The Rise of the Papacy

The Rise of the Papacy

            Several factors explain how the papacy excelled and became powerful. The barbarian invasions had a role to play in allowing the papacy to excel. The Roman army succeeded in holding off the barbarians for years until the third century. Finally, in 476 the last Roman emperor was overthrown leaving the Roman Empire in despair. It is also possible that the excessive military spending to defend against the barbarians contributed to the fall of Rome and to compensate for the excessive spending, taxes began to rise as well as the cost of living. With the decline of trade and businesses among other public issues, the town sewer and water systems led to health and environmental problems, which drove up the death rate in Rome. Crime rates, soaring the streets became vile and unsafe and values and morals were nonexistent. “According to Roman historians there were 32,000 prostitutes in Rome during the reign of Trajan and Emperors like Nero and Caligula became infamous for wasting money on lavish parties, where guests ate and drank until they became ill.”[1] Add to this the amusement for cruelty within the Coliseum as gladiators fought to the death, the word “morals” was not in their vocabulary.[2] It is no wonder that those that remained gave up on the empire and flowed to the churches, thus giving the church an incredible amount of influence and power among the people.

The papacy refers more to the centralized government within the church exercised by the Pope rather than just an office. “Popes between ca. 300 and 700 built two fundamentally new structures. One was the framework from which all later generations of popes drew in defining their office and its mission. The other was the institutional structure upon which virtually all elements of the later papal government were eventually erected. The papacy began as a product of the Mediterranean world and slowly reoriented itself toward Western Europe.”[3] After the fall of Rome, bishops led the early church, the papacy served as authority over the people, and church laws soon became universal. The bishop of Rome was recognized as superior because Peter was the first bishop of that city and that earned some popularity points with the public. To give the Roman bishop more leverage, they often communicated what Jesus said in Matthew 16:18, “And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the forces of Hades will not overpower it.” “For centuries Popes claimed supremacy over, and the right to depose, temporal rulers. The Papal primacy was never formally accepted by the Eastern Churches, and it was repudiated by the Protestant communions.”[4] Later, the power of the see of Constantinople challenged the power of Rome, which would come to a split of the Eastern and Western churches in the Schism of 1054.  “The Eastern church resented the Roman enforcement of clerical celibacy and the limitation of the right of confirmation to the bishop. There were also jurisdictional disputes between Rome and Constantinople, including Rome’s assertion of papal primacy.”[5]

With the fall of Rome, one could see the benefits of papacy in Rome. For many years, the church administered local laws, gave medical care, took care of the poor, and taught Western Europe putting a conservative stamp on those teachings. Large crowds would gather to hear of this religion called Christianity and eventually, Christianity became the religion of Rome, displacing paganism. Furthermore, it if was not for the churches, nothing would have survived. All seemed right in the Roman world.

Unfortunately, “No system of doctrine or government can save the church from decline and decay. Human nature is capable of satanic wickedness. Antichrist steals into the very temple of God, and often wears the priestly robes.”[6] Under no circumstance does this look promising for the future of the Western Empire. This leads to Dr. Jack Arnold’s theory of why and when the papacy started to decline. The decline began in the early 1300’s when Pope Boniface VIII made the bold and arrogant statement that, “We declare state, define, and pronounce that for every human creature to be subject to the Roman pope is altogether necessary for salvation.”[7] One can imagine the outrage that the rulers had toward his statement. Another reason for the decline of papacy was nationalism. People began to grow weary of feudalism, which gave way to national monarchs and loyalty for their secular rulers. People began to see the wealth of the Roman church—where obtaining their wealth was not always appropriate—and the public wanted a share of that wealth. Another factor would be the severe rules and regulations put forth by the church. This would serve as the guiding factor in the upcoming reformation. Next, the immoral way the clergy lived, while demanding the people to live a holy life. This is a plague today with the Christian church, as people say, “do as I say and not as I do.” Furthermore, the Crusades played a part in the decline of papacy. Many viewed these events as immoral and not of God. During the Renaissance many began spending their money—the ones who could afford too—on art, school, and literature instead of spending their money with the church and with the loss of money, this led to Augustine to develop doctrine, such as indulgence cards, to boost church finances. Another detrimental incident was the captivity of Pope Gregory IX, from Babylonian captivity. The Pope attempted to rule from Avignon, which was damaging politically and religiously. One that could have been the proverbial nail in the coffin was the papal schism. Pope Gregory died in 1379 and Urban VI was elected, while the French elected Clement VII. This led to a split, as some supported one Pope, and others would support the other Pope. The Council of Pisa in 1409 tried to settle this by electing a third Pope, but in reality, they hurt the power of Rome.[8]

