The Petrine Ministry in a Changing Church

This article came from lectures professor Pottmeyer gave at Ruhr University. A slightly shortened version appeared in the Tablet, September 14, 1996, pages 188-190.


Pope John XXII, even deeply committed Catholics severely criticize the church's central administration, the papacy included. The Catholic Church is struggling today towards a new model of church. The Petrine ministry too is evolving. It has an indispensable role in shaping the new ecclesial model.

Those who experienced the pontificate of Pope John XXIII will understand me when I say: it was easier in those years to speak of the Petrine ministry as God's gift to the church. Only a Pope could have initiated such fundamental changes in the church -- changes which many had hoped for. John shocked the Roman curia by throwing open the windows of the Apostolic Palace and letting in fresh air. This aggiomamento, as John called it opened windows all over the church. To make sure the windows stayed open, John called a reform Council.

Today even deeply committed Catholics severely criticize the church's central administration, the papacy included. Such criticism must not blind us, however, to the lasting importance of the Petrine ministry for the church. The Catholic Church is struggling today towards a new model of church. The Petrine ministry too is evolving. It has an indispensable role in shaping the new ecclesial model.

Contemporary criticism of the papacy reflects the disappointment of expectations aroused by the Council. Many of today's actively engaged Catholics were originally activated by the Council. Those who are now 45 years of age and older recall the heady years in which two Popes, John XXIII and Paul VI, initiated inner Catholic reform and opened the church, previously shuttered and barred, to the ecumenical movement and to the modem world.

In our excitement over this renewal we forgot that there are limits which even a Pope cannot transcend. I am thinking not so much of the theological limits of the papal ministry, about which the Council spoke, as of the practical limits of his influence -- above all on the Roman curia, without which no pope can lead the church. Paul VI may have discarded the tiara and the sedia gestatoria, ed his cardinals' trains and reduced -the ceremonial of the papal court. But the mentality of imperial rule which these symbols expressed has survived their abolition -- at least in the church's central administration, though less in the post-conciliar popes themselves.

Nor has the mentality of ordinary Catholics changed as much as we might suppose. For centuries we were told that "church" meant first of all the Pope, the bishops and the clergy. We were their obedient subjects. The Council spoke about the priesthood of all believers and our fundamental equality as brothers and sisters. But the old mentality perdures. How many of us still think first, at any mention of "the church", of the Pope, the bishops, and the clergy?

It is not only the baggage of history which hampers the development of the new mentality desired by Pope John and the Council majority. Self-preservation is no monopoly of the Roman curia. It characterizes church officials everywhere. Clerical careerists, eager to reach the top of the greasy pole, lose no opportunity of proving their adherence to the party line. Non-catholics have a vested interest in preserving unchanged their image of Rome, the ancient foe. All of us find the concept of the church inherited from the past easier to understand than new models whose contours are not yet clear. Responsibility for the faltering pace of church renewal is widely shared.

Moreover, criticism of the Pope and the church's central administration, even when justified, can easily become an excuse for our own laziness. Even if everything in the church is not as we are entitled to wish, does this prevent us from living in our parishes, communities, and families as truly joyful, committed disciples of Christ? Are not many of the Pope's contemporary critics really continuing the papal personality cult inherited from the nineteenth century? Can the Pope really be blamed for everything? Our Protestant brethren have their own crisis of faith. Can the Pope be blamed for that?

At the same time there is still much in church life for which we can thank God -- many signs that the bold initiatives for Pope John and his Council have born fruit.. There is, first the growing consciousness that we are all church. Never before have so many Catholics taken an active role in church life. Never before have so many, all over the world, felt free to express their desire for a church of dialogue. If those involved are still a minority, this is because the kind of church they are striving to shape makes heavier demands of its members.

The decline in religious vocations and Mass attendance signals the disappearance not of the church, but of a particular ecclesial model developed in the last century. A new kind of church is struggling to be bom. Signs of deep spiritual hunger are evident everywhere -- among young people especially. Just look at -the appeal of pilgrimages, mass meetings of youth, new religious movements. All manifest the desire for a church which is a fellowship of believers.

