19Feb The king is dead: long live the king?

Pope Benedict XVI has not died. Rather, in a decision that has deservedly won him great praise, he has announced that he is to resign on health grounds. Nonetheless, attention has immediately switched to his successor: should it be a younger man? Should he come from outside Europe? What challenges will a future Pope face, and what does this tell us about a suitable candidate?
I suggest that there is a more important question. What should the role of Pope involve?
We have become accustomed to speak of the Supreme Pontiff, of a monarchical-style papacy, of Roman ‘hands-on’ intervention world-wide. But it was not always so and need not be so. It would be a good question for Sean Brady and his fellow Cardinal electors to ask if it should be so.
In Ireland our own former President Mary McAleese has written of the constitutionally incoherent nature of the Catholic Church’s organizational structure, with its unresolved tensions between papal primacy and Episcopal collegiality. She was, perhaps unwittingly, echoing the words attributed to Pope Pius IX in 1939: ‘The Church, the Mystical Body of Christ, has become a monstrosity. The head is very large, but the body is shrunken’. The Second Vatican Council attempted to counter-balance excessive papal and curial powers with a more collegial dimension, but failed to provide the structures and institutions to embody its insights.
The result has been what many ordinary Catholics, not to mention some prominent politicians, experience as a church that is dysfunctional, that is disconnected in so many ways from their real concerns and questions.
One symptom of this was the poor handling of clerical child sexual abuse. In that context prominent Irish Church leaders have expressed regret at being part of a culture of silence and deference that thankfully now, they claim is a thing of the past. But is it really? Hopefully yes, in the matter of sexual abuse, but is there not a pervasive unhealthiness in our Catholic culture of today when the ‘sense of the faithful’, not to mention the voice of bishops and theologians, is given so little heed?
Where are the structures and institutions to embody the notion of Church as communion, the collegial thrust which the Second Vatican Council proposed? Is there not an anachronistic reliance on a monarchical form of governance, with the Pope and Roma Curia at its apex? Has this not led to the stern rejection of alternative voices, a culture of silence and fear, in which the attempt is made to silence the views of Fr Tony Flannery in Ireland, Bishop Bill Morris in Australia, Dr Tina Beattie in the UK, Sr. Elizabeth Johnson in the USA and many, many others, in ways that fall well short procedurally of what modern norms of justice demand?
After all, it was Pope John-Paul II himself who, perhaps surprisingly, given his own rather autocratic approach to internal church matters, asked that the role of the papacy might be re-envisaged (Ut Unum Sint- That They May be One, 1995). He sought the help of other Christian churches and fellow-Catholics in this re-imagining of papacy in ways that would better serve its function as service of unity and love. He did so conscious that the historical forms of the papacy have varied greatly over the centuries. Historian John O’Malley refers to the ‘papalization’ of the Church as the most significant development in Catholicism in the second millennium, in particular since the First Vatican Council in 1869-1870.
It was not always thus. A scriptural text like Mt 16, 18 (Thou are Peter…) has in the past been interpreted in a much more collegial way, with Rome functioning as court of last appeal in a church which acted collegially through councils and synods and in which local bishops functioned as vicars of Jesus Christ. This is the kind of future envisaged in many of the ecumenical discussions triggered by John Paul’s invitation of 1995.
Many Christians recognize the symbolic and indeed normative value of the Bishop of Rome in serving the universality of the Church, not least in a globalized world. But surely this can be realised in a more collegial way, with more respect for local autonomy and traditions, including of course that wonderful cultural diversity in places like Africa, Asia and Latin America? The theological ground-work for such a change has been laid: what remains to happen is that the bishops and the new Pope show a willingness to listen to the whispers of the Spirit leading us in this direction.
The current debate about the future Pope is being conducted within a mistaken ‘social imaginary’ or ‘group-think’. We need to correct this ‘bias of commonsense’ with regard to the papacy. The Swiss Benedictine Abbot Martin Werlen tried to help us re-imagine this operative world-view recently when he suggested that the Pope might make a number of lay cardinals, women and men, of different ages and from all parts of the world, to help him govern the Church.
Of course it is not the job of a Conclave to reform the Church. But it may be their job to identify the candidate (whether among their own ranks or from outside the Conclave) best suited to bring about church and papal renewal. This will not happen with the continuation of a papacy as monarchy. We are simply asking too much of one man in today’s complex world, and not asking enough of ourselves. The term ‘Supreme Pontiff’, if one goes back beyond connotations of kingly power, pomp and ceremony should mean one who excels in bridge-building. It should mean one who empowers local bishops to ‘own’ their authority, in creative fidelity to God’s word and the apostolic tradition, and in holy discernment of the ‘sense of the faithful’ and the ‘signs of the times’, one who ‘strengthens his brethren’ (Lk. 22, 32).
Cardinal Sean Brady and his fellow electors would do us all a great service if they took seriously ecclesial and papal reform as the major criterion in their choice of candidate for the Petrine ministry, that great gift of God’s Holy Spirit to Catholics and, if reformed, to all Christians.

Gerry O’Hanlon, S.J.
Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice.

