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The Future of
the Papacy

by William H. Shannon

Pope John Paul II realized what has always been a great dream for him, namely, to lead the Church and the world into the 2000 jubilee celebration of the birth of Christ. Over the past decades he gave unstintingly of himself to the crushing burdens of his office. The cost has been so great that the whole world is wondering whether this remarkable papacy will last much longer. Inevitably, while admiring the wondrous accomplishments of this pope, people are asking questions about the future: What exactly is the role of the pope? Will the papacy continue to exercise so strong a role in the Church and in the world?

It was in the context of reflections of this sort that I talked with a friend of mine in England: an Anglican priest and a highly regarded theologian. I put the question to him: "Do we need the pope?" His answer was immediate and unequivocal. "Yes, indeed," he said, "the papacy is an indispensable element of the Church." "Why do you say that?" I asked. His answer: "The Christian Church is an historical religion. And the role of the Bishop of Rome is unquestionably an essential part of that history."

He spoke of the 1986 meeting at Assisi, to which Pope John Paul II invited leaders representing various religions. At the time my friend was canon residentiary at Canterbury Cathedral. He recalled a remark of Robert Runcie, the Archbishop of Canterbury and an Assisi attendee: "Only the pope could have called such a meeting." And one might want to add: Only a pope like John Paul II would have thought of calling such a meeting.

The papacy of John Paul II has been absolutely extraordinary. He has canonized more saints and traveled more miles than any other pope. Yet his trips have a deep spiritual purpose: They are evangelizing "pilgrimages" by a man afire with Christ's command: "Go and make disciples of every nation." A sight that became familiar to millions of people through television is this figure in white kissing the ground of country after country that he visits. He has kissed the tarmac of more airports than politicians have kissed babies!

While some might suggest that people loved the messenger more than the message, there can be no doubt that this pope's message has been strong and fearless and clear. His influence has been global. He was a major factor in breaking the power of Communism, but he has also been quick to point out the evils inherent in a capitalistic system devoted to consumerism, greed and profit. He has spoken out vigorously against what he rightly calls a culture of death: a culture in which rampant violence breeds war and genocide, abortion and euthanasia, poverty and homelessness—all these and so many other crimes against the inalienable dignity of human persons. In many ways Pope John Paul II has been the conscience of a troubled world.

John Paul II had yet another dream that today is still a long way from realization, namely, the reunion of all Christians. In an important encyclical, entitled Ut Unum Sint (That All May Be One), he addresses himself to other Christian Churches and asks them: What changes need to be made in the exercise of papal authority that could make the papal office a source of unity, rather than division, among Christians? He sees this as an immensely important issue that he must deal with, yet cannot accomplish by himself. He invites Church leaders and their theologians to engage with him "in a patient and fraternal dialogue on this subject, dialogue in which, leaving useless controversies behind, we could listen to one another, keeping before us only the will of Christ for his Church and allowing ourselves to be deeply moved by his plea that 'they may be one.'" The subject of the dialogue, therefore, would be "to find 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" (# 96, 95).

This was a bold step. To suggest the need of discovering a new way of exercising the primacy implies that the way it is presently being exercised needs to be changed. The pope's statement poses at least two questions for us: First, what does he mean by the new situation to which we must be open? Second, how do we discover what is essential to the mission of the primacy: so essential that, even in the interests of unity, it can in no way be renounced without its ceasing to be what Christ willed it to be?

The 'new situation'

The "new situation" John Paul refers to is the longing that has arisen, in our time—in the minds and hearts of so many who call themselves Christian—that there be one visible Church of God. "In recent times," he says, "The Lord of the Ages has begun to bestow more generously upon divided Christians remorse over their divisions and a longing for unity. Everywhere, large numbers have felt the impulse of this grace and among our separated brothers and sisters also there increases from day to day a movement, fostered by the grace of the Holy Spirit, for the restoration of unity among all Christians" (# 7). When one recalls the sad history of religious battles of the past centuries, it becomes abundantly clear that today we do indeed live in a "new situation," fraught with wondrous opportunities of bringing to fruition the earnest prayer of Jesus "that they may all be one—" (John 17:21).

What is essential: Where to look

Ut Unum Sint suggests a direction in which we need to move in order to reach an answer as to the role of the pope. Immediately after speaking of the need to be open to a new situation, but without prejudicing the essence of the primacy, the pope says: "For a whole millennium [the first millennium] the Churches [of the East and the West] were 'linked in a union of faith and sacramental life—if disagreements in belief and discipline arose among them, the Roman See acted by common consent as moderator'" (# 95).

This statement suggests that if we wish to look for the ideal way in which the primacy of the Bishop of Rome should be exercised (and a way that does not prejudice its very essence), we should look to the first millennium, when a united Christian Church actually did exist.

