The Long View: The Future of the Papacy

The Long View: The Future of the Papacy
Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict

Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict

I see that Richard McBrien has an updated version of The Lives of the Popes. [Amazon link] John's essay isn't really a review of McBrien's book, it is more along the lines of an attempt to set the record straight. This essay would be a good counter-point to the reviews of McBrien's book on Amazon.

I am certain McBrien is thrilled by the election of Pope Francis, but it shall be interesting to see what McBrien says when Francis fails to act on his plan. In his own way, Francis is as mis-understood as Benedict.


The Future of the Papacy

by John J. Reilly

On the whole, Richard McBrien's current bestseller, "The Lives of the Popes," is not a very good book. While the author does have the good grace to warn in the introduction that he is arguing for a particular model of ecclesiology, still the work is usually tendentious, sometimes spiteful and occasionally sloppy. (At the very least, the publisher should have assigned an editor who knew some Latin.) A paradoxical use of the book may be as evidence that Pius X's attitude toward theologians may have been right after all.

Be this as it may, the Epilogue entitled "The Future of the Papacy" does raise some interesting points. Fr. McBrien notes that history is liberating because it teaches us that things were not always as they are now. Because the papacy in times past was not always as it has been for the past century or so, he suggests, there is some reason to suppose that it will be different again in the future. His point is well taken; John Paul II himself took it in his encyclical "Ut Unum Sint" (That They May Be One). However, in this context, it may not have quite the implications that "The Lives of the Popes" would lead you to believe.

A notion that runs through the "Lives of the Popes" (as well as through other recent discussions of the subject) is that the history of the papacy falls rather neatly into two halves. In the first millennium of the Christian era, according to this schema, the Bishop of Rome enjoyed a unique prestige among the world's bishops. The Apostolic See even acquired secular power in central Italy as civilization went to wrack and ruin. However, it was only in the second millennium (the pontificate of Gregory VII (1073-1085) makes a reasonable transition point) that the papacy became a sovereign monarchy. This happened first in the secular and then increasingly in the ecclesiastical realm. Although the broadest claims to papal authority are medieval, there is a lot to be said for the observation that the actual power of the papacy over the governance of the Church reached its maximum after 1870, when the Apostolic See was involuntarily stripped of the distraction of the Papal States.

Today, according to some critics, the process of centralization has reached such an extreme degree that one might reasonably expect it to start to reverse. In fact, the emphasis by the Second Vatican Council on the collegiality of bishops, including the Bishop of Rome, is cited as the beginning of this process. Since we have already had two historical epochs, a proper respect for Hegel (and maybe for Joachim of Fiore) makes it almost inevitable that we consider the possibility of a third. Fr. McBrien is particularly keen on the notion that the third millennium will resemble the first more than the second. The pope will no longer be a monarch, either over secular subjects or over his fellow bishops. Rather, he will be a conciliator, whose special role will be to promote Christian unity. He will leave matters of discipline to local bishops and assemblies, while theology will be the province of the experts. Such as Fr. McBrien.

Periods of a thousand years do not normally make useful units of historical analysis, but still there is a fair amount of truth to this schema of two eras. There is even some sense in the anticipation of a Third Age. The chief point that needs to be added is that the papacy has never existed in a vacuum. The mutations it has undergone in the past 2000 years are only partly the result of the logic of its own development. The short explanation for these changes is that the papacy was simply mirroring the political evolution of the societies in which it lived. The pope was once a Roman citizen, then a Byzantine official, then a barbarian chieftain, then a feudal lord, then a Renaissance prince, then a Baroque monarch. Since 1870, he has been the chief executive officer of a remarkably efficient international bureaucracy (well, efficient compared to the UN). What you think the papacy will become next therefore depends on your ideas about the future development of the nature of government and of political theory.

If anything, the papacy has been ahead of the curve in terms of the development of supranational organizations. Without entering into a discussion of the merits of organizations like the WTO and the IMF, still it is a good bet that more and more of the world's business will be looked after by specialized international regulatory agencies. There are already a lot of these. You don't hear about them much because, like the venerable Universal Postal Union, they have the good sense to stick to genuinely international issues and otherwise leave their national affiliates to run themselves. This is the model that the Fr. McBriens of the world would like the Church to embrace.

On its face, the model is not without merits. The principle of subsidiarity, not to say common sense, dictates that the units of any global organization should normally be self-governing. The Catholic hierarchy is a hierarchy of authority, not of administration. Even those of us who applaud the intervention of the Vatican to correct local scandals in teaching and liturgy must acknowledge that there is something wrong when parents in New Jersey are writing letters to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to complain that the nun teaching their kids' CCD class is a self-proclaimed witch. The real question, of course, is whether the problem is overreaching by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith or incompetence on the part of the witch's bishop.

