Papal Absolutism

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Shadow Forge

Puritan Board Freshman
The key to understanding the political pretensions of the church of Rome lies in her understanding of herself as the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church headed by the pope who is not only the “Successor of Peter the Prince of the Apostles” and the “Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church” but also the “Vicar of Christ” and the “Holy Father.” Is not the Triune God the absolute sovereign of the universe? Has not Christ been invested with all authority in heaven and in earth (Matt. 28:18) as King of Kings and Lord of Lords (Rev. 19:16)? Therefore the pope, as the supreme representative of Almighty God and Jesus Christ, exercises this divine authority—the “plenitude of papal power.” Thus Leo XIII in his 1894 encyclical The Reunion of Christendom (and referring to himself using the pontifical and capitalised “We”) stated, “We … hold upon this earth the place of God Almighty.”

The papal bull, Eger Cui Levia (c. 1246) declares,

Whoever seeks to evade the authority of the vicar of Christ … thereby impairs the authority of Christ Himself. The King of kings has established us on earth as His universal representative and has conferred full power on us; by giving to the prince of the apostles and to us the power of binding and loosing on earth not only all men whatsoever, but also all things whatsoever … The power of temporal government cannot be exercised outside the church, since there is no power constituted by God outside her … They are lacking in perspicacity and incapable of investigating the origin of things who imagine that the apostolic see received from Constantine the sovereignty of the empire, whereas it had it previously, as is known, by nature and potentially. Our Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, true man and true God … constituted to the benefit of the holy see a monarchy not only pontifical but royal; he committed to the blessed Peter and his successors the reins of the empire both earthly and celestial, as is indicated by the plurality of the keys. Vicar of Christ [i.e., the pope] has received the power to exercise his jurisdiction by the one over the earth for temporal things, by the other in heaven for spiritual things.1
The sixteenth-century Council of Trent proclaimed the pope’s temporal authority, perhaps even more emphatically,

The pope is … not responsible to any earthly tribunal or power. He is the judge of all, can be judged by no one, kings, priests, or people. He is free from all laws, and cannot incur any sentence or penalty for any crime … He is all in all, and above all, so that God and the pope, the Vicar of God, are but one … He hath all power on earth, purgatory, heaven, and hell, to bind, loose, command, permit, dispense, do, and undo. Therefore it is declared to stand upon necessity of salvation for every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff. All temporal power is his; the dominion, jurisdiction, and government of the whole earth is his by divine right.2
The Dogmatic Decrees of Vatican I (1870) declared that “all the faithful must believe that the holy Apostolic See and the Roman Pontiff possesses the primacy over the whole world.”3

As F. V. N. Painter put it, “The Roman Church is now working out its destiny. It is the purpose of the Papacy to secure universal supremacy.”4

Boniface VIII (1294-1303)​

Boniface VIII’s Unam Sanctam (1302) is probably the most famous statement of papal absolutism. Boniface claims that the visible, institute church of Rome alone possesses “one Lord, one faith, one baptism,” for it is the church built on Peter (appealing to Rome’s self-serving interpretation of Matthew 16:18-19).5 Rome is “that seamless shirt of the Lord which was not rent” and “the single ark of Noah which prefigures the one Church.” Just as there is “one fold” so there is “one shepherd,” the pope (John 10:10). The papal bull concludes, “we declare, say, define and pronounce it to be altogether necessary for salvation for every human creature be subject to the Roman pontiff.” Boniface invalidates the whole Eastern Orthodox Church (called here “the Greeks”), for it did not submit to his office, and, by extension, all Protestants.

Building upon these lofty ecclesiastical claims and turning to what are clearly political and civil matters, Unam Sanctam appropriates Jeremiah 1:9 to the pope: “And to the Church, and the Church’s power, Jeremiah’s prophecy, i, 9, applies: See I have set thee this day over the nations and the kingdoms to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” If Rome and a civil power differ, the pope judges the state but the state may not judge the pope. Here Boniface applies I Corinthians 2:15 to the pontiff: “He which is spiritual judges all things but he himself is judged by no man.” He also cites Romans 13:1, not in support of the civil authorities but of Rome’s political dominion: “Whoever, therefore, resists this power ordained by God, resists God’s ordinance.” The pontiff’s outrageous Scripture-twisting, staggering claims and overweening vanity are simply breathtaking!

