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A Reconsideration of the Papacy

IN the past centuries of the Catholic Church’s existence, a significant portion of apologetics focused on the papacy – especially after Vatican I defined the dogma of papal infallibility.

Ironically, while Pastor Aeternus, the dogmatic constitution of the First Vatican Council, argued forcefully that the Pope was the “principle of unity” of the Church around which the bishops of the world would be gathered, the sad fact is that churches and Christian communities drifted further apart, largely because many felt that the powers claimed by the Pope were too far-reaching.

Recently, the Dicastery for the Promotion of Christian Unity issued a document on ‘The Bishop of Rome’. Historically, the Pope’s original office was Bishop of Rome – and remains so. The current Pope has taken this office very seriously and has often personally directed the remembrance of priests of the Diocese of Rome. The document is a very frank recognition of the fact that much of what has been claimed for papal authority arose in a polemical context. And so that Christian churches might more easily and willingly explore paths to Christian unity, the document announces a revisit to the papal office. Importantly, it heralds a determination to return to the Biblical foundations of the office of the Bishop of Rome, which is more appropriately seen as the Petrine office – the service of the office of Peter. After all, Scripture is what all Christians have in common and can very well provide principles that are acceptable to all. This is not to say that the traditional doctrine of the papacy had no scriptural basis. In fact, we can say with certainty that the papacy evolved into what it is today, beginning with the community’s understanding of Peter’s mission and his role in relation to the company of apostles. Even Paul, who wanted the churches he had organized to be “imitators of him,” could not avoid Peter, even if he could rebuke him, as indeed happened in what is known as the “Controversy of Galatians.” Credit must be given – and in fact it was given both in the document itself and at the press conference on the occasion of its publication – to Saint John Paul II, who initiated the rethinking of both theology and the discipline of the papal office.

In line with the pursuit of a more synodal church, the papacy will also be reinvented along synodal lines. One of the points of contention concerned the question of whether the office of the Pope was established by God or was merely a product of human organizational thinking. The Dicastery document claims that Christ wanted Peter to do what Scripture tells us Christ commanded him to do. In this sense, the papacy is instituted by God, but everything divine is truly mediated in a way that allows it to touch human existence. In the case of the papacy, history has mediated its evolution and development, sometimes emphasizing and at other times eclipsing the institution of Jesus, the Lord. Now that Pope Francis has called on the Church to follow a synodal path, the papacy will do the same. The Pope’s authority is more acceptable to the extent that it is synodal – he listens, consults and is always sensitive to the ‘sensus fidelium’ (the feeling of the faithful), in addition to remaining faithful to the sensus fidei (the feeling of faith).

Lately, Vatican observers have noted that Pope Francis has revived a title that has been out of use for some time: “Patriarch of the West” – and the document does note that more attention needs to be paid to the patriarchal role of the Pope. This is not a matter of adding more titles, but of signaling that the Pope recognizes that in the West he may be the patriarch, but that the East has its own patriarchs and that there is room for their autonomy in the governance of their churches within the greater unity of the Church over which the Bishop of Rome “presides in charity.” In fact, Vatican II’s emphasis on the role of the bishops gathered around the pope provides the fundamental paradigm for a redesign of the papacy.



In previous columns I have outlined a vision of a community that is strong enough – and inspired by true charity – to absorb differences. So as different Christian communities continue the theological dialogue that brings us to an understanding of our faith and of the Gospels that unites rather than divides us, we can allow everyone to participate in the sacraments – ‘communicatio in sacris’ – while everyone can doing. Recognize the primacy of Peter’s successor, which will no longer be a primacy of power, but of paternal care and initiative toward stronger bonds of unity and community. There is and should be room for diverse liturgies and liturgical rituals, as well as varied forms of worship, just as there should be room for different theological emphases as we relentlessly seek common ground, beginning with a prayerful reading of Scripture that listens to how the early Church accepted them and lived their faith.

Thus united, Christians can yet offer the world an answer to its often unspoken longing – its thirst for the things that pertain to the insatiable human spirit and a credible alternative to the enervating secularism that has in several respects led to a atrophy of what is it most human in all of us.


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