In the February issue First Things published the Erasmus Lecture of 2000, “Papacy and Power,” by George Weigel. The monumental political influence of the pontificate of John Paul II, Weigel argued, is the result of a long and complicated history in which the papacy has successfully contended for the freedom of the Church (libertas ecclesiae) even as the Church remains ambiguously engaged as a moral voice within the counsels of nations. The Church, and the papacy in particular, has broken with the “Constantinian” model of power in order to become, in accord with the vision of the Second Vatican Council, the “teacher and evangelist of culture,” a role that retrieves and renews the New Testament task of Peter to “strengthen the brethren.” We asked six distinguished writers—Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, and Jewish—to respond to Weigel’s argument, with special reference to the future of the papacy.
The inaugural encyclical of every pope from 1791 to 1939, from Pius VI to Pius XII, was devoted to the problem of the state. Even John XXIII and Paul VI felt it necessary in more recent times to make more than passing remarks about modern states in their first encyclicals.
If ever there was a suitable occasion to repeat this pattern, it was upon the election of a Polish pope during the critical years of the Cold War. Instead, John Paul II began a cycle of three letters on the persons of the Trinity. In the first, Redemptor Hominis (1979), he wrote: “The Church must in no way be confused with the political community, nor bound to any political system. She is at once a sign and a safeguard of the transcendence of the human person. Accordingly, what is in question here is man in all his truth, in his full magnitude.” There would be no encyclical on political issues until Centesimus Annus (1991), some thirteen years into his pontificate. Without encouraging political quietism, John Paul II was determined to help the Church see anew that preaching to all nations means something more than diplomacy with various states.
In his Erasmus Lecture “Papacy and Power,” George Weigel is certainly correct to say that for the papacy and the Church the “Constantinian arrangement” is defunct. It is defunct, first, in that, with few minor exceptions, national governments no longer have any formal say in internal Church affairs. In everything from papal conclaves to appointment of parish priests, the Church today is self-governing. Second, the “Constantinian arrangement” is defunct in the broader and more important sense of how the Church understands its relationship to the world. And it is here that John Paul II has most notably left his mark. The Church, of course, has a well developed social doctrine that covers many different matters, including the principles of political order. Because it is so extensive, there is a natural tendency to understand it issue by issue, as if Church social doctrine were a set of policy proposals that are independent of each other. But John Paul has made it clear that all the social doctrine is predicated on the truth about man, created and redeemed by Christ. The main question for society, as well as the Church, is quid sit homo, “What is man?”, not quid sit Caesar.
In her self-understanding of how she stands vis- -vis temporal political authority, the Church has emerged from the webs of modern history in surprisingly good shape. Her clarity in this respect is due, in no small part, to the leadership of the popes over the past century who refused to sacrifice church unity to nationalism. I do not think, however, the same can be said about the state. Modern states came out of their post-Constantinian histories in deep and seemingly chronic doubt about the nature and purpose of political authority. In courts, parliaments, and in the forum of public opinion, there is doubt about whether the state is entitled to know, judge, and effect any answer to the question quid sit homo ; many assume it should simply defer to individual conceptions of the good.
Let us remember that, until our lifetime, the modern state was not so humble about what it could teach. To the contrary, the state was the exemplar of national culture, the patron of industry and military science, and above all the great teacher of society, L’état enseignant. Massive systems of mandatory education were put in place throughout the Western polities. It was not uncommon for the state to claim a de facto if not a de jure monopoly on education. Governmental bureaucracies increasingly brought society under the guidance and control of administrative law. In creating a new kind of society-state, modern regimes did not hesitate to render judgments of truth and falsity about what they deemed good or enlightened for their own societies, and beyond that, for societies across national borders. The most famous example in modern European history was Bismarck’s Kulturkampf, when the Prussian state interrupted the governance of the Catholic Church on the basis of the state’s claim to a monopoly on political authority and on the basis of the state’s interest in promoting its own culture through education. In reality, there were dozens of little kulturkampfs on the part of modern states. America, no doubt, originally took a different course than the European states, but as Hegel pointed out: “As to the politics of North America, the universal purpose of the state is not yet firmly established.”
