February 27, 2013
By any standard the papacy is an unparalleled institution. It is the world’s longest surviving monarchy, yet commands no armies; its successors are bound to peculiar Roman customs, yet compared with the United Nations’ its outlook is vastly cosmopolitan; it purports to teach by divine prerogative, yet makes no promise of its officer’s sanctity; and besides all that, the pope wears funny hats.
Growing up in Western Canada, as a boy I knew virtually nothing of Catholic culture. To me, Catholics were simply un-evangelized Christians, if Christians they were at all. And, in many instances, this description still fits. It was only once I studied philosophy at college that I came into contact with a form of Catholicism that could not be dismissed. I was startled. It was like discovering a sixth continent no one had ever told me about. But there it was, real as dirt, sturdy as a Cathedral, and musical as Palestrina’s motets. What to do? Eventually, I did convert. But what kept me back for many years was, chiefly, the pope.
I knew little of John Paul II. Though I would later come to love and admire this lion of a man and leader, at the time, the most vivid detail of the Pontiff’s life was to say the least, particular. A friend had come back from World Youth Day in Toronto, disgusted. He reported that the pope shared a stage with a rapping priest. Having long since said goodbye to Snoop Doggy Dog, I didn’t have much respect for rap either, and wondered why the pope did.
But it was not superficial ignorance that held me back. I knew enough by college to understand where the real danger lay. It was neither bad music nor hippie nuns that kept me away: it was terror. And it was the pope who inspired it. As gentle and humble as they have been this past century and more, the fear that the pope inspired was the danger he posed to my freedom. For an outsider, at least, the authority of a man, or an office, which can judge doctrine with definiteness opposed both my sense of responsibility and – as I then saw it – my freedom to determine the truth of claims for myself.
That was how the papacy looked for me some seven years back. The papacy from “the other side” looks, I am still amazed, vastly different. It is like the difference between holding in hand a photo of the Canadian Rockies and how it all feels with one foot leaning against the mountain. A great deal of what I then believed about the papacy turned out to be false. (Papal infallibility, for instance, is a technical term, with a limited scope, rarely evoked.) And, though it took years for me to concede the point, having spent my twenties arguing against the need for a magisterium, I now find it hard to explain the survival of Christianity for these many bloody centuries apart from one.
I still think we are responsible to judge claims for ourselves. But my former view of freedom was far too narrow. For one thing: among the claims the intellect needs to judge is whether or not God has spoken. All Christians hold that he has, in Scripture. But what he meant – well, that is where disagreement can erupt. To secular sensibility, every man should be for himself. Early Christians did not agree. God had given not only his Word but also a mechanism for its interpretation. My reading kept me clawing back further into history, eventually to the period of the early Church. St. Ignatius of Antioch’s Epistula ad Smyrnaeos (110 A.D) reads strikingly:
Let all follow the bishop, as Jesus Christ follows the Father, and the college of presbyters as the apostles; respect the deacons as you do God’s law. Let no one do anything concerning the Church in separation from the bishop.
Not only history informs our sense of authority. Along with Cardinal Newman, I came to believe philosophical reasons, too, support the need for a magisterium, an official teaching body, whose highest authority is expressed in the pope. As he wrote in his Essay on the Development of Doctrine (1845):
If Christianity is both social and dogmatic, and intended for all ages, it must humanly speaking have an infallible expounder. Else you will secure unity of form at the loss of unity of doctrine, or unity of doctrine at the loss of unity of form; you will have to choose between a comprehension of opinions and a resolution into parties, between latitudinarian and sectarian error
And now, another election. As we rush toward the election in mid-March the media will devote countless hours to analyzing who, why, and from where the next pope will be elected. Many wonder: what will the next pope face? That question is both pregnant and dull. As Benedict XVI, the next pope will face grave obstacles. He will assume spiritual leadership for nearly 1 of every 5 living souls. He will search for ways to protect Christians in the Middle East who suffer under Islam. He will search for ways to protect Christians in North America who suffer under secularism. He will search for ways to continue to renew the priesthood, the liturgy, and the family. But in another sense the question of what will be the agenda of the next pope is asinine, because the answer never changes. The next pope will face what every pope has faced: the call to preach Christ in season and out, the call, like every other believer, to become little Christs. For, as our beloved Benedict has preached in word and deed, the only tragedy left in this life is not to live as a saint.
[Biographical Note: A Native of Saskatoon, and formerly Pope John XXIII Chair of Studies in Catholic Theology at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, Dr. Topping is Fellow at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts in New Hampshire. He publishes frequently for Catholic Insight and Crisis Magazine and his most recent book is Rebuilding Catholic Culture: How the Catechism Can Shape our Common Life (Sophia Institute Press). He and his wife have five children.]
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