Reforming the Papacy – a Few Considerations

Posted on February 4, 2013

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In Nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti, amen. Suscipe, Sancte Pater.

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Some say that the Ecumenical Struggle (‘Movement’) has reached an impasse. Much consensus has been made on many issues, but without an ecclesiastical organ with enough authority to bring everyone together to assent to these consensi, division will continue. More Christians may be taking into consideration the possibility of a universal form of governance and unity, as witnessed by the scholarly reception of Bl. John Paul II’s invitation to reflect on the ministry of the Papacy in Ut Unum Sint.[1] In this short reflection, I would like to add to this by offering a few considerations that I believe should be taken into account when we discuss the reform of the Papacy.

1.     The Spiritual Necessity of Authority, Obedience, and Humility

St. Gregory Nyssa, commenting on Luke 2:51, in which our Lord was subject to His earthly parents, writes that “He is obedient to His parents, to show that whatever is made perfect by moving forward, before it arrives at the end profitably embraces obedience (as leading to good).”[2] In the same manner, the Proverbs of Solomon state that God gives grace to the humble, but resists the proud and he who heeds discipline shows the way to life, but he who ignores correction leads others astray.[3] So too in the Holy Rule of St. Benedict, it is famously spoken,

Hearken, my son, to the precepts of the master and incline the ear of thy heart; freely accept and faithfully fulfill the instructions of a loving father, that by the labour of obedience thou mayest return to him from whom thou hast strayed by the sloth of disobedience. To thee are my words now addressed, whosoever thou mayest be that, renouncing thine own will to fight for the true King, Christ, dost take up the strong and glorious weapons of obedience.[4]

Thus the consideration of this question must first and foremost involve repentance by all involved, and a readiness and zeal to not only accept authority and obedience, but readily seek it out, knowing that in this manner we imitate our Lord Jesus who was obedient to death, even death on the cross.[5] Our Lord spoke these words solemnly: a servant is not above his master.[6] If this is the case, and we servants of Him who was obedient to death, how much more should we willingly, and with great spiritual zeal, seek to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ,[7] never consenting to the Evil One who whispers in our ear—just as he did in the ear of our Lord—that “you deserve better, or that “you should not be debased with obedience. On the contrary, our Lord Jesus spoke solemnly: he who would be first must be last, like one that serves.[8] We should imitate the way of salvation shown to us by the thief—the only one Christ gave complete assurance of salvation in the Holy Scripture. What did he say? I am receiving what I deserve for my sins, remember me or Lord in thy kingdom.[9]

Thus, brothers and sisters in Christ, let us be aware of the evil will that wars against our members when we consider this question of the Papacy. For it is not as if we can possibly be objective without taking into account this spiritual aspect. Our sinful nature rears up and demands that others conform to our will, not that we should conform to someone else’s. In the same way, what we should emphasize is our humility before the servus servorum Dei, who should be in himself the model of service to the universal Church.

2.     The Papacy is a participation in the Petrine primacy, divinely instituted

If we begin with humility and the love of authority and obedience, then we can more readily assent to the reality that petrine primacy is a divine institution in the Church of Christ. It is a reality in the person of the bishop at the diocesan level, at the regional level, and at the universal level. This reality, far from a usurpation of the reality of Christ, makes present His authority through participation. As the Orthodox-Catholic Agreed Statement of 1988 put it, “since Christ is present in the Church, it is his ministry that is carried out in it. The ministry of the church therefore does not substitute for the ministry of Christ. It has its source in him.”[10] Moreover, in a draft Orthodox-Catholic statement from Moscow, primacy was affirmed to be “a participation in [Christ’s] own authority.”[11]

Likewise, once in humility we recognize this ecclesiastical authority to be Christ’s own, it becomes entirely self-evident that the universal authority of Christ must also be manifest.