I do not intend to give here a thorough accounting of what was good or ill in modern states. My brief comments are intended to highlight the point that the perceived problem of the modern state was not that it regarded itself incompetent to render judgments about human well-being, much less that it lacked authority to legislate morality. None of our grandparents would have believed that, by virtue of their citizenship, they were immune from truth judgments on the part of government. The problem, rather, was the state’s tendency to monopolize these responsibilities.
Catholic social doctrine responded accordingly. By my count, between 1878 and 1939 there were some 105 encyclicals on political and social issues, as well as several dozen concordats with Western states and their former colonies. Repeatedly, the papal Magisterium insisted a) that the state has no monopoly on social authority, and b) that the state is not the sole exemplar, guardian, or teacher of truth.
In 1945, after two world wars, the sovereign nation state, the crown jewel of modernity, was brought before the bar of moral judgment. Proximately, this was a judgment upon fascism and communism, but it was also a rejection of the monistic society-state created in modern times. In any case, after 1945 it seemed perfectly reasonable to insist that government must surrender any claim to a privileged position regarding questions about the moral order. So far, so good. But there is reason to think that the lesson was so well learned that political authority came to lose a clear sense of purpose.
Far from presenting itself as the font of political authority and the pedagogue of society, the state today claims to be axiologically blind and deferential to individual conceptions of the good. It may not approve of the consequences of abortion, euthanasia, reproductive technology, and homosexual marriage, but it feels helpless to use political authority to prohibit—even to publicly discuss—the justice or injustice of these acts. First in the United States in the late 1940s, then in Canada after the adoption of the Charter of Rights in 1982, and increasingly today in the European Union, courts are expected to make value judgments untainted by political deliberation and judgment. Courts find themselves able to do little more than reiterate”to borrow an expression from the French philosopher Pierre Manent—the tautology that “man is he who has rights.”
In Evangelium Vitae (1995), the Pope calls attention to a new and deeply troubling historical moment for the polities of the West. He writes, “A long historical process is reaching a turning-point. The process which once led to discovering the idea of ‘human rights’ . . . is today marked by a surprising contradiction.” While governments are pledged by the principles of their constitutions to uphold human rights, they are tempted also to think that “it is not the task of the law to choose between different moral opinions, and still less can the law claim to impose one particular opinion to the detriment of others.”
Undoubtedly, the causes of this situation are complicated. At least in part it was caused by a sound instinct, expressed as a disillusionment with the overweening power of the modern state and its threat to individual freedom. But in attempting to correct that problem, contemporary societies have engaged in a wholesale shift of sovereignty from the state to the individual. Hence we see not merely the privatization of industry and of what were once deemed public services (which, on a case by case basis, may be quite desirable from an economic standpoint), but a privatization of judgments that not so long ago indisputably belonged to public authority: judgments about uses of lethal force and who deserves to live or die, judgments about how the strong treat the weak, and judgments about whether private parties can claim power over something as common as the genetic infrastructure of the humanum.
Having labored for more than a century to teach governments the dangers of a hyper-sovereignty and the soundness of the principle of subsidiarity, the Church today finds itself having to urge states to address the most elementary issues of government. The former teaching moment of the Church had to deal with an excess of state power, whereas today it must deal with the new myth that human well-being can be secured without or despite political authority. The cluster of economic and social changes discussed under the rubric of “globalization” undoubtedly will make the situation even more fluid and puzzling. It is an open-ended question whether current talk about “devolution” augurs a recovery of political authority at the local and regional levels, or whether it betokens the next stage of disillusionment with the tasks of government.
If Evangelium Vitae is any indication of the relationship, apropos of George Weigel’s phrase, between “the papacy and power,” the Magisterium will have to be prepared for a rather frustrating relationship. Governments today seem unable, or in any case unwilling, to recognize much less effectuate even the minimal rights which the Church understands to flow from the nature of human dignity. On the other hand, by teaching a proper distance between the Christian kerygma and the instruments of politics, Pope John Paul II has repositioned Catholic social doctrine to grapple with the underlying issue, the truth about man.
Russell Hittinger holds the Warren Chair of Catholic Studies at the University of Tulsa.
It seems—nay not seems, is—presumptuous for me, a Jew, to be entering into a discussion of the future of the Church.
