Vicars of Christ: A History of the Popes

Vicars of Christ: A History of the Popes

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Pages: 496
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Most books about the Popes have either tried to whitewash every sin any Pope has committed, or else have made them all out to be all out to be anti-Christs. On this emotional topic, writers seem to have left very little middle ground. But the truth is that there have obviously been good and obviously evil Popes, controversial Popes and forgotten Popes. In this book, they will all have their day in court. One by one, each Pope will be profiled, and their rich history, with all its pageantry, intrigue, holiness, and crime, will be unveiled.

Read the First Chapter Now


The Pope of Rome is the best known and most influential moral and religious leader in the world.  Pick up the paper, turn on the T.V., and there he is. Every government in the world has to deal with him somehow. Love him or hate him, there is no denying his importance.  It’s this way today, and it’s been this way since Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in the 4th century.

In all that time, there have been wonder-working saints, lecherous murderers, and many, many, mediocrities on the Papal throne—every kind of human being imaginable.  Most books about the Popes have either tried to whitewash every sin any Pope has committed, or else to make them all out to be anti-Christs.  On this emotional topic, writers seem to have left very little middle ground.

But the truth is that there have been obviously good and obviously evil Popes, controversial Popes and forgotten Popes.  In this book, they will all have their day in court. One by one, each Pope will be profiled, and their rich history, with all its pageantry, intrigue, holiness, and crime, will be unveiled.  Formosus was so hated by his successor, the corrupt Stephen VI, that his rotting corpse was disinterred and subjected to a court trial.  St. Leo the Great frightened Attila the Hun into sparing Rome, while St. Gregory the Great banished the plague from the Eternal City by holding a procession.  St. Leo III crowned Charlemagne Emperor by surprise on Christmas Day, but John XII (himself the son of a Pope) was killed by his mistress’ lover, and died in her arms.  John Paul II raised the popularity of the Papacy to incredible heights, played a huge role in bringing down Communism—and  exorcised the Devil from a girl during a public audience.

The history of the Popes is the history of Christianity, still the dominant religion in Europe and the Americas.  Understanding the Papacy in its historical setting is key to understanding the modern world.

Unfortunately, this is a difficult task for the modern English speaker. A major problem is cultural.  In Great Britain, as in much of northern Europe, the secular authorities threw off Papal control of their churches during the Protestant revolt of the 16th century.  Hatred of the Papacy and of still-Catholic nations became a part of the British national religion; from England this hatred was exported to and became part of the foundation of the United States, Anglo-Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.  In the English-speaking world, Catholicism was worse than an enemy: it was a defeated enemy.  On the one hand, this attitude produced the much written-of “Black Legend” school of history, wherein anything the Spanish ever did was evil.  On the other, it produced in popular histories an ingrained view of the Papacy which veered from suspicion and contempt to pure loathing.

In the United States, this was further aggravated by the perception of Catholics as “foreigners.”  One remembers the elegant quatrain coined by a Klansman in 1920’s Michigan:


I’d rather be a Klansman, in robes of snowy white,

than be a Roman Catholic, in robes as black as night.

For a Klansman is an American, and America is his home,

But a Catholic owes allegiance to the Dago Pope of Rome.


In a word, Catholicism, since the Reformation, has been, to a greater or lesser degree, the enemy in English-speaking lands, despite the great numbers of Catholics who have made their homes in such places since the 19th century.  Thus anti-Catholicism becomes the one form of bigotry still acceptable in polite society.

In the sphere of history writing, this means that it is often as hard to find a fair portrayal of things Catholic in American books written today as it was to find even-handed treatment of Capitalism in Soviet-era Russian histories.  Thus we have the “Popes-can-do-no-good” school of history.

A second genre of writing about Popes is that of people—priests or lay—who, although of Catholic origins, echo slavishly the wildest charges of anti-Catholics.  These are able to claim some extra knowledge of the topic because of their supposed faith.

As erroneous as the first two schools is that of well-intentioned Catholics who, in their zeal to defend their Church, whitewash the worst of Popes in the manner mentioned above.

