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The current Pope is Benedict XVI (born Joseph Alois Ratzinger), who was elected at the age of 78 on 19 April 2005
The current Pope is Benedict XVI (born Joseph Alois Ratzinger), who was elected at the age of 78 on 19 April 2005

The Pope (from Latin: papa, Papa, father; from Greek: pappas / πάππας, father) is the Bishop of Rome, and, as Successor of Saint Peter, is the head of the Roman Catholic Church. The office of the Pope is called the Papacy; his ecclesiastical jurisdiction is called the Holy See (Sancta Sedes in Latin) or Apostolic See (this latter, on the basis that both St. Peter and St. Paul were martyred at Rome). Early bishops occupying the See of Rome were designated Vicar of Peter; for later Popes the more authoritative Vicar of Christ was substituted; this designation was first used by the Roman Synod of 495 to refer to Pope Gelasius I, an advocate of papal supremacy among the patriarchs. Marcellinus (d. 304) is the first Bishop of Rome whom sources show used the title of Pope. The current Pope is Benedict XVI.

In addition to his service in this spiritual role, the Pope is also Head of State of the independent sovereign State of the Vatican City, a city-state and nation entirely enclaved by the city of Rome. Before 1870 the Pope's temporal authority extended over a large area of central Italy: the territory of the Papal States. The Papacy retained sovereign authority over the Papal States until the Italian unification of 1870; a final political settlement with the Italian government was not reached until the Lateran treaties of 1929.

Early history

It is generally accepted amongst most Catholic and non-Catholic historians that the institution of the papacy as it exists today developed through the centuries, after the traditional arrival of Peter in Rome c. 50.

During the first century of the Christian Church, the Roman capital became recognized as a Christian centre of exceptional note since it was founded by St. Peter, the "prince of the apostles"; but there are only a few 1st century references to the recognition of the authoritative primacy of the Roman See outside of Rome. The fact that Clement of Rome's letter to the Corinthians (written c. 96) adapted a pastoral tone, and also the fact that St. Ignatius of Antioch once used the word "preside" in the same sentence that he used the word, "Romans" in his letter to the Romans (written c. 105) are seen by some historians to present proof of the existence of a certain early Papal primacy. Others argue that these documents refer only to a primacy of honour.

In the second century (AD 189), the primacy of the Church of Rome is clearly indicated in St. Irenaeus of Lyon's Against Heresies (3:3:2): "With [the Church of Rome], because of its superior origin, all the churches must agree... and it is in her that the faithful everywhere have maintained the apostolic tradition."

The third century is marked by many references to the primacy of the Church of Rome. (add authors)

The First Council of Constantinople (AD 381) suggested strongly that Roman primacy was already established, but was not until 440 that Leo the Great more clearly articulated the extension of papal authority as doctrine, promulgating in edicts and in councils his right to exert "the full range of apostolic powers that Jesus had first bestowed on the apostle Peter".

It was under Leo I that the bishopric of Rome was first acclaimed in ecumenical council at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 as "speaking with the voice of Peter". At this same Council the bishop of Constantinople was given a primacy of honour only second to that of the Bishop of Rome, because "Constantinople is the New Rome".

The dogmas and traditions of the Roman Catholic Church teach that the institution of the papacy was first mandated by the Biblical passages:

Matt.16:18-19: "And I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven."

The name "Peter" (Πέτρος in Greek) here translates as rock. The reference to the "keys of the kingdom of heaven" here are the basis for the symbolic keys often found in Catholic Papal symbolism, such as in the Vatican Coat of Arms (see below).

Election, death and abdication


Traditional painting by Pietro Perugino depicting "The Giving of the Keys to Saint Peter" (1492)
Traditional painting by Pietro Perugino depicting "The Giving of the Keys to Saint Peter" (1492)

The Pope was originally chosen by those senior clergymen resident in and near Rome. In 1059 the electorate was restricted to the Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church, and the individual votes of all Cardinal Electors were made equal in 1179. Pope Urban VI, elected 1378, was the last Pope who was not already a cardinal at the time of his election. Canon law requires that if a layman or non-bishop is elected, he receives episcopal consecration from the Dean of the College of Cardinals before assuming the Pontificate. Under present canon law, the Pope is elected by the cardinal electors, comprising those cardinals who are under the age of 80.