The Church is after all an institution that has seen to its own survival for century after century under a great variety of political, economic, and geographical conditions, sometimes admirably, sometimes perhaps not so admirably, without benefit of counsel from the likes of me. But two circumstances have emboldened me to add my thoughts to this discussion. One, of course, is that First Things asked me. But this by itself might still not be enough were it not for another, and far more significant, consideration, namely, the very particular way in which the papacy of John Paul II has engaged the world beyond the Church, and me with it.
In his essay, George Weigel spoke of one of his friends, a Jew who regards himself as a committed secularist and who remarked that very much to his own surprise, he cares intensely about the question of who is to succeed John Paul II. Now, if my suspicion about the identity of this person is correct, I will permit myself to doubt his self-description, but that is neither here nor there. As it happens, though a far from sinless Jew, I would never call myself a secularist; still, I feel exactly as Weigel’s friend does. While I marvel at John Paul II’s physical courage and tenacity, I worry at every unignorable new sign that the Pope is in frail health. This says nothing special about Weigel’s Jewish friend and me but everything about the current papacy.
For this pope has made the Church—as some of his predecessors certainly did not—a great propulsive force in what has been a frequently very lonely, and for some a truly bitter, battle to increase the world’s sum of freedom. I know that John Paul II takes a dimmer view of American society than would totally gladden my heart; and I must confess that I have felt a certain cold wind at my back as I listened to him caution people in Latin America who do not even yet own shoes against falling into the trap of materialism. But these things pale beside the spectacle of that great journey to Poland, in which he gave the Poles, and through them many millions of the rest of us, an infusion of hope that we would see the end of a dark and shameful chapter in a shameful, shameful century.
Then there was the further and in a way even more amazing spectacle of all those vast and spiritually hungry crowds all over the world, especially the kids among them, from France to the Philippines to Denver, Colorado, screaming for him their yearning to be lifted up. Who even knew—or what is more to the point, who even cared—whether they were Catholic or not? The point was that they were looking to be fed something for which their societies had clearly left them wanting. How could anyone, even a Jew like me, even seeing all this through the reductiveness of the television screen, fail to feel the extraordinary healing presence of this man wherever he turned up?
And when he stood silent in Yad Vashem—whose plain and stark memorialization of the horrors that befell the Jewish people at the hands of the Nazis positively begs for silence—he left a drop of the kind of healing balm on the hearts of Jews that the Church had never before found the means (assuming the desire) to do. He wishes to internationalize the holy places in Jerusalem, which leaves me shaking my head in dismay (such an intervention would lead to a chaos of injustice and violence that would make the present Intifada war against the Jews seem like a picnic and would have dire consequences for the holy places themselves—so far still untouched). But worldly politics aside, his appearance in the still-golden city of Jerusalem was a truly golden moment in the annals of my sore beset people.
All this I feel is what somehow gives me a stake in what happens to the Church and to the papacy after John Paul II, though I cannot by right enter further into the discussion of that future. What I can do, however, is invoke upon the head of this present Pope an old Jewish folk blessing: may he live to be one-hundred-and-twenty.
Midge Decter is a member of the Editorial Board of First Things.
As the history of the twentieth century strikingly attests, each pope responds to the contingent situations of his day and puts the stamp of his own personality on the office. But a discussion of the future of the papacy must attend also to its underlying continuity. Since Leo XIII, who was forced to accede to the loss of the Papal States, the papacy has steadily risen as a moral and spiritual force in the world as a whole. This development can easily be traced from the end of World War I through the pontificates of Pius XI, Pius XII, John XXIII, and Paul VI. John Paul I, in taking his papal name, intended to show his solidarity with his two nearest predecessors. In calling himself John Paul II, the present pontiff expresses a similar intention. His pontificate, I shall here contend, is particularly modeled on that of Paul VI.
As the first pope after the end of Vatican II, Paul VI had a delicate task—that of faithfully implementing the Council in the face of resistance from obdurate conservatives and radical progressives. While seeking to keep the reactionary Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre from falling into schism, he authorized liturgical reforms in the spirit of Vatican II, including greater use of the vernacular. Although not averse to diplomatic compromises, he at times made decisions displeasing to each wing. In retrospect he stands out as a faithful interpreter of the Council.
In internal church matters Paul VI did away with the flamboyant royalism of papal zouaves and noble guards. He reformed the curia, internationalized its membership, and abolished the Index of Forbidden Books. Conscious of his responsibilities to the Church throughout the world, he made extensive use of the episcopal conferences mandated by Vatican II and of the Synod of Bishops which he himself had established during the Council.
