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Chasm of wealth biggest obstacle to unity

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

I remember well the first time I found out there was such a thing as a pope. It was in February 1939, and I was 9 years old. Walking down our street in the small town of Malvern, Pa., where I grew up, I noticed that the doors and lintels of the imposing, greystone St. Patrick’s Church, which stood almost next door to our two-family brick house and on the same block as the Baptist church we belonged to, were hung with yards of somber black ribbon. When my father came home from work that evening, I asked him what it meant.

My father, the non-churchgoing offspring of two churchly Baptist parents, pursed his lips for a moment before answering. “Well,” he finally said, “their pope died. He lived in Italy, but he died, and those ribbons are mourning decorations. It’s the way they show their sadness.”

His attitude seemed to be that if Catholics, whose ways were a bit mysterious anyway, wanted to have an Italian who lived far across the ocean as the head of their church, that was their business. It had nothing much to do with us.

Like many Protestants, however, I have had a continuing fascination with the popes and the papacy. As I grew I also came to see that the pope, even though we were not Catholics, did have something to do with us. The pope who had died on that cold February day in 1939 was Pius XI, the librarian-diplomat, whose memory tends to be overshadowed by his flashier protégé and eventual successor, Pius XII, whose somewhat sour visage and rimless glasses I came to recognize during my teen years as the Italian who heads the Catholic church.

Still, as I began to study history, first in high school and then in college, I could not help noticing that whatever period or problem I was reading about, the popes were always there. They did have something to do with us because they were significant actors in a history we all share. Among the popes, I learned, there were saints, rakes, scholars, schemers, administrative geniuses, reformers, tyrants, art collectors, warriors, builders and even an occasional personage with an interest in theology.

Somehow as I plunged deeper into history, then theology and the history of religion, it was the sheer persistence and virtual omnipresence, for blessing or for bane, of the papacy that impressed me. If the God of the Bible, as I believe, acts in and through human history, then it has to be conceded that the papacy, and not just in the West, occupies a not inconsiderable chunk of that history.

I was already a doctoral student in the history and philosophy of religion at Harvard in 1958 when Pius XII died and a roly-poly character named Roncalli was elected and took the name John XXIII. His choice of this name was a bit puzzling since the previous John, who had reigned 600 years earlier, had become a slight embarrassment to the church. John XXII had sat in Avignon and thus represented an episode in church history some Catholics would prefer to forget, and had worried theologians (is anything really new?) by talking about his mystical visions of what would happen after the final judgment.

But there you had it again: persistence. The Catholic church had waited more than 600 years. I think it is safe to say that, since Roncalli’s short papacy, the name John has now been fully restored. The Catholic church, it seems, is not in any particular hurry about these things.

John XXIII did far more than reclaim a papal name. He demonstrated in a thrilling and imaginative way the kind of freedom a pope has if he is willing to exercise it. John XXIII not only issued encyclicals such as Pacem in Terris that still reverberate, and not only assembled a council that changed the church forever, he also redefined the religious, cultural and moral meaning of the papacy itself. He did this, moreover, not through any sweeping juridical reforms but simply by the way he lived.

Not only Protestants, Jews and members of other religions, but also atheists, skeptics and agnostics seemed to admire and even love him. But why? Why would millions of people who, like my parents, think of this pope business as an odd but harmless thing Catholics indulge in, have any interest in whether a pope is generous, expansive and humble or not? It almost suggests that there was, and is, something deep in even the most unpapal (as opposed to antipapal) soul that hopes for a pope we can all feel fond of.

It is the evolution of this cultural-spiritual and moral dimension that is left out of most of the discussion I see about the future of the papacy. Maybe the omission occurs because most of those who engage in the discussion are Catholics, and since they tend to be preoccupied with internal churchly aspects of the papal office, they might miss this one. Perhaps you almost have to be something of an outsider, and therefore not so wrapped up with issues of collegiality, infallibility and curial power, to appreciate it.

The first pope I met personally was Paul VI. It was at a consultation in Rome sponsored by the Vatican’s then newly established Secretariat for Nonbelievers whose president was Cardinal Franziskus Koenig of Vienna. I was invited because it was shortly after the appearance of my book The Secular City and someone at the Vatican, possibly even prompted by the pope, thought I knew something about secularization and modern unbelief.

When at the conclusion of our talks, Pope Paul VI received the scholars who attended, he took my hand and, with gentle eyes looking over his hawk-like nose, told me that he had been reading my book and that although he disagreed with some of it, he had read it “with great interest.” I was sorry the next day that I had not asked him to put it in writing. It would have made a marvelous blurb for future editions.

