ROME - Many people, including many Catholics, believe the pope always ruled over the Catholic Church as an absolute monarch, appointing the world’s bishops and definitively settling issues of faith and morals. Yet that exercise of the papal office is comparatively new.
The pope’s supreme power, both in governance and doctrine, was defined by the First Vatican Council in 1870 and has been seen as crucial to defending the church from hostile governments and cultural forces around the world.
But at the same time, the pope’s universal jurisdiction and doctrinal infallibility have emerged as major obstacles to the long-sought goal of Christian unity.
The idea that the pope, as the “first bishop” of the church, has a leadership role that other bishops do not is an especially large stumbling block for Eastern Orthodox Christians, but one that the Catholic and Orthodox churches are committed to discussing.
Recent popes have sought to explore ways to exercise papal primacy in terms more amenable to other Christians. For instance, in his encyclical letter on ecumenism in 1995, St. John Paul II expressed openness to finding “a way of exercising the primacy which, while in no way renouncing what is essential to its mission, is nonetheless open to a new situation.”