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Church needs renewed Petrine ministry By BERNARD HÄRING

This is the second of 11 articles exploring the future of the papacy. The essays, edited by Gary MacEoin, will be expanded and published as a book, The Papacy and the People of God, by Orbis Books, in the near future. This essay was translated from the German by Fr. Francis X. Murphy.

A sudden hope filled me as I watched in 1978 while John Paul II was being installed as pope. After the oft-quoted, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church,” I heard the warning, “Get behind me, Satan. You are a scandal.” Will this papacy, I asked myself, initiate a truly biblical and ecumenical renewal of the Petrine ministry?

The past two decades, however, have disillusioned me. An increasingly uncompromising Vatican centralism, together with punitive control mechanisms, have dashed my expectation. We must still hope, nevertheless, that John Paul will go down in history for his courageous encyclical Ut Unum Sint (“That They May Be One”), a prophetic sign, an invitation to all Christians to join in a search for a universally acceptable Petrine ministry.

I have intentionally said Petrine ministry rather than papacy. Overtones associated with the latter word unfortunately inhibit authentic attempts at dialogue.

Motivated by Vatican Council II’s ecumenical advances, many Catholics entertain an ardent desire for a Petrine ministry in keeping with the gospel, the primitive church and the signs of the times. The many Christians represented by the World Council of Churches, a body that has removed all major obstacles to Christian unity, share that desire.

Vatican II, supported by John XXIII and Paul VI, called for elimination of more than minor defects. We need a conversion and structural changes in the papal office to return us to the biblical beginnings and the historical experiences of the first Christian centuries.

Peter’s ministry

The New Testament’s astonishingly meaningful picture of the person of Peter and his original activities help us understand his specific ministry. That Jesus entrusted him with a specific ministry is beyond doubt. Peter shows himself as spontaneous. He possesses initiative and goes directly to Jesus, his master, on occasions that were decisive for the working of the Spirit. Still, his betrayal, resulting from a false, all-too-earthly misunderstanding of the Messiah, is shocking. Jesus qualified it as “a Satanic scandal.”

Seeing through Peter’s appalling lack of understanding, however, Jesus promises him a fundamental conversion. The Acts of the Apostles (1:15-26), for example, depicts Peter’s role in electing a replacement for Judas Iscariot. Having announced that the symbolic number Twelve has to be restored, he leaves the search to the whole community. And when two acceptable candidates are identified, instead of hazarding his authority, he gladly has the issue decided by drawing lots.

Peter and the primitive church were not shocked when Paul “opposed him to his face” on an important question, since Peter was at fault (Galatians 2:11). At the so-called Council of Jerusalem in 51 A.D., Peter plays an enabling role but again without exercising decisive authority. Earlier he had opened a new perspective by baptizing the pagan Cornelius and his whole family (Acts 10:2). Nevertheless, this does not give the impression that Paul had taken precedence because of his pioneering activity.

The bishop of Rome performed a special function from the beginning -- not, however, as successor of Peter but because both Peter and Paul had preached the gospel and given witness with their martyrdom in Rome. He clearly exhibited a responsibility for the entire church, as did the patriarchs of Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem.

Worldly trappings

The church is neither a monarchy nor an oligarchy. It is, as Vatican II declares, the pilgrim “people of God,” exemplary through its intimate relationships, its history, its ability to dialogue with confidence in the workings of the divine Spirit “in all and through all,” and always in full view of all.

Since Constantine, however, the church has gradually taken on monarchical -- even at times absolutistic -- structures, worldly trappings, triumphalistic pomp and ridiculous titles of honor. Equally harmful to her image has been the tendency to sacralize these propensities. The church that so convincingly calls for conversion of the individual must recognize that she herself needs an in-depth renovation of structures, forms of address and mindsets, in a word, an authentic conversion.

Over the last century this church has created a sound social ethic and the basic principles of solidarity and subsidiarity. Current structure and practices, nevertheless, involve activities that progressively contradict these principles. Everything in government and teaching comes from the top down, from above to below, with singular tendencies to monopolistic power. The church even claims a monopoly of the truth and an all-embracing method of interior control.

At Vatican II, the church had declared herself explicitly of a synodal or collegial structure. Yet the Roman Synods of Bishops, being limited to an advisory role, have had almost no influence. Their majority decisions are treated as simply nonbinding. The 1980 synod, for example, decided almost unanimously that the Roman Catholic church could, in its pastoral care of the divorced and remarried, follow the example of the oikonomia or practice of the Orthodox churches. [The Orthodox churches permit the innocent party to remarry; in pastoral practice, both parties may be considered innocent.] The record of the synod’s decision, as set out in the encyclical Familiaris Consortio was more than surprising. There the pope decided -- without explanation or advice -- that the divorced and remarried could not under any circumstances receive the sacraments without a declaration of nullity.

Vatican I had placed clear limitations on papal infallibility. Without the explicit inclusion of these limitations the constitution Pastor Aeternus -- on papal infallibility -- could not have won the necessary votes.

Pope John Paul’s declaration that women cannot be ordained as priests was at first labeled definitive, then upgraded by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to infallible. It is evident, however, to the countless dissenting men and women theologians and many bishops, that the means provided by divine providence to ensure the entire Church’s participation were not employed before the papal declaration . We need no change in the dogma of infallibility, merely its authentic interpretation. Only thus will it be clear that the papal magisterium is fully joined in solidarity with the church’s worldwide faith community.

