Pope (Greek Pappas = father; Latin Pontifex Maximus = greatest bridge-builder)
The Pope is the Bishop of Rome and head of the Roman Catholic Church.
For Catholics he is a direct successor to St. Peter, the first Pope. He is the chief pastor of the Catholic fold. As such, he’s regarded as the foremost servant of God.
In 1870 the First Vatican Council defined the doctrine of infallibility, which some believe has always been present in the Catholic Church.
Strictly speaking, infallibility refers to the idea that the Pope cannot err when speaking ex cathedra (Latin = from the chair). When speaking ex cathedra, the Pope solemnly defines issues concerning faith and morals.
We usually hear that, after 1870, only the dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary are ex cathedra—that is, infallible.
However, some Catholics believe that infallibility extends to all Catholic teachings concerning faith and morals. In reality, many Catholics debate the meaning of the term.
But one thing is clear. Infallibility does not refer to cosmological issues, as many wrongly suppose. Nor does it relate to grave mistakes in ethical judgment and associated behavior in these situations.
For instance, the Church tried Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), finding him guilty for claiming that the sun – not the earth – was the center of our solar system.
The Catholic Encyclopedia explains this embarrassing blunder as follows:
As to the Galileo affair, it is quite enough to point out the fact that the condemnation of the heliocentric theory was the work of a fallible tribunal. The pope cannot delegate the exercise of his infallible authority to the Roman Congregations, and whatever issues formally in the name of any of these, even when approved and confirmed in the ordinary official way by the pope, does not pretend to be ex cathedra and infallible. The pope, of course, can convert doctrinal decisions of the Holy Office, which are not in themselves infallible, into ex cathedra papal pronouncements, but in doing so he must comply with the conditions already explained — which neither Paul V nor Urban VIII did in the Galileo case.¹
More recently, the Vatican has asserted copyright over the papal figure. Almost like a corporate logo, the papal name, image and symbols are not for casual use as, say, most NASA images are.
The Church gives spiritual reasons for tightening control over the papal figure, but some critics say it’s more about insecurity, the wish to dominate and that ago-old god, money.
Interestingly, the Latin term Pontifex Maximus was used in pre-Christian Rome for the most influential but not the (technically) highest ranking priest.
The Catholic Church has appropriated and essentially Christianized the old pagan title, along with many other polytheistic symbols and customs. Some see this as a fatal flaw. The Church itself argues that this process transforms and ennobles all that was good or potentially good in the pre-Christian era.
Just around the time of revising this I came across an engaging lecture by William R. Cook Ph.D. that reminded me of the long, checkered history of the Papacy.
Popes, corrupt and debauched popes, antipopes, mutual excommunications during the East-West Schism (1054) and Western Schism (1378), scholarly disagreement over the legitimacy of the current line of Papal succession… all of these hard facts might make us wonder about the legitimacy of the current Pope.²
Like most things in life, one has to believe.
On the Web
- TOTNYC Presents — Papal Infallibility: What It Means…
Pope Francis meets Myanmar’s leadership but might not even bring up the word ‘Rohingya’ (businessinsider.com)
Catholic priest comes out: ‘I’m a priest and yes I am gay!’ (pinknews.co.uk)
Detroit priest to be beatified, was known for helping others (bostonherald.com)
Cardinal Law deserved prison not the Pope at his funeral (irishcentral.com)