In doctrinal matters Paul VI tended to be conservative, as the papal office would seem to require. His “Credo of the People of God” reaffirmed traditional beliefs that were being called into question in some theological circles. In his encyclical on the Eucharist he firmly reasserted the Real Presence and the veneration due to the Blessed Sacrament. In line with the tradition, he defended clerical celibacy, ruled out contraception, and firmly opposed the ordination of women. He recognized that the Church must be in some respects a “sign of contradiction”—a term echoed in the writings of John Paul II.
Like John XXIII before him, Paul VI was a champion of religious freedom. Strongly approving of Vatican II’s Declaration on that subject (Dignitatis Humanae), he addressed the world’s political leaders at the end of the Council with the words: “What does the Church ask of you today? In one of the major texts of the Council she has told you: she asks of you nothing but freedom—the freedom to believe and to preach her faith, the freedom to love God and serve Him, the freedom to live and to bring to men her message of life. Do not fear her.”
In continuity with John XXIII, Paul VI worked to disengage the Church from involvements in Italian politics and to enter into direct relations with world leaders of different ideologies. He received leaders such as Gromyko, Tito, Ceausescu, and Golda Meir in audiences. He wanted to go to Poland to celebrate the thousandth anniversary of the establishment of the Polish hierarchy in 1966, but the Polish government denied him a visa. (John Paul II, in his triumphant visits to Poland, achieved more than Paul VI could possibly have hoped to.)
George Weigel criticizes Paul VI for his Ostpolitik, but it was that policy, after all, that permitted Wojtyla to be named Archbishop of Krakow. By the time John Paul II was elected pope, a more confident policy could be adopted toward the Soviet Union and its European satellites. But something like an Ostpolitik is still being rightly pursued with respect to China.
In his encyclical Populorum Progressio (1967), Paul VI proclaimed a “new humanism” prophetic of John Paul II’s. “By reason of his union with Christ, the source of life,” he wrote, “man attains to new fulfillment of himself, to a transcendent humanism which gives him his greatest possible perfection.” Quoting Henri de Lubac, he insisted that efforts to organize the world without God can only result in frustration and dehumanization.
In accord with his integral humanism, Paul VI made himself a patron of the arts. He had broad literary interests, read voraciously in several languages, loved classical music, and assembled the splendid collection of modern painting and sculpture that can still be viewed in the Paul VI Museum in Brescia. At the close of Vatican II he wrote a stirring “Message to Artists,” reminding them that they are “the guardians of beauty in the world.” In this respect he anticipated John Paul II’s much appreciated “Letter to Artists.”
In his first encyclical, issued while the Council was still finding its way, Paul VI called for a Church in dialogue with other churches, with other religions, and with secular humanists, but called attention to the virtual impossibility of dialogue with atheistic communism. He made extraordinary progress in ecumenism, forming cordial friendships with Archbishop Arthur Michael Ramsey of Canterbury and Patriarch Athenagoras I of Constantinople. In his pioneering visit to the Holy Land, he exchanged the kiss of peace with Athenagoras on the Mount of Olives and in the following year joined with him in consigning the anathemas of the year 1054 to oblivion. He was also the first pope to address the World Council of Churches in its headquarters at Geneva, a gesture that John Paul II has repeated.
As an apostle of peace, Paul VI traveled to New York in 1965 to address the General Assembly of the United Nations, reminding it of its mission of reconciliation and justice toward all. Establishing a precedent for John Paul II at Puebla, Paul VI journeyed to Medellín in 1968 to address the General Conference of Latin American Bishops.
Having taken the name “Paul” in memory of the Apostle to the Gentiles, Paul VI imitated that apostle in his travels. He might well have called himself, in the self-designation of John Paul II, “the pilgrim pope of evangelization.” He chose evangelization as the topic for the Synod of Bishops in 1974, and after the assembly composed his great apostolic exhortation “On the Evangelization of the Modern World.” He is the true originator of the “new evangelization,” which John Paul II has so ardently promoted. At his funeral an open book of the Gospels was laid on his coffin, a fitting reminder of the spirit of his pontificate.
