Francis Ambrose Ridley 1949

The Evolution of the Papacy

Source: Undated pamphlet published for the Secular Society by the Pioneer Press, 41 Gray’s Inn Road, London WC1. Internal evidence suggests it was published in 1949. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers. The somewhat wayward punctuation of the original text has been tidied up.



Chapter I: The Origin of the Papacy

Chapter II: The Papacy and the Dark Ages

Chapter III: The ‘Totalitarian’ Papacy and the Middle Ages

Chapter IV: The Papacy and the Counter-Reformation

Chapter V: The ‘Infallible’ Papacy

Chapter VI: The Papacy and the Social Encyclicals

Chapter VII: The Papacy and Fascism

Chapter VIII: The Papacy and ‘Catholic Action’

Chapter IX: The Future of the Papacy

Chapter X: Some Historical Reflections on the Evolution of the Papacy

Appendix I – Popes

Appendix II – Anti-Popes


The Papacy is the ghost of the Roman Empire sitting crowned on the grave thereof. – Thomas Hobbs, Leviathan (1651)

The militant movement of Freethought may be regarded as a product of that truly wonderful century, the nineteenth: a century which it is now the superficial fashion to decry, but which was beyond any doubt one of the greatest epochs in human development. For in every field – political, economic and cultural alike – the human race and in particular its then most advanced section, the European races, made truly astounding advances throughout what has been aptly termed ‘the century of stupendous progress’.

In the religious domain, the movement of rising Freethought, which represented one of the most brilliant movements of that age, found itself confronted from the start by the organised opposition of the Christian Churches: in England and America by Protestantism, and on the European continent by the Papal Church of Rome. But flushed by the certainty imparted by the ever-growing victories of science and scientific criticism in every sphere, the nineteenth-century Freethinkers confidently anticipated the rapid decline of the obsolete dogmas of a moribund religion, itself a relic of a pre-scientific age. The Age of Rationalism was at hand.

It is now evident that these too optimistic rationalists were themselves not altogether rational in their forecast of ‘the shape of things to come’. Like so many pioneers, who need a lot of optimism to enable them to carry on in the face of the formidable opposition which new ideas of a subversive nature usually encounter, the nineteenth-century Freethinkers were apt, so to speak, to shorten their perspectives. The melancholy annals of the first half of the twentieth century, that age of frustrated hopes, has revealed both the strength of conservatism in the human psychology, and also, as part of that conservatism, the persistence of religion in the social sphere.

For today, religion still manages to survive, despite the vast diffusion of scientific culture, and it does so not only thanks to innate human conservatism, but also to social causes of a reactionary nature. The very headlong pace of social and intellectual change, as always in a revolutionary age such as is pre-eminently ours, drives powerful threatened interests into the religious camp. For religion is the great conservative social force, ‘the opium of the people’.

The changeover from the nineteenth to the so dissimilar twentieth century has also had its effect upon Christianity itself. Religion and the Churches have not become more liberal under the impact of continued scientific criticism, quite the contrary. They have become more conservative. In particular, the most conservative and the most intolerant of the Christian Churches, the Church of Rome, is today far more active and dangerous, and occupies today a far more prominent role in the religious world than was the case a century back, when, in the opinion even of friendly critics, the Vatican was on its last legs and about to quit the historic scene.

‘Believe in the Pope?’, scornfully exclaimed the Protestant Thomas Arnold, ‘I would as soon believe in Jupiter.’ But much water has flowed in both Thames and Tiber since that day, and the Vatican is not yet a ruin: far from it. In 1848 a discredited relic, the Papacy is in 1948 a World Power, more ‘universal’, more active and more hungry for power than at any time since the Reformation ended Rome’s long era of medieval ‘totalitarian’ rule over Europe.

A century ago, when the modern Freethought movement was in its heyday, it was not at all evident that such would be the case a century thence. Charles Bradlaugh, it is true, in a remarkable flash of far-sighted intuition, was even then predicting that the final struggle would be between Rome and Reason, and that it would be a conflict to the death: a prediction endorsed upon the other side by Rome’s most far-sighted observer, John Henry (Cardinal) Newman. But this does not seem to have been the general view in rationalist circles, which appear to have accepted the more superficial view of Ernest Renan that Catholicism would gradually liberalise itself by ‘developing’ its dogmas – out of existence.

Nothing of the sort has occurred. Indeed, when the Modernist disciples of Cardinal Newman’s theory of ‘development’ went beyond their master in applying, as he did not, the doctrine of religious evolution to the foundations and founder of Christianity itself, they got short shrift at the hands of Rome. Since which date, the Papacy, old Thomas Hobbes’ ‘Power of Darkness’, has remained the incarnation of reaction in every sphere: the ‘Rock of Peter’ stands four-square against the advancing tide of progress.

Indeed as that acute modernist theologian Dr WR Inge has aptly observed: to Rome the very ‘idea of progress’ itself is the latest and most dangerous ‘heresy’.

