Inflated Papacy Is Stumbling Block to Unity

By Woodrow, Alain | National Catholic Reporter, November 14, 1997 | Go to article overview

Inflated Papacy Is Stumbling Block to Unity


Woodrow, Alain, National Catholic Reporter


The papal role has grown over time, concentrating ever more power in one man and his "court"--the curia.

The sole gospel text to use the word church is Matthew 16:18. For many scripture scholars, this text means that Peter's primacy is one of service, not of jurisdiction. And nothing in the New Testament indicates that Peter was to have a successor. The early church was a loose federation of episcopal churches. Rome, together with Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem, gradually became a reference in matters of faith.

Polycarp, second century bishop of Smyrna, and his disciple Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, attest to the growing role of the Petrine church as arbiter in matters of doctrine, at least for the Western church But the question is, "Whom to believe?" not "Whom to obey?"

Bishops retained their independence. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage (250), was unequivocal: "There is no bishop of bishops." When Constantine moved to Byzantium (Constantinople), the pope remained in Rome as "Patriarch of the West." As temporal leader of the imperial capital, he began to legislate, publishing "decretals" with the force of law. The West became "papalist" while the East remained "conciliar." The gradual decline--and fall in 476--of the Roman Empire freed the pope from the emperor's jurisdiction and consolidated his power.

Leo I (440-61) expounded a theory that would develop in later centuries: As "vicar of Peter," the pope has charge of the universal church, governing it as the emperors governed the empire. Gelasius I (492-96) went further. The "apostolic see," while subject to no human tribunal, can judge each local church. This view, understandably, was rejected by the Eastern church, for whom the pope is simply "the first among patriarchs."

The Great Western Schism (1378-1447), with as many as three rival popes, led to the theory that sovereignty resides in general councils convoked regularly, not in the pope alone. The Councils of Constance (1414-18) and Basel (1431-48) defined this quite clearly. But the reunified papacy (1417) soon re-established its power over the council.

It was in this context that Luther and the other great Protestant reformers attacked the papacy. To counter Luther's teaching on the universal priesthood of all Christians, the Council of Trent (1545-63) reaffirmed the masculine, celibate priesthood and began a profound Counter Reformation. But the religious wars, the rise of Jansenism and Gallicanism, and the Aufkl rung (Age of Enlightenment), with its insistence on the primacy of conscience over authority, all gravely weakened the papacy.

Pius VI (1791) and all his successors until Leo XIII condemned the French Revolution, freedom of opinion, the Enlightenment and all forms of democracy, whether in church or state. Pius IX listed the 80 "principal errors of our time" in his famous Syllabus of Errors (1864).

Vatican Council I (1869-70) is crucial to the present prestige and power of the Vatican. The liberal minority criticized the document De Romano Pontifice for defining the pope's jurisdiction as "ordinary and immediate." It wanted to link his infallibility more closely with that of the church.

After a relative liberalization by Leo XIII (1878-1903), Pius X turned the clock back with his war against Modernism, "the mother of all heresies." A far-reaching witch hunt had a disastrous effect on Catholic scholarship, and led to the muzzling of some of the church's finest minds (Alfred Loisy, George Tyrrell, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Henri de Lubac, Yves Congar).

Pius XI attacked communism in his encyclical Divini Redemptoris and Nazism in Mit Brennender Sorge, both in 1937. He opposed birth control (just after the Anglican Lambeth Conference had given a cautious green light) and women s emancipation, but he also created Catholic Action to encourage more active lay participation in church life.

Pius XII, elected on the eve of World War II, remains the subject of controversy for his public silence about the Holocaust" Within the church he was far from silent, issuing statements, speeches and encyclicals on every possible topic. …

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