Boniface brings in another piece of politically-motivated exegesis: the two-swords theory:

… in this Church and within her power are two swords … the spiritual sword and the temporal sword. For when the Apostle said, Lo here— that is in the Church—are two swords the Lord did not reply to the Apostles, It is too much, but It is enough [Luke 22:38]. For, certainly, he who denies that the temporal sword is in Peter’s power, listens badly to the Lord’s words Put up thy sword into its sheath. Matthew xxvi, 52. Therefore, both are in the power of the Church, namely, the spiritual sword and the temporal sword,—the latter to be used for the Church, the former by the Church; the former by the hand of the priest, the latter by the hand of princes and kings, but at the nod and instance of the priest. The one sword must of necessity be subject to the other, and the temporal power to the spiritual power.

Triple Tiara​

Boniface VIII also played a part in the development of the papal tiara. By the middle of the Middle Ages, the popes wore a crown to symbolise their temporal power over the Papal States (754-1870) in central Italy. Boniface VIII added a second crown to show that his authority was superior to any temporal authority. Soon after, a third crown was added, as a sign of the pope’s authority over all secular monarchs. At the pope’s coronation the three crowns were placed upon his head with these words, symbolizing his triple power: “Receive the tiara adorned with three crowns and know that thou art Father of princes and kings, Ruler of the world, Vicar of our Saviour Jesus Christ on earth.”

Albert Lévitt states,

The “triple tiara” with which the pope is crowned at his coronation has not only a symbolic but also a practical political significance. It represents the threefold nature of the pope. He is (1) the supreme pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church; and (2) he is a temporal ruler, free and independent of every other temporal, secular ruler upon earth; and (3) he is the supreme temporal ruler who reigns over all other temporal rulers, states, and nations by divine command. Thus it is that all spiritual powers and all temporal powers are brought together in one person, an absolute monarch of the entire world, the Vicar of Christ, the Bishop of Rome, the sovereign of the state of Vatican City.6
Others claim the triple tiara signifies the pope’s authority as “Universal Pastor” (top), “Universal Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction” (middle) and the “Temporal Power” (bottom) or his sovereignty over the celestial, human and terrestrial worlds or his rule over the church militant on earth, the church suffering in purgatory and the church triumphant in heaven. However, more recently it is suggested that the three crowns symbolise the pope as teacher, lawmaker and judge or as priest, prophet and king.

At the end of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) and in keeping with its more liberal and modernizing spirit, Pope Paul VI (1963-1978) descended the steps of the papal throne in St Peter’s Basilica and laid the tiara on the altar. His successors, John Paul I (the September Pope) and John Paul II (1978-2005) were inaugurated without a coronation ceremony, with the latter declaring, “This is not the time to return to a ceremony and an object [i.e., the triple tiara] considered, wrongly, to be a symbol of the temporal power of the Popes.” Pope Benedict XVI (2005-) even removed the tiara from his Coat of Arms, replacing it with a mitre. However, the symbolism of the tiara is still in use in the Holy See’s coat of arms and, just like in other kingdoms of this world, Rome retains the papal crown as a symbol of the pope’s authority.


This relatively recent setting aside of the papal coronation ceremony is one of the most visible instances of aggiornamento, an Italian word meaning “updating.” In today’s modern, democratic, liberal, secular world, the papacy faces great challenges. It is widely regarded as an outdated, traditionalist, male-dominated, monarchical, religious institution. Whereas in the nineteenth century, Rome was publicly and loudly opposing “progressive” ideas like capitalism; democracy; the separation of church and state; freedom of religion, worship, speech and press; higher criticism of the Bible; ecumenism; and the salvation of unevangelized heathen; etc.—most famously, in Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors (1864)—now it has either muted its criticisms or done an about-face. Traditional papal theocratic claims to universal political sovereignty are especially offensive to the humanistic spirit of the age, and the Roman hierarchy feels them to be counterproductive, so they are either dropped or down-played.