The Second Council of Lyons was convened on May 7, 1274, to regulate the election of the Pope. This Council decreed that the cardinal electors must meet within ten days of the Pope's death, and that they must remain in seclusion until a Pope has been elected; this was prompted by the three-year Sede Vacante following the death of Pope Clement IV in 1268. By the mid- sixteenth century, the electoral process had more or less evolved into its present form, allowing for alteration in the time between the death of the Pope and the meeting of the cardinal electors.

Traditionally, the vote was conducted by acclamation, by selection (by committee), or by plenary vote. Acclamation was the simplest procedure, consisting entirely of a voice vote, and was last used in 1621. Pope John Paul II abolished vote by acclamation and by selection by committee, and henceforth all Popes will be elected by full vote of the Sacred College of Cardinals by ballot.

The election of the Pope almost always takes place in the Sistine Chapel, in a meeting called a " conclave" (so called because the cardinal electors are theoretically locked in, cum clavi, until they elect a new Pope). Three cardinals are chosen by lot to collect the votes of absent cardinal electors (by reason of illness), three are chosen by lot to count the votes, and three are chosen by lot to review the count of the votes. The ballots are distributed and each cardinal elector writes the name of his choice on it and pledges aloud that he is voting for "one whom under God I think ought to be elected" before folding and depositing his vote on a plate atop a large chalice placed on the altar. The plate is then used to drop the ballot into the chalice, making it difficult for any elector to insert multiple ballots. Before being read, the number of ballots are counted while still folded; if the total number of ballots does not match the number of electors, the ballots are burned unopened and a new vote is held. Otherwise, each ballot is read aloud by the presiding Cardinal, who pierces the ballot with a needle and thread, stringing all the ballots together and tying the ends of the thread to ensure accuracy and honesty. Balloting continues until a Pope is elected by a two-thirds majority (since the promulgation of Universi Dominici Gregis, the rules allow for a simple majority after a deadlock of twelve days).

One of the most famous aspects of the papal election process is the means by which the results of a ballot are announced to the world. Once the ballots are counted and bound together, they are burned in a special oven erected in the Sistine Chapel, with the smoke escaping through a small chimney visible from St Peter's Square. The ballots from an unsuccessful vote are burned along with a chemical compound in order to produce black smoke, or fumata nera. (Traditionally, wet straw was used to help create the black smoke, but a number of "false alarms" in past conclaves have brought about this concession to modern chemistry.) When a vote is successful, the ballots are burned alone, sending white smoke (fumata bianca) through the chimney and announcing to the world the election of a new Pope. At the end of the conclave that elected Pope Benedict XVI, church bells were also rung to signal that a new Pope had been chosen.

The Dean of the College of Cardinals then asks the successfully elected Cardinal two solemn questions. First he asks, "Do you freely accept your election?" If he replies with the word "Accepto", his reign as Pope begins at that instant, not at the coronation ceremony several days afterward. The Dean then asks, "By what name shall you be called?" The new Pope then announces the regnal name he has chosen for himself. (If the Dean himself is elected Pope, the Vice Dean performs this duty).

The new Pope is led through the "Door of Tears" to a dressing room in which three sets of white Papal vestments ("immantatio") await: small, medium, and large. Donning the appropriate vestments and reemerging into the Sistine Chapel, the new Pope is given the " Fisherman's Ring" by the Cardinal Camerlengo, whom he either reconfirms or reappoints. The Pope then assumes a place of honour as the rest of the Cardinals wait in turn to offer their first "obedience" ("adoratio") and to receive his blessing.

The senior Cardinal Deacon then announces from a balcony over St. Peter's Square the following proclamation: Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum! Habemus Papam! ("I announce to you a great joy! We have a Pope!"). He then announces the new Pope's Christian name along with the new name he has adopted as his regnal name.

Until 1978 the Pope's election was followed in a few days by a procession in great pomp and circumstance from the Sistine Chapel to St. Peter's Basilica, with the newly elected Pope borne in the sedia gestatoria. There the Pope was crowned with the triregnum and he gave his first blessing as Pope, the famous Urbi et Orbi ("to the City [Rome] and to the World"). Another famed part of the coronation was the lighting of a torch which would flare brightly and promptly extinguish, with the admonition Sic transit gloria mundi ("Thus fades worldly glory"). Beginning with Pope John Paul I's election, this has been discontinued.

Some traditionalist Catholics claim the existence of a Papal oath (the so-called "Oath against modernism") which they assert that Popes up from John Paul I refused to swear, but there is no reliable authority for this claim.

