WelCom News
A newspaper for the Wellington and Palmerston North Catholic Dioceses

The future of the papacy

Anna Thompson

For many Catholic Christians of my generation, the reforms of Vatican II brought hope and joy. Many aspects of the Church we’d grown up in came to life – it took on a new meaning which was exciting and attractive.

We began to hear and read much more of scripture, to know Jesus as truly human, to take an active part in the liturgy and to see ourselves as God’s people among all the people of God. It didn’t happen quickly but there were clear signs of change.

Pope Paul VI captured the spirit of the time for me when he called on us to allow the power of the Gospel to affect and even upset our ‘criteria of judgment, determining values … sources of inspiration and models of life’ (Evangelii Nuntiandi #19). Nothing was to be taken for granted.

Three major areas of transformation stand out for me: concern for social justice; ecumenism; and the opening up of ministry.

It is essential that these reforms continue and be strengthened in the future. Some events and teachings struck me particularly.

After Vatican II the Church reflected deeply on its social mission, proclaiming it to be at the very heart of Christian faith and identity. The Latin American bishops committed themselves to a ‘preferential option for the poor’.

In 1971 the Bishops’ Synod stated that ‘action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world is constitutive of the preaching of the gospel’.

What we heard, then, was a growing acceptance that our faith in Jesus Christ obliges us to live out our relationship with God in and through the human community, that there can be no separation between faith and justice.

Pope John Paul II stated this very strongly in promulgating this Year of the Eucharist. He insisted that our Eucharistic celebration – our Mass – is only authentic if it brings us to practical commitment to a just society, to be more concerned for those in need. Indeed he was well known and respected for his commitment to social justice.

Pope John Paul also spoke and acted prophetically on ecumenical and inter-faith relations. He will certainly be remembered for this. He deserves the praise he is receiving from Muslims and Jews, from Christians of other traditions.

I was deeply impressed by a joint statement issued several years ago by the pope with the then archbishop of Canterbury, insisting on the unity that existed in so many respects between the two Churches and that proselytising, or seeking conversions, between them was inappropriate.

So the present archbishop, Dr Rowan Williams, had no hesitation in attending the pope’s funeral and speaking warmly of him and of relations between the two Churches. As indeed did so many representatives of other churches and faiths.

This understanding of Catholic Christianity as whole, just, integrated, in right relationship, expressing in its mission the person and teaching of Jesus Christ, bringing about a just, whole world of peace, justice, equality and love, set me alight.

It was in harmony with my values and my experience, as woman, educator, mother, wife and student of human relationships. I looked for an opportunity to give myself full time to a ministry in and for this Church.

I found the opportunity in a Washington parish in 1985. It was an extraordinary time when in many ways Vatican II seemed to be in full flower.

I coordinated, trained, recruited and rejoiced in 80 volunteer teachers in our parish RE programme, which had 700 students from preschool to senior high school, another 20-30 in sacramental preparation programmes. I was one of many lay people ministering in our parish and others.

Liturgies were participative and vibrant, social justice was a priority, with sister parishes in El Salvador and in the inner city of Washington very much part of our life. All our young people participated in outreach activities and reflected on them from a gospel perspective.

These are just a few examples of an exciting time. The question now is: Where is the Church going in the future? What is the role of the papacy?

The pope’s funeral and the chapel blessing of Charles and Camilla’s marriage were beautiful and moving liturgies with wonderful music and eloquent prayer. As I watched I found myself wondering whether the pope’s role isn’t in some ways like the queen’s: a ceremonial leader greatly loved and respected by many, a sign of stability but with little real power.

You see, I think the Catholic Church is experiencing a crisis of trust. The pope’s eloquent statements on social justice, ecumenism, respect for the dignity of all people and for the equality of women, are not seen to be realised in practice.

Not only is there no talk in Rome of beatification for Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, a martyr for social justice, but he and many of the other great Latin American leaders, such as Cardinal Arns and Archbishop Helder Camara of Brazil, have been replaced by traditional bishops who have dismantled structures that empowered the poor and marginalised, and returned to a separation between faith and justice, between the Church and the poor.

Catholics in Aotearoa-New Zealand and elsewhere hear prophetic statements about social justice but somehow we don’t experience this as an absolute imperative, as non-negotiable, especially where unjust social structures are concerned.

Wonderful ecumenical initiatives, such as ARCIC (Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission) and the Catholic-Lutheran Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, are undermined when Anglican priests who reject the ordination of women are welcomed into Catholic priesthood, married or not.

Somehow the desperate shortage of priests to minister sacramentally to the world’s Catholics is not considered enough to justify ordaining married Catholic men, let alone allowing priests to marry, yet Anglican married priests are welcome when they reject women’s ordination.