In the Epilogue of his monumental biography of John Paul II, George Weigel lists eight areas in which that pope has made significant impact. Prominent on the list are fidelity to Vatican II, religious freedom, the priority of culture, ecumenism, interreligious dialogue, and worldwide evangelization. In areas such as these John Paul II has built on the achievements of Paul VI, who likewise followed his recent predecessors. The continuities between these papacies, while they do not erase the differences, are at least equally important. That past must inform our thinking about the future of the papacy as well.
Avery Dulles, S.J., holds the Laurence J. McGinley Chair in Religion and Society at Fordham University. He was recently named a Cardinal of the Catholic Church.
George Weigel’s lecture, and his responses during the discussions that followed, held up as key two observations: that the papal mission is fundamentally defined as “strengthening the brethren,” as a pastoral mission to believers; and that in the pope’s addresses to the world and its polities he persuades, and does not—at least any longer—use secular polities’ own modes of power. In response to a question from the floor, Weigel agreed that in the pope’s jurisdiction of the Roman Catholic Church itself, he of course cannot be limited to persuasion, but must sometimes act in more dispositive fashion.
This prompts two questions. Both are important particularly for the ecumenical situation and discussion.
The first: If the pope’s mission within the Church is fundamentally pastoral—a “strengthening” of the faithful, and particularly of fellow pastors—must not his jurisdiction here too have suasion at its heart? Must there not be a kind of jurisdiction, jurisdicere, “laying down the law,” that is peculiar to the Church, even though the Church is not the Kingdom itself? And then must there not be structures of law and administration appropriate to the Church, that stand in no very binding analogy to those of the world’s powers? It will perhaps be granted that the churches, including the Roman Catholic, have not yet been fully granted such structures and will in this age always still be seeking them. But might not Rome, with the far greater scope and sheer gravitas of its polity, lead in the search?
The second: What of the pope’s present relation to communities that are outside the Roman Catholic Church yet are acknowledged to be not simply part of the world? If there exists between the Church of Rome and, say, the churches of the magisterial Reformation an “imperfect communion,” and if indeed the Bishop of Rome has primacy in all churches in communion with the Roman Church, must not the pope now actually have correspondingly “imperfect” primacy in the Reformation churches, and should he not for his part guide his relation to them by that understanding? That is, should he not behave toward them in some fashion as their pastor?
For the rest of my space, let me attach a few remarks to these questions, moving from the first toward the second.
“Jurisdiction” is of course a legal term, and there is no occasion to be abashed by that. But how should a pastor “lay down the law” in his church? And if one pastor’s church is the universal Church, so that it encompasses local and regional churches with their pastors, how should he lay down law for or to these other pastors? I will enter the intra-Catholic broils around such proposals as Archbishop John Quinn’s only so far as to agree with another statement by Weigel, that “democracy,” in the common understanding of the term, is not a useful idea in ecclesial context, and that proposals to devolve authority should be carefully examined lest they in fact increase bureaucracy. Granting this does not mean, however, that churchly legal systems that function generally in close analogy to worldly structures of polity, even if indeed lacking police and means of physical coercion, are appropriate.
What would a jurisdicere with suasion at its heart be like? The present pope’s great labor of teaching surely shows the way in matters of faith and morals. A good pastor lays down law about Christian truth chiefly by expounding the marvels that are there to be thought and practiced; rather than by describing what is not permitted, he disciplines first by displaying truth.
This of course does not mean there are no limits; the argument that if the center is cultivated the boundaries need not be watched is daily refuted by experience. But a pastor must resist the temptation to build fences around the fences of dogma and moral prohibition, thereby constructing middle realms in which arbitrary decision will be a temptation and will in any case be perceived. When the pastor in question is the pope, this perception will always be close at hand, justly or not. And it will of course be especially strong in separated communities.
It may be illuminating to consider a question about which there has recently been some controversy: How should a church university or college be different because it is a church university or college? The heart of the matter must surely be demonstration of the intellectual advantage that, say, a Christological metaphysics provides for understanding the history and fate of the cosmos, or that St. Augustine’s analyses provide for grasping what ails our politics. There are of course prohibitions. A churchly school should not teach religion as if all religions were equally true or false, or appoint a critical mass of its faculty from secularists, and undoubtedly in certain situations a functioning magisterium will say so with force, but such mandates are nevertheless mere preliminaries.
