The Pope as Pontifex Maximus and supposedly Christian High Priest

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One of the titles used by the pope is “Pontifex Maximus”. Literally, this means “chief bridge builder”, if the Latin etymology is correct. “Pontifex” may be derived from the Etruscan “preparer of the road”, which is similar to “bridge builder”.

Pontifex” is used to refer to the high priest of a religion, and “maximus” adds “greatest” onto the title. The Vulgate uses the term “pontifex” for the Jewish high priest on occasion, e.g. Lev 21:10, Num 35:28.

The Jewish high priest stood as mediator between God and man, offering the important sacrifices meant to appease God.

Does this then mean that the pope is a Catholic high priest who is the mediator between God and man?

Donkey, Boston Public Library
Donkey, Boston Public Library

At first glance, it may seem so. And anti-Catholics have taken this confusion to use as ammunition against Catholicism. E.g. “Is the Pope the Church’s High Priest?” by “The Master’s Seminary” – subtitle “Jamie Jackson interviews Dr. Nathan Busenitz concerning the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church”.

Their argument is that “pontifex” referred to a pagan Roman high priest who was mediator between God and man, and referred to a Jewish high priest who was mediator between God and man, and later referred to the Roman emperor who was mediator between God and man, and therefore, when it refers to the pope, it means the pope claims to be our high priest and mediator between God and man.

They then point out that there is only one high priest for Christians, namely Jesus, which is correct, and which is also Catholic teaching, although they don’t acknowledge the latter fact to be true.

  • Only one high priest – Christ
  • Only one shepherd – Christ

But not only one shepherd – Jesus tells Peter to feed his sheep, so Peter is a sort of sub-shepherd standing in for Jesus. As are the other bishops – Acts 20:28. And not only one priest either. The Bible clearly speaks of a Christian ministerial heirarchy of bishops, priests, and deacons. (The Greek word “presbyter”, often translated “elder” in the New Testament, is the Greek word from which “priest” is derived.) It also speaks of the priesthood of all believers.

The pope doesn’t claim to stand as mediator between God and man. Only Jesus can do that, because he is both God and man, and Catholicism firmly teaches this.

What the pope does claim to be is the person who runs the day-to-day affairs of the Church, and protects the faith by teaching the truth and condemning false teachings. The latter he does with the direct guidance of the Holy Spirit, preventing the Church from succumbing to the gates of hell and losing the truth once delivered and fading into non-existence.

Pope Francis in the Philippines
Pope Francis in the Philippines

None of that is contrary to the belief that Jesus alone is our mediator and high priest.

The type of high priest that Jesus is, is the one who offers the ultimate sacrifice for our sins. That was the apparent role of the Jewish high priest, and that is what is fulfilled in Jesus.

No pope, no Catholic teaching, claims otherwise. No pope, no Catholic teaching, claims that the pope fulfills that role.

When, over a period of 1500 years, a term is used by different groups, the meaning changes. That’s how language works. Initially the role of pontifex among the Romans included the role of animal sacrifices. The same goes for the religious rites of Israel. When the Roman emperor adopted the title … no, the role changed, and animal sacrifices didn’t form part of the job description. When the pope adopted the title, animal sacrifices weren’t there either. And since it was the role as animal sacrificer that put the pontifex in the role of mediator between God and man, it is very hard to attribute that role to the pope, especially when the pope has never made the claim that he is such a mediator.

The term “Pontifex Maximus” only became an official papal title in the 15th century. While it, and variations of it, was found on various inscriptions prior to that, for bishops in general including popes, it was not used in papal documents as a title until the papacy of Pope Nicholas V (1447-1455). That it dates to Pope Leo I is a myth.

Pope Innocent III
Pope Innocent III

Wikipedia lists the following as roles of the pontifex:

  • The regulation of all expiatory ceremonials needed as a result of pestilence, lightning, etc.
  • The consecration of all temples and other sacred places and objects dedicated to the gods.
  • The regulation of the calendar; both astronomically and in detailed application to the public life of the state.
  • The administration of the law relating to burials and burying-places, and the worship of the Manes or dead ancestors.
  • The superintendence of all marriages by conferratio, i.e. originally of all legal patrician marriages.
  • The administration of the law of adoption and of testamentary succession.
  • The regulation of the public morals, and fining and punishing offending parties.

