Questions About the Papacy and the Catholic Church

    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.

    Given the enormous problems within the Roman Catholic Church, wouldn't the church do well to move into the 21st century by eliminating celibacy requirements?

    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.

    I know some Catholic women in the U.S., would like the ordination of women priests. Is this likely to happen?

    The Catholic Church is highly unlikely to alter the rule banning women from priestly ordination.

    How do I become a Catholic? I believe in Jesus, have been saved, and I was confirmed an Anglican.

    I suggest contacting a Catholic priest. If you know a priest, he will undoubtedly be delighted to help you, but if even if you don't, just call a nearby Catholic parish office. As an Anglican, you don't have to be rebaptized in order to enter the Catholic Church, but you do have to undergo a formal rite of reception into the church. In most places, these rites take place at the Easter Vigil service. For literature about Catholicism, I suggest visiting a Catholic bookstore (the Daughters of St. Paul operate excellent stores, and so does Opus Dei). I recommend reading Marcellino D'Ambrosio's "Exploring the Catholic Church: An Introduction to Catholic Teaching and Practice."

    Does the Catholic Church believe in the Holy Spirit?

    Yes, the Catholic Church definitely believes in the Holy Spirit as co-equal with God the Father and Jesus Christ the Son. Catholics celebrate the feast of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended upon the apostles, giving birth to the church. In 1986 John Paul II wrote an encylical, "Dominum et Vivificantem," celebrating the life of the Holy Spirit in the church.

    How long have there been popes?

    The pope is the bishop, or leader of the Catholic Christian community, of the city of Rome, in Italy. Catholics believe that the first bishop of Rome was Peter, Jesus' disciple, who came from the Holy Land to Rome after Jesus' death to preach the Gospel there and who was killed by the Roman authorities for his belief in Jesus. So there have been bishops of Rome since the time of Peter, the very beginning of the Christian church. They did not use the name "pope," however, until about 597 A.D. The name "pope" comes from "papa," the same pet name, like "daddy," that we use today to address our fathers. That's because the bishop was regarded as the loving father of all his people.

    What is a cardinal?

    Cardinals are very high church officials who are named by the pope as a high honor. They are usually bishops of important cities, although they don't have to be bishops. There are now 163 cardinals, and when they meet, it is in a body called the College of Cardinals.
    In contrast to bishops and priests, who wear black robes, cardinals wear robes of bright red, including a broad-brimmed red hat. That's why the bright red bird is called the cardinal. The red symbolizes their willingness to become martyrs for Christ. One of the most important functions of the College of Cardinals is to choose the next pope when a pope dies. Only cardinals under the age of 80 may vote to elect the pope.

    What is written on the pope's headdress?

    The pope's miter--the technical name for his headdress, which is worn by all bishops, bears the Latin inscription "Vicarius Filii Dei"--"Vicar of the Son of God." Catholics believe that the pope is Christ's vicar, his living representative on earth.

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