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You’re not the pope of me

You’re not the pope of me July 11, 2007

I suppose I’m supposed to be worried or aggrieved or something in response to yesterday’s pronouncement from Pope Benedict XVI in which he reasserted his primacy and chastised those of us who don’t listen to him and don’t recognize his word as authoritative.

But see how that works? I’m one of those who don’t listen to him or consider his word authoritative so, you know, I can’t manage to get all worked up about his attempts at chastisement.

The circularity of yesterday’s assertion is kind of impressive: You must accept the authority of the pope because I’m telling you to do so and I’m the pope:

The Vatican said Tuesday that Christian denominations outside the Roman Catholic Church were not full churches of Jesus Christ. …

A 16-page document prepared by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which Pope Benedict XVI headed when he was a cardinal, described Christian Orthodox churches as true churches, but suffering from a “wound” because they do not recognize the primacy of the pope.

The document said the “wound is still more profound” in the Protestant denominations. …

Well somebody sure sounds wounded, but I don’t think it’s me.

I’m not entirely sure why any of this is news, really. Bees gotta bee, birds gotta bird, popes gotta pope. The question of who does and does not recognize the primacy of the bishop of Rome was pretty well settled centuries ago (and even further back for the Eastern churches), and the only thing that’s really new here is that Benedict seems to be pretending he didn’t know this.

The article quoted above is headlined “Vatican Reaffirms Catholic Primary.” It could just as easily have been headlined, “Pope Says Protestants Aren’t Good Catholics.”

It’s puzzling — a bit like if Queen Elizabeth II were to come out with a statement declaring that Americans are not considered loyal subjects of her throne.

Benedict believes Protestants are profoundly wounded because he believes we are cut off from the apostolic line of succession that began with St. Peter.

You remember St. Peter — he’s the guy who said, “Silver and gold have I none.” (Thomas Aquinas noted that he seemed to be the last pope who was able to say this — which was also why he was the last pope who was able to say what Peter said next to the lame beggar, “In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk.”)

There is a certain tidy appeal to the idea of investing one individual with the collective wisdom and weight of the entire tradition. It means never having to worry or wonder about any unsettled questions. A Catholic friend of mine from the First Things crowd raised this point a while back as we were discussing Baptist polity (or the lack thereof) and the epistemology of Stanley Hauerwas (or the lack thereof). He suggested that we Baptists were prone to the dangers of individualism and what he called a “postmodern crisis of authority.” I told him I preferred my postmodern crisis of authority to his premodern one.

What I’m getting at here is both theological and political.

First the theology: If Benedict’s claim that the entirety of the Christian tradition is invested and embodied in one man (him) were correct, then he would also be correct to claim that those of us who do not recognize his authority are cut off from that tradition and therefore, in some sense, “wounded.” If, on the other hand, we are correct in claiming that the entirety of the Christian tradition is invested and embodied in the body of Christ — which is to say, in all of us — then it follows that, by setting himself above and apart from the body, he is in jeopardy of a multitude of wounds.

This is, of course, a rather egalitarian understanding of the church. Some theologians like to argue the chicken-or-egg question of whether this ecclesiological egalitarianism arises from or gives rise to liberal democratic societies. That can be interesting in the way that all chicken-or-egg questions are interesting, but I find my interest wanes after the third or fourth lap, so instead of getting into a debate about cause and effect, let’s just note that these things seem to be related — that one’s view of the appropriate form of church polity is likely to correspond to one’s view of the appropriate form of civic polity, or politics. Vatican II took some vital steps toward the liberalization of Catholic teaching on both polity and politics. Benedict seems to be walking back that liberalization of polity. I can’t help but wonder if this won’t have ramifications for his church’s political teaching as well.

Finally, it strikes me that Benedict’s notion of polity parallels the cyber-libertarians’ notion of politics. Both seem incapable of imagining any possibility other than monarchy and anarchy. They may have precisely opposite notions as to which of those is preferable, but they share an instinctive terror that anyone expressing an insufficient enthusiasm for their preference must be advocating it’s binary opposite. (Makes me suspect that they may have more in common with one another than I have with either of them.) In Benedict’s case, this undifferentiated, binary notion of polity does not seem compatible with the differentiated, multi-layered Catholic understanding of politics and civil society. Something will have to give.


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