Sunday Catechism time, and this week I want to follow up on yesterday’s post on the relative unimportance of the papacy in light of the bigger picture—our call to follow Christ, to believe and proclaim the Gospel and to become the saints God made us to be. Just in case you missed yesterday’s post (just scroll down – that’s how blogs work!), or have forgotten what I said, I pointed out that for the greater history of the Church, most of the faithful and even the clergy have barely known the name of the Pope, let alone intently followed every word he spoke (on airplanes or off them), and yet here we all are, Catholics, so somehow the faith has gotten passed down. Our modern Catholic obsession with the papacy and whoever its current occupant is, is not a sign of great spiritual maturity and health.
That being said, the Pope is important. The papacy was instituted by Christ in his commissioning of Peter as the rock on which He would build his Church, and clearly the Lord does not do things without good reason.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines it thus:
The Pope, Bishop of Rome and Peter's successor, is the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful. For the Roman Pontiff, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, and as pastor of the entire Church has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered. (CCC 882)
The key word here is unity. This is the deep meaning and purpose of the papacy in the Church, to be the visible source of our unity. The invisible source of our unity is the Holy Spirit, of course, operating in our hearts through grace, but it is essential to our Catholic understanding of things that the invisible realities of grace always are expressed in the visible life of the Church.
The papacy has a sacramental quality to it, then. It is not itself one of the seven sacraments, of course, although the Pope is by definition the Bishop of Rome and thus derives his ministry from the Holy Order of the episcopacy. But it is a sacramental, a visible sign of invisible realities. As holy water is a sign of our baptismal seal, and our use in faith of it is efficacious in making that grace of baptism active and operative, so the papacy is a sign of our unity in Christ, in the Church, and our fidelity to that sign is efficacious is building up the unity in love of the Body of Christ, so that it be the sign of God’s presence and love in the world that it is meant to be.
In practical terms, this means constantly striving towards a unity of faith—unity of mind and heart—with Peter being the standard bearer of that unity. That which the Church, led in this matter by the Pope, defines as to be held dogmatically or definitively, we are to hold, or we must conclude that we are no longer part of the catholica, the communion of faith.
And that which the Church, led again by Peter, holds out for non-dogmatically or non-definitively we are to submit to with docility and a spirit of trust. It is the role of the Pope and the college of bishops in union with him to order all these matters; it is the role of the pastors of the Church to instruct the faithful as to that good order—catechesis. It is the role of the laity of the Church to do their best to understand the faith we have been given, according to their individual capacity and the needs of their state of life. A high school religion teacher may need to have a highly developed understanding of all of this; a subsistence farmer in central Africa may need somewhat less.
So the Pope has an important role in establishing what is, and what is not, the Catholic faith, what are the precise intellectual peripheries beyond which we cannot go without ceasing to be Catholic. He also has a governing role in establishing a proper unity-in-diversity of pastoral practice and liturgical norms, and of course of overseeing the good order of the household of the Church—a titanic administrative task in this global era, about which this poor little priest writing these words knows very little—the good Lord has spared me much exposure to that particular difficult work of service in the Church.
Besides striving for unity of faith under Peter’s leadership, I believe as Catholics we are called to safeguard the unity of charity of the Church in regard to the Pope by striving to love him, to support his work for us with our prayers, by having a basic tone of respect in how we speak of the Pope, by being very judicious and careful if we honestly feel we must criticize him, and to offer those criticisms with great caution, great solicitude to not violate the unity of the Church and the bonds of charity within it.
We have to be aware, especially in this Internet age when everyone has a megaphone capable of amplifying our words to the ends of the earth, that words have great power to sow division and doubt, to arouse anger or fear, to weaken the faith of those who are perhaps a bit shaky, to quench the flickering flame or break the bruised reed. A careful, respectful tone, a mindfulness of the central role of the Pope, in particular, as the visible sign of unity, and so a reluctance to break that unity—all of this is what is needed, and is so often lacking in these days.
The Pope is important, and so above all let us pray for that poor man and his near-impossible job, and do our part—not to run the Church with him (nobody’s asking us to do that, thank God!)—but to live the Gospel and to joyfully and generously give ourselves over to the mission of the Church according to our specific vocation and talent.