The papal temporal power refers to the pope’s secular and political authority over the Papal States, as well as other kings and countries. This authority was first granted by the Frankish King Pippin to Pope Stephen II during the 8th century. Although many monarchs challenged papal authority over the years, none succeeded in ending the pope’s temporal powers except the French in 1798. This event is recorded on the Bible Timeline Poster with World History during that time.
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The Origin of the Pope’s Temporal Power
The Lateran Palace was one of the first estates owned by the pope after Emperor Constantine allegedly gave it to the Church in the early 4th century. (This later became the basis of the forged document entitled “Donation of Constantine” that would appear during the 8th century.) Over the years, the pope’s real properties steadily grew after the noble families of Rome donated lands to the Church. These estates formed the Patrimonium Petri (Patrimony of Peter), and it was not long before the pope became one of the richest landowners in Italy. Despite the fall of the Western Roman Empire in AD 476, the papacy flourished and the Patrimonium Petri continued to expand. Medieval Period popes, however, did not hold temporal power and continued to acknowledge the Byzantine emperors as their overlord.
The balance of power in Italy finally shifted in AD 756. In the early 700s, the issue of iconoclasm formed a rift between the Byzantine rulers and the popes. Meanwhile, Aistulf, the king of Lombardy, captured the Byzantine territory of Ravenna. His army was poised to capture the neighboring papal lands when Pope Stephen II appealed to Byzantine Emperor for help. Emperor Constantine V, however, was unable to help the pope, so Stephen II had no choice but to ask another ally, the Frankish King Pippin, for help.
After defeating Aistulf, Pippin granted Ravenna to the Pope. The land grant was the birth of the Papal States and the beginning of the Pope’s temporal power. Stephen justified it further by presenting a forged document called the “Donation of Constantine” to Pippin. The Frankish king probably knew it was a forgery, but was content to look the other way as long as he had the pope’s support.
Napoleon and the End of the Temporal Power of the Pope
It was a Frankish king who granted Stephen II and the popes who came after him the temporal power. Strangely enough, it was the French themselves who came galloping into Italy more than a thousand years later to take the same power away from Pope Pius VI.
When Pope Pius VI was elected in 1775, old ideas and regimes were beginning to crumble on both sides of the Atlantic. Efforts to undermine his secular authority had already started in Germany, Austria, and Tuscany. The greatest threat to his temporal power would come from beyond the Alps.
The French Revolution that broke out in 1789 upended the dominance of the First Estate (the Roman Catholic Clergy) and the Second Estate (the nobility). France’s powerful Catholic clergy was finally brought to heel by the new government with the passage of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy in 1790. With the Constitution, the Roman Catholic Church was now under the control of the French government and not of the pope. Pope Pius VI was outraged when he heard of the passage of the Constitution. He immediately issued a condemnation (anathematization) of France’s new rulers and the clerics who submitted to the Constitution. His outrage and condemnation, however, were impotent in a country that was on the verge of total anarchy.
Napoleon Bonaparte, the man who would eventually end the pope’s temporal power, emerged during the bloody months of the Reign of Terror (1793-1794) and the War of the First Coalition (1792-1797). In 1796, Napoleon and his troops crossed the Alps, defeated Savoy’s troops, and occupied Turin. This defeat forced the king of Piedmont-Sardinia to cede Savoy and Nice to France. Pius was forced to give up the papal territories of Ferrara, Romagna, and Bologna in 1796. Peace was finally achieved between the Coalition (which included the Papal State) and France in Campo Formio in 1797.
However, Napoleon and the Directory in Paris were not content to leave the Papal States alone. They used the riot in Rome and the ensuing death of the French General Duphot as a reason to invade the Papal States. With the approval of the Directory, General Louis Berthier and his troops entered Rome in February 1798, and soon announced the creation of the Roman Republic. Pope Pius VI was taken as prisoner by the French troops, thereby ending his temporal power. He was imprisoned in northern Italy before he was taken to southern France in 1799 where he was kept under house arrest. He died six weeks after his arrival at Valence on August 29, 1799. He was succeeded by the more conciliatory Pius VII in 1800.
Bauer, Susan Wise. The History of the Medieval World: From the Conversion of Constantine to the First Crusade. New York: W.W. Norton, 2010.
Breunig, Charles. The Age of Revolution and Reaction: 1789-1850. New York: Norton, 1977.
Sellers, Ian. The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church. Edited by J. D. Douglas and Earle E. Cairns. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1996.
Walsh, John. The New Cambridge Modern History, Vol. 9: War and Peace in an Age of Upheaval, 1793-1830. Edited by C.W. Crawley. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965.