Rev. Stewart is pastor of the Covenant Protestant Reformed Church in Northern Ireland.

he 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 sixteenth-century Council of Trent declared,

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.¹

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).² 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 to be subject to the Roman pontiff.” Boniface here invalidates the whole Eastern Orthodox Church (whom he refers to as “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.

The 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 symbolize their temporal power over the Papal States (752-1870) 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, symbolizing 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 Savior Jesus Christ on earth.”

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 symbolize 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 the separation of church and state; freedom of worship, speech, and press; higher criticism of the Bible; ecumenism; 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. 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 downplayed.

Outside pressures have 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 North America and Europe), like Hans Kung, and liberation theologians (especially in Latin America), like Leonardo Boff. 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” within the hierarchy working for the overthrow of traditional Romanism.³

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. 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.

. . . to be continued.

¹ Cf. John W. Robbins, Ecclesiastical Megalomania: The Economic and Political Thought of the Roman Catholic Church (USA: The Trinity Foundation, 1999), p. 131.

² All quotations from Unam Sanctam are taken from Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1877), vol. 2, pp. 605-607.

³ 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).