What was important about that consultation was that it was sponsored by an official organ of the Vatican curia to which not only Protestants and Jews but nonbelievers and even Marxists were invited. It suggested a vast new arena for papal leadership, a transformation of the Vatican itself into a receptive space in which representatives of various contending world-views could come together for uncoerced and honest conversation. It was a truly remarkable gathering, but I regret to say that the Secretariat for Nonbelievers soon fell upon hard times. Perhaps it was just a bit in advance of its time. But I like to think of its courageous work almost as an eschatological sign, a token of future possibilities.

After all, the authority of the bishop of Rome in the early years of Christian history arose from his ability to settle otherwise intransigent disputes among rival parties within the church; so this kind of meeting would represent a logical extension of that practice. I still believe that it presages a role the papacy, and quite possibly only the papacy, could play in the next century.

Pope John Paul II has sometimes signaled an interest in such a role. I think of the inspiring prayer meeting he sponsored for the different world religions in Assisi and his historic invitation to the head rabbi of Rome to say Kaddish in the Vatican. What interested me most about these events was how eagerly people responded to his invitation and how grateful they were. The future papacy does not have to be invented out of whole cloth. Strands of it are already in hand. They need only be woven together and spread.

In Ut Unum Sint Pope John Paul II eloquently reminds his readers that the supreme vocation of the papacy is that of striving for unity of Christians. Indeed, he seems to have invited all Christians into a conversation about how this chairsma of unity might be exercised.

No doubt, of course, there will be Protestants, especially those in the more “catholic” and more ecclesially self-conscious denominations who are all too eager to take up the old debates about the validity of orders, what infallibility means, the significance of Marian piety, maybe even the current status of the filioque clause.

But I rather believe that everything that could possibly be said about these questions has already been said, most of it more than once, and that the chance of a breakthrough coming on such an agenda is fairly remote. What attracts me most about Ut Unum Sint is the pope’s suggestions about “leaving behind useless controversies” and his intriguing allusion to a “new situation.”

The most painful feature of our “new situation” at the turn of the millennium is that the most hurtful divisions in the world and in the church universal do not run along denominational or even religious fault lines. What separates us today is the way hunger and misery are distributed, or maldistributed, in the world Jesus Christ came to redeem.

When the Second Vatican Council adjourned, the countries of the North were roughly 20 times richer than those of the South. Today, after decades of development programs, loans, aid and marketization, they are now 50 times richer. The gap between the hungry and the satiated has never been wider and it grows every year.

Since nearly two billion of the world’s population are Christians, and this includes hundreds of millions of the world’s impoverished, it is self-evident that what disfigures the Body of Christ today and makes “visible unity” such a painful challenge is not the divisions among churches. It is the chasm between the minority of the privileged and majority of the poor, sick and abandoned to whom Christ addressed most of his ministry.

This is not to say that some kind of ecclesial “visible unity” among Christians is not important. It is indeed important, vitally so. But not as an end in itself. When Christ prayed, in the words quoted in the encyclical, that “all might be one,” he himself recognized this. He prayed for unity so that the world might believe the gospel.

No Catholic or Protestant theologian would deny this. But the gospel we hope the world will believe is about the coming of God’s reign of justice, the vindication of the poor and the ingathering of the excluded. So the question we need to ask is this: How can the quest for Christian unity, which the pope acknowledges is the highest goal of his ministry, be understood as a means to healing and overcoming the cruel sunderings that tear the flesh of the human family?

If the unity of Christians is a means toward achieving human unity, this casts the “old questions” in a new light. The stubborn dilemma about valid orders, for example, must be seen afresh in the light of a full recognition that the whole church, in all its many branches and including the laity, is called by God to be a minister/servant to the world, and that the various orders of ministry are forms of servanthood.

John Paul II refers to himself in this encyclical as “servus servorum Dei.” Popes have used this title for centuries, but not always to signal a readiness for humility and servanthood. Maybe this time he is serious about it.

The issue of humility brings up another feature of the papacy that has sometimes been a sticking point in the past pomp and pageantry. Catholics sometimes suggest that the palaces and the regalia one encounters around St. Peter’s create an unnecessary obstacle to unity. Consign them all to the bonfire of vanities, or better still sell them all and give the proceeds to the poor, they urge, and the separated brethren would flock in.

Most non-Catholics however enjoy the baroque aspects of the papacy, albeit sometimes a little secretly and guiltily. Ever since the pope was stripped of his earthly fiefdoms in 1870, it is obvious he is not a king or emperor in the earthly sense. The Swiss guards, after all, carry halberds, not Uzis. When the pope really ruled over worldly domains, the plumes and maces were a genuine offense. They are not today.

But they are not just camp either. Their operatic staginess reminds us that the only divisions the pope has are the moral and spiritual authority these colorful antiques recall. The outcome of what Pius IX considered a great catastrophe, the loss of the papal states in the resorgiamento, has turned out instead to be a blessing. The papacy today wields more genuine “power” than it ever did, none of it coming from the barrel of a gun.

