The Papacy: Some Insights from History

By Laffin, Josephine | Lutheran Theological Journal, May 2016 | Go to article overview

The Papacy: Some Insights from History


Laffin, Josephine, Lutheran Theological Journal


It is a great pleasure to have the opportunity to acknowledge Dean Zweck's contribution to the Australian Lutheran-Roman Catholic Dialogue. As joint chairperson of the Dialogue since July 2000 (there is a Lutheran and a Catholic chair), Dean has quietly and courteously guided our discussions on the ministry of oversight, Scripture and tradition, and, most recently, the Petrine ministry. I first met Dean when I joined the Dialogue as a member of the Catholic team in 2004, and as a fellow historian, I have greatly appreciated his knowledge of church history, his wisdom and his sense of humour.

The current focus of the Dialogue-the 'Petrine ministry', or the ministry of the bishop of Rome-seems an appropriate topic for this article. A few years ago Dean and I prepared a discussion paper on the papacy through history; Dean contributed the section on the sixteenth-century Reformation era. Not surprisingly, as his breach with Rome widened, Martin Luther became increasingly critical of the pope. Dear Dean could not bring himself to quote from one of Luther last works, Against the papacy at Rome, founded by the devil. In this treatise, dashed off in 1545, Luther lashed out at the pope as (among other things) 'a brothel-keeper above all brothel-keepers and all lewdness, including what cannot be named; an antichrist ... a genuine werewolf' (Kittleson, 190). Thankfully Dean managed to find in Luther's writings a statement which was a bit more positive. Although Luther still had some rather severe things to say about the pope in the Smalcald Articles, he could, nevertheless, envisage as late as 1537 a form of the papacy which could be accepted as legitimate:

Suppose that the pope would renounce the claim that he is the head of the church by divine right or by God's command; suppose that it were necessary to have a head, to whom all others should adhere, in order that the unity of Christendom might better be preserved against the attacks of sects and heresies; and suppose that such a head would then be elected by men and it remained in their power and choice to change or depose this head ... (SA II.4)

Almost five hundred years after Martin Luther made this concession, Pope John Paul II asked for forgiveness for past failings of the papacy (Ut unum sint, 88),' and invited 'church leaders and their theologians to engage ... in a patient and fraternal dialogue' on the contribution which the papal office could make to Christian unity (Ut unum sint, 96). In 2013 Pope Francis quoted John Paul's words in his apostolic exhortation on the joy of the Gospel, Evangelii gaudium.2 Francis also expressed frustration at the lack of progress:

It is my duty, as the Bishop of Rome, to be open to suggestions which can help make the exercise of my ministry more faithful to the meaning which Jesus Christ wished to give it and to the present needs of evangelization. Pope John Paul II asked for help in finding 'a way of exercising the primacy which, while in no way renouncing what is essential to its mission, is nonetheless open to a new situation'. We have made little progress in this regard. The papacy and the central structures of the universal Church also need to hear the call to pastoral conversion ... Excessive centralization, rather than proving helpful, complicates the Church's life and her missionary outreach. (Evangelii gaudium, 32)

The biblical scholars on the Australian Lutheran-Roman Catholic Dialogue did not take long to reach a consensus on the leadership role of Peter in the New Testament. Despite his human weaknesses, Peter was singled out by Jesus to fulfil a unique leadership role, one of witness and service, of shepherding Jesus' flock and strengthening the other disciples. The theologians on the Dialogue discussed at somewhat greater length controversial issues such as infallibility, universal jurisdiction, and the papacy in relation to the centrality of Christ. As always with our Dialogue deliberations, once misunderstandings were clarified and resolved, we discovered a significant degree of convergence in our thinking. …

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