The Rise of the Papacy in Rome

In the fourth century, the power of the bishop in Rome continued to grow. Pope Damasus I (366–383) as well as those who followed him — Siricius, Anastasius I, Innocent I, Zosimus, Boniface I, Celestine I, Sixtus III, and Pope Leo the Great — each made the Church more powerful and established the idea that when they spoke a papal utterance, they were speaking through the mouth of Peter. After Rome fell in 410, during the papacy of Innocent I, the office of the pope moved in to fill the vacuum of leadership.

These popes all wrote about the glory of the Church in Rome, and this is where the formal title, Holy Roman Catholic Church, comes from. “The entire Catholic Church spread over the globe is the sole bridal chamber of Christ,” writes the influential fourth-century pope Damasus. (As you remember, catholic means “universal” or “all-embracing.”) “The Church of Rome has been placed above all other churches not by virtue of conciliar decree, but by virtue of the words of the Lord: ‘Thou art Peter!’”

Pope Leo the Great

Pope Leo the Great, who held the papal office from 440 to 461, was a man of enormous personal strength and of great eloquence: He persuaded Attila the Hun to turn from the gates of Rome when the Barbarians planned to sack the city. Leo's most significant achievement was forcefully asserting the primacy of the Roman bishop's position. He coaxed Emperor Valentinian to officially recognize the status of this role. As a result, in 445, Valentinian issued an edict proclaiming the papal supremacy of the Bishop of Rome, for all time.

In 451, Pope Leo participated in and greatly influenced the Council of Chalcedon, where doctrine on Jesus' dual nature was firmly established. (That Jesus the Christ was both fully human and fully divine is a critical Catholic doctrine.) The council also voted that the Bishop of Rome had higher authority than the patriarch of Constantinople. This proclamation festered over five centuries of bickering and led to the eventual schism between the Eastern Orthodox and the Roman Catholic (Western) Church.

Gregory the Great

Over time, the Church became increasingly involved in secular (and especially political) affairs. Rome and the papal office were becoming the center of the world. Three men — Gregory, Boniface (a monk), and Gregory VII — were instrumental in shaping the papal office. Pope Gregory I, who was born in about 540, started his career as a civil servant in Rome trying to feed the poor. He gave up his job and established a monastery, living a quiet life. When the pope died of the plague, the people elected Gregory to the office, at the age of fifty.

He accomplished many things during his tenure, demonstrating what could be accomplished in the world at large and in the spiritual world. He tried to look after the poor. He helped rebuild the aging churches, established education for priests, and wrote extensively on matters of theology. One of his most important contributions was the beautiful liturgical music of the Gregorian chant. He also spread the faith to Britain.

The Birth of the Papal States

One man who contributed to centralization of power in the Western Church's hands was an English Benedictine monk named Boniface. His great mission was to preach to the Germanic states, for which he was made a bishop. He established monasteries and was trusted by the German (then called Frankish) rulers.

The Church has come a long way from the first wandering missionaries. With the establishment of the Papal States, the Church not only found a home, but a country, of its own. The papacy held on to its lands for a long time, until 1870.

In 751, with the approval of the pope, Boniface crowned Pepin the Short as king of the Franks. This relationship between the papacy and the French monarchy let the pope appeal to the Franks for help when a barbarian tribe threatened Rome. Pepin defended Rome and then gave the pope a huge strip of land in Italy as his own territory. The office of pope was now a territorial ruler too: The Papal States were born. This cozy arrangement of popes crowning kings and kings helping popes lasted for quite a while.

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