On a purely ideological level, moreover, the Papacy is out of step with the deepest belief of the past two centuries: the cult of change.  “Change is good,” we repeat as a mantra.  But the role of the Popes from the beginning has been that of conservator or preservationist.  The Coronation Oath of the Popes, administered since the Renaissance, declares that the new Pontiff vows “to change nothing of the received tradition, and nothing thereof, I have found before me guarded by my God-pleasing predecessors, to encroach, to alter, or to permit any innovation therein; To the contrary:  with glowing affection as their truly faithful student and successor, to reverently safeguard the passed-on good, with my whole strength and utmost effort….”  This shows a mentality entirely different from that of most of us.

The reason for this mindset is to be found in the very notion of Catholic tradition.  The Church teaches that Divine Revelation, that body of knowledge necessary to be believed if one is to be saved (such doctrines as the Trinity, the Incarnation, Transubstantiation, and so forth), ceased with the death of St. John the Evangelist, about A.D. 104.  These teachings are considered to be factual things, as true of themselves as the laws of science—or more so. The Pope’s primary mission is to safeguard this deposit of Faith from change, which would be error; when doctrinal disputes arise, he must determine what the Church has always taught on the matter.  While many are under the impression that “Papal Infallibility” and “defining dogma” mean that the Pope can alter or originate doctrines as he pleases, the reality is just the opposite.  These terms actually mean that, when the Pope speaks at the highest level of his authority, the Holy Ghost will prevent him from defining untruths.  Thus, before the Immaculate Conception or the Assumption of the Virgin Mary could be defined, the Pope of the day had to be satisfied that, despite later denials by prominent theologians (including, in the case of the Immaculate Conception, St. Thomas Aquinas), the teachings had been held by the earliest Christians.

It is this wildly different concept of truth which has most often led modern Popes into conflict with the media and governments of our age.  As guardians rather than owners of the Church’s doctrines, the Popes are simply unable to alter the Church’s stand on such topics as abortion, contraception, divorce, or women’s ordination.  This inability to change doctrine has not merely brought them conflict in our day; where many modern women demand the right to abort their children, in times past certain monarchs and noblemen similarly wished barren wives killed or put aside in favor of fertile ones.  New Queens were easy to obtain—not so Princes.  Many a Pope ran into conflict over this question.

Another important part of the Papal conservatorship is that of safeguarding the Sacraments—in the Catholic view as necessary to salvation as right belief—and the various liturgies which embody them.  J.R.R. Tolkien, for one, understood this very clearly. As he informs his son on p. 339 of his Collected Letters:


I myself am convinced by the Petrine [Papal] claims, nor looking around the world does there seem much doubt which (if Christianity is true) is the True Church, the temple of the Spirit dying but living, corrupt but holy, self-reforming and re-arising. But for me that Church of which the Pope is the acknowledged head on earth has as chief claim that it is the one that has (and still does) ever defended the Blessed Sacrament, and given it most honor, and put it (as Christ plainly intended) in the prime place. “Feed my sheep” was His last charge to St. Peter; and since His words are always first to be understood literally, I suppose them to refer primarily to the Bread of Life. It was against this that the W. European revolt (or Reformation) was really launched—“the blasphemous fable of the Mass”—and faith/works a mere red herring.


JRRT’s historical conception of the Papacy was reflected, oddly enough, in his Lord of the Rings, by the figure of Gandalf, the great wizard. He belongs to not one of the nations of Middle Earth, and in a very real sense he is leader of all the free and faithful. This is so because his power is magical rather than temporal, just as the Pope’s is sacramental. To one character’s statement “there is no purpose higher in the world as it now stands than the good of Gondor,” Gandalf replies, “the rule of no realm is mine, neither Gondor nor any other, great or small. But all worthy things that are in peril as the world now stands, those are my care...for I also am a steward.” Thus might Boniface VIII have spoken to French King Philip the Fair, or Gregory VII to Emperor Henry IV, or Innocent III to King John. Gandalf also reminds one of the Fisher-King in the Grail legends, who himself is a symbol of Peter-in-the-Boat, one of the earliest logos of the Papacy.

