The Gift of the Papacy
A note: the following concludes my excerpts from my letter of 2/22/2002 to Pope John Paul II: On the Nature of the Papacy: Exploring Some Secular Parallels responding to his request in Ut unum sint, 95.VII. The Papacy as a Gift
-- Dr. Thursday
Heart of Jesus, of whose fullness we have all received...
This part is more mystical than the others – a kind of meditation from me as a son of the Catholic Church, rather than as a scientist.
I believe that one of the most important facets of the Papacy is that of gift. The Papacy is a great and wonderful gift which the Lord has designed and presented to us. Even more importantly, it is intimately identified with the gift-giver.
Let us, then, consider the "Petrine Commission" in Mt. 16:18 as this imparting of a great gift from God: Our Lord asks the Apostles "Who do you say that I am?" Alone among the Apostles, Peter affirms the on-going theophany: "You are Christ, the Son of the Living God." Jesus then confirms that God has revealed this truth to Peter directly (just as He revealed Mary's divine maternity to Elizabeth).
Abruptly, in a direct act of creation, Jesus says, "Thou art Peter and on this rock I will build My Church."
Hence, Peter was to be a foundation, strong and stable, as well as a point of reference on which Jesus Himself would rely in building His Church. Jesus made God's own plan depend on Peter, as He Himself relied on, and continued to rely on, the Blessed Virgin Mary, His Mother.
Moreover, like an American TV slogan of a few years ago, the Papacy is "the gift that keeps on giving." The only comparable gift is the universe itself – which we can continue to unpack, and explore and find enjoyment in. This is the paradoxical character of every divine act, that it is exceedingly simple and yet possessing seemingly infinite detail and subtlety. We can keep on unpacking the Papacy just as we can keep on unpacking Christmas. What a great surprise!
There are, however, some very practical considerations to the gift, which are not simply a global function of naming or of unifying like the ISO or the conductor of a symphony, which I will proceed to consider.
1. A Gift of Humility (The Papacy as a defence against pride)
"But I have prayed for thee, Simon, that thy faith fail not, and thou, being once converted, confirm thy brethren" (Lk 22:32).
The Papacy carries with it a correlative gift of humility. Long before he was a Catholic, Chesterton wrote that the "best work" of the Catholic Church was her work against pride:
Now, one of these very practical and working mysteries in the Christian tradition, and one which the Roman Catholic Church, as I say, has done her best work in singling out, is the conception of the sinfulness of pride. Pride is a weakness in the character; it dries up laughter, it dries up wonder, it dries up chivalry and energy.I think Chesterton is right about this, not merely because pride is the deadliest of sins, which the Church in her holiness strives to protect her children against, but because there is an essential character of the Papacy which strengthens the Church against pride. It is parallel with all of Chesterton's paradoxes, and fully in keeping with the wonder of the Divine, that the safeguard of humility is in this granting of the divine authority to one human being.
It is a humbling thing to have to bend to that authority. And pride takes a lot of bending, which is why the Papacy is hard to accept. Bending to authority is common, and is taken without complaint in many other aspects of human life: the oboe players and the second violinists conform to the conductor's indications; the chemist relies on the IUPAC nomenclature; people all over the world conform to and rely on the authority and constraints imposed on them by committees, or even by individuals; yet few people realize that this authority is being exerted, and fewer would even attempt to challenge its ex cathedra statements.
But I am talking about the Papacy as a gift, and some gifts – usually the best gifts – often are not quite what we think when we unwrap them, or even after we've had them for some time. And thinking of humility with the idea of a human wielder of divine authority is about as paradoxical as the idea of the Baby of Bethlehem. It is humbling to be Pope, to have these divine tools to wield for the benefit of others, only to be rejected by a "stiff-necked people" (Catholics, agnostics, theists, atheists). Rejected because of the possession of those tools, not because of their use! It is humbling to have a Pope, to see the divine authority in a man who eats and sleeps, who struggled in his life with family and friends and neighbors, who has doubts and fears as we do. It is hard to see God speaking with a man's voice. And yet it was the weak, sinful, doubtful, and even blasphemous Simon who was declared "Peter." Are we to be like Job and fight with God Who did this? No, we need to dust off the gift of Caesarea Philippi and see how powerful it is against the danger of pride.
2. The Pope as Disinterested Party
"Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God" (Mt 5:9).
The idea of a "disinterested party" at first does not seem to be a gift – the kind of thing that one could be happy over. But it is necessary to remember two things: First, because of our fallen state and separatedness, people do not always agree, even about things right in front of them. Second, disinterested does not mean uninterested. The simple fact is that some things, especially those things which are controversial, need to be dealt with by someone who stands somewhat apart from the thing, or (as some might put it) by someone who has no "direct concern" with the thing. Of course, because of the divine paradox, only the person who has the intimate concern with the thing can deal with it fairly, because the controvertors are often concerned not with the thing, but only with their own stake or interest in it. Therefore, human controversy over something needs the disinterested party who is concerned with the thing in itself, and not with the expectations of the opposing parties.
