How the Papacy Works

By: Kevin Bonsor & Dave Roos
Pope Francis drives through the crowds during his inaugural mass in St. Peter's Square, Rome in 2013.
Pope Francis drives through the crowds during his inaugural mass in St. Peter's Square, Rome in 2013.
© Donatella Giagnori/Demotix/Corbis

Worldwide membership in the Roman Catholic Church was an estimated 1.08 billion people in 2010, roughly 15.6 percent of the total world population [source: Pew Research Center]. Catholicism is by far the largest Christian denomination in the world, and more than 75 million Americans belong to the Catholic Church.

Catholics look to Vatican City in Rome, where the pope lives, for their spiritual leadership. The pope is the head of the Roman Catholic Church and the Vatican's head of state. The pope's governance of the Catholic Church is termed his papacy. You often hear the pope called by many other names, including Papa, Vicar of Christ, Holy Father and bishop of Rome.


In this article, we will examine the jurisdiction of the papacy of the Roman Catholic Church, discuss how someone becomes pope and review some of the duties a pope performs.

Papal Authority

As head of the Roman Catholic Church, the pope is the supreme spiritual leader of the church and controls the church doctrine. With more than a billion followers, the pope's decisions affect societies and governments all over the world.

To understand the authority of the papacy, we should first understand a little history of the Roman Catholic Church.


The Catholic Church dates back to the time of Jesus Christ, who selected Peter to lead his church. Peter's original name was Simon. In the New Testament book of Matthew (16:18), after Simon recognizes Jesus as the Christ (or Messiah), Jesus changes his name, replying, "And I say also unto thee, that thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." This statement, now known as the Petrine guarantee or Petrine theory, gave Peter the fullness of power and is the scriptural basis for papal authority [source: Britannica].

Most theologians believe the "rock" of which Christ spoke is Peter himself. Peter's name in Aramaic is Cephas, a word meaning "rock." Aramaic is the language that Jesus spoke. Knowing this, Matthew 16:18 can be interpreted as Jesus saying that he is building his church on the strength of Peter. Further evidence of this conferment of power is in John 21:15-19, when Christ tells Peter, "Feed my sheep."

Upon his ascension, Peter became the undisputed leader of the group of followers of Christ. At some point in his life, likely near the end, Peter moved to Rome to spread the word of Christ, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia. It was in Rome that Nero, the Roman emperor who persecuted the church, killed Peter. Tradition holds he was crucified upside down. Through his death, Peter became a martyr. His body was buried on Vatican Hill and St. Peter's Cathedral was later erected over his grave.

During his life, Peter was never officially the bishop of Rome or the pope, but in honor of his work and his role as the head of the church, he is recognized as the first pope. Every pope since Peter is considered the immediate successor of Peter, and not of that pope's immediate predecessor. A pope is considered to be carrying on the power that Christ granted Peter. Today, a great number of the pope's powers are derived from the Petrine guarantee, which is etched in Latin around the dome of St. Peter's Cathedral.

The pope's powers were bolstered in the First Vatican Council in 1870, when 433 bishops passed the decree of papal infallibility. According to the decree, the pope "is possessed of that infallibility with which the Divine Redeemer wished His Church to be endowed in defining doctrine regarding faith and morals" [source: Catholic Encyclopedia].

The next two sections explain the process of papal succession.

The Passing of a Pontiff

When a pope dies, the nontheological authority of the papacy passes temporarily to the cardinal camerlengo, or chamberlain, who is the Vatican's secretary of state. The camerlengo has many responsibilities when the pope dies. First, he confirms the pope's death by calling the pope's real name three times without response. Some sources say he also gently taps him on the head three times with a silver hammer. (Recent deaths of popes also have been confirmed with doctors.) He then authorizes the pope's death certificate, and closes and locks the pope's private apartment in the Apostolic Palace of the Vatican. The camerlengo also organizes and presides over the election of the next pope.