Of course there are problems - polarization first of all. Some are impatient with the slow pace of church renewal. Others fear things are moving too fast and demand that authority intervene. Still others are too ready to embrace the spirit of the age or are so poorly grounded in faith that they are prepared to jettison core Christian beliefs.

This situation challenges all of us -- those responsible for maintaining the church's unity first of all. Church leaders too are anxious, uncertain, polarized. Precisely because we expect so much of them we need to give them our critical but real support. Especially in need of such support is the successor of Peter, for whose constancy in faith and love we pray in every Mass.

To express its desire that the church be a fellowship of adult believers the Council chose the biblical term "people of God." This evokes the image of God's people on pilgrimage to the promised land. The Council helped us to see that the church too is on pilgrimage, led by God to the promised consummation of history.

We must never identify the church with God's kingdom. We, and all humanity, are underway to the kingdom. Like the people of Israel, we must constantly fold up our tents and move on. It is widely recognized today that we are in transition from a mostly nineteenth-century model of the church to something new. This is not to deny that there are elements in the church which remain constant throughout history. One essential constant is the need to strike our tents and move on to new challenges and new forms of church life. Traditionalists, clinging desperately to the recent past, are not fulfilling God's will. Times. of transition force us to distinguish between non-essential baggage which we can leave behind, and elements whose abandonment would mean unfaithfulness to our call as God's people. Today's controversy over the ordination of women is an example of this necessary discernment.

Everything I have just said about the church applies also to the Petrine ministry. Its outward form during the first millennium was different from that of the middle ages. It changed again in the nineteenth century, to become the kind of papacy we know today. The Petrine office must change its form once more if it is not to become an obstacle and a foreign body in a church which is itself evolving. If the church is the people of God, then Pope John was a kind of new Moses, challenging us to lay aside fear and press on to new shores.

Closely connected with the image of the church as the people of God is today's growing realization that the church exists not for itself but for the world. The Council called the church the sacrament of salvation. It exists to prepare God's kingdom by promoting human fellowship: within the human family and with God. This is why the Council gave the laity priority in the church's mission. It is through the laity that the church meets the world.

Hence the need for decentralization so that the church can be once again a fellowship of local churches. For it is at the grass roots, in the diocese and parish, that the church and society most truly meet. The papacy, to speak quite frankly, is only just beginning to make the chances necessary in this regard. The Pope's worldwide visits to local churches are impressive first steps. But much remains to be done.

A further fruit of the Council is our deepened understanding of God and his way of acting in history. In an age when society was headed by kings and emperors it was natural to address God as king of kings and Lord of lords. The Old Testament has many examples. The Council preferred the language of Jesus and the New Testament. Since God is love, the Council spoke of God addressing us through his revelation as friends, inviting us into loving fellowship with himself, making us adult partners in his work of bringing in the kingdom. The greatest sign of this partnership is the incarnation, in which God, through the consent of a woman, came to us as our brother.

This has profound implications for the Petrine ministry. As long as people thought of God as supreme ruler, it was natural to think of his representative and Christ's earthly vicar as a ruler -- symbolized by the triple crown and the court ceremonial which Paul VI curtailed. The Pope's governmental style was also imperial. Reconciling all this with the example of Jesus, who washed his disciples' feet and warned them not to lord it over the community, was always problematical. Today, however, these older images and symbols are discredited. An imperial governmental style contradicts the image of a God who treats us as adult partners in bringing in his kingdom.

We have only just begun to implement these insights in church life. The development of synodal and collegial structures of church leadership is a first step. But they remain far short of what the Council called for -- not least because of the narrow limits imposed by canon law. Demands that the church become a democracy are misplaced. This would mean substituting the role of the majority for that of the Pope and the bishops. The proper goal, a far more difficult one, is consensus.

The Council helped us to differentiate between what is permanent in the church and what is changeable when it said: "The society structured with hierarchical organs and the mystical body of Christ, the visible society and the spiritual community... form one complex reality which comes together from a human and divine element" (LG 8). The divine element is God's continuing presence in his church. The human element is the church's outward form and the activities of its members. They "form one complex reality." But they are not identical. In every age the church must ask whether its human element adequately mediates God's presence. If not it must be changed.