Of course, this ideal view certainly did not and does not apply to all Popes, by any means.  As stewards or vicars of Christ, they have often failed.  Infallibility does not, in Catholic teaching, protect most Papal statements, nor any Papal actions (save beatification and canonization of saints). It will prevent a Pope from defining heresy as dogma.  But beyond that, the Pope is prisoner of his personality, his upbringing, and his circumstances, as are we all.  It is interesting to note that before Vatican II, each night before retiring the reigning Pontiff went to confession and signed a renunciation of any liturgical mistakes he might have made during the day’s numerous ceremonies.  This last was essential if any of his clerical flock were not to seize on such an error as a precedent for his own Masses.

Since the Pope’s flock lives in the world, and since the most pressing outside influence on any individual is that of his government, from the time of Constantine Popes have been concerned with politics.  Of course, before Catholicism became legal there were such questions as whether the faithful could serve in the Imperial legions.  But for the most part, Papal concern with civil rule was primarily in terms of being martyred under it. 

With legalization, however, came responsibility.  In a period when land meant power, property and then temporal sovereignty were seen as essential if the Papacy was to pursue an independent course in dealing with the great ones of this world.  But these things had also the effect of sometimes diverting the Popes from or even blinding them to their spiritual duties.  Yet, at least as often, temporal power has allowed them to exercise their spiritual interests freely in the face of powerful and unfriendly potentates.

All of this background is essential for a fair evaluation of the Popes we are going to meet.  It is manifestly unfair to judge any religious leader by one’s own spiritual views or lack thereof.  If the Dalai Lama does not impose Jewish or Muslim Dietary laws on his flock, we cannot blame him; for that matter, we ought not to be upset with the Islamic Caliphs for permitting polygamy, enjoined in the Koran.  Indeed, if either had done differently, we would have to say he was a poor Buddhist or Muslim.  Unless we are willing to claim that our own religion is right and that of the leader under discussion wrong (as un-modern a view as one could have), we can only judge him according to how well he safeguards his own faith, however odd it might appear to us.

So it is with the Popes.  If we are to be fair with them, the only evaluation we can make of each of them is whether they did well by the Church’s own lights.  If, in pursuit of this, many have done things which outrage our sensibilities, it should be borne in mind that our society allows many things which would have done the same for them.

It ought to be noted that there is a tremendous paradox at work in the Papacy.  For in it we see flawed human beings attempting to exercise a position which Catholics believe partakes of and demands spiritual perfection. This creates an unending internal conflict. As Bela Lugosi observed of people at large in Glen or Glenda?, “One does wrong because he is right, another does right because he is wrong.”  Some of the holiest Popes have made horrible decisions;  some of the worst have, often unwittingly, done wonderful things. 

This paradox continues unto our own day. As noted earlier, John Paul II was an internationally known figure.  Due to his trips, his role in the fall of Communism, and the activities of Vatican delegations, the Holy See has never, perhaps, loomed so large in foreign affairs since the end of World War II.

Within the Church, however, the Papacy has probably never wielded so little control since the French Revolution.  As exemplified by former Archbishop Weakland of Milwaukee’s rejection of Roman attempts to preserve his cathedral from radical interior alteration, and by former Cardinal Mahony of Los Angeles’ discounting of Vatican regulations limiting the use of lay distributors of communion, many, if not most, Bishops today are “titularists;”  accepting Papal authority in theory, they deny it in practice—as was seen by the attempts of so many of them to impede Benedict’s Summorum Pontificum; the Tridentine Mass is still far from being freely available to all and used as an example for the new liturgy, as the Pope clearly mandated.

There are, of course, historical reasons for this.  One is the auto-demolition of Vatican control over dioceses initiated by Paul VI and continued by Benedict XVI—but there is another.  Just as in Medieval Europe, similar situations developed when Bishops who were wealthy feudal lords—reflecting the civil power structure of the day—had the power to snap their fingers at the Pope.  Today, reflecting the patterns of control in contemporary society, Bishops of larger dioceses are in effect CEO’s of major corporations.  Some, such as Chicago or Los Angeles, are, in terms of disposable income, much bigger operations than the Vatican.  Add to these two the widespread unbelief of Catholicism among the clergy and corresponding ignorance of it among the laity, and it would be hard to see how things can be other than they are.

