On Facebook, I often share articles related to Pope Francis. If anyone keeps track, they’d probably recognize papal posts more consistently than anything else I share. Oh look, another Pope post from Patric. So what’s the big deal? Why do I care about what’s up with the Pope?
As most know, the Pope is the leader of the Catholic Church. (That is, he’s the head pastor, since Jesus is really the man in charge.) So it makes sense that the Pope’s significance relates to the fact that he speaks for Catholic Christianity in very important ways. Even the media catches on to this. For them, the Pope speaking implies the “Catholic position”—which may or may not be the case.
Now, several denominations have leading ministers, including people who govern their Christian communities in important ways. But when it comes to the Pope, his importance is not simply related to the fact that he’s a leader. After all, simply being a leader of a church may in fact be arbitrary: Does the church have to have a leader? Is the Pope just a historical accident or practical convenience that developed over time? Etc.
Instead, Catholics understand the Pope to be integral to the church’s organization. As the New Testament suggests, there are different roles or “parts” in the Body of Christ for the sake of the “unity of the faith” (1 Cor. 12; Eph. 4:13). Well, the Pope is understood to be, in very real sense, part of Christ’s will for the constitution of His church.
Consider this. If one were to go backward in time, one would see that Benedict XVI served before the current pope, Francis. John Paul II served before Benedict. And so on. One pope preceded the other, and that pope was preceded by another—all the way back to the first century. (The title “Pope,” from papa, was a later development. But it simply identifies the bishop of Rome.) 265 men before Francis, one would arrive at a man named Peter, who ended his last years ministering to and organizing the Christian community in Rome.
Peter was among Jesus’ original twelve apostles, but he occupied a chief role of leadership among them. He would often speak for the twelve (Mk. 8:29; Jn. 6:67). In the four gospels, he’s often named first in the lists of Apostles—sometimes just “Peter and his companions” (Mk. 3:16; Lk. 9:32). He preached on Pentecost, the day the Holy Spirit descended and energized the young church (Acts 2). Peter was also the first to receive the revelation that the Gospel was to be given to even the Gentiles (Acts 10:9-48). He presided over the first major council of the church in Jerusalem, which decided important matters for non-Jewish converts to the Christian faith (Acts 15:7-11).
Jesus singled out Peter when he told him that he would be the “rock” upon which Christ would build his church (Matt. 16:18). In the same passage, Jesus said he would give Peter the “keys of the kingdom,” recalling the Old Testament figure of royal steward who served under the Davidic king (Matt. 16:19; Isa. 22:22). Jesus, the new Davidic king, is in effect making Peter the steward of His church. He also gives him the authority to “bind and loose,” representing the ability to make disciplinary decisions for the community.
Clearly, then, Peter was head of the young church. But was Peter’s shepherding role only meant for the first-century church—until his martyrdom in the mid-60s? If the newfound Christian community needed leadership in the first century, surely the church in the second century—who would be without the Apostles!—would still need leadership. And this goes for the third, and the fourth, and the fifth… all the way down to the twenty-first century—especially the twenty-first century!
In fact, early Christians not only recognized the bishop of Rome as succeeding Peter in a historical sense, but also in his capacity as leader of the church as well. Consider Clement, who was bishop of Rome in the late first century—perhaps third in succession to Peter. Under his leadership, the church in Rome sent a strong letter of correction to the church in Corinth, which was experiencing serious internal division. It seems that the Corinthian church may have even appealed to Rome. Regardless, both the Roman and Corinthian Christians understood that the church of Rome had a special pastoral role in the universal church—even having the ability to mingle in the affairs of Christian communities in other parts of the world.
We get a hint of the reasoning for this from a second-century Christian, Irenaeus of Lyons. In his work Against Heresies, Irenaeus explains how one can discern what is in fact authentic Christianity—as opposed to the Gnostic counterfeits of his day. After emphasizing the need to consult those churches founded by the Apostles and the bishops who succeeded them, he goes on to highlight the church of Rome as the preeminent model of Christian orthodoxy. Because of its “superior origin” in Peter and Paul, “all the faithful in the whole world” must agree with it. He then goes on to list the twelve bishops of Rome since Peter, from whom “the preaching of the truth has come down to us.”
