Popes and Papacy

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Popes and Papacy

In the early Christian church, people referred to all priests as pope, from the Greek and Latin words for "father." Over time, this term became the title of one specific priest—the bishop of Rome. Western Europeans came to view the pope as the earthly representative of Christ and as the head of the entire Roman Catholic Church. Throughout most of Christian history, popes have ruled the Catholic Church in all matters of faith and morals. They have also led the church government and had the final say on matters of doctrine.

In addition to these spiritual duties, Renaissance popes ruled over a secular* realm called the Papal States. This large territory stretched over much of central and northern Italy. Its economy focused on farming and some manufacturing. By the mid-1600s about 1.7 million people lived in the Papal States. Rome and Bologna were the realm's largest cities.


As head of the Roman Catholic Church and ruler of the Papal States, the pope had many responsibilities. These included defending the faith, supporting missionary activities, and supervising military action against enemies. With their great wealth and power, popes also served as patrons* of learning and the arts.

Secular and Spiritual Authority. Popes sought to rule in both spiritual and secular matters. They claimed the right to approve the election of the Holy Roman Emperor* and to crown him personally. Although the pope had no power to overthrow a monarch, he could excommunicate* a king or queen who opposed him and urge other rulers to conquer the monarch's lands. In the 1400s, the popes urged the rulers of Spain and Portugal to win back lands captured by the Moors* and to take over new territories in Africa. They acknowledged the Christian rulers' authority over these newly won territories and encouraged them to establish churches there.

Meanwhile, popes continued to exercise their time-honored role as the final judges in matters of faith. They condemned heresy (teachings that went against church doctrine) and issued decrees on religious topics. To deal with suspected cases of heresy, Sixtus IV granted the Spanish monarchs the power to set up the Spanish Inquisition* in 1479. Paul III later created a Roman Inquisition to combat Protestant ideas in Italy and elsewhere. In 1559 Paul IV issued the first Index of Prohibited Books to ban unacceptable views in print.

Some popes faced more immediate threats to the faith. Throughout the Renaissance, the papacy* played a major role in defending Christian Europe from the threat of Muslim invasion. Popes tried to persuade Christian rulers to supply military forces and participate in crusades. They also provided money for the campaigns and sent their own troops, sailors, and ships to join in the expeditions. Advances by the Ottoman Turks* into eastern Europe posed a serious threat to the Christian world. To combat this danger, the Roman Catholic Church joined forces with leaders of the Orthodox Church, based in the Byzantine Empire*. In 1453 the Turks captured Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire. Several popes tried to drive them out, but rivalries between Christian rulers undercut most of their efforts.

Popes also promoted crusades against heretics*, including a failed effort against a group known as the Hussites in the 1400s. They used diplomacy and missionary activities to try to win back lands that had become Protestant. Gregory XIII failed to bring Sweden back into the Catholic ranks, while Clement VIII allowed the French king Henry IV to rejoin the Catholic Church after several years as a Protestant. Other popes established seminaries (schools for priests) to train missionaries for work in Protestant lands.

After the voyages of Christopher Columbus between 1492 and 1504, popes took a strong interest in spreading the Catholic faith to non-Christian lands. In this task they relied on the rulers of Spain and Portugal, whose exploration of the Americas was opening up new areas for missionary activity. To encourage the spread of the faith, popes granted privileges to these monarchs, who bore the costs of building churches and supporting the priests they sent overseas. Popes also established rules regarding the treatment of people in the new lands. Leo X permitted the training of native peoples as priests in 1519. Paul III condemned the practice of slavery in 1537.

Papal Patronage. Although most Renaissance popes were trained in theology* and church law, few had any classical* learning. Nevertheless, they often hired humanists* as secretaries and administrators. They also supported humanist writers and theologians. As part of their patronage, popes founded new schools and helped maintain existing ones. They provided aid to universities in the Papal States, especially the one in Rome. In addition, several popes worked to reorganize and enlarge the Vatican Library.

The Renaissance popes were major patrons of the arts, especially in Rome. They sought to make Rome a prosperous and attractive center of culture. To achieve this goal, they repaired the city's walls and aqueducts*, reorganized streets and built new ones, constructed fountains, and opened up new areas for development. To encourage the construction of palaces, Pope Sixtus IV changed church law to allow high-ranking members of the clergy to leave property to their heirs instead of to the church. Many popes built palaces of their own as well.

Popes also collected and commissioned artworks, especially religious ones. They called to Rome the leading artists and architects of the day to restore old churches, build new ones, and decorate chapels, churches, and palaces. Artists such as Fra Angelico, Sandro Botticelli, Donato Bramante, Raphael, and Michelangelo Buonarroti worked on projects for various popes. Renaissance popes served as patrons of the musical arts as well. They funded choirs to sing in the great chapels and cathedrals of Rome and hired great composers such as Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina and Josquin des Prez to write sacred music.