Let’s have a look at these functions:

  • The regulation of all expiatory ceremonials needed as a result of pestilence, lightning, etc.

This is the important one. Expiatory ceremonials – animal sacrifices, appeasement of the gods, or of God. This was the role of the Jewish high priest. This is the role of Jesus. This is not, and never had been, the role of the pope. That is important to realise. Otherwise you get sucked in by anti-Catholic propaganda.

  • The consecration of all temples and other sacred places and objects dedicated to the gods.
  • The regulation of the calendar; both astronomically and in detailed application to the public life of the state.
  • The administration of the law relating to burials and burying-places, and the worship of the Manes or dead ancestors.
  • The superintendence of all marriages by conferratio, i.e. originally of all legal patrician marriages.
  • The administration of the law of adoption and of testamentary succession.
  • The regulation of the public morals, and fining and punishing offending parties.
Festival of Trumpets

All of the above, in a modified form, are part of the role of any religious authority regulating religious matters, whether it’s the head of the Catholic Church, or the governing body of a Protestant denomination. Obviously not the clearly pagan aspects, such as temples of gods, but certainly decisions and blessings of new churches. Decisions on the calendar – e.g. when to celebrate Easter. Administration of funerals, marriages, family matters – yes. We don’t worship ancestors, but we do have saints who pray for us, and they get officially recognised as saints. Public morals – one of the important aspects of the faith that need teaching.

So, as you can see, the role of pontifex includes aspects of any civil or religious governing body or person. Just because one aspect was abandoned doesn’t mean the term is no longer a useful one. And precisely because that one aspect has been abandoned, it means the term can legitimately be used for a Christian leader, such as the Roman Pontiff (bishop of Rome) or Alexandrian Pontiff (bishop of Alexandria).

So … the pope is a priest (New Testament words: presbyter, elder). The pope is a bishop (New Testament words: bishop, overseer). The pope is the successor of Peter (Matt 16:18). In that sense, the pope is the leading priest of the Christian Church, defending the faith once delivered and teaching Christian morality. That in no way usurps the role of Jesus as sole mediator between God and man.

The Sacrificial Lamb - Josefa de Ayala, ca 1670
The Sacrificial Lamb – Josefa de Ayala, ca 1670

Moral of the story – if you want to be wary of the pope because you’re non-Catholic, that’s fine. Please just be honest, and do your research, before you provide commentary on what Catholics believe about the pope. Otherwise you look silly attacking a straw man. I would doubt the reliability of any “facts” coming from someone who can’t get them right on matters I know something about.

Worth noting is that the Catholic priest does offer a sacrifice. Jesus sacrificed himself on the Cross for us. That sacrifice happened once, for all time. Yet, by offering that one single sacrifice to God in prayer at Mass, we all get to stand at the foot of the cross. Some Protestants use the phrase “pleading the blood of Jesus” to mean a similar thing. Others use other words to ask God to apply Jesus’ sacrifice to their lives. Neither they nor Catholics think Jesus is being re-sacrificed over and over. Catholics just believe we are really present at the original sacrifice.

This is the role of Jesus as sole mediator between man and God:

Intercession - primary
Intercession – primary

And this is how we, the pope, priests, bishops, Mary, and the saints intercede for others:

Intercession - secondary
Intercession – secondary

Further reading:

Anchoring Pontifical Authority: A Reconsideration of the Papal Employment of the Title Pontifex Maximus. Roald Dijkstra, Dorine Van Espelo. Journal of Religious History. October 2016. DOI: 10.1111/1467-9809.12400
Abstract:
It is a common assumption that the title of supreme priesthood or pontifex maximus is included in the official papal titulature, and it has been supposed that the Roman bishop adopted it from the Roman emperor in late antiquity. In fact, however, it was probably not until the fifteenth century that the designation was first used by the papacy, and it has continued to be part of papal representation ever since. The title was deeply rooted in the Roman imperial past. At several stages in papal history the papal agency felt the need to draw back (again) on this ancient, traditional title and managed to successfully (re‐)introduce the title by anchoring it in the cultural biography of the papacy.

Pope’s Twitter Handle: What Does “Pontifex” Mean, Anyway? – Jimmy Akin

Mediator (Christ as Mediator) – Catholic Encyclopedia

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