Papal Obsession: What's in A Name?

One positive consequence of recent interactions with Roman Catholics like Brad Gregory, Christian Smith, the indefatigable Bryan Cross, and the stellar work of Francis Oakley is an awareness of just how complicated and fascinating the history of the papacy is. Eamon Duffy puts it this way in his new book on the papacy:

Thomas Hobbes famously remarked that the papacy was “not other than the ghost of the deceased Roman Empire, sitting crowned on the grave thereof.” The comment was certainly not intended as a compliment, but it encapsulated an important historical reality nonetheless. Through no particular initiative of their own, the Popes inherited the mantle of Empire in the West; the papacy became the conduit of Roman imperial values and symbolism into the European Middle Ages. In a time of profound historical instability at the end of antiquity and in the early Middle Ages, the see of Peter was a link to all that seemed most desirable in the ancient world, custodian of both its secular and its sacred values. The papacy embodied immemorial continuity and offered divine sanction for law and legitimacy. So popes crowned kings and emperors and, on occasion, attempted to depose them. Even in the eighth and ninth centuries papal authority stood high, although the papacy was the prisoner of local Roman politics and many of the popes themselves were the often unlearned sons of feuding local dynasties. (17-18)

Anyone with a historical awareness, with visions of Christianity having access to and reach within corridors of power, and with a desire for a church that has roots deeper than some denomination that emerged in the 1780s, would likely be drawn to membership with a church such as Rome presents. At the same time, a concern for the spiritual depths of Christianity has not always been at the forefront of the papacy’s ministry, unless maintaining supremacy in European politics and mediating the Roman Empire were crucial pieces of that spiritual service.

The historical and cultural depth of the Vatican gives almost every aspect of the papacy significance beyond surface impressions and as a result should stimulate the imagination of anyone who studies the past. The case of Gregory XVI, who became pope in 1831 and who is the subject of Owen Chadwick’s first chapter (A History of the Popes, 1830-1914), illustrates the point.

The most famous pope of the Middle Ages to assert papal power against emperors and kings was Pope Gregory VII, Hildebrand. Ever since the high Middle Ages popes were conscious that in Gregory VII they made an emperor to kneel in the snow at Canossa, that in Innocent III they acted as the international authority of Europe, that in Bonfiace VIII they asserted the ultimate secular power of the pope as well as his ultimate spiritual authority. They were also aware that these tremendous claims were not often recognized and sometimes were repudiated with contempt or with force. Gregory VII died in exile, Boniface sickened and died after being kidnapped and rescued. In the Counter-Reformation, when Spanish and afterwards French power became strong in Italy, they grew hesitant of using such names lest they remind Europe of the contrast between the past glories of the Holy See and the weakness of its present occupant. No one had chosen the name Boniface since 1389, when the see was divided by the Great Schism. Gregory XIII was a famous name of the Counter-Reformation and shortly afterwards there were two more Gregorys; one ruled for less than a year, the other for two years, yet they were important. Towards the end of the seventeenth century and early in the eighteen century there were three weighty popes who took the name Innocent. But in the eighteenth century they preferred to take gentler-sounding names, such as Clement (four of those), Pius, or Benedict. The coronation of Pius VI in 1775 stared the age of the Piuses — during the next 183 years there were only fifty-four years in which the pope was not named Pius. And when they were not called Pius they avoided high-and-mighty sounding names — with one exception. . . .

The name Gregory was a claim. This was a cardinal who reacted against the French Revolution and all that it stood for. He seems to have had Gregory VII in his mind; but also, while a cardinal, he did a lot for the Congregation de Propaganda Fide, and the last Gregory had founded the Congregation. When the French Revolution kidnapped the Pope, he published a cry of resistance to the revolution The Triumph of the Holy See and the Church against the Attacks of Innovators (1799).

Just when the papacy looked moribund, and many said that Pius VI was the last pope in the history of Europe, and no one could see how the institution could survive even in Italy, he published this book, which rejoiced in the coming victory of the Church over its enemies. . . .

In not liking the way the modern world was going Gregory XVI was characteristic of the popes, with one possible exception, for the next 127 years. (1-3_

This messiness of Europe and the papacy’s place in it is what defenders of the popes and their infallibility generally leave out. Does history undermine spiritual authority? Critical biblical scholarship has long raised the issue of the humanity of the Bible in ways the complicate assertions of Scripture’s divine origin. Conceiving of and maintaining the papacy’s spiritual rights and gifts while paying attention to its tawdry political successes, setbacks, and ambitions is perhaps just as plausible as conservative Protestant defenses of the Bible’s inerrancy. But the problem for folks like the Callers is that we actually can see how they make the sausage. The papacy is an institution that left behind records, and combated other institutions that also left a paper trail. The authors of Scripture left no such traces. We don’t know how many drafts, for instance, Paul may have written before getting it just right to send a letter to the Christians at Rome. When the Callers don’t acknowledge the actual guts of the making of the papacy and insist only on the spiritual truths of the papacy, they appear to be in denial. They may simply be ignorant. But their claims for the papacy’s power, antiquity, and charism are decidedly partial.

But for the rest of us, the papacy is breathtaking in its preservation of an ancient order, despite all the changes between Rome in 70 and Paris in 2010, even if that order is now confined to 109 square acres.