Papacy for another century

In 1995, Pope John Paul II in the Encyclical Ut unum sint expressed willingness to seek a new way of exercising the primacy of the Bishop of Rome as a ministry of communion for all the Churches. The proposal sparked interest in all churches, but was quite soon forgotten.

In the pages that follow I will point out the core elements of the document and analyse its theological assumptions critically. Aren’t they still too anchored in the past? In Ut unum sint isn’t the bishop of Rome still a prisoner of the papacy? The thesis is simple: in order to make head-way – “you follow me!” ( John 21,22) – towards a 21st century communion of the Churches, it is essential to completely reform the conceptual, ima-ginary and institutional framework of the Church and the ministries. And in so doing, it is also essential to reimagine another “ministry of Peter”, freed from the “sacred order”, from the “succession” and from Rome.

1. The novelty and ambiguity of a sentence

Ut unum sint (That they may be one) is an Encyclical on “ecu-menical commitment” and is presented as a commentary on the Decree Unitatis Redintegratio of the Second Vatican Council (1964), from which nearly half of the 162 quotes are taken. Its interest, however, is centred on the papacy, the major problem of ecumenism.

The Encyclical recognizes that the ministry of the bishop of Rome “constitutes a difficulty for most other Christians whose memory is mar-ked by certain painful memories” (UUS 88). It would rather be a question of “difficulty,” as Pope Paul VI explicitly stated in 1967: “The pope, we know, is undoubtedly the most serious obstacle in the way of ecume-nism”1

The past and the present corroborate this statement. In the 1990s, after three post-conciliar decades of more or less optimistic endeavour, all ecumenical efforts had run aground over and over again on the “rock of Peter,” or rather on the rock of the Vatican papacy. The inter-church theological commissions came to basic agreements without major diffi-culties in the great debates that had divided us in the past, such as the Filioque, the justification, the sacraments, Mary … The only things that were necessary to reach such agreements, were good will and a cri-tical reading of the founding texts of Christianity, especially the New Testament. Not even a certain symbolic primacy of the bishop of Rome was an insurmountable obstacle: the Orthodox Churches never had any problems whatsoever accepting it, as long as it was not a jurisdictional primacy; something similar could even be said of the Lutheran Church. But the dialogue broke down at the time when Rome claimed primacy understood as a jurisdictional power over the other Churches. At that point, it was no longer possible to make any more headway. The problem, therefore, is the papacy.

Unexpectedly, John Paul II himself, the most conservative and inflexible of popes, finally recognizes this in the Encyclical. After insis-tently emphasizing the vital and irreplaceable role of the bishop of Rome in the true communion of all the Churches, he stated: “I am convinced that I have a particular responsibility in this regard, above all in ack-nowledging 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 essen-tial to its mission, is nonetheless open to a new situation” (Ut unum sint 95).

It is because of this sentence that the Encyclical is still quoted and will continue being quoted. The surprise and interest aroused by such words were considerable. A pope with deeply-rooted traditionalist posi-tions claimed the need to rethink the figure of the bishop of Rome, that is, his role in the Church. This is the sole contribution (or at least the only new contribution) of the Encyclical, the only step forward reference to the Lumen Gentium Conciliar Constitution on the Church and reference to the Unitatis Redintegratio Conciliar Decree on ecumenism.

But what exactly is “the essential” part of the primacy or the mission of the bishop of Rome? Here is the core of the matter that the Encyclical leaves practically intact. The section devoted to the role of the pope on the ecumenical path to communion begins with this sentence: “the Catholic Church is conscious that she has preserved the ministry of the Successor of the Apostle Peter, the Bishop of Rome, whom God esta-blished as her “perpetual and visible principle and foundation of unity” (Ut unum sint 88). The terms I emphasize in bold lettering are the ones that are more ambiguous and confusing, both in historical and theological terms; however, the Encyclical neither clarifies nor justifies them; the Encyclical takes them for granted as if we knew what they mean. It establishes them as fundamental without substantiating them.

It is understood that all the attempts made since then to propose a new form of exercise of the Roman “primacy” have failed: thus the meeting of specialists convened by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith the year after the Encyclical, in 1996, on the theme: “The primacy of the Successor of Peter”2 ; as well as the Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity in 2001, which provided an over-view of the various proposals and studies that had emerged following the publication of Ut unum sint3. Everything was limited to vague proposals about synodality and endless disquisitions about what primacy and infallibility mean.