The Latin term sede vacante ("vacant seat") refers to a papal interregnum, the period between the death of the Pope and the election of his successor. From this term is derived the name Sedevacantist, which designates a category of dissident, schismatic Catholics who maintain that there is no canonically and legitimately elected Pope, and that there is therefore a Sede Vacante; one of the most common reasons for holding this belief is the idea that the reforms of the Second Vatican Council and especially the replacement of the Tridentine Mass with the Mass of Paul VI are heretical, and that, per the dogma of Papal infallibility (see above), it is impossible for a valid Pope to have done these things.

For many years, the Papacy was an institution dominated by Italians. Before the election of the non-Italian Karol Wojtyla as Pope John Paul II in 1978, the last non-Italian was the Dutch-German Pope Adrian VI of the Netherlands, elected in 1522. John Paul II was followed by the German-born Benedict XVI, leading some to believe the Italian domination of the Papacy to be over.


The current regulations regarding a papal interregnum — that is, a sede vacante ("vacant seat") — were promulgated by John Paul II in his 1996 document Universi Dominici Gregis. During the "Sede Vacante", the Sacred College of Cardinals, composed of the Pope's principal advisors and assistants, is collectively responsible for the government of the Church and of the Vatican itself, under the direction of the Cardinal Chamberlain; however, canon law specifically forbids the Cardinals from introducing any innovation in the government of the Church during the vacancy of the Holy See. Any decision that needs the assent of the Pope has to wait until a new Pope has been elected and takes office.

It has long been claimed that a Pope's death is officially determined by the Cardinal Chamberlain by gently tapping the late Pope's head thrice with a silver hammer and calling his birth name three times, though this is disputed and has never been confirmed by the Vatican; there is general agreement that even if this procedure ever actually occurred, it was likely not employed upon the death of John Paul II. A doctor may or may not have already determined that the Pope had died before this point. The Cardinal Chamberlain then retrieves the Fisherman's Ring. Usually the ring is on the Pope's right hand. But in the case of Paul VI, he had stopped wearing the ring during the last years of his reign. In other cases the ring might have been removed for medical reasons. The Chamberlain cuts the ring in two in the presence of the Cardinals. The deceased Pope's seals are defaced, to keep them from ever being used again, and his personal apartment is sealed.

The body then lies in state for a number of days before being interred in the crypt of a leading church or cathedral; the Popes of the 20th century were all interred in St. Peter's Basilica. A nine-day period of mourning (novem dialis) follows after the interment of the late Pope.


The Code of Canon Law 332 §2 states, "If it happens that the Roman Pontiff resigns his office, it is required for validity that the resignation is made freely and properly manifested but not that it is accepted by anyone."

This right has been exercised by Pope Celestine V in 1294 and Pope Gregory XII in 1409, Gregory XII being the last to do so.

It was widely reported in June and July 2002 that Pope John Paul II firmly refuted the speculation of his resignation using Canon 332, in a letter to the Milan daily newspaper Corriere della Sera.

Nevertheless, 332 §2 caused speculation that:

  • Pope John Paul II would have resigned as his health failed, or
  • a properly manifested legal instrument had been prepared which effected his resignation if he could not perform his duties.

Pope John Paul II did not resign. He died on 2 April 2005 after a long period of ill-health and was buried on 8 April 2005.

After his death it was reported in his last will and testament that he considered abdicating in 2000 as he neared his 80th birthday. However, that portion of the will is unclear and others interpret it differently.

Titles of the Pope

Currently used

The titles of His Holiness, the Pope, in the order they are used in the Annuario Pontificio:

  • Bishop of Rome
  • Vicar of Christ
  • Successor of the Prince of the Apostles
  • Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church
  • Primate of Italy
  • Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman Province
  • Sovereign of the State of the Vatican City
  • Servant of the Servants of God

Formerly used

  • Patriarch of the West (dropped 2006)
  • Vicar of the Apostolic See

History of Papal titles

As mentioned above, the Pope's titles include: Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Christ, Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Primate of Italy, Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman province, Sovereign of the State of the Vatican City, and Servant of the Servants of God.

The title "Vicar of Christ" refers to the Pope's divine commission. This title came into use in the 5th and 6th centuries. The Second Vatican Council confirmed the titles "Vicar of Christ" and "Successor of Peter".

The use of the term "Supreme Pontiff" (Pontifex Maximus) can be traced back to the end of the 4th century. The ancient title of the Roman High-Priest, whose origins date from the foundation of Rome, was assumed by the Bishops of Rome after being relinquished by the Emperor Gratian. The term has also been applied to other metropolitan bishops, although examples are limited (see Pontifex Maximus). It was in the 11th century that the title came to be applied exclusively to the Bishop of Rome. The addition of the phrase "of the Universal Church" is a more recent alteration of this title.

