At one point in history, the pope was the single most powerful man in the world. Kings kowtowed to his wants, and his actions had a reverberating effect on the rest of the world. This power did not develop overnight. Likewise, it did not abate overnight, even though it is clear in the modern era that the papacy has lost some of its effect. The rise and fall of papal power have both been precipitated by a wide range of different events, culminating in the reality that the world has now.

Your 20% discount here!

Use your promo and get a custom paper on
Rise and Fall of Papal Power

Order Now
Promocode: SAMPLES20

While popes gained historical significance at some point in time, they were not especially important in the beginning. Constantine put Christianity on the map, and he was the central figure in the Christian hierarchy during his reign. He convened the Council of Nicea, and he issued the Edict of Milan. None of this involved popes, and it was not until Constantine was gone that popes began to hold the high and important office that they would eventually become known for.

One of the things that curtailed papal power in the beginning was disagreement over who would be pope and disagreement over the pope’s role in appointing bishops. The Western Schism saw Catholic power-brokers in 1378 disagree on who would be pope. The Italian cardinals wanted a Roman pope, while the French cardinals wanted a French pope. The solution, as one might expect, precipitated a split between the two, with the Italian cardinals electing Urban VI and the French electing their own pope, Clement VII. Because there was no consolidated papal power, the papacy struggled overall.

During the Renaissance, popes began to really seize power. During this period, the papacy resembled a nation-state of its own, and there was tremendous influence across Europe. Julius II was one of the first popes to use military campaigns to gain territory, earning him the title of “Warrior Pope.” Later, Pope Clement VII – a different version – helped to bring about the sacking of Rome. This was when the papacy truly asserted itself, as it was clear that the papacy would wield significant influence from that point forward.

Looking at the papal situation now, one might notice that the pope does not have as much influence. Even Catholics routinely ignore the pope, modern leaders do not have to consider the pope’s words, and the current pope – Francis – has been reduced, if one wants to use that term, into a human rights advocate rather than a supreme leader. The papal office began to lose its power and legitimacy when the great democracies of Europe began to arise. Starting with the French Revolution in the late eighteenth century and continuing with changes in the Italian power structure, it became clear that no single leader would have the kind of royal control that had been the norm. Slowly but surely, Europe adopted democracy overall, and even when authoritarian regimes popped up – as one did in Italy and Germany in the lead-up to World War II – they came about through open elections. Popes had previously gotten their legitimacy from the fact that great national leaders looked to them before making decisions. With the power concentrated more and more in the hands of the people, there was less a place for the pope.

Papal power took a real dive during World War II, when they essentially had to beg Adolph Hitler not to invade (Vaillancourt). Hitler chose not to invade, quite graciously, because he feared what response that might cause with his Italian allies, but it was at this point that it became clear that the papacy was no longer a major European power broker. It could not demand the kind of respect that it had in the past.