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An Ecumenical Pope?

Pope Paul VI places his episcopal ring on the finger of the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey (24 Mar. 1966)

On June 13, 2024, the Vatican’s Dicastery For Promoting Christian Unity has published a Study Document: The Bishop of Rome Primacy and Synodality in the Ecumenical Dialogues and in the Responses to the Encyclical Ut Unum Sint.

For those who want that encyclical that is referenced (published 29 years ago): Ut Unum Sint.

It will take some time to digest this 146 page, 43,000 word document! But here are some initial observations:

  • It is significant that the original is in English, not Latin, Spanish, or Italian
  • This, I would posit, gives a particular place to Anglicanism – an episcopally-led denomination with an ancient primacy connected to a location
  • Pope Francis has been described as the “most Anglican” of popes!
  • The the convocation by Pope Francis of the Synod on Synodality is arguably (finally) an institutional embodying of a synodal-governance vision within Vatican II which, I suspect, will have permanence beyond the current papacy and will not simply be a Pope Francis’ fad.
  • As such, Anglicanism, which has had long experience with a synodally governed, episcopally led model, provides real-world experience of how this unfolds.

From that (primacy – episcopal – synodal) model (as found in Anglicanism, The Old Catholic Union of Utrecht – with which Anglicanism is in full communion, and Eastern Orthodoxy) there appear to be two issues with the generally-accepted Roman Catholic view and practice of the Bishop of Rome, the Pope.

INFALLIBILITY: although many Christians beyond Roman Catholicism would accept/believe/hold teachings held as “infallible” by the Vatican, many would balk at these being a requirement for orthodoxy or for salvation. Philosophically, there is no infallible list of infallible teachings. Beyond The Assumption and The Immaculate Conception (regularly misunderstood by Roman Catholics themselves!), many Roman Catholics would include such papal pronouncements as Apostolicae curae, Humanae vitae, and Ordinatio sacerdotalis as infallible. Others do not. [As asides, it is highly noteworthy that, statistically, only between a third and two-thirds of Mass-going RCs accept the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, surely a more central RC (and other denominations) belief than so many other teachings; furthermore, abiding by Humanae vitae is a much, much lower percentage – and discussion amongst those who do often sees that as more in the category of “discipline” than “morally right”, find that it is destructive in their marriage, and wish that the teaching would be changed…]

UNIVERSAL JURISDICTION: The Pope decides who will be the bishop of a diocese; the Pope signs off the translation of texts that are allowed to be used in any location – the original texts having been created centrally and again signed off by the Pope. The Pope explicitly functions as the pastor of the whole church:

The bishop of the Roman Church, … is … the pastor of the universal Church on earth. By virtue of his office he possesses supreme, full, immediate, and universal ordinary power in the Church, which he is always able to exercise freely.

Canon 331

This turns local churches, and dioceses into a centralised franchise. Bishops can be “hired and fired” (by the papal CEO) in the manner of local subordinates, branch-managers of the franchises. This was highly stressed by conservative RCs under Pope Benedict XVI, but it is now often most strongly opposed by them, even as being an unacceptable level of ultramontanism (the high belief in papal authority).

From these brief points, we see that infallibility and universal jurisdiction is not the solution that RC apologists present it as.

This latest document highlights changes needed within Roman Catholicism (starting on page 116 – a good place to start if you are pressed for time). This includes revisiting the understanding of the papacy as presented by Vatican I. It calls for “a Catholic ‘re-reception’, ‘re-interpretation’, ‘official interpretation’, ‘updated commentary’ or even ‘rewording’” of Vatican I’s teachings on the papacy. It highlights, “some dialogues observe that these teachings were deeply conditioned by their historical context, and suggest that the Catholic Church should look for new expressions and vocabulary faithful to the original intention but integrated into a communio ecclesiology and adapted to the current cultural and ecumenical context.”

This acknowledges the particular historical context of that period which, of course, includes reaction to the loss of the Papal States (ending the thousand-year papal rule over much of the peninsula) and the Unification of Italy (let alone the longer framing from the beginning of the eighteenth century, of the papal inability to adapt to modern social and political developments).

Secondly, the document highlights, the Pope needs to more clearly be seen as exercising ministry as the Bishop of Rome. There can be development of the understanding of the Pope as Western Patriarch differentiated from a role of serving the unity of the whole church universal (let alone the Pope’s political role as head of an independent state, the Vatican). Thirdly, synodality is seen as an important complement to primacy. And, finally, greater significance can be given to other Christian leaders.

A lot of this is positive. But, we need to be honest about the unbelievable disunity within Christianity (so much so that it is more honest to speak of “Christianities”). Synodality can be as much a problem as a solution. Eastern Orthodox Churches are not united (see Moscow – Constantinople – Kyiv). Nor is Anglicanism offering a positive example of union through a primacy working with synodality. Even within Roman Catholicism, the synodal way in Germany, as just one example, is not going the way that the Vatican finds acceptable.

In, under, and behind all this, I think is a bigger movement – humanity’s movement into a divided, polarised-even, post-modern world in the throes of the technological revolution (including AI), and a human search for meaning within this context. One (popular) reaction is akin to the RC (18th to 20th Century) response to Revolution and the birth of democracy described above – a fundamentalism and regression to a fantasised golden age. I think we need to accept our context and draw on our traditions to have a spirituality that resonates, that is inclusive, intellectually rigorous, with a solid core and soft edges. I do not think that the Bishop of Rome, in the present infallible and universal-jurisdiction form, is part of that solid core.

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