The Battle Over Primacy

Pope St. Gregory VII (c. 1020-1085) was canonized in 1606, but nearly a century and a quarter had to pass before Pope Benedict XIII extended his feast to the universal Church—and even then many of Europe’s Catholic princes objected. In fact, the feast (it falls on May 25) was banned in Catholic Austria until 1848. Canossa had followed Gregory beyond the grave.

Canossa, a hamlet lying between Modena and Parma in north central Italy, was the scene of a defining moment in Western history nearly a millennium ago. There, for three days in January 1077, the German king Henry IV stood barefoot in the snow outside a castle, imploring absolution from Pope Gregory. The pope excommunicated and deposed him the year before during their bitter struggle over lay investiture—the practice by which lay lords symbolically conferred office upon bishops and abbots. The underlying issues in this contest were the subjugation of church to state dating back to Charlemagne—in a larger perspective, back even to Constantine—and whether the pope would be master in his own house.

Pastor that he was, Gregory yielded to Henry’s importuning at Canossa and absolved him. In short order, the king resumed his campaign against the pope, this time successfully. Pope Gregory died eight years later a broken man, his policy in ruins. Yet within four decades the essentials of that policy—a Church delivered from secular domination and led by a strong papacy—was revived by his successors and prevailed. Gregory’s posthumous victory was sealed on September 22, 1122, by the Concordat of Worms between Henry IV’s son, Henry V, and Pope Callistus II.

The Enemy Within

These days, too, the Church is suffering greatly at the hands of secular rulers in China and other places. The serious theoretical challenges to the papacy come not from outside the Church but from within. Everyone knows that papal teaching authority has been questioned for more than 30 years, but fewer seem to be aware that papal authority to govern the Church also is being challenged. Primacy, not infallibility, is the main battleground now.

There is no mystery about that. Only rarely over the centuries have popes formally exercised the charism of infallibility, but they make constant use of primacy, establishing dioceses, naming bishops, promulgating laws, and performing numerous other acts of supreme and universal jurisdiction in the service of ecclesial unity. The exercise of primacy as an instrument of the Petrine ministry is especially notable under strong popes like Gregory VII—and John Paul II.

Efforts by the Catholic left to undermine papal primacy should not be confused with the serious consideration of possible changes in the way primacy is exercised. In Ut Unum Sint, an encyclical on Christian unity published in 1995, John Paul II invited such discussion, and it is now occurring. In December 1996, for instance, a theological symposium on papal primacy was sponsored in Rome by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Its proceedings were published in 1998 in Il Primato del Successore di Pietro by the Vatican’s Libreria Editrice Vaticana, with an appendix in which the official teaching is summarized by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger and Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, respectively the congregation’s prefect and secretary. Similarly, “The Gift of Authority,” the remarkable statement published last May by the Second Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission, cites Ut Unum Sint as a source of its inspiration. A number of scholarly articles and books on primacy have been published; other conferences have taken place or are planned.

This conversation is necessary; there are theological and historical questions that need examining. Important purposes could be served by giving careful thought to modifications in the way primacy is exercised. That has changed in the past, is changing now, and almost certainly will go on changing in the future; and it is better that the changes be planned rather than haphazard. Almost certainly, too, change in this context would involve a measure of decentralization, with more emphasis on the bishops and local churches and, as relations with the Orthodox warm, a substantial measure of acceptance by Rome for their system of Church polity, provided the pope’s unique authority also is recognized.

Even as this discussion proceeds, however, Catholic progressives are campaigning to reduce papal primacy to what would in effect be a primacy of honor. For the sake of theological and pastoral pluralism and an ill-defined process of “inculturation,” they seek a sweeping devolution of authority in the Church and a systematic program of de-Romanization. The most extreme among them apparently hope for a people’s church, with only trappings of hierarchical structure.

Some, though not all, of the impetus for this campaign comes from the progressives’ dissatisfaction with John Paul II, whom they consider authoritarian and doctrinally inflexible. “The Wojtyla papacy is the most powerful in history,” the Australian theologian Paul Collins contends, while the moralist Bernard Haring, C.SS.R., wrote not long before his death of “an increasingly uncompromising Vatican centralism, together with punitive control mechanisms.’

