Papal Pomp Contrasts with Simplicity of Jesus

By Cooke, Bernard | National Catholic Reporter, March 3, 1995 | Go to article overview

Papal Pomp Contrasts with Simplicity of Jesus


Cooke, Bernard, National Catholic Reporter


(Second of three parts)

Theologian Bernard Cooke here continues a three-part examination of the role of the pope in contemporary times.

In Part 1, Cooke explained the need to ask basic questions about the nature and role of the papacy, based on growing knowledge of the historical Jesus.

In Part 2, Cooke considers the person and message of Jesus and his attitude toward power, and questions the domination of the world's bishops by the papacy.

In Part 3, Cooke suggests that carefully considered change in Christianity's concept of the papacy holds the power to bring the church and humankind closer to realizing the reign of God.

Are the changes occurring in the Catholic church a sign of decline, a lapse from truth and virtue? Some seem to identify the cause as a loss of faith and Christian ideals.

Certainly, capitulation to the forces of consumerism and cynicism is something to be avoided. But perhaps the changes are basically good and the deepest cause is something quite other. It seems to me that the deepest root of "new" Catholic thinking and life is more accurate knowledge of Jesus of Nazareth in his earthly existence and of how he now is and works as the risen one.

All too often in the past, the picture of Jesus was distorted to legitimize questionable developments in the church. All too often Christ's continuing presence to the church was overlooked and certain structures or agents were thought necessary to bridge the supposed gap between earth and heaven.

With modern methods of historical research, we now know better what Jesus was really like and how Christianity actually came into existence. Developments in New Testament study have helped us rediscover the character of the disciples' Easter experience and the intrinsic nature of Christ's resurrection. Consequently, every element of present-day Catholic faith and life needs to be examined to see whether and to what extent it is truly faithful to what God did and does in Jesus.

To apply this to the question at hand: There are real questions about the way in which the papacy reflects God's action in Christ as that finds expression in the New Testament writings. Some have focused on the pomp and splendor of the Vatican and contrasted it with the simplicity of life that characterized Jesus himself and earl Christians.

There is something to be said for such criticism - as someone has jokingly observed, "It is hard to imagine Jesus riding around in a popemobile." The pope is uniquely visible and symbolic in the midst of Christianity, and the papal lifestyle has considerable impact on people's views of the church. However, this kind of criticism can descend to haggling and does not get to the heart of the matter.

A spiritual monarchy

The real issue is monarchical power, whether the monarchy in question be worldly or spiritual. It has proved to be a blessing that the papacy has perforce ceased to be an earthly monarchy. But there remains the question of a spiritual monarchy. At least at first blush, monarchical understanding of the church and of the papacy's role contrasts fundamentally with Jesus of Nazareth. One is faced with clear cognitive dissonance.

In the gospel scene of Jesus' temptation in the desert, one finds a distillation of the forces that work with or against God's reign. Jesus is asked to prove his messiahship by tempting God and employing means of "salvation" other than God's. The culminating temptation comes when Satan offers Jesus ultimate economic and political power, "all the kingdoms of the earth," as the path to saving humankind. Jesus' refusal to bow to this worship of earthly power puts him squarely at odds with our ordinary understanding and esteem of power.

Not surprisingly, Jesus' disciples did not grasp immediately such a radical reversal of their thinking; they are described arguing among themselves as to who would have power when Jesus came into his kingdom. …

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