Above all, the role of the Pope is for the sake of the Church’s unity. “A primacy is given to Peter,” says third-century Cyprian of Carthage, “whereby it is made clear that there is but one Church.” The bishop of Rome occupies this so-called “chair of Peter,” from which “sacerdotal unity has its source.” The Pope is the visible head of the church. Like Peter, who often spoke as representative of the twelve, the Pope is able to definitively speak for the faith of the church. He’s not there to change the faith. He doesn’t receive special divine revelation, like a prophet. No, his sole purpose is to guard the apostolic teaching and shepherd Christ’s flock in their walk of faith. Contrary to all the media hype whenever there’s a new pope, the church’s doctrine’s isn’t going to change just because there’s a new occupant in Peter’s chair. Pope Francis once affirmed how he was a faithful “son of the church” when asked about his teaching. It’s simply not the Pope’s job to concoct doctrine out of the blue.
At this point, it would be good to clarify what it means for the Pope to be infallible, because it’s often misunderstood. Basically, because the Holy Spirit guides the church, and because the Pope is the visible representative of the church, then it follows that God will not allow the Pope to lead the church astray on matters of the faith. Because Christ promised that the “gates of hell” would “not prevail” against the church (Matt. 16:18), then the Pope will never declare as official dogma something that is actually false. So, for example, the Pope will never officially proclaim that Jesus didn’t really rise from the dead. If something like this could happen, then the church would be seriously misled, and Christ’s promise would seem to have been broken.
Note that infallibility does not protect the Pope from sin. He’s a mere mortal like anyone else, with his own weaknesses and capacity for scandal. Thankfully, the church has been quite blessed in recent decades with exceptionally holy fathers. And most have sought to serve the church—some even to the point of martyrdom. That said, one shouldn’t be shocked to run into a real scoundrel here or there. (I’m thinking of a few Renaissance popes.) Even Peter denied Christ.
The Pope’s infallibility is not separated from the church’s infallibility. Rather, because the Pope is sign of the church’s unity, the Pope’s role offers a particular manifestation of it. Infallibility is a negative gift: it’s simply the freedom from doctrinal error. It’s not divine inspiration. The Pope’s words are not God’s words. And, of course, not everything the Pope says is infallible. At all. In fact, it’s understood to be reserved only for those solemn occasions when the Pope is definitively settling a matter of faith to be held by the entire church. Mind you, this doesn’t happen often. The most recent was in 1950 when Pope Pius XII’s dogmatically defined Mary’s assumption into Heaven.
The Pope in the modern world has the same basic role as did Peter nearly 2,000 years ago: to confirm his brethren in the faith. The Pope acts as teacher on a daily basis when he gives speeches and homilies for special events and liturgies. More exceptionally, the Pope exercises his teaching authority when he writes official documents ranging from encyclicals, like Francis’ recent one on the environment, to the weightier apostolic constitutions, which deal with important doctrinal matters. As pastor, the Pope meets with his fellow bishops, visits other countries, and attends special events such as World Youth Day.
By expressing the papacy as a role of service—something Francis is quite good at—the Pope is able to bring Christ to others as he sets an example of what it means to be follower of Christ. One traditional title of the Pope, going all the way back to St. Gregory the Great, is servus servorum Dei, or Servant of the Servants of God. This encapsulates the type of leadership the Pope is called to. After all, according to Christ, the “greatest” or “first” is the one who is “servant of all” (Mk. 9:34-36).
Now the elephant in the room. Catholics understand the papal office to be an essential part of the church’s original “constitution” and therefore consider alternative church structures to be lacking an important gift. In this way, the Pope is (meant to be) pastor of all Christians. But what about Christians who aren’t Catholic? Naturally, non-Catholic Christians have historically had their own thoughts on the papacy, ranging from respect to repudiation. Eastern Orthodox and other Christians who recognize the Pope’s historical primacy tend to downplay the biblical foundations for Rome’s authority—as opposed to the Catholic emphasis on the role of Peter, for example. Still, many view the Pope as an important witness to and teacher of the Christian faith.
On the flip side, during the Protestant Reformation, some reformers said damning things about the Pope—some going so far as to call him the antichrist! Even today, it is not hard to find groups that strongly reject the Pope. As unfortunate as that may be, today the Pope is increasingly playing a key role in ecumenical dialogue. More and more, the Pope meets with other Christian figures to give a common witness in faith and charity.
While in the past rejection of the papacy may have been an inevitable consequence of separation from the Catholic Church, there is arguably no inherent reason why non-Catholics today cannot recognize the Pope’s ancient—and even biblical—roots and thereby appreciate his role as a global Christian leader.