At the time of death, the camerlengo removes the Ring of the Fisherman, which the pope receives from the camerlengo upon his election. Popes have worn the Ring of the Fisherman for more than 800 years. The gold ring includes an image of St. Peter in a boat, fishing, encircled by the name of the current pope. The ring and the pope's seals are destroyed during the camerlengo's first meeting with the cardinals following the pope's death.


The pope's body lies in repose for nine consecutive days, during which time the cardinals of the Catholic Church celebrate the funeral rites. No one is allowed to photograph or film the pope while he is on his sickbed or after his death. The cardinal camerlengo may permit post-mortem photographs for documentary purposes only after the pope is attired in his pontifical vestments.

Before burial, the pope's body is placed inside a cypress coffin that is encased in two others made of elm and lead. The pope is typically buried in the tombs below St. Peter's Basilica, where St. Peter is buried.

During the time between the pope's death and the election of a new pope, the world focuses on the tiny sovereignty of Vatican City. In the next section, we will examine the complex process by which a pope is elected.

Electing the Next Pope

Pope Francis (left) embraces Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI as he arrives at the Castel Gandolfo summer residence on March 23, 2013. It is extremely rare for a pope to resign; the last time before Benedict was in 1415.
Pope Francis (left) embraces Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI as he arrives at the Castel Gandolfo summer residence on March 23, 2013. It is extremely rare for a pope to resign; the last time before Benedict was in 1415.

The College of Cardinals elects a new pope in conclave, which is the process of sequestering the voting members of the college in Vatican City so that they have no contact with the outside world. The word "conclave" comes from the Latin phrase cum clavis, meaning "with key." The term is suitable since the cardinals are locked inside the Sistine Chapel in the Apostolic Palace during the voting process.

A conclave begins no earlier than 15 days and no later than 20 days after the pope's death. Cardinals participating in conclave stay in St. Martha's House, a hospice inside the Vatican that has 130 rooms. Arrangements are made to ensure that the cardinals are not approached as they are transported between St. Martha's and the Sistine Chapel.


In 1996, Pope John Paul II described the complex procedures that would be used to elect the next successor to St. Peter, in an Apostolic Constitution called Universi Dominici Gregis (UDG). It is an accepted practice for popes to publish the norms that regulate the election of their successors, and popes often make small adjustments to the procedures. According to John Paul II, these changes were made "with the intention of responding to the needs of the particular historical moment."

The UDG laid out these rules for electing a new pope [sources: Holy See Press Office, Thavis]:

  • The maximum number of electors from the College of Cardinals is 120. The college is currently composed of 199 cardinals.
  • Any cardinal who turns 80 before the day the Papacy is vacated, either by death or resignation, cannot take part in the election. Currently, 107 cardinals are eligible to vote because of the age limitation.
  • A two-thirds-plus-one majority is required to elect a pope.
  • Two ballots each are held in the morning and afternoon, for a total of four per day.
  • If a new pope is not selected after 30 votes, the cardinals may choose to impose a majority vote, which would allow selection of a new pope by a simple majority.

Each rectangular paper ballot is inscribed at the top with the words Eligo in Summum Pontificem, meaning "I elect as supreme pontiff." Below these words, each cardinal writes down the name of the person he chooses as the pope. The voting cardinal then folds the ballot twice, holds it in the air, and carries it the chapel's altar. He says, "I call as my witness Christ the Lord who will be my judge, that my vote is given to the one who before God I think should be elected." The cardinal places the ballot on a plate that sits atop the ballot receptacle and uses the plate to drop the ballot into the receptacle. After bowing before the altar, he returns to his seat.

Three scrutineers, who are selected by all of the cardinals, are charged with counting the ballots. Once the ballots are collected, the scrutineers count the ballots to determine if everyone has voted. If the number of ballots doesn't match the number of electors, the ballots are immediately burned and another vote is taken.

