Questions About the Future of the Catholic Church
Who is the pope in the minds of Catholics and what scriptural basis is there for his role? What is his relation to Peter and what role does he play in God's plan?
The pope is the Catholic bishop of Rome, and Catholics believe that they can trace a clear line of succession from John Paul II all the way back to the apostle Peter, who they believe was the first bishop of Rome. Catholics believe that Peter enjoyed primacy among the apostles, because Jesus said to him, "You are Peter, and upon this rock, I will build by church...I will give to you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven" (Matt. 16:18-19).
As Peter's successor, the pope is first among all the bishops in the universal church, and in the theology of the Western, that is, the Roman Catholic, Church, the pope has jurisdictional authority over the bishops as well. As the first of the bishops, the pope is the Vicar of Christ that is, he is Christ's representative on earth. Catholics believe that the Holy Spirit directly guides the election of every pope, and that the pope shares with the councils of bishops the guidance of the Holy Spirit. That is why Catholics believe that, when speaking officially on a narrow range of doctrinal issues, the pope is infallible.
Your question assumes, of course, that it was easier to remain celibate during, say, the twelfth century than it is now. Be that as it may, the Catholic Church's requirement of a celibate priesthood is a matter of discipline, not doctrine. Our sister churches among the Eastern Orthodox (and indeed the Eastern-rite branches of Catholicism) allow a married priesthood, although the priest must marry before he is ordained, and no married man may become a bishop. Married Anglican priests who enter the Church of Rome may keep their wives on re-ordination as Catholic priests. Yet even in the Eastern churches, celibacy for clerics is held in high esteem--because Christ himself never married and praised virginity.
The Western Church has a strong and ancient tradition, dating back to the Council of Elvira in the early fourth century, of celibacy as the norm for its priesthood. Pope Gregory VII (r. 1073-1085) made celibacy mandatory as part of his effort to wrest the church from lay control, and the Second Lateran Council of 1139 confirmed this rule of mandatory celibacy. The church remains free to change this mandate should circumstances warrant, although it is highly unlikely to do so in the near future. The practical problem of supporting not only priests but their families is a serious one. Furthermore, in a culture that embraces easy divorce, even for members of the clergy, not to mention other forms of nonmarital sex, easing the requirement of mandatory celibacy for priests at this time would probably create as many problems as it would solve.
What is the ranking order of the church hierarchy below the pope?
Below the pope come bishops, then priests. Bishops of large, major cities are known as archbishops, but they have no authority over other bishops or priests, except for the assistant bishops and priests in their own dioceses. Cardinals are usually bishops, but, like archbishops, they have no power over other bishops. They do have certain powers not available to ordinary bishops, such as electing the next pope.