Papal authority, persona are influential - Catholic Courier

Papal authority, persona are influential

What Catholics Belief Series

Whose idea was it to designate a single leader ranking above all other Catholics? None other than Jesus’ himself, according to Matthew 16:18-19.

"And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven," the passage states. "Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven."

Thus Christ designated St. Peter as the first head of the Catholic Church. Some 2,000 years and 264 popes later, the papacy — now occupied by Benedict XVI — continues to carry enormous weight, as described in Canon 331 of the Revised Code of Canon Law: "The bishop of the Roman Church, in whom continues the office given by the Lord uniquely to Peter, the first of the Apostles, and to be transmitted to his successors, is the head of the college of bishops, the Vicar of Christ, and the pastor of the universal Church on earth. By virtue of his office he possesses supreme, full, immediate, and universal ordinary power in the Church, which he is always able to exercise freely."

The pope exercises his governance by making decisions and statements in conjunction with the church’s bishops and his Curia — a body of congregations, tribunals, offices and councils. Canon 330 states: "In fulfilling the office of supreme pastor of the Church, the Roman Pontiff is always joined in communion with the other bishops and with the universal Church. He nevertheless has the right, according to the needs of the Church, to determine the manner, whether personal or collegial, of exercising this office."

Among the pope’s duties are to appoint bishops; erect and suppress dioceses; revise the liturgy, liturgical laws and canon laws; and issue encyclicals. One papal term that surfaces often is infallibility — a divine privilege of freedom from liability of error in defining the church’s dogmatic teachings on faith and morals.

"By virtue of his office, the Supreme Pontiff possesses infallibility in teaching when as the supreme pastor and teacher of all the Christian faithful, who strengthens his brothers and sisters in the faith, he proclaims by definitive act that a doctrine of faith or morals is to be held," states Canon 749.

However, only one infallible statement has been issued since the doctrine of infallibility was clarified by the First Vatican Council in 1870. That occurred in 1950, when Pope Pius XII defined the assumption of Mary into heaven as a dogma of the Roman Catholic faith.

A more common way of making papal statements about the faith is by means of a papal encyclical — a letter issued by the pope generally on matters of Catholic doctrine. Since his election in April of 2005, Pope Benedict has issued two encyclicals: Deus caritas est on the subject of Christian love in December 2005; and Spe salvi, which deals with the virtue of hope, issued this past Nov. 30.

Though not infallible, encyclicals and other papal teachings are nonetheless to be carried out by bishops — and, in turn, by all other faithful Catholics.

In addition to a pope’s leadership role among Catholics on doctrine and other church matters, his public persona carries significant weight in this age of mass media, observed Timothy M. Thibodeau, a history professor at Nazareth College in Pittsford who specializes in the papacy.

"John Paul (II) and John XXIII radically transformed and modernized the papal office," he said. "One thing they have in common is tremendous charisma. They understood they were on a stage, and the whole world was watching."

Thibodeau lauded John Paul II as a unifying force for many ages, faiths and nationalities. He cited the late pontiff’s role in ending Communist rule in Eastern Europe, becoming the first pope to visit a synagogue, and traveling to more than 100 countries.

"I think the papacy can play a vital role not just to Catholics, but to mediate all the violence and chaos in the world. I think that was John Paul’s golden touch. In so many ways, his papacy broke through and set new standards," Thibodeau said.


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