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Joseph Mccabe Popes And Church Pandc 1





OF all the fictions which still shelter from the storm of modern criticism under the leaky umbrella of "Catholic Truth," the legend of the divine foundation of the Papacy and the Papal system is quite the boldest and most romantic. No divine force, but a pitifully human series of forgeries and coercions, of pious frauds and truculent ambitions, perpetrated in an age of deep ignorance, built up the Papal power, hierarchy, and creed.

The Christian hierarchy arose in a very simple way. In the primitive community, which met at times to break bread in memory of Christ and meditate on his words, some division of labour was needed. It fell to "the elder" to break the bread and address the little group. It fell to a few of the younger men to carry round the bread to be "ministers" or servants. Then, as scandals grew among the brethren and sisters, it was just as natural to appoint an "overseer" for each group of communities. In Greek, which these early Christians generally spoke (even at Rome), elder is πρεσβυτερος; minister or servant is διακονος; and overseer is επισκοπος. Hence the words priest, deacon, and bishop.

Certain of these primitive communities were believed to have been founded by the immediate followers of Christ, the apostles, and they were called "apostolic churches," and entitled to especial respect. Until the fifth or sixth century the Roman Church was just one of these "apostolic" churches. Its bishop was called "Pope" only because every bishop was called "Pope" (as every priest is in the East today) during the first few centuries.

But the Roman Pope had two peculiar advantages, and these formed the foundation of his ambition to rule the whole Church. In the first place, Rome was the metropolis of the Empire, the greatest city of the world. In the second place, it was somehow generally believed by the end of the second century, though there is no other serious evidence of the fact, that the Roman Church had been founded by Peter.

In the Gospels Peter has a remarkable position. Christ is represented as saying to him (Matthew xvi, 18): "Thou art Peter, and upon this rock [πετρα] I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven." This poor little pun on Peter’s name was obviously not made by Christ. The word "church" had no meaning at all in the days of Christ and Peter. A Galilean fisherman would have asked in astonishment what this mysterious thing was which was to be built upon him. There was no such word in Aramaic. Christ would have had to say "synagogue"; and he hated synagogues. The pun belongs to a later date. There came a time when Peter and Paul quarrelled, as Paul tells us, and there was a party of Peter and a party of Paul; and some zealous Petrist, possibly of the Roman Church, got that passage interpolated into the Gospel. That crude little pun has changed the course of history and made the life-work of Christ a mockery.

From the Epistle to the Romans, which is generally admitted to be genuine, we gather that there were a few Christian families at Rome, living in obscurity in the squalid shipping suburb, by the year A.D. 59. Probably three years later Paul reached Rome and was put to death there after two years of arguing in the poor rooms of his followers. I have examined at length all the evidence for this early period in a recent and larger work, A History of the Popes (1939) and several other volumes and need say here only that the "Letter of the Church of Rome to the Church of Corinth," though not unchallenged, is the decisive document. Catholic writers quite falsely represent it as an assertion of his authority by Pope Clement in the last decade of the first century and make him base his authority on St. Peter. On the contrary, the letter is written in the name of the Roman community, not of its bishop, and is a friendly appeal from one church to another. It states that Paul came to Rome and was martyred there, but it does not even say that Peter ever came to Rome, much less died there. The one or two non-Catholic historians who have admitted the presence of Peter at Rome seem to have overlooked this most important fact. At the end of the century the Roman community was still just one amongst many and claimed no authority. Nor is there the least recognition of such authority in the letters of Ignatius and the works of Irenaeus, which are never quoted. Indeed, as the Church was now torn asunder by the Gnostic controversy, the fact that no Eastern bishop made the least appeal to Rome to settle it plainly shows that until near the end of the second century, when the forgery about Peter was in circulation, Rome did not even claim any authority.