The present pope’s teaching ministry has willy-nilly made him in fact a pastor among Protestants also. It would be a great blessing if future popes continued and expanded the work. We have been moving toward the second question.
The present pope has shown much brother-feeling with “ecclesial communities” on the other side of the Western schism, and daring in liturgical sharing with them. The great journeys among his fellow Catholics have profoundly gripped Protestants also, as their own supposedly great occasions no longer do. But he has not found a consistent way of addressing separated “brothers and sisters in Christ.” Are they to be addressed in the same general way as other “persons of good will”? Or as Muslims are? From another side: In pronouncements directed to dissenting Catholics, should intentional care be taken to avoid sideswiping innocently onlooking Protestants?
A silent plea may even be coming from the separated communities: preach to us and teach us, directly and by name. In matters of faith, address us as not among the theists or seekers, but with the suasions of dogma and theological insight. In matters of morals, marshal the arguments you would use for Catholics, the arguments of Scripture and tradition. Address, just to begin with, our horrid confusions about abortion with the blunt judgments of the fathers.
Robert W. Jenson is Senior Scholar for Research at the Princeton-based Center of Theological Inquiry.
As John Paul II’s extraordinary pontificate enters its twilight (pray God, a long and golden one), it is well to reflect upon his enormous achievements and celebrate them with the grateful astonishment they merit. But it is also sobering to recall that the one aim that, by his own avowal, has always lain closest to his heart—reconciliation between the Eastern and Roman Churches—has proven to be the source of his gravest disappointment, and probably the only manifest failure that can be placed in the balance over against his innumerable successes. As an Orthodox Christian definitely in the ecumenical “left wing” of my church, I cannot speak for all my co-confessionalists; but I can record my own shame that so few Orthodox hierarchs have even recognized the remarkable gesture made by John Paul II in Ut Unum Sint (1995), in openly soliciting advice on how to understand his office (even indeed the limits of its jurisdiction), or been moved to respond with anything like comparable Christian charity. However, the Pope has perhaps always been somewhat quixotic in his reckoning of the severity of the differences between the communions, and so of the effort required to effect any real reciprocal understanding between them (let alone rapprochement).
Anyone familiar with the Eastern Christian world knows that the Orthodox view of the Catholic Church is often a curious mélange of fact, fantasy, cultural prejudice, sublime theological misunderstanding, resentment, reasonable disagreement, and unreasonable dread: it sees a misty phantasmagoria of crusades, predestination, “modalism,” a God of wrath, flagellants, Grand Inquisitors, and those blasted Borgias. But, still, and from my own perspective ab oriente, I must remark that the greater miscalculation of what divides us is almost inevitably found on the Catholic side, not always entirely free of a certain unreflective condescension. Often Western Christians, justifiably offended by the hostility with which their advances are met by certain Orthodox, assume that the greatest obstacle to reunion is Eastern immaturity and divisiveness. The problem is dismissed as one of “psychology,” and the only counsel offered one of “patience.” Fair enough: decades of Communist tyranny set atop centuries of other, far more invincible tyrannies have effectively shattered the Orthodox world into a contentious confederacy of national churches struggling to preserve their own regional identities against every “alien” influence, and under such conditions only the most obdurate stock survives. But psychology is the least of our problems.
In truth, so vehement is this pope’s love of Eastern Christianity that it has often blinded him to the most inexorable barriers between the churches. As an error of judgment, this is an endearing one, but also one possible only from the Western vantage. Of course a Catholic who looks eastward finds nothing to which he objects, because what he sees is the Church of the Seven Ecumenical Councils (but—here’s the rub—for him, this means the first seven of twenty-one). When an Orthodox turns his eyes westward he sees what appears to him a Church distorted by innovation and error: the filioque clause, the pope’s absolute primatial authority, purgatory, indulgences, priestly celibacy. Our deepest divisions concern theology and doctrine, and this problem admits of no immediately obvious remedy, because both churches are so fearfully burdened by infallibility. The disagreements in theology can be mitigated: Western theologians now freely grant that the Eastern view of original sin is more biblical than certain Latin treatments of the matter; only the most obtusely truculent Orthodox still believe that the huge differences in Trinitarian theology that a previous generation found everywhere in Latin tradition indeed actually exist; etc. But doctrine is more intractable. The Catholic Church might plausibly contemplate the suppression of the filioque, but could it repudiate the claim that the papacy ever possessed the authority to allow such an addition? The Eastern Church believes in sanctification after death, and perhaps the doctrine of purgatory really asserts nothing more; but can Rome ever say that in speaking of it as “temporal punishment,” which the pope may in whole or part remit, it was in error? And so on.
