In Roman Catholic mythology, Jesus Christ appointed the Apostle Peter to lead the Church he established. Peter, in his old age, went to Rome, where he was martyred. In the meantime he had appointed a second in command in Rome to be the head of the Church. This bishop of Rome became known as the Pope, and has been the rightful spiritual (and some say temporal) leader of Christendom ever since.
Protestants, Orthodox Christians, and non-Christian academics, and the more honest Catholic historians, agree on a different story. The early church did not have a centralized structure. An astonishingly brutal Roman emperor, Constantine, reformed the Christian churches. A common creed was agreed upon at councils (Council of Nicaea) to which the bishop of Rome sent representatives like everyone else. Church and state worked together while the Empire lasted, and all non-Christians were persecuted. During a period of turmoil, the Dark Ages, after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, the bishops of Rome, now called Popes (Pontiffs) worked to create a new religious and governmental order we now call the Roman Catholic Church.
The the Holy Roman Empire was born as a successor to the Western Roman Empire. The bishops of the Eastern Roman Empire did not recognize their Roman colleague's self-elevation. Islam almost overran both of them, and the pagan Vikings cut into the Christian domains for a while too.
I want to focus here on one aspect of the Holy Roman Empire during its long history (roughly 800 to 1800 A.D.): the struggle for supremacy between Popes and Emperors. Occasionally Popes were selected by the Emperors and were subservient, and some Emperors admitted to the supremacy of the Pope. They always agreed that Catholicism would be the only tolerated religion, with rare exception.
The Holy Roman Emperor had the additional problems of having rival Catholic Kings to deal with in France, Britain, and Spain; having invaders (usually, but not always, Islamic) pressuring them from the East; and having trouble gaining absolute power in their feudal kingdoms. When the Pope was unhappy with an Emperor, he could call in the French. It Italy itself there was a long feud between the imperial party and the papal party; every city had adherents to each. The Popes gained control of the regular governments of central Italy. Then, in worst case scenarios, the troops of the Pope fought the troops of the Emperor. If you want a good example of the conflict, check out the history of the Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa.
The Catholic Church was in great turmoil, and in many ways at a low ebb, between 1800 and 1900. Between Protestant Christianity and modern rationalist culture, even in nations where it was the dominant religion it was unable to eliminate the opposition by its classic methods (murder and intimidation). Still, it remained the dominant religion in Latin America and southern Europe. Popes and the hierarchy sometimes allowed for reforms, but they also worked hard to restore monarchies and to maintain a privileged position for the Catholic Church in nations where it was dominant.
There was a qualitative change in the Church's politics after World War I. The emergence of Russia, or the U.S.S.R., as an atheist bastion drove the Church to work overtime. Democracy was equated with atheism. Monarchies, while still looked upon kindly, fell second fiddle to a new strategy: the modern Catholic dictatorship. The Church wanted dictators who would not recognize the human rights of atheists, Marxists, anarchists, or even run of the mill middle of the road democrats or republicans. Under the reign of Pius XI various authoritarian politicians and movements, that we now call fascist, were encouraged in their desires. It is important to recognize that the Roman Catholic Church had a long term strategy to restore Catholicism and Papal supremacy. In the short run they could tolerate dictators who were not subservient to the Pope if those dictators would create the conditions (by creating authoritarian states and exterminating non-Catholics) that would allow the Popes to end up at the top of the hierarchy.
Thus Europeans found themselves subject to Benito Mussolini in Italy, Adolf Hitler in Germany, General Petain in France, General Francisco Franco in Spain, and a host of lesser Catholic dictators.
In retrospect the Catholic Church lost its great gamble for control of the world. The Protestants (if you include atheists as Protestants) of Great Britain, the United States, and Russia defeated Pius XII (successor to Pius XI), Hitler and crew.
And then the great whitewash began. Pius XII and most Catholics announced they never really liked dictatorships, especially that Hitler fellow. To prove it they produced reams of documents showing how they had argued with Hitler, Petain, and Mussolini over a variety of issues (they never had any arguments with General Franco).
The important thing to remember is the context of the arguments. Hitler wanted to boss the Pope around; the Pope wanted to boss Hitler around.
In effect the Church had tried to create a new Holy Roman Empire. If Hitler had defeated Russia and then Britain, they would have succeeded. Hitler wanted only one state religion. He was Catholic and had no interest in the only other viable German option, the Lutheran Church. Over the decades the Church would have used its traditional techniques of brainwashing to gain control of Hitler's successors. But while Petain and Franco worked closely with the Pope, there would be friction as long as Hitler was alive. Just as during much of the old Holy Roman Empire period.
Why do most people not know this? Because after World War II we went straight into the Cold War between Capitalism and Communism. The leading capitalist nations, Britain and the United States, wanted allies against Communism. So they went along with the Pope's re-interpretation of the fascist era. The Pope was an ally; even General Franco was now an ally. Support for fascism was forgiven in return for support against Communism. And since Fascism was largely invented by the Church to counter godless Communism, it was a good deal for the Pope.
With the Polish Pope and the current Pope, Benedict XVI, we have seen the Catholic Church shed its fake liberalism of the post war period. Liberal Catholics have been mercilessly purged from the Church hierarchy. Medieval styles of thought have begun to be promoted again. The Church has not openly advocated a return to monarchical government yet, but it has supported a number of right wing Catholic governments in Latin America and authoritarian politicians in Europe.
Hopefully the Church's time has passed. Hopefully no amount of attempted manipulation will restore the dark ages of Catholic monarchies and dictatorships. But we must be vigilant, because the Church is still large, influential, and well funded on a global scale. It still pushes for favored religion status in nations such as France, Spain, and Italy.
The best way to deal with the Church, for now, is to shed light upon it. Protestants need to calmly explain to Catholics why the authority of the Pope is not legitimate or based on scripture. Religious freedom has to include the separation of church and state that we have enjoyed in these United States. Thin the grass roots of the Church and its hierarchy will become irrelevant.