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Unity and the Papal Office: What alternative is there?

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?


  1. I don’t think we need a single focal point of ministry beyond Jesus Christ. In fact, I see any other focal point as a dangerous single point of failure, where the church as a whole can be lead astray through an action of the leader’s fallen nature.

    It would be nice if human beings could be entrusted with so much power and influence, but we just don’t deserve it, and we demonstrably act poorly when we have it. Even the Judges, Solomon, and David ran awry with their concentrated power.

    Wednesday, September 26, 2007 at 11:01 am | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    Robert, how then do you think the church could become truly unified? And also, wouldn’t this mitigate there being any sort of central pastor in a local church as well?

    To be honest, it sounds to me like you’re scared of authority in any form.

    Wednesday, September 26, 2007 at 11:05 am | Permalink
  3. Catholic Systematic Theology class to the rescue!

    We had our class on the Magisterium last week. We were learning about the rise of the “papal cult” (a phrase penned by a Dominican – not me). She was explaining how it wasn’t until the industrial revolution that the papacy took on the status it now enjoys. The Pope could travel and communicate abroad. He became a global figure. Before this, the Pope was (and really is supposed to be) really the “first among brothers” as the Bishop of Rome.

    At some point, fairly recently, there was a transition in the role of the Pope. Not to say that the Petrine imagery wasn’t prevalent before Pius IX, but we may have to revisit the historicity of Pope as “symbol of unity” prior to the 1890s. Sounds like we may need a little ressourcement of the papal office in Et Unim Sint.

    Wednesday, September 26, 2007 at 11:40 am | Permalink
  4. Chris wrote:

    Wow, Halden. You’re speaking another language to me here.
    “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?”
    You said earlier that the central problem is with Apostolic succession, but now it sounds like you’re saying A.S. is the norm for centralized unity. As I see it, the idea that the Holy Spirit’s visible work is through A.S. puts a severe limit on God’s Ecclesial activity. That’s not unity.

    Wednesday, September 26, 2007 at 11:53 am | Permalink
  5. Halden wrote:

    Melissa, thanks for that caveat, that’s certainly a good point.

    Chris, I’m speaking more on a practical level here. It seems like we need SOME sort of centralized ministry/minister of a unified church. I’m just asking what type of thing could fill that role better than the papacy, which is what the Catholic church offers to fill that role. I’m not addressing the question of Apostolic Succession here, just asking about the practicalities of a reunited church.

    Wednesday, September 26, 2007 at 11:58 am | Permalink
  6. Matt Wiebe wrote:

    I’m taking Church history right now, so here’s some apt nuggets from recent readings:

    1) apostolic succession was initially an inclusive doctrine, as opposed to the exclusive and secretive claims of the gnostics. Gnostics posited a secret knowledge passed down from one of the apostles, whereas the catholics said that this secret was impossible, since their bishops could trace their lineage back to the original apostles.

    2) The early theologian of apostolic succession was Cyprian, who was concerned with very real problems of authority in the early church regarding heresy, lapsed Christians, etc. He elevated the office of bishop to a new level of importance, but he still had a highly conflicted relationship with the bishop of Rome, refusing to submit to him.

    3) As alluded to by Melissa, the bishop of Rome tended to have little direct power outside of Rome. Each bishop tended to deal with local matters, and the catholic church magisterium was the sum of these bishops.

    Wednesday, September 26, 2007 at 1:16 pm | Permalink
  7. Hill wrote:

    I think the changing role of the papacy isn’t on its face a cause for suspicion or concern. The history of the early church is full of doctrinal and ecclesialogical development to address new realities faced as the result of the growth of the Church, its changing relationship with the culture, and the developing understanding that the pilgrim Church on earth may well be here for a while before Christ comes again. This isn’t a comment on specific criticisms or concerns with the papacy. I’m just pointing out that if anything it is natural that the role of the Bishop of Rome would have some fluidity throughout the ages. From the Catholic point of view, the role emphasized by JPII in the above excerpt is the most important aspect of the papacy.

    Wednesday, September 26, 2007 at 6:21 pm | Permalink
  8. Jon wrote:

    Speaking personally I have no problem with Apostolic Succession, I get it. I’ve read the bits and pieces which Ss. Clement and Irenaeus, and (at least I think) I understand the reason and historicity of it. I even think it is/can be a good thing.

    However Apostolic Succession is different than sacerdotalism, and it’s different than the papacy.

    A collegiality of bishops? Yes, I think that could be a very good thing. A papacy? I just can’t buy into that.

    In his book, “The Orthodox Church”, Bishop Timothy Ware explains pretty logically that the Bishop of Rome did enjoy a “primacy of honor”, but he was a “first among equals”. I think the argument that Peter speaks on behalf of the Apostles in both the Gospels and the Acts is apparent–but it’s just that he is not their head, their leader, their primate, but is a representative voice for the entire group. This doesn’t give Peter a positional primacy over the others, nor does it give his successor a positional primacy over other bishops. The Bishop of Rome has no more authority than any other bishop, and when Peter was wrong, Paul (who admits to being “least among the apostles”) has no problem rebuking St. Peter.

