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  • Greg Smith

Why Do Catholics Have a Pope?

Among all Christian denominations, only Catholics have a single person serving as the visible and human “head” of the(ir) Church. Note the qualifiers in that sentence: visible and human, with “head” in quotation marks, because Catholicism obviously recognizes that Jesus Christ is the head of his body, the Church. But every Christian denomination or congregation has some visible human leadership, because in practice somebody, or some group of somebodies, has to make leadership and management decisions. The questions center around who, how they are selected, and the job description.

Historically, the papacy really is a unique feature of the Catholic Church. And it is at least the proximate cause of the fracturing of the Christian world over the last thousand years.

In 1054, the churches in what had been the eastern half of the Roman Empire split from the churches of the western half in what became known as the Great East-West Schism. Prior to that, there had just been “The Church,” but that division created what we know today as the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches (Greek, Russian, Ukrainian, etc.). The bishop of Rome’s (i.e. the pope’s) claims to universal leadership was a driving force in that split and is the primary barrier to reunification.

Five hundred years later, the office of the papacy was a driving force in the Protestant Reformation. I could, and many have, make a decent argument that the Reformation was really a rebellion against the papacy. Without a pope, or the idea of a pope, various churches and Christian movements would have just evolved away from each other in doctrine and practice without the dramatic and violent rift that was the Reformation—pretty much what has happened within Protestantism since then.

And that in itself is one of the principal arguments for the papacy: look what has happened to churches and denominations without it. Without a pope, they have devolved into an endless cycle of incoherence and schism. One of the reasons why I left Protestantism is that no one can tell you what Protestants believe or how they practice it because there is no “Protestant Church.” There are just hundreds or thousands of congregations, denominations, and “parachurch” movements that are not Catholic, led by any number of different officers, assemblies, preachers, professors, and authors—constantly mutating like strains of the flu.

And here’s the thing: that’s exactly what Catholicism would become without the papacy. In fact, the internal pressures that have always existed within the Church have found relief valves through schisms like in 1054 and 1517. But they could happen again.

As I write this, the Catholic Church in Germany is once again close to schism from Rome, and there are other schismatic pressures building. I think that it’s no exaggeration to say that on the human side of the equation, the papacy is the only thing that keeps the Catholic Church from breaking into a thousand little pieces.

But non-Catholics can’t see it. They look at the papacy through a thousand years of controversy and anti-papal propaganda. So, even when someone is attracted to some elements of Catholicism, the papacy is still a mental barrier to embracing the Catholic Church. By some accounts, it was the very thing that prevented C.S. Lewis from joining his friend J.R.R. Tolkien at mass. As an Anglican from Northern Ireland, Lewis couldn’t accept the primacy of the bishop of Rome.

Which is why it has taken a while for my Protestant friend Ed and I to get around to this topic in our “Church Chats with Ed” segment on the podcast. So far, we’ve covered all the relatively “easy” topics, but in the last few episodes, we’ve started taking on the hard stuff. In Episode 29, we talked about Mary.

Today, in Episode 32 Ed asks and I try to answer the question, “Why do Catholics have a pope?”

Take a listen to hear how I responded, and let me know what you think.

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