The papacy is one of the most distinctive aspects of Catholicism. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the most misunderstood.
Note that these myths are about the office of the papacy, not myths about a particular pontiff. Here are 5 of the most common myths about the papacy:
Myth 1: The pope is always infallible
Truth: When it comes to defining a new teaching, it’s actually very rare for a pope to invoke papal infallibility.
The conditions for a papal teaching to be infallible were defined by the 1st Vatican Council in 1870: he is infallible “when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church…”
Most popes never invoke papal infallibility (unless you count canonizations). This doesn’t mean Catholics can ignore what a pope is teaching, it just means it might not be infallible (unless what he’s teaching has already been defined infallibly previously).
Myth 2: The papacy is not in the Bible
Truth: Actually, the papacy was established by Christ himself in Scripture. Much could be said on this matter, but here are a few examples.
Though he gave to all of his Apostles the power to “bind and loose” (Matthew 18.18), to Peter alone Jesus gave the “keys of the kingdom of heaven” (cf. Matthew 16.15-19), saying that Peter was the “rock” on which he would build his Church. Just before his passion, Christ told Peter, “I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” (Luke 22.32) And after his resurrection, Jesus – who is the Good Shepherd of the whole Church – told Peter to “take care of my sheep.” (cf. John 21.15-19)
All of this ultimately means that Jesus gave Peter a special and essential role among the Apostles in the governance and teaching function of the Church. The pope is the successor of St. Peter and continues to exercise today this essential role given to Peter by Christ.
Myth 3: The pope is necessarily a holy person
Truth: First off, the Catholic Church has never claimed that popes have to be holy, and she is under no illusion about the holiness of many of her pontiffs. Popes are sinful human beings in need of the grace of Jesus Christ as much as anybody.
Note that only 95 of the 266 popes of history are recognized as saints or are at some stage in the process of becoming one, and more than a third of these popes lived in the first few centuries of the Church.
Second, the powers of the papacy depend entirely on Christ and his grace – not on the intelligence, holiness, or wisdom (or lack thereof) of the person who happens to be pope at any given time. God can use even gravely sinful persons for his purposes.
Lastly, the fact the Church has survived so long and so well even though many of her leaders have been highly corrupt actually serves as evidence that the Church is truly guided by Christ.
Myth 4: The pope can add to the Word of God
Truth: Actually, the Catholic Church teaches that public divine revelation has already been given in its fullness and the task of the Church, including the pope, is simply to preserve, interpret, and preach this Gospel to every age.
As the Second Vatican Council teaches, the Church’s teaching office (which includes the papacy), “is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed.” (DV 10)
So the pope doesn’t have the authority to add to the Word of God, only to faithfully interpret it and preach it to his generation.
Myth 5: The papacy is a special kind of Holy Order
Truth: There are only three kinds of Holy Orders: deacons, priests, and bishops. Other titles like cardinal, archbishop, patriarch, even pope – these are kinds of offices that bishops might hold. But sacramentally speaking, the pope is simply a bishop just like any other bishop and has the same sacramental powers.
If he is already a bishop, a pope-elect is not ordained pope; he simply assumes the office of bishop of Rome and in doing so receives all powers and authorities that come with that office. If he resigns the papal office (as Pope Benedict XVI did in 2013), he loses all papal powers but remains a bishop.