Some Catholics may be shocked by the suggestion that the papal office was not the same then as it is now. These are Catholics who are convinced that the only way to Christian unity is for other Christians to submit themselves to the supreme authority of the pope. Implied in such an attitude is the belief that the papacy has always operated in the past in precisely the same way as it does today and that it is the will of Christ that this be so. For them, therefore, any substantive diminishment of the supreme authority of the pope over the universal Church must be viewed as a betrayal of the will of Christ.

Such people seem to assume that Peter and his immediate successors claimed and exercised authority over the universal Church, that they appointed bishops in the other Churches and even (perhaps) that they expected all the bishops to report regularly to them.

A quick look at history belies such a view. It shows just how much the papacy has changed over the centuries. The Petrine ministry as it is exercised today, at the beginning of the third millennium, would hardly have been recognized by the popes and bishops of the first millennium.

Let me offer a simple example of what I mean. At the time I was writing this article, Catholics in America were awaiting the appointment of a new Archbishop of New York. When the appointment was finally made, would any Catholic ever think of calling Archbishop Edward Egan the pope of New York? Hardly. Yet for much of the first millennium "pope" was a title for many bishops, and at times even for priests who were not bishops.

Rome's earliest role

During the first millennium the Bishop of Rome, since Rome was the city in which Peter and Paul had been martyred, exercised a leadership role in the Church. Bishops of other churches often looked to the Bishop of Rome for help in resolving doctrinal and disciplinary matters. Further, the Bishop of Rome did not hesitate to speak out when the unity of the Church seemed to be threatened.

No Bishop of Rome ever claimed the right to exercise authority over the other churches, much less to appoint their bishops. He saw himself as a bishop among bishops, with the special role of serving the unity of the universal Church, protecting the integrity of the gospel and at times acting as spokesman for his brother bishops. The bishops were united collegially with one another or, to repeat the words of Pope John Paul II cited above, they were "linked in a union of faith and sacramental life."

During the first millennium the Bishop of Rome was chosen by the clergy and laity of Rome. Up until the ninth century the Roman Church never chose as its bishop someone who was already a bishop elsewhere. Hence the election in 882 of Marinus I to succeed Pope John VIII as Bishop of Rome was a significant departure from this long-standing tradition. While Marinus had served in the Church of Rome as archdeacon to Pope John VIII, he was—when elected to the Roman see—already the bishop of Caere in Tuscany. This means, as the Oxford Dictionary of Popes says, that "he was the first bishop of another see to be elected pope." It was a precedent-setting event that would have far-reaching effects in the second millennium.

The second millennium

The 11th century witnessed drastic changes in the understanding of the Petrine ministry. Pope Gregory VII (1073-1085) reserved the title "pope" exclusively to the Bishop of Rome. A man of exceptional talent, he made reform the keystone of his pontificate, at a time when reform was desperately needed in the Church. He had an exalted mystique of the papacy, describing himself as "universal pastor" and claiming the right to appoint and depose bishops. He even claimed authority in the secular order and the right to depose emperors and kings.

A century later, Innocent III (1198-1216), with an equally elevated concept of his office, saw the pope as above the Church rather than in the Church, "set midway between God and man, below God, but above men, given not only the universal Church but the whole world to govern." A huge job description, though hardly a modest one! He changed the designation of his office from what it had been up to his time ("Vicar of Peter") to the title, "Vicar of Christ." He said of himself: "Although successor of the prince of the apostles, we are not his vicar or that of any man or apostle; we are vicar of Christ himself." It comes as no surprise that one of the decrees of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), which he convoked, stated: "The Roman Church through the Lord's disposition has a primacy of ordinary power over all other Churches inasmuch as it is the mother and mistress of all Christ's faithful."

In the 19th century the First Vatican Council (1869-70) established the "blueprint" for the understanding of the papal office that would dominate Roman Catholic thought till the 1960's Second Vatican Council. Vatican I defined the primacy and infallibility of the Bishop of Rome.

Infallibility emerges

Vatican I was a summing up of the understanding of the papacy that had been developing during the second millennium. Its dogmatic constitution on the Church, Pastor Aeternus, is a reprise of the teaching of Gregory VII and Innocent III: "We teach and declare that, by divine ordinance, the Roman church possesses a preeminence of ordinary power over every other Church and that this jurisdictional power of the Roman Pontiff is both episcopal and immediate. Both clergy and faithful—are bound to submit to this power—."

What effect does so strong an assertion of papal power have on the authority of bishops of local Churches? The answer is ambiguous at best: "The power of the supreme pontiff by no means detracts from the ordinary and immediate power" of bishops. For the bishops are successors of the apostles and by appointment of the Holy Spirit govern the particular flock entrusted to them.

In all fairness it must be said that the Council did not have the time to discuss in detail the authority of bishops, as with the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, the Council was adjourned for an indefinite time. It was never reconvened.