Popes shaped artistic tastes through their patronage. Through the art they commissioned, popes sought to honor God and the saints, promote the faith, and display the authority of the papacy. Their patronage transformed Rome into the capital of the Christian world.


The pope stood at the top of the church chain of command. Beneath him served cardinals, bishops, and other officials who played important roles in the workings of the church. To support its spiritual and secular activities, the church needed vast revenues.

Popes and Cardinals. The college of cardinals, the group of high church officials who elected the pope and served as his advisers and administrators, went through major changes during the Renaissance. Two church councils in the 1400s had passed decrees attempting to limit the number of cardinals to 24, with no more than 8 from any one nation. However, popes claimed that they needed more cardinals and increased their numbers to 70 by 1586. Many cardinals were qualified for their work, but others reached their positions through family or political connections or bribes.

Cardinals enjoyed a great deal of power and authority in the early years of the Renaissance. They ran the church administration and protected the interests of their favorite nations, religious orders, and factions*. As the number of cardinals increased, however, their power declined.

In the 1530s and 1540s Paul III set the college of cardinals on a new course. He appointed many reform-minded cardinals and established committees to deal with specific issues. Sixtus V refined this system into 15 permanent groups, or "congregations"—6 for secular affairs and the rest for spiritual matters. Each congregation had its own specific tasks and members. Such measures reduced the cardinals to administrators who also fulfilled ceremonial roles in the church.

Although cardinals lost power during the Renaissance, they maintained their wealth. Many cardinals had revenue from monasteries, landholdings, or church offices. Cardinals who came from noble families enjoyed private sources of income as well. Moreover, all cardinals received a share of papal revenues. Cardinals used their wealth to advance the fortunes of their relatives and to maintain lavish palaces.

Popes and Bishops. Popes asserted their authority over bishops in a number of ways. They insisted on the right to approve the election of bishops and to collect revenues from them. Popes often joined with powerful local rulers to change the way bishops were chosen. Instead of having local officials elect bishops, rulers selected candidates and the pope appointed them. Bishops appointed in this way tended to be very loyal to their rulers.

The Council of Trent raised the education level of bishops by requiring them to hold advanced degrees in theology or law. It also required them to live within their dioceses*. However, to strengthen their ties to the pope, bishops had to visit Rome once every 3 to 10 years, depending on how far away they lived. The bishops also had to submit regular written reports about their dioceses to the pope.

The Roman Curia. The administrative arm of the papacy was called the Roman Curia. Cardinals ran most of the departments in the Curia with the help of large staffs. The Curia also handled the judicial and financial needs of the church.

Renaissance popes sought to increase their income by adding offices to the Curia and selling the new positions for high prices. Those who invested in these lifetime offices received an annual payment from the church, even though many of them did no actual work. Some officials tried to gain extra revenues by engaging in questionable practices, earning the Curia much ill will.

Several councils attempted to reform the Curia during the 1400s, but with little success. Popes resisted their efforts, claiming that they would improve the Curia themselves. Cardinals and members of the Curia fought the changes as well. Still, by the early 1600s a reorganization of the Curia had ended the worst abuses.

Papal Finances. Many popes struggled to manage their finances during the Renaissance. The popes received no annual revenue from church members. Instead, they depended on a patchwork of traditional sources of revenue. These included fees charged for producing documents and other services, fines for violating church laws, the sale of church offices, and the annual tribute* paid by the Papal States. After the early 1500s, church revenues began to decline, due in part to the loss of income from lands that had become Protestant.

Meanwhile, papal expenditures continued to grow. About one-third of the annual budget went toward annual payments to church officials. Salaries of administrators in Rome and the Papal States accounted for another 20 percent. The papacy had to finance an army, the college of cardinals, embassies, and the papal court in Rome. Popes also spent large sums on their relatives in gifts, money, and lands. Wars drained papal revenues, as did the support of crusades against the Ottoman Turks and Protestant governments throughout Europe.


In the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, the papacy faced a number of challenges that threatened the stability of the church and the Papal States. In time, the popes resolved these crises and expanded their powers.

The Great Western Schism. During the 1300s, the papacy faced a crisis that threatened to divide its authority and break the ancient tradition of Rome as the seat of the pope and the Christian faith. In 1309 Clement V (reigned 1305–1314), a native of France, moved the papal residence from Rome to the city of Avignon in southern France. Over the next 70 years the papacy remained in Avignon, dominated by the French.