Finally, the title attached to the Pope, "Servant of the Servants of God", although used by Church leaders including St. Augustine and St. Benedict, was first used by Pope Gregory the Great' in his dispute with the Patriarch of Constantinople after the latter assumed the title Ecumenical Patriarch. It was not reserved for the Pope until the 13th century. The documents of Vatican II reinforced the understanding of this title as a reference to the Pope's role as a function of collegial authority, in which the Bishop of Rome serves the world's bishops.

The titles "Primate of Italy", "Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman province", and "Sovereign of the State of the Vatican City" are references to the legal and canonical authority of the Pope as defined by the laws of the Church and the Lateran Treaties of 1929.

The Pope's signature is usually in the format NN. PP. x (e.g., Pope Paul VI signed his name as "Paulus PP. VI"), the "PP." standing for Papa ("Pope"), and his name is frequently accompanied in inscriptions by the abbreviation "Pont. Max." or "P.M." (abbreviation of the Latin title Pontifex Maximus, usually translated as "Supreme Pontiff"). The signature of Papal bulls is customarily NN. Episcopus Ecclesiae Catholicae ("NN. Bishop of the Catholic Church"), while the heading is NN. Episcopus Servus Servorum Dei ("NN. Bishop and Servant of the Servants of God"). Other titles used in some official capacity in the past include Summus Pontifex ("Highest Pontiff"), Sanctissimus Pater and Beatissimus Pater ("Most Holy Father" and "Most Blessed Father"), Sanctissimus Dominus Noster ("Our Most Holy Lord"), and, in the Medieval period, Dominus Apostolicus ("Apostolic Lord"). This title, however, was not abandoned altogether: the Pope is still referred to as "Dominum Apostolicum" in the Latin version of the Litany of the Saints, a solemn Catholic prayer. Writing informally, Catholics will often use the abbreviation H.H. (His Holiness), as in H.H. Benedict XVI.

The Pope's official seat or cathedral is the Basilica of St. John Lateran, and his official residence is the Palace of the Vatican. He also possesses a summer palace at Castel Gandolfo (situated on the site of the ancient city-state Alba Longa). Historically, the official residence of the Pope was the Lateran Palace, donated by the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great.

The Pope's ecclesiastical jurisdiction (the Holy See) is distinct from his secular jurisdiction (Vatican City). It is the Holy See which conducts international relations; for hundreds of years, the Pope's court (the Roman Curia) has functioned as the government of the Catholic Church.

The name "Holy See" (also "Apostolic See") is in ecclesiastical terminology the ordinary jurisdiction of the Bishop of Rome (including the Roman Curia); the Pope's various honours, powers, and privileges within the Catholic Church and the international community derive from his Episcopate of Rome in lineal succession from the Apostle St. Peter (see Apostolic Succession). Consequently, Rome has traditionally occupied a central position in the Catholic Church, although this is not necessarily so. The Pope derives his Pontificate from being Bishop of Rome but is not required to live there; according to the Latin formula ubi Papa, ibi Curia, wherever the Pope resides is the central government of the Church, provided that the Pope is Bishop of Rome. As such, between 1309 and 1378, the Popes lived in Avignon (the Avignon Papacy), a period often called the Babylonian Captivity in allusion to the Biblical exile of Israel.

The title Patriarch of the West did not appear in the 2006 pontifical yearbook, and this led to considerable media speculation. The title Patriarch of the West was first used by Pope Theodore in 642, and was only used occasionally. Indeed, it did not begin to appear in the pontifical yearbook until 1863. On 22 March 2006, the Vatican released a statement explaining this omission on the grounds of expressing a "historical and theological reality" and of "being useful to ecumenical dialogue". The title Patriarch of the West symbolized the Pope's special relationship with, and jurisdiction over, the Latin Church — and the omission of the title neither symbolizes in any way a change in this relationship, nor distorts the relationship between the Holy See and the Eastern churches, as solemnly proclaimed by Vatican II.

Since in the Eastern Churches the title "Pope" does not unambiguously refer to the Bishop of Rome, within them the construction "Pope of Rome" is frequently used whether they are in communion with Rome or not.