In one very significant area, Vatican I was more than a reprise of previous second millennium thinking. For it also defined the doctrine of infallibility. The Council said that, when the Roman pontiff defines a truth ex cathedra, he possesses the divine assistance promised to St. Peter, namely, that infallibility which the Divine Redeemer willed his church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals. This doctrine is an essential issue for the future of the papacy.

Vatican II's balance

Vatican II, in its constitution on the Church, attempted to establish a balance between the power of the pope and that of the bishops. This was an important step since, in the years following Vatican I, a mentality (untrue to that Council's teaching) became widespread in the Church, namely, the belief that the pope ran the Church and the bishops were simply his delegates, acting in his stead among all the faithful.

Vatican II asserts very clearly that the bishops govern the Churches over which they preside and do so as vicars of Christ: "The power which they exercise personally in the name of Christ is proper, ordinary and immediate." It makes clear that "they are not to be considered as vicars of the Roman pontiffs, because they exercise a power that is proper to them." Vatican II recovered that sense of collegiality among the bishops of the Church in union with the Bishops of Rome that characterized the Church of the first millennium.

It may be said that Vatican II supplemented Vatican I, though it did not replace it. Like Vatican I it asserted the primacy and infallibility of the pope, but in a context of collegiality. The pope is the subject of infallibility, but so are the bishops of the universal Church in union with the pope their head. Ideally the pope speaks in union with all the bishops, but even in certain circumstances, when he speaks alone, he speaks as head of the college of bishops.

Church of the future

History, then, shows us that the papacy has changed in substantive ways over the centuries. The question which Pope John Paul II posed in Ut Unum Sint can only be responded to in the light of this history of dramatic change. I have suggested the pope's encyclical seems to point to the first millennium as presenting an understanding of the papal office that can serve as a kind of icon for what the papacy might be in a united Church. The dialogues among Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans and other Christian groups may be able to find in that first millennium Church concrete answers to the questions: Do we need the pope? And, while seeking the will of Christ for his Church, what kind of pope do we need?

One of the crucial issues calling for ecumenical dialogue today is this: Is it posssible to rethink the primacy of the pope, as it presently is, in the light of what it was in the first millennium? This is no easy task. The issue is: Can this be done in a creative way? We obviously cannot simply return to the papacy of the first millennium. Yet history teaches us to be flexible in our understanding of the papacy. The need for Christian unity, as Pope John Paul II suggests, tells us that the papacy of the future might well look different from the papacy we know today.


Papal Conclave
How Popes Are Chosen

When the pope dies, the cardinals are summoned to Rome by the dean of the college of cardinals for the conclave that will elect the new pope.

The word conclave (Latin, cum + clavis, literally, "locked with the key") designates the place in a locked section of the Vatican where the cardinals remain until a new pope is elected. It is also used to designate the actual gathering of the cardinals.

Before the conclave: The cardinals may discuss the upcoming election with one another. The conclave begins 15 to 20 days after the pope's death.

The actual conclave: After the celebration of Mass, the cardinal dean presides over the preliminary sessions, where procedures regulated by canon law are clarified. Then all others are dismissed and the cardinals are sealed in the Sistine Chapel where the voting takes place, every morning and afternoon.

Until recently a two-thirds majority plus one was required for election. After his election Pope John Paul II changed this. Now if there is no conclusive vote after 30 ballots, an absolute majority suffices. [This means that if a candidate gets a majority on the first or second ballot, his supporters need only wait till 30 ballots have been cast. He will then be elected on the 31st ballot.]

For each ballot, the cardinals are given rectangular cards with Eligo in summum pontificem ("I elect as supreme pontiff") printed at the top. Each cardinal prints the name of his choice. One by one in order of seniority they approach the altar where there is a chalice with a paten on top. They place the ballot (folded down the middle) on the paten, then drop it into the cup.

After each voting the ballots are burned. Special chemicals are added to make the smoke white or black. To people eagerly waiting outside, black smoke signifies an inconclusive vote. White smoke announces that a pope has been elected.

The cardinals may elect whomever they wish, as long as the person is a baptized male. There have been occasions in the past when laymen were elected. After their election they had to be ordained priest and bishop. The one elected is asked if he accepts. The moment he accepts he is pope and, if he is a bishop, he is Bishop of Rome. If he is not a bishop he is immediately ordained by the dean of the college. The cardinals individually pledge their support to the new pope. The cardinal dean asks the pope what name he chooses. Then the oldest member of the college announces the choice to the city of Rome and to the world.


William H. Shannon, a priest of the Diocese of Rochester, is professor emeritus of history at Nazareth College, Rochester, New York, and founder of the International Thomas Merton Society. His books include 'Something of a Rebel': Thomas Merton, His Life and Works—An Introduction (St. Anthony Messenger Press).

Next: How Catholics Understand Grace (by John Bookser Feister)


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