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PPAP: Papal Powers After Persecution

By: Jermaine Goh | Ng Ying | Sean Singh | Dominique Lim


Being the head of the church in St. Peter's day1 wasn’t glamorous at all. Persecution against Christianity was so bad that ANYONE could be made a martyr. One minute you’re singing praises to God in a basement, the next you’re being crucified… stoned to death… or burned at the stake. Needless to say, being their leader warranted much worse treatment2.

  1. He was allegedly the first leader of the church.
  2. St. Peter met his end being crucified upside down. Not a very nice way to die, we must admit.
  The Burning of Protopope Avvakum . (4 April, 2009). Creative Commons License.

The Burning of Protopope Avvakum. (4 April, 2009). Creative Commons License.

However, with time, Christianity grew from being a small persecuted sect into a widespread and powerful religion. From being in constant danger of capital punishment and having almost no secular influence, the Pope1 would eventually become someone bearing supreme authority in the religious order, and heavy political influences in secular governance. Follow us as we explore this change in power over the course of history, starting from Saint Peter the martyred and ending with Pope Gregory II, who helped prevent an invasion of Rome.

  1. The head of the Roman Catholic Church.

Saint Peter

(30 CE - 68 CE)

 Willud Eider,  Portrait of Saint Pope Peter in the Basilica of Saint Paul outside the Walls , (5 June, 2016). Creative Commons License.

Willud Eider, Portrait of Saint Pope Peter in the Basilica of Saint Paul outside the Walls, (5 June, 2016). Creative Commons License.

And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.
— Matthew 16:18

St. Peter was an apostle1 who was appointed by Jesus to be the head of the Church. He, however, enjoyed none of the glamour or power that future popes would come to have, leading a life of persecution and zero political influence.

Matthew 16:18 says “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.”

This famous conversation between Jesus and Peter is what many consider to be the first appointment2 of the head of the church.

St. Peter had a very dangerous role in the early years of Christianity. Under the rule of Emperor Nero Augustus Caesar, many Christians faced persecution and martyrdom (Gruesome Deaths and Celibate Lives: Christian Martyrs and Ascetics, ch.2, pp. 15). Peter’s acts remained confined to the organisation of the religious order. Despite this, Peter was respected as the unquestioned head of the church (since his appointment was supposedly by Jesus, duh) following the ascension of Jesus and made decisions which marked watersheds in Christianity’s development. One example happened at the Council of Jerusalem where he approved evangelism to the Gentiles (non-Jews)3.

This was a big deal because before this, the Christian faith was restricted only to the Jews. This approval meant that anyone could become a Christian, thus allowing for the rapid expansion of Christianity. His other acts included replacing Judas Iscariot4, and undertaking missions to spread the gospel. He was executed under Emperor Nero's rule, and according to popular belief, chose to be crucified upside down as he felt unworthy to be crucified in the same position as Jesus Christ.

As the first pope, Peter suffered a grisly end and had little secular authority. However, thanks to the foundations he laid, Christianity grew and was on its way to become one of the largest religions.

  1. Apostle: a disciple personally appointed by Jesus Christ.
  2. Note that this was actually more of an informal conferral of leadership.
  3. Acts 15:19
    “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.
  4. Acts 1:15-16
    In those days Peter stood up among the believers (a group numbering about a hundred and twenty) and said, “Brothers and sisters, the Scripture had to be fulfilled in which the Holy Spirit spoke long ago through David concerning Judas, who served as guide for those who arrested Jesus.

    Judas is one of the twelve original apostles. He is the one known to have betrayed Jesus (and with a kiss at that!).

Saint Dionysius

(259 CE - 268 CE)

 Author Unknown,  Portrait of Pope Dionysius in the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls, Rome  (10 August, 2015). Creative Commons License. 

Author Unknown, Portrait of Pope Dionysius in the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls, Rome (10 August, 2015). Creative Commons License. 

If anyone was a hero, it would be St. Dionysius for stepping out and up to take on the spiritual role of reorganizing the Roman Church. Elected in 259 CE, he re-established rules and the one most important thing -- faith. Specifically, St. Dionysius was the key player in the rebuilding of the churches of Cappadocia1, contributing extravagant sums of money to those held captive. His actions might be similar to St. Peter’s contributions but what differed was the timing2.

  1. Cappadocia is modern-day Turkey!
  2. Saint Dionysius was akin to Captain America -- he swoops in and saves the day in times of predicament!
  Captain-America , TNS Sofres (12 July, 2013). Flickr. 

Captain-America, TNS Sofres (12 July, 2013). Flickr. 

Firstly, he designated certain presbyters1 to lead certain communities of stable faith. Secondly, he ensured the episcopal boundaries of Rome’s metropolitan area were re-established into perfect order. Thirdly, to redeem the enslaved Christians, St. Dionysius sent out a crucial letter, coupled with an extravagant amount of money to the Church of Caesarea2. Lastly, he took control over a synod and consequently, enabled a more significant take on the doctrine of the Trinity3.

  1. Presbyters are modern-day pastors.
  2. We told you, he swoops in and saves the day!
  3. The Trinity: The Father, The Son, The Holy Spirit. Students who used to be from Catholic Schools, y'all would know the sign for this!
Those who do not know must be taught, not punished.
We do not hit the blind. We lead them by the hand.
— Saint Dionysius

St. Dionysius not only genuinely cared for the people of the churches within his area, he also took things further and ensured that his presence could be felt even in far-flung areas. After the disruption of the persecution shook the church, he pieced the puzzles back together and initiated smooth relations between Christian churches and the Roman Empire. This was the key to the lock of his political role and influence as time evolved and the main reason the church was able to stand the test of time over the years. Hence, there was a clear shift in power from spiritual to a rather diplomatic one during the period of St. Dionysius’ pontification, differentiating him from St. Peter.

