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...

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About the Author

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