What is a Pope? (And What He Isn’t)

With the arrival of Pope Francis in the US last week my Facebook newsfeed  has been filled papal articles, memes, and quotes.  Between that and the round-the-clock media coverage. It has been a fun week to be a Catholic – even with the occasional, albeit predictable, anti-papal and anti-Catholic posts and comments.

Even though I am a devout Catholic, I don’t really find these posts and comments offensive. In fact, I get it. I get why some Protestants think that Catholics are nuts. When I was a Protestant, I misunderstood a great many Catholic teachings and customs.  I never dreamed that I would become a Catholic, and I certainly didn’t understand all the hullabaloo surrounding a papal visit.

Obviously, I get the hullabaloo now. I love the hullabaloo. And while I don’t expect my non-Catholic friends to join the millions of Catholics lining the streets or glued to their television sets to catch all things Francis, I would like to clear up a few misconceptions about what the pope (any pope) is and what he isn’t.


  • The pope is a head of state – In addition to being a spiritual leader, the pope is the head of state for Vatican City, which is an independent city state and of the Holy See, the universal government of the Catholic Church. The United States has an ambassador to the Holy See, just as we do for all nations with which we have diplomatic relations. The Holy See also maintain an Apostolic Nunciature in the United States which is basically the same thing as an embassy.
  • The pope is the spiritual leader of over a billion Catholics world wide – There are an estimated 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide. Approximately 24% of Americans identify themselves as Catholics. That is a lot of people This is one of the reasons the pope is a big deal. No other religious leader has a flock as large as his.
  • The pope is the successor of Peter – Jesus built his Church on the rock of Peter (Matt 16:18). Peter later went on to become the Bishop of Rome. The Catholic Church has been under the guidance of the Bishop of Rome since the time Peter. The Catholic belief  in the primacy of Peter and the office of the Bishop of Rome is rooted not only in scripture, but in the writings of the earliest Christians and Church fathers.
  • The pope is infallible-  Whoa! I know that sounds crazy. How can any one man be infallible? Actually, it’s the only way Christianity makes sense. Christians believe that the Bible is the infallible word of God. But what good does it do to have an infallible book if we do not have an infallible interpretation of that book?  In his article Why a Pope is Necessary for Christianity to Make Sense, Father Dwight Longenecker explains that while the truths of Christianity cannot change, they must adapt to the changing times in order for Christianity to stay relevant and meaningful to people today. It is the pope who, guided by the Holy Spirit, decides what and how Christian doctrine can be adapted…The infallible religious authority makes the final call and decides what can be changed and adapted, and what cannot. The lack of such an authority causes chaos, division and strife within Protestantism. Sorry, but it’s true. Without an infallible religious authority, churches simply split into more and more denominations, each one following the doctrines and scripture interpretations determined by it’s leaders or congregation.
  • The  pope is the Holy Father –  Some Protestants claim that the Catholic practice of calling a priest Father is unbiblical. To understand why Catholics call our priests Father, go here. But as one of 1.2 billion children, I am certainly glad that we have an earthly father to serve as a sign of our unity. God alone is our Father in Heaven, and Jesus is the source of our unity, but having one man to stand as a visible symbol of that unity is incredibly powerful. That’s one reason we get so excited when Papa comes to town.
  • The pope is a sinner – Just like the rest of us, the pope is a sinner in need of God’s grace and mercy. He would be the first to admit this.


  • The pope is is not right about everything. I know I just said that the pope is infallible, but that only applies when he is speaking ex cathedra or from the Seat of Peter. In other words, papal infallibility only applies in matters of faith and morals when the pope is taking about doctrine, but this does not mean that every word that comes out of his mouth is infallible.
  •  The pope is not God’s only representative on earth – No doubt the pope does represent God, but so does every baptized Christian. It is true that Catholics believe that when administering the sacraments a priest stands in Persona Christi – the person of Christ. But in the day in day sharing of the gospel, we are all called to be His representatives.
  • The pope is not Divine – Just to be clear, no one really thinks Catholics believe that. Do they? Because we absolutely don’t. We believe there is one God in three persons – The Father,  The Son, and The Holy Spirit.
  • The pope is not healer – There is a beautiful story circulating around the internet about a baby whose holes in her heart were healed after she was kissed by Pope Francis. It is entirely possible that God used Pope Francis as an agent of His healing, but only God can heal us.
  •  The pope is not always likable – So far, in my 16 years of being Catholic, I have yet to not like a pope. But if it ever happens, they won’t pull my Catholic Card. Some Catholics did not like Benedict. Some do not care for Francis. Different popes have different styles so they appeal to different people. As Catholics we have to obey the pope as the head of our church, but we don’t have to invite him over for dinner.
  • The pope is not saying anything new – One of the criticisms of Pope Francis is that he is too liberal. Actually, Francis is neither liberal nor conservative. He’s Catholic – just like every pope before him. Previous popes have also spoken out against environmental irresponsibility, unjust treatment of homosexuals, and unbridled capitalism. Even Benedict!

I don’t expect any of my non-Catholic friends to read this and rush out to buy a Pope Bobblehead. But I do hope this clears up a few misconceptions. And the next time you see one of those pope-bashing memes, consider checking out what the Catholic Church really believes about the papacy.

To learn more about Catholic teaching check out these websites and books

Catholic Answers

Our Catholic Way

Surprised by Truth

By What Authority – An Evangelic Discovers Catholic Tradition


Image source: The Catholic Thing

3 thoughts on “What is a Pope? (And What He Isn’t)

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed this article! What a GREAT list that I intend to share. I’m a convert, too. What the pope was to me before I converted…that he no longer is now that I’m Catholic, is insignificant. Blessings to you, Charming Farming!

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