The Roman Catholic Pope is head of both the Roman Catholic Church: "Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church", and a head of state: "Sovereign of the Vatican City State". Official list of Papal titles

At what point in history did the head of the Church become a temporal, as well as spiritual leader? What is the historical basis for this temporal power? What is its nature? Is the Pope effectively a monarch - King of the Vatican State? In matters of the Church, there is a 'Papal Doctrine of Infallibility' - does this also apply to the Pope's temporal role? Is he an absolute monarch?

In short: What was is the nature and history of the office "Sovereign of the Vatican City State" and its historical predecessors.

I realize there is undoubtedly a long and detailed history here, but an overview of the 'bullet points' would be nice - I have very little knowledge about this topic, which I find most intriguing.

  • Not sure what you mean by "survey fashion", but I think that SE discourages surveys & lists. I think you'll also find that the answer to this question are found in a google search of Risogimento; to the extent that they are found. Different sides of the issue will have differing views of history. I think a quick review of the actual doctrine of infallibility means it is irrelevant to a state with only one citizen.
    – MCW
    Jul 24, 2013 at 20:06
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    temporal c: lay or secular rather than clerical or sacred (Merriam-Webster). First time I see this use :)
    – kubanczyk
    Jul 24, 2013 at 20:29
  • @MarkC.Wallace - see edit. That's what I mean by 'survey view' - does not mean polling in this context.
    – user2590
    Jul 24, 2013 at 21:25
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    @kubanczyk - NYC public education of the 1950's and '60's. It surpassed what many universities offer today... :-(
    – user2590
    Jul 24, 2013 at 21:27
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    And this question was down-voted... why? Someone have a problem with a question about the Church?
    – user2590
    Jul 26, 2013 at 21:38

4 Answers 4


I can but skim the surface of the question but let's have a go at it.

The Popes were at first the Bishops of Rome and as such did not wield any political power, even after the Roman Empire became Christian. Moreover, the Roman see was not even considered the highest-ranking one within the Church. However, with the fall of the Western Roman Empire a political vacuum was created which the Bishops of Rome gradually filled as they claimed primacy over the whole Christian Church. This claim was never recognized by the Eastern Church, leading to a endemic schisms and reunions. A quick browse of wikipedia indicates that Gelaius I who was Pope in 492-496 was the first one to assert supreme clerical authority and I think that by the time of Gregory the Great (c. 600) it was more or less extant.

For centuries, the temporal power of the Pope over parts of central Italy, the so-called Papal States, was thought to be derived from the Donation of Constantine - which however was shown in the 16th century to be a forgery. The Papal States lingered on till 1870 when the Risorgimento swept them away. However, it took till 1929 for the Italian State and the Papacy to sign a concordat by which they were reconciled and recognized each other's rights.

As for the nature of the Pope's temporal power, although it may not be linked the the doctrine of infallibility, it appears that he is an absolute monarch: He is currently the only absolute monarch in Europe. An elected absolute monarch - a unique sort of office in the modern world.

  • Think you meant to write "fall of the Eastern Roman Empire"? Aug 1, 2013 at 10:45
  • @EugeneSeidel No, should I have? :) Aug 1, 2013 at 11:46
  • Ah, right, got periods mixed up in my mind somehow... thinking about fall of Constantinople which, however, was many centuries later! Aug 1, 2013 at 11:57
  • @Vector Liechtenstein is an almost absolute monarchy right now... Aug 2, 2013 at 7:12
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    @FelixGoldberg - but it's a principality with a "hereditary representative". I just checked now - using... CIA World Fact Book. (not Wiki!). The Pope is elected to be an absolute monarch. That's a good question in itself: what other examples are there of such a system actually being implemented:(Granted, at the moment there are only about 600 citizens - the Vatican's people - so it's not all that tough...)
    – user2590
    Aug 2, 2013 at 9:27

As you rightly say, the history of the pope's temporal power is sure to be complicated, but I would think the following points should be noteworthy as an overview.

To begin with, it is probably reasonable to assume that the Pope held non-trivial worldly authority ever since the Emperor Theodosius made the Christian church the state religion of the Roman Empire. In ancient times, there was generally far less division between spiritual and temporal powers. The title of Pontifex Maximus is noteworthy in this context, seeing as how it was claimed by the Emperors themselves and therefore coincides with the political head from the Principate era onwards, and was later also claimed by the Popes. That alone seems to indicate some connotation of worldly involvement. Further intercourse between the Popes and the emperors can be seen by the creation of the permanent office of the papal apocrisiaries. I would dare speculate that the Pope holding temporal power was probably a less controversial issue in the early church than it would have been since and during middle ages, when there would have been a more contentious balance of temporal power between the Holy Roman Emperor and the Roman Pontiff.

