In December 1998 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published a remarkable document titled "Reflections on the Primacy of Peter" (hereafter "Reflections"; see Origins, 1/28/99). At the outset, "Reflections" states that popes should exercise their authority "with particular attention to the mystery of the church as a corpus ecclesiarum," that is to say, as a communion of particular churches. In other words, the papacy should recognize the church’s communal and collegial structure.
As a step in this direction, "Reflections" locates the bishop of Rome within the college of bishops. Instead of speaking of the pope as the vicar of Christ, it quotes Ut Unum Sint, Pope John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical on ecumenism, noting that "all bishops are also vicars and ambassadors of Christ’ (Vatican II, "Dogmatic Constitution on the Church," No. 27 ). The bishop of Rome is a member of the college,’ and the bishops are his brothers in the ministry." In particular, the bishop of Rome is "vicar of Christ in the way proper to Peter as head of the college of bishops."
Referring to the canonical principle that "the First Chair is not subjected to the judgment of another authority," "Reflections" observes that "this does not mean, however, that the pope has absolute power. Listening to what the churches are saying is, in fact, an earmark of the ministry of unity, a consequence also of the unity of the episcopal body and of the sensus fidei of the entire people of God." Is it possible to level a stronger criticism against the Vatican’s centralism and top-down decision-making?
In a radical step, "Reflections" acknowledges that the manner of the practice of the primacy is historically conditioned and changeable. It explains: "The pilgrim church, in its sacraments and institutions, which belong to this age, carries the mark of this world which is passing’ (Lumen Gentium, 48). For this reason too, the immutable nature of the primacy of Peter’s successor has historically been expressed in different forms of exercise appropriate to the situation of a pilgrim church in this changing world."
"Reflections" adds: "Therefore, the fact that a particular task has been carried out by the primacy in a certain era does not mean by itself that this task should necessarily be reserved always to the Roman pontiff; and vice versa.... In any case, it is essential to state that discerning whether the possible ways of exercising the Petrine ministry correspond to its nature is a discernment to be made in ecclesia, i.e., with the assistance of the Holy Spirit and in fraternal dialogue between the Roman pontiff and the other bishops, according to the church’s concrete needs."
"Reflections" is truly a revolutionary statement. It advocates a view that the Roman Curia has never endorsed. On the contrary, the Curia has always insisted that the present scope of Roman jurisdiction is divinely willed. If what "Reflections" says is taken seriously, then a revision of canon law is overdue, and the Vatican’s administrative and doctrinal centralism must end.
The Petrine Ministry in Communion
What must happen for a centralist papacy to become a papacy in communion? The reform of the Petrine ministry must begin with what "Reflections" calls "the mutual interiority between universal church and particular church." In other words, the bishop of Rome should normally make no decrees and no decisions affecting the universal church without formally inviting the participation of the local churches and their bishops. Further, the local churches and their regional associations or bishops’ conferences should decide any regulations that do not threaten the unity of the whole church.
This recognition of the bishops’ authority means that the Curia should no longer act on its own above the episcopacy. When the Curia makes decisions that supersede the bishops, it violates the authority and responsibility of the individual bishop for his particular church and of the college of bishops for the universal church.
The call for a greater participation by the particular churches and their bishops applies to the exercise of the universal magisterium. The bishops are not only coresponsible for the universal church, they are also official witnesses to the faith of their local churches and of the church at large. They should join in the formulating of solemn dogmatic decrees and also in matters of less importance. Theyalong with theologians and the sensus fidei of the faithfulshould contribute to the statements of the ordinary papal magisterium that are addressed to the entire church and that bind it in some degree. This should be the case especially when such a statement is intended to prohibit or limit the discussion of controversial questions.
The development of doctrine should not take place almost exclusively at the hands of the pope and the C.D.F. In fact, however, this practice has been occurring increasingly as the Vatican expresses its views in binding texts and in the introduction of new oaths of fidelity and enlarged creeds.
In recent years, many bishops have suggested ways to end this papal centralism. Among their recommendations, at least six are very significant:
1. A standing committee of several cardinals and bishops from around the world should advise the bishop of Rome. The committee’s membership should change every three to five years, so that it would not become a supreme authority in the church.
2. The synod of bishops should adopt a process that facilitates interaction and decision-making within the episcopacy. At the same time, the Vatican should recognize the synod’s authority to take initiatives and issue final documents.
3. The Vatican should rely more on synods and respect the proper autonomy of the episcopal conferences.
4. Representatives of the local churches as well as of the regional and universal churches should participate in the selection of bishops.