That, however, has not prevented a remarkable revival on the part of the Papacy and the Church of Rome which it rules; quite the contrary, for the first half of the twentieth century has seen the fortunes of Rome wax as fast as those of the Protestant Churches have waned. In 1949, it looks increasingly probable that the Reformation, and therewith Liberal Christianity, have shot their bolt. And that as Bradlaugh already proclaimed in the last century, the final struggle for the leadership of Western civilisation will be between Rome and Atheism.

It is for this last struggle that Rome is today preparing. She knows only too well who and where her real enemy is: atheistic Secularism, which today manifests itself in a variety of forms. It is high time that atheistic Secularism, today the standard-bearer of human progress, displayed a similar understanding. For ‘forewarned is forearmed’.

How comes it that in the age of science, in the ‘Century of the Common Man’, the ancient enemy alike of science and of democracy manages to hold its ground so much better than the more modern forms of Christianity embodied in the Protestant Churches which date from the Reformation? Two reasons, we think, go far, at least, to explain this astonishing survival of the ‘Black International’ of the Vatican.

Firstly, Rome has an immense psychological advantage over her rivals in the iron logic of her ‘infallible’ claims. For reactionaries who have rejected human reason as a reliable guide in the explanation of the universe, want authority and want it, so to speak, wholesale and not retail, infallible and not fallible. ‘We know in whom we have believed’ is in fact the classical motto of every self-confident religion.

And as has been recently demonstrated by a distinguished rationalist author, with penetrating logic – Mr Archibald Robertson – we know nothing of religious dogma and its supposed source, God, by the processes of nature expressed in art, in science, in history and in philosophy. To know the unknowable constitutes a logical gulf which only ‘infallibility’ can bridge. In appealing not to a half-hearted reason as the Protestant Churches do, but to a wholly confident authority, the ‘infallible’ Papacy occupies much stronger ground, both logical and emotional, than do its confessedly fallible rivals.

For when faced with the destructive ravages of modern analytical criticism, ‘The Bible and the Bible only’, that old Protestant credo, is no longer plausible. More and more, dogmatic Christianity reverts to the axiom of St Augustine of Hippo, ‘I would not believe the Gospel were it not for the authority of the Church’, and the Church herself, her crime-stained record powerfully challenged by secularly-written history, requires – and in Roman dogma (since 1870) receives – the ‘infallible’ guarantee of the Papacy, of the Divinely appointed See of Peter, against which neither the gates of hell nor human reason can ever hope to prevail. Or, in brief, the logic of present-day religion leads straight to Rome: to the Infallible Papacy.

A second contemporary tendency, arising in a totally different province of human activity, reinforces the Roman revival today. It is of a political nature and its effective causes are of a sociological rather than of a theological origin. Since the French Revolution (1789), the Western world has been immersed continuously in the unceasing throes of revolutionary change.

For now a century and a half, the world has been shaken to its roots by the tremendous impact of the famous trinity of slogans ‘Liberty, Equality and Fraternity’. These slogans signify the dawn of a new historic era, the entry of the previously inarticulate masses into universal history, ‘the Century of the Common Man’, of social, cultural and economic democracy.

As and when faced with and by such an era, reactionaries in every sphere turn to religion, or even return to it, as still the most powerful bulwark against the headlong onrush of social change, and it is to the best-organised, most self-confident and most politically adept of the Churches that the modern reaction returns. Rome today presents herself as the indispensable bulwark against social no less than against intellectual change. In the opinion of the most universal of contemporary historians (Arnold Toynbee), all contemporary roads in our Western civilisation lead once again, as in the Middle Ages, to the Rome of the Vatican.

The See of Rome, confident as ever, is of the self-same opinion as Professor Toynbee. And she exerts herself actively in the temporal sphere to attain the end of universal domination. For ecclesiastical Rome, the heir and reincarnation of the old secular Rome of the Cęsars, is no stranger to the political sphere, to which, in a totalitarian era such as is ours, her own totalitarian organisation is so pre-eminently adapted. Our age is troubled beyond measure, and Rome traditionally understands the art of fishing in troubled waters; after all, she was not founded by a fisherman for nothing. To be brief, Rome once again hopes and strives for a universal domination over Western, perhaps over world civilisation, and to achieve this end all and any means are permissible, for ‘the end justifies the means’.

It is then in no merely academic spirit that the pages which follow are offered to the student of Papal history. For the Papacy has not yet ended its extraordinary career, and the last and greatest battle is still to come.

We would only add one further observation to this introduction: throughout this brief ‘outline of history’ we present the Papacy as what it is and always has been in reality, not a mere sect or Church like any other, but a power-seeking institution, and that a totalitarian one and the greatest, whose ‘concentration camps’ are not ended or bounded by the grave, as, in short, the supreme manifestation of human ‘will to power’ in and over every sphere of human development.

It is as such that we offer this little work to the Freethought movement as a modest auxiliary weapon in the service of intellectual freedom, of the ‘best of all good causes’ and the cause of all the others, for if the freedom to think once goes, what then remains of human progress?