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Popes and the Papacy: A History

Popes and the Papacy: A History

Professor Thomas F. X. Noble Ph.D.
University of Notre Dame
Course No.  6672
Course No.  6672
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Course Overview

About This Course

24 lectures  |  30 minutes per lecture

The papacy is the oldest continuously functioning institution in the world. Developed c. A.D. 30 when Jesus invested his disciple Peter with the authority to create a church, the Bishops of Rome grew their organization from a small flock of persecuted worshipers to a religion that counts one-sixth of the world's population as members.

Over the last 2,000 years, the papacy has had an enormous influence on the world stage in religious, geopolitical, legal, social, artistic, and cultural matters. Today, more than a billion Roman Catholics throughout the world look to the pope for guidance and leadership.

Yet in spite of the papacy's enormous influence, how much do you really know about this ancient and powerful institution?

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The papacy is the oldest continuously functioning institution in the world. Developed c. A.D. 30 when Jesus invested his disciple Peter with the authority to create a church, the Bishops of Rome grew their organization from a small flock of persecuted worshipers to a religion that counts one-sixth of the world's population as members.

Over the last 2,000 years, the papacy has had an enormous influence on the world stage in religious, geopolitical, legal, social, artistic, and cultural matters. Today, more than a billion Roman Catholics throughout the world look to the pope for guidance and leadership.

Yet in spite of the papacy's enormous influence, how much do you really know about this ancient and powerful institution?

  • How exactly are popes chosen?
  • What kinds of men have been included among those who have borne the title?
  • What happened during the Great Schism and the decades of the Avignon Popes?
  • Is the Catholic Church really as wealthy as has been claimed?
  • What was the influence of the some three dozen antipopes who have laid claim to the papal office?
  • Was there really a female pope?
  • Why has the papacy proved so durable throughout history?

These and many other questions are answered in Popes and the Papacy: A History, a course designed to illuminate for Catholics and non-Catholics alike this remarkable institution. Taught by Professor Thomas F. X. Noble, a scholar and instructor who has spent more than 30 years engaged in scholarly studies of popes and the papacy, these 24 lectures give you priceless insights into the dramatic history of the papal office and the lives of the men who represented it.

Explore Four Unique Histories

"To study the history of the papacy is actually to follow four histories at once," notes Professor Noble at the start of the course. Throughout Popes and the Papacy, you follow four critical strands of papal history over the course of 2,000 years.

  • The History of the "Petrine" Idea: Taking its name from Peter, supposedly the first pope, the Petrine Office is how we talk about the theories behind the study of how and why the Catholic Church is organized as it is (what theologians call ecclesiology.)
  • The History of an Institution: The Catholic Church has one pope at a time (albeit sometimes there have been two or more men claiming to be the legitimate pope!), but the papacy is an institution that transcends time. We are familiar with separating presidents from the presidency; so too will you learn to distinguish popes from the papacy.
  • The History of Popes and Antipopes: You also follow the serial biography of 265 popes—some holy, some wicked, some efficient, some incompetent, some learned, some simple, some visionary, some narrow-minded—and the more than 30 antipopes from 217 to 1447.
  • The History of Western Civilization: In some ways, the history of the papacy is a mirror of the history of Western civilization; at every great moment in history, the popes were there as participants, promoters, or critics. Viewing Western civilization through a papal lens provides you with unique perspectives on historical events like the fall of the Roman Empire, the Renaissance, World War II, and the collapse of Communism.

Encounter History's Great Popes

In Popes and the Papacy, you discover the stories of the numerous men who defined the papacy, starting with its founder, Peter, and traveling through the current pope, Benedict XVI, elected in April of 2005. While some popes were remarkable, interesting, impressive, and memorable, others were regrettable. Others still were forgettable.

Professor Noble, the Robert M. Conway Director of the Medieval Institute and Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame, offers thoughts on why particular popes attract our attention and key insights into the legacies of their leadership.

