Is the Pope the Head of the Church? Don’t Ask Father

Is the Pope the Head of the Church?
Don’t Ask Father

John Salza Replies to The Remnant’s Fr. Joseph Wilson 

Mr. John Salza, J.D., O.P.
March A.D. 2024


       In The Remnant newspaper’s February 29, 2024 edition of its “Ask Father” column, Fr. Joseph Wilson (the “Father” who is “asked” the questions) replied to a letter from a prisoner named “N” which expressed concern over the veracity of the so-called “blessings” of sodomite unions recently permitted by Pope Francis. The prisoner mentioned that he shares the newspaper with fellow Christian prisoners and was asked by them to give a defense of same-sex “blessings” in light of Scripture and Tradition (this author, too, would like the Pope to offer such a defense to this latest “discipline”).

Needless to say, this prisoner, like anyone else with the sensus catholicus, has been scandalized by what Fiducia Supplicans appears to sanction, even if it also expresses a correct doctrinal judgment concerning the nature of marriage. The very fact that there has been a negative, universal reaction to the document – from Cardinals to laity – in spite of its affirmation of the doctrine of Holy Matrimony, is evidence of a prima facie incoherence with Catholic moral teaching and discipline.

Unfortunately, Fr. Wilson’s efforts to alleviate the prisoner’s concern – which I no doubt believe were well-intentioned – actually promote a heresy (one that is becoming surprisingly common today), and thus serve as an example of how an overreaction to the errors of the Left can actually result in an even worse error on the Right. To reiterate, it is not Fr. Wilson’s sincerity that is being questioned; rather, it is Catholic dogma that must be defended, even when it is being denied with the best of intentions, as I’m sure Fr. Wilson would agree. That is the purpose of this article.

Note that I have also sent this article to Michael Matt (a long-time colleague of mine) requesting that he publish the article, but have not heard back from him. It would be most appropriate if Mr. Matt publish this fraternal correction, since he published Fr. Wilson’s heretical material in the first place. 

Father Wilson claims the Pope is not the Head of the Church 

Fr. Wilson’s solution for explaining how we can remain in communion with the Pope while also rejecting novelties which may come from the same Pope, is to claim that “the Pope is not the Head of the Church.” To quote Fr. Wilson directly:  

First off, the Pope is not the Head of the Church, whatever Time Magazine chooses to tell you. Christ is the Head of the Church. St. Paul makes this quite clear.


Pope Francis is the Vicar of Christ. He is not the Head of the Church. Christ is. To be a vicar is to be a steward of something, that means you care for it, you are the caretaker – NOT the owner.


For some reason, he [Pope Francis] directed that the “Vicar of Christ” title be relegated to a “historical” section. Yet I think it is the most practical and useful of his titles: it reminds him, and us, that he is not the Head of the Church. Christ is.[1] 

Unfortunately, as we will see below, Fr. Wilson’s claim that the Pope is not the Head of the Church is heretical. It is not “Time Magazine,” as Fr. Wilson flippantly remarks, but rather the Magisterium of the Catholic Church, which teaches, definitively and infallibly, that the Pope is the Head of the Church, and to hold the contrary is anathema. Also, it was the Protestants who said “Christ, and not the Pope, is the Head of the Church” and that “St. Paul made this quite clear.”

            Notice that Fr. Wilson does not qualify his statements whatsoever. He makes no distinction between Christ as the invisible Head and the Pope as the visible head of the Church Militant on Earth, or that they constitute one head, which has been taught by the Magisterium from the very beginning. He simply states that the Pope is the Vicar of Christ, but not the Head of the Church (which begs many questions about Fr. Wilson’s ecclesiology as well).

