Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
The Future of
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
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 homelessnessall 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
The 'new situation'
The "new situation" John Paul refers
to is the longing that has arisen, in our timein the minds
and hearts of so many who call themselves Christianthat 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'"
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
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 waswhen
elected to the Roman seealready 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.
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.
Next: How Catholics Understand Grace
(by John Bookser Feister)