Whether this is a good or bad thing depends largely upon one’s point of view.  But it is important to remember, as we shall see in the lives of the Popes, that the Church has known such times before, and doubtless will again.  By the same token she will doubtless know further periods of revival and strength.  At her heart lies what she considers to be a mystery: the change of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ.  It must surprise no one that her cyclical history, with its themes of death and resurrection, is likewise a mystery.

The famed 1950s-60s television psychic Criswell, as un-Papal a man as one is ever likely to meet, was wont to say, “We are all lighted candles in a darkened room, weary travelers on the road of life.”  It is the contention of the Catholic Church that she and her Popes continue the work of Christ, that she is the Mystical Body of Christ; through this body alone, she maintains, can such travelers find the way to Salvation. To Catholics, she is “the light that shineth in darkness,” although the darkness does not comprehend it.  To her enemies she is the most successful means of enslaving the mind of humanity that there has ever been.  Whichever the reader believes, we will show the Popes as they were and are: wielders of great power on the one hand, and weary fellow travelers of us all on the other.




Prior to the liberation of the Church by Constantine in 312, Church records are very sketchy. The reasons for this are not hard to figure out; the ongoing persecutions by Roman Imperial authorities led both to intense secrecy on the part of Christians and the destruction of many written records.  Thus, unwritten tradition is an important witness to the history of the earliest Popes.

Such tradition is often disregarded by modern historians, due in no small part to their own biases.  Take, for example, the case of St. Dionysius the Areopagite.  Traditionally, this Athenian disciple of St. Paul was regarded both as the author of a number of theological treatises, such as The Divine Hierarchies, and as first Bishop, successively, of Athens and Paris.  From the time of Martin Luther, however, both his authorship and his episcopate have been challenged.  So universal among scholars has this challenge become that DH’s author is invariably referred to as the “Pseudo-Areopagite.”  It is taken for granted that the writings attached to the name “must” have been written in the 2nd century, because of their “theological complexity.”

The problem with this view is that it presumes a number of “facts not in evidence,” as Perry Mason was wont to say.  The major presumption here is that Christian doctrine was not in fact taught by Christ and the Apostles, but rather, as according to H.G. Wells, it was a simple ethical notion to which a religion later accreted. But we know from the writings of such as Philo of Alexandria that the Jews of the Roman world held quite a complex theology indeed, which is to a degree reflected in the Gospel of St. John.  So the argument against St. Dionysius having been unable to write complex theological tracts purely because he was a contemporary of Christ is a bit specious.  Moreover, when the writings bearing his name first appear in our records, they are already attributed to him.  The idea that people would accept such an attribution without some kind of evidence is a tad difficult to swallow.  In any case, since the folk of the second century lived so much closer to the events of the Apostolic era than we do, we might as well accept their version of the facts, unless we are provided with substantial evidence to the contrary.  At this late date, such evidence, if it exists, is highly unlikely to surface.

So, in this study, we shall accept the given account at face value.  Not only are there no really compelling arguments to the contrary (save, perhaps, our own opinions), but succeeding generations took them as truth, and these in turn affected their own behavior.  If we are to get inside the heads of the various characters we shall examine, we must follow their example.

So too with accounts of the miraculous.  The standard approach is to look at a saint or a relic’s supposed wonder-working capabilities, and then declare that “since such things can’t happen, the event must have been otherwise.”  But this sort of reasoning backward is extremely unhelpful to our understanding.  On the one hand, acceptance of the miraculous and of apparitions of Christ, the Virgin, and the saints certainly were accepted by the vast majority of Christians, and so affected the conduct of history.  On the other hand, as the work of Joan Carroll Cruz and others shows, such events have been recorded down to our own time; many are impossible to disprove.  Here too, for both reasons, we shall take the accepted accounts as given.  Hence, there will be no “traditionally,” “supposedly,” or any of the other adjectives with which writers on these topics surround them.  Accept or reject them if you will, but on the same basis that you might any historical account—and always remembering that they have indeed had an objective measurable effect on generations who followed.




