The Papacy of the Catholic Church

Pope Francis Attends a Meeting With Catholic Schools
Franco Origlia / Stringer/Getty Images News/Getty Images

What Is the Papacy?

The papacy has a spiritual and institutional meaning in the Catholic Church and an historical meaning.

  • When used in the context of the Catholic Church, the papacy refers to the office of pope, the successor of Saint Peter, and the authority that the pope exercises in that office.
  • When used historically, the papacy refers to a particular pope’s time in office, or the religious and cultural force of the Catholic Church down through history.

The Pope as the Vicar of Christ

The pope of Rome is the head of the universal Church. Also called “the pontiff,” “the Holy Father,” and “the Vicar of Christ,” the pope is the spiritual head of all Christendom and a visible symbol of unity in the Church.

First Among Equals

The understanding of the papacy has changed over time, as the Church has come to recognize the importance of the role. Once regarded simply as the primus inter pares, the “first among equals,” the pope of Rome, by virtue of being the successor to Saint Peter, the first of the apostles, was seen as worthy of the greatest respect of any of the bishops of the Church. From this emerged the idea of the pope as arbiter of disputes, and very early in Church history, other bishops began appealing to Rome as the center of orthodoxy in doctrinal arguments.

The Papacy Instituted by Christ

The seeds for this development were there from the beginning, however. In Matthew 16:15, Christ asked his disciples: “Who do you say that I am?” When Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” Jesus told Peter that this had been revealed to him not by man, by God the Father.

Peter’s given name was Simon, but Christ told him, “You are Peter”—a Greek word which means “rock”—“and upon this rock I will build my Church. And the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.” From this comes the Latin phrase Ubi Petrus, ibi ecclesia: Wherever Peter is, there is the Church.

The Role of the Pope

That visible symbol of unity is an assurance to the Catholic faithful that they are members of the one holy catholic and apostolic Church founded by Christ. But the pope is also the chief administrator of the Church. He appoints bishops and the cardinals, who will elect his successor. He is the final arbiter of both administrative and doctrinal disputes.

While doctrinal matters are normally resolved by an ecumenical council (a meeting of all of the bishops of the Church), such a council can only be called by the pope, and its decisions are not official until confirmed by the pope.

Papal Infallibility

One such council, the First Vatican Council of 1870, recognized the doctrine of papal infallibility. While some non-Catholic Christians regard this as a novelty, this doctrine is simply a full understanding of Christ’s response to Peter, that it was God the Father who revealed to him that Jesus was the Christ.

Papal infallibility does not mean that the pope can never do anything wrong. However, when, like Peter, he is speaking on matters of faith and morals and intends to instruct the whole Church by defining a doctrine, the Church believes that he is protected by the Holy Spirit and cannot speak in error.

The Invocation of Papal Infallibility

The actual invocation of papal infallibility has been very limited. In recent times, only two popes have declared doctrines of the Church, both having to do with the Virgin Mary: Pius IX, in 1854, declared the Immaculate Conception of Mary (the doctrine that Mary was conceived without the stain of Original Sin); and Pius XII, in 1950, declared that Mary had been assumed into Heaven bodily at the end of her life (the doctrine of the Assumption).

The Papacy in the Modern World

Despite concerns about the doctrine of papal infallibility, both some Protestants and some Eastern Orthodox have expressed, in recent years, a growing interest in the institution of the papacy. They recognize the desirability of a visible head of all Christians, and they have a deep respect for the moral force of the office, especially as exercised by such recent popes as John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

Still, the papacy is one of the greatest stumbling blocks to the reunification of the Christian churches. Because it is essential to the nature of the Catholic Church, having been instituted by Christ himself, it cannot be abandoned. Instead, Christians of good will of all denominations need to engage in a dialogue to come to a deeper understanding of how the papacy was meant to unite us, rather than divide us.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
ThoughtCo. "The Papacy of the Catholic Church." Learn Religions, Sep. 20, 2021, ThoughtCo. (2021, September 20). The Papacy of the Catholic Church. Retrieved from ThoughtCo. "The Papacy of the Catholic Church." Learn Religions. (accessed June 3, 2023).