Regalia and insignia

Emblem of the Papacy
Emblem of the Papacy
  • " Triregnum", also called the "tiara" or "triple crown"; recent Popes have not, however, worn the triregnum, though it remains the symbol of the Papacy and has not been abolished. In liturgical ceremonies Popes wear an episcopal mitre (an erect cloth hat).
  • Pastoral Staff topped by a crucifix, a custom established before the 13th century.
  • Pallium (a circular band of fabric about two inches wide, worn over the chasuble about the neck, breast and shoulders and having two twelve-inch-long pendants hanging down in front and behind, ornamented with six small black crosses distributed about the breast, back, shoulders, and pendants)(this form is no longer used by the current pontiff).
  • "Keys to the Kingdom of Heaven", the image of two keys, one gold and one silver. The silver key symbolizes the power to bind and loose on Earth, and the gold key the power to bind and loose in Heaven.
    Window of one of Rome's unique Papal shops
    Window of one of Rome's unique Papal shops
  • Fisherman's Ring, a gold ring decorated with a depiction of St. Peter in a boat casting his net, with the name of the reigning Pope around it.
  • Umbracullum (better known in the Italian form ombrellino) is a canopy or umbrella (consisting of alternating red and gold stripes).
  • Sedia gestatoria, a mobile throne carried by twelve footmen (palafrenieri) in red uniforms, accompanied by two attendants bearing flabella (fans made of white ostrich feathers). The use of the sedia gestatoria and of the flabella was discontinued by Pope John Paul II, with the former being replaced by the so-called Popemobile.

In heraldry each Pope has his own Papal Coat of Arms. Though unique for each Pope, the arms are always surmounted by the aforementioned two keys in saltire (i.e., crossed over one another so as to form an X) behind the escutcheon (one key silver and one key gold, tied with a red cord), and above them a silver triregnum with three gold crowns and red infulae, or the red strips of fabric hanging from the back over the shoulders when worn ("two keys in saltire or and argent, interlacing in the rings or, beneath a tiara argent, crowned or"). The flag most frequently associated with the Pope is the yellow and white flag of Vatican City, with the arms of the Holy See ("Gules, two keys in saltire or and argent, interlacing in the rings or, beneath a tiara argent, crowned or") on the right hand side in the white half of the flag. This flag was first adopted in 1808, whereas the previous flag had been red and gold, the traditional colors of the Pontificate. With the recent election of Benedict XVI in 2005, his personal coat of arms eliminated the papal tiara; a mitre with three horizontal lines is used in its place, with the pallium, a papal symbol of authority more ancient than the tiara, the use of which is also granted to metropolitan archbishops as a sign of communion with the See of Rome, was added underneath of the shield. The distinctive feature of the crossed keys behind the shield was maintained. The omission of the tiara in the Pope's personal coat of arms, however, did not mean the total disappearance of it from papal heraldry, since the coat of arms of the Holy See was kept unaltered.

Status and authority

The status and authority of the Pope in the Catholic Church was dogmatically defined by the First Vatican Council in its Dogmatic Constitution of the Church of Christ ( July 18, 1870). The first chapter of this document is entitled "On the institution of the apostolic primacy in blessed Peter", and states that (s.1) "according to the Gospel evidence, a primacy of jurisdiction over the whole church of God was immediately and directly promised to the blessed apostle Peter and conferred on him by Christ the Lord" and that (s.6) "if anyone says that blessed Peter the apostle was not appointed by Christ the Lord as prince of all the apostles and visible head of the whole church militant; or that it was a primacy of honour only and not one of true and proper jurisdiction that he directly and immediately received from our Lord Jesus Christ Himself: let him be anathema..."

The Dogmatic Constitution's second chapter, "On the permanence of the primacy of blessed Peter in the Roman pontiffs", states that (s.1) "that which our Lord Jesus Christ [...] established in the blessed apostle Peter [...] must of necessity remain forever, by Christ's authority, in the church which, founded as it is upon a rock, will stand firm until the end of time," that (s.3) "whoever succeeds to the chair of Peter obtains by the institution of Christ Himself, the primacy of Peter over the whole church", and that (s.5) "if anyone says that it is not by the institution of Christ the Lord Himself (that is to say, by divine law) that blessed Peter should have perpetual successors in the primacy over the whole church; or that the Roman pontiff is not the successor of blessed Peter in this primacy: let him be anathema."