The seed began to germinate before the end of the second century. The ecclesiastical historian Eusebius tells us (bk. v, 34) that Bishop Victor, of Rome, heard that the Churches of Asia Minor did not celebrate Easter on the same day as the Romans, and he commanded them to change. That was about the year 190. Catholic Truth is very careful to tell of this first assertion of Papal supremacy, and just as careful to suppress the sequel. The bishops of Asia Minor told Victor, in very plain Greek, to mind his own business. Victor, haughtily, threatened to excommunicate them, whereupon even the bishops of the West "bitterly attacked Victor" (Eusebius says) for his arrogance, and declared that they would take no notice of his excommunication. Possibly they knew that, as Bishop Hippolytus tells us, Pope Victor was a friend of the emperor’s mistress, Marcia, the vicious companion of one of the most brutal of the emperors.

It was thirty years after this severe snub before a Roman Pope repeated the claim. Tertullian, the famous African writer, speaks disdainfully in one of his works (On Chastity, ch. i) of some bishop who calls himself "the supreme pontiff" and "the bishop of bishops." This seems to refer to Pope Callistus; and if Tertullian had known the personal history of that remarkable adventurer, he would have used even more violent language. For seventeen centuries Callistus has been honoured in the Roman Church as "Saint and Martyr." But about ninety years ago we discovered the manuscript of a work written by a Roman contemporary of Callistus, and it pitilessly exposes the way in which the Roman Church, by means of deliberate forgeries, glorified its early bishops. Callistus was an astute ex-slave, of dubious character, who died comfortably in his bed after a very brief, but very remarkable, tenure of the Papal office. For Catholic Truth and the Papal officials, of course, this discovery makes no difference. For them Callistus is still "Saint and Martyr"; and, by an exquisite irony, his rival and exposer, the anti-Pope Hippolytus, is also a "Saint and Martyr" in the Roman literature! [1]

Thirty years later, in 252, we have another opportunity to test the Papal claim Those were days when bishops did not mince their words, and the famous Bishop Cyprian of Carthage tells his "dear brother" Cornelius of Rome, in a letter (Ep. lv), precisely what he thinks of him for listening amiably to certain schismatical ruffians who have gone to Rome to complain of Cyprian. Naturally it is enough for the Catholic writer that they have appealed to Rome. Even Mgr. Duchesne, one of the ablest of modern Catholic scholars, emphasizes the fact, and he quotes Cyprian describing Rome as "the principal Church – the source of sacerdotal unity." [2] The truth is that Cyprian sternly rebukes Pope Cornelius for interfering. "Why did these men come to you?" he asks; and he goes on:

Since it is acknowledged by all of us, and is right and just, that a case must be heard where a crime has been committed, and that each pastor shall have his own portion of the flock, and render to God an account of his conduct, those whom we rule must not roam about and disturb the good relations of bishops by their lying audacity.

Quite clearly Bishop Cyprian knew nothing about the divine institution of the Roman supremacy! But Mgr. Duchesne presently finds a clearer proof. In the year 254 the bishops of Gaul wrote to tell Cyprian, the Carthaginian Pope, and Stephen, the Roman Pope, that one of their colleagues had been deposed for evil conduct, and he refused to submit. Cyprian therefore wrote to Stephen, and, says Duchesne (p. 304), "according to Cyprian it was the duty of the Pope to intervene in Gaul." It is a pity that even the most distinguished Catholic scholars pervert history in the interest of the Papacy. What Cyprian plainly says (Ep. lxvii) is, that it is "our duty" (the equal duty of Stephen and Cyprian), and that makes all the difference in the world. The Gallic bishops had appealed to both. Cyprian had responded at once; and his letter to Stephen, for whom he had no respect, is a caustic injunction to do his duty as soon as possible.

Nor was this the last word of these African bishops, whom the Catholic writer represents as admitting Rome’s supremacy. A few years later we again find Cyprian writing to his "dear brother," who has been pushing his claim. He writes now in the name of all the African bishops, and he closes his letter (Ep. lxxii) with this heavy sarcasm:

We use no violence and make laws for none, because each prelate has the right to follow his own judgment in the administration of the Church, and must render an account to the Lord.

Stephen, in reply, brandished his poor Papal credentials, and told them to submit or be excommunicated. The Africans met in solemn council to frame a reply, and it was one of flat and contemptuous defiance. It opens with these bitterly ironic words:

We judge no man, and we cut off no man from communion for differing from us. None of us regards himself as the bishop of bishops, or seeks by tyrannical threats to compel his colleagues to obey him.

