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Sunday, February 17, 2013

On Demystifying the Papacy

  Overlooked in the aftermath of the Pope's surprise announcement was a remark from Rowan Williams, former Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury (the Archbishop of Canterbury essentially is the Anglican version of the Bishop of Rome, though with less authority). In an interview with Vatican Radio, Williams was asked, "The resignation is being seen as a modernising step for the papacy: do you see it as furthering the call by Johh Paul II in Ut Unum Sint to rethink the papacy in the service of unity for all Christians?"

  William's response: "That’s a really interesting question because it does seem to me that an act like this does something to, as you might put it, demystify the papacy, the pope is not like a sort of God King who goes on to the very end. The ministry of service that the Bishop of Rome exercises is just that, a ministry of service and it’s therefore reasonable to ask if there is a moment when somebody else should take that baton in hand. So yes, I’d call it demystifying and in that sense reminding us that the position of the bishop of Rome, the primitive position of the bishop of Rome as the servant of the unity of the Church, of the bishop who convenes, mediates between, manages the fellowship of the bishops, that slightly more functional, slightly less theologically top heavy picture, that may be one of the things that emerges from this."

  This statement is telling on many levels. It reveals something I think many Protestants perceive about the papacy, which I remain convinced is significantly different than how most Catholics actually experience the papacy. I really don't know any Catholics who view the Pope as a God King, even if we have always experienced the Bishop of Rome enduring in his office until death.

   But there is no doubt that Catholics mystify the papacy, meaning they see an office that is imbued with mystery, in which the successor of St. Peter is a visible sign of the unity of the universal Church and, as such, the Vicar of Christ on earth. The belief in his doctrinal infallibility is not rooted in any false notions of an ontological change in his person (say from humanity to divinity) but rather in Christ's promise that he will not allow his Church to fall into error (and since the Pope is the final authority on issues of faith and morality, the Pope erring would mean that Christ has not kept his promise).

    So if demystify means "to remove the mystery from," Rowan Williams' stated hope is a futile one. For Catholics to remove the mystery from the papacy  is to effectively eliminate the transcendent and reduce the papacy to a functional role. You might as well expect Catholics to demystify the Eucharist.

   But perhaps Rowan Williams is right in at least this sense; the Pope's resignation may help to demystify the papacy for non-Catholic Christians, such that they develop a more accurate understanding of how Catholics actually experience the papacy. After all, it's a little difficult to accuse Catholics of viewing the Pope as semi-divine when a peaceful transition of office happens here in the next month, and Pope Benedict XVI is once again seen as Joseph Ratzinger (though I doubt we will see him at all).

  Given Pope Benedict XVI's obvious commitment to healing the breaches in the Christian world, I wouldn't even be surprised if that possibility was part of his calculus in making this decision.

  Later in the interview, Rowan Williams goes on to mention Ut Unum Sint (That They May Be One), the 1995 encyclical from Pope John Paul II about Christian unity, in which he solicits patient and fraternal dialogue from the separated Christian communities regarding how the papacy, even with the baggage of history, can serve the unity of all Christians.

   He states, "As Bishop of Rome I am fully aware, as I have reaffirmed in the present Encyclical Letter, that Christ ardently desires the full and visible communion of all those Communities in which, by virtue of God's faithfulness, his Spirit dwells. I am convinced that I have a particular responsibility in this regard, above all in acknowledging the ecumenical aspirations of the majority of the Christian Communities and in heeding the request made of me to find a way of exercising the primacy which, while in no way renouncing what is essential to its mission, is nonetheless open to a new situation."

   Perhaps Pope Benedict XVI believes that this step on his part can help further dialogue on this issue. We will probably never know, this side of heaven. But if this can be a key development in the slow progress toward a more thorough expression of Christian unity, it could be his greatest legacy.

  We've made progress, but there is so far to go. To be sure, the visible unity of East and West, Orthodox and Catholic, would be much easier to experience, given the validity with which we view each other's ordinations, Eucharist, and other sacraments. But the Protestant/Catholic divide is much trickier. Let me try to explain by way of analogy.

   As the unity of the Church is a gift we do not create but simply receive, it is in many ways like the bond of marriage. In Catholic teaching, the consent of holy matrimony forms an indissoluble bond ("what God has joined together, let not man put asunder"). Even if civil divorce occurs, the marital bond remains, which is why a divorced Catholic cannot remarry in the Church if their original spouse is still living (the state has no power to dissolve an indissoluble bond).

  In some ways, the Protestant Reformation/Revolt created a civil divorce. As the Church is one, her unity can not be dissolved in reality, but can be lost in practice.

  To further illumine the situation, let us elaborate on the analogy with this image: A married couple who has a civil divorce, then decides to reconcile. If this reconciliation happens soon after the civil divorce, a reconciliation involves some forgiveness and healing, but not much else. But imagine a scenario in which years pass, and both divorced spouses go on to enter into second civil marriages, have children and even grandchildren.

  Suppose the original spouses desire to reconcile now--it's much more complicated. The original spouses are now deeply vested in their second marriages, with children and grandchildren who are barely conscious that their parents were married previously.

 Thus, the reconciliation of Christians is made much more difficult by the fact that Protestants are fully vested in their new communions; with their own parishes, structures, hierarchies, institutions,universities, hospitals, and, of course, pensions.

  But this is precisely why we must be prayerfully patient. Perhaps Pope Benedict XVI is doing something we won't see the fruit of for centuries. If so, he is truly manifesting the papal title of "Servant of the Servants of Christ."

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