The largest religious organization in the world today, the Roman Catholic Church claims origins dating back to Peter, one of the companions of Jesus of Nazareth. In historical terms, it emerged over several centuries in the late Roman period and early Middle Ages, as the bishops of Rome gradually expanded their power over Christian churches in Europe and claimed authority over the formerly independent bishops of other cities. Modest distinctions in theology and practice set it apart from the older Eastern Orthodox churches, from which it broke away in the eleventh century. Much greater distinctions separate it from Gnostic Christianity, which it exterminated in a series of violent actions from the fourth to the thirteenth centuries, and from the Protestant sects that broke away from it in the sixteenth century. See Christian origins; Gnosticism; Jesus of Nazareth.

In theory, the Roman Catholic Church is a religious monarchy in which the Pope, the bishop of Rome, is elected for a life term and has nearly unlimited power as God’s representative on earth. In practice, the Pope presides over a loose federation of national churches and religious orders, each with its own traditions and prerogatives, and must depend on a sprawling medieval bureaucracy to carry out his decrees. The constant struggle to maintain the central authority of Rome in the face of powerful national and institutional constituencies makes up one of the driving forces of the Church’s history.

One repeated factor in this struggle has been the emergence of new religious orders not under the control of local bishops and archbishops, and thus directly answerable to the Pope. The Benedictine Order in the seventh century, the Knights Templar in the twelfth, the Jesuits in the sixteenth, and Opus Dei in the twentieth all filled this role. All but the last eventually developed their own institutional momentum and left the Pope’s direct control, each becoming another quasi-independent power bloc within the church; Opus Dei has not yet completed this process but odds are that by the twenty-second century or so it will have followed the same time-honored course. See Knights Templar; Opus Dei; Society of Jesus (Jesuits).

The clash between rhetoric and reality surrounding the personal powers of the Pope has not always been grasped by people outside the Roman Catholic Church, and this has helped feed a long history of conspiracy theories surrounding it and its activities. The involvement of Catholic priests in assassination plots against England’s Queen Elizabeth I and other Protestant monarchs in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries helped give these theories credibility in their early days, and the long and inglorious history of papal involvement in European politics up until the unification of Italy in the late nineteenth century did little to dispel such ideas. Another factor was the bitter culture of hostility that developed between the Roman Catholic hierarchy and the Freemasons from the early eighteenth century onwards. The Craft’s principles of religious tolerance and its long history of commitment to liberal social and political ideals, factors which gave it a profoundly positive reputation through much of the western world, were guaranteed to antagonize a church that remained wedded to a hard-line conservatism throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. See Freemasonry.

These and other factors sparked a conviction that the Catholic Church was, in effect, a secret society plotting world domination. This belief became extremely widespread among Protestants in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and it played a large role in launching a series of anti-Catholic secret societies, including the Loyal Orange Order in Ireland and the Know-Nothings, American Protective Association, and Ku Klux Klan in the United States. See American Protective Association; Know-Nothing Party; Ku Klux Klan; Loyal Orange Order.

The explosive spread of alternative versions of Christianity and Christian origins in the second half of the twentieth century, as part of the movement of rejected knowledge from the fringes to the cultural mainstream, has added new wrinkles to this old theme. Many of the current alternative theories about Christianity’s origins and history argue that the Roman Catholic Church has deliberately suppressed evidence supporting their claims. Much of this is simply an attempt to bolster a weak case with arguments that cannot be easily disproved; when specific charges have been made – for example, the claim that the Dead Sea Scrolls were being suppressed by order of the Vatican – the facts, when they came out, showed otherwise. None of this is likely to prevent conspiracy theories about the Roman Catholic Church from being recycled in the rejected-knowledge scene for many years to come. See Dead Sea Scrolls; rejected knowledge.


The Element Encyclopedia of Secret Societies : the ultimate a-z of ancient mysteries, lost civilizations and forgotten wisdom written by John Michael Greer – © John Michael Greer 2006