Popes and the Papacy: A History

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

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
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 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

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Your professor

Thomas F. X. Noble

About Your Professor

Thomas F. X. Noble, Ph.D.
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...
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Popes and the Papacy: A History is rated 4.2 out of 5 by 103.
Rated 1 out of 5 by from I am returning course Only once before have I returned a course, and it was for similar reasons. We buy these courses to be educated, not to hear someone who has a stake in his subject matter spout off in a slanted manner. I was hoping to learn of the Papacy's position in the world and wanted some objective view of the individual popes. Instead I found that the 'good' popes were 'wonderful', the 'bad' popes 'had a few problems'--there was no balance. In addition, any negative influence the papacy caused was skimmed over or neglected. This includes the papacy's role in the Reformation, the rise of Lutheranism and the selling of indulgences,the role the papacy played in WW II and other crucial areas. For a good treatment of the popes of the Renaissance, get the Teaching Company's course: "The Renaissance." Don't waste your money on this one. And based on what I see of the "was this helpful" comments, I feel sure you will see that this review "was not helpful" to at least 70% of those who read it. Who do you think puts in those "Helpful" votes? Check it out. If you see the 5 star reviews here have one vote against them, that is my vote. The 3 star reviews, even the best ones, all show "unhelpful" votes. No coincidence.
Date published: 2009-06-04
Rated 3 out of 5 by from 2 speakers for 1: turn the volume way up In my opinion, this is a very academic course which makes it borderline interesting. You also should be prepared to understand that because of the lack of historical records you learn nothing about popes during certain early and seemingly critical periods. Unfortunately, what is most memorable about the course are the strange speech patterns of the professor. He lectures in a manner that may necessitate turning the volume to a very high level. He talks in a rather high but normal voice then to make some insightful points he will lower his voice appreciably and seemingly turn his head to the side and his comments become nearly inaudible at a normal volume level. It is as though 2 people are teaching the course. One gives you the straight history; the other, gives you the inside story and observations, but both at radically different volume levels. I found it very distracting as though the speaker was making side comments to a few people standing to his side. If you learn anything from this course that is memorable is that the popes were human beings and throughout history they represent the good, bad and evil of a cross section of mankind.
Date published: 2009-05-06
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Very good, but... I enjoyed this course immensely. Naturally, the subject matter may be a bit controversial so I’d like to disclose where I’m coming from. I’m a former Catholic and agnostic. I am not affiliated with any religion whatsoever. Noble certainly portrays an overall favorable picture of the papacy that remains objective, but barely. However, he’s an outstanding and engaging lecturer and his knowledge and scholarship of the subject are absolutely first class. If you’re not or have never been Catholic, Noble does go into a bit of detail describing the terminology and hierarchy of the Catholic church. However, given the time restraints and that this is a course on History, not Ecclesiology, it may come across as odd and befuddling to those not already familiar. Popes and Papacy does a superb job surveying the history and influence of the institution and men who have served in it for over 2,000 years. Regardless of your religious affiliation, some fluency of this subject is fundamental to understanding why, where, how and what Western Civilization is. As is common with The Teaching Company, the Professor is probably the course’s strongest point.
Date published: 2009-04-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Minority Report I thought this was an excellent introduction to the history of the papacy. Unlike some other readers, I found Professor Noble's analysis to be excellent and fair. As a Catholic, I often found his criticism to be searing and I did not find him whitewashing anyone. The controversy about Pius XII was handled in a balanced manner, although I think the possibility of foul play in the case of John Paul I was dismissed a little quickly. I recommend these lectures to anyone interested in an enjoyable introduction to a most complicated subject
Date published: 2009-04-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent This was an excellent overview. There have been some criticism that Prof. Noble skips over some areas the reviewers would like to be more detailed. You will note that most criticism is due to Prof. Noble not being more critical of the church or skipping over areas that were not high points in the church's history. I think that speaks more to the reviewer's desire than Prof. Noble's. Obviously, with only 24 lectures covering 2000+ years of history, there is going to be some areas that are not covered in detail. This could easily have been a 48 lecture series where all these issues were covered in more detail. Even at that length, however, much would still need to be skimmed through. I enjoyed this very much and have listened to it several times.
Date published: 2009-03-11
Rated 2 out of 5 by from I wanted history, not apology The lectures are colored by a tendency to view the actions of the popes and the Church in an uncritical manner. This has the result of rendering the analysis one-dimensional. Moral complexities are left unexplored in favor of defending the Church. Facts and historical revelations that are critical to the Church go unmentioned, or are unfairly dismissed. This course is fine is you want to feel good about the Church in a simple-minded way -- something you can play for your children. But as a multi-dimensional history, it's an utter failure. Very disappointing.
Date published: 2009-03-11
Rated 4 out of 5 by from FOR BETTER OR WORSE Dr. Noble is a competent, engaging speaker who brings a broad perspective to the papal institution. Reasonable depth for a course of such scope, though as other reviewers have indicated there are some gaps or areas that could have used more focus such as the Renaissance popes and some modern era controversies. Nevertheless, it is solid scholarship and teaching, with an easy to follow progression of ideas and changes through papal history. It is valuable for bringing the listener to a closer look at the papacy, for better or worse.
Date published: 2009-03-09
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Papal Apologetics Prof. Noble is a good lecturer and a fine scholar, but his performance in this course is uneven. His knowledge of the medieval papacy is illuminating. However, the coverage given on the renaissance popes was disappointingly short and uninformative. Noble's defence of Pius XII and John Paul II failed to convince. To dismiss the suggestion that John Paul I was murdered as "utter rubbish" is simply not good enough, given the suspicious circumstances and the absence of an autopsy.