Subjectively speaking, there are many Christs.  There is the noble ethical teacher of H.G. Wells’s imagination, earlier referred to; there is the seventh incarnation of the god Vishnu, beloved of Westernizing Hindus; there is the blasphemer of Talmudic fable; there is the non-material Christ Principle of the Christian Scientists; there is the great, non-sacramentalizing Jesus of the Protestants; and then there is the Christ of the Catholics.

It is the latter with whom we have to deal in this book.  Today, many Catholic scholars enjoy pitting against each other “the Christ of Faith” and the “Jesus of history.”  Pleasurable for them as this pastime may be, it does not aid us in our present goal because, as we shall see, it is not the conception of Christ which has informed the Papacy. Even as one may not understand the Caliphate without understanding how the Caliphs saw Mohammed, so too with Christ and the Popes.  One may deny the divine inspiration of the Koran—but such a denial does not help in comprehending Islam.

The discovery of a fragment of the Gospel of St. Mark amongst the Dead Sea Scrolls goes far to shoring up the historicity of the Gospel accounts of Jesus.  Since the library at Qumran whence these scrolls were taken was sealed in A.D. 70, it means that this Gospel at least was in wide circulation throughout Palestine during the lifetime of Christ’s contemporaries. (Since the Essenes who ran Qumran as a secluded monastery were not among the most up-to-date of their contemporaries, the presence of a Gospel in their midst is worth noting, for all that they were certainly not Christians).  What is important to understand is that the Gospel of St. Mark was abroad when there were still many folk who could refute it were its historical accuracy dubious.  Amongst other things, this fact calls into question the conclusions of the whole Biblical criticism industry which has grown up since the 19th century.

In any case, the significance of the Popes to their followers is that they are Vicars of Christ, visible heads of the Church on Earth.  Now a vicar is a representative, a viceroy.  Just as the Governor-General of Canada is a stand-in for that country’s Queen, Elizabeth II, so too is the Pope seen to be merely a stand-in, a steward, for Jesus Christ, held to be the invisible head of the Church.  So who, in the Catholic conception, is He?

For starters, Jesus is the Second Person of the Holy Trinity.  Obviously, much ink has been spent trying to explain what this means.  But in a nutshell, God is seen as a triune being, made up of three separate persons, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.  The Father eternally begets the Son, and the Holy Ghost eternally proceeds from the Father and the Son.  None is subordinate to the others, and are one God, not three: indivisible and yet distinct Persons.  For God, all things are now, hence Christ’s comment in the Gospel that “before Abraham was, I am.”  This in turn hearkens back to God’s self-description in the Old Testament that “I am Who am.”  Notice of the triune nature of God is seen as far back as Genesis, where God says “let Us make man in Our image.”

Catholics believe that the Second Person of the Holy Trinity entered time (and so, history) by incarnating in the womb of a virgin, which act was accomplished by said virgin’s being “overshadowed” by the Holy Ghost.  This was done in order to repair the damage done by the Fall of Adam and Eve. Said Fall darkened human nature, made Man incapable of entering heaven, weakened his will, and darkened his intellect.  In order to serve as a worthy vessel for the God-Man’s appearance in our world, Mary, the Virgin chosen for this role by God “from all eternity,” was conceived without Original Sin, the quality that prevented human union with God after death.  This occurrence is called “the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary.”  It is indicated in the Gospel of St. Luke, wherein the Archangel Gabriel hails Mary as “full of grace,” a salutation which could not be given to any other human of the time, carrying, as they all did, the sin of Adam on their souls.

In His Incarnation, Christ acquired human nature, and became a man “like us in all things save sin.”  The link between His Divine and human natures is called the “hypostatic union.”  While He possessed two Wills corresponding to each of His natures, He nevertheless was and is one Person. 

After His birth, accompanied by various signs and wonders, His mother and foster father took Him into Egypt to avoid Herod’s executioners.  Returning with His parents when He was three years old, His early life was spent in obscurity, save for the incident at the Temple in Jerusalem, where He demonstrated His perfect knowledge of the Scriptures and the Law to the Priests, doctors, and scribes.  He reappears at the age of thirty, shortly after the death of St. Joseph, His foster father.

