In a long email “conversation” with a friend last week, he expressed his enthusiasm for Pope Francis and his recent trip to Canada. “The spirit of Peter the first pope is alive and working in Pope Francis” he said.
We correspond just about every week and I replied that I appreciated the pope’s going to Canada but that his apology to Indigenous peoples didn’t go far enough. Reconciliation, I said, is still very much a work in progress. Francis apologized for the “evil” of church personnel who worked in the schools. He did not acknowledge the Catholic Church’s papal and institutional support for the human denigration and misery created by the 15th century “Doctrine of Discovery.” In fact, just before a papal Mass at the Basilica of St. Anne de Beaupré on July 28 in Quebec, a large banner with the words “Rescind the Doctrine”was unrolled in front of the altar.
The Doctrine of Discovery was launched by Pope Alexander VI (1431 – 1503) in 1493. This new papal teaching stressed that lands not inhabited by Christians were available to be “discovered” and exploited and that “the Catholic faith and the Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread, so that the health of souls be cared for and barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself.” It played a central role in the Spanish conquest of the New World and supported Spain’s exclusive right to the lands discovered by Christopher Columbus (1451 – 1506) the previous year.
The Doctrine of Discovery soon became the basis for all European claims in the Americas. Called “the principle of discovery,” it became as well as the foundation for the United States’ western expansion. As U.S. Chief Justice John Marshall (1755 – 1835) declared in the 1823 Supreme Court case Johnson v. McIntosh,“the principle of discovery” had given the “discovering” nations an absolute right to their New World lands. In essence, John Marshall was saying that U.S. American “Indians” had only a right of occupancy, which if need be could be abolished.
Pope Alexander’s Doctrine of Discovery made headlines again throughout the 1990s and in 2000, when many Catholics petitioned Pope John Paul II (1920 – 2005) to formally revoke it and recognize the human rights of indigenous “non-Christian peoples.”
Alexander VI, of course, was quite a character. Born Rodrigo de Borja, in the prominent Borgia family, Alexander was one of the most controversial of the Renaissance popes. He had manny mistresses and fathered several children with them. One of his sons, Cesare Borgia (1475 – 1507), when only seventeen, was made Archbishop of Valencia. The Florentine Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola (1452 – 1498) strongly and regularly criticized Pope Alexander. In 1498 the annoyed and angry Alexander had Savonarola arrested, tortured, hanged, and burned.
I wrote to my friend that Pope Francis really needs to renounce, repudiate, and revoke the Doctrine of Discovery. For centuries, this doctrine has justified the seizure and dispossession of Indigenous territories and nations all over the world. And I added, “And an important clarification: the Apostle Peter was not the first pope and he was never a bishop of Rome.”
My friend replied with a smiley and said “You really have become anti-pope as well as anti-Catholic.” I replied with my own smiley that I am neither anti-Catholic nor anti-pope. I stressed that Roman Catholic institutional leaders have to be knowledgeable and must be truthful about the church’s history. Some archaic papal teachings should simply be abandoned.
For my friend’s summer reading, I recommended the 2020 edition of Saints & Sinners: A History of the Popes by Eamon Duffy, Irish historian and professor of the history of Christianity at the University of Cambridge and a former president of Magdalene College. It is an excellent papal history.
Along with most contemporary historical theologians, Eamon Duffy stresses that, although a number of pious legends about Peter were accepted and passed on by people like Ambrose of Milan (c. 339 – c. 397) and Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430), many early stories about Peter are simply religious fantasies. They are not historic facts. They are pious legends. Peter’s being crucified upside down, for example, and his being the “first pope.”
Neither Peter nor Paul founded the Christian community at Rome. There were Christians in the city long before either Peter or Paul arrived there. And, as Eamon Duffy and many other well respected Catholic scholars like John P. Meier (b. 1942) and Raymond Brown (1928 – 1998) stress, there was no single bishop in Rome until many decades after the deaths of Peter (c. 68) and Paul (c. 65)..
To be clear, the papacy was not established by the historical Jesus. Bishops weren’t either. The papacy was a later Christian development. In Rome, when Peter was alive, there was no pope, no bishop as such, because the Christian community in Rome was slow to develop the office of a chief presbyter, or bishop. The early treatise The Shepherd of Hernias, written in Rome in the second century, speaks always collectively about the leaders of the community, or about the elders who presided over the community. The author makes no attempt to distinguish between bishops and elders.