9 Responses

  1. Fr John Wotherspoon (Hong Kong)

    One way for a more collegial approach:


  2. Jerry Slevin

    Thank you for this wise reflection. As suggested, the key issue is church leadership structure: will it remain coercively imperial or return to the consensual power sharing that Jesus and his first followers left behind for over three centuries until Constantine?
    This return can begin to happen if the Cardinals next month adopt a reform timetable BEFORE electing the next Pope.
    This can be done practically, as I have recently explained. If it isn’t adopted, we likely will have to await the completion of the increasing efforts of international prosecutors and financial regulators to reform the Vatican.
    For more explanation, please see my, “Next Pope And Only Some Cardinals Are Immune For Abuse Crimes”, accessible at:

  3. Darlene Starrs

    It is very, very, excellent to have Father Gerry O’Hanlon weigh into the discussion on this website. We need the input of our professional theologians. Now, I’m probably going to make a very amateur theological comment: It seems to me, that we may have very 2 different agendas in the Global RC Church……….the agenda of the West and the Developed Countries………and the agenda of the developing countries: Africa, Asia, and Latin America. My impression of the developing countries is that they might well encourage this notion of the “supreme pontiff”….the “Holy Papa”, even possibly: “Papal Messiah”. While those of us in the West and the Developed Countries are looking for what Father O’Hanlon describes, more of a competent administrator, or the last court of appeal. I am reflecting on whether there is a candidate for Pope that knows “how to” and is able to “bridge” these two agendas. If not, are we, as the Church, in for more, “institutional struggle” and not a whole lot of “institutional resolve”?

  4. Con Carroll

    did Gerry sign statement from Church Authority. document. http://www.churchauthority.org which was in todays. 19 February. Irish Times

  5. Elizabeth

    Who said the Pope can’t be a woman?

    Why is half of humanity not represented in the church hierarchy?

    What could possibly be the reason?

    Does the church hate women?

    Does God consider women to be equal to men?

    If anyone can answer these questions I’d be thankful.

  6. Mary O Vallely

    Joseph Komonchak in Commonweal Feb 19
    ‘But the church is not the pope, and the pope is not the church, and perhaps what we most need is a pope who will encourage and allow the laity, the religious, the clergy, and the hierarchy to assume their responsibilities for the difference the church is supposed to make in the world. Benedict’s resignation was a self-denying act of personal humility. What we need now in Rome are acts of institutional humility and self-denial. ‘ Yes, indeed.
    P.S. Elizabeth, I share your frustrations. There is a time for everything but this is not yet the time, unfortunately.

  7. Nuala O'Driscoll

    One word Elizabeth, mysogyny! If Anyone feels outraged by this I would refer them to an article written by Fr Sean Fagan SM entitled ‘Spiritual Abuse’ and included in their book, ‘Quench not the Spirit’, edited by Angela Hanley BA and David Smith MSC. In his article Fr Fagan dares to reveal what the Fathers of the Church thought about women. For example, St Augustine (died 430) believed that ‘women are not made in the image of God’, St Thomas Aquinas, ‘woman is an incomplete being, a misbegotten male’ and there is much more. Leading theologians of this calibre shaped the thinking, the teaching, the dogma and I believe the Church’s attute to women down to the present time.

  8. Elizabeth

    No one even attempts to answer my questions it seems and that is one of the biggest reasons that the church will lose out more and more in times to come. It’s become irrelevant to, and dismissive of, half the population and no church can survive by putting down 50 percent of its followers.

  9. Eddie Finnegan

    Bombarded as we have been of late by learned theses, wishful wish-lists and erudite eructations coming on each other’s heels so thick and fast that even the most spirited of ‘lay spouters’ can scarce manage the briefest comment on each, I’m relieved to find that my head, after spinning out of control these past ten days, is now back on my shoulders and once again facing forward. I’m also pleased to see that I’m still in broad agreement with my modest proposal of 9/11, September 11th last, five months before Pope Benedict set the cats among the pigeons of San Pietro and just six months before the Lenten Conclave of 2013. While my original was a response to ‘voices from beyond the grave’ of Cardinals Hume and Martini, it may have assumed a new relevance since the Feast of Valentine, so I lay it once more before Your Eminences’ Consistory.
    “I see Rowan Williams has been floating the idea of a President for the Anglican Communion in addition to the Ab of Canterbury. Rowan, too, is demob happy so he can say what he likes, just like our own pensioner bishops and ‘cardinales morituri’ (not to be confused with the ‘moribundi’ who live and die by the motto: ‘Whatever you say, say nothing!’)
    “Isn’t the Papacy, too, a bit much for one pair of shoulders? If the Pope is not just Christ’s Vicar – every bishop is that, as Ignatius of Antioch told us a while ago – but God’s Vicar on Earth, shouldn’t the Papacy be a ‘triumviratus’ or, to be more inclusive, a troika, to reflect something of the Trinity? This would allow for a greater ‘continuity’, avoiding the sort of irregular ‘rupture’ of an interregnum or sede vacante. While the Church is not a democracy (perish the thought!) my proposal could be a faint Catholic nod towards representative democracy and small ‘c’ catholicism.
    My current* troika nominees:
    Peter Turkson (West African, specialising in Justice&Peace and UN)
    Marc Ouellet (N.American+Latin American expertise + he’s not Dolan)
    Christoph Schonborn (Intelligent, deep Austrian Catholic roots, with a few scores to settle with both Bertone’s Boys and ex-Curial Sodanites)
    “They could be known as Pope Peter, Pope Marc, Pope Christoph. For the sentimentalists among you, the old customs of Sistine smoke and mirrors could be retained. ‘Habemus tres Papas’ could be the initial ‘gaudium magnum’ announcement, but most subsequent elections would be singular.
    Each pope would have a seven-year term**, with a second-term option if under 75 years. (As soon as the College of voting Cardinals includes 40 women, at least one pope must be female, eligible for a second term if under 82 years.)”
    * Following a clear hint from Pope Benedict’s November 2012 mini-consistory, I propose Card.Luis Tagle of Manila as Coadjutor Pope with a transcontinental travelling mandate and automatic right of succession to any of the above.
    ** I am gratified to see that Pope Benedict did his best to adhere to our seven-year term. I understand that he would have tendered his resignation on Easter Monday last, ‘praeter improprias influentias’ from certain Vatican lobbies, gay, straight and just plain crooked.
    “May I re-commend this motion to Your Eminences’ Conclave?”