Why do we need a pope anyway?

This column is dedicated to the memory of Pope John Paul II – truly one of the greatest gifts God gave us in our lifetime. His teachings inspired me, and Jesus changed my life as a result of them. I don’t know that I can articulate at this point the influence this blessed man of God had on me, but I know it has been great.

I was blessed enough to have met him twice; I found myself unable to speak both times. For those of you who know me, that’s about the only time that has happened. I’d call that a miracle.

Dear Fr. Joe: Why is there a need for the papacy?

Let’s start at the beginning. If we look at Matthew 16:17-19, Jesus says, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, because flesh and blood have not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give to you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind of earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” This is the basis for having a pope. Let’s take it piece by piece.

At the beginning of this passage, we see Jesus giving a specific blessing and power to Simon Peter. That blessing is rooted in the gift God gave Peter – a knowledge about Jesus that the others did not have yet.

Jesus then says that Simon is now to be called Peter (the word for Peter and rock are the same in Aramaic), and that God will build his church on Peter, the rock. So, we use this passage to re-affirm our belief that God desires his people to be led by Peter and Peter’s successors. This is the beginning of our teaching on the papacy.

As Catholics, this is essential to our identity: We are led by a man who is appointed by God, in love with Jesus and led by the Holy Spirit. The pope uses his authority to hold us together in unity and define Catholic theology. Please check the end of this column for Web sites that help answer this question in more detail.

Dear Fr. Joe: What is papal infallibility and when is it invoked? What are ex cathedra teachings?

Now, these two questions are related to each other (second cousins, I think, on their mothers’ sides), so I am going to address them together.

They both are related to the authority of the pope, or papal authority, as we shall call it from now on.

When we begin with papal authority, I find that we cannot do much better than the Catholic Encyclopedia, so I am going to paraphrase it.

The Catholic Encyclopedia uses the four points of the church to justify papal authority:

• Jesus founded his church as a visible and perfect society.

• He intended everybody be a part of this church as much as possible.

• He desired that the “church be one, with a visible corporate unity of faith, government and worship.”

• In order to make these things a reality, Jesus gave the Apostles and their successors the authority to govern the people and lead them toward unity.

So, the church teaches us that Jesus intended a system of authority for his people so that we could be one, and in our unity we would show the world a positive example.

Within this concept of papal authority is a teaching that we call ex cathedra, a phrase we use to describe a practice. The phrase literally means “from the chair.” Whenever the pope speaks ex cathedra, he is without error in what he says.

Now, this doesn’t really have anything to do with the pope sitting in his chair and saying things; he can speak ex cathedra while standing, and just because he says something while he’s sitting in his chair, that doesn’t make it an ex cathedra teaching.

The pope has to declare himself to be speaking ex cathedra, and what he teaches has to be in union with sacred Scripture and tradition. Examples are the doctrines regarding the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption.

As a final note, the church is clear that it is only to use its infallible teaching authority in matters of faith and morals. So, the pope cannot and will not speak infallibly about matters that are not issues of faith and morals.

There is so much to be said on this topic, but I find myself running out of room. For some more great discussion on this issue, be sure to visit the following Web site: www.catholic.com and click on Papal Issues.

Also, take a look at the discussion on Infallibity and Papal Authority in the Catholic Encyclopedia at www.newadvent.org.

Enjoy another day in God’s presence!