Does the Papacy Need to Be “Tamed”?

December 2001By William J. Tighe

William J. Tighe is Associate Professor of History at Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania.

Papal Primacy in the Third Millennium.  By Russell Shaw. Our Sunday Visitor Books. 186 pages. $12.95.



Russell Shaw has written a timely and useful book. As a former Secretary for Public Affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, he brings both detailed knowledge and an “insider’s perspective” to the task that he has set himself, which is to present and evaluate the various proposals for the “reform” of the papacy that have arisen since the close of Vatican II, and especially in the latter years of the pontificate of John Paul II.

The book contains five closely interrelated chapters. Chapter One, “Who Wants to Tame the Pope,” is based on the premise that a lot of talk about “reform” of the papacy is really about “taming” it, and arises from a dislike of John Paul II’s unbending orthodoxy and his refusal to make concessions to Western Catholic liberals on such matters as contraception, the ordination of women, homosexuality, the use of “inclusive” language, obligatory priestly celibacy in the Latin Church, or denying “remarried” Catholics who have not received annulments access to the sacraments.

Shaw makes the point that “by no means can all proposals for changes in the exercise of papal primacy be dismissed as radical or irresponsible.” “Reform” proposals, from whatever sources they arise, are evaluated on the basis of their content, congruity with Catholic doctrine, and likely effect upon the Church’s life. Some are “moderately progressive,” arising from alleged “concern all over the world” about papal teaching on issues such as those mentioned above, a concern arising as much (so it is claimed) from the “autocratic style” in which those teachings have been confirmed as from the teachings themselves: Shaw mentions the 1996 Oxford lecture of the retired Archbishop of San Francisco, John R. Quinn as an example. Others arise from “sour grapes” in the aftermath of Vatican II concerning the lack of realization of “the promise of the council,” which appears to mean that those who hoped that Vatican II would be but the beginning of a revolutionary transformation of the Church have reacted with rage and spite when their expectations proved deceptive: Here we are directed to an early example of the monotonously predictable refrains of Fr. Richard McBrien. Others arise from ecumenical dialogues, such as that between Anglicans and Catholics, whose final publication, “The Gift of Authority,” hints that if the “style” of the papacy would change, the “substance” of its claims might be more ecumenically acceptable. Still others come from Catholics who appear to have abandoned large amounts of the faith of the Church, such as the proposed “Constitution for the Catholic Church” published in 1999 by the fringe group, Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church, which appears to wish to transform the Church into a sort of representative democracy where “pluralism,” “responsible dissent,” and sexual and gender equality are the chief institutional values. Despite different motives, Shaw concludes that the effect of them all, to one degree or another, would be to “tame” the papacy.

Chapter Two, “Papal Primacy in History,” discusses selected episodes of papal history, in greatest detail from the Middle Ages to Vatican II, with a view to illuminating how many of the powers and practical responsibilities which accrued to the papacy in the course of time were consequences of unplanned and in some cases ad hoc responses to emergencies, crises, hostile pressures upon the Church, developments which gave the papacy greater day-to-day power and more responsibilities within the Church, as its political standing and authority in Europe weakened. This was especially so in the 19th century, as Shaw illustrates in his discussion of Vatican I. Finally, in a discussion of Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium, which sought to situate papal primacy in the context of “episcopal collegiality” and “hierarchical communion,” he suggests, following Avery Cardinal Dulles, that the “Explanatory Note” appended to the document at the direct command of Pope Paul VI, which stresses the inherently unique position of the papacy at the head of the episcopal college, kept the document in proper continuity with Catholic teaching.