    To vest so much authority into a single person, to morph a single expression of the episcopacy into a clerical monarchy is not, in my honest opinion, what Christ, His Apostles or any of the Holy Fathers had in mind–it’s a late medieval innovation and an aberration within the holy catholic Church.

    Again, I think a collegiality of bishops, an equality and fellowship of equal brothers who take it upon themselves to be “servants of servants”, ministers of Christ ministering to the needs of the Faithful–this is a good thing.

    The focus of Christian unity is corporate participation within the life and faith of Christ’s Church, communion expressed in common faith and a common Table. The Nicene Creed is the locus of Christian doctrinal unity, our Symbol; and the Eucharist is the visible manifestation of our unity, in koinonia with Christ (His Body and Blood, and within that Mystery we are His Body), and with each other as the one Mystical Body of Jesus Christ.

    I hope I made sense, but these are my thoughts after years of my own constant study of these things.

    Thursday, September 27, 2007 at 9:30 am | Permalink
  9. Hill wrote:

    I think that things are often attributed to the papacy proper which are only accidental to it, and in some cases “accretions.” Pointing out these sorts of things is fair game in any discussion of the Papacy, and the best Catholic scholars of the papacy are the first people to do it. Pointing out that there have been problematic features of this or that element of commonly held belief at various points in history is insufficient to rule out the legitimacy of the concept properly understood, else we would have serious problems with some very fundamental points of doctrine. I’m glad that the modern church hasn’t rejected baptism because at one point it was thought that baptism was one’s first and only chance at the forgiveness of sins.

    Also, the Papacy as an office of unity does not stand at odds with the unity of the Eucharistic table or of the Creed but enhances and augments them. I think it is pretty obvious that the Catholic church enjoys a more corporal and visceral unity than various Protestant sects. I also think that it’s pretty obvious that this is a good thing. The question remains, how has it been achieved?

    Calling the Papacy a “late medieval innovation” is prima facie false. It may be true that various features came to be associated with the Papacy during that time of which you don’t approve, but as I suggested above, it’s throwing out the baby with the bath water to conclude that the Papacy is “an aberration” just because it has seen better days both before and since the excesses of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance. A similar approach to historical theology in general would leave many of the central tenets of Christianity decimated.

    I highly recommend Eamon Duffy’s book “Saints and Sinners” for those looking to buff up their historical literacy on the Papacy. I think it shows how one can be absolutely honest about the Papacy throughout history (he’s a top notch historian by any measure) while still being totally Catholic and affirming the truth and grace of the office.

    Thursday, September 27, 2007 at 4:58 pm | Permalink
  10. Jon wrote:

    For the record, when I referred to the papal office as an aberration I did not have in mind any of the moral shortcomings of some of the more despicable individuals who have held that office. It’s office itself, the transforming of the Roman patriarchate into something more than it ever was before, in ways which (I sincerely believe) deviate considerably from the normative episcopal collegiality that existed since antiquity.

    That is to say I don’t see the arguments in favor of an ancient papacy very convincing, but seem like attempts to anachronistically impose something that did not exist until much later, centuries after the days of Peter, Linus and Clement, etc.

    Thursday, September 27, 2007 at 6:25 pm | Permalink
  11. Hill wrote:

    I just take issue with the use of the word “aberration” For it to be an aberration, there has to be a clear historical account of what existed previously and a clear point at which it was replaced by something else. As far as I can tell this just can’t be done. Something that looks very much like “the papacy” has existed well prior to the late Middle Ages. That is, the office of the Bishop of Rome, prior to the possibility of any late Medieval innovation, served a function that most Protestants would be very uncomfortable with (although most Protestant are uncomfortable with the entirety of the history of the Church from the end of the NT until 1517, and even then it’s unclear).

    My point is just that it’s impossible to say “whatever existed prior to the Middle Ages was ok, but after that there were innovations, etc. and things got bad” when in reality, if you are uncomfortable with the papacy in 2007, you’d be uncomfortable with the papacy in 1000, and it’s pretty clear to me that something that could be called the papacy certainly existed in 1000.

    Monday, October 1, 2007 at 4:51 pm | Permalink
  12. Tony wrote:

    Halden, what would your evaluation be of von Balthasar’s “The Office of Peter in (and?) the Structure of the Church” (the translation of the original German title would have been “The Anti-Roman Affect”). Von Balthasar has a unique take on the Petrine Office; he thinks it is theologically to be expected that there should be a lot of objections to the idea of an office of unity in the Church. The problem has always been a question of authority and power in the Church: how could a fallible human being exercise spiritual power??? The crux of the matter between Protestants and Catholics seems to be how to interpret Scripture: is Peter simply to be taken as a character in a story and not as the bearer of an office that could be handed on?

    Friday, May 16, 2008 at 3:10 am | Permalink
  13. Tony wrote:

    Perhaps, as an addendum to the above, the question that could be posed to Protestants then: did Jesus intend and will the Petrine office?

    Friday, May 16, 2008 at 3:12 am | Permalink

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