The Purpose of the Papacy, Francis, and the Synod

This blog post was inspired by a quote by Pete Buttigieg going around, “[T]he purpose of the Presidency is not to glorify the President, but to unify the American people.” What struck me was how easily it could be transposed into an ecclesiological context, specifically a post-Vatican II context.

The purpose of the papacy is not to glorify the pope;
but to unify the Christian people.

The first part is easiest to demonstrate. If you’ve ever seen a picture of Pope John XXIII being carried in to the opening of the Council, in all his pomp and circumstance, it’s easy to read that kind of thing as glorifying the person of the pope. I think of Pope John Paul I as the person who most clearly put an end to that kind of pomp: instead of a coronation, he was inaugurated by receiving a pallium, such as bishops receive when they are installed (albeit a special papal one). Since the council, much of the traditional papal regalia has been put away to be admired and studied, rather than used. Popes have gone out and travelled all over the world, face to face with thousands of ordinary Catholics. There’s still an aura of celebrity attached to the pope, but his public appearances are clearly more aligned with servant than with king.

Pope Francis has embodied this understanding of the papacy even more clearly: from the moment of his first appearance as pope, when his first action was to ask the assembled faithful to pray for him, in the words of the familiar prayers that every Catholic learns in childhood. Other striking moments early in his time as pope exemplify this as well: his choice to move out of the papal palace and live in Casa Santa Marta, among ordinary people; and his choice of a modest economy car to get around town. I was especially impressed, when he went out to say Mass at a local church, that he stood around outside the doors of the church before mass, greeting people as they arrived, just like an ordinary pastor.

The second part requires a bit more unpacking. “Unification” and “Christian people” are both doing a lot of work here when translated into an ecclesial register. I thought about using the less direct “church” for Christian people, and certainly that would make a clearer parallel between “the United States of America” and “the (Roman) Catholic Church” On reflection, it was exactly that reasoning that moved me to the more literal word for word substitution. None of the possible instantiations of church  correspond to a nation state (contra the ecclesiology of the nineteenth century). I was taught that the telos of the papacy was the unity of the church, and I believe it is more correct to construe that “church” as the People of God. — that is to say, all the people of God, not just the Catholic ones. It is certainly clear that Francis has his admirers among our separated siblings, as well as among non-Christians and even atheists.

Now, let’s talk about that “unify”. It may seem laughable to suggest that Francis is working to unify the church, given the intensifying rhetoric of heresy from one side and schism from the other. But here’s the thing: any unity obtained by excommunicating the heretic and defending the wall against the apostate (or withdrawing from the heretic, which is just an inverse expulsion  ) is inherently temporary: because there will always be another heretic, another apostate, another dissident, another scapegoat. It’s too easy to blame the troubles of a community on one group of troublemakers; the self-righteous bonding that occurs during and after expulsions is too seductive. Unity through purity is inherently, anthropologically, doomed to failure.

By rejecting the “ecumenism of return” (ie, that the only possible ecumenism was for all non-Catholics to repent and return to the Catholic church) in one of the prepared draft document, the Council took a small but definitive step away from the notion of unity through purity. Catholics came to understand ourselves as Christians alongside our separated Protestant kin. The defensive wall around the Catholic church was no longer key to Catholic identity.

Lasting unity depends on right relationship, which depends on the ability to reconcile, and reconcile, and reconcile again (seventy times seven), which depends on the ability to communicate openly and honestly, which begins with encounter: that byword of Francis’ papacy.

To encounter another person with humility, with curiosity, with respect, with a desire to learn, with the hope of right relationship: this requires a refusal to condemn, a refusal to be scandalized, a refusal to be hurried past the real work of building unity that will last.

This is not to say that doctrine does not matter. Of course doctrine matters. Doctrine articulates, structures, forms and expresses (all at the same time, and recursively, forms-and-expresses) our beliefs about God, about ourselves, about our relationships with God and with each other, and with life and with death. For this very reason, the role of doctrine in encounter must not be a barred door, a forbidden sanctuary, a warding weapon.

Doctrine is, perhaps, the dishes containing the food we bring to share at the table (think table of hospitality, table of the beginnings of communion). If you bring your family’s main course in a bowl, and I am scandalized because mine is of course on a platter, we’ll never have the chance to notice whether we have combined many of the same ingredients, or whether they differ only in seasoning, cooking method, or display. Is that any way to behave at the gathering of a far-flung family?

Building unity that will last is not easy. It’s not quick. It’s a bumpy path with ups and downs, just like all human experience. But it is the fundamental mission of the church: to reconcile all people, to make disciples (followers, imitators) of all nations.

Gracious God, we pray for your holy catholic church.
Fill it with your truth;
Keep it in your peace.
Where it is corrupt, reform it.
Where it is in error, correct it.
Where it is right, defend it.
Where it is in want, provide for it.
Where it is divided, reunite it;
for the sake of your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ.


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