Chapter Three, “The Case for Taming the Pope,” presents both the rationales and “principles” most commonly advanced by so-called progressive Catholics to support such proposals, and then some of the concrete proposals that have been made in order to effect the “taming.” Shaw sees four principal rationales at work. The first is what he terms the “ecclesiological questions” that arose at and after Vatican II — in other words, how to reconcile the primacy and universal jurisdiction of the papacy which Vatican I reinforced with the episcopal collegiality adumbrated in some Vatican II documents. Second are “ecumenical concerns” — the consequences of the recognition that, in the words of Paul VI, “The pope, as we all know, is undoubtedly the gravest obstacle in the path of ecumenism.” Third is “antipapal sentiment” within the Church, a sentiment which sometimes fixes on the “monarchical structures and triumphalistic pomp” assumed over the centuries by the papacy as an institution, but which Shaw believes arises more from dislike of the present Pope, or of most popes in the past century or more (with the exception of the mythologized “liberal Pope,” John XXIII). Fourth — and I wonder whether it is really all that distinct from the previous rationale — is the belief that “taming the papacy” is a necessary first step toward bringing about the changes in doctrine and discipline which they desire, such as, once again, the ordination of women, a broader use of general absolution rather than individual confession, acceptance of “remarriage,” and so forth. Shaw points out that even supposedly “moderate” reformers like Archbishop Quinn have intimated that they think that such issues ought to be “open for discussion.”

Following this discussion of rationales, Shaw discusses in detail some of the principles that have been advanced to justify these “reforms,” such as the “ecclesiology of communio,” with its suggestion that the “local church” (the diocese) has priority over the “universal church,” and with its implication that if Rome were truly to follow the implications of the notion of “episcopal collegiality” advanced by Vatican II, it would allow a wide range of “practical questions” to be decided locally, such as, one imagines, the admission of the “remarried” who have not obtained marriage annulments to Communion or perhaps even a sort of “pastoral care” for homosexual Catholics which would admit such people to the sacraments even while “partnered” by others of the same sex.

Shaw then presents some of the concrete proposals the “tamers” have advanced: the calling of a “truly” ecumenical council (“as far from Rome as possible,” according to one progressive), perhaps even with full participation by non-Catholics, to resolve controverted questions (or at least the calling of an ecumenical council at regular intervals to reform the Church in every generation), upgrading the World Synod of Bishops from its present consultative role to deliberative or even legislative status, “reforming” the Roman Curia (“reform” in this context meaning to cut its size and transfer much of its power to the bureaucrats of national or regional episcopal conferences, while the remaining “skeleton Curia” will have the role of “facilitating discussion” between the various regional and local churches), strengthening national or local conferences of bishops, and giving or returning a greater role in the selection of bishops to clergy and selected laity at the local level.

In Chapter Four, “Evaluation of the Reform Agenda,” Shaw follows closely the pattern of the previous chapter, this time giving his own assessment of the rationales, principles, and proposals set forth. First, he decries the fact that in many of these proposals “decentralization” appears to be openly or tacitly equated with “democratization.” But a “democratized” Catholic Church, he insists, is an impossibility. The pope and the bishops do not “represent” the people; they represent Christ to the people. They are accountable to Christ for their stewardship; they are accountable in a way also to the Catholic people, who entrust their very souls to their care. What this last means is that the people are entitled to expect sound orthodox doctrinal teaching, valid sacraments properly celebrated, and co-operative church governance directed to the realization of the Church’s spiritual mission — and in their absence, he suggests, the faithful are entitled to “vindicate their rights,” although he does not indicate how this should or might be done. The democratic principle of “majority rule” is likewise inapplicable in matters of doctrinal or moral teaching.

And as for “communio ecclesiology,” Shaw says that while a balance is needed between the local Church and the universal Church, it is hard to identify, let alone to strike, especially as models drawn from political science or sociology are bound to be misleading. It is more dangerous still, he adds, to seek to adapt the model of “eucharistic ecclesiology” developed by certain Eastern Orthodox theologians in the course of the 20th century, as this model rests on such a strong prioritization of the “local Church” over the “universal Church” that it is in practice likely to foster a form of congregationalism, or even religious individualism.

Then he moves on to evaluate specific reform proposals, insisting that the standard for evaluating them must in practice be the definitions and decrees of Vatican I and Vatican II taken together, and not by a sort of “Orthodoxization” that would claim that all ecumenical councils held after Nicaea II (A.D. 787), the Seventh Council and the last one held before the schism between Rome and Constantinople, are merely “Western councils,” not ecumenical ones; nor any attempt to revive medieval conciliar theory, which held a “general council” to be superior to a pope; nor any attempt to claim that papal teaching and legislation require the consent of the episcopal college to be valid; nor by an attempt to claim that “autonomous national churches” have the right to accept or reject papal mandates — all of which he sees as opinions that have achieved a certain degree of currency among progressives.