The need for and the reality of a universal head, i.e., the Bishop of Rome, can no longer be termed an exaggeration. It becomes not only acceptable but necessary. If the Church is a universal organism, she must have at her head a universal bishop as the focus of her unity and organ of supreme power. The idea, popular in Orthodox apologetics that the Church can have no visible head, because Christ is her invisible head, is theological nonsense. If applied consistently, it should also eliminate the necessity for the visible head of local church, i.e., the bishop. Yet it is the basic assumption of a “Catholic” ecclesiology that the visible structure of the Church manifests and communicates its invisible nature. The invisible Christ is made present through the visible unity of the bishop and the people: the Head and the Body. To oppose the visible structure to the invisible Christ leads inescapably to the Protestant divorce between a visible and human Church which is contingent, relative and changing and an invisible Church in heaven. We must simply admit that if the categories of organism and organic unity are to be applied primarily to the Church universal as the sum of all its component parts (i.e. local [catholic] churches), then the one, supreme, and universal power as well as its bearer becomes a self-evident necessity, because this unique visible organism must have a unique visible head. Thus the efforts of Roman Catholic theologians to justify Roman primacy not by mere historical contingencies but by divine institution appear as logical. Within a universal ecclesiology, primacy is of necessity power and, by the same necessity, a divinely instituted power.[12]

Taking this ecclesiological point prima facie, we may also call to witness the innumerable patristic witnesses that not only affirm the ‘princedom’ of St. Peter among the Apostles, but also connect this petrine primacy with the three levels of jurisdiction mentioned supra especially universal. The reader is advised to research this matter for himself, since the sheer weight of evidence bewilders even the efforts to making passing references.

Once it is admitted that petrine primacy at the universal level exists and that it is a divine authority, a fruitful discussion can take place about how that authority best serves all.

3. The Integrity of the Local Church Must be maintained

For just as a universal authority must be in place in the Church, this authority should not subsume the local, particular churches. This is based upon the theology of the Holy Trinity, the foundation of our faith. The Holy Trinity is One God in Three Persons, and none are subsumed into others, but all retain their integrity as Persons (within the framework, we might add, of the monarchia of the Father). The threat that universal authority can manifest to local particularity is what causes the Protestant and Orthodox churches to look with reluctance at the prospect of the Papacy. As one Catholic author observed,

If other churches see Rome as monarchical in its exercise of authority, imposing a crushing uniformity on its own local churches, or as not being open to local concerns, they will not recognize the universal Catholic Church as able to function as a true communion of churches.[13]

Thus it should be further admitted from the Catholic side, that the concerns that non-Catholics have with the Papacy are not all intransigent and hubristic. Rather, inasmuch as the universal unity of the Church is essential, so too the local church is essential—as it is essential to God. Moreover, Eucharistic ecclesiology is becoming more greatly accepted as the normal understanding of catholicity in the New Testament.[14] This reaches out towards another concept besides primacy in the universal authority of the Church—conciliarity. This is the governmental concept most emphasized by Orthodox and Protestants, and should never be dismissed but recognized as an essential element in primacy itself. We will return to this shortly.

4. The identification of societal evils effecting the world view of the Church

However, the emphasis on conciliarity can be melded with a certain secular view of authority which has swept the world since it was first introduced by violence in the late 18th century. This is known as secular democracy and when considering its evil elements (as opposed to certain benefits), rejects as tyranny any authority, ispo facto, if not assented to by “the people” and reserves the right of “the people” to murder someone in authority if his authority is unacceptable.

We should recognize this for the evil that it is. No human being can transgress against divine authority without eternal consequences. A mob of men cannot destroy a king, and neither can a child kill his parents. Authority is given to those in authority from God directly, no matter what process brought them to power—whether through birth or succession, or vote (of course, this precept also nullifies the claims of a usurper). A child cannot say to his father: “You disciplined me without my consent!” Neither can subjects tell their king: “Your authority comes from us!” Rather, authority comes from God, who is a much more exacting judge of character than any national referendum.