The Dogmatic Constitution's third chapter, "On the power and character of the primacy of the Roman pontiff," states that (s.1) "the definition of the ecumenical council of Florence, which must be believed by all faithful Christians, namely that the apostolic see and the Roman pontiff hold a worldwide primacy, and that the Roman pontiff is the successor of blessed Peter, the prince of the apostles, true vicar of Christ, head of the whole church and father and teacher of all Christian people," that (s.2) "by divine ordinance, the Roman church possesses a preeminence of ordinary power over every other church, and that the jurisdictional power of the Roman pontiff is both episcopal and immediate" and that " clergy and faithful, of whatever rite and dignity, both singly and collectively, are bound to submit to this power by the duty of hierarchical subordination and true obedience, and this not only in matters concerning faith and morals, but also in those which regard the discipline and government of the church throughout the world."

The powers of the Pope are defined by the Dogmatic Constitution (ch.3, s.8) such that "he is the supreme judge of the faithful, and that in all cases which fall under ecclesiastical jurisdiction recourse may be had to his judgment" and that "the sentence of the apostolic see (than which there is no higher authority) is not subject to revision by anyone, nor may anyone lawfully pass judgment thereupon" (can. 331 defines the power of the Pope as "supreme, full, immediate and universal ordinary power in the Church, and he can always freely exercise this power"). It also dogmatically defined (ch.4, s.9) the doctrine of Papal infallibility, sc. such that

when the Roman Pontiff speaks ex cathedra, that is, when in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole church, he possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed His church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals. Therefore, such definitions of the Roman pontiff are of themselves, and not by the consent of the church, irreformable.

The Catholic Church teaches that "it is absolutely necessary for the salvation of every creature to be united to the Roman Pontiff" ( Pope Boniface VIII). This teaching is often summarized by the phrase "extra Ecclesiam nulla salus" (outside the Church exists no salvation), which has been reaffirmed by many Popes throughout the centuries. Blessed John XXIII said: "Into this fold of Jesus Christ no man may enter unless he be led by the Sovereign Pontiff, and only if they be united to him can men be saved." Pope Paul VI also said: "Those outside the Church do not possess the Holy Spirit. The Catholic Church alone is the Body of Christ... and if separated from the Body of Christ he is not one of His members, nor is he fed by His Spirit."

However, this dogma has been interpreted in many different ways by both Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Many Popes stressed that those who are " invincibly ignorant of the Catholic religion" can still obtain salvation. Pope Pius IX stated in his encyclical Quanto conficiamur moeror (1868): "We all know that those who are afflicted with invincible ignorance with regard to our holy religion, if they carefully keep the precepts of the natural law that have been written by God in the hearts of all men, if they are prepared to obey God, and if they lead a virtuous and dutiful life, can attain eternal life by the power of divine light and grace." Pope John Paul II wrote in his encyclical Redemptoris Missio: "But it is clear that today, as in the past, many people do not have an opportunity to come to know or accept the Gospel revelation or to enter the Church.... For such people, salvation in Christ is accessible by virtue of a grace which, while having a mysterious relationship to the Church, does not make them formally a part of the Church but enlightens them in a way which is accommodated to their spiritual and material situation. This grace comes from Christ; it is the result of his sacrifice and is communicated by the Holy Spirit. It enables each person to attain salvation through his or her free cooperation."

Moreover, the Catholic Church teaches that all Christians are "mysteriously" united through Baptism and the "invisible Church" (body of believers). However, Christians are not fully / "formally" united due to divisions in beliefs etc.

As stated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

817 In fact, "in this one and only Church of God from its very beginnings there arose certain rifts, which the Apostle strongly censures as damnable. But in subsequent centuries much more serious dissensions appeared and large communities became separated from full communion with the Catholic Church- for which often enough, men of both sides were to blame" (UR 3 1). The ruptures that wound the unity of Christ's Body - here we must distinguish heresy, apostasy and schism-do not occur without human sin:

Where there are sins, there are also divisions, schisms, heresies and disputes. Where there is virtue, however, there also are harmony and unity, from which arise the one heart and one soul of all believers (Cf. CIC, can.751.).

818 "However, one cannot charge with the sin of the separation those who at present are born into these communities [that resulted from such separation] and in them are brought up in the faith of Christ, and the Catholic Church accepts them with respect and affection as brothers... All who have been justified by faith in Baptism are incorporated into Christ; they therefore have a right to be called Christians, and with good reason are accepted as brothers in the Lord by the children of the Catholic Church" (UR 3 1).

819 "Furthermore, many elements of sanctification and of truth" (LG 8 2) are found outside the visible confines of the Catholic Church: "the written Word of God; the life of grace; faith, hope and charity, with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit, as well as the visible elements" (UR 3 2; cf. LG 15.). Christ's Spirit uses these Churches and ecclesial communities as means of salvation, whose power derives from the fullness of grace and truth that Christ has entrusted to the Catholic Church. All these blessings come from Christ and lead to Him, (Cf. UR 3.) and are in themselves calls to "Catholic unity" (Cf. LG 8.).