“Upgrade the World Synod of Bishops” to give it a more prominent and deliberative role? Shaw sees no problems, and possibly some benefits in this, so long as the Synod not be involved in papal elections. Revamp ecumenical councils to allow the participation of others than Catholic bishops, or to meet at regular intervals? No to meetings at regular intervals, which would invite the return of conciliarist ideas, but perhaps there could be an expanded consultative role for non-Catholics and for Catholics who are not bishops — but only Catholic bishops, he insists, should be allowed to vote at an ecumenical council. Reform the Roman Curia? All bureaucracies need periodic reforming, but to shift power from the Curia to local or national Church bureaucracies is, he insists, “an idea of extremely doubtful merit.” Give more power to local or national episcopal conferences? Possible in theory, but it carries the danger of fostering a sort of Gallicanism or “National Catholicism,” and it risks an unacceptable reduction in the authority of individual bishops in their own diocese by allowing a clique of bishops and bureaucrats to domineer over the other bishops in their episcopal conference. Change the manner of electing the pope to include more “representative” electors, as from the World Synod of Bishops? Decidedly not, as this would give more influence to pressure groups and special interests, as well as, given the electoral body’s greatly increased size, invite manipulation by small groups within the electoral body. Allowing local churches to select their bishops? No, for although interference by civil authorities in the selection of bishops — the problem that the vesting of the selection of bishops in the hands of the pope sought to overcome — may not be a big problem anymore (except in China), a local electoral process will likely result in factionalism, polarization, and the domination of one diocese or another by a dominant clerical faction and its lay supporters, and only the maintenance of the papal appointment of bishops can prevent that.

The chapter ends with a discussion of the paper produced by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1998, The Primacy of the Successor of Peter in the Mystery of the Church, with its defense of the necessity of a strong papacy with “full and supreme power” in the Church, and with Shaw himself echoing Cardinal Newman’s emphasis on the “absolute need” of the contemporary Church for papal primacy and universal jurisdiction. Indeed, although Shaw doesn’t mention it, Cardinal Newman, who hesitated for nearly a year after Vatican I before being satisfied that its definitions of papal infallibility and universal jurisdiction had received the assent of the universal episcopate, and so were binding on the faithful despite what he saw as the “high hand” with which Pius IX and his supporters had overridden opponents of the definitions, appears to have had a vague presentiment of a future wholesale assault on Catholic orthodoxy from both within and without the Church. Writing on September 9, 1870, while his own doubts were as yet unresolved, to a Mrs. Anna Whitty, a Catholic who had written to him of her grave doubts about the newly promulgated dogmas, he ended by observing “I cannot prophesy how it will be. Again, if terrible times are coming, this increase of his spiritual authority may be absolutely necessary to keep things together….”

In the final chapter, “The Once and Future Papacy,” Shaw recapitulates his general theses and goes on to make a few practical suggestions, insisting above all that while we must continue to recover a proper appreciation for the particular and local (diocesan) church, the universal character of the Church must be preserved — and for this “the papacy’s transnational governing and teaching initiatives are essential,” especially in a time of cultural crisis and radical skepticism such as the present, when all too many Catholics seem to wish to capitulate to the surrounding culture. To resist this, he contends, and to foster orthodox evangelization, requires firm and orthodox leadership from both the pope and the bishops.

Such is Shaw’s book. If this review has taken the form of extended exposition rather than criticism, it is because I find myself in virtually complete agreement with its general argument. My only real criticism pertains to the tone of the book, and its reluctance to draw certain conclusions. Although Shaw does refer to groups of Catholics (whom he describes variously as “liberal activists,” “disaffected Catholics,” or those “on the very far left”) who want to promote radical change in the Church, and while it is clear that Shaw disapproves of their notions, one could easily conclude from the delicate manner in which our author refers to them that these groups (such as the international We Are Church movement) are good, loyal, faithful Catholics with, perhaps, a few quirky opinions, whereas the reality is that they have more or less abandoned the Catholic Faith as it has been defined and received traditionally and historically, and wish to substitute for it something else of their own devising. They are, to put it bluntly, beyond the pale, and to treat their views as though they are views advanced in good faith by obedient Catholics is woefully naïve.



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