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Papacy too heavy for one man to carry


This is the fourth of 11 articles exploring the future of the papacy. The series of 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 article was translated by MacEoin.

Who will succeed John Paul II? Will a new pope mean papal reform?

John Paul himself, in May 1996, linked these two questions organically in the encyclical Ut Unum Sint (“that they may be one”). The Catholic church, he said, should join other Christians “in a search for a way of exercising the primacy that would be open to a new situation.”

This was a daring initiative. The pope was proposing to resolve, as an item of ordinary business, in dialogue with other Christian churches, an issue so delicate and so loaded with explosive tensions as to require in earlier centuries the intervention of an ecumenical council.

The initiative immediately raised the temperature of the customary pre-papal election discussions. The task now is not simply to identify the suitable candidates, the papabili, but also to define the nature of the papal office.

One of the first discussions it provoked was an interdisciplinary symposium organized by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in December 1996 on “The Primacy of the Successor of Peter.” Representatives of other Christian confessions participated, and Cardinals Joseph Ratzinger and Godfried Danneels made interventions.

Also noteworthy were former San Francisco Archbishop John Quinn’s remarkable conference at Oxford and Jesuit Fr. Klaus Schatz’s essay on primacy. These constituted an effective exercise of the “sense of faith,” which Vatican II recognized as existing in the universitas fidelium (“collectivity of the faithful”), as did John Paul’s statement in the 1996 Apostolic Constitution, Universi Dominici Gregis, that a papal election “is not an event isolated from the people of God and of concern only to the electoral college, but in a certain sense an action of the entire church.”

How radical must the reform be? French Jesuit Pierre Vallin insists that it must involve an evolution of dogma. “It is possible to anticipate in this regard that historical and theological studies carried out in common with the other ecclesial traditions will lead in years to come to a renewed understanding of what is really tied to the confession of faith in the Western church’s perception of a universal primacy of the bishop of Rome. ... A raising of theological consciousness regarding the relativity of the doctrinal formulations of a given epoch and a given cultural ambience can in time develop a process that would lift itself to the level of a dogmatic conscience, worked out in interecclesial processes of reception and recognition.”

In addition to deeper theological understanding, a prime element for such reform is water from the spiritual well. This involves collective spiritual processes modeled on what occurred in the primitive church of Jerusalem during the incarceration of Peter when “they prayed unceasingly for him.” Men and women of the cloister, such as St. Bernard of Clairvaux, St. Peter Damien and St. Catherine of Siena, have always taken the lead in criticizing legal centralism in the church, the dizzy pretensions of papal control and temporal power.

John Paul II has again presented the church, under the guise of an updating, as a societas perfecta inequalis (“unequal perfect society”), committed to the systematic exercise of an ethico-political role in the center of modern society. This has confused spiritual primacy with a neo-medieval re-edition of a political primacy among the nations and has resulted in an objectively harmful compromise of the papacy with worldly powers.

Even after Vatican II, many still confuse papal primacy and infallibility with absolute sovereignty, a confusion editorially deplored by La Civilta Cattolica, the Italian Jesuit magazine: “The superimposing of these elements -- perhaps at times with the connivance of some church opinion-makers -- has meant that the pope continues to be erroneously regarded by large parts of public and church opinion as the holder of extensive political, financial and -- more generally -- temporal power.”

A belief in “infallibilism,” which confuses infallibility with impeccability, naturally follows. “We have here, says La Civilta Cattolica, “a psycho-sociological attitude, not always free of servility, typical of the court mentality that arises -- outside the pure doctrine of personal papal infallibility -- as an abnormal growth on that doctrine, [producing] a proliferation of papolatry and courtly Byzantinism.”

There exists consequently in the church a consistent -- even if not yet theologically decisive -- current of opinion that challenges the papacy to clarify the dogmatic definitions of 1870 by a courageous effort to contextualize these definitions within the cultural and political framework of that historic period.

The Schatz essay mentioned above contains a pertinent suggestion. Can we not use the Council of Constance’s decree, Haec Sancta, to deal with -- beyond the specific emergency of that moment (the Western Schism) -- extreme situations of a breakdown of the papacy, for example, a new papal schism, a “heretical pope,” a pope who preys on the church through simony or a pope who is losing his mind?

This last situation, which cannot be excluded, would today create, Schatz notes, “a serious structural crisis,” and the same “is true also and even more emphatically for the preceding ‘gray zone’ of reduced psychic capacity and nervous resistance.”

The church also needs to develop a higher level of synodal culture. The synod of bishops must be restructured to ensure better participation of the bishops in the exercise of primacy. Danneels, primate of Malines-Brussels, has called for a “council of the crown” around the pope, to consist of six or seven cardinals from around the world to function as counselors. What this and similar proposals seek to emphasize is that the church was established by Christ simultaneously “on the foundation of Peter” and “on the foundation of the apostles.”

When all the cards are put on the table, it becomes clear that the papacy can no longer be filled by a single person, simply because of the present absolutist definition of the pope’s dogmatic status. When Vatican Council I formulated the dogmas of papal primacy and infallibility, the bishops present in the hall were 774 out of about a thousand active bishops in the whole Catholic church. The 1997 Annuario Pontificio lists Catholic bishops today in office at some 4,600. Those retired, about a thousand, are more numerous than the fathers at Pius IX’s council.

