Can the papacy somehow promote Christian unity?

A couple of pope-related notes…

Generally, I think it’s safe to say, the place and role of the pope in the Roman Catholic Church has been an obstacle to ecumenism — or non-Catholic Christian churches getting closer to, or somehow aligning with, Rome.

If other Christian traditions saw the Petrine Ministry as essential, after all, they might well go Catholic.

So I was interested to see that Father James Puglisi, minister general of the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement at Graymoor, has received a Catholic Press Award for editing a 2010 book, “How Can the Petrine Ministry Be a Service to the Unity of the Universal Church?”

Yes, it is a title that does not sing.

I, for one, would be curious to know how the papacy might contribute to Christian unity. I don’t have the book, but have been trying to skim it on Amazon.

I stumbled on a chapter by Father Joseph Komonchak, a West Nyack native and a well-known and veteran theologian at Catholic University in Washington. It includes this great passage:

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It is not much of an exaggeration to say that the Roman Catholic Church is regarded as a vast multinational religious corporation with central headquarters in Rome, branch offices in large cities, and retail shops, called parishes, dispensing spiritual goods. On this view, the pope is seen as the CEO of the firm. This view, I say, is rather widespread, and it can be found, almost taken for granted, among both progressives and liberals, among the laity, and among the clergy, including among some bishops.”

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This “administrative view” of the church won’t fly with many Christians, he writes. He goes on to cover some difficult ground, including on the relationship between the universal church and individual churches. I won’t attempt to summarize it (nor could I), but Komonchak doesn’t seem to like the way Rome chooses bishops without diocesan input and drops them down from the outside.

He writes: “A theory and a practice that cannot acknowledge the local churches as full subjects in their own right cannot be correct.”

So here is an argument in favor of the pope’s administrative role being reduced — or the local church’s role being increased. Some non-Catholic Christians would certainly agree.

On a completely unrelated note, I was reading Bill Keller’s review in the NYT Book Review of “Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy” by John Julius Norwich.

Keller starts his review with this:

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John Julius Norwich makes a point of saying in the introduction to his history of the popes that he is “no scholar” and that he is “an agnostic Protestant.” The first point means that while he will be scrupulous with his copious research, he feels no obligation to unearth new revelations or concoct revisionist theories. The second means that he has “no ax to grind.” In short, his only agenda is to tell us the story.

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Now, Norwich may be scrupulous with his research and he may have no ax to grind. In fact, his book may be fantastic in every way.

But, unless I’m missing something, Norwich’s lack of scholarly standing does not mean that he will be scrupulous with his research. His status as an agnostic Protestant does not mean that he has no ax to grind.

He could well be an agnostic Protestant and popular historian who does lousy research and has a huge ax to grind.

I’m not saying he is. But he could be, right?

Gary Stern

Gary Stern covered education in the Lower Hudson Valley for several years during the early 1990s. Now's he back on the beat. He believes that schools are one of the main reasons that people live around here and that educational issues -- from curriculum to financing -- are among the most challenging things that journalists can write about. He continues to be amazed by the complexity of educational jargon. Gary got his B.A. at SUNY Buffalo and his M.A. from the University of Missouri Journalism School (where his master's thesis was about the best ways to cover education). He lives in White Plains with his wife and two sons, who attend public schools.