Saturday, February 23, 2013

Is a Catholic Church without a pope possible?

While most commentators are debating about how the next Pope should be elected or who should fill those shoes, Eduardo Hoornaert, a Brazilian married priest and church historian, suggests it might be time to question the entire institution of the papacy. Hoorneart, one of the founders of Comissão de Estudos da História da Igreja na América Latina (Study Commission on the History of the Church in Latin America), is author of The Memory of the Christian People (Burns & Oates,1989). For those who speak Portuguese, Hoorneart maintains a blog,Textos de Eduardo Hoornaert. This article, translated here into English by Rebel Girl, is available in its original Portuguese on Amerindia and in Spanish on Adital.

The announcement of the resignation of Benedict XVI surprised me, as happened to many people. I am struck by the simplicity with which the Pope expresses his feelings and I think that, by doing so, it helps to unblock a static view of the papacy and opens a timely space for discussions about the governance of the Catholic Church, and not just his gesture in particular. That's what I intend to do in this text. My question is this: does the Catholic Church even need a pope? Point by point:

1. The Papacy

The papacy is not connected to the origin of Christianity. The term "pope", for example, doesn't appear in the New Testament. As for the verses of the Gospel of Matthew ("Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my church" -- 16:18), which are often invoked to legitimize the papacy, it is good to remember that the current exegesis is categorical when it states that you can't isolate a text from its literary whole and turn it into an oracle. Now Matthew's verses are used, at least in the institutional Catholic Church, as an oracle. But whoever reads the Gospels in context understands that it is absurd to think that Jesus had planned a corporate type of apostolic dynasty based on the succession of power. The words "Thou art Peter" have nothing to do with the institution of the papacy. It was Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea, theorist of the universalist policy of emperor Constantine, who, in the fourth century, began to draft a list of successive bishops for the major cities of the Roman Empire, in many cases without verifying the veracity of the names listed, to adapt the Christian system to the Roman model of power succession. This bishop-author is the creator of Peter-pope image. But historical research points to a different perspective and shows that the word "papa'" (pope), which belongs to the popular Greek in the 3rd century, is a term derived from the Greek word "pater" (father) and expresses the affection that Christians had for certain bishops and priests. The term entered the Christian vocabulary, both of the Orthodox church and the Catholic Church. In Russia, even today, the pastor of the community is called "pope". The story goes that the first bishop to be called "papa" was Cyprian, bishop of Carthage between 248 and 258, and that the term only appeared later in Rome -- the first bishop of that city to be named pope (according to available documentation) was John I in the 6th century.

2. The Episcopacy

In contrast to the papacy, the episcopal institution has solid roots in the origin of Christianity, as it refers to a function that already existed in the Jewish synagogue system. The word "bishop" (which means "overseer") is found several times in the texts of the New Testament (1 Tim 3:2, Titus 1:7, 1 Peter 2:25 and Acts 20:29) as well as the noun "episcopate" (1 Timothy 3:1). In Jewish synagogues, the "episcopos" was responsible for good order in the meetings and the first Christian communities did nothing more than adopt and adapt the name and function.

3. The Struggle for Power

Starting in the 3rd century, a bitter power struggle unfolded among the bishops of the four main cities of the Roman Empire (Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Rome). This struggle was particularly dramatic in the eastern part of the empire, where they spoke Greek. The bishops in dispute were called "patriarchs", a term that couples the Greek "pater" with political power ("archè" in Greek means "power"). The patriarch is both father and political leader. At the beginning, Rome was not involved much in this dispute, since it took place far from the great centers of power of the time and used a less universal language (one only used in administration and in the army), Latin. In turn, Jerusalem, the "mother" city of the Christian movement, was out of the running because of being a city of little political importance.

But even so, Rome was asserting itself in the western part of the empire. The aforementioned Bishop Cyprian of Carthage responded energetically to the hegemonic pretensions of the Bishop of Rome and insisted that a "complete equality of functions and power" must reign between bishops. But the course of history was relentless. The successive patriarchs of Rome managed to expand their authority and raised their voices more and more, especially after the successful alliance with the emerging Germanic power in the West (Charlemagne, 800). Relations with the Eastern patriarchs (especially with the patriarch of Constantinople) became ever more tense until they broke down in 1052. So began the history of the Roman Catholic Church as such.

4. The pope is on the side of the strongest

Once it "owned the turf", Rome continued to develop the "art of the court" learned in Constantinople in an ever more sophisticated way. Virtually all the Western European governments learned the art of diplomacy with Rome. It was an unedifying art, including hypocrisy, falsehood, appearance, ability to deal with people, impunity, secrecy, codified language (inaccessible to outsiders), pious (and misleading) words, cruelty masked as charity, financial accumulation (indulgences, threats of hell, a ministry of fear, etc.). The imposing Criminal History of Christianity, in 10 volumes, which historian K. Deschner just finished, describes this eminently papal art in detail.

