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Inflated papacy is stumbling block to unity


The papal role has grown over time, concentrating ever more power in one man and his “court” -- the curia.

The sole gospel text to use the word church is Matthew 16:18. For many scripture scholars, this text means that Peter’s primacy is one of service, not of jurisdiction. And nothing in the New Testament indicates that Peter was to have a successor. The early church was a loose federation of episcopal churches. Rome, together with Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem, gradually became a reference in matters of faith.

Polycarp, second century bishop of Smyrna, and his disciple Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, attest to the growing role of the Petrine church as arbiter in matters of doctrine, at least for the Western church. But the question is, “Whom to believe?” not “Whom to obey?”

Bishops retained their independence. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage (250), was unequivocal: “There is no bishop of bishops.” When Constantine moved to Byzantium (Constantinople), the pope remained in Rome as “Patriarch of the West.” As temporal leader of the imperial capital, he began to legislate, publishing “decretals” with the force of law. The West became “papalist” while the East remained “conciliar.” The gradual decline -- and fall in 476 -- of the Roman Empire freed the pope from the emperor’s jurisdiction and consolidated his power.

Leo I (440-61) expounded a theory that would develop in later centuries: As “vicar of Peter,” the pope has charge of the universal church, governing it as the emperors governed the empire. Gelasius I (492-96) went further. The “apostolic see,” while subject to no human tribunal, can judge each local church. This view, understandably, was rejected by the Eastern church, for whom the pope is simply “the first among patriarchs.”

The Great Western Schism (1378-1447), with as many as three rival popes, led to the theory that sovereignty resides in general councils convoked regularly, not in the pope alone. The Councils of Constance (1414-18) and Basel (1431-48) defined this quite clearly. But the reunified papacy (1417) soon re-established its power over the council.

It was in this context that Luther and the other great Protestant reformers attacked the papacy. To counter Luther’s teaching on the universal priesthood of all Christians, the Council of Trent (1545-63) reaffirmed the masculine, celibate priesthood and began a profound Counter Reformation. But the religious wars, the rise of Jansenism and Gallicanism, and the Aufkl rung (Age of Enlightenment), with its insistence on the primacy of conscience over authority, all gravely weakened the papacy.

Pius VI (1791) and all his successors until Leo XIII condemned the French Revolution, freedom of opinion, the Enlightenment and all forms of democracy, whether in church or state. Pius IX listed the 80 “principal errors of our time” in his famous Syllabus of Errors (1864).

Vatican Council I (1869-70) is crucial to the present prestige and power of the Vatican. The liberal minority criticized the document De Romano Pontifice for defining the pope’s jurisdiction as “ordinary and immediate.” It wanted to link his infallibility more closely with that of the church.

After a relative liberalization by Leo XIII (1878-1903), Pius X turned the clock back with his war against Modernism, “the mother of all heresies.” A far-reaching witch hunt had a disastrous effect on Catholic scholarship, and led to the muzzling of some of the church’s finest minds (Alfred Loisy, George Tyrrell, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Henri de Lubac, Yves Congar).

Pius XI attacked communism in his encyclical Divini Redemptoris and Nazism in Mit Brennender Sorge, both in 1937. He opposed birth control (just after the Anglican Lambeth Conference had given a cautious green light) and women’s emancipation, but he also created Catholic Action to encourage more active lay participation in church life.

Pius XII, elected on the eve of World War II, remains the subject of controversy for his public silence about the Holocaust. Within the church he was far from silent, issuing statements, speeches and encyclicals on every possible topic. In 1943 he lifted the ban on modern historical and critical methods in scriptural exegesis. But his encyclical Humani Generis (1950), directed against the “new theology” in France -- especially the writings of Jesuit paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin -- put the brake on creative thinking. Politically more anticommunist than antifascist, he condemned communism as “intrinsically perverse,” but signed a concordat with Franco’s fascist regime (1953).

John XXIII’s election (1958) marked a watershed. His inspired decision to convene the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) -- against the advice of “the prophets of doom” -- provided a refreshing wind of change, opening the church’s windows onto the contemporary world.

The largest council in the church’s history, the 2,640 voting participants soon divided into an open-minded majority and a conservative minority. The council’s major challenge was to restore the balance between the pope and the rest of the church. Overturning the schema on the church by putting the laity (“the people of God”) before the hierarchy was a first victory. But the third chapter, on the collegiality of the bishops, attempted -- in vain -- to counteract the excessive power given the pope by Vatican I’s definition of his infallibility and primacy.

In spite of his intelligence and broadly progressive mindset, Paul VI vacillated, removed certain controversial subjects from the council’s agenda (such as clerical celibacy) and finally weakened the reforming thrust of the council under the pressure of 200 or 300 reactionary bishops closed to all change.

His greatest failure was over collegiality, preferring “affective” collegiality to an authentic episcopal force that might threaten papal prerogative. Vatican I remained the norm for papal primacy, as John Paul II was soon to prove.

John Paul II’s election (1978) brought the conciliar era to an abrupt end. The first non-Italian pope since 1522, the charismatic and vigorous Karol Wojtyla has achieved a general “restoration” in the church, notwithstanding continual lip service to the council. He has appointed numerous conservative bishops, often against the express wishes of the local churches, and he has adopted a hard line on sexual ethics.