Even if we retreat to the issue of psychology again, here too Catholic ecumenists often misconstrue the nature of the Orthodox distrust of their good will. It is not simply the case that the Orthodox are so fissiparous and jealous of their autonomy that the Petrine office appears to them a dangerous principle of homogeneity, an ordo obedientiae to which their fractious Eastern wills cannot submit. Jurisdictional squabbling aside, the Orthodox world enjoys so profound a unity—of faith, worship, spirituality, and ecclesiology—that the papacy cannot but appear to it as a dangerous principle of plurality. After all, under the capacious canopy of the papal office, so many disparate things find common shelter. Eastern rites huddle alongside liturgical practices (hardly a peripheral issue in the East) disfigured by rebarbative banality, by hymnody both insipid and heterodox, and by a style of worship that looks flippant if not blasphemous. Academic theologians explicitly reject principles of Catholic orthodoxy, but are not (as they would be in the East) excluded from communion. There are three men called Patriarch of Antioch in the Roman communion—Melkite, Maronite, and Latin (I think I have them all)—which suggests that the very title of patriarch, even as regards an apostolic see, is merely honorific, because the only unique patriarchal office is the pope’s. As unfair as it may seem, to Orthodox Christians it often appears as if, from the Catholic side, so long as the pope’s supremacy is acknowledged, all else is irrelevant ornament. Which yields the sad irony that the more the Catholic Church strives to accommodate Orthodox concerns, the more disposed many Orthodox are to see in this merely the advance embassy of an omnivorous ecclesial empire.
All of which sounds rather grim. But having made the necessary qualifications, I can now praise John Paul II for all he has done for the unity of the apostolic Churches. He is, simply stated, a visionary on this matter. True, human beings cannot overcome the obstacles dividing East from West; but the unity of the Church is never—even when it is only two or three gathered in Christ’s name—a human work. Each church is grievously wounded by its separation from the other, and only those who have allowed pride and infantile anger to displace love in their hearts are blind to this.
Moreover, our need for one another grows greater with the years. It is sometimes suggested that the future of society in the West—and so, perhaps, the world—is open to three “options”: Christianity, Islam, and a consumerism so devoid of transcendent values as to be, inevitably, nothing but a pervasive and pitiless nihilism. The last of these has the singular power of absorbing some of the energies of the other two without at first obviously draining them of their essences; the second enjoys a dogmatic warrant for militancy and a cultural cohesiveness born both of the clarity of its creed and the refining adversities of political and economic misfortune; but the only tools at Christianity’s disposal will be evangelism and unity. The confrontation between the Church and modern consumerism will continue to occur principally in the West, where a fresh infusion of Orthodoxy’s otherworldliness may prove a useful inoculant; but the encounter or confrontation with Islam will be principally, as it long has been, in the East. It is impossible to say what peace will be wrought there or what calamity, but it may well be that the Petrine office, with its unique capacity for “strengthening the brethren” and speaking the truth to the world, will prove indispensable.
The present pope has long been the great, indefatigable voice of Christian conviction in a faithless age. If future popes follow his lead, and speak out forcibly on behalf of the Christians—in Egypt, Syria, Turkey, and elsewhere—who will most acutely suffer the pressure of this difficult future, love will ever more drive out suspicion, and the vision of unity that inspires John Paul II will bear fruit. Sic, at any rate, oremus.
David B. Hart is Assistant Professor of Theology at Duke Divinity School.
To be the pope is to be the most powerful man in the world. It is also to be the slave of God’s slaves (to exaggerate only slightly the meaning of servus in the traditional description of the pope as servus servorum Dei). The future of the papacy, like most of its past, will be found in a particular resolution of this peculiar tension.