The Pope has many powers which he exercises. He can appoint bishops to dioceses, erect and suppress dioceses, appoint prefects to the Roman dicasteries, approve or veto their acts, modify the Liturgy and issue liturgical laws, revise the Code of Canon Law, canonize and beatify individuals, approve and suppress religious orders, impose canonical sanctions, act as a judge and hear cases, issue encyclicals, and issue infallible statements on matters pertaining to faith and morals which, according to the Church, must be believed by all Catholics. Most of these functions are performed by and through the various dicasteries of the Roman Curia, with the Pope simply approving their actions prior to becoming official. While approval is generally granted, it is at the Pope's discretion.

Political role

Though the progressive Christianisation of the Roman Empire in the fourth century did not confer upon bishops civil authority within the state, the gradual withdrawal of imperial authority during the fifth century left the Pope the senior Imperial civilian official in Rome, as bishops were increasingly directing civil affairs in other cities of the Western Empire. This status as a secular and civil leader was vividly displayed by Pope Leo I's confrontation with Attila in 452 and was substantially increased in 754, when the Frankish ruler Pippin the Younger donated to the Pope a strip of territory which formed the core of the so-called Papal States (properly, the Patrimony of St. Peter). In 800 Pope Leo III crowned the Frankish ruler Charlemagne as Roman Emperor, a major step toward establishing what later became known as the Holy Roman Empire; from that date it became the Pope's prerogative to crown the Emperor or any monarch with affiliations with the church until the crowning of Napoleon. As has been hitherto mentioned, the Pope's sovereignty over the Papal States ended in 1870 with their annexation by Italy.

In addition to the Pope's position as a territorial ruler and foremost prince bishop of Christianity (especially prominent with the Renaissance Popes like Pope Alexander VI, an ambitious if spectacularly corrupt politico, and Pope Julius II, a formidable general and statesman) and as the spiritual head of the Holy Roman Empire (especially prominent during periods of contention with the Emperors, such as during the Pontificates of Pope Gregory VII and Pope Alexander III), the Pope also possessed a degree of political and temporal authority in his capacity as Supreme Pontiff. Some of the most striking examples of Papal political authority are the Bull Laudabiliter in 1155 (authorizing Henry II of England to invade Ireland), the Bull Inter Caeteras in 1493 (leading to the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494, which divided the world into areas of Spanish and Portuguese rule), the Bull Regnans in Excelsis in 1570 ( excommunicating Elizabeth I of England and purporting to release all her subjects from their allegiance to her), and the Bull Inter Gravissimas in 1582 (establishing the Gregorian Calendar).

Objections to the Papacy

The Pope's position as Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church is dogmatic and therefore not open to debate or dispute within the Catholic Church; the First Vatican Council anathematized all who dispute the Pope's primacy of honour and of jurisdiction (it is lawful to discuss the precise nature of that primacy, provided that such discussion does not violate the terms of the Council's Dogmatic Constitution). However, the Pope's authority is not undisputed outside the Catholic Church; these objections differ from denomination to denomination, but can roughly be outlined as (1) objections to the extent of the primacy of the Pope; and (2) objections to the institution of the Papacy itself.

Some non-Roman-Catholic Christian communities, such as the Assyrian Church of the East, the Oriental Orthodox Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Old Catholic Church, the Anglican Communion, the Independent Catholic Churches, and even some Lutherans, accept the doctrine of Apostolic Succession, and therefore accept (to varying extents) the papal claims to a primacy of honour. However, these churches generally reject that the Pope is the successor to St. Peter in any unique sense not true of any other bishop, or raise questions about whether St. Peter was ever bishop of Rome at all. The primacy is therefore regarded primarily as a consequence of the Pope's position as bishop of the original capital city of the Roman Empire, a definition explicitly spelled out in the 28th canon of the Council of Chalcedon. In any event, these churches see no foundation at all to papal claims of universal immediate jurisdiction, nor to claims of Papal Infallibility. Because none of them recognize the First Vatican Council as truly ecumenical, they regard its definitions concerning jurisdiction and Infallibility (and anathematization of those who do not accept them) as invalid. Several of these communities refer to such claims as " Ultramontanism".