His theological vision of the pope as an absolute monarch is both contrary to the gospel and impossible to put into practice. Contrary to the gospel, because it leads to an excessively centralized, bureaucratic church that tries to control every aspect of Christian life from a narrow European -- and even Roman -- viewpoint.

Born in the Middle East, the gospel is increasingly imprisoned in the narrow confines of a Western, Latin vision of the world (deprived of the oriental contribution to Christianity since the schism between East and West in 1054) and the juridical straitjacket of Roman canon law.

Impossible to put into practice, because a single man cannot run a worldwide church of 976 million people and, as in all autocratic, nondemocratic institutions, the pope’s administration is tempted to speak in his name -- often without his knowledge.

Thus the fiction of “papal documents” (usually drawn up by committees) and “papal condemnations” (often instigated by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which accuses theologians without “due process”). The older a pope gets (and he is elected for life), the less he can personally oversee the running of the church.

John Paul II consults widely but decides alone, often in contradiction to the advice given. In Spain, for example, he ignored the episcopal conference’s criticism of the controversial Opus Dei and changed its status from secular institute to personal prelature. In Italy, he encouraged the politically right-wing Communione e Liberazione, in spite of the warning issued by the Italian hierarchy. Furthermore, the synod of world bishops held regularly in Rome has become a mere rubber stamp for the pope’s views.

He rejects the anti-triumphalist, democratic, pluralist and tolerant approach rediscovered by the council and much closer to the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth, who came to serve, not to be served. But he is swimming against the tide. In spite of ambiguities, the council promoted a certain number of ideas -- such as the pre-eminence of conscience, religious freedom, the truth found in non-Catholic and non-Christian religions -- that have steadily undermined the fortress erected by the Council of Trent.

No going back

For many Catholics, especially those born since Vatican II, there is no going back. They do not hear John Paul II’s doctrinal message. If “the faithful” still turn out in vast numbers to cheer the pope on his travels, it is to applaud the charismatic figure, the hero who helped demolish the Iron Curtain and braved the assassin’s bullet, not his retrograde message. The crowds admire the singer, not the song.

John Paul II’s prohibition of clerical engagement in politics (that is, left-wing politics) does not apply to himself. His constant voyages have been criticized for their cost (usually borne by the country receiving him, including non-Catholic taxpayers), for their triumphalist trappings (open air rallies, the parading of the pope in a bulletproof popemobile, excessive TV coverage) and for their one-man shows (the pope, omnipresent, is the only one to speak, to warn, to admonish, rarely to learn and listen), but their purpose is primarily political.

This inflated papal persona is also a serious stumbling block to Christian unity. The image of the pope as supreme authority in matters of doctrine and discipline, a media “superstar” who occupies all functions and settles all disputes, religious or secular, private or political, is hardly one to reassure Orthodox and Protestant Christians. Many would accept the spiritual role of the bishop of Rome as symbol of unity, but certainly not as absolute and infallible monarch leading a disciplined army.

I would argue for a return to early church practice, a pope accepted by his brother bishops as primus inter pares, first among equals. As bishop of Rome, he was a role model and final arbiter in doctrinal disputes. As “servant of the servants of God” he fulfilled a humble service rather than a magisterial role. The church is not a worldwide multinational organization with the pope as its director, but a communion of individual churches, each governed by its bishop, successor of the apostles: Ubi episcopus, ibi Ecclesia (where there is a bishop, there is the church).

The pope is first and foremost the center of unity of the church. To be Catholic (as an individual, a bishop or a church) one must be in communion with the bishop of Rome.

There are several ways of overturning the top-heavy, hierarchical pyramid. First, implementing the principle of subsidiarity (a higher authority should never accomplish what a lower echelon is capable of doing). Second, accepting more democracy (the local election of bishops by priests and faithful, legislative authority restored to local and general synods, a greater role for the laity in the parish, women in all ministries, and so on). Third, promoting the inculturation of the gospel (allowing local liturgical rites, the development of non-Roman theologies, respect for the diversity of cultural traditions). And fourth, greater delegation of authority (allowing the laity, deacons and catechists to hold services and administer the sacraments in the absence of priests; entrusting more pastoral work to religious -- especially nuns).

The next pope, I believe, should convoke a synod of the world’s principal archbishops to examine two priorities: to define the respective roles and authority of pope and curia and pope and synod; and to rescind the canon on papal appointment of bishops. The papacy is ready for a new metamorphosis. After pagan “pontifex maximus,” Renaissance “prince” and modern CEO, why not try the gospel’s job description? “A dispute also arose between them about which should be reckoned the greatest, but he said to them: ‘Among pagans it is the kings who lord it over them, and those who have authority over them are given the title of benefactor. This must not happen with you. No; the greatest among you must behave as if he were the youngest, the leader as if he were the one who serves. For who is the greater: the one at table or the one who serves? The one at table surely? Yet here am I among you as one who serves’” (Luke 22: 24).

Alain Woodrow, who lives in Paris, is a graduate of Oxford University. He was an editor of Pax Romana journal (Fribourg, Switzerland), Informations Catholiques Internationales (Paris) and religion editor of Le Monde (Paris). He is the author of seven books, most recently The Jesuits: A Story of Power (London: Geoffrey Chapman).

This is the sixth of 11 articles, edited by Gary MacEoin, that will be expanded and published as a book, The Papacy and the People of God, by Orbis Books, in the near future.

National Catholic Reporter, November 14, 1997