The pope, who is due to visit Baltimore next Sunday, is a titanic figure of our time, a troubled time which is ravenously hungry for heroes.
Even a decade ago, in his "Oxford Dictionary of the Popes," the Anglican priest-historian J. N .D. Kelly could write of him: "Few popes have had such wide-ranging intellectual equipment, and none has had such a far-ranging impact."
In addition to his astonishing intellectual gifts, he has shown incredible energy, iron-clad determination, courage and magnanimity (when not dealing with troublesome theologians).
He has radiant charisma and is obviously deeply concerned about the human family.
Many thoughtful observers, however, have reluctantly concluded that the present pope, extraordinary though he is, has not been an unmixed blessing for the Church and for humanity.
First some background: Catholic teaching does not hold that a pope cannot err or sin; that he has a direct pipeline to the mind of God, and is thus protected from making decisions that history will prove to be disastrous; that a pope's normal, everyday decisions are infallible and cannot be reversed by a subsequent pope.
Indeed, in the 1300s the incubating idea of infallibility was promoted by interested parties eager to keep one pope from reversing the decisions of an earlier one.
So the theory was actually a way of shackling papal freedom.
According to the 1870 definition of the First Vatican Council, the pope cannot err when as supreme bishop, and in the name of the whole Church, he clearly intends to define a matter of faith or morals.
So, papal infallibility is a very limited prerogative rarely invoked. It was not invoked for Pope Paul VI's encyclical against contraception, "Humanae Vitae."
Finally, Catholic teaching does not hold that the choice of a particular pope reflects the will of God.
Despite these facts, there are many devout Catholics who subscribe to a triumphalist myth of the papacy. For them, popes can do practically no wrong. Emotionally, their overmastering concern is the triumph of the Holy Church, not the triumph of the holy truth, and the humble, lifelong search for it.
Children think their parents are, or should be, all-knowing. As mature adults they learn to make distinctions and accept their parents' limitations.
A conspicuous example of an immature "il papa knows best" mentality is TV's Mother Angelica and her awesomely unsophisticated, self-satisfied and occasionally wasp-spirited theology.
"Get out of the Church!" is her sisterly suggestion to those who disagree with her. Talk about infallibility.
It is easier to maintain the papal myth to the degree that you are innocent of both theology and history. (And what is history but theology teaching by examples?)
But if you regard the Apostle Peter as the first pope, you must start reckoning with the biblical account of St. Paul's attack on St. Peter for the betrayal of the Gospel of truth. (See Galatians 2: 11-21.)
That wasn't the last betrayal. The history of the papacy and its links with the Inquisition, the Crusades, nepotism, the selling of indulgences and spiritual offices to the highest bidder, witch-hunting and the persecution of Jews and heretics, show it to be one of the most checkered religious institutions on record -- to put it gently.
Individual popes of the especially scandalous 10th century have been called "the dregs" (by St. Robert Bellarmine), "the most iniquitous of all the monsters of ungodliness" (by the future pope Sylvester II) and a "blackguardly ignoramus" (by the historian-priest Philip Hughes).
In a moment of rare Vatican candor at the start of the Reformation, Pope Hadrian confessed in 1522: "We know full well that for years the Holy See itself has been guilty of grave abuses all kinds of evil. All of us, prelates and priests, have abandoned the right way."
The remarkable man of probity who will visit Baltimore on Oct. 8 is the 265th or so Bishop of Rome. No one is sure how many popes there have been. Some who died before they were installed are officially counted; sometimes it is not clear whether a man was pope or an anti-pope.
As for the first "pope," it isn't at all clear from the Gospels that Peter's undoubtedly special standing among the disciples was transmissible. Other Apostolic privileges (such as the ability to add to "the deposit of faith") were not.
After Peter's martyrdom (around 65 A.D.), the church in Rome may actually have been managed for a while by a group of presbyters, one of whom was in charge of "foreign affairs" -- that is, dealing with other churches.
This functionary may have developed into the head of the Roman church.
Management consolidated slowly
In early Christianity, the practice of diocesan management by a single bishop developed only gradually. The idea that the bishop of Rome has absolute jurisdiction over all other churches developed very much more gradually and problematically.