Following the death of Gregory XI in 1378, the cardinals of the church elected an Italian pope, Urban VI. They later deposed* him and elected a new French pope, Clement VII, who ruled from Avignon. However, Urban VI continued to lay claim to the papacy. The rival popes excommunicated each other and imprisoned each other's supporters. All attempts to resolve this split, or schism, within the church failed. Most cardinals became convinced that only a general council had the authority to impose a solution. In 1409 they deserted the popes and called the Council of Pisa, at which they deposed both rival popes and elected a new one, Alexander V.

The new pope won the support of most of Europe, and his army captured Rome. However, both of the deposed popes still had supporters and claimed papal authority. At the Council of Constance (1414–1418), the cardinals once again deposed all those who claimed to be pope and elected a new one, Martin V. The council's actions ended the schism and restored the unity of the papacy. However, the schism had weakened papal authority in both secular and spiritual matters.

The Papal States. During the Great Western Schism, the pope's hold on the Papal States weakened. Martin V reasserted control over the Papal States, enabling him to gain badly needed revenues from them. Decisions made by the Council of Constance had greatly reduced revenues from spiritual activities, creating a need for other sources of income.

Martin and his successors broke the power of leading families in various parts of the Papal States. Some popes, such as Julius II, deposed local lords and placed their territories under direct papal rule. Others, such as Alexander VI, gave the conquered lands to their relatives. In 1567, however, Pius V declared that all lands in the Papal States that had lost their lords would remain under the direct control of the papacy. By the early 1600s, the papacy had gained near-total control over the territories of the Papal States.

Restoring Spiritual Authority. Renaissance popes also worked to restore the spiritual authority they had lost during the Great Western Schism. They saw church councils as the most serious threat to this goal because councils often issued decrees that limited papal authority. Eugenius IV so strongly opposed the work of the Council of Basel that the council deposed him, although its decree had no effect. When Paul III called the Council of Trent (1545–1563), he made sure that his representatives controlled its agenda. This council proved so willing to allow the pope to interpret its decrees that in 1564 the pope established a body called the Congregation of the Council for that purpose. Its rulings strengthened papal power and eliminated the need for another major church council for three centuries.

(See alsoArt; Art in Italy; Borgia, House of; Catholic Reformation and Counter-Reformation; Factions; Missions, Christian; Music. )

* secular

nonreligious; connected with everyday life

* patron

supporter or financial sponsor of an artist or writer

* Holy Roman Emperor

ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, a political body in central Europe composed of several states that existed until 1806

* excommunicate

to exclude from the church and its rituals

* Moor

Muslim from North Africa; Moorish invaders conquered much of Spain during the Middle Ages

* Spanish Inquisition

court established by the Spanish monarchs that investigated Christians accused of straying from the official doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church, particularly during the period 1480–1530

* papacy

office and authority of the pope

* Ottoman Turks

Turkish followers of Islam who founded the Ottoman Empire in the 1300s; the empire eventually included large areas of eastern Europe, the Middle East, and northern Africa

* Byzantine Empire

Eastern Christian Empire based in Constantinople (a.d. 476–1453)

* heretic

person who rejects the doctrine of an established church

* theology

study of the nature of God and of religion

* classical

in the tradition of ancient Greece and Rome

* humanist

Renaissance expert in the humanities (the languages, literature, history, and speech and writing techniques of ancient Greece and Rome

* aqueduct

structure for channeling large amounts of water

see color plate 2, vol. 3

* faction

party or interest group within a larger group

* diocese

geographical area under the authority of a bishop

The Restorer of Rome

Pope Sixtus IV used the power of his office for two main purposes: to grant favors to his family and to surround the papacy with an image of power and splendor. Sixtus made six of his relatives cardinals and created many new offices in the Curia to generate income. His efforts at magnificence, however, brought lasting cultural benefits. Sixtus reorganized and expanded the Vatican Library and built or repaired many Roman churches. Among these was the Sistine Chapel, an imposing setting for papal ceremonies. His projects earned Sixtus the nickname "Restorer of Rome."

* tribute

payment made by a smaller or weaker party to a more powerful one, often under threat of force

* depose

to remove from high office, often by force

Leading Renaissance Popes, with Dates of Reign

Eugenius IV (1431–1447)
Nicholas V (1447–1455)
Sixtus IV (1471–1484)
Alexander VI (1492–1503)
Julius II (1503–1513)
Leo X (1513–1521)
Paul III (1534–1549)
Pius IV (1559–1565)
Pius V (1566–1572)
Gregory XIII (1572–1585)
Sixtus V (1585–1590)
Clement VIII (1592–1605)