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Roman Catholic Papacy 101: Who is the Pope? How Many Popes Have Existed?

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The Papal Conclave Day Two
Franco Origlia / Stringer/Getty Images News/Getty Images

What is the Roman Catholic Pope?:


The title pope stems from the Greek word papas, which simply means ‘father.’ Early in Christian history it was used as a formal title expressing affectionate respect for any bishop and sometimes even priests. Today it continues to be used in Eastern Orthodox churches for the patriarch of Alexandria. A pope is the supreme legislative, executive, and judicial authority in the Roman Catholic Church — there are no “checks and balances” like one finds in secular governments. Read More...

Was Peter the First Pope? Origin of the Papacy in Rome:


Catholics believe that the bishop of Rome inherits the mantle of Peter, apostle of Jesus Christ who was entrusted with the administration of his church after he died. Peter travelled to Rome where he is believed to have established a Christian community before he was martyred. All popes are successors of Peter not only as leading the Christian community in Rome, but also as leading the Christian community in general, and they maintain a direct connection to the original apostles. Read More...

Can a Pope Resign or Be Removed? Papal Resignations:


Like any secular monarch, the pope is elected for life — but that does not mean that it is impossible for a pope to step down while still alive. This is not a common occurrence because it would affect people’s perception of the stability of their church’s hierarchy and might set a precedent for church factions to pressure popes to resign; yet the possibility of a pope resigning is very real. Read More...

Early Church Administration & Papal Elections:


Many people think that the current structure and administration of the Catholic Church is very much like it has always been, but that’s not the case. Early on, there isn’t even evidence of a single bishop of Rome presiding over churches in the city. Although the official lists give the names of several ‘popes’ during the first decades, it is likely that they presided over a council of elders. Read More...

Why is the Pope Leader of the Church? Development of Papal Primacy:


Today the pope is regarded generally as the supreme head of the Catholic Church and, among Catholics, as the head of the universal Christian Church. Although principally the bishop of Rome, he is much more than just ‘first among equals,’ he is also the living symbol of the unity of Christianity. Where does this doctrine come from and how justified is it? Read More...

Is the Pope Infallible? Catholic Doctrine of Papal Infallibility:


In Christian theology, infallibility is the doctrine that in matters of faith and morals the church, both in teaching and in believing, is protected from serious error by “divine dispensation.” This doctrine is most associated with the Catholic church, but is also applied by the Orthodox church to ecumenical councils. The doctrine is widely rejected by Protestants on the grounds that only God can be described as infallible. Read More...

Crime and Conspiracy in the Vatican — Murdered Popes:


Today the Catholic Pope is a generally respected figure, but that hasn’t always been the case. Some have been very despicable people, involved in all sorts of nasty situations. Aside from those who were martyred during the earliest decades of Christianity, a number of popes have been murdered by rivals, cardinals, and even supporters. Read More...

What is an Antipope? When is a Pope Not a Pope?:


The term antipope refers to any person who claims to be pope, but whose claim is treated as invalid today by the Roman Catholic Church. This should be a straightforward concept, but in practice it is much more difficult and complex than it might appear. The Vatican’s official list of popes is called the Annuario Pontificio and even today there remain four instances where it isn’t absolutely clear on whether someone was a legitimate successor of Peter. Read More...

Was There Really a Female Pope? Pope Joan:


There is a persistent and popular legend that a woman once managed to rise to the office of pope. This tale got its start some time during the Middle Ages and continues to be repeated today, but there is little if any evidence supporting it. Perhaps just as interesting as the legend of Pope Joan is the question of why someone would take the trouble to invent the tale in the first place. Read More...

Popes Throughout History:


Because of the existence of so many popes and possible popes throughout the history of Western Christianity, there are also many ways to organize and present lists of popes depending upon what information people are looking for.

Chronological Lists of Catholic Popes
Both lists of popes are arranged in chronological order. They start with Peter, believed by Catholics to be the first pope, and end with Benedict XVI, the most recent pope. Alternative names are given, years of reign are listed, and all names are linked to short biographies that describe major dates in their papacy, controversies, and important events at the time. The detailed list includes short descriptions of their pontificates as well. The simplified list does not.

Which Pope is Which? Discrepancies in Papal Numbering
There have been several names used multiple times over the years: Benedict, Alexander, Boniface, Paul, Clement, Urban, and Gregory to name a few. In two series, though, there are discrepancies and not everyone agrees on who gets what number. Read More...

Longest Pontificates
These are the 13 longest pontificates in the history of the Roman Catholic Church. Each pope reigned over the Catholic Church for an unusually long time. Today some believe that especially long papacies are bad for the Church because they prevent necessary change from happening when it should. Read More...

Shortest Pontificates
Here is a list of the shortest pontificates in the history of the Roman Catholic Church. The links will take you to biographies of these popes - but short biographies. Their reigns were so short that there isn’t much which can be said. Read More...

Papal Firsts, Lasts, and Interesting Facts
This chronological list of popes provides interesting bits of trivia about the various people who have occupied the throne of St. Peter. Firsts, lasts, and unusual facts are presented alongside the years they reigned, which number pope they were, and links to more complete biographies. Read More...

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