And this letter, Mgr. Duchesne and the Catholic apologists assure their readers, does not call into question the Pope’s claim of authority! The African Church, we must remember, is of peculiar significance in’ this respect. It was not only more important than any other section of Western Christendom, but it looked to Rome as its "mother-church." Rome was the very heart of that mighty Empire of which the northern fringe of Africa was but a colony. Hence it is that the African bishops speak of Rome as "the principal church" and "the source of sacerdotal unity." But to say, in face of these repeated letters, that the African bishops acknowledged the authority of Rome over them is a piece of audacity which Catholic Truth alone could achieve without a blush of modesty. At that time, and until the days when Goth and Vandal shattered the provincial churches, the claims of Rome were a laughing-stock to all. Mere compliments to the Pope are of no more significance than they are to-day in the mouths of many Anglicans.

We have next to see how this Roman ambition was enforced by such violence, fraud, and forgery as have no parallel in the history of civilized religion. I have said that the Roman Church remained until the end of the third century, although it scandalized the Africans by dropping the ancient discipline and admitting large numbers of loose-living Romans (as Bishop Hippolytus tells us), a poor, small, and ignorant body. We know from the semi-official Calendar of the Popes (Liber Pontificalis) that they had not a chapel of the humblest description until about 220, and that they could not afford silver vessels for altar use until about 230. We have reason to believe that they did not in the year 250 number more than 20,000 in a city of a million people, although they had suffered scarcely any persecution for seventy years. Their sufferings really began – we will presently set aside their mendacious accounts of earlier persecutions – under the Emperor Decius, and continued under Diocletian. Very few were martyred, the whole 20,000, except a few score, denying their faith, and by the year 310 the Roman Church was a tiny and despised body. Then there occurred three events which entirely changed the situation. The first was the conversion of the Emperor Constantine. Dazed by the sudden change from fierce hatred to favour, the Roman Christians emerged from the catacombs into a shower of gold, and their church grew rapidly. Constantine used no pressure, but the path of promotion now lay through Christianity, as the Pagans sadly complained The Pope began to live in a palace. His bishopric began at last to share the prestige of the Imperial city.

The second event which favoured the Roman ambition was that in the fourth century Eastern Christendom was torn into shreds, and spattered with blood, by the fierce struggle of Arians and Trinitarians. The Roman Church, which was in these early centuries very far from being a seat of learning, did not understand the subtleties of the Greeks, and it remained simply Trinitarian. Naturally the Trinitarian bishops of the East then began to flatter it and appeal to it. They did not at any time grant its claim of supremacy, though in the fourth century they might have found this a useful weapon against the Arians. In the very heat of the struggle they laid it down, in the famous Council of Nicæa (Canon VI), that the Bishop of Rome had merely the same authority in his own region as had the Patriarchs of Alexandria and Antioch in their regions In fact, when Pope Liberius himself incurred the taint of heresy (as we shall see), when Pope Damasus proved so slow to assist and so arrogant that St. Basil used stronger language about the Roman bishop than even Tertullian and Cyprian had done, the Eastern bishops clustered round Constantinople and left the Popes to pursue their ambition in the West. But for a time the freedom from heresy, the comparative calm, of the Roman Church gave it some prestige, and many of the flattering tributes (often deliberately enhanced by later Roman forgers) which the Catholic writer quotes belong to this diplomatic period.

The third event was the most important of all. We have seen, and shall see further, how the Western bishops were Just as disdainful as the Eastern of the Roman Pope’s claim to rule them. But very soon after the establishment of Christianity in Europe there occurred the mighty downpour of barbarians from the forests of Germany which destroyed the Roman Empire and prepared Europe for the Middle Ages. This great catastrophe shattered the provincial churches – of Gaul and Spain and Africa – annihilated the Roman school-system, and brought a sudden and dense darkness upon Southern Europe and Africa. There are other points to consider be/ore we examine this closely, but it must be mentioned, in anticipation, here as the third and chief event which enabled the Popes to enforce their fraudulent calm.