Date published: 2009-02-21
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Too much information to be covered in a short course. I have likes Prof. Nobles courses, this one seemed a little skewed. He was critical of the early Popes, but as he approached more modern personalities, he seemed to make excuses for their behavior, like the WWII Pope. It really needs to be a longer course. There was much that was not covered.
Date published: 2009-02-12
Rated 3 out of 5 by from A Whitewash Although the presentation was very good, I was severley disappointed by the course. I knew little about the subject and was hoping to be enlightened. Although the course covered a lot of material, it seems to have carefully avoided the most controversial aspects of the papacy--including very skimpy treatment of the Papal role in the Crusades, the excessive lifestyles of many Popes through the Renaissance, the events provoking the Reformation, and a balance portrayal of Papal attitudes during WW II. The course did, however, provoke me to do some additional reading on the subject--most notably a biography of Pope John XXIII by Thomas Cahill--which presented a dramatically different view of Papal History. I would have liked a less sanitized presentation on what is a fascinating subject.
Date published: 2009-02-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Top Notch But Too Short This is exactly the top quality course I've come to expect from Prof. Noble. Since the subject matter easily justifies a more lengthy presentation, my only complaint is that it isn't twice as long. Still, it is a great course by a great instructor and provides an excellent introduction to the topic.
Date published: 2009-02-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Highly recommended The value of this course, in my opinion, is not the "papacy" aspect, but the presentation of an historical institution (ie, the papacy) over time. Beginning in late classical Rome, and leading up to the present we see changes in the passage of time as well as the continuity. Therefore, you can hear this course as a course on "religion" but more so as a course on"history." There is attention to personality, to political intrigue, to international influences and to "dogma", all aspects of this fascinating series. Noble is an even-handed lecturers who presents his material with clarity and enthusiasm. While this series seems to be on a "limited" topic, it more so is a "case study" that encompasses two thousand years of civilization. In this way, it would appeal to many listeners.
Date published: 2009-01-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Illuminating! Professor Noble presented an informative and interesting course! I am not a Catholic, but my wife is, and I was mildly curious about the papacy and its place within the Catholic tradition. Well, I got what I paid for, and more. The course not only covered the interesting personalities and the power plays, but it also touched on how the different theological issues impacted the papacy. As a result, I was able to brush up on a bit of church doctrine as well. It was well presented, and the professor is an excellent speaker. His style is a cross between a senior lecturer, and the guy next door telling you a good story. Well worth the money, and more importantly, the time I took to listen to it.
Date published: 2009-01-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Still Talking About This Purchase I purchased this course several weeks ago to have something to listen to both while I worked on my house and while I made the round trip drive home for Christmas. Unfortunately, I was so enthralled with the material contained in this lecture that I didn't have anything to listen to on the way home from Christmas, because I had already listened to everything by the time I headed back to Terre Haute! Perhaps the biggest compliment that I can pay this lecture is that I am still trying to find reasons to talk about the things that I learned in this lecture (and I *may* have interrupted a reading during Mass on Christmas Eve to impart some of my new knowledge on my mom, who was sitting next to me). This lecture was wonderful; two slight issues that do not merit docking more than one star from the content. First, there could have been more lectures, because I am sure that there was more material I would have loved. Second, I would like to hear a bit more about our current Pope, as the last lecture is a bit dated. Overall, this lecture was great, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in the papacy or anyone who wants a general view of history as seen through the eyes of the church.
Date published: 2009-01-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from An edifying course; erudite objective presentation Prof. Noble has vastly more knowledge of this subject than I. How can I write a review of his work? That would be like me being the pope's confessor. So, take any criticism I give with a grain of salt. IMHO, Prof. Noble gives a balanced presentation. In subject matter that is potentially charged with religious dispute and fraught with political consequence, he seems to maintain a level of objectivity difficult to achieve for any informed observer. If any fault there be, Dr. Noble might in a small number of instances be more sympathetic to the views tending to be espoused by the more hierarchical sectors of the church, and, just possibly, less sympathetic to more protestant views on matters theological or ecclesiological.
Date published: 2008-12-18
Rated 4 out of 5 by from This course was very well presented, but was overwhelming--too much material for 24 lectures-- would be better if presented in 36, even 48.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Again an excellent course by a distinguished professor who simplified a long and difficult subject
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Instructor made a potentially dry topics extremely interesting. Concise but with sufficient detail.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Prof. Noble was absolutely flawless! Knowledge of and passion for subject matter evident throughout course in every lecture. Totally enjoyable experience.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from An enjoyable and informative course on a subject of interest to me but one that I proabally would not have explored had it not been offered by The Teaching Company
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 4 out of 5 by from This course was a gift, professor Noble was very good, I guess you could not go over each end every Pope individually in the time available also Henry 8th and the pope was not covered as well as I would have liked.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Prof Noble covers an extraordinary amount of history (265 popes, 21 centuries) in a delightfully clear and efficient manner, displaying great erudition and a wry sense of humor.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The professor was outstanding!! More from him please! This course could have been 24 lectures more! Absolutely fantastic course!
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Excellent presentation, clear and concise. Fully informative and enjoyable. Outstanding course booklet.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Outstanding professor with encyclopedic knowledge of subject but very dismal visual aids for asubject that could have many more.
Date published: 2008-10-17
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