The religious and political authority of the Pope


When the Pope arrives in Kenya on Wednesday, he comes as a religious leader of the Catholics worldwide, and also as the political head of the city-state of Vatican.

It is no surprise then that on his arrival on Wednesday, he will pay a visit to the State House where he will hold talks with state officials and diplomats.

In their bilateral talks, certain global issues are likely to feature: climate change, terrorism and security, and eradication of poverty.

So, how did the Pope acquire his political and religious powers?

We start from the very beginning. Jesus carried out his public ministry in Palestine which was then under the Roman Empire.


For the early Christians, who were filled with the zeal for the spread of the good news, it was important to take it to the very capital of the Roman Empire.

This was accomplished by an early disciple of Jesus who happened to be a Roman citizen: Paul of Tarsus.

Eventually, as tradition has it, Peter himself landed in Rome.

Rome began to occupy a central role in the Christian history because of the death of these two apostles in that city.

Between the martyrdom of these great stalwarts of Christianity (around 67 AD) and the conversion of Emperor Constantine (in 313 AD), which was also a watershed in the history of Christianity, bishops of other churches began to have recourse to the Bishop of Rome in order to resolve disputes and clarify orthodoxy.

Writings of Bishops like Ignatius of Antioch (around 35-117 AD), Irenaeus of Lyon (130-202 AD), and several others provide evidence for this.

That unlike any other diocese, Rome can put at least a name to every bishop in an unbroken line back to St Peter also suggests that this See was important.

After the conversion of Emperor Constantine, Christianity virtually became the state religion in most of the empire covering a large part of the Mediterranean world.

By: the time of Pope Leo I, in the 5th century, the authoritative role of the Papacy was well established. Still, the power wielded by the Pope was mostly in the religious realm.


In the subsequent centuries, however, the Pope would acquire more and more political power in Europe in the appointment of kings.

Eventually, he would even have some territorial control, some of which would be under the care of monasteries spread across Europe.

The long and chequered history of the Papacy was marked by wars and exiles, betrayals and schisms, and diplomacy and negotiations.

Notable among these events are the 11th century schism between the Roman Church and the Eastern Churches which had Constantinople (now Istanbul) as their epicentre, and the Lutheran and the Anglican reformations of the 16th century.

In fact, more often than not, the theological differences that were cited as the reason for the separations were merely invented to justify political dissension.

By: the time of the unification of Italy in the 19th century, the Papal States covered a large part of central Italy.


In an attempt to reduce and stabilise the political authority of the Pope, in 1929, the Italian government signed a treaty with the Holy See recognising the territory of Vatican as a sovereign state.

Today, Vatican is the smallest city-state in the world with an area of 110 acres, with about 840 residents, of whom about 550 are citizens. Of these citizens, 74 per cent are clergy.

It is maintained that the Vatican is distinct from the Holy See.

While Vatican refers to the city-state, the latter is the seat of the head of the Catholic Church.

In any case, often these two terms are used interchangeably, given that the Pope is the head of both.

And his ambassadors, who are referred to as “nuncios”, act as the representatives of the Vatican as far as the hosting government is concerned, and also as the liaison person between the Pope and Catholic bishops in the country.


Should the Catholic Church continue to hold on to its political status? Obviously, there are some challenges associated with this status.

The scandals associated with the Institute for the Works of Religion (the Vatican Bank) are well-known.

Not long ago, an emissary was invited by the United Nations to be questioned on why the Vatican had not dealt adequately with the cases of sexual abuse.

The answer was straightforward: the offenders are not citizens of the Vatican; hence, they have to be dealt with within the legal framework of their respective countries.

There are also advantages that the Catholic Church enjoys by virtue of its association with a city-state.

Since 1964, the Holy See is a permanent observer state at the United Nations (not having applied for membership).

In that capacity, it has the right to attend all sessions of the United Nations General Assembly, the United Nations Security Council, and the United Nations Economic and Social Council.


Vatican’s diplomatic efforts towards a cohesive global politics have often yielded some positive results.

For instance, it is now in the public domain that Pope Francis brokered a deal between Washington and Havana that saw the lifting of sanctions against Cuba by the American government.

In a similar vein, Pope Francis’ encyclical on climate change, Laudato Si’ has had a global appeal.

Against this background, the visit of Pope Francis to Kenya and to Uganda and the CAR in the next few days, will have a great significance not only for Catholics, but to all people in these countries and beyond.