How “Roman” is the Roman Catholic Church?

Posted by Alice L. Camille
Wednesday 30, April 2014 | Category:  
St. Peter's SquareView of St. Peter's Square in Rome.


How “Roman” is the Roman Catholic Church? And “Why is it Roman at all?” is an equally good question, considering that Christianity started in Palestine. Even before the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple and the essential ruin of that city by Rome in the year 70 A.D., many Jewish Christians had already moved on. Paul was all over Asia Minor with the gospel of course, and early church tradition has it that Peter was in Rome by 42 A.D., in a loose sense “governing” the nascent church from the center of the present Empire for 25 years before being martyred in a wider purge by Roman authorities in 67 A.D. Since then 263 men have succeeded him (not counting rivals to Peter’s Chair known as antipopes), and most of them have ruled and died in Rome.

Some popes were sent into exile from Rome by disgruntled emperors. A few 13th-century popes never managed to get to Rome before their deaths. And some in the 14th century, during the so-called “Babylonian Captivity” of the papacy, preferred their palace in Avignon, France. But for most of the past 2,000 years, popes have not only ruled from Rome but ruled Rome itself. It’s no wonder that 124 popes were born there.

The papacy, however, never presumed to be an Italian privilege. It’s important to remember that Italy as a nation is a relatively new development. As historian Paul Johnson puts it, “Italy” was a world unto itself, a microcosm of the global society, a collection of city-states that resisted nationhood from the time of the Roman Empire until the late 18th century. Because of that, many popes, especially early on, had origins elsewhere: Palestine and the Near East (9); Greece and France (17 each); Germany (6); Africa (3); lands of the Goths and Sardinia (2 each); and at least one pope from Hungary, England, Portugal, and Poland. Not to mention a recently elected Italian from Argentina.

Rome always understood itself as a city without national confines, which is why popes address an annual message urbi et orbi: to the city and the world. Official documents still use Latin, the language of the Empire. Certain ritten mandates are called bulls (from bulla, for documents “sealed” by the Emperor). The papal pallium worn by the pope was part of the Roman imperial insignia. In fact, until the Lateran Treaty of 1929 recognized the "sovereign independence of the Holy See,” the Vatican did not acknowledge the Italian state. However global its responsibility and authority, the church’s Roman-ness isn’t fading anytime soon.

Scripture
Matt. 16:18-19; 28:16-20; Acts 28:11-31; the Letter to the Romans

Books
The Vatican by Michael Collins (DK Adults)
A History of the Popes: From Peter to the Presentby John W. O’Malley (Sheed and Ward)
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