This term, borrowed from the vocabulary of pagan religion at Rome, made its way early into Christian discourse. Lexicographers derive it, although with clear misgivings, from the Latin words pons (bridge) and facere (to make, build). If this derivation is accepted, it is easy to see how readily it applies to those who build a bridge to make a way for men to God. Nevertheless, in Roman religion it designated members of the council of priests forming the Pontifical College, which ranked as the highest priestly organization at Rome and was presided over by the pontifex maximus.
It is not clear when the term first made its appearance as a designation for Christian religious leaders, or whether Tertullian's ironic use of the designation pontifex maximus (in his De pudicitia, c. a.d. 220) for a Catholic bishop represents current terminology or not. In the Vulgate pontifex is used in Hebrews as a translation for the Greek ἀρχιερεύς (chief priest, high priest).
In present ecclesiastical usage the term "pontiff" (with its derivatives, "pontifical" and the verb "pontificate") is applied to bishops and especially to the pope. Although for the sake of clarity we still prefix supreme (sovereign) or Roman to the word pontiff in designating the pope, it is generally to him that there is reference when we speak of "the pontiff." The reference to all bishops is maintained in such expressions as "the Common of Confessor Pontiff" (in the Roman Missal and Breviary), "all holy pontiffs and confessors" (an invocation in the Litany of Saints). In the derived forms, too, the reference at times is clearly to all bishops: the Roman Pontifical is the liturgical book that contains the rites and formulas for liturgical acts performed by all bishops; and bishops (and certain other dignitaries) are said to pontificate when they celebrate the Eucharistic sacrifice and perform other liturgical acts with all the insignia of their office or dignity.
It is to be noted, however, that the English adjective pontifical has come more and more to designate that which is concerned with or belongs to the pope. Thus when institutes, colleges, universities, athenea, and societies are described as pontifical, the adjective indicates that the corporation in question has been directly established or approved by the pope or is immediately dependent upon him. In the Code of Canon Law (c.488.3) religious congregations that have received approbation from the Holy See are technically described as of "pontifical right"; others not yet so approved are said to be of "diocesan right." And when the expression "pontifical teaching" or "pontifical document" is employed, the reference is clearly to the Holy Father. The same exclusive reference is found in the cognate noun form pontificate (e.g., "in the pontificate of").
As a consequence of this restriction of meaning, the term that in earlier times looked to fullness of priestly and sacramental power (possessed by all bishops) is gradually becoming one that denotes the fullness of pastoral and teaching power and therefore applies (without addition of supreme or Roman) to the pope alone.
See Also: bishop (in the church); pope.
Bibliography: m. bierbaum, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner (Freiberg 1957–65) 8:613. g. j. laing, Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, ed. j. hastings (Edinburgh 1908–27) 10:325–335.
[s. e. donlon]
So pontifical adj. XV; sb. pl. bishop's vestments XIV; book of episcopal rites XVI. — L. pontificate officiate as bishop. XIX. f. pp. of medL. pontificāre.