The progressives do not explain how to reconcile their picture of a power-hungry pope with John Paul’s generous-spirited invitation to take a new look at the exercise of papal primacy. They are busy instead angling for the election, in the next conclave, of a “reforming pope” who will “opt for greater pluralism.”‘ They hope for big changes. The international “We Are Church” movement has identified five demands:

  1. participation by all members of the Church in the selection of bishops
  2. admitting women to all ministries, including the priesthood
  3. optional celibacy for priests and religious
  4. a “positive attitude” toward sexuality, along with “recognition of personal conscience in decision-making”
  5. abandonment of “anathemas” and a policy of “exclusion” in dealing with controverted issues in the Church, “especially as this applies to theologians.”

In sum, Catholics of the left desire a reshaping of the Church for the third millennium as profound as the reshaping at the dawn of the second, in which the struggle between Pope Gregory VII and King Henry IV played a central part. Papal primacy must be undermined to reach this goal.

Primacy Defined

What is papal primacy? The definitive statement of the doctrine was provided by Vatican Council I in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Christ, Pastor Aeternus (July 18, 1870). In a key passage, the council teaches:

…that the Roman Church, by the disposition of the Lord, holds the sovereignty of ordinary power over all others, and that this power of jurisdiction on the part of the Roman Pontiff, which is truly episcopal, is immediate; and with respect to this the pastors and the faithful of whatever rite and dignity, both as separate individuals and all together, are bound by the duty of hierarchical subordination and true obedience, not only in things which pertain to faith and morals, but also in those which pertain to the discipline and government of the Church spread over the whole world.

Other elements of Vatican I’s teaching are: primacy was instituted by Christ in St. Peter; it is transmitted in perpetuity to Peter’s successors, the popes; and there is no appeal from a judgment of the Roman pontiff to some higher authority, such as an ecumenical council.

Vatican I’s definition of papal primacy signaled the quashing, after centuries of conflict and debate, of the movements called conciliarism and Gallicanism. The essence of conciliarism is the idea that either in extraordinary circumstances (moderate conciliarism) or in ordinary ones (radical conciliarism) an ecumenical council has authority over the pope; while Gallicanism (together with its cousins Febronianism and Josephinism) leans in the direction of national churches, functioning with a strong element of secular control. As if to prove that bad ideas never die, the present anti-primacy campaign of the Catholic progressives borrows elements from both.

Vatican Council II (1962-1965) deliberately endorsed Vatican I’s teaching on papal primacy and made it its own. It also brought the doctrine of collegiality to the fore as a complementary principle.

In 1964, in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, Vatican II taught that bishops are “vicars and legates of Christ,” not “vicars of the Roman Pontiff.” Although they have authority for their own local churches—”not over other churches nor the Church universal”—each bishop nevertheless is obliged to practice “care and solicitude” for the Church as a whole. A college of bishops, “together with their head, the Supreme Pontiff, and never apart from him, they have supreme and full authority over the universal Church,” exercised especially in an ecumenical council.

In saying “never apart from” the pope, the fathers of Vatican II wished to emphasize that collegiality and primacy go together. They also emphasized that, although the episcopal college cannot act without its head, the bishop of Rome, he can teach and govern the Church without referring to the college for he has “full, supreme and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered.”

A great deal of time and energy since Vatican II have gone into efforts to work out the relationship between primacy and collegiality in theoretical and practical terms. No one doubts that much remains to be done.

An Ecumenical Invitation

Ecumenism also is a large and important piece of the puzzle. Ecumenical concerns moved John Paul to issue Ut Unum Sint, with its remarkable invitation. On the one hand, the pope makes it clear that he takes as exalted a view of the Petrine ministry as any of his predecessors. A pope’s specific task within the episcopal college, he says, “consists precisely in ‘keeping watch’ (episkopein), like a sentinel, so that, through the efforts of all the Pastors, the true voice of Christ the Shepherd may be heard.” Here in fact is the key to the communion of local churches within the universal Church: “all the Pastors are in communion with Peter and therefore united in Christ.” But Christian unity also stands very high among John Paul’s concerns. And so he writes: “I have a particular responsibility…in heeding the request made of me to find a way of exercising the primacy which, while in no way renouncing what is essential to its mission, is nonetheless open to a new situation.” He invites “Church leaders and their theologians to engage with me in a patient and fraternal dialogue” to this end.

