God-with-Us Calls for New Type of Papacy: Church Now Viewed as Community of Equals

By Cooke, Bernard | National Catholic Reporter, March 10, 1995 | Go to article overview

God-with-Us Calls for New Type of Papacy: Church Now Viewed as Community of Equals


Cooke, Bernard, National Catholic Reporter


Theologian Bernard Cooke concludes 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 considered the person and message of Jesus and his attitude toward power, and questioned the domination of the world's bishops by to 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.

If our growing knowledge of the historical Jesus of Nazareth demands a reexamination of Catholic understanding of the papacy, so too does the present context of the church's life, the "signs of the times."

While there is a basic continuity in the history of the church's doctrine, belief and structures, this is a continuity in life, life that is progressively moving history toward its eschatological destiny. But life demands change, not change that is blind and threatening but rather thought-through change, freely chosen because it promises to bring the church - and humankind - in a step further in the realization of God's reign.

In recent decades, we have become more conscious of how certain ways of thinking about human life, about the world and about God - certain "models" - control, define and limit not only our understandings but also the activity grounded in those understandings. One thing that has increased our awareness of these models has been the discovery of cultures other than our own, the discovery of how the world and human life have been and still are thought of quite differently by others. We have gradually accepted such cultural diversity as a good thing.

In our Europe-rooted thinking about the church, we have moved toward incorporating into the faith and life of the Christianity we have known the world-views and cultural riches of peoples other than those of European origin. We have been scarcely aware that something much more radical is taking place, that Christ's Spirit is reinstituting the church through the poor of the earth.

All this has influenced our understanding of the history of Christianity. We are beginning to accept the fact that at any point in the past two millennia the structures of the church were what they were because of the cultural situations in which they emerged. So we have greater appreciation for the fact that as the papacy came into being, it was, at least to some degree, conceived and justified according to the prevalent governmental model of monarchy.

As in Leviticus

These developments were also, in the well-known process of legitimation, justified by a somewhat legendary view of Christian origins. The Twelve Apostles were seen as the first bishops, commissioned as such by Jesus himself; Peter was seen as the first pope; the Last Supper was looked upon as the first Mass and the priestly ordination of the Twelve; and so on. Interestingly, much of the legitimation of ordained ministry's eminence in the life of the church came by reference not to the New Testament literature and the infant church that produced it, but by reference to the Jerusalem Temple priesthood as reflected in the Book of Leviticus.

History indicates, then, that the evolving structures of the church grew out of the understandings of Christianity that existed at any given time and place, grounded in those understandings even as they were also grounded in the guidance of Christ's Spirit.

Because that Spirit endows the Christian community with continuity in its faith and life, we must always be careful in our research and reflection that we respect and reinforce elements that are of the essence of the church. We must also remember that Christ's Spirit is a prophetic Spirit, moving us beyond where we now are into a fuller sharing in the new life that is our heritage. …

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