What Vatican I taught on the primacy of papal jurisdiction is still in effect; and it is bound in with the notion of collegiality in all phases of the church’s being. This was a singular concern of Vatican II.

The papacy, nevertheless, remains a serious obstacle, one that can be overcome only by a new praxis that observes the principle of subsidiarity. No explanations of papal rule can overcome this obstacle to unity as long as such practices as Rome’s naming and deposing of bishops are continued.

In the church’s early centuries no one thought that the bishop of Rome should name other bishops. Even today no such idea -- let alone practice -- exists in any of the principal patriarchates of the East. Centralized bishop-naming and its accompanying system of central control is a carryover from an era of political centralism and authoritarianism. In today’s democratic culture that recognizes the principle of subsidiarity for the whole secular world (including the papacy), this system constitutes a serious case of historical alienation.

John Paul II applies a simple criterion in naming bishops and in the rigid control of men theologians (and even more of women theologians): a strict conformity with his interpretations on contraception, the pastoral care of the divorced and remarried, and the irrevocable exclusion of women from priestly ordination.

For selecting bishops, the starting point should be the practice of the first thousand years. One single process or pattern is not needed for the entire church. Bishops’ conferences can now fulfill the function of the ancient patriarchates, setting the rules not only for naming bishops but for such activities as certifying theology professors. Canon Law for the entire church can and should be less rigid. Synodal structures must be strengthened and be seen to function everywhere, thus assuming different forms in various cultural situations. Watchfulness and responsibility must replace the centralized control system.

More than a symbol

Peter’s successor is more than a mere symbol of unity. His office is a positive service to the unity of all Christians. Because of the collegial nature of the office, we cannot go back to the election of the bishop of Rome by the Roman clergy along with the Roman people and neighboring bishops. Electing a pope is a universal church activity of the highest importance.

The process has a rich history with light and dark sides. The circle of electors was gradually widened, but it was not until Nicholas II (1059) and Alexander III (1179) that the cardinals became the sole electors, a process that developed by analogy to and in imitation of the monarchical heredity principle. The cardinals, then few in number, were considered the “sons” of the pope, who thus created a dynasty by naming a small circle of heirs.

The history of the predominance of the cardinals -- as well as relatives and so-called celibate “sons” -- in selecting the pope includes periods that were utterly shocking, the atmosphere of the gospel hardly recognizable.

Given the pope’s fundamental role as bishop of Rome, it would be appropriate that the Eastern churches and the traditional metropolitan churches in communion with Rome be invited to make specific suggestions for future elections, and also contribute some of the electors.

The presidents of the worldwide conferences of bishops should likewise participate in the church’s selection of a new pastor, as should outstanding men and women. That women be included seems to me an unavoidable advance on the realization of the Petrine ministry for the entire people of God, in view of the updating of the church in keeping with the signs of the times.

Given the universal desire for Christian unity, the Petrine ministry is more important today than ever before. For the sake of its gospel-oriented form, the Petrine ministry must be fundamentally simpler than the tradition-burdened papacy. Its qualifications should not go beyond the talents of a well-endowed individual.

This ministry must be completely freed of historically foreign accretions, from secular decorations and ridiculous pomp. Titles such as “your Holiness” belong to the past. How grotesque it is for the pope to name “prelates of honor” to “His Holiness”! Everything about such titles is false. The word prelate signifies predominance over others: and the pope calls himself “My Holiness”! Not only must the pope not name any more “wearers of the purple.” He must end the whole complicated and often ridiculous system of titles of honor and advancements.

The sophisticated system of rewards and punishments in the papal service has endangered the purity of motives. The future pope must renounce his role as a political leader among world rulers, an action that will eliminate the entire system of nunciatures. The witness of the gospel will be stronger when pope and bishops refrain explicitly from political involvements. Liaison of local churches with the papacy will then be maintained by the bishops’ conferences, which will send representatives to the Apostolic See. Channels of information will inevitably be more open and free of political interference.

Many people believe that the Catholic church, in view of its ecumenical commitment, should courageously reconsider the two dogmas defined by Vatican Council I, namely infallibility and papal primacy. In my considered opinion, this is not necessary. It would suffice -- and be universally useful -- if the entire church and in particular the pope realistically recognized the principle of subsidiarity. The pope’s authority could then be reserved for the most pressing emergencies, retaining its validity without any suspicion of a desire for power or predominance.

Regarding infallibility, I have already compared this dogma to a safety net put together by Vatican Council I in its final hours with its dogmatic constitution Pastor Aeternus.

Vatican II insisted emphatically that the Petrine ministry and the papal magisterium are linked indissolubly to the belief of the entire people of God. This linkage includes the collegial activity and teaching of the whole college of bishops with the pope as its head.

In consequence of the many outspoken personal positions I have taken, I believe I should make myself perfectly clear. A radically renewed Petrine ministry means much more for the entire church and for the re-establishment of Christian unity than a tradition-bound papacy.

Fr. Bernard Häring, now in retirement in the Redemptorist monastery in Gars, Germany, has been called “the most significant figure in Catholic moral theology in the second half of the 20th century.” The author of numerous books, he continues to speak out and publish on topics of concern.

National Catholic Reporter, October 17, 1997