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What is a Pope?

By Wanda Albano
Updated May 23, 2024
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A pope is the Bishop of Rome and the spiritual leader of the Roman Catholic Church. He is the head of the independent and sovereign state of Vatican City. The person holding the office of the pope is always male, although there have been rumors to the contrary, a priest who has risen through the ranks to the status of a cardinal, and well-versed in theological doctrine and dogma. Historically, with one or two probable exceptions, the pope has always been white — there were three popes from Africa, but their races are not certain). The faithful believe him to be the successor of an office originated by Saint Peter himself, one of Christ's twelve apostles.

The office of the pope has been in existence for over a thousand years. The power it has wielded has expanded and shrunk as the needs and the beliefs of the people it governs have changed. In its early centuries, popes crowned kings and emperors and were much involved in the politics of the day, even to the extent of validating wars and other forms of social unrest. For awhile, the pope even maintained that his office should be the head of the whole of Western civilization. Throughout the ages, the papacy has been marred with violence, scandal, and even murder.

To Catholics, the pope represents a number of things. He is the leader of their Church, and thus is held almost as if he were above the law of man. His words are supposed to be morally infallible. He is also considered to be the Vicar of Christ; the center of Christendom, and the overseer of all religious matters, including the canonization of saints, beatification of blesseds, revision/clarification of doctrine, etc. Any change in the theology of Catholicism must first be verified and adjudicated by the pope. His words, at least on matters of faith, are always final.

In modern times, the pope's role in the world has been more divine than practical. He is seen as a spiritual guide rather than a religious monarch, although he still wields quite a significant influence over the morality of millions of Catholics in the world. He is elected by a college of cardinals and is given the office of the papacy until death. Popes in recent memory include the late Pope John Paul II and the current Pope Benedict XVI. Pope Benedict is the 265th person to hold the office.

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Discussion Comments
By anon116442 — On Oct 06, 2010

i am doing a project, and this article was very helpful. Thanks.

By anon59128 — On Jan 06, 2010

It is just a misunderstanding to say that a Pope's words are infallible and final. A Pope's words are infallible only if it is regrading faith and moral matters and he solemnly declares it. There is a clear definition of Papal Infallibility in Catholicism.

By jabuka — On May 03, 2008

Through the long history of Catholicism, there were more then 250 popes, somewhere around 265. Most of them, 205 to be exact, were Italians. We have seen recently, in the last two papacies, for example, where the popes elected were non-Italians.

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