An Introduction to the History of the Pope as the Vicar of Christ

BOOK PICK: The Papacy

(photo: Cropped book cover)


By Stephen K. Ray & R. Dennis Walters

Ignatius, 2018

164 pages, $15.95

To order: or (800) 651-1531


The book’s subtitle captures its focus: what the pope does and why that’s important. While the book examines history — ours is, after all, a faith that is incarnate in time — its attention is not so much history as the role of the pope as Vicar of Christ.

Divided into eight chapters, the book discuss the pope’s mission of governing, teaching and sanctifying. Other chapters treat a potpourri of subjects, such as how the process of picking a pope has evolved or 10 common myths voiced against the papacy. The chapter “The Pope as Gift to the Church and the World” provides brief sketches of eight popes, including 20th-century popes Pius X, John XXIII and John Paul II. The pope’s role in ecumenical and interreligious dialogue is the subject of another chapter. A final chapter summarizes the pope’s significance for Catholics as a sign of unity whose role is to anchor the Church’s faith and morals in truth. Brief appendices list all 266 popes and offer a short glossary of terms relevant to the papacy (like “cardinal” or “encyclical”).

Catholicism is a sacramental religion, and the papacy has the quality of a sacramental, continuing in the Church today the tri-part teaching, governing and sanctifying office that Christ gave Peter as his vicar. The authors repeatedly return to Peter as he who sets the “pattern” for his successors:

“Imagine Jesus spending all night in prayer, and then announcing his vicar, the man who would carry the keys of his kingdom. Which would you choose if you were in his place?  Would you choose the brash and reckless bumbler, the one who speaks too soon, puts his foot in his mouth, and makes promises he can’t keep, who lies to protect himself when he’s in trouble? Or would you choose the natural leader, the successful businessman? The one everybody mentions first? The one who speaks for the others and, if he speaks wrongly, is willing to take the consequences?  The one who risks what the others are afraid to? The one who can admit his own sinfulness and, when he falls, get up again? The one who’s willing to ask you for help and to exercise the authority you gave him to cast out demons and heal the sick? The one that, in the long run, is faithful and would leave his family, home and business to follow you? You might choose No. 2, but in reality the two alternatives are two sides of the same man, Simon Bar-Jona. He was the one Jesus picked and then nicknamed ‘Rock.’”

Similar sentiments can be said of his successors.

Readers wanting an overview of why the Church needs the papacy would do well with this book, which offers a basic, up-to-date and sympathetic treatment for today’s Catholics about the purpose and significance of the papacy.

The book is clearly a starting point, which means it’s limited. The authors could have included something about how the Church teaches infallibly not just in the extraordinary but in the ordinary magisterium (see Lumen Gentium, 25). The authors rightly note the infallibility question is an essential part of the Church’s mission of bearing truthful witness to God’s will. Since that’s the case, the conditions for the infallibility of the ordinary magisterium merit discussion: The question of infallibility is imbalanced when primary attention is given to its extraordinary exercise. The discussion of the lives of but a handful of popes, while representative of different moments in Church history, is basic, and the prominence afforded the incumbent pontiff, Francis, is surprisingly and curiously limited. As a point of departure, however, this book usefully treats the chair of Peter and its occupants.

John M. Grondelski, Ph.D., writes from Falls Church, Virginia.

 All views are exclusively his.