In addition, secular democracy melds with an idolotrous nationalism to produce a virolently indepentent hubris, which has melded with the ecclesiologies of all Orthodox churches (and some Protestant ones) to produce nothing less than a wickedly divisive ecclesiastical heresy. One need only quote the words of Russian Orthodox theologian Nicolas Lossky in his honest appraisal of Orthodoxy’s connundrum:

[It is an] “autocephalist” ecclesiology. It entails not so much a spirit of communion as a tendency to speak mainly of the “rights” of the local church defended in the name of what some call “historical justice.” As a result, relations among the “sister churches” tend to resemble more and more the relations between sovereign states, all the more so as a strong dose of nationalism (condemned in 1872 as “phyletism,” which paradoxically all unanimously denounce as a heresy and many, at the same time, profess it in practice) is mixed with this notion of “independence.”[15]

At the same time, the authority which is vested in someone must be used for the service of others. This is because true authority is necessarily Christ’s authority who is the servant king. A king who does not die for his people is not a king who rules with Christ. The subjects should resist following such a king in the same manner as our Lord said of the authorities of His day: they sit in Moses seat, so be careful to do all they command. But do not do as they do.[16] It is true that the Papacy should not subsume the local church. But it is the easiest thing in the world to answer an extreme with the opposite extreme—and both are guilty of divisiveness. One need only read the life of that great Doctor of the Church, St. Catherine of Siena, to see how one can be obedient to the Holy Father while rebuking him.

5. The Necessity of Balance between Conciliarity and Primacy

We must consider, therefore, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, the importance of balance and moderation. This is nothing but the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, who is a community of love—the eternal equilibrium of Three Persons in One Essence. In the same way, the Church must participate in this community of love, and thereby affect an equipoise between the members and parts of the Church universal.

The Second Vatican Council, in working to complete the ecclesiastical work of Vatican I, brought conciliarity to bear upon the primatial ecclesiology of 1870:

Just as in the Gospel, the Lord so disposing, St. Peter and the other apostles constitute one apostolic college, so in a similar way the Roman Pontiff, the successor of Peter, and the bishops, the successors of the apostles, are joined together… the college or body of bishops has no authority unless it is understood together with the Roman Pontiff, the successor of Peter as its head… however, the power of binding and loosing, which was given to Peter, was granted also to the college of apostles, joined with their head…. [therefore] the Roman Pontiff, as the successor of Peter, is the perpetual and visible principle and foundation of unity of both the bishops and of the faithful. The individual bishops, however, are the visible principle and foundation of unity in their particular churches, fashioned after the model of the universal Church, in and from which churches comes into being the one and only Catholic Church.[17]

This brings the conciliarity and primacy into a Trinitarian, perichoretic relationship of simultaneous ontology. In other words, the one implies the other, the one needs the other, and vice versa—each cannot be without the other. Thus also the Father is not the Father unless the Son is, and likewise the Son and the Holy Breath vis-à-vis the Father. It is true that conciliarity and primacy are pitted against each other, and at the Council itself not a small ruckus was made over the text of Lumen Gentium.[18]

But in the same way as a husband and wife must work together and cooperate, primacy and conciliarity (respectively) must also do so. But at the same time, just as St. Paul wrote in his famous exhortation to spouses, the wife must submit to their husbands as to the Lord, the husband must also die for his wife as Christ died for the Church[19]—thus also must the conciliarity submit to the Holy Father, but the Holy Father must also die for the council and the Church universal. He is the servus servorum Dei.

It is at the times when the Holy Father (not to mention other levels of primacy) have least displayed the servant, bridegroom, self-sacrificing love of Christ to the Church that the members of the Church—in the same way as any woman would be exasperated at a wicked husband—have walked away from authority. This is why, in the Ecumenical agreed statements on authority, again and again is emphasized that authority should be “exercised in a personal, collegial and communal way”[20] as an “act of service.”[21]

6. Love cannot be legislated, but faith conquers the world

The Moscow document cited supra also mentions that the relationship of authority should be characterized by “love between the one who exercises authority and those who are subject to it.”[22] This cuts both ways. On the one hand, many call for a downplay of juridical terminology in favor of pastoral and familial words, and take umbrage at the legislation of papal primacy. This is a good thing, since the Holy Father should never exercise his authority solely as a matter of impersonal, judicial duty and regulation—love must be supreme.