Perhaps it sounds exaggerated to say that the one who sits in Peter’s chair is the most powerful man in the world. Twentieth-century popes, after all, have been notably lacking in the two main instruments of power as ordinarily understood: armies and money. As to the former, popes have had none for more than a century; and as to the latter, while the financial resources of the Catholic Church as a whole are very large, the pope has direct command of very little of them, and even the entire budget of Vatican City is scarcely more than a mote in Bill Gates’ eye. Whence then the power?
Papal power lies in the judicious use of weakness. It grows not from the barrel of a gun but from the renunciation of coercion and its replacement with witness. That is how the papacy started: with a Galilean fisherman martyred by the imperial power of Rome. And as the 264th papacy approaches its end, it is to this that the papacy points again. The idea that real power can only be had by renouncing its counterfeits is fundamental to Christian thinking. It is a central part of the story of Jesus’ temptations, and it is enshrined forever in the figure of Christ on the cross. In its ideal form (which is never its actual form) the papacy serves as a sacramental sign of this truth and, thus, as a sacrament of the power of weakness.
But this does not explain why the pope is the most powerful man in the world. There are, after all, many other powers, the two principal ones being nation-states and corporations. Neither understands power as the judicious use of weakness. Each, though in significantly different ways, pursues power as domination, and so seeks above all else the victory of violence, the ideal victory in which its competitors are simply extinguished, removed from the stage. The pope is the only actor on the world stage whose understanding of power is (ideally) self-emptyingly pacific. This, so Christians (and perhaps some others) believe, is the proper understanding of power. This, then, is why the pope is the most powerful man in the world: the understanding that he represents will endure, while the others inevitably curve in upon themselves and expire of their own contradictions.
Here, though, there is a throng of paradoxes. The pope is an actor on the political stage. He has, at various times, commanded armies, ruled territory, and humbled (and been humbled by) secular potentates. Even today he is head of a tiny state that has, like other states, a foreign policy with diplomats and emissaries, and is thereby subject to the compromises, evasions, and half-truths that properly belong to diplomacy. Paul VI’s nuncios spent fifteen years on an Ostpolitik of subterfuge and compromise in their engagements with the Soviet Empire. Perhaps John Paul II’s are now doing the same in their negotiations with the Chinese. Was (and is) all this a mistake? Should the pope speak always and only as a witness expecting martyrdom? Should he renounce the instruments of diplomacy?
I think not. The world (even the political world) is the theater of God’s glory, and it is a theater in which the pope and the church of which he is pastor are actors. The pope’s power-in-weakness can and must be exercised for particular political ends, while at the same time realizing that these ends may not be attained or attainable short of the coming of the kingdom. Diplomacy (like politeness) is ruled out only by a thoroughgoing contempt for its objects and goals, and such contempt is impossible for Christians. Those who have contempt for the political world will ignore it by turning their backs on it, or they will treat it as a field in which the libido dominandi has unrestricted play. The first option is sectarian; the second Hobbesian. Previous popes have been subject to the latter error more often than the former, but neither, finally, is a defensible possibility for Christians, and neither is represented by the present pope.
If such contempt is ruled out, what then of the future uses of papal power? How should the political agency of the papacy best be enacted? George Weigel’s Erasmus Lecture is suggestive here. According to that analysis, it has been characteristic of John Paul II’s diplomacy that his dramatic acts of public witness to the importance of freedom—in Poland, before the United Nations, in Cuba, and so on—have stood in tension with the continuing, more traditional, diplomacy of the Vatican, even to the point of contradiction. Under-the-table negotiations with Jaruzelski in Poland, Honecker in East Germany, and other Communist potentates continued during this papacy much as they had under Paul VI. Such negotiations assume a lack of open public criticism of one another on the part of the principals. But this is just what John Paul II provided: his public speeches confronted the ideology of those with whom diplomatic negotiations were simultaneously under way, and as a result countered the acts of his diplomats even without halting them.
This is just how things should proceed. This is how a Christian potentate exhibits his lack of contempt for the political. He does not withdraw from it by ending diplomatic engagements: that would be sectarianism. But neither does he place unrestricted confidence in their efficacy: that would be Hobbesianism. No. He acts politically, but at the same time throws the politics of his acts into question. This is the judicious use of weakness in which the power of the papacy actually consists. My hope for the future of the papacy (and of the world) is that present and future popes continue to act politically in just this way. It is quite certain that they are the only ones who will.
Paul J. Griffiths is Schmitt Professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Illinois in Chicago.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?