Papal Power

Paul Collins
A proposal for change in Catholicism’s third millenium

From Papal Power by Paul Collins published by Harper Collins 1997, pp 1-32.



Ch. 1. Does the Church equal the pope, and the pope equal the Church?

Ch.2. How the pope became the infallible head of the Church

Ch.3. The infallible and absolute monarch of the Church

Ch.4. Papalism triumphant: John Paul II

Ch.5. Where do we go from here?

Ch.6. The problem of primacy

Ch.7. The need for a new general council



This is a book about power and the way it has been used to govern the Catholic Church. In a more ideal world it would be about service and Christ-like leadership. But this is not the reality of contemporary Catholicism. The second millennium of Catholic history has been characterized by the evolution of an ideology of papal power that has increasingly centralized all authority in the pope and his curial bureaucracy. Often in the process of asserting its authority papal intentions were laudable and honorable: centralization came as a result of reform of the Church and society, struggles to guard the Church from secular rulers invading the spiritual realm for their own ends, the protection of local communities from petty episcopal tyrants, and the coordination of the missionary work of the Church and the proclamation of the message of Christ. This process of the centralization of power has been going on for a little less than a thousand years and most people have forgotten that a highly centralized papacy is by no means normative for the entire history of the Church. The long tradition of Catholicism offers other models of governance and ways of relating to the Bishop of Rome.

My purpose in this book is not primarily historical, but I have used Church history as a way of approaching other models of papacy that might be developed as the Church confronts the third millennium of its existence. By ‘Church’ I primarily mean the Roman Catholic Church, but the importance of the role of the papacy in the ecumenical Church of the future is a major consideration in this book. The power of the pope, as presently constituted, is simply and totally unacceptable to the Orthodox, Anglican, or Protestant churches. But their views cannot be ignored by Rome. Despite many advances this century, the tragedy of Christian division still plagues us and the contemporary form of the papacy is an enormous stumbling block to the process of Christian unity.

But the power-focused Roman agenda has also become an obstacle for Catholicism itself. The centralized and absolutist operation of Rome has brought modern Catholicism to a grinding halt. Among the mainstream majority of Catholics in the Western world there is a pervasive sense that the Church has failed them, that it has not listened to their experience and their needs, and that the doctrinal and moral guidance that it offers in many areas is irrelevant to their lives. The Church hierarchy seems to offer little guidance or inspiration in the search for a contemporary spirituality and an ethical basis for living. The protection of papal power seems to be the constant underlying leitmotif of most papal decisions. To the outsider, the Vatican seems an extraordinarily conceited and self-absorbed institution.

Yet Catholicism cannot simply jettison the papacy. Catholics recognize that it is one of several defining elements of their faith. The Bishop of Rome has been part of Church history from very early in the formation of Christianity. The office has certainly developed and evolved over the centuries and its influence has ebbed and flowed in the Church, but it has been present since the Church’s origins. The very fact that it has changed means that it can change again. This book is fundamentally about how that change might occur.

The core of the problem is how an institution so focused on and preoccupied with medieval, monarchical, and absolutist notions of sacra potestas (sacred power) can transmute into one concerned with genuine notions of leadership, especially the style of servant leadership modeled by Jesus in the Gospel of John and discussed by Peter in his First Epistle. As a model of abject service, Jesus washed his disciples’ feet at the Last Supper (John 13:2-17) and Peter expands on this by saying that Church leaders should not ‘lord it over those in your charge, but be examples … all of you must clothe yourselves with humility in your dealings with one another’ (1 Peter 5:3-5). This is a far cry from a papal superstar who claims it as his right to regulate the most intimate details of human existence.

I am not questioning the sincerity of modern popes as they assert their right to act out the role and authority that they have inherited and have themselves helped to develop. They are as much the victims of history as the rest of Catholicism. But 1 do want to question the nature and limit of that role and to suggest that it. can no longer be couched in terms of ‘power over’ people. The papacy must begin to learn the humility of genuine Christian leadership. In short, what I have tried to do in this book is to draw on the long tradition of Catholicism to suggest some alternative models that may be more acceptable ecumenically, more inspiring to Catholic people, and less destructive to the Catholic Church of today and tomorrow.