During the fourth century, as is known, Christianity became the established religion of the Empire. Only fifty years before it had pathetically pleaded for religious freedom. Now the Roman Church, guiding the consciences of Emperors, lightly adopted persecution in Its turn, and fell upon all the other religions with truculent severity. The rival temples were closed, or converted into churches. For thirty years the emperors persecuted all other sects, even sentence of death being decreed against them. The city of Rome became, by what we should call Act of Parliament, entirely Christian. The Roman bishopric gained incalculably in wealth and power.

The writers of the time leave no room for doubt that this material gain was accompanied by a very serious loss of character But in estimating this we must again be on our guard against "Catholic Truth." The Roman Church did not fall so far as is sometimes believed, because it had not nearly so far to fall. The pretty and touching picture of that Church during the persecutions which is still given in Catholic literature is appallingly untruthful. I have spoken of lies and forgeries, and the reader may feel that this is intemperate language. Not in the least. The story of the condition of the Roman Church before the conversion of Constantine has been grossly and deliberately falsified, and the forgeries by means of which this was done begin about the period we have reached.

According to the Catholic writers, and even the official liturgy of their Church, the Roman community of the first three centuries was so decked and perfumed with saints and martyrs that it must have had a divine spirit in it. Now the far greater part, the overwhelmingly greater part, of the Acts of the Martyrs and Lives of the Saints on which this claim is based are impudent forgeries, perpetrated by Roman Christians from the fourth to the eighth century in order to give a divine halo to the very humble, and very human, history of their Church.

This is not merely a contention of "heretics and unbelievers." It is not even a new discovery. The legends of the martyrs are so gross that Catholic historians of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries frequently denounced them. Cardinal Baronius and Father Pagi repeatedly rejected them. The learned and pious Tillemont, in the fifth volume of his Mémoires, slays hundreds of them. Pope Benedict XIV, of the eighteenth century, a scholar who by some mischance was made a Pope, was so ashamed of the extent to which these forgeries permeate the official ritual of his Church that he entered upon a great reform; but the cardinals and monks obstructed his work, and the literature of the Church still teems with legends from these tainted sources. In fact, many of these forgeries were already notorious in the year 494, when Pope Gelasius timidly and haltingly condemned them.

These forgeries are so gross that one needs very little historical knowledge in order to detect them. Large numbers of Roman martyrs are, like the Pope Callistus whom I have mentioned, put in the reign of the friendly Emperor Alexander Severus, who certainly persecuted none. One of these Roman forgers, of the sixth Of seventh century. is bold enough to claim five thousand martyrs for Rome alone under the gentle Alexander Severus! Other large numbers of Roman martyrs are put in the reign of the Emperor Maximin; and Dr. Garres has shown that there were hardly any put to death in the whole Empire, least of all at Rome, under Maximin. [3] The semi-official catalogue of the Popes makes saints and martyrs of no less than thirteen of the Popes of the third century, when there were scarcely more than three or four.

No one questions that the Roman Church had a certain number of martyrs in the days of the genuine persecutions, but nine-tenths of the pretty stories which are popular in Catholic literature – the stories of St. Agnes and St. Cecilia, of St. Lucia and St. Catherine, of St. Lawrence and St. George and St. Sebastian, and so on – are pious romances. Even when the martyrdom may be genuine, the Catholic story of it is generally a late and unbridled fiction.

