Killing Time with Good Pope Francis

Over at the Heidelblog, Sean Moore, a Reformed believer who had once studied for the Roman Catholic priesthood, commented:

The roman curia got some concession, [given that the new pope’s] father was an Italian immigrant to Argentina. There was no way the curia was gonna get their guy with Ratzinger still in the city and having copy of the dossier. He’s supposedly not as liberal as most Jesuits in Latin America (liberation theology) but he did modernize the perception of the church down there. He advocates for the poor and is very pointed in his criticisms of economic inequalities. He’s a half-measure with the demands of modernity.

The new pope is a “half-measure”. That’s a label that has some bite to it.

With the election of “Good Pope Francis”, it seems clear that the powers that be are merely biding their time, “killing time”, until they can figure out what comes next. They clearly don’t know. A vote like this one makes one think “the Church” wants to put the papacy on hold for a few years, while the Italians try to regroup.

This same kind of situation happened in recent memory. After World War II, and the exercise of the only instance of ex cathedra authority to create the dogma of the “Assumption of Mary” in 1950, “the Church” was clearly in a position to have to figure out “what comes next”.

In 1958, on the death of Piux XII, the election of an old and little-known outsider named Angelo Roncalli as “Good Pope John” seemed to function in the same way. “Francis” is the same age, and is the same type of “outsider”. An old guy who would be perceived as fatherly, but someone who wouldn’t be likely to rock the boat, giving “the Church” more time to think through what would be coming next.

But “Good Pope John” surprised them. He called the Vatican II council, which gave more than a toe-hold to the “demands of modernity”. The election of “Francis” seems to be the election of another “caretaker pope”, but without the possibility that another “council” will be called.

* * *

In understanding the significance (or insignificance) of this new papacy, it’s important to keep in mind where we are historically, and what the historical struggles have been like over the last 75–100 years.

From the middle of the third century onward, it was held that Peter traveled to Rome in 42(ish) AD. There he set up a bishopric in Rome, one with virtually all the power that all the medieval popes had. If this seems like a bold claim, consider that in his 1920 work, The Early Papacy: To the Synod of Chalcedon in 451, Adrian Fortescue asserted that in the letter of First Clement, the author “commands with an authority, one would almost say with an arbitrary tone, that has not been exceeded by any modern pope”.

But this is clearly false, as an examination of the contemporary literature revealed that the letter of First Clement was written in the form of a symboleutic letter, that is, a letter of political persuasion, customary in ancient Rome. The author of First Clement was very cognizant of his (Rome’s) lack of authority over the Corinthian church.

Nevertheless Vatican I and Pope Leo XIII at the end of the 19th century maintained the “Clement commands” posture and even asserted the ascendancy of the papacy with the decree of “infallibility” and asserted its own foundational authority:

It is consequently the office of St. Peter to support the Church, and to guard it in all its strength and indestructible unity. How could he fulfil this office without the power of commanding, forbidding, and judging, which is properly called jurisdiction?

However, the intense examination that the New Testament received at the hands of “critical scholarship” (which only served to prove the veracity of the New Testament accounts), also destroyed the underpinnings of the Roman Catholic account of papal history. In fact, the Roman Catholic biblical scholar John P. Meier says, in a recent high-level ecumenical discussion: “A papacy that cannot give a credible historical account of its own origins can hardly hope to be a catalyst for unity among divided Christians.”

The papacy just doesn’t have “a credible historical account of its own origins”.

Today, it is virtually universally accepted among both Protestant and Roman Catholic scholars that historically, there was no successor to Peter, no “unbroken lineage”, not in the first century, when Schaff suggests that “the silence of the Acts and of Paul’s Epistles allows [Peter] only a short period of labor there, after 63 AD… The Roman tradition of a twenty or twenty-five years’ episcopate of Peter in Rome is unquestionably a colossal chronological mistake”. Not in the second century, when a discernable plurality of [infighting] presbyters tried to rule over Roman Christianity.

And not until the fictions of the third century began to take hold, did the notion that there was “commanding, forbidding, and judging” in some supposed successor (and see Fortescue, pg 54, where “supposing” is the word he uses) has some form of “primacy”.

* * *

“Pope Francis” does not quite reek with Leo’s “strength and indestructible unity” spoken of by Leo XIII.

In fact, the new “Pope Francis” seemingly will become a pawn in the struggle of “the Curia” vs the conservatives. This struggle was foreshadowed several days ago, when Hans Küng suggested that the former Pope Ratzinger would function as a kind of “shadow pope”, who could hang around and influence the new pope:

It is very dangerous to have a former pope living in the actual Vatican. Who does not live in a monastery. He will not live with monks, but with nuns who were at his service in the Vatican when he was pope. He will have the same secretary, Father George. He wants to remain in contact with cardinals and with the new pope. I was afraid of a “shadow pope” in the Vatican. Now it seems confirmed. He is certainly interested in prolonging his line, otherwise he would not have done it like this.

. . .

He is not exactly going on a mountaintop to pray. Rather, he will have the possibility to intervene constantly. It is a dangerous situation. I see many conflicts… Ratzinger says, “I’m out, but I am in the center of the Vatican.” So, that’s not good. Of course, he will not have official communications, but infinite private meetings. How is it possible, for example, that Father George Gaenswein, who was the former pope’s secretary, is also prefect of the current papal household? With control over the antechamber and decisions on audiences. He will represent a continuous communication between the papal palace and the former pope.

Now, with the election of a man who has rarely even visited the Vatican, much less spent time politicking there, “Pope Francis” seems poised to keep the ship floating in the same direction while the real “powers that be” have more time to plan what’s going to come next. The election of this man is a clear effort to put more time between “the spirit of Vatican II” and whatever comes next.

The reason they want more time is because they clearly don’t know what comes next.

In 1995, John Paul II wrote in Ut Unum Sint:

The Bishop of Rome is a member of the “College”, and the Bishops are his brothers in the ministry.

In “Pope Francis”, they have a man who has no capability to rise above the rest – and Pope Ratzinger is going to hang around to assure that that happens.

John Paul II wrote:

I am convinced that I have a particular responsibility in this regard, above all in acknowledging the ecumenical aspirations of the majority of the Christian Communities and in heeding the request made of me to find a way of exercising the primacy which, while in no way renouncing what is essential to its mission, is nonetheless open to a new situation. For a whole millennium Christians were united in “a brotherly fraternal communion of faith and sacramental life … If disagreements in belief and discipline arose among them, the Roman See acted by common consent as moderator”.

This, of course, is an incredible untruth, as any cursory look at the conciliar history of the 4th-5th centuries (as well as the schism with Photius in the 9th century) will attest. Just a cursory glance at the history turns “John Paul the Great” into a liar.

Further complicating the issue is the fact that the call is to be “open to a new situation” while “in no way renouncing what is essential to its mission”.

After all the fudging and bluster of papal history, they don’t really know what is “essential to the mission” of the papacy.

Fortunately, they have a warm, fuzzy “caretaker pope” who won’t do much, and who can serve to be manipulated. It is an outcome that both sides of the curial power struggle – the conservatives and the liberals – seem to have hoped for.

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