5. Catholicism should recover its original triadic structure. In the first millennium, the church was organized in three tiers: the particular church and its bishop, the regional church and its primate and, finally, the universal church and the bishop of Rome as Peter’s successor.
This threefold structure allowed the church to be a communion of local churches while also fostering inculturation. A two-tiered or dyadic structure replaced the three-tiered form only after the East-West schism (finalized in 1054) when the East lost the Petrine ministry of unity and the West neglected a regional structure.
6. The revival of the triadic form should bring about the separation of the bishop of Rome’s Petrine universal role from his patriarchal regional role.
These steps would help recover the church’s essential character, namely, to be a communion of communities. However, the retrieval of the communion form is more than an organizational task; it is also a spiritual challenge that calls for a conversion of all the faithful, especially of those who hold ecclesial offices. This metanoia, or change of heart, requires a fresh acknowledgment of the church as mystery.
Church as Mystery
The first chapter of Vatican II’s "Dogmatic Constitution on the Church," the chapter on the mystery of the church, is one of the most neglected parts of the council’s teachings. This neglect accounts, in turn, for the weakness of many of the post-conciliar reforms. All appeals for greater participation and better communication in the church falter when they do not build on an understanding of the church as the mystery of our union with God and in God.
Reiterating Jesus’ teaching, the constitution stressed that God’s reign is both coming and already present in the world. The advent of God’s kingdom means that God has entered into communion with the human family by sending the incarnate Word. God’s union with us and our union with God nurtures our solidarity with one another, namely, the communion of the church and ultimately the solidarity of all people of good will. Jesus taught that our communion with one another takes place only to the extent that we, each one of us, live in friendship with God. The church relies on the conversion of each of its membersa transformation in which the faithful dedicate their lives to Jesus’ priority: the advent of God’s reign.
According to Vatican II, "the church, in Christ, is a sacramenta sign and instrument, that is, of union with God and of the unity of the entire human race" ("Dogmatic Constitution on the Church," No. 1). In other words, the church is a sacrament of God’s new creation. This insight links the church as mystery with the church’s mission (thereby connecting the "Dogmatic Constitution on the Church" and the council’s "Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World" ).
Communion is the church’s essential form, because only when the church is a solidarity in faith, hope and love does it become a sign and instrument of God’s reign. Hence, the church as sacrament means that the church is not an end in itself. Rather it is a witness to and an agent of the eschatological kingdom in which God will unite the human family. The church must therefore work for justice and peace.
The realization of a primacy in communion requires an ecclesiology that understands communion in relation to Jesus’ message of God’s reign and the church as the sacrament of this kingdom. In other words, the Petrine ministry must flow out of the church as mystery and sacrament. The strongest argument against a centralistic, authoritarian papacy appeals not to democracy, human rights or liberal claims, but to Jesus’ promise of God’s new creation.
To be true to itself and its mission the church must find the appropriate balance between the "congregational" and the "global," between the local churches and the universal church. The heart of Catholic Christianity (in the words of the British theologian Nicholas Lash) beats to a twofold rhythm. On the one hand, each particular church, each diocese, indeed each Mass is the fullness of the church at that time and place. On the other hand, the universal church as sacrament is the appearance, the rendering visible, across every culture, nation and period of time of the Spirit’s redemptive ingathering of God’s people "from Abel, the just one, to the last of the elect" (to cite Pope Gregory the Great).
The church as mystery challenges Catholicism to balance the local churches and the universal church. One manifestation of this balance is the respect we hold for each other, including the papacy’s respect for the local churches, and vice versa. For this reason, the realization of a primacy in communion is a spiritual challenge.
The church’s growing globalization and cultural pluralization require the Petrine ministry of unity. However, this primacy must be exercised not as an omnipresent, all-deciding jurisdiction but as the center of the communion of local churches. When the papacy must intervene in a particular church, it should follow the principle of subsidiarity.
Only a universal church that has a genuine unifying center can enjoy the diversity produced by inculturation. Primacy is an essential element within a church that is a communion of communities. When the Petrine ministry is appropriately exercised as sign and instrument of God’s kingdom, it conveys Christ’s desire that we "all may be one" "ut unum sint" (Jn. 17:21).
The Rev. Hermann J. Pottmeyer, a priest of the Diocese of Münster, is a professor of fundamental theology at the University of Bochum, Germany, and a member of the Pontifical International Theological Commission. This essay was translated by Robert A. Krieg, C.S.C., a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.