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The Chair of St. Peter, Apostle

February 22, 2017

 

 

The Responsorial (Psalm 23) “The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want” lifts up our eyes to heaven. This feast brings them down to earth. We are celebrating the “Chair” or official function of St. Peter in the Church and of those elected to represent him in continuing it: the bishops of Rome.

 

This confronts us with the central mystery of Christianity: the Word made flesh, God made human in Jesus Christ.

 

This is also the central mystery of the Church: a human organization that is also the divine body of Christ. A community of sinful human beings, governed by sinful human beings, that nevertheless proclaims itself — and is — “holy” and guided by the Holy Spirit.

 

For all the centuries of the Church’s life, both in abstract theology and in practical spirituality, the pendulum has swung back and forth between the divine and the human, emphasizing one at the expense of the other, both in Christ and in the Church. The Church’s answer, both in doctrine and in constantly reformed practice, has been to keep reaffirming the ancient formula: Jesus is “fully human and fully divine.” And in the measure that it is possible, so is and must be his Church.

 

Nothing calls this more into question than the papacy: the “Chair of Peter.” Pope Paul VI said, “The Pope... is undoubtedly the gravest obstacle in the path of ecumenism.”[1]

 

Peter, the first pope, has more recorded sins and errors than any other person in the Gospels. He comes across in the Gospels as a leader, yes, but with a right-to-wrong ratio of two to seven, with one split decision. He was right when he confessed Jesus to be the Messiah. He was wrong when:

 

  • he rejected Jesus’ way of saving the world; 

  • he misunderstood  the transfiguration; 

  • he presumed Jesus would pay a temple tax;

  • he objected to Jesus’ washing his feet;

  • he protested he would never deny Jesus;

  • he slept during Jesus’ agony in the garden;

  • he opted for violence when Jesus was arrested.[2]

 

Peter showed cowardice, both in his denial of Jesus in the garden, and later, even after the strengthening of Pentecost, in his government of the Church. Paul reports he “opposed him to his face” for his hypocrisy.[3]

 

In Matthew 16:13-19 Jesus praised Peter for his confession of faith: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” And he gave him “the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” Peter’s first act after that was to reject Jesus’ teaching on an issue so vital that Jesus called him the devil! “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” In this passage Peter spoke first as divine, then as human, almost in the same breath.

 

We don’t like to deal with the tension between the human and the divine in the Church. Most Catholics prefer to assume that all popes are holy men (we call them all “Your Holiness”) and that we can trust their judgment both in matters of doctrine and of Church government. But this in itself is a denial of the faith! My class learned in the fifth grade that “infallible” and “impeccable” are two different words, and that the pope is only infallible when he explicitly defines a doctrine “ex cathedra,” speaking from the “Chair of Peter” with all his authority, which he has done only twice in history. Many Catholics today keep proving they are “not smarter than a fifth grader.”

 

We simply must accept the human as well as the divine in the Church and in the papacy. Archbishop John Quinn, introduced his book The Reform of the Papacy by referring to John Paul II’s encyclical on Christian unity, Ut Unum Sint: “For the first time it is the Pope himself who raises and legitimizes the question of reform and change in the papal office in the Church. [He] calls for a widespread discussion of how this reform could be brought about....”[4]

 

A key forerunner in this process was Father J.M.R. Tillard, O.P., whose book The Bishop of Rome resulted from multiple ecumenical dialogues between Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox Commissions seeking mutual understanding. There is a new desire for and movement toward unity. The problem is not the primacy of the “Chair of Peter,” but the way it is understood and exercised at present in Rome. “The present Catholic vision of the papacy magnifies the office. It makes the pope more than a pope.” A joint Lutheran-Catholic declaration accepts the tension between human and divine.

 

The centralization of the Petrine function in a single person or office results from a long process of development.... The papal office can be seen both as a response to the guidance of the Spirit in the Christian community, and also as an institution which, in its human dimensions, is tarnished by frailty and even unfaithfulness.

 

One obvious source of this, given perennial human sinfulness, is the corrupting force of power, whether possessed or desired. Bishop Geoffrey Robinson addresses this in his reflections on nine years of official leadership in dealing with child-abuse in Australia, Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church:

 

Those years left an indelible mark on me.... A number of people, at every level, were seeking to ‘manage’ the problem and make it ‘go away’, rather than truly confront and eradicate it.

