The papacy has had its share of scoundrels over the years, but men like Pope John Paul II more than make up for them. CNS photo

Papacy, despite its warts, is all good

By  Brian Welter, Catholic Register Special
  • February 8, 2014

Behind the anecdotes and centuries-long ups and downs presented here, Mike Aquilina constantly drives home his central point — the papacy never erred theologically.

As the rock of the Church, God has protected the papacy from theological heresy even when the most sinful men sat on Peter’s throne.

This is a history book that develops a theology of the papacy and the Church. Without its headship in Rome, Aquilina notes, the whole thing falls apart. The pontiff keeps the Church together. The author prepares the readers for some of the rascals to come by noting how often St. Peter himself messed up: “Over and over in the Gospels, we see Peter go from gung-ho to washout.”

It wasn’t Peter’s great saintliness or his brains that got him top spot, but his character. After falling, “He doesn’t rationalize, or bargain, or blame,” but takes full responsibility.

Even more important, he is the one who declares Jesus to be the Messiah. It is this unassailable orthodoxy that marks Peter’s successors. Aquilina even goes so far as to say that, throughout Christian history, the Romans themselves were orthodox, and demanded that their bishop be so as well.

The wider ancient Church acknowledged the supremacy of Rome, as they too expected this orthodoxy. When the Corinthians were unable to resolve one of their disputes, they asked for Rome’s intervention. Pope St. Clement responded by emphasizing the importance of order to the workings of the Church. Unity came from adherence to Rome. Did not St. Paul get his commission from St. Peter? The Church couldn’t function without a proper hierarchy.

Pope Benedict IX is perhaps the worst of the lot presented in the book. The author ably tells the confusing story of how, through politics, vanity and greed, the man was pope three times. “No one else has ever been pope more than once. No other pope has ever sold the papacy either; Benedict IX managed that trick too. And while he was pope, he filled his time with orgies and dissipation.”

Yet this was only the tip of the iceberg. Despite their demands for orthodox theology, the Roman mob and the nobility negatively influenced the papacy, as the office was often controlled by one or more families who would pass it among their connections. The office holder would be no holier than the rest of the corrupt actors.

Nevertheless, two popes stand out for their humility: Celestine V, a hermit by vocation who was called unwillingly to Rome after the cardinals had spent months wrangling over a successor to Peter, and St. Pius V, a 16th-century pope whose humility and love for the poor deflated Protestant accusations of luxury and corruption.

This book is, if anything, an apologia, a defense of the faith. In particular, it is a defense of the papal system.

How is it possible that we can explain the papacy to non-Catholics when we read of so many bad guys, crooks and sexual deviants holding the office? Aquilina shows how we can argue from the truth, even when that truth is painful.

Some readers, particularly the Orthodox, will contend with Aquilina’s argument that the papacy represents unchanging orthodoxy. They will ask how a pope could add the filioque clause to the Nicene Creed, whereby the Holy Spirit is believed to issue from both the Father and the Son. The Orthodox have always maintained the original Nicene position that the Spirit proceeds from the Father alone.

Secondly, the discussion can appear choppy, as readers get moved forward, sometimes by centuries, as the author covers the 2,000-year-old papacy. However, Aquilina never claims to be writing a coherent history. It is a book of vignettes, with all the pros and cons of that style. Readers not so familiar with Church history must put up with a thin background setting for the book.

On the plus, readers get some inspiring popes such as Pope Leo the Great (died 461), who saw off Attila the Hun, and John Paul II, who saw off the Iron Curtain, in addition to the great sinners. Aquilina succeeds in pointing out that the sinfulness of the men never undermined the Petrine Ministry itself, which is the real miracle.


Good Pope, Bad Pope: Their Lives, Our Lessons, by Mike Aquilina (136 pages, Servant Books, softcover, $19.99).

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