And it is also understood that, ten years after Ut unum sint, Cardinal Kasper adopted the expression used by Paul VI in 1967 and once again recognized that the papacy is the “greatest obstacle to full ecumenical communion”4. Today, 21 years after the Encyclical, we find that still no steps have been taken to materialise the desire to “find a form of service of the primacy … that opens the way towards a new situation”5.

It is as if nobody knew where to go. But the Encyclical points in one direction: the past. Is that the right direction?

2. Is it enough to go back to the first millennium

Ut unum sint proposes the relationship between the Churches of East and West during the first millennium, before the division of 1054, as the model to follow. It assumes that all the Churches during that time recognized the bishop of Rome as the ultimate guarantor of full communion: “The journey of the Church began in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost and its original expansion in the oikoumene of that time was centred on Peter and the Eleven” (cf. Acts 2:14). The structures of the Church in the East and in the West evolved in reference to that Apostolic heritage. Her unity during the first millennium was maintained within those same structures through the Bishops, Successors of the Apostles, in communion with the Bishop of Rome. If today at the end of the second millennium we are seeking to restore full communion, it is to that unity, thus structured, which we must look” (UUS 55, 56 and 61).

It is necessary to recognize the innovative charge contained in the fact of proposing the first millennium as a model for the current exercise of Roman primacy. In the first millennium, the dogmas of the primacy of jurisdiction and infallibility defined by the Vatican II Council in 1970 did not yet exist! Was the pope thinking of repealing them? It would be unimaginable in any pope, and even more so in the case of John Paul II. It is more reasonable to think that it referred to the need to exercise primacy and infallibility according to the model of the first millennium, but “without renouncing to what is essential”. And here we are again at the same old impasse: what is the essence of these dogmas? Is there some “structure” unanimously accepted by the Churches in the first millennium that could be described as a primacy of jurisdiction and infallibility?

If you appeal to history as a criterion, you should stick to the facts of history. Let us, then, address history. What does it teach us about the relationship of the bishop of Rome with the other Churches and the role he played in their communion during the first millennium? Here is a summary of the main data6:

– up until the last decades of the 2nd century A.D., the Church of Rome – formed by various churches or communities – was governed by no “bishop”, but by a “college of priests”;

– among all the Churches it enjoyed a special prestige and had moral authority, above all because that is where the tomb and the memory of Peter and Paul (who died in Rome, probably during the Nero’s persecution in 64 A.D.) were kept, because of the generosity it displayed in the economic support of other poorer churches – this is what Ignatius of Antioch refers to when he said that the community of Rome was “the one presiding over charity” – and it was also without doubt the capital of the Roman Empire (the “eternal city” and “head of the world”);

– towards the end of the 2nd century, Irenaeus of Lyon elaborates the “list of apostolic succession” of the bishops of Rome, but such lists were common in many other churches that were considered founded by an apostle;

– Irenaeus himself recognizes “primacy” for the church of Rome, but not the power to intervene in other churches; this is also what Saint Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, taught at the end of the 3rd century A.D.;

– as from the end of the 2nd century, the bishops of Rome began to intervene, but it is clear that their intervention often was not accepted (for example, when the Church of Asia Minor, with Irenaeus in its lea-ding role, opposed the Easter date change that “pope” Victor wanted to impose, or as when Cyprian of Carthage confronted “Pope” Stephen on the matter of baptism administered by heretics);

– from the 3rd century onwards, a great struggle for power arose between the great metropolises in the empire (Rome, Alexandria, Antioch and then especially Constantinople, founded by Constantine in 330 AD);

– the prestige and authority of Rome increased markedly when the whole city became Christianized, and even more when the emperor left Rome and settled in Ravenna in 402, the bishop in some way assuming the role and attributes of the emperor, as the pontifex maximus; the Christianization of Rome brings with it the Romanization of Christianity; and Rome’s interventions become more and more frequent. Its bishop is called “vicar of Christ”; but bishops like St. Basil and St. Ambrose did not admit Rome’s intention to control bishops;

– the Council of Chalcedon (451), the very same Council that defined the Christological doctrine of “two natures and one person”, recognized the bishop of Constantinople equal rights with the bishop of Rome, but that canon was not recognized by Leo the Great , bishop of Rome between 440-461, who could be termed the “first pope”7: he was the first to be called “vicar of Peter”, he elaborated the doctrine of “Peter’s succession” and claimed “full powers” to intervene in all churches and issues, but not without rejection.

