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 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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Reviews

Popes and the Papacy: A History is rated 4.2 out of 5 by 105.
Rated 4 out of 5 by from I really enjoyed Professor Nobles course I found this to be a fascinating course and learned much from going through the material. Understand that Dr. Noble goes through a ton of material and has selected to detail what he has found to be important issues or inflection points. I found that reading a textbook along with the course as a useful way to fill in some of the necessary gaps to cover the 2000 plus year history. I am still interested in learning more as a result of taking this course.
Date published: 2020-10-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Balanced, comprehensive, and enjoyable Was a bit leery of this course as it was taught by a Notre Dame professor and some reviews said it was biased. On the contrary, a lot of dirty laundry was covered as well as positive aspects of the papacy. An intriguing view of 2000 years of history, some on the edge of world politics and some totally immersed. There was some concentration on recent popes which I found helpful in understanding the role of the papacy since WWI. Interjected with humor, asides, and an obvious deep knowledge of the topic
Date published: 2020-10-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Treasure of Knowledge This is my fourth viewing of the course since original purchase of the DVDs. Recently I also bought the mp3 download and I am really enjoying the guidebook and transcript in pdf format. There is a lot of detail and it is fun getting lost searching out more information that Dr. Noble highlights.
Date published: 2020-06-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Must for Historians of the Roman Catholic Church This course provides clarity as to how the Roman Catholic Church evolved by looking at the Papacy and how it did, and in many cases did not influence the overall direction of the church. This gives the student a clearer picture of the political side of the Papacy as a counterbalance to the theological side. The professor is a true historian and gives every appearance of being impartial and unbiased.
Date published: 2020-06-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Lecturer Only one lecture left to watch. I had high expectations for the series and I was not disappointed. Professor Noble is a wonderful lecturer who makes the material come alive with his presentation style. He is above all an incredibly knowledgeable scholar and I always feel his views on various events/issues is thoroughly researched and consistently demonstrates that these topics/issues are complicated and rarely black and white. I chose this series based on my previous purchase of Professor Noble's "Foundations of Western Civilization" series, which I had also been greatly impressed with, both in terms of its well thought out content and Professor Noble's scholarly approach and engaging presentation style. As you can see - I have become a big fan of his. RPM
Date published: 2020-05-09
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Disappointing I have listened to many "Great Courses," and been generally quite pleased with their quality. Unfortunately, not so with this one. Professor Noble's lectures underline the obvious point that the Papacy has a very long and complex history, but he does a poor job at untangling and illuminating the main trends and conceptual threads of the institution. Rather, the listener is given a march through myriad names, dates, and events that produces a jumble of confusion, rather than illumination. Too bad.
Date published: 2020-04-23
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Comprehensive Comprehensive, balanced and fair review of the institution and the occupants.
Date published: 2020-01-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent High-Level View of Papal History Dr. Noble is an excellent teacher and his understanding of the subject, as well as his conversational delivery of key elements of the subject are excellent.
Date published: 2019-07-10
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