John Paul II's reign: Iron fist cloaked in a warm, fuzzy glove

October 16, 1998|By Joseph Gallagher

THOUGH he's remarkable in so many ways, today Pope John Paul II adds to his distinction by marking his 20th anniversary as ++ head of the Roman Catholic Church. He joins just 11 other popes who served beyond two decades.

The average ministry of the previous 260 or so bishops of Rome lasted less than eight years. On average, a papacy of 20 years or more occurs only once every 150 years.

Writing around 1866, the eminent Cardinal John Henry Newman (who John Paul II wants to canonize) said that such lengthy pontificates are bad for the church, inducing too much hardening of ecclesiastical arteries. Vatican watchers are now predictably predicting that the cardinals will choose an elderly man as John Paul II's successor, giving the church a needed breathing spell.

1,500-day reign

But in the past century, after the 31-year reign of Pius IX, the 67-year-old Leo XIII governed for 25 years and died at 93. After Pius XII's almost 20 years, the 76-year-old John XXIII, who was elected in 1958, opened the revolutionary Second Vatican Council during his mere 1,500 days.

When the church gets a pope, it gets his theory of the papacy. By the mere act of calling for a world meeting of his brother bishops, John XXIII showed that he was not an absolutist in his theory of papal authority. Catholic writer Garry Wills has said that John XXIII was a papist but not a papalist. Like every Catholic, a papist believes in the unifying role of the bishop of Rome -- though ironically it has become divisive.

A papalist maximizes that role to the diminishment of the role of other teachers in the church, especially bishops. Though John Paul II is widely popular as a religious figure, some in the church don't like the fact that he's a strong papalist, running the church like it's his personal diocese. Such a pontiff retards reunion with those millions of other Christians who find such a spiritual monopoly unbiblical.

Evolving office

The history of the papacy reveals that the role of Rome's bishop has dramatically changed through the centuries. For instance, at first the church in Rome was probably governed by a panel of elders or presbyters. The office of foreign secretary to other churches probably evolved into the papacy as we know it.

In any case, as Paul's epistle to the Romans demonstrates, Christianity had already been founded and was presumably being governed in Rome before Peter or Paul arrived there, after Peter had already been bishop of Antioch.

The very idea of one bishop ruling a whole diocese -- the so-called monarchical episcopate -- was itself a development in the early church. Because Christianity in the cosmopolitan capital of the empire comprised so many different groups, Rome was probably the last major city of the ancient world to agree on a single Christian leader.

Although the development of papal authority has been defended as providential and ultimately rooted in the will of Jesus, the image of some torch of universal authority passing directly from Jesus to Peter to immediate successors in Rome is a vast simplification of an "inconceivably complex journey through time," according to Catholic historian Eamon Duffy.

Mr. Duffy argues that from A.D. 40 through the best part of the century which followed it, "there was nothing and nobody in Rome who could recognizably be called a pope."

The Gospel words of Jesus, "Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church," do not in themselves justify the notion of an infallible pope with universal authority.

Though Peter is pre-eminent in all four Gospels, only one contains these words, and no papal documents before A.D. 250 quotes this text in defense of a special authority inhering in the Roman see.

Rome was special primarily because it contained the relics of two martyred apostles, Peter and Paul, not because any particular authority granted to the apostles as eyewitnesses of Jesus was originally thought to be transferable.

Where is the authoritative successor to St. Paul or any of the other apostles besides Peter? Moreover, for centuries the pope was deemed to be only the vicar of Peter. The title vicar of Christ became popular in the 12th century.

The bishops' boss

Rome, the "unchangeable" rock, has changed often. No pope today would claim what Boniface VIII did around 1300: "It is altogether necessary to salvation for every human creature be subject to the Roman pontiff." On the other hand, Boniface would not have claimed the exclusive right to appoint all bishops, as the popes of the past century have done.

The historical and theological point is that what the "ministry of Peter" has meant in past centuries has mutated considerably, and therefore may change again.

In that fact lies the best hope for the eventual reunion of all Christians, a goal which the outstanding John Paul II has ardently promoted within the parameters of his extremely centralized papal theory.

Father Gallagher is a retired priest of the Baltimore archdiocese.

Pub Date: 10/16/98

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