Such loose data are surely enough. Where is that “structured unity” of all the Churches around the bishop of Rome reference is made to in UUS 55? The problem is that UUS appeals to history, but it does not endorse the generic statements about the existence, from the beginning, of a structure of communion between all the Churches around the bishop of Rome. “The primacy of Rome was not configured from its beginnings; it was rather the result of a long and complex process, involving many factors of all kinds (of a social, cultural, political, economic, religious, ecclesial … nature)8.

It is also noteworthy, and somewhat alarming, that in UUS no. 55, which explicitly refers to Unitatis Redintegratio no. 14, does not quote the sentence with which this section starts: “For many centuries the Church of the East and that of the West each followed their separate ways though linked in a brotherly union of faith and sacramental life; the Roman See by common consent acted as guide when disagreements arose between them over matters of faith or discipline”. That sentence mentions two of the indisputable historical elements of the relationship between the different Churches: their diversity ( “followed their separate ways”) and “common consent” when they recurred to arbitration by the Church of Rome. Ut unum sint actually goes backwards in this respect in comparison with Unitatis Redintegratio.

But we need to reflect on the value of the binding model the Encyclical attributes to ecclesial structures from the first millennium. Even in the unlikely event that the bishop of Rome had exercised from the beginning a real power over all other churches and had been effectively recognized by them, why should we be forced to reproduce today such structures from a distant past? We cannot ignore or relegate the past when reconstructing the communion of the Churches in the present, but faithfulness to the past does not mean reproducing it unquestioningly, on the contrary, it means being inspired to move forward creatively towards another church, other ministries, and another model of communion . Only in this way will the purpose that makes the Encyclical in its key statement be possible: “to find a way of exercising the primacy which, … is nonetheless open to a new situation” (Ut unum sint 95). Reproducing the structures of the first millennium would seriously betray such a pur-pose. Being faithful to the spirit that guided the Churches of ancient times means to continue walking, opening new paths the way they did.

3. What should we think of the «will of Christ«?

We Christians turn to Jesus –to what he said, did and wanted- to guide us in our lives, to build the fair and free future that he expected, announced and predicted. The story of Jesus, that transforms history, is the criterion of our personal and ecclesial praxis. We refer to his story to build ours. And by the “Story of Jesus”, I am referring to his human life moved by the transforming Spirit, the creator of a new history, a new world. Jesus’ story inspires us and guides us with his spiritual breath.

Ut unum sint refers to Jesus in order to lay the foundations for a new way of exercising the primacy of Peter. Number 95 (which contains the famous sentence) opens with the statement that “the office of the Bishop of Rome corresponds to the will of Christ”, and affirms: “it is out of a desire to obey the will of Christ truly that I recognize that as Bishop of Rome I am called to exercise that ministry”. And in 96, the Pope asks: “Could not the real but imperfect communion existing between us persuade Church leaders and their theologians to engage with me in a patient and fraternal dialogue on this subject, a dialogue in which, leaving use-less controversies behind, we could listen to one another, keeping before us only the will of Christ for his Church and allowing ourselves to be deeply moved by his plea “that they may all be one … so that the world may believe that you have sent me” ( John 17:21)?”?

N. 90 states: “In the New Testament, the person of Peter has an eminent place. (…) The place assigned to Peter is based on the words of Christ himself, as they are recorded in the Gospel traditions”. It is referring to Mathew 16, 17-19, quoted entirely by no. 91. In addition, Jesus’ words to Peter are quoted three times: “Strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22, 32) (UUS 4 and 91) and twice the words “Feed my lambs” ( John 21,15- 17) (UUS 91). And it is pointed out as “significant” that, according to 1 Corinthians 15: 5, “the Risen Christ appears to Cephas and then to the Twelve” (UUS 91). Number 97 states: “The first part of the Acts of the Apostles presents Peter as the one who speaks in the name of the apostolic group and who serves the unity of the community—all the while respecting the authority of James, the head of the Church in Jerusalem. This function of Peter must continue in the Church so that under her sole Head, who is Jesus Christ, she may be visibly present in the world as the communion of all his disciples”.

The Encyclical does not speak of “the will of Jesus”, but “the will of Christ”, as is usual in the documents of the hierarchical magisterium, referring not so much to the historical Jesus as to the figure of Christ reinterpreted and “rebuilt” by Christian communities and expressed in evangelical texts. However, the Jesus of history is the first criterion when it comes to reforming the Church and its ministries or ecumenical relations in the “new situation” that we live in, that is, if we do not wish to run the risk of unknowingly relying on our own projected prejudices about Jesus, or the risk of qualifying as the “will of Christ” what are mere beliefs while using as a theological argument what is no more than mere convictions. This confusion of criteria is often the case in the hierarchical magisterium, and the Encyclical in question is yet another example thereof.

