Who is the pope, why is he the leader of Christ’s Church on earth, and from where does his authority derive?
Our current pope, Pope Benedict XVI, like every pope before him, is a direct successor of the first pope, Saint Peter, who was the first Bishop of Rome.
Saint Peter received his authority to lead the Church directly from Jesus.
Among his many interactions with Jesus, Peter is remembered for his exchange with Christ on the road to Caesarea Philippi, recorded in the Gospel of Matthew (Chapter 16).
When Jesus asked the Disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”, Peter answered for them, replying, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (16:15-16). In turn, Jesus said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven” (17).
The question of Jesus’ identity was definitively answered for His followers by Peter with divine assistance. Jesus went on to say,
“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kindgom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (18-19).
This passage provides the main Biblical proof for Peter’s primacy among the Apostles. Today’s Catholic bishops are the spiritual descendants of the Apostles. The Bishop of Rome (or the Pope) is the successor of Peter. He retains Peter’s primacy among the bishops.
The name “Peter” comes from the Aramaic word Kepha (or Cephas), meaning “Rock.” Jesus chose to give the Apostle Simon this new name at Caesarea Philippi for symbolic reasons. The distinctive feature of the area is a large outcropping of rock, upon which at that time the ruins of a pagan temple stood. It was here that Jesus chose to proclaim His plans to build a new Church on Peter that would not succumb to the passage of time.
Of course, this passage in no way undermines our belief in Christ as the true Foundation of the Church (see First Letter to the Corinthians 3:11). Jesus did not mean to imply Peter would somehow replace Him as the Rock of the Church, but that he would merely represent Him as such. As Saint Francis de Sales put it,
Although [Peter] was a rock, yet he was not the rock; for Christ is truly the immovable rock, but Peter on account of the rock. Christ indeed gives his own prerogatives to others, yet he gives them not losing them himself, he holds them nonetheless. He is a rock, and he made a rock; what is his, he communicates to his servants (Controversies).
In entrusting the keys to Peter, Jesus was referring back to the Davidic custom by which the king, upon leaving the city, would appoint his royal steward overseer of the kingdom in his absence, lending him the keys to its gates (see Isaiah 22:22). In Matthew 16:19, Christ the King appoints His steward, Peter, to oversee the Church, His kingdom on earth, in His absence.
The terms “bind” and “loose” in the passage above indicate that the authority given to Peter to declare certain things permissible or forbidden to the earthly faithful. Peter’s decisions on these matters, moreover, shall be confirmed in heaven. If God is going to confirm the decisions of Peter, a sinner, then obviously Peter must be given a special grace to prevent him from issuing commands contrary to the will of God. This preventive grace is infallibility.
The Church teaches that the Pope, as Peter’s successor, retains this infallibility.
This is not a claim that the Pope is without sin—infallibility has nothing to do with conduct, in fact—rather it is the belief that when teaching definitively on a matter of faith and morals he will be guarded by the Holy Spirit against teaching error.
Infallibility does not mean everything the Pope says or writes is without error, but only those things said ex cathedra (Latin, “from the chair”). Ex cathedra refers to the Chair of Peter, that is, to the seat of apostolic authority. The concept of a primary seat of authority comes from the Old Testament, in which Moses sat in judgment of the people, settling their religious disputes (see Book of Exodus 18:13).
Moses’ authority, too, was handed down through a line of successors. The Seat of Moses remained active until the time of Christ, as the Jesus, Himself, said, “The scribes and Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice” (Matthew 23:1-3). Peter and the Popes fulfill a similar role in the New Covenant, serving as Christ’s earthly representative through whom God speaks to the people to resolve religious disputes and maintain unity among the faithful.
This special role is seen in the Biblical account of Peter’s actions at the Council of Jerusalem, at which the Apostles are called to decide whether or not adherence to the Mosaic Law is required for salvation. It is Peter who ends the dispute, teaching the assembly on doctrine (see Acts of the Apostles, 15:7). His successors have maintained this role in the Church throughout the ages.
