Necessity of the pope

Question: A Protestant co-worker said to me recently, “Who needs a pope? We have Jesus and the Bible and don’t need some man to tell us what to do.” How do I respond?

Name withheld, location withheld

Answer: At the heart of the office of the papacy is the uniting of the faithful around a visible vicar (or representative) of Christ. Denominations and groups that left the Church and severed their ties to the pope demonstrate this very fact by their subsequent disunity.

The fact is that thousands of denominations have emerged in the wake of the Protestant movement that broke from Catholic Church and rejected the pope’s authority. And though they claim that Christ and Scripture are the only sources of authority and unity, the remarkable disunity among these denominations belies their claim. Simply put, if no one is pope, everyone is pope.

It is not enough to say, “the Bible clearly teaches ‘A,’” because too easily another person will say, “No, Jesus and the Bible actually say ‘B.’” Both camps are invoking the Bible and what they sense Jesus and the Holy Spirit are saying to them. So now what?

What usually happens is just what has happened among Protestants: divisions into new denominations or branches of denominations. They all claim the authority of the Bible and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit but cannot agree even on essentials, such has how one is saved, and if once saved, are they always saved? Protestants also have serious divisions regarding the moral issues of our time: abortion, same-sex unions, euthanasia, etc. These are very serious divisions, and there is no real way for Protestant denominations to resolve them. They say Scripture alone is an adequate source of authority. But without an authentic and authoritative interpreter, their own history shows that Scripture can divide as often as it unites. A text, even a sacred text, needs an interpreter that all agree who can authoritatively deal with differences.

And this is a central reason of why we need the pope. Jesus said to Simon Peter in Luke’s Gospel, “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has demanded permission to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed that your own faith may not fail; and once you have turned back, you must strengthen your brothers” (Lk 22:31-32). Peter and his successors therefore represent (not replace) Christ, and through the grace of the Jesus’ prayer, accomplish the necessary work of uniting the Church. This ministry of unity is shown in many events in the Acts of the Apostles.

Peter’s authority

Question: An Orthodox family member insists that Peter has no special authority and that whatever authority he received, the other Apostles received too. Is this so?

Name withheld, location withheld

Answer: The authority of the Petrine Office originates in Jesus’ appointment of Simon Peter in Matthew 16. In this passage, he gives Peter the keys of the kingdom of God. Keys in the ancient world were a sign of authority. Keys grant access, they open and close doors. Further, Jesus speaks to Peter’s capacity to bind and loose. And while the Apostles as a group were later given the power to bind and loose, Peter alone received the keys. Thus, his authority has unique and universal qualities.

Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., blog at Send questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.