  • Pope Gregory I, or Gregory the Great (r. 590–604) is the first pope about whom a great deal is known. In 596, he launched the reconversion of England.
  • Pope Sylvester II (r. 999–1003) was the first French pope and took the name Sylvester to symbolize the ideal of papal-imperial cooperation between Pope Sylvester I and Emperor Constantine.
  • Pope Julius II, (r. 1503–1513) personally led his troops into battle in an effort to enlarge the Papal States, yet this warrior-pope's contributions to the Renaissance included commissioning Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and hiring famed architect Donato Bramante to design St. Peter's Basilica.
  • Pope Pius X (r. 1903–1914), though he condemned the emerging ideas of Modernism, was also the greatest reformer of his age who instituted numerous changes in the Catholic Church, including the reinstitution of traditional church music.

In addition to these and other papal leaders, you'll ponder issues central to their rule, including whether recent history's criticism of Pope Pius XII's actions with respect to the Holocaust were justified, what made Pope John Paul II such a towering figure on the world stage, and what history can expect from the rule of the current pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI.

Look inside the Vatican's Doors

According to Professor Noble, the Vatican—the governing center of the Roman Catholic faith—is a pretty mysterious place. Nevertheless, he says that "today we can describe the Vatican in a lot more detail than was possible in the past ... we just know a lot more about what happens and who does what."

Popes and the Papacy takes you inside the Vatican's doors and provides you with fresh views on the institution's people, ideas, traditions, and routines. You discover the important roles played by organizations like the Curia and the Secretariat of State. You also investigate the mechanisms by which the Church not only ministers to its worldwide flock but also deals with the practical realities of its own administration.

Enjoy a Wealth of Extraordinary Stories

The rich subject matter of Popes and the Papacy, spanning over 2,000 years of human civilization, provides you with a wealth of extraordinary stories that reflect the dramatic history of this important institution. Throughout the lectures, you:

  • Learn that when Pope Paul II instituted the first printing press in Rome in the 15th century, the resulting unemployment among the abbreviatori (the scribes who had previously produced copies of papal documents by hand) was so great that it resulted in a short-lived plot against the pope's life
  • Enjoy a glimpse into the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), whose history has been far different from the peaceful one many people might associate with their teaching role
  • Discover why cardinals electing a new pope are actually locked in until their work is completed, a tradition that dates back to the 13th-century attempt to choose a successor to Clement IV

Stories like these—along with the wisdom of Professor Noble's 30 years of immersion in the subject—give every lecture of Popes and the Papacy a level of fascination that promises to educate, enlighten, and entertain you.