It is therefore necessary to pay attention to the specialists and to take into account the data that many good exegetes consider historically safe9 in relation to the figure of Peter. Here is a brief summary thereof:

– Although not all the news that the New Testament offers about Peter is historical, nobody doubts that he had a prominent place among the disciples, that Jesus would have given him a special role in the task of announcing the Kingdom and gathering the dispersed Israel, and that his figure continued to be remembered after his death and linked in particular to some churches, such as the Church of Mathew (Antioch?) or Rome, where he died;

– It is very probable that after the death of Jesus and the dispersion (if it took place) of the disciples, Peter led their reunification around the confession that he had been raised or exalted by God; that is how it is necessary to understand that he is “the first” to whom the resurrected Jesus “appears” (1 Corinthians 15,5; Luke 24, 34), although he probably shared that role with Mary of Magdala or the protagonism of the paschal confession10 may also perhaps have even corresponded to her and not to him;

– There is a very broad consensus on that the text of Matthew 16: 17-19 is a post-Paschal creation proper to Matthew or to the tradition he· collected; it may have been intended to claim the place or authority of the church itself (perhaps Antioch, where Matthew probably wrote it, or another church nearby) as founded by Peter, in contrast to other churches that appealed to Paul or the “Beloved Disciple”; the power of “binding and untying”, that is attributed there to Peter, was initially applied to the disciples in general (Mathew 18,18) or to the Twelve ( John 20,23);

– The Beloved Disciple, distinct from the apostle John and not a member of the Twelve, recognizes the primacy of Peter ( John 20,6; 21,3.11.15-19), but demands autonomy from him and does not accept to be controlled by him ( John 21: 22-22);

– It is worth mentioning the fact that Paul also recognized the pre-eminence of Peter (Galatians 1:18, 2: 1-10), but this did not prevent him from confronting him harshly at Antioch (Galatians 2: 11-14), and even splitting from him for good, since from that episode (49 A.D.?) we do not have any proof of any further relations between them. Indeed, one of the most striking and perhaps most significant things of Ut unum sint is forgetting and relegating the figure of Paul, whereas for many churches he was far more important than Peter;

– Otherwise, New Testament Churches organized themselves in very different ways; suffice it to see the examples of the communities of Jerusalem, Antioch, Corinth and Rome 11.

In conclusion, according to exegetical data available to us, Jesus did not think of a future Church with organizational structures (on the contrary, he announced the arrival of a profound transformation of the world which he called the “Kingdom of God”, which entailed the elimination of all diseases and injustices, the realization of which was imminent). He did not entrust to Peter any mission inheritable in the future by a “successor,” nor did he constitute the group of Twelve to preside over the Church or Churches, but to symbolize and promote the final reunification of the Jews of the Diaspora. In fact, it seems certain that most of the Twelve did not preside over any Church and that, on the contrary, some who did not belong to the Twelve did; this is the case of James, the brother of Jesus, in Jerusalem, and the case of the Beloved Disciple who was the reference figure for important communities; and this is the case, in particular, of Paul, who founded and “ruled” numerous churches. Neither in Jesus’ mind nor in the communities of the New Testament do we find anything resembling a bishop of Rome as “Peter’s successor”, and much less a “primacy of jurisdiction” in the sense in which the Encyclical Ut unum sint seems to attribute to him.

But this conclusion would be incomplete without further reflection: even if the historical Jesus had expressly conferred on Peter the power to preside over the Church in general, and the power to be the foundation and guarantee of his communion, the power to make the last decision and to pronounce the last word in all questions of doctrine and morals, would we be in favour of that, two thousand years later, subject to such a practice and forced to maintain it as it is? Would that not be tan-tamount to denying historicity, humanity, and the human and historical “incarnation” of God in him? Would we not thus be condemning ourselves to blocking the action of the Spirit and the transformation of our Church and of history as a whole?

4. What model of unity, communion and ecumenism”

May they all be one.” The title of the Encyclical retakes Jesus’ prayer, quoted 6 times in the text (Ut unum sint 9, 23,26,96,98), and which it even qualified as a “plea” (no. 96). The terms “unity” or “union” are repeated about 200 times, and the term “communion” 130 times.

The crucial question is: What kind of union? Is an institutional and centralized institutional unit necessary? A single flock under one shepherd? Ut unum sint recognizes the need to overcome the ecumenical model imposed during the second millennium, centred on the figure of a plenipotentiary pope, but remains attached to a model that is excessively Romanocentric and papist.