            In so doing, Fr. Wilson strangely equates ownership with headship, arguing that a “vicar” is a “caretaker” but not an “owner.” But the Magisterium does not say the Pope “owns” the Church, even though he is the Head of the Church, so this is a straw man argument. Also, speaking of himself, Fr. Wilson explains that he is “the parochial vicar of my parish. That means I am the vicar of the parochius: the Pastor. I am his delegate, his representative.”[2]

While it is true that the priest is a vicar of his bishop, and the priest’s ministry depends entirely upon him, the bishop is truly the head of his Particular (diocesan) Church, just as the Pope is truly the Head of both the diocese of Rome and the Universal Church. The bishops are not only successors of the Apostles, but heads of the Particular Churches over which they “rule and govern the flock” (Acts 20:28), just as the Pope is the Head of the Universal Church over which he rules (that is, the Church of Rome, and all of the Particular Churches united to her).

The Magisterium has consistently taught that the Pope is the Head of the Church in order to refute the many ecclesiological errors that have arisen over the centuries to undermine papal authority, most especially from the Protestants. Stripping the Pope of his rightful title as Head of the Church opens the door to an ecclesiology that sees the Church as a mere spiritual reality of “true believers” who profess the true faith, even if divided in government (just like the Protestants and Sedevacantists hold), and not a visible, juridical society, governed by a visible Head, outside of which there is no salvation, as Christ divinely established it.[3] Indeed, of all the titles used for the Pope (e.g., Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Christ, Primate of Italy, Servant of the Servants of God), the one which best expresses his supreme, universal, and immediate jurisdiction over the people of God is, indeed, “the Head of the whole Church.”[4] 

The Catholic Magisterium vs. Father Wilson 

            Many definitive Magisterial teachings could be provided which condemn Fr. Wilson’s assertion that the Pope is not the head of the Church. Let’s start with a definition of faith from the First Vatican Council, approved by Bl. Pope Pius IX: 

And so, supported by the clear witness of Holy Scripture, and adhering to the manifest and explicit decrees both of our predecessors the Roman Pontiffs and of general councils, we promulgate anew the definition of the ecumenical council of Florence, which must be believed by all faithful Christians, namely that the ’holy Apostolic See and the Roman Pontiff hold a world-wide primacy, and that the Roman Pontiff is the successor of blessed Peter, the prince of the apostles, true vicar of Christ, and head of the whole Church, and father and teacher of all Christian people[5] (emphasis added). 

            As we see, Vatican I was simply repeating the definition of the Council of Florence, which states: “That the Roman Pontiff is the true vicar of Christ and head of the whole Church…”  (session 6).

            As the Council of Florence dogmatically teaches, and Vatican I affirms, the Pope is not only “the true vicar of Christ” as Fr. Wilson suggests, but also “the head of the whole Church,” a revealed truth which Fr. Wilson denies. Note well that Vatican I teaches that this truth (that the Pope is the Head of the Church) “must be believed by all faithful Christians,” which is technical language that makes it an article of divine and Catholic faith, belief in which is necessary for salvation. Moreover, Vatican I anathematizes anyone who says the contrary: 

If anyone then says that the blessed Apostle Peter was not established by the Lord Christ as the chief of all the apostles, and the visible head of the whole militant Church, or, that the same received great honor but did not receive from the same our Lord Jesus Christ directly and immediately the primacy in true and proper jurisdiction: let him be anathema. 

        Four centuries earlier, the Council of Constance condemned propositions of John Huss who, like Fr. Wilson, denied that St. Peter - and by extension is successors – the Pope, is the Head of the Church: 

 633 7. Peter is not nor ever was the head of the Holy Catholic Church. – Condemned


646 20. If the pope is wicked and especially if he is foreknown, than as Judas, the Apostle, he is of the devil, a thief, and a son of perdition, and he is not the head of the holy militant Church, since he is not a member of it. - Condemned[6] 

        In his book On the Councils, St. Robert Bellarmine refers to the condemnations of both the Councils of Constance and Florence, and qualifies the condemned error of Huss as heresy:

Churches. Similarly, at the Council of Florence it was defined that the Pope is head of the whole world and received the fullest power from the Lord to rule the universal Church. The Council of Constance, sess. 15, condemned the heresy of John Hus, saying that the Pope is not head of the Church.[7]

Pope John XXII similarly condemned the errors of Marsilius of Padua and John of Jandun who claimed that God did not establish a head over the Church: 

