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You Are Here: History > Where Was the Pope?

Where Was the Pope?

One of the few things we know about Luther’s pil­grim­age to Rome is that he didn’t meet the Pope. There’s no rea­son that he would have even tried. His busi­ness was an inter­nal mat­ter within the Order of Augus­tin­ian Her­mits, and reli­gious orders had their own sep­a­rate chain of com­mand. It would likely have taken a much larger mat­ter to get the Pope’s atten­tion at that time.

For Pope Julius II was off at war. Now before this elic­its a flurry of protest, or embar­rass­ment, or any other typ­i­cal 21st-century response, it’s impor­tant to remem­ber that in 1510 the papacy, and the church for that mat­ter, was a very dif­fer­ent thing than it is today, polit­i­cally speak­ing. In addi­tion to being spir­i­tual author­i­ties, the church and the papacy in par­tic­u­lar were major land­hold­ers. As such, they wielded a tremen­dous amount of tem­po­ral or what we call polit­i­cal power.

It’s all a bit con­fus­ing to sort out “spir­i­tual” vs. “tem­po­ral” author­i­ties within the medieval church. Up to half the land in many places belonged to var­i­ous monas­ter­ies, parishes, bish­oprics, etc. And wher­ever the church con­trolled the land, the king got lit­tle or even no tax money. In late 1510 Julius II was away deal­ing with what were clearly tem­po­ral mat­ters, fight­ing along­side the Vene­tians to keep the Ital­ian province of Romagna out of French hands.

Julius, the “War­rior Pope,” was known for his skill as a diplo­mat and a fighter but not really as a spir­i­tual leader. This was com­mon in those days, and while the papacy main­tained it sym­bolic role as the head of Chris­ten­dom in the West, there were many who crit­i­cized the wealth and pol­i­tick­ing of the church while remain­ing in good stead within it (Dante, for instance, was one of them). The reli­gious orders, includ­ing Luther’s Augus­tini­ans, would not nec­es­sar­ily have expected strong faith or con­sis­tency from the Pope in the way we would. To them he was as much king or emperor as he was pope. He was one power among many that had to be dealt with for them to go about their business.

That the papacy is as “spir­i­tual” (as opposed to tem­po­ral) as it is today is a tes­ti­mony to how dif­fer­ent today’s church is from that of Luther’s day. In fact, inter­nal reforms over the last 500 years have made today’s Roman Catholic church look more like that envi­sioned by six­teenth cen­tury reform­ers than could ever have been imag­ined by Luther, who never met in per­son the “War­ring Pope” or any of his successors.

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4 Responses to Where Was the Pope?

    Russel Murray, OFM says:

    It is per­haps no small irony that the papacy as we know it today, i.e., as a plat­form from which the Bishop of Rome a tremen­dous amount of moral/spiritual author­ity, is owed to a lost war.

    Pope Pius IX was in no mood to sur­ren­der what remained of the Papal States (and not much did, only Rome & its imme­di­ate envi­rons) when Vic­tor Emmanuel II declared his inten­tion to claim the Eter­nal City as the cap­i­tal of the new King­dom of Italy in Sep­tem­ber 1870. Pius believed that the pos­ses­sion of tem­po­ral author­ity, how­ever restricted, was essen­tial to the very nature of the pri­macy he held as Roman Pon­tiff; it guar­an­teed his free­dom of action. In fair­ness to him, his­tory — includ­ing recent his­tory — was on his side. So, even in the face of inevitable defeat, Pius IX ordered his troops to resist the advance of Ital­ian forces as best they could, until Rome itself was cap­tured on 20 Sep­tem­ber 1870. The pope left his res­i­dence on the Capi­to­line for the safety of the Apos­tolic Palace, located behind the Leo­nine Walls of today’s Vat­i­can City, declar­ing him­self “Pris­oner of the Vat­i­can.” In a sense, he was, but the turn of for­tunes that fol­lowed altered the his­tory of the mod­ern papacy in ways Pius (or for that mat­ter, Julius) could never have imagined.

    To mil­lions of Catholics through out the world, and not an insignif­i­cant num­ber of men & women of other churches & reli­gions, Pope Pius IX became a some­what sym­pa­thetic fig­ure. This meant a ready ear when­ever he chose to exer­cise what power was left to him: the spiritual/moral author­ity of a pas­tor. This open­ness only increased with respect to his suc­ces­sors, begin­ning with Pope Leo XIII who spoke so pow­er­fully in “Rerum novarum” about the plight of men & women who were, in a very real sense, impris­oned within unjust socio-economic sys­tems. It is dif­fi­cult to imag­ine any such sym­pa­thy & respect being given to some­one rul­ing peo­ple who were suf­fer­ing like injus­tices. What is more, it is dif­fi­cult to imag­ine such a pope even think it proper for him to com­ment upon them — as popes have con­tin­ued to do, from Pope John XXIII’s “Pacem in ter­ris” to Pope Paul VI’s “Pop­u­lo­rum pro­gresso,” no to men­tion Pope Bene­dict XVI’s “Car­i­tas in veritate.”

    How ironic that the Bish­ops of Rome were never so free, so long as they clung to the belief that in order to live the free­dom of the Gospel, they had to wield the power of the world. Makes me won­der: what is it that we have to loose in order to enjoy the free­dom God has given us all in His Son?

    Will Hartfelder says:

    The changes in Roman Catholi­cism and Lutheranism over these past 500 years makes one won­der if Luther would choose to be “Lutheran” were he to come back for a visit, espe­cially were he to exam­ine the state of the church in North Amer­ica. Although, it must be said that beer has come a long way in North Amer­ica over the past 15–20 years! Prosit!

    Barbara Catlin says:

    What will you do for an encore? I shall miss your day’s end wrapup and your schol­arly commentary,your astute obser­va­tions, and your bumps and bruises. I think you both should keep post­ing a daily log, if only to enliven the days of those of us hooked vic­ar­i­ously to your incred­i­ble trek. Try as I can, I can­not slip myself into your shoes. Yours has been an absolutely swell jour­ney (‘swell’ means of finest stuff!).

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