This open-ended invitation has left John Paul vulnerable to exploitation by dialogue partners less generous than he. It is a measure of his desire for the unity of Christians that he was willing to take the risk.

Up to now, the most highly publicized response to his invitation was a paper delivered June 29, 1996, at the Jesuits’ Campion Hall in Oxford by Archbishop John R. Quinn, retired archbishop of San Francisco and a former president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and United States Catholic Conference. Citing Ut Unum Sint, he laid out a broad agenda for change whose elements include “major structural reform of the Curia” to be supervised by a three-member presidency and voted on by the presidents of episcopal conferences before being sent to the pope; regular papal consultation of the bishops, individually and in national conferences, before decisions about doctrine, liturgy, and discipline; a “deliberative” and not just consultative voice for the world Synod of Bishops; regular ecumenical councils, with a council at the start of the third millennium; changes in how bishops are chosen, to give the local church—priests, religious, and laity—a voice; and a great deal more. Archbishop Quinn argued that, as a necessary part of shifting power from Rome, subsidiarity must be accepted in the Church. He deplored the fact that, as matters now stand, questions like contraception, women’s ordination, general absolution, and clerical celibacy are “closed to discussion.”

Others have gone further, in tone if not substance. For instance, in an article appearing in the March 27, 1999, Tablet, which was remarkable for being written by a Catholic cardinal, Franz Cardinal Konig, retired archbishop of Vienna, charged that the Roman Curia, “working in conjunction with the Pope,” had “appropriated the tasks of the episcopal college.” He called for a devolution of authority—away from Rome, in the direction of the local churches and the bishops—that would involve things like empowering the Synod of Bishops to share in “governing the universal Church,” changing the way bishops are appointed, assigning more power to national conferences of bishops, and other familiar elements of the progressive agenda. Not only would the Orthodox, Anglicans, and Protestants applaud such steps, Cardinal Konig said, but “the attitude of the media would also be positive:’

These days many people on the Catholic left say things like that. The changes in structures and processes they advocate are meant to create a friendly environment for the changes in doctrine and discipline already noted, as well as others like admitting divorced and remarried Catholics to the sacraments and legitimizing freeform liturgical innovation. The idea, in general, is to open the Church to theological views and pastoral practices that, up to now, have been considered in conflict with tradition. In English-speaking countries, periodicals like the National Catholic Reporter and the Tablet regularly advocate this program.

Whether an ecumenical council should be held soon after a new pope is elected is an open question in these circles. Those who argue against the idea point out that if a general council were held too soon, most of the bishops in attendance would be men named by John Paul, something definitely not desirable. But all agree that a council must take place sooner or later to ratify some changes and set others in motion; and non-Catholics should have voice and vote. General councils should be held on a regular schedule thereafter (the Council of Constance—historically, conciliarism’s high-water mark—made the same proposal in the 15th century). Thomas J. Reese, S.J., editor of America, recommends a council every 25 years, with “full participation by all Christian Churches?’ so that each new generation of bishops can have the conciliar experience.

That progressive Catholics support something does not make it wrong. Recall again, Pope John Paul himself invited a dialogue on changing the way papal primacy is exercised. Recall that some changes almost certainly will be required for the sake of Christian unity. And then, note the grave problems with the progressives’ program.

A fundamental problem on the theological level is that to the extent that it calls for reviving central elements of conciliarism and Gallicanism, it has already has been rejected, in spirit if not also in specifics, by Vatican I and Vatican II. One recalls the judgment passed by the historian Philip Hughes on the decrees of the Council of Constance, as on the ineffectual Church “reform” movement of the 15th and early 16th centuries generally, with their antipapal stress on conciliar solutions and the newly emergent Gallicanism. In the face of a grave crisis in the Church—a crisis soon to erupt in the tragedy of the Reformation—Hughes held, “Nowhere is there any sign of constructive thinking.” What one finds instead are a preoccupation with questions of power and ((complaints about the Roman Curia.”