In the fourth century, however, many believed that Peter’s tomb was located on the Vatican hill where he had been executed and where Constantine (c. 272 – 337) ordered the construction of a basilica (Old St. Peter’s Basilica) on the site of today’s St. Peter’s Basilica. Supposedly, Peter’s bone fragments and remnants of a burial shrine were discovered under the current St. Peter’s Basilica in excavations started in 1939. In 1965, Pope Paul VI declared that they were indeed the relics of Peter. Unfortunately, controversy still surrounds the methods and some of the findings of the excavations. Historically it is not clear that the shrine in fact marked the grave of Peter and the fragments of bone discovered were not in the central niche of the shrine. Also, one cannot really be certain that they belonged to Peter, since in first century Rome the remains of executed criminals were usually thrown into unmarked mass graves.
A bit more about Christianity and early Roman bishops: The Roman empire in the third century was divided by civil war and swept by plague and disease. It was ruled by a bewildering succession of emperors, and for a while by the “tetrarchy” of four emperors. Constantine was declared the only emperor in 306. In 313, he proclaimed that every person was free “to follow whichever religion one chooses.” Under Constantine, Christianity rapidly became the dominant religion. Christianity alone seemed to offer a single overarching intellectual and moral frame of reference. This greatly appealed to Constantine. Like his father, he had originally worshipped Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun, but his mother Helena was a Christian. His conversion to Christianity was gradual. He wasn’t baptized until right before his death in 337. Constantine, however, saw Christianity as the needed cement for his empire. He appointed Christian bishops as civil judges. Bishops tried and judged people and corporal punishments were regularly administered at the command of the bishops.
In 325 Constantine summoned a council of bishops to meet at Nicaea to reinforce the Christian church as the great unifier of his empire. Constantine needed a church that would demand strong adherence to discipline and dogma. In the ancient city of Nicaea, which today is located within the modern Turkish city of Iznik, Emperor Constantine called the Council of Nicaea to resolve the Arian dispute in the church which threatened to destabilize the entire empire. The Creed of Nicaea clearly expressed the dogmatic teachings that all believes had to uphold. I have always found it interesting that the famous creed says nothing about being a Good Samaritan and loving one’s neighbor. The bishops at Nicaea reinforced the view of God as a God of strict rules and vengeful punishments. Constantine, of course, was a savvy and ruthless emperor when he declared himself a Christian.
During the early years of Christianity, the bishops of Rome enjoyed no civic temporal power until the time of Constantine. Most of the bishops of Rome, in the first three centuries of the Christian era, were rather obscure figures. The conversion of Constantine, however, propelled the bishops of Rome into the heart of the Roman establishment. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, c.476, the bishops of Rome became powerful rulers.
When Pope Leo III (750 – 816) crowned Charlemagne (743 – 813) as Holy Roman Emperor in 800, he established the precedent that, in Western Europe, no one could be emperor without being crowned by a pope. After a conflict, known as the Investiture Controversy, the papacy increased its power in relation to the secular rulers of Europe. In 1095 Pope Urban II (1035 – 1099) launched the First Crusade which united Western Europe under papal power. The objective of the First Crusade (1095 – 1099) was the recovery of the Holy Land from Islamic rule.
The word “pope” derives from the Greek pappas meaning “father.” In the early centuries of Christianity, the title was applied to all bishops as well as to senior clergy. Later it became reserved in the West for only the bishop of Rome, during the reign of Pope Leo I (400 – 461). He was pope from 440 until his death. Leo was a Roman aristocrat and was the first pope to have been called “the Great.” He is probably best known for having met “Attila the Hun” in 452 and persuading him to turn back from his invasion of Italy. Attila (c. 406–453) was the ruler of the Huns from 434 until his death. He is also considered one of the most powerful rulers in world history.
Pope Leo I, a powerful man, greatly contributed to developing ideas of papal authority. He was greatly esteemed by Pope Pius IX (1792 – 1878) the pope who strongly condemned liberalism, modernism, separation of church and state, and other Enlightenment ideas. In 1869 he proclaimed that he as pope was infallible, enhancing the role of the papacy and decreasing the role of the bishops. Pio Nono, as he is often called, had this Catholic doctrine dogmatically defined at the First Vatican Council of 1869–1870.
Well enough papal reflections for now. I like the synodality movement in today’s Catholic Church: a process of mutual collaboration and discernment engaging the whole People of God in the life and mission of the Church. Synodality speaks a different voice. As Phyllis Zagano reported in Religion News Service on August 17th: “The synod is a worldwide event, and early reports from bishops’ conferences outside the U.S. repeat the same story: Clericalism is a scourge on the church, and women are not respected or included in leadership.”