Equally disturbing was the declaration by the Vatican a few years ago that Anglican holy orders are invalid, and that Catholics are bound to accept this. This statement can only mean that an Anglican priest is not empowered to preside at Catholic Eucharist, so why define it? Anglican orders are valid for Anglicans, Catholic orders for Catholics. The teaching is based, presumably, on the Anglican acceptance of women’s ordination.

Finally, liturgical reform seems to mean not only even stronger insistence on language that excludes women, but petty regulations about Eucharistic ministry, about the presider stepping down from the altar to share the sign of peace with members of the assembly, and new limits on the role of lay Eucharistic ministers.

It is hard to see how Pope John Paul II’s insistence on the importance of Vatican II is consistent with these and similar events. Yet if the pope has real authority, then he must at least have agreed to the events and statements I have mentioned, without necessarily being responsible for initiating them. Perhaps, like the monarch, the pope has no real power. In that case we can wonder what relevance the papacy has for our lives.

Fortunately, there is no returning to the old ways. Catholics hear, read, reflect and pray with the scriptures. We have been set alight by the good news of Jesus Christ.

We know that right relationship, peace, justice, equality and love are integral to our faith, uncomfortable as this may sometimes make us. Our hope and trust are in God, whom we know through Jesus, and whose Holy Spirit gives us peace of mind even when we are confused.

Canon Peter Stuart who, until recently was the canon theologian for the Anglican Church, told the gathering that the Anglican Communion had on several occasions expressed hope in the past 70 years that church authority would be shared among the people with the pope exerting ultimate authority sparingly.

‘The fact that we’re all meeting tonight to discuss the future of the papacy is one expression of that desired openness by both Communions to a ‘re-reception’ of the exercise of universal primacy. At official level, anyway, we Anglicans have moved from seeing the papacy as an obstacle to reunion to seeing it as a potential gift.’

Canon Stuart said the second Vatican Council and the, at least partial, implementation of its vision and spirit has made a huge difference to the way Anglicans saw the Roman Church.

‘Combined with that has been the breadth of the appeal of the personal leadership of John XXIII, Paul VI and John Paul II.’

But he thought most grassroots Anglicans would be surprised at how far ARCIC got in agreeing on a common understanding of the role and place of the Bishop of Rome in the Universal Church. They would have to travel a long way to reach the point ARCIC got to in acknowledging a universal primacy ‘before the official hesitations on both sides started to kick in, and before issues like the ordination of women, gay sexuality and the resurgence of papal centralism put some brakes on our mutual progress to convergence’.

What then were his own hopes for a papacy if the two Churches remained divided?

First: that it would continue to act as a global champion of human dignity. ‘One great dividing line in our Anglican perception of the papacy is marked by John XXIII and Vatican II.’ The image of the papacy has radically changed.

Second: continue to act as a global voice not only of Roman Catholic but of universal Christian faith. All Christians lost a great leader when John Paul II died.

Again and again in his public statements he managed to express something of the sensum fidelium which unites not just Roman Catholics but Christians. For some encyclicals such as Paul VI’s Evangelii Nuntiandi and John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae are significant sources of guidance. And when the pope appeals to and admonishes the various Caesars of this world in the language and spirit of the Gospel, he speaks for far more than his own flock.

Third: that the papacy will become a champion of all Christians not just Roman Catholics. In the last 100 years the Body of Christ has suffered to a degree which it has not done since pre-Constantinian days. The papacy is in a unique position to be an advocate and negotiator on behalf of all Christians in today’s world.

Fourth: that the papacy will have the courage to radically rethink its approach to sexuality and gender. ‘I applaud the Roman Catholic stand on the family and on abortion. Yet 20th century popes have committed Roman Catholics to positions I and the Anglican Church regard as untenable, on such matters as contraception and clerical celibacy; and I and most Anglicans would also include here the ordination of women.’

Fifth: Canon Stuart then said the issue of papal infallibility had been a major obstacle to church unity.

‘What Anglicans around the world found most difficult to understand about the ARCIC report, The Gift of Authority, was how our representatives were able to flirt to the extent they did with the concept of infallible authority.’

He expressed a fifth hope that papal infallibility, would be allowed to recede quietly into history.

And a sixth hope resided in a balance between papal authority and the conciliarity which comes with wide grassroots involvement in church activities and decision-making.

He said the crisis in the Anglican Communion over the blessing of same-sex unions and the ordination of a gay bishop, highlighted the importance of getting the right balance between primacy and conciliarity, as well as between unity and legitimate diversity.

‘To put this somewhat crudely: we Anglicans are probably stronger and more inclusive than Roman Catholics when it comes to conciliarity, and we distrust your over-centralised primacy. Roman Catholics start from the other end, that of universal primacy, and distrust our Anglican decentralised autonomous structures and concept of dispersed authority. I suspect we need each other.’

Canon Stuart hoped the papacy would finish implementing what Vatican II began: the practice of conciliarity in the life of the People of God.