Outside pressures have also resulted in internal divisions within Roman Catholicism. Alongside of, and much more serious than, for example, the centuries-old divisions between the various monastic orders (Benedictines, Franciscans, Dominicans, Jesuits, etc.) have arisen liberal theologians (especially in N. America and Europe), like Hans Kung, and liberation theologians (especially in Latin America), like Leonardo Boff.7 Such men and such theologies have gained a significant number of followers. International Roman Catholic movement, “We are Church” (founded in 1996) advocates progressive ideas like the effective discipline of paedophile priests, married male priests, women priests, greater involvement of the laity, greater theological freedom, etc. Humanistic, western Roman Catholics want a Roman Catholicism with less clerical authority and fewer absolutes. Conferences of bishops complain about the centralization of power in Rome. Many third-world clergy resent Rome’s western-style theology and ideology, and want a greater openness to syncretism. Malachi Martin (1921-1999), Roman Catholic priest and former Jesuit, wrote in his own lively and dramatic way of the “superforce” or “anti-Church” within the hierarchy working for the overthrow of traditional Romanism.8

The Roman Catholic Church in the twenty-first century is a “broad” church, with the “faithful” now ranging from staunch advocates of the sixteenth-century, Counter-Reformation Council of Trent (with a few even maintaining a geocentric universe!) all the way to western humanists who still reckon themselves “good” Roman Catholics, despite disregarding all church teachings that they find inconvenient.9 How strong these various factions are within Roman Catholicism is very hard to say, and it would require great foresight to judge how Rome will continue to adapt to the spirit of the age. But rash would be the analyst who would write of Rome’s impending demise or of the end of her political influence and desires.


1 Quoted in Henry T. Hudson, Papal Power: Its Origins and Development (USA: Evangelical Press, 1981), p. 38; italics mine. This papal bull is usually attributed to Innocent IV, though there are some who doubt this.​

2 Cf. John W. Robbins, Ecclesiastical Megalomania: The Economic and Political Thought of the Roman Catholic Church (USA: The Trinity Foundation, 1999), p. 131.​

3 Quoted in Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1877), vol. 2, p. 262.​

4 F. V. N. Painter, Luther on Education (Philadelphia: Lutheran Publication Society, 1889), p. 34.​

5 All quotations from Unam Sanctum are taken from Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, vol. 2, pp. 605-607.​

6 Albert Lévitt, Vaticanism: The Political Principles of the Roman Catholic Church (New York: Vantage Press, 1960), p. 41. Lévitt continues, “In a country where a papal state does not, or cannot, exist, the Roman Catholic Church says that the state should be by divine law a ‘Catholic state.’ In a ‘Catholic state’ the temporal sovereign of that state acknowledges that the Roman Catholic religion is the only true religion, that the Roman Catholic Church is the only true Church, that the pope is that spiritual head of that state, that the temporal head of that state should be, and is, a communicant in the Roman Catholic Church, and that the temporal head of that state owes his political allegiance to the pope in all matters that come within the meaning and functioning of ‘faith and morals’” (pp. 41-42).​

7 Jesuit Thomas J. Reese states, “The relationship between theologians and the papacy is worse today than at any time since the Reformation. The number of theologians investigated, silenced, or removed from office is at an all-time high, even exceeding the numbers during the Modernist crisis at the beginning of [the twentieth] century. The rhetoric used by theologians in response to Vatican actions has been bitter and biting. The chasm between the two appears to be getting wider, not narrower” (Inside the Vatican [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996], p. 260).​

8 E.g., Malachi Martin, The Keys of This Blood: The Struggle for World Dominion Between Pope John Paul II, Mikhail Gorbachev, and the Capitalist West (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990).​

9 As Robert L. Reymond puts it, “… within Roman Catholicism today may be found Tridentine conservatives, crypto-Lutherans, moderate liberals, and outright syncretists, with Rome’s over-all drift being toward total religious pluralism” (The Reformation’s Conflict with Rome [Christian Focus Publications: 2001], p. 140).​

Another point to remember is the Gregorian Revolution under Hildebrand. Harold Berman documents this in Law and Revolution (Harvard University Press).
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