Is the Papacy Obsolete?

A few weeks before the pope died a reporter on the death watch called me. Among her questions: Is the papacy obsolete? My immediate reply was, “Yes, and it always has been.” I later revised my wisecrack, at least in my own head: the older the papacy becomes, the more obsolete it appears, because the longer it goes on, the more it has to preserve. To outsiders, like the reporter, the papacy seems so far behind the times that she could repeat a very old Protestant canard and describe it as obsolete. That, of course, is not how Catholics and many Christians, even Protestants, would describe it today.

But in this culture, with its highly developed techniques of planned obsolescence, the story line is clear: imminent demise or wholesale redesign. Neither is likely since one of the central tenets of the papal office is to preserve the church that began 2000 years ago, and not to remake it. From time to time refashioning has occurred, though that does not loom large in the job description or the history books. Like the absolute monarchies of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe, from which the concept of the papacy still takes its cues, we can say: “The pope is dead; long live the pope,” as the new pope takes on this transcendent sense of his responsibilities.

Whatever our deepest desires or lengthy agendas, most Catholics do not expect the new pope to remake the church. Indeed the larger-than-life John Paul II may have remade Eastern Europe and the public image of the papacy, but he did not remake the church; he simply returned it to December 8, 1965, the day Vatican II ended and before the reforms of the council came to life.

Nonetheless as a new papacy begins, there are certain exigencies that the pope would be foolish to ignore. Three particularly affect the Catholic Church in the United States, but loom elsewhere: first, a shrinking leadership group with diluted authority, second, an educated and skeptical laity, and third, a polarized church.

A diminishing number of U.S. clergy is shepherded by bishops seriously hampered by their lack of credibility and authentic authority. Much of the actual work of the church is now carried out by lay people, especially women, who have no authority at all and work at the will or whim of the ordained. The sexual abuse crisis is the proximate cause of the bishops’ loss of credibility, but episcopal appointments of Roman favorites, the transfer of bishops from one diocese to another (as if trial runs have become necessary), and the decline in the consensus-building work (among bishops) of the bishops’ conference must all be factored in. One solution is a return to the practice of naming a bishop from within the local church allowing him to serve there until retirement or death. This too, may have its drawbacks, but at least a local appointee will have a fair knowledge of clergy and people and a sense of diocesan needs. Being permanently appointed to a specific diocese, he will be saved from the careerism that now seems to tempt some bishops.

An educated and skeptical laity is a challenge of the church’s own making, since many of them are graduates of Catholic schools-perhaps the most skeptical being sixteen year veterans of the system. This is a two-edged sword: on the one side, such Catholics make an enormous contribution in talent and resources to church and society; on the other, they can’t be treated as pious and deferential dolts readily put off by cheerful assessments or duplicitous answers. An engaged and knowledgeable laity is the church’s strong suit if it is to pick itself up and move beyond the current paralysis. Smarter bishops would help. Ordaining married men would ease the growing burdens of current clergy and, if done with serious attention to the qualities of the candidates, bridge the gap that increasingly exists between the people of God and those who minister to them.

Finally, there is a polarized church usually described as divided between conservatives and liberals. That is not wholly wrong. But increasingly it seems to me that the polarization is between two smaller groups both deeply committed to the church and the Catholic tradition. The first group we might call resisters. They regard the church and tradition as bulwarks against a culture enthralled (as they see it) by consumption, technological fixes, and novel social arrangements. Their remedy is resistance to the power of the culture (and sometimes the state) and preservation of a Catholic ethos centered on family, religious devotion, and an integral intellectual framework for defending the tradition. Certainly many of these can be described as conservative or traditionalists, but there is a left-wing version developing, including those who style themselves “radical orthodox”.

The second group we might call engagers. They do not buy the “culture of death” analysis on which the resisters argue their case, though they too may be critics of some of the same economic and cultural practices. They see in the culture and the outlines of modernity (and post-modernity) a challenge to which the church and tradition bring rich and powerful ideas, analysis, and counter-practices. Dialogue and engagement are their primary responses, though preservation of Catholic practice is important to their endeavors. Many of these can be described as liberals, but they are increasingly joined by moderates and some conservatives who, at least in the United States, are reluctant to join the more integralist resisters. (It is paradoxical that the resisters take John Paul II for their hero, though in many respects he is a model for the engagers.)

The new pope and the Vatican are not likely to address these three issues as such; in any case, some of them are best addressed by the local church, if only it had more guts and gusto. But it’s precisely where the local church meets the Vatican that the engine of Catholicism has seized up. To get it moving again there has to be a return to authentic episcopal leadership. Bishops should resume their traditional roles as vicars of Christ in their own dioceses and be prepared to consult with the presbyteral, pastoral, and finance councils provided for in canon law. Vatican congregations should stop second-guessing bishops and advocating for every crank and curmudgeon who writes to Rome with complaints. National bishops’ conferences should return to a robust pattern of collegiality, providing bishops with the national resources and planning tools they need for addressing the varied challenges local churches face, each in their own country.

A more expansive papal attitude toward the bishops allowing them greater freedom and opportunity to engage in honest dialogue among themselves would go a long way to creating a spirit of consultation and consensus-building throughout the church. The pope could begin by making the Synod of Bishops an authentic vehicle of consultation, reversing the current practice in which bishops come to Rome to address an agenda set by the Vatican and then go home to await the papal rendition of their conversations. If the pope and curial officials don’t trust the bishops to describe and reflect on the church in both its local and universal aspects, can it genuinely call itself catholic-global though it may have become.

Perhaps the motto for our new pope should be: Loosen up!

Published in the 2005-05-06 issue: 

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal, writes frequently in these pages.

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