15Mar The pope is not the Church

The pope is not the Church. It’s going to be very tempting to forget this fact over the next few days. The pundits, Catholic and otherwise, have been rapt in the suspense of awaiting the arrival of Pope Francis. We heard a lot of impossible hopes for who the next pope would be, along with the less thrilling reality of the actual candidates. But Catholics, along with the masses who have been suddenly and momentarily interested in Catholic affairs, should remember that the papacy is not to be confused with the church itself. At no time should this have been more clear than those strange and special few days when the Catholic Church was a people—an assembly, a community, a mystical body—without a pope.

This is not to say that a pope doesn’t have an important job. It’s an office with considerable (if metaphorical) justification in the Bible, as well as a very long and venerable (if checkered) tradition. Popes help hold together a diverse church, one far more varied and interesting than most people realize; Vatican City and St. Patrick’s Cathedral are part of the same church as the back-side of an altar in Guatemala covered in wax and feathers and the parish on the South Side of Chicago that worships with a gospel choir and African dance. A pope is part of the Catholic package for sure, but only part.

Catholic Christianity has a long tradition of being shaped from the margins, starting with its founder.

The Jesus we meet in the Gospels is refreshingly indifferent to those who claim to run the institutions of the world, both religious and secular. He doesn’t appear to have been a revolutionary in the modern sense of seeking to replace those in power with an ideology, but nor did ever take authorities more seriously than necessary. Render Caesar’s coins unto Caesar, he said, but save the rest for God and neighbor. He accepted the death sentence that the high priests and imperial legates placed upon him, but he never stopped laying bare their hypocrisy. In that ultimate obedience to authority he found freedom, for himself and—as far as Christians are concerned—for all of humanity.

Since then, the story of the church has been punctuated by people who consulted their conscience first and their popes later. Francis of Assisi assembled his community of barefoot wanderers before going to Pope Innocent III to seek approval. In more recent times, Dorothy Day didn’t need a pope’s permission before opening a house of hospitality for the poor and resistance against war. The Community of Sant’Egidio, founded in Italy in the late 1960s, has fought HIV/AIDS and negotiated peace treaties around the world on its own terms. Yet, in honor of this witness, Benedict XVI made a habit of visiting Sant’Egidio’s ministries in Rome. Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York is seeking Dorothy Day’s cause for sainthood. And now, almost eight hundred years after Francis’ death, a pope has named himself after him.

Each of these Catholic heroes had a certain respect for the papacy, but they didn’t let that get in the way of living out the gospel for themselves. They took inspiration from the words of church authorities, but more importantly they took action on their own—in creative, authentic, and Christian fashion. “In all times the laity have been the measure of the Catholic spirit,” Cardinal John Newman said more than a century ago. If what we expect from the church is what we expect from the aged and insulated man who happens to hold the office of Peter, there is little reason to expect much.

In the New York Times Paul Elie recently suggested that in imitation of the papal resignation Catholics might “give up your pew for Lent”—that is, take at least a temporary break from their troubled church. From time to time, one hears a call along these lines for frustrated Catholics to boycott the church outright in protest, as if that will make the men in charge finally clean house. But I’ve seen far too many smart and conscientious people give up on the church—for good reasons, I’m afraid—to want any more of them to leave, even for one Sunday.

What the church needs is more committed and courageous souls in it, not fewer. It needs souls who are too busy organizing communities of radical living and prayer, and working for justice among the oppressed, and composing new hymns, to worry all that much about whom the Spirit and the cardinals might choose as pope. It needs souls willing to undertake new forms of thought and action capable of making what Catholics see as God’s good news a reality in our time —f orms that will influence and inspire popes of the future, even if the present ones don’t yet get it.

There is no better time to reclaim a living faith than this in-between period with a new pope and an uncertain future—for Catholics to say their own prayers, to serve their own communities, to find their own voices. And to the extent that we bother wishing that Pope Francis will be one kind of pope or another, let it be for the kind of pope who listens.

