- Common title for the bishops of Rome when viewed in their role as supreme heads of the Roman Catholic Church. The origins of papal sovereignty over the whole church are veiled in the mists of early church history and clouded by controversy between those who support the popes' claims to supremacy and those who regard those claims as a usurpation, such as the Eastern Orthodox churches and (since the Reformation) the Protestants. Papal claims to universal supremacy over the entire Christian church were the principal cause, though not the only one, of the final break between the Orthodox Church and the Roman Church in 1054.Although the papacy experienced periods of weakness and corrup-tion in the early medieval centuries, it never lost sight of its claims to supreme authority. These claims grew during the long period (1076-1250) when popes and the German (or Holy Roman) emper-ors clashed repeatedly over issues of church patronage and the proper relationship between secular and ecclesiastical rulers. One of the un-derlying issues in these conflicts was the growing assertiveness of the popes, who by the 13th century were claiming not only spiritual but also political supremacy, including the power to dethrone kings whose policies they judged contrary to the welfare of the church.Three great popes of the 13th century, Innocent III (pope from 1198 to 1216), Innocent IV (1243-1254), and Boniface VIII (1294-1303), insisted that in case of a conflict of interests, the secu-lar prince must yield because the goal sought by the church, the sal-vation of souls, is more important than any merely secular goal. Boniface VIII flatly declared that the power of kings came directly through a grant by the pope. The pope possessed ultimate sovereignty in the political as well as the spiritual realm. Pope Boniface found, however, that papal claims to power were far less successful when the pope had to deal with an able king of one of the western European feudal monarchies than with the relatively weak German emperors. King Philip IV of France not only defied papal threats to dethrone him but in 1303 even dared to make an attempt to seize the pope and bring him back to France for trial as a heretic. The pope, a frail and elderly man, died a few weeks after the attack, and the cardinals, in-stead of penalizing the king, sought to placate him in 1305 by elect-ing a French bishop as pope.The consequence of this weak response was the so-called Baby-lonian Captivity of the papacy (1305-1377), when all the popes were French. For most of this period, the popes lived at Avignon in what is now southeastern France. A great outcry arose not only in Italy but among many non-French nations that the popes had become pawns of the kings of France. This relocation endangered the prestige of the papacy, but it was nothing compared to the problem created by a disputed papal election in 1378, which ended with the election of two rival popes, producing the Western Schism (1378-1417). This caused great spiritual unrest as Europe chose sides between the two (and for a time, among three) claimants; it set loose the ideology of Conciliarism, ideas about the nature of authority in the church that challenged the system of papal absolutism created by the 13th-cen-tury popes. The Schism was solved only when the secular rulers of Europe, led by the emperor, summoned the Council of Constance, which succeeded in removing all three claimants and then in 1417 electing a new pope who was recognized throughout the church.The prestige of the papacy had been damaged greatly by both the Babylonian Captivity and the Schism. After 1417, the popes were not even able to re-establish securely their traditional political authority in and near Rome. Throughout the 15th century, they strove to ex-pand their secular authority as rulers of Rome and central Italy. Hopes that the return of a universally recognized pope to Rome would mark the beginning of a thorough reform of the church were frustrated. While some popes at mid-century, such as Nicholas V, the founder of the Vatican Library, and Pius II, who had been a human-ist scholar himself, fostered the growth of Renaissance culture and made some attempts at church reform, the three popes of the late 15th century, Sixtus IV, Innocent VIII, and Alexander VI, spent most of their energy struggling to expand the Papal States and scheming to advance members of their own family as rulers of principalities carved out of papal territories. These three secular-minded popes made the papacy a source of political unrest and military adventur-ism that disturbed all of Italy. The next important pope, Julius II, was an even more ruthless political adventurer, though at least he strug-gled to strengthen the Papal States rather than scheming to exploit the papal title for the advancement of his family.The next pope, the well-meaning but self-indulgent and indolent Pope Leo X, had to face the early stages of the Reformation crisis in Germany, and it is typical of what the papacy had become that he never even considered the possibility that the real issues in the case of Martin Luther involved spiritual questions rather than politics and political ambition. Leo handled the complaints against Luther as a purely administrative matter, insisting that the Reformer must give immediate and unquestioning obedience and had no right, even though he was a qualified theologian, to debate or discuss the impor-tant theological issues that he had raised.As a result of this misjudgment and the pope's concentration on the political problem of electing a new Holy Roman Emperor rather than on the problems of German religious life, the German situation bal-looned into a great upheaval that undermined the power of the tradi-tional ecclesiastical authorities in Germany and led to a permanent division of the church. After failing to head off this disaster, the popes who reigned from the mid-1520s to the 1540s resisted the urgings of many of the best clergy and most of the secular rulers to summon a general council to undertake reform and attempt to bring the German heretics back into the Catholic fold. The Council of Trent, which fi-nally did convene in 1545 and met in three stages interrupted by war and political conflict down to its adjournment in 1563, was a triumph for the conservative Catholics who regarded the Protestants as heretics to be condemned and destroyed rather than as misguided brethren to be won back by conciliatory policies. The council reaf-firmed all of the traditional doctrines and practices of the medieval church, and it particularly endorsed the universal spiritual power of the popes.Yet while this council might seem a great victory for the popes, the actual course of ecclesiastical politics in the late 16th and early 17th centuries suggests that increasingly the real decisions on all non-doctrinal issues were being made by the secular princes who had remained Catholic, especially the Habsburg Holy Roman Emperors and kings of Spain, and in the 17th century also the kings of France.Although in many respects the age of the Renaissance and the sub-sequent Reformation era were not a brilliant period in the history of the papacy, the popes who reigned between mid-15th century and mid-17th century played an active role in the flowering and diffusion of Renaissance culture. From the middle of the 15th century, the pa-pal curia employed leading humanists in influential positions because of their stylistic skills and ability to compose effective administrative documents. The worldly, political popes from Sixtus IV to Leo X em-ployed not only humanist secretaries and advisers but also the finest artists and musicians of the age. Julius II, who aimed to remake Rome into the great metropolis of Christian Europe, dared to demolish the an-cient basilica of St. Peter and to replace it with a vast new church built in the best Renaissance style. Though the project was not completed until the mid-17th century, the resulting structure was the present basil-ica of St. Peter, one of the most splendid churches of the Christian world. Julius and his successor Leo X employed all three of the great masters of Renaissance art (Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael) to execute major works at Rome and Florence. The same popes brought to Rome the most brilliant composers and performers from Flanders, the center of Renaissance music, to fill the needs of the papal curia for liturgical music. The papal musical establishment be-came the greatest center of Renaissance music.While Florence had been the great center of humanistic and artistic development in the 15th century, by the early 16th century, papal Rome had outpaced it, and Rome remained a major center of humanist learn-ing and especially of artistic creation well into the 17th century. While the popes of the Renaissance did not always fulfill well their duties as spiritual leaders, they made Rome the cultural center of Catholic Eu-rope and a powerful force for the creation and diffusion of some of the greatest achievements of Renaissance civilization.
Historical Dictionary of Renaissance. Charles G. Nauert. 2004.