Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Catholic Church's Black Popes

(An entry in celebration of Black History Month)

Many people do not know that the Catholic Church has had three black popes. Writes Dr. Camille Brown:

This litany of Black Catholics would not be complete without some acknowledgement of the three black popes. According to The Book of Pontiffs (Liber Pontificalis), there were three popes from Africa. Pope St. Victor I was the first. He reigned from 186-197 A.D. as the 15th Pope. We should thank Pope Victor I for settling the controversy about when to celebrate Easter. Pope St. Militiades was the second pontiff from Africa. He reigned from 311-314 A.D. as the 32nd or 37th Pope (there are conflicting accounts as to his place in the Papal line). He was very busy during his tenure in the papacy while being consumed with promoting papal infallibility and writing hymns and epistles. The third African Pope was Pope St. Gelasius I who reigned from 492-496 A.D. as the 49th Pope. He was pope during a time of peace and religious toleration as Constantine became emperor and legalized Christianity. All three of these Catholic heroes embraced the faith with sincere hearts and complete devotion to our Lord and the Universal Church.

12 comments:

Barrett Turner said...

Dr. Beckwith,

Are you equating "from Africa" with "black" here? I know of at least one prominent theologian in the early church who was both (Athanasius) but that was because he was from upper Egypt. Would North Africans be considered black? Honestly don't know, just asking.

Jeff Ferguson said...

"We should thank Pope Victor I for settling the controversy about when to celebrate Easter."

We should? I thought that the First Council of Nicaea settled the Easter date question.

Thomas said...

Thanks Dr. Your intention, I'm sure, was to increase awareness that our popes were not only of European descent. Its semantics, I suppose. Anyone who has visited North Africa and its inhabitants, whether it is Sudan, Egypt or Morocco would see that its inhabitants are "black" as we would define it in U.S. tho they may not have other features of sub-sahara Africans. Thanks for your post.

Thanks and Welcome Home, fellow convert,
Thomas Smith www.gen215.org twitter/gen215

Francis J. Beckwith said...

Thank you, Thomas.

I appreciate your input.

When I posted this I was aware of the question of the actual physical appearance of these popes. But from what I can gather, the consensus is that they are black in the way you describe. In Waco we have many immigrants from North Africa--e.g, the Sudan--and their features are different than those of sub-Saharan origin. But they are clearly "black."

One of the problems in posting on matters like this is that we often forget--or don't know--that contemporary understandings of race have their roots in the Enlightenment and that pre-modern Christendom, fully informed by a rich philosophical anthropology about human nature, would not have thought of superficial characteristics as relevant to assessing a person's worth. It was only later--with the dominance of scientific empiricism and nominalism--that we get racism as we know it today.

If you think about it, if the intellect cannot know human nature because it is either not there (the nominalists) or incapable of being known (the scientific empiricists) all you have the superficial and the skin deep.

Neil Parille said...

I don't see any evidence here that they were black skinned.

From the pictures I've seen, people from North Africa can be black, white, or in between.

-Neil Parille

Jeff Miller said...

Well considering the number of Roman colonies in North Africa at the time this is rather doubtful. For example St. Augustine of Hippo. This is like thinking that everybody in South Africa is black. Before the Vandal invasions during the time of St. Augustine there were large groups of colonists of European decent living in these areas.

The real thing is that we don't know the answer as to whether these African Popes were black and it is rather dubious history to claim it based on location. There is certainly no historical evidence for this claim. Though it would be nice if there was actual confirmation of this.

Neil Parille said...

I don't think a person's skin color is significant for determining his moral worth.

I think, however, that many people go the extreme of denying the existence of races and innate differences between the races.

Deacon Steve said...

re: Gelasius and legalization of Christianity --

I thought Constantine (the Great)and Licenius legalized Christianity with the Edict of Milan in 313 ...not late 5th cent.

CRob said...

"Innate differences between the races"--I'd be interested to know what you think some of those differences are.

Norman Patterson said...


They were "Moors".

shannon mattingly said...

I'm sorry, but I can't agree.

Gelasius I was Berber. Berbers are a Semitic people originating in the middle eastern region. In other words, he looked like an Arab.

Militiades (or Melchiades) was possibly born in northern Africa, but of Roman descent, much like Pope Francis is Argentinian in nationality, but born of Italian parents.

Victor, also, was born in the Roman province called Africa (a narrow strip running along part of the coast of modern-day Libya), but that was a province named for a tribe of people who lived there, a people also of Semitic or Carthaginian/Phoenician lines—again, middle eastern.

While one or all of them may have been Negro, we can't really say any of them were just because they were born on a continent with a mostly Negro population. In the times they lived, most Negroes lived below the Sahara, except in eastern Africa. They could have been of mixed Semitic-Negro descent, with the probable exception of Militiades, but in all likelihood, were Arab in appearance. In my mind and to my eyes, Arabs aren't "black." (Please note that I use the word "Negro" strictly in its original sense, its Spanish and Portuguese origin and meaning—and no other.)

V.S. Claytor said...

You leave the impression that there were no black (African American) Romans,Caracalla was the eldest son of Septimius Severus, the first black African-born Emperor of Rome. Lucius Septimius Bassianus (April 4, 188 – April 8, 217), commonly known as Caracalla, was a Black Roman Emperor who ruled from 211 to 217. Just saying...