It was mainly through the art of diplomacy that, throughout the Middle Ages, the papacy had phenomenal successes. Without weapons, Rome faced the greatest powers of the West and won (Canossa 1077). One result was, in the words of historian Toynbee, the "intoxication of victory". The pope began to lose touch with reality and went to live in an unreal universe, full of supernatural words (which nobody understood). As Ivone Gebara has well observed, some of them are still in vogue, such as when it is said that the Holy Spirit will elect the next pope.

With the advent of modernity, the papacy gradually lost public space. In the 19th century, especially during the long pontificate of Pius IX, it was clear that the old strategy of opposing the "powers of this world" no longer worked. It didn't bring more victories, it only registered losses. So, Pope Leo XIII decided to change the strategy and initiated a policy of supporting the strongest. This strategy worked throughout the 20th century -- Benedict XV came out of World War I on the side of the victors, Pius XI supported Mussolini, Hitler and Franco, while Pius XII practiced a policy of silence on the crimes against humanity committed during World War II at the cost of countless human lives. After a brief interruption with John XXIII, the policy of silent support for the powerful (and generic words of consolation for the losers) continues to this day.

5. The papacy is a problem today.

Because of all this, it can be said today that the papacy is not a solution but a problem. One doesn't say the same of the Episcopacy, which has shown bright spots in recent times. Besides the martyr bishops (like Romero and Angelelli), we here in Latin America had a generation of exceptional bishops between the 1960s and the 90s. Moreover, the Second Vatican Council put forward the idea of episcopal collegiality in order to strengthen the power of the bishops and limit the power of the pope. But it ran into an impassable wall, made of a mixture of mental laziness (the law of least effort), fascination with power (Walter Benjamin), the yielding of the weak to the powerful (Machiavelli) and courtly art (Norbert Elias). Still, it is worth remembering that Catholicism is bigger than the Pope and that the significance of the values conveyed by Catholicism is greater than its current system of government.

6. Can the Catholic Church survive without a pope?

Asking if the Catholic Church can survive without the pope is the same as asking whether France can survive without a king, England without a queen, Russia without a czar, Iran without an ayatollah. France didn't end with the death of King Louis XIV and Iran certainly won't end with the end of the reign of the ayatollahs. There will certainly be resistance and longing, attempts to return to the past, but institutions don't die with changes in government. In general, the movement of history towards greater democracy and popular participation is undeniable. Sooner or later, the Catholic Church will have to face the issue of the papacy being surpassed by a system of central government more in tune with the times in which we live.

In conclusion one could say that the current eagerness to make predictions about the future pope could have a counterproductive effect. For it's not about the Pope, but the papacy as kind of government. The behavior of the mainstream media these days, proves what I'm writing here. It doesn't focus on the papacy, but on the pope. With that, it reinforces the papal syndrome. For TV, the pope is big business. The success of the funeral of Pope John Paul II a few years ago showed major media planners the financial potential of major papal events. That is why the mainstream media today is so "catechetical". It discloses the basics of papal catechism -- the pope is the successor of Peter, the first pope; the election of a pope, ultimately, is the work of the Holy Spirit; one can not miss the plenary indulgence granted exceptionally by God at the first blessing of the new pope. It's what we'll be seeing in the coming weeks. Maybe it would be better not to talk much about the pope these days, but work on topics that prepare the church of the future.

I'll end here by sketching two recent examples with respect to this problem. Few people know that, back in 1980, Cardinal Aloisio Lorscheider came to talk with Pope John Paul II about the decentralization of power in the church. There is no written or photographed record of this discussion, but it seems that the pope was open to suggestions from the Brazilian cardinal, as was stated in the encyclical "Ut unum sint". This point was noted by José Comblin one of his last works, "Problemas de governo da igreja" ("Problems of church government"). I think the pope didn't move forward only because he didn't see in the Church a real political will to move toward decentralization of government. In this case, it was clear that the problem isn't the pope, but the papacy.

A very different example, but pointing in the same direction, is given by another Brazilian bishop Helder Camara. Arriving in Rome to attend Vatican II (he had not traveled to Europe before), the Brazilian was surprised by the behavior in the Roman court to the point of having hallucinations, as he tells in his circular letters. Once, during a session at St. Peter's Basilica, he had the impression of seeing the emperor Constantine invade the church mounted on a handsome horse in full gallop. Another time, he dreamed that the pope went crazy, threw his tiara in the Tiber and set fire to the Vatican. He would say, in informal conversations, that the pope would do well to sell the Vatican to UNESCO and rent an apartment in central Rome. I observed personally on several occasions how Dom Helder hated "papal secrecy" (one of the instruments of power of Rome). At the same time, the Brazilian bishop maintained a sincere friendship with Pope Paul VI, which shows, once again, that the problem is not the pope, but the papacy as an institution.

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