6 Responses

  1. Darlene Starrs

    Most everything you say is true, except for one problem……ultimately, the Church’s activity, the activity of the people, is eventually, monitored, yayed or nayed, by someone in ecclesiastical governance, and that’s why, in the end, the Institution is important….as well as, they are supposed to represent me, a Catholic, and so, that Institution, clergy around the world and in the vatican, had better represent me, the Catholic and Christ with the highest integrity.

  2. Elizabeth

    I have many questions and one is: What is the difference between Christian and Catholic?

    I was reared in the Catholic Church but does that mean? Why not just Christian?

    I have thought about it myself and think that because I was reared in Ireland we felt like we were defending our under dog Church in times of oppression, Faith of our Fathers. If the oppression of Catholics hadn’t happened we’d be happy with being Christian.

  3. Kathleen Faley

    That is a perceptive and enlightening article.I believe in the supremacy of conscience. I do not believe in subservient obedience where I have to look to the Bishop of Rome for permission to put one foot in front of the other before I make a move on anything related to social justice or a particular spiritual cause. Ten years ago when I decided to undertake the study of Theology I did not ask permission of my local parish Priest or Bishop. I would probably have been discouraged if I did ask their permission and consequently would have missed out on a very enriching and enlightening journey in spiritual and theological and at times challenging education. I undertook that study at 52 years of age. In recent years I find myself recoiling from the monarchical and secretive dealings in the Vatican which the new Pope, Francis now has to address. The People of God as Church are rising up and objecting to the victimization of some of its members by ordained clergy and the secular press is doing much to uncover shady dealings in the Vatican as the Vatileaks scandal demonstrated. The empowerment of the People of God will enable them to address decisions based on the supremacy of their good conscience which many have being doing ‘unofficially’ for the past three or four Papal occupancys of the See of Peter in the Vatican. I hope the present Pope Francis will through his humility encourage many conversions to Christianity in order to overturn the many dispersions over the last decades. His humility will I believe be pivotal to increasing vocations to Priesthood and religious life in the West. He had to emulate Jesus.

  4. Peter Shore

    Elizabeth, there is no difference between Christian and Catholic. You cannot be fully one without the other. The Church which Christ founded is Catholic, with an ordained ministry also established by Christ. He promised that the Church, led by the Holy Spirit, would never fall into error. Therefore, that which has been affirmed by the teaching authority of the Church cannot be superseded by individual conscience, properly informed. To suggest otherwise is to make Christ a liar.

  5. Joe O'Leary

    It’s hard not to be awed as the new pope prays at the tomb of St Peter. Media are always entranced by Vatican events, huge money-spinners for them. It’s very dangerous for the health and maturity of Catholic culture.

  6. Patrick Daly

    But are the ordinary people ?
    I was especially drawn to the emphasis on ordinary people doing radical faith stuff in this article, such as directing us back to a ‘strange and special few days when the Catholic Church was a people—an assembly, a community, a mystical body’ and is call for ‘souls who are too busy organizing communities of radical living and prayer, and working for justice among the oppressed, and composing new hymns.’

    For many years I have found myself reflecting on the divergence between the early chritian communites of the new testament period to the modern expression of faith with a key emphsis on ‘church attendance’. Reading then some books about the formation and actions of the Base Christian Communities of Brazil I found myself excited at seeing some connection points to the new testament period and interested that this was a catholic expression, leaving me wondering if we could see the emerge of such communty based expressions of faith in Ireland???

    History is full of examples of ordinary believers doing extraordinary stuff in and through communities….. but how can we fan into flame this core principle of jesus living amongst his disciples and his disciples then founding communites of faith across cities and regions… ???

    I am hoping to explore some of these thoughts and issues in an Evening Seminar on Expressions of Faith and Community being held in Mullingar Annabrook Hotel on the 15th of April and Athlone Sheradon Hotel on the 22nd April.

    We have presenters speaking on a number of topics including setting up Cell Groups in an Irish Parish, the Early Celtic Christian Communities and lessons for today, The New Test Communities as a model for building a network of communities in Dublin, and The Base Christian Communities of Brazil as a possible model for Ireland?

    Isit it time that the ordinary people found their place as the living stones in communities of Christ and from that place found their inspiration for mission and renewal into their communities regions and even nations….

    Come along… would love to hear what you have to say …