How popes became so powerful—and how Pope Francis could reverse the trend

By John W. O’Malley SJ, 10 July 2022
'Pius VIII brought to the Basilica of Saint Peter in Rome' by Horace Vernet (1829). Image: Wikimedia Commons


In 2000, Thomas Reese, S.J., then the editor in chief of America, asked me to write an article on how the church differed between the first millennium and the second. I found the assignment easy because one difference stood out like no other: a new centrality of the popes in the church of the second millennium. In that millennium, the popes came to wield an authority and play a role incomparably greater than in the first.

I called this phenomenon the papalization of the church. I apologized for the neologism, but I felt then, and still feel now, that it so neatly hit the nail on the head that its novelty was justified. The church in the West became the papal church, and Catholics became papists. The development signified a more exclusively top-down and hierarchical mode of church, in contrast to the more synodal and collegial earlier mode. It went unchallenged until recent times, most notably by the Second Vatican Council and Pope Francis.

The causes of the papalization process were multiple, complex and inextricably entangled with the general development of Western social, political and cultural history. Nonetheless, some of the most important and symptomatic steps in the process were the results of direct actions taken by the popes themselves.

In our own day, Pope Francis has tried to carry forward the council’s teaching by stressing the legitimacy of “consulting the faithful in matters of doctrine.” He has given this principle practical force in the synodal process he has set in motion. The process is essentially collegial and, as Francis specifies it, radically rooted in the teaching that the church is the whole people of God.

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John W. O’Malley, S.J., is University Professor emeritus in the theology department at Georgetown University.

With thanks to America and John W. O’Malley SJ, where this article originally appeared.


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