The Papacy: A Case Study in Organizational Longevity

By Capio, Ralph J. | Journal of European Studies, December 1996 | Go to article overview

The Papacy: A Case Study in Organizational Longevity


Capio, Ralph J., Journal of European Studies


The chair of Peter, that sacred repository of all truth.

POPE PIUS XI(1)

A pope's bull, a dead man's skull, and an old trull are not all worth a pound of wool.

BARNABE RICH(2)

If the range of human opinion and emotion regarding the papacy may be expressed, as above, by Pius and Rich, it can, nevertheless, be safely said that the institution itself is singularly remarkable in the annals of human history, both for its longevity and for its consummate ability to shape the outcome of human events. Much of what we have come to know as 'Western civilization' finds its origins, in one fashion or another, in the Christian church, and it, in turn, owes much of what it has been to the leadership provided, in one way or another, by the papacy.

Moreover, this is not merely an institution 'with all of its history behind it'. Today, as we stand upon the threshold of the twenty-first century and the dawning of the third Christian millennium, there are few, if any, individuals in the world that can compare with the papacy's present incumbent for an ability to shape world events or to influence the future condition of mankind. This salient 'fact of life' in the realm of world power politics today is well illustrated by the role played by the present pope in the world-shaking collapse of communism in the former Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe. Mikhail Gorbachev, from his vantage point at 'centre stage' in those events, unambiguously described John Paul II's role in this way: '(e)verything that happened in Eastern Europe in these last few years would have been impossible without the presence of this pope and without the important role - including the political role - that he played on the world stage.'(3)

Thus, although 'success', like beauty, may be in the eye of the beholder, one cannot help but recognize the profound impact on individuals and nations alike caused by the 'Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Jesus Christ, Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff (Pontifex Maximus) of the Universal Church, Patriarch of the West, Primate of Italy, Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman Province, Sovereign of the State of Vatican City, and the Servant of the Servants of God'.(4) Whether this is, or is not, 'success', as a matter of philosophical definition, is beyond the scope of this paper. Rather, I shall endeavour briefly to identify some of the factors which may have contributed to the establishment of the papacy as an enduring human institution.

And, endure it has. Through 'peaks and valleys' the likes of which have been virtually unknown by most other human institutions, for nearly two thousand years, the papacy has made its sometime easy and sometime tortuous way. To compare what the world of Peter must have been like to the world known today by his lineal descendant, John Paul II, and to consider the intervening human events and personalities which have occurred is nothing less than extraordinary. How is it that this institution could have survived to this day? What characteristics, events and personalities have combined to permit this institution successfully to link these two thousand years of human history? This is, obviously, a complex issue. However, some of those things responsible, singly and in combination, for this 'success story' follow.

The first reason, I believe, for the longevity of the papacy is its solid 'claim to right'. In order to prevail over time, it is necessary for any organization first to establish a firm foundation from which it might withstand challenge to its authority. And, the 'pedigree' of the papacy's claim to such legitimacy could hardly be better.

Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. …

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