There are few afficianados of tarot that don't struggle some with this guy. The Pope. Later decks dubbed him The Hierophant in order to jazz him up and make him less Roman Catholic-centered and more esoteric, associating him more with the Greek mystery religions as one who guides initiates in sacred mysteries. However, in many of the later decks where he's The Hierophant there's no mistaking it, this guy is The Pope. The Holy See. Hence the common kneejerk flinching many experience when this card appears. Some of the more New Age tarot decks have tried to soften this character and have renamed him and redesigned him, often smiling and less severe, to counter these reactions, but...sigh...he's still so terribly rigid, I think I may always respond with a bit of ambivalence with this one.
Tarot was created pre-Reformation and the Church at that time was every bit a civil authority, sometimes moreso, than the rulers of state. It was also at this time that the Church united under one Pope, as opposed to having multiple Popes. Rome was the seat of power over the entire "civilized world," civilized meaning Christian. This guy represented God's agent on earth and consequently held the highest authority of any human on the planet. The sad history of the ways in which this authority was abused over the centuries is part of the underlying cause of the discomfort. It is sometimes very difficult to view this card in a positive light when all one has to do is cite the Inquisitions, the Crusades, the Malleus Maleficarum and the more recent sexual abuse scandals. That's quite a load of baggage, no wonder this card has such a bad rap these days.
This is one of several cards in the Major Arcana that points to a specfically Christian worldview at the time the cards were created. The traditional decks are rife with historical Christian symbolism which spoke a common language to the people of that age. To interpret any ancient text it is important to understand how the author and his audience would have perceived the language and phrases used. Tarot, speaking in pictorial, symbolic language, is no different. How people of 15th, 16th, and 17th century Italy and France would have perceived the way the Pope is depicted on this card tells us more about the intended meaning of the card than our own, probably more negative, responses. Not that our own responses can't tell us a lot, and my own revulsion to the Pope/Hierophant has shown me much about my own issues with authority, dogma, institutions, and teachers in general, but in order to understand these, I needed to first understand the intended meaning of the card. At least that's how I go about things, usually. So it helps to understand some Christian history and symbolism when looking at the more traditional tarot decks, especially those that derive their symbolism from the early decks.
There may exist a human being who has not been frustrated or harmed by the institutional groupthink mentality and actions, but I doubt it. The Hierophant represents the church, yes, but also the universities, the organizations and groups to which we belong or affiliate ourselves with, to which we choose to answer by becoming a member. We're fortunate that the Pope doesn't have as much influence over us unless we choose to become a member of the Roman Catholic Church, and even then, only as much as the congregant allows. One can always choose to leave the church. That was not so in 15th century Italy. The Pope held governing and even military power over the land and its inhabitants. Yet even today, the Pope still holds much influential power over the way a large number of people choose to think, to act, and to govern their own lives and the lives of those they are in authority over. So while his authority is much more indirect than in past eras, it is still a very present force in global society today. Groups and institutions that are not directly governing bodies can still impact the way we live in significant ways and how we view the policies and agendas of these groups affects the way we may feel about The Hierophant. When we see him as the leader of a group or institution that we feel is beneficial to our way of life, then we can appreciate the more positive qualities of this card. However, when we view him through the lens of abusive power and harmful policies and having a "hive-mind" mentality, this card can communicate a more negative message.
The Hierophant can represent a kind professor who opened up the doors of opportunity and learning for one in the early years of college. She can be that Girl Scout leader who taught you how to build a fire and identify poison ivy. He's the yoga instructor who inspired your present spiritual path, the pastor who demonstrated what it meant to "be like Christ" when it really counted, or the uncle who taught you how to tie a tie on the night of your first formal dance. He is the one who guides the initiate, who opens doors (he is often pictured holding keys) for you through which you grow, and he is usually encountered while you are a member of the institution -- the group, the family, the institution. He is a facilitator of your spiritual growth, often helping you grow through the instruction in seemingly mundane things. One tarot reader explained to me, "He gives legs to what is unseen." The rituals that he presides over and that we perform allow us to hold in our hands a tangible representation of something invisible and intangible. He teaches intangible concepts like responsibility, faith, and love.
That's all good, right? So, aside from nagging things like burning women as witches, why shouldn't this guy bring up warm and fuzzy feelings? Erm. Ask any recovering fundamentalist, Catholic, or anyone else who has fairly traumatic experiences visited upon them by not so well-meaning Hierophants. When people entrusted with the care of souls abuse that trust then souls are damaged, and it's the wise person who learns from that experience not to entrust themselves in the care of those who have not first earned that trust. Most true Hierophants don't want it, and will advise against such blind faith. It's the upside-down Hierophants who play that game. Those are the meglomaniacs, the high-profile (and high cost!) gurus, the too-solicitous and "friendly" Boy Scout leaders, or the professor or president who has sex with interns. What often lends insult to injury to the actions of the leader himself is the common reaction of the others in power in the organization who scramble to cover-up and protect the institution at the cost of the victims. The institution must be maintained at any price, even the price of human souls, and therein lies the truly evil side of The Hierophant. No wonder we tend to scrunch up our faces at him.
If you are consistently plagued by negative reactions to this card, sometimes all it takes is one image to help you see the good side. For me it was the Hierophant in the Victoria Regina deck. While he may seem no different from other depictions of the Hierophant to many others, his face reminded me of a pastor I had always been fond of, the pastor who officiated at my wedding. I saw him and immediately went "Awwww...look, it's Andrew!" That was my own personal turning point with that card as I began to see that not all "Popes" are tyrants, not all in the care and feeding of souls abuse that trust, they're not all so concerned with the rules that they lose sight of who the rules were made to serve. No, indeed they're not. So if you're still suffering from the sting of all that turns the Hierophant on his head, look for one you can tolerate, if not love, one that reminds you of someone who didn't abuse their position, one who took their time to serve and help you grow. It helps. In more ways than reading tarot.