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24 Lectures
  • 1
    What Is Papal History? When Did It Begin?
    This lecture introduces four definitions of papal history—as an idea, an institution, a series of biographies, and a vantage point for the history of Western civilization—and examines the evidence for the beginnings of the story. x
  • 2
    The Rise of the Petrine Idea
    Papal history changed dramatically in the period between about 300 and 500 A.D., and we catch our first glimpse of an impressive institutional structure coming into being, refining itself, and assuming new and weighty responsibilities. x
  • 3
    Popes, Byzantines, and Barbarians
    As Roman authority around Rome disappeared, the popes had to deal with new situations, eventually reorienting their focus from the Mediterranean world to Western Europe in a period that also witnessed the pontificate of Gregory I, known as Gregory the Great, one of the most remarkable of Peter's successors. x
  • 4
    The Popes in the Age of Charlemagne
    In this period, the popes loosened their historical ties to Constantinople and turned to the Franks for protection—an effective collaboration that nonetheless planted the seeds for contention in later centuries over the boundaries between royal and priestly power. x
  • 5
    Rome, the Popes, and the Papal Government
    In addition to addressing some basic questions about how a man became pope, what the various roles were, and what structures were in place to assist him, this lecture also introduces many features of papal life and work still present today, albeit sometimes in changed form. x
  • 6
    The “Age of Iron”
    With the decline of effective Carolingian power in Italy, the papacy sank into depths perhaps unmatched in its long history—a period often referred to by later Protestant writers as the "Pornocracy." x
  • 7
    The Investiture Controversy
    Although "Lay Investiture"—the practice whereby a layman invests a cleric with his office—has given its name to a controversial era, the dispute encompassed much more, as rulers and clergy disagreed over who stood "next to God." x
  • 8
    The Papal Monarchy—Institutions
    This first of two lectures on the "papal monarchy" looks at the papacy as an institution, focusing largely on the pope within the Church but also looking at new ways the papacy influenced the contemporary world. x
  • 9
    The Papal Monarchy—Politics
    Despite the end of the Investiture Controversy, quarrels persisted between the popes and Europe's rulers. This second lecture on the papal monarchy examines some of the great battles of the day. x
  • 10
    The Popes at Avignon
    The struggle between Philip IV of France and Pope Boniface VIII did not resolve fundamental issues, and the lingering dispute found the papacy's "temporary" residence at Avignon lasting 69 years. x
  • 11
    The Great Schism
    This lecture examines the greatest crisis in papal history—the period from 1378 to 1417—when a series of two, and sometimes three, men claimed simultaneously to be the legitimate pope, dealing severe blows to both the papacy's prestige and the monarchical theory of Church government. x
  • 12
    The Renaissance Papacy—Politics
    In this first of two lectures on the Renaissance, we look at the place of the popes in the public culture, war, diplomacy, and government of the 15th-century world. x
  • 13
    The Renaissance Papacy—Culture
    This second lecture on the Renaissance looks at the papacy's involvement in the intellectual, cultural, and educational movement that began to flourish in Florence in the last decades of the 14th century. x
  • 14
    The Challenge of Reform—Protestantism
    Calls for "Reform" were as old as the Christian Church itself. This lecture examines the reaction of the Renaissance popes to the voices constantly being raised for moral, spiritual, and institutional reform. x
  • 15
    Catholic Reform and Counter Reform
    The 15th century has been viewed as a time of intense reform within the Catholic Church and as a Counter Reformation designed to stop the spread of Protestantism and to win back Protestants. Both views have merit. x
  • 16
    Absolutism, Enlightenment, and Revolution
    The diplomatic situation in Europe in the early 17th century effectively halted the Counter Reformation on the Continent. Indeed, over the next two centuries the papacy's very survival occasionally came into question. x
  • 17
    Pius IX—Prisoner of the Vatican
    We look at the often controversial papacy of Pius IX, whose 32-year reign was the longest of all the popes and whose pontificate coincided with tremendous military, political, ideological, and cultural turmoil. x
  • 18
    The Challenge of Modernism
    After the long pontificate of Pius IX, it was clear that the pope's place in the world and in the Church would be forever different. x
  • 19
    The Troubled Pontificate of Pius XII
    This lecture looks at the fascinating pontificate of a brilliant but austere man who assumed the role of pope with unmatched experience, but whose reign eventually became shrouded by controversy. x
  • 20
    The Age of Vatican II
    Declining to be merely an elderly placeholder, John XXIII succeeded Pius XII and summoned the Second Vatican Council. We examine his life and career and the council that has continued to be a controversial topic for 40 years. x
  • 21
    The Transitional Pontificate of Paul VI
    Shy and bookish, kind but aloof, Paul VI was described by his close friend and confidante, John XXIII, as "a little like Hamlet." We examine the tangled legacy of a pope who attracted the criticism of progressives and conservatives alike. x
  • 22
    The Vatican and What It Does
    This lecture provides some useful nuts-and-bolts information and some interesting sidelights on the people and structures that make up the Vatican, dispelling some of the aura of mystery and intrigue that surrounds it. x
  • 23
    John Paul II—“The Great”?
    This lecture examines the life and pontificate of the first non-Italian elected since 1522. A towering figure on the world stage, he was controversial to some, respected by all, and loved by many. x
  • 24
    Benedict XVI, the Future, and the Past
    This lecture looks at the background and early pontificate of the new pope, attempts to assess where he might lead the world's one billion Catholics, and concludes the course with a few reflections on the place of the pope in the 21st century. x