 

Through all this I came to the unshakeable conviction that within the Catholic Church there absolutely must be profound and enduring change. In particular... on the two subjects of power and sex.

 

Do we want to hear this? Do we want to accept and deal with the ever-present human factor in the divine body of Christ on earth? Or do we prefer to just ignore it and hope it will “go away”? The Second Vatican Council answers:

 

This Synod urges all concerned to work hard to prevent or correct any abuses, excesses or defects which may have crept in here or there, and to restore all things to a more ample praise of Christ and of God.[5]

 

Catholics are so certain of God’s divine preservation and guidance of the Church that, as G.K. Chesterton said of Thomas Aquinas, we dare to walk on the very precipice of issues challenging our faith, confident that truth, if confronted, will justify belief. Like St. Paul, like Pope John Paul II, like Bishops Quinn and Robinson, like Fr. Tilllard and other theologians, we show our faith in the “Chair of Peter” by constantly calling those who sit on it to fidelity.

 

In 1Peter 5:1-4 it is Peter himself who invites us to see him, not as a monarch on his throne, nor as someone separated from us by exalted status in the Church, but as a “fellow elder,” identified above all as “a witness of Christ’s sufferings” and, like all who believe, a “sharer in the glory that is to be revealed.”

 

The glory he speaks of is divine. It is not to be established, projected or accepted in the Church in any human form here on earth. This warning is addressed specifically to the “elders,” which translates the Greek word “presbyters,” and is the preferred designation — in Scripture and in current Church theology — for those in Holy Orders whom we are accustomed to call “priests.”[6]

 

Peter says the clergy are to be “examples to the flock, not lording it over those assigned to you.” Obviously, the corrupting influence of power was already visible in the infant Church. If Lord Acton’s axiom is true: “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” we should above all guard the clergy against this. Bishop Robinson warns: “To give great authority to a person who is incapable of handling it in a responsible manner [and how are candidates for priest or bishop screened for this?] is to invite problems.... Spiritual power is arguably the most dangerous of all.... If the governing image of how to act as a priest... is tied to the idea of lordship and control, then, no matter how benevolently ministry is carried out, an unhealthy domination and subservience will be present.”[7]

 

Jesus warned his Church not to be like the “scribes and Pharisees who sit on the Chair of Moses.” They “lord it over the flock” through dress, titles and protocol.

 

They make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long.,, love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi.

 

Father Bernard Häring, C.SS.R., whose eye-opening work The Law of Christ makes him arguably the founder of modern moral theology based on the Gospel, wrote that at the “very last session” of the Second Vatican Council:

several cardinals, patriarchs, bishops, and some theologians, including myself, were gathered to discuss a final proposal.... that the Council Fathers should not return to their respective dioceses without first having solemnly pledged apostolic poverty and, above all, apostolic simplicity by renouncing all anti-evangelical titles.... Several hundred bishops were ready for this step. However, time was pressing and the proposal never came to pass.”[8]

When the hierarchy first began to take on the trappings of secular power — pretentious titles, imposing dress and a protocol that isolated them above the “common herd” — would Jesus have said to them, “Blessed are you, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven,” or “You are an obstacle to me; you are thinking, not as God does, but as human beings do”?

 

Celebrating the Chair of Peter invites us to reflect on the alerts from these prophetic, ordained bishops and holy, approved theologians who are part of the magisterium of the Church.

 

Meditation: What am I doing to swell or shrink the sense of power in the Church?

 

 

 

[1] Speech to the Secretariat for Christian Unity, April 28 1967.

[2] See Matthew 14:20-31; 16:16, 22; 17:4, 25; 26:35, 40; John 6:8, 26:22; 18:40. The split decision was walking on the water with faith, and then almost drowning for lack of faith.

[3] Galatians 2:11-14.

[4] Crossroad, 1999, pp. 13-14.

[5] Tillard: Michael Glazier, Inc., 1986, pp. 8-9, 19. Robinson: Liturgical Press, 2008, “Introduction.” Vatican II: The Church, no. 51.

[6] See Bishop Patrick Dunne of Auckland, Priesthood: A Re-examination of the Roman Catholic Theology of the Presbyterate, Alba House, 1990, p, 110.

[7] op. cit., p, 12.

[8] Priesthood Imperiled, Triumph/Ligouri, 1996, p.48.

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