A key aspect of any type of 'progressive perspective' is the desire and ability to cut through the layers of superfluous matter that inevitably build up around foundational ideas and concepts (including spiritual ones) and historical figures and events (including religious ones). The purpose of such 'cutting through' is, of course, to get to the core essentials, the heart, it you like, of these types of foundational realities. It's a radical endeavor, to be sure. And as I've noted previously, all too often the word 'radical' is erroneously equated with extremism of one kind or another. Yet that’s not what 'radical' means. It means to go to the root, to recognize and address the underlying essence of a given reality, along with deep-seated issues, questions and/or problems associated with it.
And so I continue with this special Wild Reed series, one which focuses on progressive perspectives on the Catholic reality of the papacy. This reality has been very much in the news lately owing to the March 13 election of Argentinian Jesuit, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio to the 'chair of Peter,' upon which he will sit as Pope Francis.
Much of the media coverage of Bergoglio's election has focused on interesting but rather superfluous things about the trappings of the papacy, about Bergoglio himself, and/or about the type of papacy he may or may not usher in. All this chatter reminds me a bit of commentators gushing and gossiping about details of a royal wedding – details like the clothes being worn, the personality traits of the royal participants, and any perceived family tensions bubbling away below the surface. As to questions of the role and history of the monarchical system within which this wedding is taking place, let alone this system's necessity in this day and age, forget it. As I've noted previously, all of this could be readily dismissed given the miniscule, if non-existent role that royalty plays today. The monarchical system of the papacy, however, still has substantial clout on the world's political stage. Yet should it?
And is a monarchical model of church leadership in keeping with the life and message of Jesus?
Is such a monarchical model capable of moving beyond its own self-preservation? Or can it only ever produce 'conservative' leaders (as the opening cartoon suggests)?
Is such a model of leadership conducive to adult faith development? Or does it keep adults spiritually stunted and fixated on cults of personality?
The pope is often described as Christ's representative on earth. Yet shouldn't this be a role that all of us should seek to embody?
These are the types of questions absent from the mainstream media's coverage of the pending coronation of Pope Francis and of the papacy in general. Accordingly, we hear very few voices that in a genuinely radical way cut through the many surface observations and fixations so as to pose questions of depth and thus highlight the many inconvenient truths about the papacy.
The whole purpose of this Wild Reed series, however, is to lift up these voices and their progressive and radical perspectives. And so today I continue this series by sharing the perspectives of two writers. The first is renowned author and historian Garry Wills. What follows is an excerpt from a recent New York Review of Books op-ed by Wills entitled "Does the Pope Matter?"
. . . When Cardinal Ratzinger was asked, before he became Pope Benedict XVI, if he was disturbed that many Catholics ignored papal teaching, he said he was not, since “truth is not determined by a majority vote.” But that is precisely how the major doctrines like those on the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Resurrection were fixed in creeds: at councils like that of Nicaea, by the votes of hundreds of bishops, themselves chosen by the people, before popes had any monopoly on authority. Belief then rose up from the People of God, and was not pronounced by a single oracle. John Henry Newman, in On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine (1859), argued that there had been periods when the body of believers had been truer to the faith than had the Church hierarchy. He was silenced for saying it, but his historical arguments were not refuted.
Catholics have had many bad popes whose teachings or acts they could or should ignore or defy. Orcagna painted one of them in hell; Dante assigned three to his Inferno; Lord Acton assured Prime Minister William Gladstone that Pius IX’s condemnation of democracy was not as bad as the papal massacres of Huguenots, which showed that “people could be very good Catholics and yet do without Rome”; and John Henry Newman hoped Pius IX would die during the first Vatican Council, before he could do more harm. Acton’s famous saying, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” was written to describe Renaissance popes.
With the election of a new pope, the press will repeat old myths – that Christ made Peter the first pope, and that there has been an “apostolic succession” of popes from his time. Scholars, including great Catholic ones like Raymond Brown and Joseph Fitzmyer, have long known that Peter was no pope. He was not even a priest or a bishop – offices that did not exist in the first century. And there is no apostolic succession, just the twists and tangles of interrupted, multiple, and contested office holders. It is a rope of sand. At the beginning of the fifteenth century, for instance, there were three popes, none of whom would resign. A new council had to be called to start all over. It appointed Martin V, on condition that he call frequent councils – a condition he evaded after he was in power. . . .
To read Garry Wills' commentary in its entirety, click here.
The second voice I lift up this evening, and one which also offers a radical perspective on the papacy, is that of Nathan Schneider. Following are excerpts from Schneider's March 14, 2013, Religion Dispatches commentary "The Pope is Not the Church."
. . . [T]he papacy is not to be confused with the Church itself. At no time should this have been more clear than those strange and special few days when the Catholic Church was a people – an assembly, a community, a mystical body – without a pope.
