For close to two millennia, popes have had an enormous impact on the world stage: in religious, geopolitical, legal, social, artistic and cultural matters. Because for so many centuries popes participated as advocates or critics in every important moment of history, papal history has mirrored the history of Western civilization. Popes were absolute monarchs of the Papal States for eleven centuries commanding armies, calling for crusades, influencing the actions of secular rulers and the course of global events. Even after the Unification of Italy brought an end to the Papal States in 1870, popes continued to exercise considerable power, particularly in Europe. When Josef Stalin (1878–1953), the brutal dictator of Soviet Russia, for example, was advised that Pope Pius XII opposed his policies, Stalin derisively replied: “How many divisions has the pope?” A half-century later, in November, 1989, when without a bullet being fired, the Berlin Wall came down, Eastern Europe came out from behind the Iron Curtain and the Soviet empire fell, Stalin’s successor, Mikhail Gorbachev, said: “Everything that happened in Eastern Europe in these last few years would have been impossible without John Paul II.” Stalin failed to realize that spiritual leaders can, indeed, influence historical events, even without commanding armed forces — by the power of moral suasion.
Many hundreds of millions of Catholics throughout the world have looked to the pope for guidance on moral issues. Critics of Pius XII, Pius XI’s Secretary of State and the wartime pope, fault Pius XII for failing to provide moral guidance to the faithful, both before and during the Holocaust. Additionally, many non-Catholic Christians and non-Christians alike have respected the reigning pope as the world’s pre-eminent spiritual leader. It must be pointed out, however, that of the 266 popes who have reigned to date, not all have lived up to the high ethical standard expected of the Vicar of Christ
Admittedly, some popes have led exemplary lives, like St. Pope John XXIII, who convened Vatican Council II and in five short years, starting in 1958, opened up the Church to the twentieth century, bringing about much needed reform and renewal; but other popes have led less exemplary lives, seemingly more interested in worldly than spiritual matters, like the notorious Rodrigo Borgia who became Pope Alexander VI (1492–1503). Alexander VI is infamous for being the most corrupt and most secular of the Renaissance popes. Some popes have lived saintly lives, others, however, have been scoundrels. Some have been wicked, incompetent, narrow-minded, power hungry, lecherous and/or profligate; others, on the other hand, have been holy, visionary, learned, inspirational and prophetic. Moreover, history chronicles that from 217 to 1447, there have been more than thirty antipopes; two were excommunicated for heresy, namely, Liberius (352–66) and Honorious (625–38). In short, the history of the papacy illustrates the sinful aspect of human nature and amply demonstrates that even God’s deputies on earth can lose their way.
Dante Alighieri, for example, contended that the medieval papacy’s overriding sins were greed and venality. In the first part of his epic poem, Divina Commedia (“The Divine Comedy”), written between 1308 and 1328, Dante envisioned two groups in hell — the misers and the avaricious — running toward each other along opposite sides of a circle. After they run and crash into each other, they turn and run back along the circle, only to crash again on the other side of it. This back-and-forth running and crashing continues through eternity. Prominent in the scene are the shaven heads of clergymen: “Here Popes and prelates butt their tonsured pates; Mastered by avarice that nothing sates.” Inferno 7, 46–48
For many centuries church and state were twin pillars of divinely ordained society; both closely aligned, each promoting and reinforcing the other’s authority. This mutually cooperative arrangement began in 312 CE, when Emperor Constantine (306– 337) converted to Christianity, and was solidified in 380 when Emperor Theodosius the Great (379 – 95) declared Nicene Trinitarian Christianity to be the only officially recognized religion of in the Roman Empire. Church and state at that time were so closely joined at the hip that Constantine not only called the Council of Nicea (325) into session but also made its decrees law of the Roman Empire. Other competing versions of Christianity, heresies like Gnosticism, Docetism, Manicheanism, Monophysitism, Nestorianism, Pelagianism, and Arianism, were rejected and repressed. From that time forward a partnership between secular authority and the church hierarchy persisted into the mid-twentieth century, when even as Vatican Council II was being organized, Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, prefect of the Congregation of the Holy Office, successor of the Holy Inquisition, adamantly held to the position that in Catholic countries the state had an obligation to profess and favor the Catholic faith and to limit the practice of other faiths.