The Petrine ministry is not exempt from this questioning. We must ask: is the Petrine ministry part of the church's permanent structure? and if so, what in that ministry is permanent and what changeable?--Our Catholic faith tells us that the God who invites us to be his partners commissions human beings for his service and entrusts them with responsibility for keeping the church faithful to the gospel and united in faith. The risen Lord sent his apostles to preach the gospel to all peoples, entrusting Peter with a special role. From the third century on the Roman bishops appealed to the well known Petrine texts to justify their pastoral responsibility beyond their local flock.

The interpretation of these texts is controverted. And it was not until the third century that they were cited to support the Petrine office. The New Testament speaks neither of Peter's successors nor of a Petrine office. It does speak, however, of successors to the apostles. If the apostles could pass on their mission to leaders of local churches (as the New Testament records), how can we exclude a transmission of Jesus' commission to Peter? Moreover, those who contend that Peter's primacy died with him ignore history. Only when the scattered local churches began to organize themselves into the church universal could it become clear that the Roman bishop, as Peter's successor, had a permanent responsibility for maintaining the unity of the whole church.

Was Jesus' commission to Peter unique to him and his successors? Or was it shared with the apostles and their successors? We need not choose between these interpretations. Both are important. Vatican H followed the ancient church in recognizing that the Roman bishop has special personal responsibility for the whole church. But it also said that he exercises this responsibility not in isolation, but together with his fellow bishops, as head and member of the episcopal college. That is why, from antiquity, important church decisions were reached at councils, the Pope and bishops acting together through consensus -- the fundamental principle of ecclesial action. A renewed Petrine ministry must give clearer expression to this principle.

A further difficulty arises from the attitude of the Eastern Church, which recognized the primacy of the Roman Church and its bishop, but not the kind of primacy claimed and accepted in the West. The Protestant Churches of the West on the other hand, originally criticized not so much the Pope's primacy as his failure to exercise it in accordance with the gospel. Giving the Petrine ministry a form which is ecumenically acceptable is undoubtedly one of the most difficult tasks facing the church today. There is ground for optimism, however, in Pope John Paul II's invitation in his recent Encyclical Ut unum sint to "church leaders and their theologians to engage with me in a patient a fraternal dialogue on this subject in which, leaving useless controversies behind, we could listen to one another, keeping before us only the will of Christ for his church" (96).

In the same Encyclical the Pope emphasizes two further aspects of the Petrine ministry touched upon above. It must be "a ministry of mercy, born of an act of Christ's own mercy" (in forgiving Peter's betrayal: 93) And it involves "the task, not of exercising power over the people -- as the rulers of the gentiles and their great men do... [but of] 'keeping watch' (episkopein) ... so that through the efforts of the pastors the true voice of Christ the shepherd may be heard in all the particular churches" (94).

Emphasizing the collegiality of the Petrine office, the Pope says: "When the Catholic Church affirms s that the office of the bishop of Rome corresponds to the will of Christ, she does not separate this office from the mission entrusted to the whole body of bishops, who are also 'vicars and ambassadors of Christ.'

The bishop of Rome is a member of the 'college', and the bishops are his brothers in the ministry" (95). The Pope, like the Council, rejects the use of the title "vicar of Christ" for himself alone. Already in 1970 the International Theological Commission recommended that this title be dropped, along with "head of the church,, " and that the Pope be referred to as "successor of Peter", "Bishop of Rome", or the church's "chief pastor".

We must still ask, however, on what grounds (apart from the biblical evidence) the Catholic Church that the Petrine office belongs to the essential and divinely willed elements of the church as people of God. This claim is based on the conviction, which is rooted in faith, that the development of a pastoral office with responsibility for maintaining church unity is a fruit of the Holy Spirits guidance promised by the Lord to his church. History confirms this conviction. Whenever the Petrine ministry has been exercised according to Christ's will and example, it has proved a blessing for the church, protecting its unity and defending its independence. This is confirmed by the experience of Christians who lack this office. They themselves regret that they have no one charged with preserving unity.

The Petrine office has often been misused. But it remains a gift of God to his church. We are challenged to perfect it so that it can serve all Christians. John Paul II has joined Paul VI in asking forgiveness from other Christians for the "painful recollections" they have of his office and the manner in which it has been exercised (Unum sint 88).