It is important to note that the gift of the Papacy is the climax of the search for truth, for which Scholastic Philosophy is only the vehicle. For the Papacy contitutes the "truly interested party" – thus, the Pope can judge truthfully about complex and difficult issues, not because of a lack of partisanship, but because he is on the side of Truth. This is a great gift for humanity. It has happened in the past, and it will probably happen again in the future, that rival parties (be they individuals or nations) will lay down their arms and bring their case before the Pontiff, begging him to erect a bridge between them.
The modern media teaches that one must be "unbiased" as they profess to be, and every "unbiased" view is therefore truthful. The problem is there can be no such thing as an unbiased view. That is like saying there is no such thing as a distant view, or a close-up view, or a complete view, or a comprehensive view, or even a "full-color" view. In the present day, the idea of bias is completely misunderstood. Even a biased view can be completely true, and another view, just as honest but apparently contrary, may also be true. The contrary character arises from a failure in expression.
Throughout history mankind has struggled to find a means of expression which avoids this conflict. There have been a variety of attempts to reduce conflicts between opponents to a common language: either through military or legal power, or by the mathematical approach used in the sciences. These attempts could all be reduced to "might makes right" – to the great loss of happiness, liberty, and life.
The Papacy, however, has been given to us as a means to avoid such battles. The Pope is, as a rule, more interested in the issue of any given controversy than either of the opponents in the controversy. And, because he has direct access to the Ultimate Authority, he can draw attention to aspects of the matter which are of greater concern than any which the opponents could otherwise detect, being caught up in their own "biased" concerns which preclude the possibility of their unity. The Pope is available to humanity as a unifier: not simply someone who stops the fight, but one who brings the combatants onto the same side – a side which is typically neither of their own.
The Pope's role as unifier is a great gift. Unfortunately the one who is really on the side of so many people is opposed by many – for being a unifier. Yet only someone who has a benign disinterest in the fence between two neighbors' gardens can fairly describe how that fence must divide the gardens – because he can see the fence in itself, and therefore can see the vegetables on one side and the goats on the other – and can care equally about them.
When a multitude of people (especially those who are not Catholic) have no grasp of the office of the Papacy, it is to be understood that they cannot take advantage of such a great boon. But we know there are some who confuse the authority of truth held by the Pope with the power of command held by tyrants throughout history. This is partly a problem of lack of information, and partly a lack of proper rebuttal of the slanders of our enemies. There need to be good references like the Catechism, which have both authority as well as technical detail, and scholarly references. But there also need to be good popular books as well: books which reveal the variety and fruitfulness of the Church and explain confusing topics in popular but accurate language, or rebut the slanders and the historical inaccuracies which prevail today.
3. The Keeper of the Keys
This [ancient Roman] key was chained to a slave called the janitor, or doorkeeper, who in turn was chained to the door. His duty was to guard the door and the members of the household with his life.The quotation from a children's mystery story suggests that the keys which are the symbols of papal authority are also the emblem of warfare and of defence against our enemy.
The Pope is the sworn protector of the Church and the one who watches her gate with such vigilance. I mentioned earlier that Jesus said "I am the gate" – and it is the keys to Jesus Himself which the Pope holds! The many gates (or mouths) of hell spew out opposition to the One Gate. But Jesus, the paradoxical boundary to the infinite, Who is both the Gate by which we enter, and the One with Whom we enter, and the One into Whom we enter, made the gate, and planned the means of its opening and its closing. It seems that we are easily drawn to the idea that this gate will be open for us to pass through. But we do not as easily see that Jesus wants that gate to be closed and held inviolate against our enemy.
It is not only in the "open-gate" admittance of the faithful departed that we ought to find hope, but even more in this "closed-gate" defence of the Heavenly Home. And it is the Pope who is the gate-keeper.
It is an old axiom that rules-which-permit are to be interpreted broadly, while rules-which-forbid are to be interpreted strictly. Hence the key of "binding" (which closes) we ought to view as the blessed and just defence against the enemy, excluding the rebels from our Home, while the key of "loosing" (which opens) is the merciful admittance of weak and fallen humanity; we pray this key will be applied broadly and generously.
I am sure the historian or student of Roman culture could comment in greater detail about the janitor's duties: Father Stanley Jaki's book on the keys records that the "handing over of the household keys to the bride was part of the Roman marriage ritual." This cannot but recall the mystic verse in Isaiah: "As a young man marries a virgin, so your Builder shall marry you...."
What joy to know that there sits in Roma God's Key-Keeper who is ever watching and holding the gate; it is this gift of the Papacy by which the gates of Hell cannot prevail against the "household" of the Church. What other organization has such a guardian?
43 Cf. Jn 1:16. See also the Communion Antiphon for Saturday after Epiphany
44 Chesterton, G. K. Heretics. CW1:107.
45 Keene, Carolyn. The Clue of the Black Keys – A Nancy Drew Mystery. Grosset & Dunlap, New York, NY (1951) 42.
46 Jaki, Stanley L. The Keys of the Kingdom. The Franciscan Herald Press, Chicago, IL (1986) 19.
47 Canticle of Morning Prayer for Wednesday Week IV, quoting Isaiah 62:5.