by Peter Stanford
An aspect of Catholicism that sets it apart from the rest of Christianity is its loyalty to the papacy. Catholics believe that the Pope in Rome stands in a direct line back to the Apostle Peter and therefore has unparalleled spiritual and teaching authority. In certain matters of faith and morals popes can speak infallibly – without error.
The hierarchical model of Church government, with the Pope as Bishop of Rome at the top, was established by Christianity around AD 160. At first, the authority of the papacy existed more in theory than in practice, especially in relation to the great patriarchs of the Church based in Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem. It took until the middle years of the fifth century, during the papacy of Leo the Great, for the writ of the Pope to prevail to any wide extent in Europe. This Leo achieved by his personal dedication and example, a successful missionary strategy and alliances with powerful kings and princes.
Though Catholicism still holds dear to the notion of an ‘Apostolic Succession’ linking every one of Saint Peter’s 260-plus successors back through him to Jesus, the reality is that libertines, frauds and even (legend has it) a woman disguised as a man have on occasion held the office of pope. So, it should be added, have men of great intellect, humility, spirituality and moral courage. The failings of individual popes, Catholicism teaches, should not detract from the overall authority of the office.
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