That blessed Peter the Apostle had no more authority than the other Apostles had nor was he the head of the other apostles. Likewise, that God did not send forth any head of the Church, nor did He make anyone His vicar. – Condemned.[8] 

  Likewise, Pope Pius VI condemned the following proposition as heretical: 

In addition, the proposition which states ‘that the Roman Pontiff is the ministerial head,’ if it is so explained that the Roman Pontiff does not receive from Christ in the person of blessed Peter, but from the Church, the power of ministry, which as successor of Peter, true vicar of Christ and head of the whole Church he possesses in the universal Church, - heretical.[9] 

            That the Pope is the Head of the Catholic Church is such a fundamental doctrine that any cradle Catholic would consider the teaching “Catholicism 101.” Thus, in the Catechism of St. Pius X, we read the following: 

50 Q. Who is the Pope?


A. The Pope, who is also called the Sovereign Pontiff, or the Roman Pontiff, is the Successor of St. Peter in the See of Rome, the Vicar of Jesus Christ on earth, and the visible Head of the Church. 

In the Baltimore Catechism, we also read the following: 

117. Q. Who is the visible Head of the Church?

A. Our Holy Father the Pope, the Bishop of Rome, is the Vicar of Christ on earth and the visible Head of the Church.


118. Q. Why is the Pope, the Bishop of Rome, the visible Head of the Church?

A. The Pope, the Bishop of Rome, is the visible Head of the Church because lie is the successor of St. Peter, whom Christ made the chief of the Apostles and the visible Head of the Church.


127. Q. In whom are these attributes found in their fullness?

A. These attributes are found in their fullness in the Pope, the visible Head of the Church, whose infallible authority to teach bishops, priests, and people in matters of faith or morals will last till the end of the world.


502. Q. What do we call the right by which St. Peter or his successor has always been the head of the Church and of all its bishops?

A. We call the right by which St. Peter or his successor has always been the head of the Church, and of all its bishops, the Primacy of St. Peter or of the Pope


503. Q. How is it shown that St. Peter or his successor has always been the head of the Church?

A. It is shown that St. Peter or his successor has always been the head of the Church: (1) From the words of Holy Scripture, which tell how Christ appointed Peter Chief of the Apostles and head of the Church. (2) From the history of the Church, which shows that Peter and his successors have always acted and have always been recognized as the head of the Church.


534. Q. What does ex-cathedra mean?

A. "Cathedra" means a seat, and "ex" means out of. Therefore, ex-cathedra means speaking from the seat or official place held by St. Peter and his successors as the head of the whole Church.[10] 

The Popes of recent memory have also affirmed that the Pope is the Head of the Church. For example, Pope Leo XIII writes: “It belongs, above all, to the Roman Pontiff, vicar of Jesus Christ, established as head of the universal Church, teacher of all that pertains to morals and faith.”[11] Leo XIII also says: 

Should anyone say that Christ is the one head and the one shepherd, the one spouse of the one Church, he does not give an adequate reply…Jesus Christ, therefore, appointed Peter to be that head of the Church; and He also determined that the authority instituted in perpetuity for the salvation of all should be inherited by His successors, in whom the same permanent authority of Peter himself should continue.[12] 

Pope St. Pius X writes: “Its [French government] officials, representatives though they were of a Catholic nation, have heaped contempt on the dignity and power of the Sovereign Pontiff, the Supreme Head of the Church, whereas they should have shown more respect to this power than to any other political power…”[13] Pope Pius XI writes:  “On the day of his consecration the Bishop, in his turn, swore obedience to the supreme visible Head of the Church, the successor of St. Peter, the Vicar of Jesus Christ.”[14]

Even the Popes of the Vatican II era have affirmed this dogmatic truth. Pope John XXIII writes: “It is under the celestial vault of the Vatican basilica that they will gather in rows around the head of the Church to make up the Apostolic College from all points of the globe, even the most remote, to the Ecumenical Council.”[15] Pope Paul VI writes: “We will express Our own mind at the proper time and in the proper manner, as Our apostolic office of teacher and shepherd and head of the Church demands, and then Our greatest wish will be to have Our own decision in full accord with the judgment of the conciliar Fathers.”[16] In Pope John Paul II’s Catechism, we also read: “Therefore, they in particular ought to have an ever-clearer consciousness not only of belonging to the Church, but of being the Church, that is to say, the community of the faithful on earth under the leadership of the Pope, the common Head, and of the bishops in communion with him. They are the Church” (CCC #899). 

