The King is Dead: Long live the King?

February 20, 2013 in Articles

“We have become accustomed to speak of the ‘Supreme Pontiff’, of a ‘monarchical-style’ papacy, of Roman ‘hands-on’ intervention world-wide.  But it was not always so and need not be so”. So writes Jesuit theologian Gerry O’Hanlon in an article on the papacy published in the Irish Times on Tuesday, 19 February. The article examines what the role of the Pope should involve and was written after Pope Benedict XV1’s historic resignation announcement that took the whole world by surprise.

The King is Dead: Long live the King?

Pope Benedict XVI has not died. Rather, in a decision that has deservedly won him great praise, he has announced that he is to resign on health grounds. Nonetheless, attention has immediately switched to his successor: should it be a younger man? Should he come from outside Europe? What challenges will a future Pope face and what does this tell us about a suitable candidate?

I suggest that there is a more important question. What should the role of Pope involve?
We have become accustomed to speak of the Supreme Pontiff, of a monarchical-style papacy, of Roman ‘hands-on’ intervention world-wide.  But it was not always so and need not be so.  It would be a good question for Sean Brady and his fellow Cardinal electors to ask if it should be so.

In Ireland our own former President Mary McAleese has written of the constitutionally incoherent nature of the Catholic Church’s organizational structure, with its unresolved tensions between papal primacy and Episcopal collegiality. She was, perhaps unwittingly, echoing the words attributed to Pope Pius IX in 1939: ‘The Church, the Mystical Body of Christ, has become a monstrosity. The head is very large, but the body is shrunken’. The Second Vatican Council attempted to counter-balance excessive papal and curial powers with a more collegial dimension, but failed to provide the structures and institutions to embody its insights.

The result has been what many ordinary Catholics, not to mention some prominent politicians, experience as a church that is dysfunctional, that is disconnected in so many ways from their real concerns and questions.   
One symptom of this was the poor handling of clerical child sexual abuse. In that context prominent Irish Church leaders have expressed regret at being part of a culture of silence and deference that thankfully now, they claim, is a thing of the past. But is it really? Hopefully yes, in the matter of sexual abuse, but is there not a pervasive unhealthiness in our Catholic culture of today when the ‘sense of the faithful’, not to mention the voice of bishops and theologians, is given so little heed?

 Where are the structures and institutions to embody the notion of Church as communion, the collegial thrust which the Second Vatican Council proposed? Is there not an anachronistic reliance on a monarchical form of governance, with the Pope and Roma Curia at its apex? Has this not led to the stern rejection of alternative voices, a culture of silence and fear, in which the attempt is made to silence the views of Fr Tony Flannery in Ireland, Bishop Bill Morris in Australia, Dr Tina Beattie in the UK, Sr Elizabeth Johnson in the USA and many, many others, in ways that fall well short procedurally of what modern norms of justice demand?

After all, it was Pope John-Paul II himself who, perhaps surprisingly, given his own rather autocratic approach to internal church matters, asked that the role of the papacy might be re-envisaged (Ut Unum Sint- That They May be One, 1995). He sought the help of other Christian churches and fellow-Catholics in this re-imagining of papacy in ways that would better serve its function as service of unity and love. He did so conscious that the historical forms of the papacy have varied greatly over the centuries. Historian John O’Malley refers to the ‘papalization’ of the Church as the most significant development in Catholicism in the second millennium, in particular since the First Vatican Council in 1869-1870.

It was not always thus. A scriptural text like Mt 16, 18 (Thou are Peter…) has in the past been interpreted in a much more collegial way, with Rome functioning as court of last appeal in a church which acted collegially through councils and synods and in which local bishops functioned as vicars of Jesus Christ. This is the kind of future envisaged in many of the ecumenical discussions triggered by John Paul’s invitation of 1995.

Many Christians recognize the symbolic and indeed normative value of the Bishop of Rome in serving the universality of the Church, not least in a globalized world. But surely this can be realised in a more collegial way, with more respect for local autonomy and traditions, including of course that wonderful cultural diversity in places like Africa, Asia and Latin America? The theological ground-work for such a change has been laid: what remains to happen is that the bishops and the new Pope show a willingness to listen to the whispers of the Spirit leading us in this direction.

The current debate about the future Pope is being conducted within a mistaken ‘social imaginary’ or ‘group-think’. We need to correct this ‘bias of commonsense’ with regard to the papacy. The Swiss Benedictine Abbot Martin Werlen tried to help us re-imagine this operative world-view  recently when he suggested that the Pope might make a number of lay cardinals, women and men, of different ages and from all parts of the world, to help him govern the Church.

Of course it is not the job of a Conclave to reform the Church. But it may be their job to identify the candidate (whether among their own ranks or from outside the Conclave) best suited to bring about church and papal renewal. This will not happen with the continuation of a papacy as monarchy. We are simply asking too much of one man in today’s complex world, and not asking enough of ourselves. The term ‘Supreme Pontiff’, if one goes back beyond connotations of kingly power, pomp and ceremony, should mean one who excels in bridge-building. It should mean one who empowers local bishops to ‘own’ their authority, in creative fidelity to God’s word and the apostolic tradition, and in holy discernment of the ‘sense of the faithful’ and the ‘signs of the times’, one who ‘strengthens his brethren’ (Lk. 22, 32).

Cardinal Sean Brady and his fellow electors would do us all a great service if they took seriously ecclesial and papal reform as the major criterion in their choice of candidate for the Petrine ministry, that great gift of God’s Holy Spirit to Catholics and, if reformed, to all Christians.

Gerry O’Hanlon SJ
Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice