With the impending end of Pope Benedict XVI's pontificate, and the question of who will be next hanging in the air, the world is watching the Catholic Church, and the papacy, in a way they do at no other time. So, it's as good a time as any to explore the question of the papacy.
As a non-Catholic, and even as I began to honestly explore the teachings of the Catholic Church, the "Pope" question was a big deal to me. How could so many people believe that this one man was perfect? That he was never wrong? Christ alone was perfect. Wasn't the Pope just a man?
What I found was both surprising (because it's not what I thought the Church taught) and reassuring. The Pope is, indeed, just a man. A fallen mortal, just like you and me. He is not sinless or perfect, he is sometimes wrong. For a fun example, if you asked the Pope for next week's Powerball numbers, he has just as lousy a chance of picking the winning set as anyone else. :) A Pope can even sin his way straight into Hell. A few probably have. The Church has had a few really crappy Popes in her 2,000 year history. In 2,000 years, and given that, as we've already discussed, being elected Pope doesn't make a man automatically perfect, I suppose that's to be expected. And it's as much a testament to the divinely-established nature of the Church as anything else. If she has survived, with her deposit of faith (the core beliefs of Christianity, passed down from the Apostles) intact, even with mortal, fallible, and (sometimes extremely) sinful men at the helm, it makes it harder to doubt that God is behind it all.
One of my favorite bloggers, Leila Miller at Little Catholic Bubble, has done several excellent posts on the papacy, and I recommend reading them. She has a way (a gift, if you will) of making the Church's teachings accessible and easy to understand. If you're specifically looking for her articles regarding the papacy, here are the links, but the rest of the site is worth your time.
Point is, it's not really the Pope himself who is anything special, although if the Cardinals have done a good job, he is a holy man, a servant of God, and a man of impeccable character, devoted to Christ and to His Church. Many men, however, fit that definition, and very few will ever be Pope. It is the office of the Papacy that receives the special blessing of Infallibility. Catholics believe that the Pope, by the virtue of his office, is protected (while serving in that office) from teaching error as truth in the areas of faith and morals. So to those in the secular media who are constantly wondering if the next Pope will change the Church's teaching on abortion, contraception, homosexual relationships, or women in the priesthood--prepare to be disappointed. He won't. He can't.
To those of you who are complaining that the Church has changed her teachings on some things in the past (yes, I can hear you), I refer you again to Leila for the difference between dogma (unchanging truth) and discipline (changeable practices).
The dogmas (sometimes called doctrines) of the Church can never be changed. In 2,000 years, they haven't changed. They have sometimes been expanded upon, or things that have always been believed have been, in the face of some opposition, dogmatically defined or affirmed. But they have not changed, and they can not change. Truth does not change. If the dogmas of the Church could change, she could no longer claim to teach Truth.
Disciplines can, and sometimes do, change. One example is the celibate priesthood. Celibacy is the norm for Catholic priests, for many good reasons. However, there have been married priests, and not only in the past. Some people seem altogether unaware that in some circumstances, the Church allows married priests right now. The most common of these circumstances in recent times is seen with the conversion of an Anglican priest. If a married Anglican priest converts to the Catholic Church, he can become a Catholic priest, despite the fact that he is married. The celibate priesthood is a discipline, not a dogma.
But I find myself woefully off the subject and down a side street.
Some of you (like myself) may have heard that the apostle Peter is considered the first Pope of the Church, but not know much more than that about the roots of the papacy. Let me attempt to delve into that, with the understanding that I am far better at learning than I am at teaching. For the Protestant purists in the crowd, I will keep Scripture quotes to the King James Bible.
The moment of Simon Peter's installation as Pope (although that specific word was not yet used) can be found in Matthew 16, verses 15-19:
15 He saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am?
16 And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.
17 And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven.
18 And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter (which means "rock"), and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
19 And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
The parentheses are mine. Note that this "keys of the kingdom" thing was specifically for Simon, who in that moment was given a new name (Peter) by Jesus and charged with what an ancient Jew would have understood as stewardship of His kingdom (the Church). As steward and holder of the keys of the kingdom, he now has the authority to act and speak in the name of his Master.
Isaiah 22:21-22 speaks of the office of the steward in the household of the Davidic kings:
2121 And I will clothe him with thy robe, and strengthen him with thy girdle, and I will commit thy government into his hand: and he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to the house of Judah.
22 And the key of the house of David will I lay upon his shoulder; so he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open.
The steward of the King's household held the authority of the King himself. He was, for all intents and purposes, second in command of the kingdom, in much the same way that Pharoah made Joseph second in authority only to him in all the land of Egypt. (Genesis 41:39-43)
To understand this, it is important that one acknowledge (though I haven't time to expand on it much) Jesus's role as the Son of David, and King of the Jews. It was promised that the House of David would reign over Israel forever, and yet after only a few short generations, the line appeared to be broken. Still, the Jewish people hoped that God would raise up an heir, a "shoot from the stump of Jesse (David's father)" who would restore the kingdom and save his people. This King would be God's Annointed One (the translations of which in Hebrew and Greek form the basis for our words "Messiah" and "Christ"). If Jesus is a Davidic King, then it is to be expected that He would follow the traditions of the Davidic court, even though the Kingdom He established was not earthly in nature, but heavenly. (More on this in a future post.)
In short, the Pope is, if you will, the "head pastor" of the Catholic Church. He is the Vicar of Christ, Servant of the Servants of God, steward and guardian of Christ's Kingdom, the Church. He is a spiritual father (the word Pope actually means Papa), and worthy of respect, even reverence. No, we do not worship him. :) But we love and pray for him, and he does the same for us. Because the Church is more than just a kingdom; it is a family. And that's what families do.