Closing Comments 

While more quotations could be provided, suffice it to say that Fr. Wilson’s claims that the Pope is not the Head of the Catholic Church has been consistently condemned by that same Church as a heresy. Perhaps Fr. Wilson got his idea from James Bogle or Dr. Scott Hahn, who both recently made the same claims (that the Pope is not the Head of the Church).[17] Fortunately, after receiving fraternal correction from many of his colleagues, Dr. Hahn retracted his statement, even admitting that the statement is heretical.[18] We pray that Fr. Wilson and James Bogle have the humility to do the same.

As we suffer through this current ecclesial crisis, it is natural for Catholics to search for explanations to help us cope with the crisis. However, we must be careful not to fall into grave error as an overreaction to a scandal – or apparent scandal - that God has willed to permit, no doubt to test our faith.  This is especially true when the overreaction ends by embracing a heresy or even schism. The Church has lived through many crises before, and her Profession of Faith should be our sure guide.

The Profession tells us that we are to only give the assent of faith to those truths which the Church proposes as revealed or to be definitively held, and to give a religious submission of intellect and will to the teachings of her authentic (but non-definitive) Magisterium. However, the Church does not require an assent of faith, or even religious deference, to non-doctrinal statements, such as a non-mandatory “discipline” (and which is only a conditional “permission”), especially when it causes scandal by undermining what must be believed with supernatural faith. We don’t need to invent solutions to cope with non-binding teaching or praxis (especially when they contradict defined truths, such as the Pope is not the Head of the Church or not the true Pope). We simply need to know our Faith. This is how we will be faithful, traditional Catholics, increase our ranks, and bring about the restoration of all things in Christ.




[1] The Remnant newspaper, “Ask Father,” February 29, 2024, page 5 (emphases added).

[2] Ibid., page 5.

[3] Those who claim the Pope is not the Head of the Church often view the Church professed in the Apostles’ Creed (“One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic”) as the entire Mystical Body of Christ which includes the Church Triumphant and Suffering as well. This often leads them to view the “institutional Church,” as they call it, as a mere human institution. This is a heretical ecclesiology, which misapplies the marks of the Church (particularly the mark of catholicity) to the Mystical Body in Heaven.  

[4] Council of Florence (1439), session 6.

[5] First Vatican Council, Pastor Aeternus, chapter 3.1.

[6] Council of Constance, Session XV, July 6, 1415.

[7] Bellarmine, On Councils: Their Nature and Authority (De Controversiis), p. 228, Mediatrix Press. Kindle Edition.

[9] Denzinger, 2603; 1503.3, Decree de fide (on faith), sec. 8.


[11] Pope Leo XIII, Sapientiae Christianae, 1890, no. 15.

[12] Pope Leo XIII, Satis Cognitum, 1896, no. 11.

[13] Pope St. Pius X, Vehementer Nos, 1906, no. 6.

[14] Pope Pius XI, Ad Catholici Sacerdotii, 1935, no. 55.

[15] Pope John XXIII, Le voci che da tutti, 1961, no. 9.

[16] Pope Paul VI, Ecclesiam Suam, 1964, no. 33.

[17] See James Bogle, “Is the Pope Really the ‘Head of the Catholic Church’?,”; see also, Pints with Aquinas, Scott Hahn’s interview with Matt Fradd, October 24, 2023. Hahn made the same statements a week later at the St. Paul Center in Steubenville in a talk called “The Jeremiah Option.”

[18] Although Dr. Hahn corrected himself, we will be demonstrating that Hahn still promotes an ecclesiology that is identical to the Protestants, which he has taken in large part from a heretical book called   Introduction to the Mystery of the Church, by Benoit-Dominique de la Soujeole, O.P. We will be exposing these errors in great detail in an upcoming article.