Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Bridging Unity and Love: the Pope and Other Christians

Easily the most significant issue dividing Catholics from other Christians is the role, and even the mere existence, of the pope. Even popes have weighed in on this. In 1967, Pope Paul VI acknowledged that the papacy was "the gravest obstacle in the path of ecumenism."

The tragedy here is that the papacy is a ministry of unity, not division. While most of the world looks at the pope and sees some kind of "supreme ruler," the actual papal job description, if you will, is more like the hub of a wheel that connects all the spokes, the point that brings everything together. This is why, in Catholicism, local dioceses and their bishops are said to be "in communion" with the bishop of Rome. Even the Latin name for the pope, Pontifex Maximus, means "chief bridge builder."

Which is why Pope John Paul II tackled the thorny question of the papacy and other Christians in his 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint (That They All May Be One). The challenges of this letter will be one focus of the next round of the Catholic-Reformed dialogue in the United States, beginning January 28.

What John Paul II said

Pope John Paul issued an invitation to other Christians to dialogue with him about the nature of his office. How could he exercise his authority as pope, he wanted to know, in a way that would promote unity among all Christians, not just Catholics?

To illustrate what he meant, the pope described the papacy in biblical and pastoral terms, as a ministry of love that helps the authentic voice of Christ to be heard. He added that the pope must have the authority necessary to carry out this role and ensure unity among Christians.

Other Christians respond

  • The Church of England responded in 1997, noting that their dialogue with Catholics had already agreed on the need for a universal primate at the center of the Church. Such a bishop, they said, would work in communion with the rest of the world's bishops and ensure that local or regional churches didn't strike out on their own or take positions abhorrent to the rest of the Church.
  • The Lutheran bishops of Sweden noted in their response that, despite the historically negative view of the papacy taken by Lutherans, progress was possible if the pope's ministry were clearly integrated into the college of bishops. Even Martin Luther, they said, wrote that the papacy would be acceptable if it were clearly subordinate to the Word of God and if an agreement could be reached on the question of justification (which happened in 1999).
  • The Presbyterian Church-USA welcomed the inviting spirit of John Paul II's encyclical, as well as the new language he used to describe his ministry. They expressed doubt over concepts like infallibility and entrusting a universal ministry to one person, but left room for an essentially spiritual ministry exercised by a person of "extraordinary spiritual insight and incandescent personhood."
  • Orthodox Christians have never officially responded to the encyclical, but in 2007, an international dialogue of Catholics and Orthodox approved the Ravenna Statement, which agreed the bishop of Rome held a place of honor among bishops in the ancient Church, and that he should also exercise some sort of primacy in the Church today. While much more dialogue between Catholics and Orthodox is required, this document is still a breakthrough.

The way forward

As Catholics and Reformed Christians meet this month to discuss this challenge from John Paul II, perhaps the best response from Catholics and other Christians is to take seriously the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (January 18-25) and ask God to help the leaders and scholars gathered in dialogue to see old questions with new insight and move closer to each other as they move closer to Christ.

This post is adapted from "A Pope for All Christians?" a resource developed by the Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which is available from USCCB Publishing.

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