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The papacy is the monarchy by which the Roman Catholic Church is governed. The head of the Church is called papa--that is, father--in Latin because he is believed to be the spiritual parent of all the faithful. The Pope is entrusted with absolute authority over all aspects of the Catholic Church, including temporal as well as spiritual matters.

Like his immediate predecessor John Paul II, the current pope, Benedict XVI, fiercely denounces homosexual acts. Both John Paul and Benedict have claimed that their declarations on homosexuality accord with papal pronouncements over the course of many centuries. However, no popes prior to John Paul condemned same-sex love with the vigor and consistency that he and Benedict have.

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It was only in the twelfth century that popes began to encourage systematic enforcement of prohibitions against homosexual acts. Even after that time, the papacy often revealed, in practice, a more tolerant attitude toward sexual "deviance" than did secular authorities and the general membership of the Church. Among the popes, there are a few who can be described in modern terminology as being notably "gay friendly." In addition, at least four pontiffs seem to have enjoyed the physical, as well as spiritual, love of other men.

The Origins and Scope of the Institution

According to Roman Catholic interpretation of certain Biblical passages (such as John 21: 15-17), Jesus Christ appointed Saint Peter the first Pope. All subsequent popes participate in the Apostolic Succession from Peter, which forms the basis of their claims to spiritual authority. Among the titles given to the pope is Bishop of Rome; the seat of his authority as bishop is Saint John Lateran, not Saint Peter's. By around 300, the Bishop of Rome had succeeded in gaining ascendancy over other ecclesiastical leaders; his supreme spiritual authority was acknowledged in a series of pronouncements of Church Councils in the first few centuries of the Christian era.

The process for choosing popes has varied greatly during history. Throughout the first millennium of the Church, the Holy Roman Emperor played an important role in the selection, and other secular authorities sometimes claimed the right to participate in the process. A decree of 1059 established that the pope was to be elected only by cardinals, but final approval of their choice was given to various secular authorities until 1139. In 1274, a Church Council established the current procedures for selection by a two-thirds vote of the Conclave of Cardinals, required to assemble in Rome ten days after the death of a pontiff.

Popes were not regarded as infallible until 1870, when a Church Council made official dogma the belief that all of their pronouncements on spiritual matters were without error. Also in 1870, the Pope surrendered control of the secular government of most of the territory of the Papal States. At the height of its political power in the mid-sixteenth century, the papacy controlled most of central Italy (approximately 44,000 square kilometers) and some smaller territories outside the Italian peninsula.

Until 1929, popes refused to recognize the incorporation of Rome into the unified Italian nation and declared themselves "voluntary prisoners" within the walls of the Vatican. The Lateran Treaty, signed on February 11, 1929 by Pope Pius XI and dictator Benito Mussolini, established Vatican City (a territory of about 109 acres) as an independent, sovereign political state within Rome.

Women are not allowed to assume the office of the papacy. However, from the thirteenth through the fifteenth centuries, several treatises claimed that a woman, popularly called Pope Joan, had governed the Church. According to these sources, she disguised herself as a man and ruled as John VIII, for slightly more than 25 months, from 855 to 858; she was supposed to have died in the process of giving birth during a procession through the streets of Rome.

The accounts of Pope Joan were widely accepted during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and were even endorsed by the ecumenical Council of Constance, 1414-18. However, since the sixteenth century, the Catholic Church has maintained that this pope never existed.

Recent Papal Pronouncements on Homosexuality

Elected on April 19, 2005, Benedict XVI (Joseph Ratzinger, b. April 16, 1927) already has established the demonization of homosexual relations as one of the primary themes of his papacy. Acting under his direction, the Pontifical Council on the Family issued on April 22, a mere three days after his ascendancy, a condemnation of the legalization of same-sex marriage in Spain as "inhuman" and "profoundly iniquitous." This official statement threatened to excommunicate any Spanish government employees who fulfilled the provisions of the law legitimizing same-sex marriages.

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Pope John Paul II (top) and his successor Benedict XVI (above) have vigorously condemned homosexual acts.
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