URI history professor leading international team compiling a history of the papacy

Posted on
URI History Professor Joëlle Rollo-Koster
URI History Professor Joëlle Rollo-Koster is heading an international team of editors that is creating “The Cambridge History of the Papacy.” URI Photo by: Michael Salerno

KINGSTON, R.I. – Jan. 28, 2019 – Joëlle Rollo-Koster, a history professor at the University of Rhode Island, is heading an international team of scholars that is creating a landmark work on the history of the papacy commissioned by Cambridge University Press.

“The Cambridge History of the Papacy,” expected to be released in 2022, will encompass four volumes and provide a comprehensive and cross-disciplinary examination of the papacy, from its creation and development as a central institution in the lives of hundreds of millions of Catholics, to its influence over two millennia on world affairs, society and culture, according to Cambridge Press.

“This is a historic work,” says Rollo-Koster, who is general editor on the project with Robert A. Ventresca, professor of history at King’s University College at Western University in Ontario. “It’s something which has never been done, so we’re trying to do something which is going to be a solid reference for the next hundred years.”

The four volumes will move through the history of the papacy, examining its invention and reinvention over time and the formation of the papal institution, while also analyzing the papacy in a wider view of politics and society, diplomacy, international relations and global affairs.

The history will not only explore the institutional evolution of the papacy, but also show the back-and-forth on church doctrine between church leaders and worshipers, and between religious and secular reasoning. “It will give people the idea that the Catholic Church is not a monolith created from nothing and established without an evolution,” says Rollo-Koster. “On the contrary, it evolved with time, it adapted with the times.”

St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City
Twilight at St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, the seat of the Roman Catholic Church in Rome. Photo courtesy of Joëlle Rollo-Koster.

A good example, she says, is clerical celibacy.

In the Middle Ages, priests were allowed to marry. Clerical celibacy, while an ideal followed by some, was not enforced universally. Priests had children and their families lived on land given to them by the bishop – land the priest could bequeath to his sons. That eventually led to a problem.

“What would happen to the church and its property if all of its priests gave away as inheritances all of the property they had received from the church?” she says. “Historically, that is the evolution. This is why clerical celibacy was enforced. In the 12th century, when you had the consolidation of property, when Canon Law is created, that’s when it becomes an issue.”

At the same time, you can argue that clerical celibacy is a spiritual issue, enforced to distinguish clergy from laity, says Rollo-Koster. It makes clergy superior to normal men.

Through the centuries, the church has continued to evolve, today dealing with such issues as immigration, global warming, and same-sex marriage. At the same time, the Catholic faith has spread in Africa and parts of Latin America, while seeing a decline in Ireland, says Rollo-Koster.

Recently, Pope Francis condoned the use of contraceptives in the fight against such diseases as AIDS and the Zika virus. “Up to now, there was no question about contraception,” she says. “The church said no. Now, the pope is saying that, in the time of AIDS, it’s OK to use a condom. So that is an evolution that is coming from the bottom up.”

Pope Francis has also been vocal on immigration and global warming. “The papacy understands the issues with immigration today – the movements of populations worldwide – created by the lack of natural resources, number one, lack of water. All of this is linked to climate change,” says Rollo-Koster. “The papacy is almost trying to take a leadership role on this issue, saying we need to do something about it – which is actually surprising when you look at the relationship between popes and science. Quite a change from Copernicus and Galileo, they’re trying to push their previous issues to the side.”

Rollo-Koster, an author of eight books on medieval culture and the papacy, was already contracted with Cambridge University Press to write a book on the 14th century schism in the church when she was approached about three years ago by a Cambridge editor. “The editor said would you think about heading a collection that would be the entire history of the papacy,” says Rollo-Koster, “and, stupid me, I said yes.”

Rollo-Koster has put together a team of international editors to work on the project. A scholar in medieval history, she wanted a person with expertise in the modern period, so she contacted Ventresca, who is Canadian. The rest of the team includes editors from the U.S., Denmark, and England.

In the last three years, they’ve tackled the enormous job of framing the four volumes from the ground up, outlining each down to the table of contents. For the last year, they’ve faced the hardest work – lining up the scholars with the breadth and understanding of the papacy to write the 35 articles per volume. “We really have the people in the field who know their stuff,” she says.

Each article, about 30 pages each, will give a coherent argument of a topic, taking in the historical perspective and presenting points of view that historians have failed to consider, while also looking to the future. Above all, she says, each needs to be balanced, showing the bias of previous work and covering “all the shades of gray.”

“What we’re doing has of course to do with religion,” she says, “but it’s absolutely outside faith. We are all historians, so we look at it as historians. Our personal faith has nothing to do with it.”