At the end of the 19th century, the Catholics who feared for the freedom of a pope who had just been despoiled of his kingdom, numbered 272 million, most of them in Europe. Catholics now number nearly a billion, the majority in Africa, Latin America and Asia. Three years from now, nearly three of every four Catholics will live in what we call the South, while their church will continue to function according to theological and canonical paradigms that are predominantly Eurocentric.

In 1900 a dozen countries had ambassadors accredited to the Holy See. Now there are 180. The head and sovereign of the principal Christian church has thus become a world religious leader whose duties include ecumenical, interreligious, diplomatic, theological, pastoral and political activities, all on a global scale.

An obvious question arises: Has the papal institution become so insupportable as to be sacrificial? We have the example of Pope Luciani (John Paul I) whose reign lasted a mere 33 days, and now the “pyramidal syndrome” that has struck the psychophysical colossus that was Pope Wojtyla (John Paul II) in a context in which we cannot exclude with certainty that his brain problems are not traceable to the pyramidal structure of his office and to the stress created by this kind of sovereignty.

If there is a probable linkage between the personal pathology of John Paul II and the structural pathology of the papal system, then the therapy adopted by the Roman curia to keep the pope on his feet is a mere placebo that must end up causing more harm. Austrian Cardinal Franz König declared in 1995 that “the bureaucratic apparatus of the Vatican has developed its own life to such a level as to take on (de facto, non de jure) functions that are proper to collegiality and to consultation with bishops. From that point of view, there is still no solution to this problem.”

The same cardinal had said, just after the sudden death of Pope Luciani in 1978, that “it is necessary to reduce more than has been done up to now, the physical and psychic overload to which the pope is subjected, the burden involved in the office, delegating to others some of the papal functions so as not to exceed the limits of fatigue a human being can tolerate.”

The failure of the strategy of a “new Christendom” has been recognized even by Cardinal Ratzinger. Secularization has developed and spread beyond all anticipation, making it necessary to undertake a profound re-evaluation of every Christian form if Christianity is to survive. A clear awareness of that prospect demands a dramatic discussion with the entire Christian tradition while trying to decide which aspects of the papacy should be retained and which should change.

Ratzinger recognizes that Christian society is being pulverized before our eyes by the process of secularization, and he rejects as “false” the view of those who fool themselves by thinking that “faith will again become a mass phenomenon.” He notes that “the cultural and public role of the church will no longer be the same as it has presented itself up to now,” and that “the relationship between church and society continues to change and will presumably evolve in the direction of a non-Christian society.”

Still, he doesn’t despair. Rather, in the exhaustion of the strategy of a religio societatis (“religion of the society”) in an era of a quantatively reduced Christianity, he continues to entertain the possibility of a more aware Christianity.

That prospect, however, forces the church to invest all its energy in forming interior Christians, and in forming consciences, with the object of creating a generation of Christians able to offer new models of life, to present a barrier against universal homogenization, to recover the ability to criticize and oppose the dominant myths and earthly interests.

If the Ratzinger analysis -- in its almost apocalyptic lucidity -- is correct, then it follows inescapably that the shape of the papacy on the horizon must reflect the development of the radical crisis of the Christian project to the extent that it survives as a residual form of Constantinian Christendom.

This is a papacy that has to redesign itself according to the pattern of Vatican II’s pastoral constitution Gaudium et Spes, notwithstanding the fact that this approach has been too often contradicted by Vatican behaviors and choices: “The apostles, their successors and those who assist those successors have been sent to announce to men Christ, the savior of the world. Hence in the exercise of their apostolate they must depend on the power of God, who very often reveals the might of the gospel through the weakness of its witnesses. For those who dedicate themselves to the ministry of God’s word should use means and helps proper to the gospel. In many respects these differ from the supports of the earthly city.”

Even when the issue is to undertake the ethico-critical mission in the political order, the document insists that the church must use “all and only” means proper to the gospel.

The remedy is not really in the power of the means but in the awareness of the spiritual purposes of the church. The advice of St. Bernard of Clairvaux in De Consideratione to Pope Eugene III comes to us from the 13th century to illuminate still the papal function at the end of this millennium: “Authority has been given to you so that you may share, not that you give orders. Yes; act as a servant. Yourself a man, do not try to make other men your servants -- you would make yourself the servant of a thousand villanies.

“Yes, you occupy the first rank, the first rank by excellence; but for what purpose do you occupy it? ... Even we, therefore, no matter how high an opinion we may have of our prerogatives, let us not hesitate to recognize that a service has been placed on us, not that we have been granted power. ... And so that you may not think that this has been said solely for humility, and not for truth, here is what the Lord says in the gospel: ‘Among pagans it is the kings that lord it over them, and those who have authority over them are given the name of benefactor.’ And he adds: ‘This must not happen with you.’ Nothing could be clearer: Dominion is forbidden to the apostles.”

Giancarlo Zizola, who lives in Rome, is considered the dean of today’s Vaticanologists. He has covered the Vatican for publications in many countries since before Vatican II. Many of his books, which include biographies of Popes John XXIII and Paul VI, have been widely translated.

National Catholic Reporter, October 31, 1997