Where Was the Pope?

Posted on Posted in History

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.

4 thoughts on “Where Was the Pope?

  1. 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?

  2. 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!

  3. 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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