What made St. Dionysius memorable was that he was the few early Popes who was not a martyr. This made him stand out because he was spared from martyrdom despite the minimal possession of secular authority, which was a rare scene during those days!

Pope Gelasius I

(492 CE - 496 CE)

 Author Unknown,  Portrait of Pope Gelasius I in the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls, Rome  (21 August 2015). Creative Commons License. 

Author Unknown, Portrait of Pope Gelasius I in the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls, Rome (21 August 2015). Creative Commons License. 

While St. Dionysius showed that popes could get a taste of politics, Pope Gelasius I took it a step further by defying the emperor and ensured that when it came to religiously significant matters, the pope ruled over the emperor.

In wanting to end the Acacian Schism1, Gelasius continued his predecessor's2 policy in asserting the decrees of the Council of Chalcedon. He refused to submit to the emperor and the patriarch of Constantinople in the Monophysite Controversy, which ironically prolonged the Acacian Schism. He even declared that the late Patriarch Acacius of Constantinople should be eradicated from official ecclesiastical memorials for allowing monophysitism and rejected the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon3 -- he had the power to dictate what went into official documents!

  1. Acacian Schism: a split between the Eastern and Western churches due to conflicting beliefs of miaphysitism (the belief that divine and human nature are one in the body of Jesus Christ). Also, miaphysitism and monophysitism are used interchangeably here although there might be some fine differences between the two. Check out this forum discussing their difference!
  2. Pope Felix III
  3. The view that Christ has two natures; one divine, one human.
You are also aware, dear son, that while you are permitted honorably to rule over human kind, yet in things divine you bow your head humbly before the leaders of the clergy and await from their hands the means of your salvation.
— Letter of Pope Gelasius I to Emperor Anastasius

By refusing to compromise1, Gelasius confirmed the inferiority of the emperor to the papacy. He went further in asserting the primacy of Rome over the entire church2 and established a distinction known as the Two Powers3. While the Two Powers declared that the church and the state work in harmony, it enforced that the emperor had to obey the pope in spiritual matters and that the pope had greater authority over any other such as the bishop of Constantinople.

Pope Gelasius I’s reign also marked the beginning of the interrelationship of religious and secular roles. We see him wielding greater power in the secular world because of the religious context woven into it -- he was able to tell the emperor that he authority over him! As we learnt in class, our beliefs help us to answer the question “How then shall we live?”. Since religion was so interwoven into the lives and beliefs of the people, it was hard to distinctly identify if anything was strictly religious or secular. This overlap allowed the popes to come after Gelasius to alter the way their people lived even in secular aspects.

  1. Gelasius had rejected the claim made by the emperor that Constantinople was to be the “new Rome” with the exception of politics.
  2. The church was divided into the Eastern and Western.
  3. The “sacred authority of priests” and the “royal power”.

Pope Gregory II

(715 CE - 731 CE)

 Author Unknown,  Portrait of Pope Gregory II in the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls, Rome  (22 August 2015). Creative Commons License. 

Author Unknown, Portrait of Pope Gregory II in the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls, Rome (22 August 2015). Creative Commons License. 

The establishment of the Doctrine of Two Powers by Pope Gelasius I played a part in developing the roles we see Pope Gregory II play. Temporally, this pope went further in his roles compared to the first three by being involved in the military, acting as an advisor of some sort!

Firstly, Pope Gregory II began his pontificate on a secular note, initiating works to fix the Walls of Rome. Next, he was involved in the management of diplomatic relationships with the Lombards, where an agreement1 that temporarily eased tensions between the Lombards and the Byzantine empire was reached. In this agreement, some territories were given to the papacy, marking the beginning of the Papal States2. This increased the political responsibilities of the Pope, and a greater power in politics happened -- after all, when you have land, you arguably have power. Also, as Pope Gregory II’s pontificate continued, he began clashing with emperor Leo III over the use of taxpayers’ monies -- imagine if our local religious leaders started having a say in the government about the way our taxes are used, how novel an experience it would be for us3.

Finally comes the issue that led to the distinctive militarial role of Pope Gregory II. Not only did Pope Gregory II interfere in the way emperor Leo ruled, emperor Leo messed with Pope Gregory II by issuing an edict that condemned religious icons4. Pope Gregory II immediately rejected the edict, leading to revolts where certain armies wanted to attack emperor Leo III. This is where Pope Gregory II stepped in, to dissuade armies from acting against emperor Leo III. This differentiated this pope from the earlier three, and shows the greater scope of secular roles that the pope has come to play since the time of St. Peter.

  1. The Donation of Sutri
  2. This was the first extensions of papal territory beyond the Duchy of Rome, explaining why gaining these terrirtories establsihed the Papal States.
  3. This would probably be because of because of how unrelated the responsibilites of the two entities are in our experience.
  4. This is known as the Iconoclastic Controversy.


We clearly see a shift in the powers of the Papacy from spiritual to temporal, from the time of St. Peter to that of Pope Gregory II’s. It is interesting to see how this shift happened, through specific events that occurred within each pope’s reign, whether directly or indirectly caused by the pope. Although today the Pope no longer has his Papal States, he is still treated as sovereign, holding power to send and receive diplomats and is actively engaged in political affairs. He power over spiritual matters remains, although secularly there is not much of an emphasis anymore. Given the changes that have happened over time, more shifts in Papal powers can be expected in the future too.


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