Also, on the vexed issue of Marian piety, the “new situation” is the worldwide triumph of market capitalism and the individualistic consumer mythology that supports it. Is a counter symbology available? Recent feminist scholars have sagely pointed out that the image of the primary parent and the child reminds us that the current economic model of human beings as calculating decision-makers who base their rational choices on self-interest leaves out most of the relationships we value most, like friendships. Parents and children rarely sign contracts, and while one partner begins weak and becomes strong, the other eventually grows weaker and needs the strength of the one who began in total dependency.

The symbol of the parent and child is an immensely powerful ecumenical one. Rightly understood, the place of Mary in Christian spirituality (and not only Christian) could be an asset rather than a liability to Christian unity. At the same time it could serve as a desperately needed counterweight to the pervasive image of the calculating economic decision-maker, which provides the basis for the religion of the market with its sacrament of endless consumption.

What about infallibility? The very concept assumes a view of language and its relationship to God, to persons and to the world that is highly reductive and distinctly modern. It has been rightly challenged, not only by the best poets of the century, but also by Catholic thinkers. Doctrines are of course an essential element in the life of the church, but a more nuanced understanding of the nature of doctrine, its kinship to poetry, song, liturgy and prayer, might eventually make the whole infallibility question moot.

But on this question, I am afraid that Catholics do not have much to learn from Protestants, who have sunk even deeper into the abyss of literalization. Many have forgotten the essentially mythic and symbolic quality of religious language. One of the most unattractive components of modernity has taken its revenge on religion by invading the language and conceptual grid of the churches themselves.

Protestants may have a little more to contribute on the question of collegiality. Not that all Protestant forms of polity have always worked perfectly; they have not, but there are so many of them that they provide a sort of laboratory. And there is no such thing as a failed experiment, since we all learn from our mistakes as well as our successes.

The down side of the “new situation,” however, is that the modern world has taken its secret toll here as well. What literalism is to doctrine, bureaucracy is to polity. Whether it be congregational, connectional, presbyterial or episcopal polity on paper, almost all Protestant churches and Catholic churches as well have been thoroughly bureaucratized.

Does the pope really know or care about what is going on day by day in those anonymous labyrinthine offices that line the Via Conciliazione? When the buses stop and the traffic lights change, the busy pen pushers who file into those offices, carrying their brief cases, look exactly like their counterparts at a New York agency, except for the clerical collars.

If anything, Protestants seem to have learned a bit in advance of Catholics, that new, decentralized, more loosely organized forms of polity are required. Centralization, hierarchy and top-down vertical authority came close to putting IBM and General Motors out of business. Why should they work for us? This is hardly a heretical thought. “Subsidiarity” is, after all, an established principle in Catholic social teaching. Is there some special reason why it should not apply within the church itself?

In the summer of 1995, just weeks after the appearance of Ut Unum Sint, while I was teaching in Rome at the Waldensian (Protestant) Seminary on the Piazza Cavour, the pope held a smaller-than-usual audience after his return from Slovakia where, to the astonishment of his hosts, he had knelt in prayer at the grave of some Protestant martyrs. He wanted this audience to take place in St. Peter’s Basilica itself, not in the new Hall of Audiences next door.

It was a moving occasion. The pope obviously still had his recent visit in mind and he spoke eloquently about the need to put old dissensions behind us and affirm what we hold in common. He then made a special point of shaking hands with the Protestant delegation I was part of. When he took my hand he smiled as an aide told him of my connection with Harvard Divinity School where he had once given a lecture on phenomenology.

He seemed a bit puzzled, however, and his brow knit when he learned that I was there with a delegation from “the Waldensian seminary here in Rome” that stands within 500 meters of the Vatican. “Here?” he asked, raising his eyebrows slightly, “in Rome?” I hope our presence at the audience reminded the pope that ecumenism is not just a matter of ecclesial diplomacy and encyclicals. To paraphrase my favorite Catholic politician, Tip O’Neill, all ecumenism is local. It is local or it isn’t anything.

The real test of Ut Unum Sint will be what happens between St. Patrick’s parish where I first saw those mourning drapes, and the other churches in Malvern. My hope is that one day the somber ribbons may be replaced by the garlands celebrating a festive new chapter in ecumenism, one that inspires even the most remote churches to move together into the “new situation” with the kind of hope that can only come from the realization that Christ himself, not we ourselves, is the author of our unity, a unity that is intended to serve not the churches but the world God loves.

Harvey Cox, an ordained Baptist minister, is Thomas Professor of Divinity at Harvard University where he teaches courses on theology, ethics and religion and society. Author of The Secular City, Cox’s most recent book is Fire from Heaven: The Rise of Pentecostal Spirituality and the Reshaping of Religion in the 21st Century (1995).

This is the last in a series of 11 articles, edited by Gary MacEoin, to be expanded and published as a book, The Papacy and the People of God (Orbis).

National Catholic Reporter, December 26, 1997