As is so often the case with predictions about the future, it seems reasonable to forecast a near-term period of heightened conflict, followed by a durable resolution that may well hold for a large slice of the next millennium. I agree that the current situation is not stable. On the one hand, there is a disgruntled clerisy of theologians in the colleges, plus a few bishops, who want the right to define Catholicism as anything they say it is. On the other hand, there is an episcopate that is reasonably orthodox but reluctant to challenge the experts. The Vatican greatly prefers not to intervene locally, but it is hard not to do so when the increasing ease of communications broadcasts every scandal worldwide. This just makes the clerisy madder, which invites more intervention. Something is going to give here.

The current assumption among the "just wait until the next pope" liberals is that what will give will be the papacy. The College of Cardinals, tired of getting all those weird letters from New Jersey, will elect a congenial makeweight at the next conclave. He will write a few encyclicals in which he encourages the fashionable theologies to be fruitful and multiply, while most of his time will be spent promoting peace-and-justice initiatives submitted to him from the better Catholic universities. The Catholic Church will then become like the easygoing Anglican Church, with which it will no doubt merge. The papacy will collapse back into its first-millennium role as an inter-episcopal mediator, and everyone will live happily ever after. You bet.

The problem with this scenario is that it extrapolates the present into the indefinite future. It does seem reasonable that the third millennium of the Catholic Church in general and the papacy in particular will differ from the second. It may also be true that the third will resemble the first in some important ways. The flaw in the predictions made by many of the people who promote this model, however, is that there may be a resemblance between the first millennium and the third that they have not thought of: the absence of professional academic theologians.

By the end of the 20th century, we have come to think of theologians as just another part of the professoriate. However, the idea of a class of persons paid to teach and do research and criticize is not self-obvious. Most societies have not had such a class at all. Those that have had one have usually had it for only a few centuries at a time. There were such people for the first 500 years of the first millennium in the West. Athens, for instance, was a college town throughout the Roman period. The significant point is that the people who taught there were not theologians, but rhetoricians and philosophers. Although the early Church made use of philosophical ideas developed in the schools, it did not turn the ancient academies into Christian institutions. In fact, it eventually shut them down. A "theologian" in the first millennium was normally a bishop, someone like Augustine or John Chrysostom, who formulated theological propositions for the practical purposes of teaching and apologetics.

If we are going to think in units of centuries, then we should consider the possibility that the critical style of intellectual life that has characterized the West since the 18th century may cease to be ubiquitous. For instance, Francis Fukuyama's book, "The End of History," was much ridiculed a few years ago for suggesting that history ended with the end of the Cold War. In reality, he suggested nothing so crude. What he did say was that the possibilities of political theory within the Western tradition had been exhausted, which I think is not only plausible but true. Similarly, it is a given among many physicists that we are only a jump or two away from a general unification theory, or "theory of everything." Such a theory would not confer omniscience; it would simply unite cosmology and nuclear physics in a small set of equations. After the theory is achieved, there would still be physicists, but the enterprise of advanced physics would have fundamentally changed. It would become a matter of looking for the implications of what is already known, and of looking for better ways to express it and teach it.

As I understand it, this is very much what happened to theology in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. For three or four centuries after the Edict of Milan, the practice of theology was exuberantly speculative, and most of it happened in the Byzantine East. It was one of those eras in history in which high theory drove power politics. Popular enthusiasm was engaged by controversies of fantastic subtlety that today are fully understood only by specialists, and you wonder even about the specialists. Thereafter, however, Eastern Christianity lost this speculative quality. It was no longer necessary. The Eastern Church's theology was "finished," just as plane geometry was "finished" in Hellenistic times, and perhaps as physics will be "finished" in the 21st century.

In the first third of the first millennium, the world's bishops tended to discourage theological subtlety as part of their campaign against Gnosticism. By the last third, the major theological questions had already been settled. It was in the former and the latter contexts that it made sense for the pope to act primarily as an arbitrator and organizer. During the convulsive middle period, of course, the pope did often intervene in the great Christological controversies, but even then he rarely proposed formulations of doctrine himself. When it came time for the papacy to evangelize the newly barbarian West, the deposit of the faith had already been almost completely formulated by the Fathers of the Church. Everything necessary was already on the shelf. Much later, when the West developed its own intellectual life, it became necessary for the pope to act proactively on matters of faith and discipline, rather than just as a mediator. It is necessary still. However, it may not be necessary forever.

It really is not hard to predict the future, since almost anything you predict that is possible is bound to happen eventually. The trick is to get the timescale right. Nevertheless, I would be willing to suggest the following will be the state of things sooner rather than later: A Vatican that acts more like a senior patriarchate, a laity that rarely feels the need to inquire beyond the local bishop on points of doctrine, and a small class of clerical theologians who see their primary function as apologetics. I don't think you can have one part of this future without the other. It's a package deal.


Copyright © 1999 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site