Sunday, March 10, 2013

Progressive Perspectives on the Papacy (Part 1)

With the papal conclave starting on Tuesday, I thought I'd take the opportunity to share over the next few days some perspectives on the papacy that are not being raised, let alone explored, in the mainstream media's coverage of events in Rome.

I don't know about you, but lately I've found myself totally astounded (and somewhat frustrated) by how so many of the news outlets of a democratic and equality-loving country like the U.S, readily suspend recognition of such qualities in their uncritical reporting on the current machinations of the Vatican's monarchical papacy. As with their coverage of royal weddings, mainstream media outlets seem both mesmerized and stupefied by the pageantry, pomp, and ceremony of papal elections. I would readily ignore such an embarrassing lapse in critical coverage were it not for the fact that the papacy, unlike, say, the British royal family, still has a degree of influence and power in today's world.

I call the perspectives I share in this series "progressive" as they recognize and encourage the capacity for growth in understanding, and thus for development and change in both personal and institutional life. I am drawn to this capacity within all expressions of religion, including the church of my birth. For this reason I identify as a progressive Catholic.

I commence this series with John A. Sanford's insightful interpretation of the gospel story that many Catholics cite to justify the papacy as it exists today, i.e. as an absolute monarchy whose 'monarch,' the pope, is understood to be the one and only spiritual successor of Peter. This story is, of course, the one in which Jesus calls Peter the "rock" upon which the church is to be built. Without doubt, it is a powerful story. Yet because, as Sanford shows, it offers an alternative understanding of both the role of Peter and the meaning of 'the Church,' it opens the door for Catholics to revisit, question, and explore the meaning of the papacy.

. . . Ultimately the power to withstand the storm of exposure to the inner [unconscious] world is the rock of consciousness of the Word of God. The ego standpoint is often represented as a house. If one puts one's faith in things other than consciousness of the meaning of God's Word in the soul, the house of the ego cannot stand. The image of the house is an important one in Jesus' sayings . . . Jesus says of the storm and the house: "Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a sensible man who built his house on rock. Rain came down, floods rose, gales blew and hurled themselves against that house, and it did not fall: it was founded on rock." (Matt. 7:24-25/Luke 6:47-48)

Here the house stands amid the storm because it was founded upon rock. This rock is the rock of consciousness. It comes from hearing and acting upon the words of Jesus; that is, by fulfilling the demands of the ethic of consciousness and creativity. It is spiritual consciousness and insight that form the rock of Christ on which the kingdom is founded, as appears in the often misinterpreted story of the confession of Peter on the road to Caesarea Philippi when Jesus asks them, "Who do people say the Son of Man is?"

The disciples give various speculations identifying Jesus with one or another of the prophets of Israel. Jesus then counters with a direct thrust at his disciples, "But you, who do you say I am?"

Then Simon Peter speaks up, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God."

And Jesus replies, "Simon son of Jonah, you are a happy man! Because it was not flesh and blood that revealed this to you but my Father in heaven. So I now say to you: You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church. And the gates of the underworld can never hold out against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven: whatever you bind on earth shall be considered bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth shall be considered loosed in heaven."

What Jesus congratulates Peter on is his spiritual insight. Peter has become conscious, and on this rests both his faith and his authority. In the Greek, Jesus calls Simon "petros," the masculine for "rock," and then refers to "this petra," the feminine form of the word. Peter's authority is founded upon his petra, the rock of his conscious insight. It is against this principle of consciousness that even the storms from the underworld, the hellish assault of the chaotic forces of the unconscious, cannot prevail.

The rock is not Peter the person but the insight of Peter, the act of consciousness. Wherever this act of consciousness is made, the Church exists.

People with this insight are enormously important. Here is another paradox of the kingdom: Though God is central to it, human beings are also indispensable, because human consciousness is vital. For this reason human beings are given the keys to the kingdom of God. We, as bearers of consciousness, are that important in God's plan. Here Jesus goes far beyond the ethic of obedience to the ethic of creativity. Human beings are now much more than fallen creatures needing to be restored; they are creative creatures endowed by God with a fundamental significance in the total scheme of things.

pp. 55-57

NEXT: Part 2

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Beyond Papalism
A Return to the Spirit
Casanova-inspired Reflections on Papal Power - at 30,000 ft.
Thoughts on Authority and Fidelity
Beyond a PC Pope
It’s Time We Evolved Beyond Theological Imperialism
What It Means to Be Catholic
No Patriarchal Hierarchy, No Rigid Conformity
Rome Falling
Re-Forming "the Vatican" Doesn't Mean Destroying the Church
Pan's Labyrinth: Critiquing the Cult of Unquestioning Obedience
What the Vatican Can Learn from the X-Men
Roger Haight on the Church We Need

Image 1: St. Peter's Basilica, Rome, by Michael Bayly (2005).
Image 2: Dar al Hajar, "The Rock House," Yeman, by Oliver Holms.
Image 3: Maciej Dakowicz.


Philip Lowe, Jr. p/OSB said...

To this post and the subject I want to share how the Episcopal Church views the role of Peter. The Episcopal Church celebrates as a Holy Day the Confession of St. Peter. The holy day is celebrated on January 18th.

On the holy day of the Confession of St. Peter, we recognize the faith professed by Peter in Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the living God. We recognize that it is by Peter's faith that Jesus bestows upon him, his role as a spiritual leader. It is by his faith that Peter is able to exercise his role as a "first among Apostles."

The place where Episcopalians and Anglicans disagree with the Roman church is that while Peter is a spiritual leader, he is not a political leader, nor is he the head of a church with any more authority over others, than any other bishop in the Church. The faith of Peter is the same faith that is recognized in all Christians, including the Bishops, Priests, Deacons and Lay People. Each has their particular role to play, but we all share in the same faith.

As part of our calendar of commemorations for the Saints, we recognize many men who have had the role of Bishop of Rome. We recognize the Bishop of Rome's contribution to the faithful advancement of the whole Church including but not limited to Catholics, but in communion with all faiths. We see the Pope as having a similar calling to the Archbishop of Canterbury, which is to do what they can to hold the unity of their respective church communities together. Everyone talking together at the same table.

May the Holy Spirit guide this process, and may the whole Church listen very carefully.

Carol said...

Although all the pomp and circumstance and expense of the Vatican is a source of some embarrassment for the church at large, of much more concern to me is the influence of the Curia on the Pope. Entrenched power at the top is not a healthy thing. The preponderance of Italian cardinals is also a concern. I think the number is 23 out of 117 or so, way to many for so small a country.