I will acknowledge that a blog post is insufficient to cover this topic in its entirety. I will also admit that I don't have the depth of learning on this topic that others have. I'm just going to explain this in the most simple terms. (If you want a more complete explanation, please see this article. Also, I have found this site to be very helpful, and a little less complex.)
Most people know the Catholic Church traces the popes all the way back to St. Peter. Of course, you wouldn't see that title in the Bible. The bishop of Rome did not hold that title exclusively until the 4th century. Prior to that time, the title was used of bishops in general. However, the "chair of Peter" (bishop of Rome) has been recognized as the "first among equals" since Peter was bishop in Rome before his death.
Some typical questions about the pope:
- Why do you need a pope in the first place? Aren't bishops sufficient?
Actually, the pope is a bishop. But in the earliest days of the Church, it became evident that if there were matters of dispute, someone had to have the "final word" in any given situation. Groups of bishops would discuss matters in question. As St. Jerome said, "one among the twelve is chosen to be their head in order to remove any occasion for division." Any other words, even the best committee has to have a chairman! :o)
- Why do Catholics say the pope is infallible? How can a man suddenly become perfect?
Okay, this is a simple misunderstanding. We don't believe he is without sin. He is, after all, "just" a man. The basics of it are this: God won't allow the doctrine of the church to be misconstrued by men. When the pope speaks on issues of doctrine of faith or morals, the Holy Spirit protects the Church from being led astray. (The gates of hell will not prevail!)
"An infallible pronouncement—whether made by the pope alone or by an ecumenical council—usually is made only when some doctrine has been called into question."
"What infallibility does do is prevent a pope from solemnly and formally teaching as "truth" something that is, in fact, error. It does not help him know what is true, nor does it "inspire" him to teach what is true. He has to learn the truth the way we all do—through study—though, to be sure, he has certain advantages because of his position."
There is a difference between a pope being impeccable (completely without sin) and infallible (teaching truth without error). I know it's kind of hard to understand. I'm probably not doing the subject justice. I guess the best way I can illustrate is to say: picture a carpenter's level. It might have scars in the wood and nicks in its varnish, but it will still hold to a straight line. The bubble keeps it "on the level" (ha). The Holy Spirit keeps the popes on the level, even if they are chipped or marred vessels. (Again, God's way of preserving His Church against the gates of hell.)
I'm basically only scratching the surface here. This seems sufficient for today. Feel free to post questions in the comments. I do check them frequently. I won't assume the position of knowing all the answers. But I will promise to research and find out, to the best of my ability!