Why Do We Have a Pope?

No other religious institution has anything resembling the institution of the papacy. No one gives their religious leader the recognition, authority and primacy that the Catholic Church does. Unlike other religious leaders, when the pope speaks people listen. He is recognized by Catholics and non-Catholics alike as the voice of moral authority in the world. Where does all this come from?

Our understanding of the Pope comes from the church’s designation of itself as “People of God” or “Family of God.” If the church is the family of God then the Pope as head is a father figure, not a tyrant or mere authority figure. He is not a CEO wielding arbitrary authority over his subjects.

He is a loving father who watches over his children. It is from this perspective that we can speak about three aspects of the papacy.

First, we Catholics understand that the first pope Peter was given tangible recognition and authority by Jesus "You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it" (Matt. 16:18). Jesus did not make this claim for any other disciple. In the book of Acts we notice as well a certain primacy being given to Peter in matters of discipline in the early church. He is not just first among equals but was given a unique supremacy apart from the other apostles. As pope he has unique gifts which authorizes him to guide the church in a fatherly way.

In the Matthew’s gospel this primacy goes even further. Peter is the one who assumes natural leadership. We often find Peter as the spokesperson and pioneer of the group of disciples. But the papacy goes even further than that. We not only say that Peter was the first pope but that this primacy has been passed on to his line of successors as well. How did the church arrive at this?

Interestingly Jesus in referring to Peter goes back to a passage of scripture from Isaiah 22 where the prophet speaks of the authority that God has given to Eliakim the son of Hilkiah. This authority is not just a one shot thing, given to one person but to a succession of individuals who will follow him. IN other words to a dynasty. The papacy is a dynasty. A succession of persons sharing the unique authority God has given to Peter.