Pope Francis rides into town

Pope Francis rides into town Religion in the News

How good is it that the world is head-over-heels in love with Pope Francis? In the opinion of Commonweal editor Paul Baumann, writing in Slate, not so good, at least as far as the church itself is concerned.

The truth is that the more the world flatters the Catholic Church by fixating on the papacy—and the more the internal Catholic conversation is monopolized by speculation about the intentions of one man—the less likely it is that the church will succeed in moving beyond the confusions and conflicts that have preoccupied it since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). The church desperately needs to reclaim its cultural and spiritual equilibrium; it must find a density and richness of worship and mission and a renewed public presence, which far transcend mere loyalty to the pope. Lacking such equilibrium and self-possession, the church cannot find its true voice. But to find this voice, Catholics will have to turn not to Rome but toward one another, which is where both the problems and the solutions lie.

It’s a nice thought, but (outsider that I am) I don’t buy it. What keeps Catholics from working out their internal differences by themselves is not the world’s fixation on the pope but the power the papacy wields within the church.

That power can be traced back to the 11th century, when a succession of reforming popes (backed initially by the Western emperor) took it upon themselves to clean up the church and serve as its supreme legislative and judicial authority. It didn’t take long for papal authoritarianism to be resented, and over the centuries the church has been something of a wrestling match between proponents and opponents of it.

The explanation for the conflicts and confusion that have preoccupied the church since the Second Vatican Council is that Vatican II represented a move away from Roman control, via a strengthening of national bishops councils, a recognition of the views of the community of the faithful, and a general opening to the world. In this regard, the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI were a counter-revolution, a “reform of the reform” — or, if you will, the empire strikes back.

It’s all well and good for progressives like Baumann to urge their co-religionists to turn to one another to solve their problems, but without the right kind of diocesan leadership the problems cannot be worked out. And it’s the pope who appoints the the diocesan leaders — the bishops.

Francis, who has given many signals that he wants to revivify the spirit of Vatican II, has made it clear by word and deed that he wants to appoint bishops of a different stripe. He wants non-careerists who are close to the people, not ideological warriors; and he has reconfigured the Vatican’s Congregation of Bishops in order to come up with them. If he succeeds, the kind of internal conversation Baumann has in mind might actually happen. 

But for it to happen, he’s got to succeed.

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Mark Silk

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service

7 Comments

  1. I know facts are now considered “mean” but if anyone is interested in whether Vatican ii was trying to emphasize the role of the papacy, you can actually take the time to read the documents: For example, Lumen Gentium 25, states, “loyal submission of the will and intellect must be given, in a special way, to the authentic authority of the Roman pontiff, even when he does not speak ex cathedra, in such wise, indeed, that his supreme teaching authority be acknowledged with respect and sincere assent be given to decisions made by him.”

    Is this the role that Dr Silk longs to see? Believe or not, the Catholic Church was against gay marriage and wasn’t vaguely indifferent about abortion before the 11th century either.

    • Lynne Newington

      You’re too caught up in the supernateral dimension of mere men, claiming their humanity only where expedient.
      The Transfiguartion is a good example…… God directs us to His son not to man who is unworthy, even popes, and recently in our times too.

        • Lynne Newington

          There’s a difference between church [as in institutional] and Christ or haven’t you noticed? Being a convert, it sticks out like a dogs hind leg.
          Those who are supposed to lead us to Heaven are taking us down a road to perdition with all the coruption, abuse of innocent children and the covering up many have been guilty of……worldwide.
          It’s an insult to all teaching, rules and regulations and those holding us to ransom spiritually are not worthy of those whom God has given, beginning at the top.

          .

          • Why did Jesus call 12 disciples? Why was Peter singled out? What do you know about Jesus that doesn’t depend on the church? That’s fine to believe none of that is true, but there is reason to believe anything else in revelation is true….other than you want to believe it.

  2. Lynne Newington

    You’re wanting connect the 12 disciples to the Chair of Peter?
    Well and good, but they have to come up to scratch otherwise it’s sacreligious, cathedra or ex-cathedra passing their example on down the meat chain as in lying, corruption and not being accountable, using the Confessional as a get out of jail card.
    Do you ever hear the truth sets you free fom the pulpit?
    No because it is no long practiced.
    And with Holy Week soon upon us, be careful what you say…….

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