The New Pope Should Be a Priest
Symbolized by the three-tiered papal crown, the traditional functions of the papal office are king (ruler – servant), prophet (teacher), and priest (reconciler- healer). These three functions are inseparable. Still, different times call for different emphases. What Catholics need now is a pope who is first and foremost a priest – someone who can reconcile and relate to all facets of our truly global religious community.
From the fourth century until the late nineteenth century, the catholicity of the church was deeply political in nature. It was intertwined with the church’s status as the official religion of the Roman Empire, the Holy Roman Empire, and some successor nations. The pope was a king among kings, although his rule was spiritual as well as temporal.
After the decisive loss of its temporal power, the prophetic function of the papacy became most prominent, as successive popes emphasized their roles as universally authoritative teacher son matters of faith and morals. But recent scandals have undermined their moral authority – it’s very difficult to trust the official pronouncements of an organization that conspired to cover up the sexual abuse of children and young people.
The sense of betrayal over the sex abuse crisis is palpable, not only in the United States, but in other countries as well, such as Ireland and Germany. The alienation is spreading like a lethal Florida sinkhole, Doubling down on ruling and teaching isn’t going to help. It will only make the earth crumble more quickly beneath our feet. The pope needs shift focus, to nurture a strong but flexible global network of solidarity that will stitch together the gaping hole in the heart of the church, allowing it to begin to heal.
Here’s an example: In 2006 and in 2010, I attended two conferences on “Catholic Theological Ethics in the World Church,” the brainchild of James Keenan, S.J., the Founders Professor of Moral Theology at Boston College. It’s one thing to know abstractly that American Catholics constitute less than ten percent of the world church; it’s another thing spend four days talking to five hundred Catholic moralists from over fifty countries around the globe. Talking to African theologians, in particular, I came to see how my assumptions about the proper role of individual autonomy and how best to promote the dignity of women were too deeply entangled in Western cultural presuppositions. Modern air travel brought us all together, post-modern internet connections allowed us to continue the conversation after we all went home. All participants were energized–and humbled–by the realization that we were part of a church that was globally catholic–not just Roman Catholic.
What would happen if the new Pope encouraged these sorts of networks and connections among the Catholic faithful as a whole? What would happen if dioceses in North America and Europe were paired with dioceses in Africa and Asia? In addition to fostering solidarity across cultural and economic lines, it could enable new ways of priests working with laity and men working with women. In fact, we might just begin to understand ourselves as a globalized body of Christ. And that, in turn, might help us to heal.