Lecture Titles

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Thomas F. X. Noble
Ph.D. Thomas F. X. Noble
University of Notre Dame

Dr. Thomas F. X. Noble is Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame. He earned his B.A. in History from Ohio University and his M.A. and Ph.D. in Medieval History from Michigan State University. Professor Noble has held fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities and research grants from the American Philosophical Society. In 2008 he received the Edmund P. Joyce, C.S.C., Award for Excellence in Teaching from Notre Dame. In 1999 he was awarded the Alumni Distinguished Professor Award and a David Harrison III Award for outstanding undergraduate advising, both from the University of Virginia. Professor Noble is the author, coauthor, or editor of 10 books and has published more than 40 articles, chapters, and essays. His coauthored textbook, Western Civilization: The Continuing Experiment, is in its 5th edition. His research has concentrated on late antiquity and the early Middle Ages, focusing on the history of the city of Rome, the history of the papacy, and the age of Charlemagne.

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Reviews

Rated 4.1 out of 5 by 62 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by This was the second time I listened to the course (the first time was following the election of Pope Benedict). I found it interesting and valuable on both occasions. For the most part, this course is presented in a chronolological fashion, with a few lectures dealing with themes through a historical period. This has its good and bad points (for example, in one lecture he was discussing the papacy around the time of Napoleon in the early 1800s, followed by comments concerning the papacy in the late 1600s). It is essential to have a timeline in front of you to make following these "themes" a little easier. I actually used a modified timeline that was published by the Chicago Tribune in March, 2013 (at the time of the election of Pope Francis). Such a timeline listing all of the popes and antipopes was invaluable to follow along during the lectures. Again, highly recommended course, by an excellent lecturer. April 2, 2013
Rated 5 out of 5 by Fascinating, Balanced, Insightful, and Well-Done This is an excellent, if brief, overview of popes and the papacy, highly recommended for any with an interest in the history of religion. Professor Noble is a fine teacher, and this course is in the same league as his other TGC offerings, all of which are outstanding and well worth watching. He is clear, eloquent, well-organized, and deeply caring about his subject. It is especially worth emphasizing, since the professor is a Roman Catholic (or at least so I assume) lecturing on a major aspect of Roman Catholicism, that I (as a non-religious type) found his presentation to be almost entirely fair and balanced, explicitly detailing the often dramatic failings of his subjects as well as their positive aspects. And he at no point comes even close to proselytizing for his religion - this is history, not theology. The only partial exception comes with his discussion of the most recent popes, when his personal biases, especially his admiration for John Paul II, threatens to overwhelm his objectivity. He also provides a detailed and passionate apology (in the religious sense) of the papacy's sometimes controversial activities during World War II. But again, to me as a religious outsider, this seemed well within acceptable and expected bounds, and both sides of the controversies are given a fair hearing. Given that this course was produced at the beginning of the reign of the 265th pope, it obviously could be nowhere close to complete. But the major figures, and the most pivotal as well as important intellectual, religious, and political events, receive a consistently fascinating telling. Of course, it would be very helpful to have at least a basic understanding of European history before taking the course, since so much depends on background knowledge which can only be mentioned briefly. This is not the sort of topic that will appeal to everyone with a historical bent. But it has my highest recommendation for all with an interest in religious history or in Christianity. June 9, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by A Fascinating History This turned out to be an excellent course -- it could so easily have been just a chronology -- and the lecturer was also quite good. I was glad to get some background one what we know (and what we don't know) about the papacy's early years and I found the section on the "Iron Years" of the late first millennium to be especially interesting. May 13, 2014
Rated 3 out of 5 by A Long Unsatisfying Row to Hoe Most of the sessions were either about the background of selected popes or the fights for the papacy. I would have liked some information about the issues that the popes dealt with and how they changed the religion. After all, wasn't that what they were there for? It wasn't until the last few lessons that the professor talked about what the pope actually does, but that pertained to the 20th and 21st centuries. The course made short shrift of the crusades and Christian anti Semitism. April 9, 2014
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