What is the Roman Catholic Pope?

Definition and Explanation of the Catholic Papacy

St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church
St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church. Dave Wilson/Flickr.com

The title pope stems from the Greek word papas, which simply means "father." Early in Christian history, it was used as a formal title expressing affectionate respect for any bishop and sometimes even priests. Today it continues to be used in Eastern Orthodox churches for the patriarch of Alexandria.

Western Uses of the Term Pope

In the West, however, it has been used exclusively as a technical title for the bishop of Rome and head of the Roman Catholic Church since about the ninth century — but not for solemn occasions. Technically, the person holding the office of the bishop of Rome and Pope also has the titles:

  • Holy Father
  • His Holiness
  • Bishop of Rome
  • Vicar of Jesus Christ
  • Successor of St. Peter
  • Prince of the Apostles
  • Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church
  • Primate of Italy
  • Patriarch of the West
  • Servant of the Servants of God
  • Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Province of Rome
  • Sovereign of the State of Vatican City

What Does the Pope Do?

A pope is, in essence, the supreme legislative, executive, and judicial authority in the Roman Catholic Church — there are no "checks and balances" like one may be accustomed to finding in secular governments. Canon 331 describes the office of pope thus:

The office uniquely committed by the Lord to Peter, the first of the Apostles, and to be transmitted to his successors, abides in the Bishop of the Church of Rome. He is head of the College of Bishops, the Vicar of Christ, and the Pastor of the universal Church here on earth. Consequently, by virtue of his office, he has supreme, full, immediate, and universal ordinary power in the Church, and he can always freely exercise this power.

How is the Pope Chosen?

A pope (abbreviated PP.) is chosen by majority vote in the College of Cardinals, the member of which were themselves appointed by the previous pope(s). To win an election, a person must get at least two-thirds of the votes cast. Cardinals stand just below the pope in terms of power and authority in the church hierarchy. Candidates do not have to be from the College of Cardinals or even a Catholic — technically, anyone at all can be chosen. However, candidates have almost always been a cardinal or bishop, especially in modern history.

What is Papal Primacy?

Doctrinally, the pope is regarded as the successor of St. Peter, leader of the apostles after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is an important factor in the tradition that the pope is believed to have jurisdiction over the entire Christian church in matters of faith, morals and church government. This doctrine is known as papal primacy.

Although papal primacy is based partially on the role of Peter in the New Testament, this theological factor is not the only relevant issue. Another, equally important, factor, is the historical role of both the Roman church in religious matters and the city of Rome in temporal matters. Thus, the notion of papal primacy has not been one which existed for the earliest Christian communities; rather, it developed as the Christian church itself developed. Catholic church doctrine has always been based partly upon scripture and partly upon evolving church traditions, and this is simply another example of that fact.

Papal primacy has long been a significant obstacle to ecumenical efforts among the various Christian churches. Most Eastern Orthodox Christians, for example, would be quite willing to accord the Roman bishop the same respect, deference and authority as is accorded to any Eastern Orthodox patriarch — but that is not the same as granting the Roman pope special authority over all Christians. A great many Protestants are quite willing to grant the pope a position of special moral leadership, however, any more formal authority than that would conflict with the Protestant ideal, that there can be no intermediaries between a Christian and God.