Conclave should dare to rethink role of pope in today's church

 

Rite & Reason:Pope Benedict XVI has not died. Rather, in a decision that has deservedly won him great praise, he has announced that he is to resign on health grounds. Nonetheless, attention has immediately switched to his successor: should it be a younger man? Should he come from outside Europe? What challenges will a future pope face?

I suggest that there is a more important question. What should the role of pope involve? We have become accustomed to a monarchical-style papacy with “hands on” intervention worldwide. But it was not always so, and it would be a good question for the cardinal electors to ask if it should be so.

Our own former president Mary McAleese has written of the constitutionally incoherent nature of the Catholic Church’s organisational structure, with its unresolved tensions between papal primacy and episcopal collegiality.

The result has been what many ordinary Catholics, not to mention some prominent politicians, experience as a church that is dysfunctional, that is disconnected in so many ways from their real concerns and questions.

One symptom of this was the poor handling of clerical child sexual abuse. In that context prominent Irish church leaders have expressed regret at being part of a culture of silence and deference that thankfully now, they claim, is a thing of the past. But is it really?

Hopefully yes, in the matter of sexual abuse, but is there not a pervasive unhealthiness in our Catholic culture of today when the “sense of the faithful”, not to mention the voice of bishops and theologians, is given so little heed?

After all, it was Pope John Paul II himself who, perhaps surprisingly, asked that the role of the papacy might be re-envisaged (Ut Unum Sint 1995). He sought the help of other Christian churches and fellow Catholics in this reimagining of the papacy in ways that would better serve its function as service of unity and love. He did so conscious that the historical forms of the papacy have varied greatly over the centuries. Historian John O’Malley refers to the “papalisation” of the church as the most significant development in Catholicism in the second millennium, in particular since the first Vatican Council in 1869-1870.

It was not always thus. A scriptural text like Matthew 16, 18 (Thou are Peter . . . ) has in the past been interpreted in a much more collegial way, with Rome functioning as court of last appeal in a church which acted collegially through councils and synods and in which local bishops functioned as vicars of Jesus Christ.

Many Christians recognise the symbolic and indeed normative value of the Bishop of Rome in serving the universality of the church, not least in a globalised world. But surely this can be realised in a more collegial way? The theological groundwork for such a change has been laid: what remains to happen is that the bishops and the new pope show a willingness to listen to the whispers of the Holy Spirit leading us in this direction.

Of course it is not the job of a conclave to reform the church. But it may be their job to identify the candidate (whether among their own ranks or from outside the conclave) best suited to bring about church and papal renewal.

This will not happen with the continuation of a papacy as monarchy. Cardinal Seán Brady and his fellow electors would do us all a great service if they took seriously ecclesial and papal reform as the major criterion in their choice of candidate for the Petrine ministry.


Fr GERRY O'HANLON SJis a theologian, a member of the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice and a former provincial of the Jesuits in Ireland

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