Interestingly, those who have rejected the Pope’s role have suffered doctrinal confusion and ongoing (and accelerating) division, which is evidenced by the explosion of non-Catholic, Christian sects.
Early Christian Historical References to the Papacy:
Pope Saint Clement I, the fourth Bishop of Rome, Letter to the Corinthians, circa AD 96:
Accept our counsel and you will have nothing to regret. … If anyone disobey the things which have been said by Him (i.e., God) through us (i.e., the Church of Rome), let them know that they will involve themselves in transgression and in no small danger. … You will afford us joy and gladness if, being obedient to the things which we have written through the Holy Spirit, you will root out the wicked passion of jealousy, in accord with the plea for peace and concord which we have made in this letter (58, 59, 63).
Saint Ignatius, the Bishop of Antioch, Letter to the Romans, c. A.D. 107:
Ignatius, also called Theophorus, to the Church that has found mercy in the greatness of the Most High Father and in Jesus Christ, His only Son; to the Church beloved and enlightened after the love of Jesus Christ, our God, by the will of Him that has willed everything which is; to the Church also which olds the presidency, in the location of the country of the Romans, worthy of God, worthy of honor, worthy of blessing, worthy of praise, worthy of success, worthy of sanctification, and, because you hold the presidency in love, named after Christ and after the Father. … You have envied no one, but others you have taught. I desire only that what you have enjoined in your instructions may remain in force (Address, 3).
Saint Irenaeus, the Bishop of Lyons, Against Heresies, c. A.D. 185:
But since it would be too long to enumerate in such a volume as this the successions of all the Churches, we shall confound all those who, in whatever manner, whether through self-satisfaction or vainglory, or through blindness and wicked opinion, assemble other than where it is proper, by pointing out here the successions of the bishops of the greatest and most ancient Church known to all, founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious Apostles, Peter and Paul, that Church which has the tradition and the faith which comes down to us after having been announced to men by the Apostles. For with this Church, because of its superior origin, all Churches must agree, that is, all the faithful in the whole world; and it is in her that the faithful everywhere have maintained the Apostolic tradition. …
The blessed Apostles, having founded and built up the Church, they handed over the office of the episcopate to Linus. Paul makes mention of this Linus in the Epistle to Timothy (4:21). To him succeeded Anacletus; and after him, in the third place from the Apostles, Clement was chosen for the episcopate. He had seen the blessed Apostles and was acquainted with them. It might be said that he still heard the echoes of the preaching of the Apostles, and had their traditions before his eyes. And not only he, for there were many still remaining who had been instructed by the Apostles.
In the time of Clement, no small dissension having arisen among the brethren in Corinth, the Church in Rome sent a very strong letter to the Corinthians, exhorting them to peace and renewing their faith. … To this Clement, Evaristus succeeded; and Alexander succeeded Evaristus. Then, sixth after the Apostles, Sixtus was appointed; after him, Telesphorus, who also was gloriously martyred. Then Hyginus; after him, Pius; and after him, Anicetus. Soter succeeded Anicetus, and now, in the twelfth place after the Apostles, the lot of the episcopate has fallen to Eleutherus. In this order, and by the teaching of the Apostles handed down in the Church, the preaching of the truth has come down to us. In the time of Clement, no small dissension having arisen among the brethren in Corinth, the Church in Rome sent a very strong letter to the Corinthians, exhorting them to peace and renewing their faith. … To this Clement, Evaristus succeeded; and Alexander succeeded Evaristus. Then, sixth after the Apostles, Sixtus was appointed; after him, Telesphorus, who also was gloriously martyred. Then Hyginus; after him, Pius; and after him, Anicetus. Soter succeeded Anicetus, and now, in the twelfth place after the Apostles, the lot of the episcopate has fallen to Eleutherus. In this order, and by the teaching of the Apostles handed down in the Church, the preaching of the truth has come down to us (3:3:2-3)