Christ’s ministry over the next three years is the main subject of the Gospels.  In the course of it He gathered about Him a band of Twelve Apostles, who became the first Bishops, and seventy disciples, who were the first lay-folk.  At the Last Supper He ordained His Apostles, giving them the power to change wine into His blood, and bread into His flesh.  Ever since, this has been the central rite of His Church, of which He said, “Unless a man eat My Body and drink My Blood, he shall not have life in him.”

The next day He was crucified by the Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate, at the behest of the Jewish High Priest, Caiaphas.  On the Cross, Jesus offered expiation for all the sins of mankind by His own Divine death, His sacrifice of Himself; this act was united with the changing of bread and wine into His Flesh and Blood—hence the description of the Mass as a Sacrifice.

When He died, He descended into the “Limbo of the Just,” wherein were all those virtuous folk who had died under the Old Law; bringing Himself directly to them, He liberated them from their intermediate state.  On Easter Sunday He rose again, bringing the Just of the Old Testament with Him.  The following forty days He spent with His disciples, organizing and counseling the infant Church, and bestowing on her the seven Sacraments.  Having chosen St. Peter to lead the Apostles before His Crucifixion, He made him the first Pope. The forty days concluded, He ascended into Heaven, after first commissioning His Apostles to baptize, to absolve sins, and to “make disciples of all nations.”  With Him went the liberated souls of the Old Law.  He promised that He would be with the Church always, even to the end of time.  Not least of the ways He would do this would be through the Sacraments, particularly through the Eucharist.  Further, the Comforter would be sent to them. A few days later, in accord with Christ’s promise, the Holy Ghost descended upon the Apostles and disciples, and gave them the grace and power they would need to spread the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ, throughout the world.  St. Peter and his successors in the Papacy would direct the Church’s efforts until the end of time, when Christ would return and take up the Church’s leadership directly.

Whether one believes all of this or not, the fact remains that this is the view of Christ held by the Catholic Church; this is the Invisible Head of the Church Whom the Popes and their subjects have tried to follow and emulate.  Their success or lack thereof is the body of this book.

Editorial Reviews

"This book should occupy a place of prominence alongside the Bible, almanac, dictionary concordance, gazetteer, and encyclopedia of every Catholic book-stand." - Msgr. Francis J. Weber, Archivist Emeritus, Los Angeles Archdiocese.

Charles A. Coulombe:
Charles A. Coulombe

Charles A. Coulombe is one of North America’s most respected and sought-after commentators on culture, religion, history, and politics. A specialist in the history and government of the Catholic Church, Coulombe’s influence and expertise extend far beyond matters religious. He has written on topics ranging from the history of rum to haunted houses to a history of the United States.

Mr. Coulombe is a social and political commentator of note. In 2005 he provided narration and commentary for ABC News during the funeral of Pope John Paul II and the subsequent election and installation of Pope Benedict XVI. A former journalist, Mr. Coulombe served as a film reviewer and Contributing Editor of the National Catholic Register, during which time he received the Christian Law Institute's Christ King Journalism Award. Coulombe's work has appeared in over than 20 journals, including regular columns in Fidelity (Australia), PRAG (London), Monarchy Canada, and Creole Magazine (Louisiana). He has also been a frequent contributor to such publications as Success, Catholic Twin Circle, Gnosis, FATE, and the New Oxford Review.

As an informed and passionate speaker on a wide variety of religious, social, political, historical, and literary topics, Mr. Coulombe has appeared on lecture circuits throughout the North America, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. In 1992 he lectured at Oxford University and the following year embarked on a lecture tour of Ireland and Great Britain, returning to Oxford and Cambridge in 1995. Coulombe has also delivered lectures at the University of Southern California on the history of Rock & Roll and at Cleveland's John Carroll University on the history of medieval monarchy. In February 2011, he was invited to take part in a debate on the abolition of the monarchy before the prestigious Oxford Union.

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