At the same time, one must recognize the fact that any system of ‘checks and balances’—themselves juridical—will ultimately fail to anticipate all that may be needed in some future situation wherein the Holy Father feels bound to serve the Church. His fatherly love must not be constrained to the degree that if he feels he must do some thing beyond our reckoning, for our own benefit, to serve us, we must allow him to do so. At the same time, if we imagine some sort of check on papal power, who then will check the check itself?

Instead of placing our trust in juridical systems, we must exist in the tension of the balance of these two feminine and masculine elements of authority—conciliarity and primacy. They must work together, with neither one suppressing the other, but also with a certain order of authority. Canonical regulations are important, but cannot always predict every expression of love and service that must be performed.

Therefore we must embrace what St. John the Apostle said, everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith.[23] We must have faith in God to ultimately govern the Church, no matter how sinful our structures are and how sinful the authorities and subjects are. The History of the Church proves that even in the darkest times of ecclesiastical scandal, the faith of the Saints manifests the unconquerable nature of the unam sanctam, catholicam et apostolicam ecclesiam, and the witness of history proves the words of our Lord Jesus True: Ecce ego vobiscum sum omnibus diebus usque ad consummationem saeculi.[24]

Placeat tibi, Sancta Trinitas.


[1] See, for example Puglisi, ed., Petrine Ministry and the Unity of the Church (2002), How Can the Petrine Ministry Be a Service to the Unity of the Church? (2010)

[2] Oratio in 1 Cor. 15:28; in St. Thomas Aquinas, Catena Aurea, trans. John Henry Newman, 103

[3] Prov. 3:34; 10:17

[4] Regula, prologue; trans. McCann, 7

[5] Phil. 2:8

[6] Matt. 10:24

[7] Eph. 5:21

[8] Mk. 9:35

[9] Lk. 23:41, 42

[10] Valamo, 5; in De Mey, “The bishops’ participation in the threefold office of Christ: Reconsidering LG 25- 27 in the light of reflections on episcopacy in other Christian churches and their ecumenical dialogues, 14

[11] In De Mey, The bishop’s Participation, 15

[12] Fr. Alexander Schmemann, “The Idea of Primacy in Orthodox Ecclesiology,” The Primacy of Peter, 151; it is clear here, that Fr. Alexander understands the Roman Catholic argument for such things. Whether or not he agrees with it, is more difficult to discern.

[13] T.P. Rausch, Towards a Truly Catholic Church: An Ecclesiology for the Third Millennium (Collegeville, MI, 2005), 202

[14] For an in depth study of Pauline ecclesiology in the recent documents which argues for the integrity of the local church, see P. De Mey, “The Presence of Pauline Ecclesiology in Lumen Gentium: From Exegesis to Ecclesiology,” English translation of Id., De kerkopvatting van Paulus als blijvende inspiratiebron. Van exegese naar theologie, in F. Van Segbroeck (ed.), Paulus, Leuven: VBS – Acco, 2004, 121-155.

[15] Nicolas Lossky, “Conciliarity-Primacy in a Russian Orthodox Perspective” in Petrine Ministry and the Unity of the Church (ed. Puglisi), 129

[16] Matt. 23:3

[17] Lumen Gentium, 22, 23

[18] See Rausch’s first chapter on this text, which discusses the strong feelings held by the council fathers on both sides.

[19] Eph. 5:22-25

[20] BEM 26; in De Mey, Bishop’s Participation, 10

[21] Cf. De Mey, ibid., “the bishop is only entitled to use his authority if it is beneficial for the community and if it is exercised in a spirit of service” (8)

[22] De Mey, 15

[23] 1 Jn. 5:4

[24] Matt. 28:20: Behold I am with you for all days even unto the consummation of the age

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