In the specific case of the Pope holding true monarchic powers, however, I think it's safe to say that they were definitely established with the donation of Pepin in 756 of what became known as the Papal States to Pope Stephen II in return for Stephen strengthening Pepin's authority as King of the Franks by anointing him (which in turn was in return for Pepin's support against the Lombards). However, to further drive the point that the Pope's temporal authority was not an innovation by this donation, it should be noted how previous Popes held some worldly control of Rome itself and fluctuating territories outside of Rome. For instance, Gregory III oversaw the reconstruction of the Walls of Rome as against the Lombards. Gregory II used his authority to drive the governor of the Emperor (by that time, seated in Constantinople) in Rome from the city. As early as the sack of Rome in 410, Innocent I was one of the envoys sent to Ravenna by the Senate, indicating his involvement in worldly affairs.

The Vatican is just what is left of the Papal States since everything else was taken by the Carbonari during the Risorgimento. It is noteworthy, in this context, that the Popes did not formally accept that situation for more than half a century (after which the Vatican was recognized as a sovereign principality), considering themselves prisoners in the Vatican. By this time, the idea of the Pope wielding temporal powers had become so entrenched that, as Wikipedia puts it, "they claimed that total sovereignty was needed so that a civil government would never attempt to interfere in the governance of the universal Roman Church."


The real key to the Pope becoming a temporal lord was not the Fall of the Western Empire, but later. When Odoacer became King in Italy after 476, and Theodoric the Ostrogoth after him, the Popes were normal (if influential) clerics and with land in and around Italy and Sicily. These rulers were Aryan Heretics, so the Orthodox Popes were restive but still not temporal leaders.

Then came Justinian's reconquest and the 20 year Gothic Wars. The Popes now were subjects of the Eastern Empire yet still were just normal clerics, if influential. There was a certain amount of turmoil between the ideas of East and West, with Popes being arrested and carried off to Constantinople from time to time.

The big change came with the Lombard Invasion around 568. The Imperial hold on Italy was reduced to pockets here and there, with the governor in Ravenna and the Popes in Rome and Lombard states between. The Lombards themselves broke up into small dutchies in the highlands in the middle of the country.

So the Pope was faced with a threat - the Lombards might take Rome - and no secular support from any larger state available to help out. The Popes were able to play off their religious influence to keep the Lombards at bay and become the defacto temporal lords. They had a run of strong-willed and competent Popes, which helped.

After that, the Popes seem to have as their policy to try and avoid being subjects of a powerful lord. Thus the "Donation" fraud to have Charlemagne stop in Northern Italy, and the later conflicts to limit the powers of the Holy Roman Emperors in Italy.


Around the turn of the 15th and 16th centuries, Popes such as Alexander VI and Julius II greatly expanded the territory, and resulting secular power of the Papal States.(The territory controlled by the Popes then encompassed most of north-central Italy except for Tuscany.) Coincidentally or otherwise, this coincided with the decline of Popes' temporal power. The Popes came under attacks from Protestant reformers (that would soon include Martin Luther and Henry VIII), displeased with their religious and personal activities. But these "activities" consisted largely of using their new-found secular authority to help maintain the balance of power in Italy, and hence in Europe. It is because of this balancing act, as much as religion, that gave the Popes their political power after the Middle Ages, in light of the secularization of royal power in Europe.

Fast forward to the 20th century. In 1929, after the 19th century unification of Italy, the Italian government and the Holy See signed the Lateran Accord that defined the Pope's temporal power over the Vatican. This ratified the formal sovereignty ("monarchy") granted to the Pope in the original 1870 liberation of Rome, and gave the Pope sweeping powers over his domain.

  • I did not downvote. But your answer, although the information is certainly very correct, is not relevant to the question at all. I think it is clear that the question was regarding the Pope as titular head of the Vatican City State. In fact I upvoted now to neutralize the downvote. Why not edit your answer to explain what you mean to contribute?
    – user2590
    Oct 14, 2013 at 21:37

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