When non-Catholics encounter the claims of the Roman Catholic Church, questions about the papacy are often some of the foremost in their minds. They may think that Catholics are asked to submit to a mere man instead of directly to God, or that the Pope is a sort of theological dictator who can invent doctrines on a whim and then, by dint of his position, compel Catholics to believe them. From a Protestant’s point of view, it might look as though the Catholic Church is basically a huge denomination built around a cult of personality, with one central authority figure who calls all the shots in favor of his ego.
To begin clearing up such a morass of misconceptions, it may be helpful to start at the beginning. It’s well known that the Pope is considered the successor St. Peter, the first among Apostles, to whom Jesus famously gave “the keys to the kingdom of heaven,” and told him that “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:19) Now, whatever Jesus is doing here, it sounds like it’s a big deal. In fact, it is: Jesus is laying the foundation for his Church and commissioning his Apostles to speak on his behalf and with the same authority. And so they did, as we see the accounts in the Acts of the Apostles of the very early Church having the Holy Spirit poured out on them and then beginning to go out into the world. And when doctrine needed to be defined, as for example in the case of whether gentile converts to the faith needed to observe the Jewish ritual laws, they proclaimed it with the words “It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us not to place on you any burden beyond these necessities…” (Acts 15:28; emphasis added) As for St. Peter himself, his preeminence among the Apostles as recorded in the gospels and the book of Acts is quite clear. Thus the Catechism teaches: “The Lord made Simon alone, whom he named Peter, the ‘rock’ of his Church. He gave him the keys of his Church and instituted him shepherd of the whole flock. ‘The office of binding and loosing which was given to Peter was also assigned to the college of apostles united to its head.’ This pastoral office of Peter and the other apostles belongs to the Church’s very foundation and is continued by the bishops under the primacy of the Pope.” (CCC 881) But some look only to the New Testament for an explicit declaration of what we know today as the full-blown papacy, and, not finding it, consider the papacy to be “not Biblical.”
But consider the historical foundation of the Church itself: Jesus didn’t make explicit everything the Apostles should teach and do, but left it up to them under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Nor did he say “Go forth, and write the New Testament so that people will only do and believe exactly what is written in it.” Rather, doctrine and practices developed naturally over time as the need for them arose, just as it did in the first Church Council described above, that settled the matter of the obligations of gentile converts. So the fact that the papacy as we know it today developed over a period of generations of the Church growing and holding together as it did so cannot be considered a point against it.
Now, for the papacy itself: what does it mean to have a Pope as the head of the Church? Well, first consider the need for bishops as successors of the Apostles. It’s a matter of history that bishops ordained other bishops (part of the sacrament of Holy Orders), and if you trace that lineage back far enough, you end up at the original Apostles themselves, the ones to whom Jesus explicitly gave his authority. So you have the authority of the Apostles together as traced back through history to Jesus’ own authority. But suppose the entire school of the bishops were to divide into factions—how are the faithful to know who to follow, given that they are supposed to submit to the bishops’ authority and not have to judge the bishops’ teachings before deciding whether to follow them? The one thing that prevents there being any question as to where the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church is, ultimately—for bishops, priests, and the faithful—is that there must be, by definition, a “Last Catholic,” so to speak; and that’s why to be under the Pope’s authority is to be Catholic.
But why couldn’t God simply make all the bishops infallible and agree on everything? I think the answer lies largely in an important principle: God doesn’t do himself what he can delegate. So if a very simple authority structure that’s easily visible and understandable—one preeminent bishop having the final say—can accomplish the maintenance over time of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, then that’s all that’s needed. When God works through people, they don’t become his puppets: they become his servants. And the example of Jesus himself choosing one servant of his to speak for him ultimately and “feed his sheep” goes a long way in itself to show that the papacy is part of what he intended for his Church.
About Micah Newman
Micah is a grateful convert (as of 2009), and a writer/editor and philosophy teacher. His passions include Catholicism, theology, science, art, music, and his two beautiful children.