The Three African Popes

By Browne, Millicent | The Western Journal of Black Studies, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

The Three African Popes


Browne, Millicent, The Western Journal of Black Studies


Introduction

Perhaps the first thing to say about the three African popes is that most people do not know that they existed. Most people if asked whether there have ever been any black popes in the Catholic Church would say something like, "Of course not. All the popes have been white." This is not surprising, considering the number of other accomplishments in history that have been stolen from blacks and attributed to whites. In fact, it may be among the least uniquely African accomplishments that African furnished the Catholic Church with three Roman bishops.

In any paper on the papacy, the writer should identify his or her religious sympathies at the outset. While it is possible to have antipapal Catholics and propapal Protestants, this is unlikely. A Catholic writer generally interprets the historical evidence so as to support the Catholic position that Jesus made Peter the head of His position of supremacy. It follows from this that each bishop of Rome thought of himself as the supreme head of the universal Church and discipline, and demanding obedience. A non-Catholic, on the other hand, generally interprets the historical evidence so as to support the Protestant and Eastern Orthodox view that Peter's position among the apostles was not passed down to succeeding Roman bishops.

It follows from this that the bishops of Rome acquired their importance in the Western Church first, because of their proximity to the imperial throne and second, because of their grasping that power for themselves with the fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century. Non-Catholic historians find much evidence to support the idea that the Church for centuries was governed by the emperor and by councils of important claim that "thinking like a pope" came less from the secure knowledge of divine right than from insecurity, jealousy, and the desire for power. Here it is appropriate to say that this writer's sympathies are non-Catholic and antipapal. The writer feels very strongly that the pope's position is due to accidents of history rather than to Jesus' intentional "Thou are Peter" pronouncement in Matthew 16: 18-19.

One relevant question may legitimately be raised here. Granted that the modern Church has painted its black popes white, has assisted in the attempted destruction of the black race and in the rape of Africa, how did the Church of the second, fourth, and fifth centuries react to having African popes? Not one book that this writer had access to addressed this subject. This may, of course, be due to the reluctance of the modern author to draw attention to the blackness of these men,(1) it may be due to the absence of surviving documents on the subject, or it may be due to the fact that blackness simply was not an issue in the early Church and therefore people of the Mediterranean world in the first few centuries had no reaction to it at all. This seems to be the far more likely possibility. After all, the Western Church's position on the issues in the heated Trinitarian and Christological controversies of the fourth and fifth centuries was formulated by Tertullian, a black man. The Western Church's position on nearly everything else was formulated by Augustine, also a black man. This indicates that in the early centuries Christianity was color blind, encouraged talent wherever it was found, and felt no need to suppress certain people in order to aggrandize others. The evidence seems to support this: one certainly hopes that it was in fact the case. First the important features of the pontificates of Victor, Miltiades, and Gelasius will be examined. Afterwards, this information will be reviewed for any similarities in outlook or approach that might be traced back to their common background in the Church of Northwest Africa.

Victor I was bishop of the Church of Rome from 186 or 189 to 198 or 199. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, he was the son of a man named Felix and was a native of Africa.

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