Two other events played an important role in which the church had no direct control. Before the first printing press was invented, everything had to be copied by hand. No doubt a tedious and patient job, which only a few could perform. This only allowed for small amounts of books and religious material to be printed, and this allowed the church to have a monopoly on the Bible. The general public was not educated enough to read, therefore this combination led to the church parishioners to not doubt what the priests would say or doubt any laws put into effect with their interpretation of scripture. As the first printing press was invented, suddenly the average person had a reason to learn how to read and being able to read meant they would become educated and this had to strike fear from the papacy all the way down to the lowest offices of the church. Later in 1561, Desiderius Erasmus produced the first Greek New Testament, and with the printing press, it was distributed widely. “The publication of the Greek New Testament allowed reform to take place as people could now look at the original languages of the Bible. This revived the Antiochian exegetical method of Bible study, which had been dead for nearly a thousand years. People began to study their Bibles at a deeper level and realized that the institutionalized Church had much of the Gospel wrong.”[9] This primed the upcoming reformation. There needs to be understanding that, “There were all kinds of reform movements before Martin Luther, and there were other reformers hard at work all around him,” said Lutheran scholar Martin Marty, who has written more than 50 books and is, according to Time magazine, America’s “most influential living interpreter of religion.”[10] Not only did Martin Luther and others have enough of the church’s control and corruption, he nailed his convictions to their door in the form of 95 theses, and then published them.

In conclusion, after careful study and understanding of the subject, there is a decline seen in the history of the church. The church should have been a joyful gathering of believers, and that is until man got in the way, and it fell far short of what was intended for the church. The main headlines could be viewed as how great Rome was, until man got in the way. Those that had power were drunk with corruption and soon Rome—a once viewed powerhouse—was reduced to rubble. Then the church picked up and though started out with the best of intentions, again man got in the way. Soon the papacy began using their power and even though they may not be viewed as corrupt as Rome, well, as the Bible states in Galatians 5:9, “A little yeast leavens the whole lump of dough.” One could do well by reviewing this piece of history and looking upon the churches of this century. Has this great nation begun depending on its own understanding and pushed God aside, is church tradition getting in the way of Jesus, has the worrying of classes and church size clouding ones view, or is the purpose of the church long forgotten? It is said history often repeats itself, and this would include the good and the bad. If this repetition of history could be avoided, it would behoove us to avoid repeating these same mistakes.


Arnold, Jack L. Church History: The Heighth and Decline of the Papacy, Medieval Chuch History, part 3. October 11-17, 1999. (accessed June 14, 2013).

Cross, F.L, and Elizabeth A. Livingstone. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. 3. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Encyclopedia, Britannica Concise. Schism of 1054. 1994. (accessed June 13, 2013).

Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Postclassical World. 1999. (accessed June 13, 2013).

Mattingly, Terry. ProQuest: Invention of Printing Press Did Much to Fan Religious Flames. December 11, 1999. (accessed June 16, 2013).

Mittmanm. “Lake Oswego Junior High School.” Lake Oswego Junior High School. n.d. (accessed June 15, 2013).

Patton, Michael C. Credo House Ministries: Seven Historical Events that Prepared the way for the Reformation. November 26, 2012. (accessed June 14, 2013).

Schaff, Phillip, and David S. Schaff. History of the Christian Church. Vol. 4. New York: Charles Scribner’s Son’s, 1910.

[1] Mittmanm. “Lake Oswego Junior High School.” Lake Oswego Junior High School. n.d. (accessed June 15, 2013).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Postclassical World, s.v. “Papacy,” accessed June 13, 2013,

[4] F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd ed. rev. (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 1223.

[6] Philip Schaff and David Schley Schaff, vol. 4, History of the Christian Church (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1910), 281.

[7] Jack L. Arnold. Church History: The Heighth and Decline of the Papacy, Medieval Chuch History, part 3. October 11-17, 1999. (accessed June 14, 2013).

[8] Ibid.

[9] Michael C. Patton, Credo House Ministries: Seven Historical Events that Prepared the way for the Reformation. November 26, 2012.

[10] Terry Mattingly, ProQuest: Invention of Printing Press Did Much to Fan Religious Flames. December 11, 1999. (accessed June 16, 2013).


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