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Stress on papal primacy led to exaggerated clout for a pope among equals


This is the third 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.

I am amazed that whenever I explain the theological limits to papal power the same question arises: “If the pope does not have a direct line to God, who does?” This is linked with the assumption that pope and church are coterminous and that everything the pope says is absolute law for “good Catholics.”

Popular perceptions are not theology, but they do give us access to the way in which belief and doctrine are understood by most people. Many are confused about the extent and limit of papal authority and are surprised to learn how recent total papal control of the church really is.

Infallibility is usually taken as the summation of papal authority. This is incorrect. Infallibility is actually hedged in with severe restrictions. The bishops at the First Vatican Council (1869-1870) were careful to define exactly what they meant by infallibility and stipulated precisely the conditions under which it could be exercised. At Vatican I there was a sizeable minority of bishops who forced a serious debate about infallibility.

No such care was taken with papal primacy, for the minority bishops were less focused on this issue. Yet it is primacy that has created most subsequent problems. It has led to the exercise of untrammelled papal power and has become a major stumbling block in ecumenical relationships with the Orthodox (who consider the definition to be heresy) and Protestants.

What precisely did Vatican I teach on infallibility?

When the pope speaks ex cathedra as teacher of the church, on issues of faith or morals, he speaks infallibly because he shares in the divine assistance promised to Peter by Christ.

This is not a personal gift. No pope can speak infallibly as a private theologian, nor make his personal opinions normative; in order to make an infallible statement, he must always speak within an ecclesial context and give voice to the belief of the church.

Unfortunately, this unequivocal context was muddied at the last moment by the inclusion of a sentence that attempted to exclude the Gallican position held at the council by a couple of French bishops. The Gallicans maintained that the pope was only infallible if the broad church community gave subsequent assent to his teaching. The sentence excluding Gallicanism is badly formulated, and it says that the pope’s “definitions” are “irreformable of themselves and not from the [subsequent] consent of the church.” This sentence, in isolation, could be interpreted to imply that the pope was infallible of himself and that he did not have to make sure that he was teaching what the church believed and taught.

The very danger that many bishops at the council feared -- that the pope would become an ecclesiastical oracle -- was opened up by this badly formulated sentence.

The council recognized that primacy was an ancient doctrine and no one disputed it. But what did it mean and how was it to be defined? This debate revolved around three questions: the extent and limit of papal jurisdiction, the sense in which papal and episcopal power coexisted, and the relationship of a pope to an ecumenical council. None of these historical questions was dealt with adequately at Vatican I. They were sidestepped, largely because an ideological rather than an historical hermeneutic dominated the thinking of the majority at the council.

Proper jurisdiction

What was defined was that Peter, as head of the apostles, had true and proper jurisdiction bestowed on him by Christ. This jurisdiction is passed on to the bishops of Rome so that Peter lives on in his see in an almost sacramental manner. There is a sense in which the pope is more the “vicar of Peter” than the “vicar of Christ,” a term that only came into widespread usage with Innocent III (1198-1216).

The conciliar teaching continued in legalistic rather than theological language: the Roman church possesses “a preeminence of ordinary power” that is “episcopal and immediate.” It is significant that primacy is defined in terms of power and not in terms of leadership. In this sense the pope has authority over the ecclesial communion rather than providing a service of unity to it. The universal power of jurisdiction is “full and supreme” in matters of faith and morals, as well as in everything that concerns the discipline and government of the whole church and everyone in it.

The definition suggests that there are no limits to papal power, and certainly since 1870 this has been the popular perception. The reason the bishops of Vatican I were far less nuanced in the definition of papal primacy was clearly recognized even by many contemporaries: the bishops’ theology of the church was defective. Cuthbert Butler, a historian of Vatican I, comments: “Here is a summary of Catholic doctrine on the church in which there is no account taken of the hierarchy, episcopate, ministry, ecumenical councils: simply church and pope.”

After the papal definitions, the council was suddenly prorogued, as the Italian armies were in the final stages of occupying the papal states, thereby completing the unification of Italy. Pius IX (1846-1878) made no attempt to recall the council. He had achieved his aims: infallibility and primacy had enhanced papal power without any corresponding theological or ecclesial context. Like most contemporary bishops, Pius saw the definitions in apocalyptic terms: They were bulwarks against the “demonic forces” of liberalism, democracy and the modern world. Instead, the definitions have now created an ecumenical and constitutional crisis for the church itself.

Between the First Vatican Council and the Second (1962-1965), the equation that the pope equals the church went totally unchallenged. Attempts were made at Vatican II to right this imbalance through the doctrine of episcopal collegiality and the enhancement of the role of the laity. Certainly, the teaching of Vatican I must be read within the context of Vatican II. Vatican I was the final product of a millennium of Western isolation from the Orthodox churches, which had much stronger episcopal and synodal traditions.

At Vatican II there were Orthodox and Protestant observers present, and they influenced the formulation of the council’s documents. Vatican II also had the advantage of an articulated and traditional ecclesiology. This was developed through a renewal of patristic studies and a clearer sense of the historical development of doctrine. At Vatican II the historical hermeneutic predominated over the ideological.