Other non-Catholic Christian denominations do not accept the doctrine of Apostolic Succession, or do not understand it in hierarchical terms, and therefore do not accept the claim that the Pope is heir either to Petrine primacy of honor or to Petrine primacy of jurisdiction, or they reject both claims of honour or jurisdiction, as well as claims of Papal Infallibility, as unscriptural. The Papacy's complex relationship with the Roman and Byzantine Empires, and other secular states, and the Papacy's territorial claims in Italy, are another focal point of these objections; as is the monarchical character of the office of Pope. In Western Christianity these objections — and the vehement rhetoric they have at times been cast in — both contributed to and are products of the Protestant Reformation. These denominations vary from simply not accepting the Pope's authority as legitimate and valid, to believing that the Pope is the Antichrist or the False Prophet spoken in the Book of Revelation . These denominations tend to be more heterogeneous amongst themselves than the aforementioned hierarchical churches, and their views regarding the Papacy and its institutional legitimacy (or lack thereof) vary considerably.

Some objectors to the Papacy use empirical arguments, pointing to the corrupt characters of some of the holders of that office. For instance, some argue that claimed successors to St. Peter, like Callixtus III and Alexander VI from the Borgia family, were so corrupt as to be unfit to wield power to bind and loose on Earth or in Heaven. An omniscient and omnibenevolent God, some argue, would not have given those people the powers claimed for them by the Roman Catholic Church. Defenders of the papacy argue that the Bible shows God as willingly giving privileges even to corrupt men (citing examples like some of the kings of Israel, the apostle Judas Iscariot, and even St. Peter after he denied Jesus). They also argue that not even the worst of the corrupt Popes used the office to try to rip the doctrine of the Church from its apostolic roots, and that their failure to achieve that goal is evidence that the office is divinely protected.

Some objectors to the papacy habitually refer to the Catholic Church and its members by the pejorative term papist to point up what they believe to be an inappropriate focus of attention on the office and an improper attribution of certain divine favors ex officio.

Other Popes

In the earlier centuries of Christianity, the title "Pope," meaning "father," had been used by all Bishops. Through time, however, the title largely been restricted to the Bishop of Rome. Today, the heads of the Coptic Orthodox Church, Coptic Catholic Church, and the Eastern Orthodox Church of Alexandria continue to be called "Popes", the former two being called "Coptic Pope" or, more properly, "Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of the Holy See of St. Mark" and the last called "Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria and All Africa".

An antipope is a person who claims the Pontificate without being canonically and properly elected to it. The existence of an antipope is usually due either to doctrinal controversy within the Church or to confusion as to who is the legitimate Pope at the time (see Papal Schism). Though antipope movements were significant at one time, they are now overwhelmingly minor fringe causes.

"The Black Pope" is a derogatory name given to the Superior General of the Society of Jesus due to the Jesuits' practice of wearing black cassocks (compared to the Pope's always wearing white robes), and to the order's specific allegiance to the Roman pontiff.

The Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples (formerly the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith) is known as the "Red Pope": "red, because he is a cardinal; Pope, because he has almost absolute power over mission territories for Catholicism, essentially the Churches of Africa and Asia" ( Sandro Magister, www.chiesa).

In the Russian Orthodox Church and Serbian Orthodox Church, it is not unusual for a village priest to be called a "pope" (поп). However, depending on the Russian speaker, this term might be one that is used derogatorily against the priest.


  • When choosing a new name, according to tradition, a Pope can choose any regnal name but one, Peter.
  • Youngest Pope: Pope John XII, who was 18 when he became Pope.
  • Shortest reign: Pope Urban VII, who was elected pope September 15, 1590, and died September 27, 1590.
  • The Cardinal Camerlengo used to gently strike the Pope on the head three times with a silver hammer while saying his name to determine if he was dead.
  • Last Pope to resign was Pope Gregory XII.
  • Papal burial traditions forbid autopsies.


  • Brusher, Joseph H. Popes Through The Ages. Princeton: D. Van Nostland Company, Inc. 1959.
  • Chamberlain, E.R. The Bad Popes. 1969. Reprint: Barnes and Noble. 1993.
  • Dollison, John Pope - Pourri. New York: Simon & Schuster. 1994.
  • Kelly, J.N.D. The Oxford Dictionary of Popes. Oxford: University Press. 1986. ISBN 0-19-213964-9
  • Maxwell-Stuart, P.G. Chronicles of the Popes - The Reign By Reign Record of The Papacy From St. Peter To The Present. London: Thames and Hudson. 1997. ISBN 0-500-01798-0
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