The Catholic Church, both in her praxis and in her solemn documents, holds that the communion of the particular Churches with the Church of Rome, and of their Bishops with the Bishop of Rome, is—in God’s plan—an essential requisite of full and visible communion. Indeed full communion, of which the Eucharist is the highest sacramental manifestation, needs to be visibly expressed in a ministry in which all the Bishops recognize that they are united in Christ and all the faithful find confirmation for their faith. The first part of the Acts of the Apostles presents Peter as the one who speaks in the name of the apostolic group and who serves the unity of the community—all the while respecting the authority of James, the head of the Church in Jerusalem. This function of Peter must continue in the Church so that under her sole Head, who is Jesus Christ, she may be visibly present in the world as the communion of all his disciples.
Do not many of those involved in ecumenism today feel a need for such a ministry? A ministry which presides in truth and love so that the ship—that beautiful symbol which the World Council of Churches has chosen as its emblem— will not be buffeted by the storms and will one day reach its haven. –Et Unum Sint, 91.
I find this quote from one the late John Paul II’s most important encyclicals to be quite interesting. I’m sure at first glance, any protestant reader will immediately dispute the claims that are made in the first paragraph regarding the role of Peter and his continuing office in the church. However, I am more interested in the second paragraph. Is not John Paul II correct in his statement that many or perhaps most Christian who are ecumenically minded long for there to be a ministry, or a minister that can serve as a focal point for the unity of the church throughout the world? Do we not need some sort of ministerial focal point to orient the whole church if the church is ever to be one in any meaningful sense? I am here, of course excluding any simple talk of “spiritual unity”, which I take to be a cop out and a rejection of the corporeality and visibility of the church.
So, if it is the case that we do need some sort of centralized ministry for unity, what should that be if not the papacy? To be sure, I think there are legitimate criticisms to be made of the papacy, but I think the question to protestants who desire unity is what alternative to the papacy they might envision that would fulfil the role that the papacy seeks to fill. So, is there any alternative that a protestant might legitimately point to in place of the ministry of unity that the bishop of Rome provides?