Since Vatican II, however, this more participative vision of church polity has not been realized in ecclesiastical structures. The papacy of Paul VI (1963-1978) was characterized by a failure to make the hard, practical decisions needed to implement in church structures and thinking the ecclesiology of Vatican II. Attempts were made to establish a synod of bishops, but these were hamstrung from the start by papal control of agenda and topics. There was a tinkering with the structure of the Roman curia, but no attempt was made to force this body to take seriously the new ecclesiology.

Extreme situation

The papacy of John Paul II [1978- ] has led to a more extreme situation than that obtained before Vatican II. The only way to reform the cumbersome and unnecessary curial bureaucracy is to abolish it.

For the first millennium of church history the popes certainly claimed church headship and this was generally accepted. Papal authority ebbed and flowed and was always more widely accepted in the European West than it was in the Eastern Byzantine Empire. Papal power was expressed more in terms of a cooperative Petrine theology of leadership rather than isolated domination. The popes usually acted with the bishops as “the first among equals.”

This pattern changed in the second millennium. The medieval popes adopted theocratic pretensions based on an ideology of power, largely derived from Roman law. Because medieval ecclesiology was extraordinarily weak, discussion was carried on in legal and canonical terms.

This period also sees the emergence of the notion of papal monarchy, a notion reinforced in the 16th century by the political ideology of European absolutism. It is not accidental that the Vatican I definitions were derived from the formulations of the 17th century Jesuit apologist St. Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621).

The tension with which we live today is that, while our theology of the church is much stronger, it coexists with medieval and baroque legalistic and political notions of ecclesiastical polity that are fundamentally antagonistic to a more organic understanding of the church. This results in a corrosive disjunction that is far from being resolved.

Thus the Wojtyla papacy has ironically brought to realization in the last years of the second Christian millennium the notion of high ecclesiastical power that the popes of the last thousand have claimed as their own. During this millennium, nevertheless, alongside this theoretical assertion of papal power, there always coexisted effective inhibitions in the form of ecclesiastical and civil structures and alternative views of church polity. These limited the expression of papal power and prevented over-centralization. Many of these checks and balances have today disappeared with the enormous speeding up of communications. In consequence, the popular perception that the pope equals the church represents the truth of what is actually happening.

Certainly, episcopal collegiality, ecumenical councils, the doctrine of reception and an enhanced sense of lay dignity still theoretically exist as a potential check on power. But the papacy continues to control the structures through which these checks and balances operate. In the last 20 years these Vatican II teachings have not been taken seriously by Rome. The Wojtyla papacy is the most powerful in history.

A caveat needs to be added: With the abolition of the Roman Inquisition and an inability to call in the secular authorities to enforce papal decrees, it is more difficult now to enforce the papal will. Also a theologically sophisticated laity is unmoved by ecclesiastical fulminations. As a result, increasingly severe ecclesiastical penalties are invoked, as the excommunication of Sri Lankan theologian Fr. Tissa Balasuriya illustrates.

Call for reform

What can we draw from tradition to help us into the future?

First, we need to reassert the church’s synodal tradition. The church is not an absolute monarchy. While it is not a democracy either, its essential structure has more in common with democratic models than imperial. The local community is the foundation. This is better expressed by people with common interests or bonds than by a geographical unit such as a parish. The local community is the primary locus of decision making.

Local communities gather into dioceses, which need to be smaller units: there should be one bishop for about every 100,000 Catholics. At present worldwide there are about 2500 dioceses with 965 million Catholics. To achieve the ideal we need three to four times the present number of dioceses. Leadership at both the local and diocesan level should be elected. Diocesan bishops and representative priests and laity would form the national synod and the elected president of that synod would act as metropolitan.

The pope would be elected by a college made up of the metropolitans with representatives of clergy, religious and laity.

Second, we need a new general council rather than an ecumenical council. General councils (like the councils of the second millennium) represent the western Roman Catholic church; ecumenical councils are broader and include all Christian churches. The Orthodox hold that a truly ecumenical council is impossible as long as the church remains split. If, as the Council of Constance (1414-1417) mandated, there were regular decennial general councils, these could gradually move toward a true ecumenical council with the increasingly full participation of the Orthodox, Protestants and Anglicans.

However, the last thing the church needs is Vatican III. The next council should be held as far from Rome and the Vatican as possible in order to protect it from the machinations of the curia. It would need to be organized and run by a body representing the world episcopate under the presidency of the pope.

It would deal with problems such as the crisis in the priesthood and ministry, the complex ethical and social issues facing modern society, and the need to reinterpret the meaning of the structures that underpin our culture. It would also have to confront the crisis of authority by rethinking and recontextualizing the Vatican I definitions, especially on primacy and magisterium. There is also a real need to recover the other teaching authorities: the conciliar magisterium, the episcopal magisterium and the theological magisterium.

This council would also need to deal decisively with the Roman curia, an anachronistic, baroque institution (in its present form it comes from the early 16th century) that has no place in the modern world. It ought to be replaced by a much smaller secretariat staffed by competent Catholics who actually represent the broader church, rather than the narrowly scholastic, ministerially inexperienced and unrepresentative staff of the contemporary Vatican.

Thus, as the church enters the third Christian millennium it must face radical change. If it fails, its future will be problematic indeed.

Fr. Paul Collins of Canberra, Australia, a graduate of Harvard University, is a broadcaster and historian. His most recent book is Papal Power (Harper Collins, 1997).

National Catholic Reporter, October 24, 1997