Here are the steps for the vote-tallying procedure:

  1. The first scrutineer takes a ballot, notes the name on it, and passes it to the next scrutineer.
  2. The second scrutineer notes the name and passes it to the third scrutineer.
  3. The third scrutineer reads aloud the name on the ballot, pierces the ballot with a needle through the word Eligo at the top of the ballot, and slides the ballot onto a string of thread.
  4. Each elector notes the name that is read.
  5. Once all ballots are read, the scrutineers write down the official count on a separate sheet of paper.
  6. The third scrutineer ties the ends of the thread on which the ballots are placed in a knot to preserve the vote.
  7. The ballots are placed in a receptacle.

After each vote, the ballots and any notes regarding them are burned. Smoke from the burning of the ballots appears over the Vatican Palace. If no pope has been chosen, a chemical is applied to the ballots in order to create black smoke when burned. White smoke signals that a pope has been elected.

The newly elected pope remains pontiff for life (although there have been occasional resignations, such as Pope Benedict XVI in 2013). His reign is referred to as a pontificate. In the next section, you will learn what the pope does during his pontificate.

The Next Pope

Pope Francis leads the Christmas mass in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican in 2013.
Pope Francis leads the Christmas mass in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican in 2013.

Once the new pope is elected, he meets with the cardinal deacon, the secretary of the College of Cardinals, the cardinal dean and the master of papal liturgical celebrations. The cardinal dean asks the elected pope two questions:

  1. Do you accept your canonical election as supreme pontiff?
  2. By what name do you wish to be called?

If the elected pope accepts, the master of papal liturgical celebrations certifies the acceptance by the new pope, as well as the pope's choice of name. The elected person immediately becomes the bishop of Rome, which gives him supreme power of the Catholic Church. Each cardinal elector then approaches the newly elected pope to pay homage and show his obedience to the pope.


After an election, it is tradition for the oldest cardinal in conclave to step to the balcony above St. Peter's Square and announce, "Habemus papam," which means "We have a new pope." The new pope then steps out on the balcony, addressing the world as pope for the first time, and imparts the Apostolic Blessing.

Once his inauguration is over, the new pope begins the day-to-day duties of papal responsibility. As spiritual leader of the world's largest religious following, and as the Vatican's head of state, the pope's responsibilities are vast. Here are just a few of his duties and activities:

  • Serves as bishop of the archdiocese of Rome, providing spiritual guidance to its members
  • Appoints bishops and cardinals
  • Presides at beatification and canonization ceremonies
  • Spreads the beliefs of the Roman Catholic Church through his travels
  • Writes documents that define the Catholic Church's official position on issues facing the world
  • Confers with global leaders and politicians about these issues

The role of pope has evolved greatly in 2,000 years. At one time, the pope crowned emperors and carried military power. Today, the pope's secular power and duties are diminished, but the position still carries great spiritual influence as the leader of the world's largest religious sect.

For more information on the papacy, the Catholic Church and related topics, check out the links on the next page.

Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • The CIA World Factbook. "Holy See (Vatican City" (Jan. 17, 2014)
  • Catholic Encyclopedia. "Infallibility." (Jan. 27, 2014).
  • Donadio, Rachel. "Cardinals Pick Bergoglio, Who Will Be Pope Francis." The New York Times. March 13, 2014. (Jan. 17, 2014)
  • Encyclopaedia Britannica. "Petrine theory." (Jan. 17, 2014)
  • The Guardian. "Every Pope ever: the full list." March 14, 2013. (Jan. 17, 2014)
  • Holy See Press Office. "The College of Cardinals Statistics." Jan. 2, 2014. (Jan. 17, 2014)
  • McElroy, Damien. "Pope Francis profile: who is Argentina's Jorge Mario Bergoglio?" The Telegraph. March 13, 2013. (Jan. 17, 2014)
  • Pew Research Center. "U.S. Catholics: Key Data from Pew Research." Feb. 25, 2013. (Jan. 17, 2014)
  • Thavis, John, "Election of a new pope follows detailed procedure." Catholic News Service (Jan. 17, 2014)