This is not to say that a pope doesn’t have an important job. It’s an office with considerable (if metaphorical) justification in the Bible, as well as a very long and venerable (if checkered) tradition. Popes help hold together a diverse Church, one far more varied and interesting than most people realize; Vatican City and St. Patrick’s Cathedral are part of the same Church as the back-side of an altar in Guatemala covered in wax and feathers and the parish on the South Side of Chicago that worships with a gospel choir and African dance. A pope is part of the Catholic package for sure, but only part.
Catholic Christianity has a long tradition of being shaped from the margins, starting with its founder.
The Jesus we meet in the Gospels is refreshingly indifferent to those who claim to run the institutions of the world, both religious and secular. He doesn’t appear to have been a revolutionary in the modern sense of seeking to replace those in power with an ideology, but nor did he ever take authorities more seriously than necessary. Render Caesar’s coins unto Caesar, he said, but save the rest for God and neighbor. He accepted the death sentence that the high priests and imperial legates placed upon him, but he never stopped laying bare their hypocrisy. In that ultimate obedience to authority he found freedom, for himself and – as far as Christians are concerned – for all of humanity.
Since then, the story of the Church has been punctuated by people who consulted their consciences first and their popes later. Francis of Assisi assembled his community of barefoot wanderers before going to Pope Innocent III to seek approval. In more recent times, Dorothy Day didn’t need a pope’s permission before opening a house of hospitality for the poor and resistance against war. The Community of Sant’Egidio, founded in Italy in the late 1960s, has fought HIV/AIDS and negotiated peace treaties around the world on its own terms. Yet, in honor of this witness, Benedict XVI made a habit of visiting Sant’Egidio's ministries in Rome. Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York is seeking Dorothy Day’s cause for sainthood. And now, almost eight hundred years after Francis’ death, a pope has named himself after him.
Each of these Catholic heroes had a certain respect for the papacy, but they didn’t let that get in the way of living out the gospel for themselves. They took inspiration from the words of Church authorities, but more importantly they took action on their own – in creative, authentic, and Christian fashion. “In all times the laity have been the measure of the Catholic spirit,” Cardinal John Newman said more than a century ago. If what we expect from the Church is what we expect from the aged and insulated man who happens to hold the office of Peter, there is little reason to expect much.
In the New York Times, Paul Elie recently suggested that in imitation of the papal resignation Catholics might “give up your pew for Lent” – that is, take at least a temporary break from their troubled Church. From time to time, one hears a call along these lines for frustrated Catholics to boycott the Church outright in protest, as if that will make the men in charge finally clean house. But I’ve seen far too many smart and conscientious people give up on the Church – for good reasons, I’m afraid – to want any more of them to leave, even for one Sunday.
What the Church needs is more committed and courageous souls in it, not fewer. It needs souls who are too busy organizing communities of radical living and prayer, and working for justice among the oppressed, and composing new hymns, to worry all that much about whom the Spirit and the cardinals might choose as pope. It needs souls willing to undertake new forms of thought and action capable of making what Catholics see as God’s good news a reality in our time – forms that will influence and inspire popes of the future, even if the present ones don’t yet get it. . . .
To read Nathan Schneider's commentary in its entirety, click here.
NEXT: Part 5
Related Off-site Links:
Garry Wills: The Pope Shouldn't Be King – Sally Quinn (The Washington Post, March 15, 2013).
Media 'Misses Deeper Justice Issues' on Papal Coverage – Thomas C. Fox (National Catholic Reporter, March 18, 2013).
New Pope's Style an Implicit Criticism of Benedict's Papacy – Tom Heneghan (Reuters via Yahoo! News, March 18, 2013).
New Pope and Geopolitics of Secrecy – Ivone Gebara (National Catholic Reporter, March 18, 2013).
Simpler Inauguration Planned for a More Modest Pope – Tom Heneghan (Reuters via Yahoo! News, March 18, 2013).
The Election of Pope Francis Opens the Door on Another Sordid Vatican Story – Colleen Kochivar-Baker (Enlightened Catholicism, March 18, 2013).
Vatican Could Learn a Thing or Two About Renewal from Women Religious – Joan Chittister (National Catholic Reporter, March 6, 2013).
See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Progressive Perspectives on the Papacy (Part 1)
Progressive Perspectives on the Papacy (Part 2)
Progressive Perspectives on the Papacy (Part 3)
Jesus: Path-Blazer of Radical Transformation
"I Love the Radical Catholic Church"
Remembering the "Radical Ethic" of the Catholic Worker Movement
Garry Wills: All "Poped Out"
The Loyal Catholic in Changing Times
Perspectives on Natural Law – Part 4: Garry Wills
"Receive What You Are, the Body of Christ"
Casanova-inspired Reflections on Papal Power - at 30,000 ft.
Image: Rob Rogers.