A short account of the havoc which modern scholars have made of the Acts of the Martyrs is given by a Catholic professor, Albert Ehrhard, of the Vienna University, and will cause any inquiring Catholic to shudder. [4] Dr. Ehrhard mentions a French work, L’Amphithèâtre Flavien, by Father Delehaye, a Jesuit, and calls it "an important contribution to the criticism of the Roman acts of the martyrs." It is a "criticism" of such a nature that it dissolves into fiction all the touching pictures (down to Mr. G. B. Shaw’s Androcles and the Lion) of the "martyrs of the Coliseum." It proves that no Christians were ever martyred in the Amphitheatre (Coliseum). The English translation of Father Delehaye’s Legends of the Saints (1907) gives an appalling account of these Roman forgeries. Another scholar has, Professor Ehrhard admits (p. 555), shown that "a whole class" of these saints and martyrs are actually pagan myths which have been converted into Christian martyrs. The whole literature which this Catholic professor surveys is one mighty massacre of saints and martyrs, very few surviving the ordeal. These fictions are often leniently called "pious fancies" and "works of edification." Modern charity covers too many ancient sins. These things were intended to deceive; they have deceived countless millions for fourteen centuries, and in the hands of priests they deceive millions to-day.

The early Roman Church was a poor little sect, like any other. It had some noble-spirited martyrs during the three or four short persecutions (in two hundred and fifty years) which affected it; but it had a far larger number who either sacrificed to the gods or bought a false certificate that they had done so. It had many men and women of strict life, and still more of lax life. Its first thirty Popes were obscure men of no distinction in the Church, of no learning, who just managed to hold together their ten or twenty thousand followers until the golden days of Constantine began.

Then, with the enlargement and enrichment of the Church, the saints almost disappeared and the sinners multiplied, Pope Liberius was sent into exile for refusing to sign an heretical formula. But when he heard that "the faithful" had set up an anti-Pope he "embraced the heretical perversity" (St. Jerome says), and returned to struggle for his flesh-pots. His followers and those of his rival fought terrible battles, in which many were slain; and it is one of the most piquant outcomes of the early zeal to make martyrs (on paper) that the semi-official Catalogue of the Popes [5] included the anti-Pope Felix, who died in his bed, as "Saint and Martyr"! Felix is, like Saint and Martyr Callistus, one of the jewels in the crown of the early Roman Church.

When Pope Liberius died the bloody battle was renewed. Two Popes, Damasus and Ursicinus, were elected, and we have unchallenged contemporary records of the way in which the supporters of Damasus ("Saint" Damasus, of course – though his Christian opponents called him, significantly, "the tickler of women’s ears," and he was sued in the civil court for adultery) fell with swords and axes and staves upon the other faction. In one church alone they, after a furious siege, killed no less than one hundred and sixty of their Christian brethren. The deadly conflict spread all over Rome, and lasted for weeks. There were more martyrs at Rome in that one month (October, 366) than in the whole of the "persecutions"; and again a number of the murdered supporters of the anti-Pope found a place in the Roman lists of martyrs!

In face of the letters of St. Jerome, who lived in Rome about that time, it is useless to pretend that these were the isolated skirmishes of "the lower orders." The community was generally corrupt. Catholic Truth is, of course, quite familiar with the letters of St. Jerome. From them it quotes to an admiring public the edifying life of Fabiola and Paula and other Christian ladies. But it omits to add that Jerome very emphatically describes this little group of his pupils as a small oasis of virtue in a great desert of vice. Priests, nuns, and laity, men and women, he describes as sordid, greedy, unchaste, and utterly irreligious. [6] He actually forbids his virtuous young ladies ever to remain in a room with a Roman priest; and when the Christian Emperors are compelled to declare all legacies to priests invalid he sadly confesses that it is a just censure of their greed.

This was the real Roman world which Catholic Truth describes as converted to the true faith and the ways of virtue; and Damasus was the Pope who, above all others, pressed the Papal ambition for supremacy. Yet here we touch only the lighter fringe of the dark story of the making of the Papacy.


[1] For details and authorities, on this and many other points here discussed. see the author’s Crises In the History of the Papacy (1916) and A History of the Popes (1939).

[2] The Early History of the Christian Church, i, 303.

[3] Zeitschrift für Wissenschaftliche Theologie, 1876, p. 539.

[4] Die altchristliche Literatur (1900), pp. 539-92.

[5] An English translation of this was published by Columbia University in 1916. The editor, Dr. Loomis, warns us that we have in it much "manifest fiction and deliberate fabrication."

[6] See especially Letters xxii and cxxv (in the Migne edition). Jerome repeats a hundred times that this is the quite general condition of the Roman Church.