Moreover, the Petrine office is not the only one of God's gifts which the church has misused. There have been abuses of the name of Christ of holy scripture, of the sacraments, and of much else besides. Why does God permit such abuses? The answer must be sought in the mystery of a church which is composed of sinners whom God nonetheless treats as adult partners. God has established one limit only to abuses. Despite all our sins, he does not allow his church to be destroyed or his promised kingdom to be frustrated.

The failures of popes throughout history do not contradict Jesus' mission to Peter. Peter himself failed the Lord who commissioned him. In giving authority to his betrayer Jesus wanted to show us that he was establishing his church not on human strength but on God's love and faithfulness. These same divine attributes support us in the partnership to which our loving God summons us.

At the same time the abuses of papal power give the people of God in every age the right, and the duty, to ask whether the Petrine office is being exercised according to the will of Christ, whether it helps or hinders the proclamation of the gospel, whether it promotes the good of the church and humankind. Anyone who asks these questions out of concern for God's kingdom and for the church, free of spite and rancor - in the spirit of fraternal concern - is not the Pope's enemy. On the contrary . A Pope who invites separated. Christians to a dialogue about his office certainly does not intend to exclude Catholics from this dialogue.

The Catholic Church remains convinced that the Petrine office is a permanent part of its divine constitution. The New Testament uses three images to describe the ministry which Christ entrusted to Peter and through him to his successors. It calls him rock, the church's firm foundation. It says he has the keys of God's house, to keep out intruders and foreign elements. And it portrays him as the shepherd, charged to feed the flock and ward off dangers. These images do not define the Pope's powers. They show, however, that they must be sufficient to allow him to guard the church from harm and keep it faithful to the gospel. This excludes proposals for a more primacy of honor and anything which would make the shepherd just another member of the flock.

The New Testament is also quite clear, however, that the church's true foundation, lord, and shepherd is Christ himself The Pope is his servant, not his substitute. Even in his role as shepherd the Pope remains a brother of all Christ's sisters and brothers, shepherd among shepherds, a believer in the fellowship of believers. God's word is entrusted not just to the Pope, but to all the faithful.

The Petrine ministry can be experienced as God's gift to the church only to the extent that it develops new models corresponding to the new models of the church which it serves. These developments flow from the new understanding of the church and of God spoken of above.

There is first the growing consciousness that the church is all of us. For more and more Catholics, faith is no longer something inherited and taken for granted, but the fruit of a personal decision. They are aware of faith's horizontal dimension: they live as members of a community of believers whose common faith strengthens the faith of each individual. Hence the importance of the local faith community, whether that be the diocese, parish, youth group, basic community, or other spiritual fellowship. Church leaders need to encourage participation in such groups, while guarding against tendencies to separatism. They must raise awareness that God calls all of us to work for his kingdom in unity, fellowship, and cooperation. In such a church the Petrine ministry will be not less important but more. It must promote the feeling of responsibility in local churches, while guarding against isolationism.

In a church which understands itself as God's pilgrim people, called to confront new challenges, church leaders have a double duty. Instead of trying to preserve as much as possible from the past they should stride forward, like Moses, pressing those they lead to fold up their tents and journey on to the promised land. And they must continually direct people to Christ who alone can bring us to the goal of our pilgrimage in God's kingdom. This means enhanced importance for the Petrine ministry as well. Experiments by local churches, and the pluralism which results from efforts at inculturation in different milieux, make the preservation of unity especially urgent.

If the church exists not for itself but for the world, then it is at the local level, and especially through its lay members, that church and world meet. The church, like Jesus, must reach out to those whom society marginalizes. It must be a missionary church, a servant church. Laying aside paternalism, church leaders, including the Pope, must encourage local responsibility. The post-conciliar Popes have done this in matters of peace and justice. The present Pope's role in eastern Europe is well known. Whether the papacy has done as much to encourage social and political engagement by local churches elsewhere is another question.

Finally, our new awareness. that God exercises his sovereignty less through power than through love, which alone can move people to conversion, has consequences for church leadership. In John 21 Jesus asks Peter: "Do you love me more than these? Then feed my sheep." A papal style which reflects this greater love will enable the church to experience the Petrine office as God's gift by showing all of us how we can become signs and sacraments of God's love for humankind.