How is the Pope Holy?

A friend wrote to me on Facebook, asking the following question:

 . . . how is the Pope considered a ‘holy man’ when he is elected by a group of individuals? It seems too Democratic a system to be pure and holy.

I enjoy when friends ask questions because they often ask questions that go beyond the scope of what I have already studied, so I have to do more research to learn exactly what the Church teaches on that particular topic. I was intrigued to begin to formulate an answer to this question, because I had been wondering about part of it myself–specifically, what the Church taught about God’s role in the election of the Pope. I believe I was able to make a good start, but I think there is probably much more I can learn about this topic. Feel free to comment if you know any more than I have already listed.
What follows is my response:
1) How is the Pope a “holy man?”

Photo Credit:
First, it will help to understand the word holy. We use “holy” in multiple ways, particularly to describe the following:
  • A: God Himself
  • B: A person, place or thing consecrated to God (set aside as belonging to God)
    • Gen 28:16 – the place God appears
    • Ex 19:6 – God’s people
    • Ex 28:43 – the Tabernacle
    • Is 48:2 – Jerusalem
    • Lev 10:17 – the sacrificial goat
    • Rom 1:7 – what Christians call each other
  • C: Someone who has an outstanding relationship with God and lives an exemplary moral life. (This is probably the most common use in our ordinary vocabulary.)

We also use other words that mean holy: sacred, saint, hallowed, blessed, etc.
We call the pope “the Holy Father” because of his particular position (his office). In Mt 16:18-19, Jesus said to St. Peter that he was “Rock” [Jesus changed his name from Simon to Kephas (Aramaic for “rock”) –> Petros (Greek feminine for “rock”) –> Petre (Greek masculine for “stone”) –> Peter (English transliteration)] and on this “Rock” He would build His Church. At this point Jesus also promised to Peter the Keys to the Kingdom of Heaven [a symbol of Jesus’ authority being handed on to Peter to be “in charge” after Jesus ascended–when the Old Testament King was going away, he would give his prime minister the keys to the kingdom to show that he had the authority while the king was gone (see Is 22:20-22)]. Catholics see this as Jesus establishing Peter as the head apostle, who after the Ascension would have Jesus’ authority to lead the Church. Peter left James in charge as the “bishop” (from the Greek episkopos or “overseer”) of Jerusalem and moved on temporarily to Antioch. Peter eventually settled in Rome, where he spent the rest of his life. Peter helped to begin and grow the Christian community in Rome. After Peter was crucified, the remaining Apostles and other bishops knew that someone needed to take Peter’s place just like Matthias had been appointed to take Judas’s place (see Acts 1). Linus was appointed to take Peter’s place as not only the bishop of Rome, but also the new head of the whole Church. Since then whoever was the bishop of Rome was considered the head of the Church (Benedict XVI is the 265th bishop of Rome).
Because his position is to lead the faithful closer to God, he is called the “Holy Father” –> the “papa” –> the “pope.” This corresponds mostly to definition B (above) for holy. He is “holy” by virtue of the fact that his office dedicates him totally to God, and he is acting with God’s authority in that position. He acts in the person of Jesus as the earthly head of the Church, so we also call him the “Vicar of Christ” (vicarius is Latin for “in the person of”).
Ideally, we can also apply definition C to the pope: that he is a moral role model. We have been very fortunate to have recently had a string of some very definition-C-holy popes. Some popes have not been very morally upright (Leo X comes to mind), but the REALLY cool thing with that is this: even though there have been some really morally lousy popes in the past, God has prevented all of them from changing official Church teachings to say that those bad things are good. God wants His people to always have access to the correct teachings about Him (faith) and how we ought to act (morality), so He prevents the popes from changing the teachings that Jesus handed on to the Apostles, who handed it on through history to us today. The popes don’t necessarily get any extra knowledge, but because God wants us not to be led into error, the Holy Spirit prevents the pope from changing the teachings. This can be seen in that same passage from Matthew: both in the authority of the keys, but also when Jesus told Peter that whatever he “bound on earth will be bound in Heaven, and whatever he loosed on earth would be loosed in Heaven” (“binding” and “loosing” were terms used by rabbis both for doctrine and for the forgiveness of sins). This is what Catholics mean when they say the pope is “infallible.” He is not made “impeccable” (without sin), but he is prevented from changing the truth that Jesus handed on. It has been such a blessing that Benedict XVI and John Paul II were such holy men in all accounts, but not every pope has been that way.
2) Does the election of the Pope make him holy? Isn’t it a rather fallible human system?

Photo Credit: Fotographia Felici
Analogously to Jesus Himself, in the election of the Pope there is a certain combination of the human and the divine. Yes, the cardinals are men, electing the next pope, but they are called to pray for God’s help. Pope Paul VI described it in his document on the Election of the Roman Pontiff (#84):

Like Our predecessors, We strongly exhort the cardinal electors not to be guided by likes or dislikes in electing the pope, nor influenced by the favor or compliance of anyone, nor moved by the interference of persons … nigh places or pressure groups, or by the suasive language of the masters of the communications media, or by violence or fear or love of popularity. Instead, with God’s glory and the good of the Church as their sole guide, and having asked for divine help, let them vote for him whom they judge most fit to rule the universal Church in a fruitful and useful way.

In the next paragraph, Paul VI also recognized that all the Catholic faithful around the world are called upon to pray for the cardinals in the conclave, so that they may be open to listening to God’s direction. While it is open to human fallibility, the conclave of cardinals electing the new pope is called upon to open themselves to God’s direction. And even if they don’t, and the worst pope in history is elected, we can trust in Jesus’ promise to Peter in that same quote that the gates of hell will never prevail against the Church. Whomever they elect will be the new bishop of Rome, and God will help him in guiding the Church. Even if the man is not definition-C-holy, he will be by default definition-B holy. We pray for both B & C.

UPDATE (3/1/13): A friend linked me to this article at the Deacon’s Bench, quoting Cardinal Ratzinger 8 years before he became pope:

I would not say so, in the sense that the Holy Spirit picks out the Pope. … I would say that the Spirit does not exactly take control of the affair, but rather like a good educator, as it were, leaves us much space, much freedom, without entirely abandoning us. Thus the Spirit’s role should be understood in a much more elastic sense, not that he dictates the candidate for whom one must vote. Probably the only assurance he offers is that the thing cannot be totally ruined . . . There are too many contrary instances of popes the Holy Spirit obviously would not have picked!

I hope this helps. If you have any questions, feel free to ask.
Again, if any of you have any good quotes on God’s guidance of the papal electors, please share.
Praying for our current and future Holy Father,

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