March 13, 2013
By Charles Curran
As the cardinals gather at the Vatican to elect a new pope, two major questions have prevailed. First, who will be the new pope? Someone from the Third World? An Italian? In the light of no obvious frontrunner many names have surfaced.
The second question concerns how to deal with the many problems that have surfaced in the church today, such as the scandal of child sexual abuse and its cover-up, the shenanigans and power struggles within the Vatican, and the loss of many Catholics, especially in the First World.
As important as these issues are, they are not the most important questions facing the Catholic Church today. The most important question concerns the role and function of the papacy in the global church of the 21st century.
Catholics believe that God intended there to be a Petrine office in the church carrying on the role of Peter as the leader of the Apostles. But the role of the papacy has undergone significant changes in the course of history.
John O'Malley, a respected Jesuit historian, has pointed out that the most significant development in Catholicism in the second millennium was the papalization of the church, whereby the total governance of the church has been centralized in the role of the pope. This constituted a radical change. In the first millennium, the pope did not write encyclicals and did not appoint the vast majority of bishops in the church. Very few Catholics at the end of the first millennium even knew the name of the pope. In fact the vast majority of the baptized knew nothing of the papacy. Catechetical instructions seldom, if ever, mentioned the papacy and its role. Most decisions affecting the life of the Catholic Church were made on a local level. Individual bishops did not make regular reports to the pope. Yes, the papacy in the first millennium had a special role with certain prerogatives, but the pope did not really rule or govern all aspects of church life.
By the end of the second millennium, the role of the monarchical papacy with all power in the church centralized in that office was firmly in place. Many factors influenced the development of the monarchical papacy, but some of the more significant ones were quite ironic. For example, the technical developments of transportation, communication, and all forms of the media have contributed enormously to the concept of the monarchical papacy. It is now possible for the Vatican to be in instant communication with the whole world. Three centuries ago the only communication between the pope in Rome and the church around the world was by sailing vessel. Obviously, many decisions had to be made on the local level. In the 20th and 21st centuries, the media has given ever greater importance to the role of the pope as the governor and ruler of the church. I would be willing to bet there were few if any reporters that covered the conclave that elected Pope Innocent XIII in 1721.
The monarchical papacy with all power exercised only by the pope does not serve the church well in the 21st century. Everything comes from the top down. There is no flow from the local churches to the universal church. To give a greater role to local churches does not go against the proper role of the papacy, but it recognizes other governing and ruling functions existing in the life of the global church. In fact, the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) proposed such a restructuring of the papacy. It emphasized the role of collegiality in the church. All the bishops of the world together with the pope have the responsibility not only for their own diocese but also for overseeing the life of the whole church. Every baptized Christian shares in the three-fold office of Jesus as priest, teacher, and ruler. All Catholics, therefore, have something to contribute to the life, functioning, and teaching of the church today. Unfortunately, the theoretical reforms proposed at Vatican II have not been put into practice in an effective way.
The global church today with all its diversity on the local level needs such an understanding of the role of the papacy as making final judgments in the church but with the active involvement of all local churches and their leaders. The change of structure is not going to solve all problems in the church, but it would bring about a better forum in which to discuss realities facing the church now and in the future. Such an understanding of the role of the papal office is in keeping with both the signs of the times and the best theological understanding of the papal role.