We have now had a hundred days since the election of Jorge Bergoglio as the new Bishop of Rome.

The international press and pundits, across the theological spectrum, are still trying to figure out what Francis is all about. Is he a contemporary Catholic reformer like the jovial 1960s John XXIII? Or is he just a high-placed and clever ecclesiastical operator, whose papal packaging is more contemporary than that of Benedict but whose theology may be just as archaic and oppressive?

Right now the New York Times wonders, for instance, how Francs will handle the intrigue and corruption orchestrated by a gay network within his Curia Romana. CNN reports the Vatican, with an increasingly tight budget, has not yet resolved its credit card crisis. The flow of tourist credit card cash into the Vatican bank is still blocked. That river of dollars and euros is important. Right now, with two living popes, papal souvenirs are abundant and attractive. The Vatican would like to cash in on, once in a lifetime, papal duo souvenirs during the summer tourist season.

In any event, these days we have more than enough babble about the Vatican and the new Bishop of Rome.

I suggest it is time to put this pope and all popes in proper perspective. They exist, like all bishops, to serve and not to be served.

When thinking about the history of the papacy in the Roman Catholic Church, we need to be clear about a few historic realities.

The historic Jesus did not appoint anyone pope. He did not appoint anyone a bishop nor did he ordain anyone. Contrary to what one often hears, flowing unctuously from episcopal lips, no one at the Last Supper was ordained by Jesus nor designated a bishop. Ordination came much later in the early Jesus Movement as a kind of quality control mechanism: to protect Christian communities from incompetent or deceptive leaders. So the plan, anyway…..

And Peter? Contemporary biblical scholars and historians give us a rather clear picture of the young man. Peter and his wife belonged to the group of young men and women (probably in their late teens or early twenties) who were Jesus’ close disciples. Jesus recognized Peter’s leadership qualities and designated him as the leader of the Christian community in Jerusalem. Peter could also be stubborn and head-strong. Jesus and his friends called Peter by his nickname “Rocky.”

Some years before the Roman destruction of Jerusalem, Peter travelled to Rome. James, “the brother of the Lord,” had already succeeded Peter as leader of the Jerusalem Christian community. Peter was never bishop of Rome because the Christian community in Rome was governed not by a bishop but a group of elders: what today we would call a steering committee. Peter was held in high regard by the Christians in Rome; but he may or may not have been a member of the steering committee. We don’t know. Peter was martyred in Rome. The legend of his being crucified upside down is probably a bit of pious fantasy.

Long after Peter’s death, the Christian community in Rome did come under the leadership of a single overseer, as bishops were called. At first the Bishop of Rome had little broader- church importance. He was one of several key “papas” (popes) in the Christian world: one of several “papa” or “father” bishops. Later, because Rome was the seat of the Roman Empire, the Bishop of Rome held an honorary position of “first among equals.” His equals were, among other popes, the Pope of Alexandria, the Pope of Antioch, the Pope of Byzantium/Constantinople, etc.

Note well! The Bishop of Rome did not make important doctrinal or ecclesiastical decisions FOR the other popes but WITH the others. The practice —even when heated and argumentative — was collaborative with shared decision-making. At Vatican II we called this “collegiality.” Though often ignored, collegiality it is an old Catholic practice. “Traditional” Catholics who reject shared decision-making in the church need some adult education!

When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, the role and prestige of the Papa of Rome — the Bishop of Rome — increased significantly. Then when the Roman Empire fell apart, the Bishop of Rome stepped in and took over the clothing, pomp, ritual, and imperial authority of the Roman Emperors. In the Bishop of Rome, Caesar and God became one. Historically I can understand how and why this happened. Nevertheless, it was an unfortunate development and frankly a great aberration.

In the centuries after the collapse of the Roman Empire, there were of course some exemplary Bishops of Rome; but many of them often more “Caesar” and less “God.” A high point in the evolution of autocratic papal power came in the nineteenth century with Pio Nono: Pope Pius IX.

In the first year of his ministry as Bishop of Rome, Pius IX was open-minded and pastoral. He was, one could say, a breath of fresh air. The situation changed dramatically however with the Italian Unification Movement. Pio Nono lost his army and a very big chunk of land in the center of Italy: the Papal States. He was not pleased and morphed into an authoritarian despot and an egotistical, nasty old man. In 1870 at Vatican I of course he declared himself “Infallible.” A very strange man. Shortly before his death he began telling people he was part of the Holy Quartet: Father, Son, Holy Spirit, and Pope!

The Bishop of Rome is indeed head of the world-wide Roman Catholic Church. As a tradition-rooted Roman Catholic, I have no problem with that. The pope is like the Roman Catholic CEO; but my daily life and my contemporary faith experiences are neither shaped by nor controlled by the pope. Nor do I stay awake at night wondering what he will do tomorrow…..

We live in Christ not the pope. As I have written here before, I endeavor to be a faithful follower of Jesus of Nazareth not a Jesus of Rome. I am also a Roman Catholic historical theologian. When theological or ethical disputes arise within the church (and we will always have such disputes), they should be resolved through study, reflection, and mutual and respectful face to face dialogue —– not through one-sidedly covert condemnation and overt intimidation and punishment, as was so often the practice under Benedict Pope Emeritus.

And what about that young man Peter? Was “Rocky” the first pope? Well yes, if you use a bit of creative historical imagination.


3 thoughts on “Putting the Pope in Proper Perspective

  1. The late Prof. Boudewijn Dehandschutter of Leuven used to give a lecture during his Ancient Church History course entitled, “Was Saint Peter *ever* in Rome?” That used to unsettle a few seminarians…
    By way of a parallel, he thoroughly discounted the idea that St.Thomas ever made it to South India, which really upset our fellow students from the subcontinent…

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