March 28, 2005

Opening the Papacy to New Ways of Thinking

Washington Post

By Sidney Callahan

Sunday, March 27, 2005; Page B02

In the face of death, Pope John Paul II's iron will is giving him the strength to suffer courageously. But even this most determined of pontiffs won't be able to stave off the inevitable: the church's need to choose a successor, an event that millions of Catholics anticipate with both anxiety and hope.

There's been vigorous debate about the papacy for more than 1,000 years, and as this pontificate nears its end, there are no signs of a cease-fire. At this point, Roman Catholics can agree that the bishop of Rome should hold the office of pope and exercise churchwide leadership. But beyond this minimum, they disagree over what needs to be changed and what should stay the same.

The prospect of electing a new pope brings up crucial questions: What makes a good pontiff? What are popes for? Will the papacy even continue to be a going concern over the next millennium? ...

The priest sex abuse scandal here in the United States revealed the institutional weaknesses in the American church and the urgent need for change. Good institutions operate on the ethical principles of accountability, separation of powers, due process and public disclosure. But the current church is too centralized; bishops, appointed by the pope, must answer to Rome on all matters. This has led to weakness, timidity and too often an effort, in the sex abuse scandal, to sweep the truth under the rug. What a difference it would make if the church reinstated the ancient practice of electing bishops, allowing the priests and people of a diocese to choose their own leaders.

In the wake of the sex abuse scandal, loyal lay Catholics have offered to help the bishops improve their management practices, but the church today resists advice from the laity. The consent of the governed is an ancient Catholic precept, but one that unfortunately became obscured when monarchies ruled the world. While the church advocates that the faithful should participate equally in taking responsibility for all its actions, this teaching has never been instituted in practice. A new pope should move the church forward to complete the reforms in governance and lay participation that were envisioned in the teachings of Vatican II.

Posted by kshaw at March 28, 2005 01:47 AM