Athansius — unjustly, as he later admitted. (Popes are not infallible in individual disciplinary decisions.) He agreed to sign an ambiguous confession of faith, the Third Formulary of Sirmium, which was capable of an Arian interpretation subordinating the Son to the Father — yet he added to the document, even from his prison, anathema on all who said "the Son is not like the Father in substance and in all things." And he steadfastly refused to sign the Second Formulary of Sirmium, an undoubtedly heretical document proclaiming that "the Father is greater than the Son." Though many people at the time had the impression that Pope Liberius had endorsed Arianism, the documents show that he never did.

A similar situation arose in the pontificate of Honorius I. The Emperor Heraclius at Constantinople gave his support to a Christology intended as a compromise with the Monophysite heretics who denied Christ’s human nature, which in fact was a heresy itself — Monothelitism, the doctrine that Christ has two natures but only one will, which is divine rather than human. (A man without a human will is not a man.) Patriarch Sergius of Constantinople accepted the new heresy and wrote to Pope Honorius I explaining Monothelite teachings in a carefully expurgated and toned-down manner, and asked the Pope’s opinion. Honor ius replied that he thought it would be vain to dispute the issue as Sergius had explained it, and refused to give an opinion. Sergius then distributed the Pope’s letter all over the East as proof that Monothelitism was not heretical, though actually the letter said nothing of the kind. No real difficulty regarding papal infallibility would ever have arisen from this — since obviously teaching heresy and refusing to denounce a heresy at a particular time are wholly different things — were it not for the fact that the Third Ecumenical Council of Constantinople, which condemned the Monothelite heresy in 681, forty-three years after Pope Honorius I died, also condemned him as a heretic because of his letter to Sergius. However even the decrees of an ecumenical council are not binding on the whole Church unless and until, and to the extent that, they are confirmed by the Pope. Pope St. Leo II (681-683) did confirm the acts of the council, but he also noted explicitly that Pope Honorius was being condemned for tardiness and negligence in not denouncing the Monothelite heresy sooner. Pope St. Leo II said nothing to indicate that he believed Pope Honorius had taught heresy or that he had assented to any condemnation of him for that reason.

The only other Pope thought to be a heretic was John XXII, one of the Avignon Popes of the fourteenth century, who in three sermons toward the end of his life argued for the proposition that the souls of the just do not enjoy the Beatific Vision immediately after their personal Judgment, but only after the general Judgment. But he also declared that he was not sure of this opinion, and invited comment by theologians upon it. Although the Church had not yet formally defined the present enjoyment of the Beatific Vision by saints as an article of faith, it was generally held to be the truth, and is affirmed today. Pope John XXII was soon persuaded by theologians at the University of Paris that his theology was incorrect, and retracted his erroneous opinion on his deathbed. In this case it is apparent that the Pope was speaking with extraordinary imprudence) as a private theologian, rather than exercising the magisterium of his office, since he invited dissent and objections, which no Pope ever does when teaching ex cathedra.

As for the other 260 Popes, no serious charge of unorthodoxy in doctrine was ever made against any of them. Probably the most spectacular instance of fidelity under enormous pressure from the most unlikely human material was provided by the 60th Pope, Vigilius (537-555), one of the three men in the history of the Church who were antipopes during the lifetime of a legitimate Pope but recognized as the legitimate Pope after the death of the prior Pope. Vigilius, a man of weak character and great personal ambition, apparently intrigued with Monophysite heretics (notably the Empress Theodora) in the court at Constantinople to bring about the arrest, exile and martyrdom of his Predecessor, Pope St. Silverius. Evidently he was expected to approve the Monophysite heresy once he became true Pope. But he stunned the Monophysites with this statement to Empress Theodora: "Far be this from me, Lady Augusta; formerly I spoke wrongly and foolishly, but now I assuredly refuse to restore a man who is a heretic and under anathema [the deposed Monophysite Patriarch of Constantinople, Anthimius]. Though unworthy, I am vicar of Blessed Peter the Apostle, as were my predecessors, the most holy Agapitus and Silverius, who condemned him." Vigilius was arrested while saying Mass in Rome, taken away as a prisoner to Constantinople for ten years, and died in exile, but he never taught, endorsed, or supported heresy.

On what basis, then, has the tenure of papal office been historically contested, since except in the single case of Pope St. Callistus I, doctrinal unorthodoxy was never the charge? Most frequently the issue has been the validity and regularity of the Pope’s election. Of the 49 antipopes, 24 were rival candidates who based their claims on alleged irregularities which denied the election to them. An additional eleven succeeded to the claims of one or more of the twenty-four. There fore, in the whole history of the Church, only fourteen men have directly challenged the legitimacy of the incumbent Pope on grounds other than the circumstances of his or a predecessor’s election; and in four other cases, action of some kind was taken which could be regarded as attempting to depose a Pope whose valid election was not contested.

