Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Papacy Too Heavy for One Man to Carry

Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Papacy Too Heavy for One Man to Carry

Article excerpt

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 societal 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. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.