The ecumenical argument—other churches would be glad to see the pope taken down a peg or two—also is less compelling than it first appears. The new Anglican-Roman Catholic agreed-upon statement, “The Gift of Authority,” calls papal primacy, exercised in a collegial setting, “a sign and safeguard of unity within a reunited Church.” If Anglican bishops and theologians have so much regard for the primacy of the pope, one might ask, why do some Roman Catholic bishops and theologians seem to have so little?

Struggling with Secular Powers

Consider, too, the Church’s often difficult relations with secular powers. Not only in the distant past—under a Constantine or a Henry IV or a Napoleon—have temporal rulers tried to dominate the Church; it has happened time and again in the 20th century. And repeatedly, as in Yugoslavia under Marshal Tito or in China today, the effort has focused on detaching local Catholics from Rome.

In arguing that local churches should choose their bishops, progressives correctly point out that this had been common practice until the last century or so. But they neglect to point out that secular rulers often controlled the process or interfered in it, and reserving the appointment of bishops to the pope was essential to freeing the Church from secular domination. Has that all changed? Last May the Vietnamese government issued a decree requiring the prime minister’s approval for the appointment of cardinals, bishops, and apostolic administrators. Prattle about democracy in the Church sounds fatuous against the background of that harsh reality.

Catholicism’s problems with secular powers are not limited to totalitarian regimes. The cultural hegemony of Western-style consumerist secularism—with liberal democratic governments, especially the American, its political vehicle—may pose an even more serious threat. In the face of this challenge, there is a much greater need today for Catholic counter-culturalism than there is for Catholic inculturation. And here of course a strong papacy is essential. It is inconceivable, for example, that in the absence of a determined stand by Pope John Paul, there would have been a serious and effective opposition to American efforts to press population control and abortion at the United Nations population conference in Cairo in 1994. Progressive Catholics were embarrassed by what happened in Cairo, but their embarrassment over papal initiatives like this is a small price to pay for the Church to give authentic witness to today’s world.

Similar considerations apply to diversity and pluralism. They exist now in the Church and always have. What new expressions of diversity and pluralism do progressives therefore have in mind? The version urged by “We Are Church”—leaving it to individual consciences under the guidance of liberated theologians to decide questions of faith and morals—cannot be reconciled with a doctrinal tradition that assumes normative teaching by a visible Magisterium: either a “college” of bishops teaching in union with its head, the bishop of Rome, or else that bishop giving expression to the Church’s faith and the teaching of the college by himself. Arguments for and against pluralism in the Church commonly are framed in terms of power, but what is really at stake is truth.

The contemporary debate over papal primacy involves complex issues, yet it is easy to grasp the ecclesiological dilemma in broad outline.

On the one hand, placing too much emphasis on ecclesial oneness could result in a monolithic system, with local churches resembling branch offices and bishops as branch managers working for Rome. Earlier in the 20th century, Cardinal Ratzinger has observed, “papal primacy was so much in the foreground that the Church appeared essentially as a centrally directed institution which one was dogged in defending but which only encountered one externally.” On the other hand, overemphasizing the episcopacy and local churches could lend currency to the idea of the Church as a kind of a federation of local bodies, with unity and catholicity matters that are merely of sentiment and style. How one understands the primacy of the bishop of Rome—as a primacy of jurisdiction in the service of ecclesial unity or as an attenuated primacy of honor subordinated to radical pluralism—is crucial.

The “communio” ecclesiology of recent years is an attempt to resolve this dilemma constructively. In a 1992 document, Some Aspects of the Church Understood As Communion, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said it is legitimate to think of the universal Church as “a communion of Churches,” provided this is not understood in such a way as to weaken the Church’s unity. “From the Church, which in its origins and its first manifestation is universal, have arisen the different local Churches as particular expressions of the one unique Church of Jesus Christ,” it explains.

As for papal primacy, the document adds: “As the very idea of the body of the Churches calls for the existence of a Church that is head of the Churches—which is precisely the Church of Rome, ‘foremost in the universal communion of charity’ [ St. Ignatius of Antioch]—so too the unity of the episcopate involves the existence of a bishop who is head of the body or college of bishops, namely the Roman Pontiff.” St. Ambrose of Milan in the fourth century summed it up neatly: “Where Peter is, there is the Church; where the Church is, there is no death, but eternal life.”

  • Russell Shaw

    Russell Shaw is the author of Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church (Requiem Press), Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press), and other works.

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