That a Pope may resign his office is clear. It has happened seven times, all but one of which reflected great credit on the Pope involved. The first two resignations (of the 18th Pope, St. Pontian, in 235, and the 75th Pope, St. Martin I, in 655) were by Popes imprisoned, exiled and facing martyrdom, who resigned to enable a worthy successor to minister from Rome to the Church’s needs. Three of the five later resignations (the 133rd Pope, Benedict V, in 964; the 149th Pope, Gregory VI, in 1046; and the 205th Pope, Gregory XII, in 1415) were cases where the Pope laid down his office voluntarily to end schism and bring peace to the Church. The case of the 192nd Pope, St. Celestine V, who resigned because he recognized his own incapacity to carry out the duties of the office, is well known. The other resignation, by the 148th Pope, Benedict IX, at a low point in papal history (1045) was apparently for personal and not very honorable reasons.

No Pope has ever resigned for reasons of health, though several of them (notably Pope Leo XIII at the beginning of this century) have lived into their nineties, and one (Clement XII, the 246th Pope) was totally blind for the last eight years of his pontificate (1732-40).

There has never been a clearly valid deposition of a Pope. There were 18 attempted depositions, mostly undertaken by secular rulers and politicians for obviously political reasons. In eight cases, the challenger who brought forward the antipope and sought to remove the existing Pope was the Emperor — Roman, Byzantine or German (Holy Roman). In four other cases, the "deposition" was simply a popular rebellion in Rome during the political nadir of the papacy in the tenth and early eleventh centuries, when Rome was in a state of virtual anarchy and the Pope had little if any help from the rest of Christendom. No pretense was made of canonical or other formal jurisdiction.

Two of the imperialist antipopes were put forward by synods assembled at the emperor’s command which pretended to have the authority to depose a Pope, but in neither case was their verdict accepted by the Church or by Christendom. Both Popes retained their office and their authority and ultimately prevailed. They were the 157th Pope, the famous St. Gregory VII or Hildebrand (1073-85) and the 170th Pope, Alexander III (1159-81). Much earlier, a synod convened by King Theodoric the Ostrogoth in 501 was ordered by him to depose the 51st Pope, St. Symmachus; they refused, declaring they had no power to judge a Pope. The great Charlemagne, asked to depose the 98th Pope, St. Leo III, in 799 and 800, responded with the memorable words: "We dare not judge the Apostolic See, which is the head of all the churches of God; we are all judged by Him and His Vicar, who is judged by none, this has been the custom since the earliest ages. As the supreme pontiff decides, so shall we obey." The imperially sponsored Council of Sutri in 1046 persuaded Pope Gregory VI to resign, but doubted its authority to depose him, which in any case was not attempted because of his resignation. The Council of Sutri also went through a charade of "deposing" the preceding Pope, Benedict IX, who had resigned the year before. It would appear that a papal resignation is irrevocable, since when Benedict IX later attempted to resume the papacy he was deemed an antipope and refused election.

Finally, and probably most significant, are the two instances ofattempted deposition of a Pope by an ecumenical council, which surely should have the power to depose a Pope if anyone does. Both these grew out of the Great Western Schism, which split Christendom among rival papal claimants for half a century. Pope Urban VI was validly elected and generally recognized as Pope in 1378 but was betrayed later that year by his entire College of Cardinals, which claimed against all the evidence that his election was invalid, and named Cardinal Robert of Geneva to take his place as Clement VII. When the schism had lasted more than thirty years with no end in sight, an unauthorized council met at Pisa, declared both the true Pope and the antipope deposed, and elected a third Pope, Peter Philargis called Alexander V.

Philargis’ successor convened a new council at Con stance five years later which shortly proceeded to depose him. The true Pope, Gregory XII, then officially recognized this council on the condition that they acknowledge him as true Pope, and immediately resigned after they had done so, in order to bring the schism to an end. The Council of Constance then selected Martin V as the 206th Pope. However, a faction of the council sought to retain supra-papal authority and, reconvening later at Basel, declared Martin’s successor Eugenius IV deposed in 1439 and set up an antipope, Felix. He is the last antipope in history. Within four years he had lost all his support in Europe, while Eugenius IV still gloriously reigned.

Since then, papal elections have been more carefully regulated and the influence of secular rulers and governments almost totally eliminated. The likelihood of a genuine doubt about the validity of any Pope’s election has therefore receded almost to the vanishing point. Since the lessons of history and the mind of the Church show that a Pope in office cannot be removed against his will, no way remains for his enemies to avoid the choice of recognizing or defying his authority.

Though some sheep may stray, there remains one flock and one shepherd. Death may take the shepherd, or on rare occasions he may hand over his staff to another while he still lives; but there is no other way to be rid of him. Otherwise he will stay with us, fulfilling the promises of Christ — as Pope John Paul II is fulfilling them today.

"Upon this rock" Christ built to last.

This is an abridged and slightly revised version of an article which appeared in TRIUMPH, December 1973.

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