An excessively Romanocentric model. The Roman Church continues considering itself the centre and the basis. Following the Lumen Gentium Constitution on the Church and the Unitatis Redintegratio Decree on Ecumenism of the Second Vatican Council, it affirms that the Roman Catholic Church is the one in which the fullness of truth has been conserved and, therefore, also, the guarantee of full communion: “The Constitution Lumen Gentium, in a fundamental affirmation echoed by the Decree Unitatis Redintegratio, states that the one Church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church [LG 8; UR 4]. The Decree on Ecumenism emphasizes the presence in her of the fullness (plenitudo) of the means of salvation [UR 3]. Full unity will come about when all share in the full-ness of the means of salvation entrusted by Christ to his Church” (UUS 86, the same quote in no. 10).

The conciliar discussions that led to the election of the term subsistit in lieu of est, are well known, reflecting the wish to avoid a mere identification of the one Church with the Roman Catholic Church. Nor does Ut unum sint identify them without further ado, but insists that only in the Roman Catholic Church is salvific fullness already present. No. 14 reiterates: “The elements of this already-given Church exist, · found in their fullness in the Catholic Church and, without this fullness, in the other Communities” (this is a quote of Unitatis Redintegratio 4, but not verbatim, as the second part, “without this fullness, in the other Communities”, is not to be found in Unitatis Redintegratio in such a rotund and clear manner). Thus, full communion will only be possible for the other Churches as long as they are incorporated into the fullness – “fullness of grace and truth” (Ut unum sint 10) – that exists exclusively in the Roman Catholic Church. Moreover, “The Catholic Church, … holds that the communion of the particular Churches with the Church of Rome, and of their Bishops with the Bishop of Rome, is—in God’s plan—an essential requisite of full and visible communion” (Ut unum sint 97). The Decree Unitatis Redintegratio was not expressed in such sharp terms; the Encyclical Dominus Jesus, on the other hand, will use such terms a few years later (2000).

And this is too papist a model. The Encyclical calls for a revision of the way in which the papal ministry is exercised, but it does not contemplate any change in the model of this ministry or any substantial diminution of the powers that Catholic dogmas have attributed to it in the second millennium: primacy and infallibility.

The bishop of Rome is recognized as the “perpetual and visible principle and foundation of unity” (Ut unum sint 89), but the Encyclical warns that it is not just a “sign”, but that it also possesses “power” – in short, jurisdictional primacy and infallibility – to carry out its symbolic mission. In No. 94 we can read: “With the power and the authority without which such an office would be illusory, the Bishop of Rome must ensure the communion of all the Churches. For this reason, he is the first servant of unity. This primacy is exercised on various levels, including vigilance over the handing down of the Word, the celebration of the Liturgy and the Sacraments, the Church’s mission, discipline and the Christian life. It is the responsibility of the Successor of Peter to recall the requirements of the common good of the Church, should anyone be tempted to overlook it in the pursuit of personal interests. He has the duty to admonish, to caution and to declare at times that this or that opinion being circulated is irreconcilable with the unity of faith. When circumstances require it, he speaks in the name of all the Pastors in communion with him. He can also—under very specific conditions clearly laid down by the First Vatican Council— declare ex cathedra that a certain doctrine belongs to the deposit of faith” [quoting the formula of the definition of infallibility in Vatican Council I: DS 3060]. “By thus bearing witness to the truth, he serves unity”. The conclusion prevails: Communion with the Successor of Peter is “an essential requisite of full and visible communion” (Ut unum sint 97).

Thus, the bishop of Rome retains the last word: “The Church’s teaching authority is responsible for expressing a definitive judgment”. (Ut unum sint 81). And it has become very clear that the “Successor of Peter” is the only one with the capacity to, ultimately, “declare ex cathedra that a certain doctrine belongs to the deposit of faith”, in order to teach the truth.

The truth. The term “truth” is present in the Encyclical 66 times, plus another 16 times in expressions such as “true union, true ecumenism”, “true faith” … Unity, as the Encyclical insists, is inseparable from the truth. Dissent -like that of Paul’s against Peter- is not tolerated. Diversity is tolerated to a certain degree12 . That degree, ultimately, is decided by Rome.

This is an Encyclical on true unity, on union in truth. But all kinds of questions arise here and the issues are complicated. What is truth? Who knows? Can it be expressed properly once and for all? It states that “the expression of truth can take different forms”, but quickly adds that new forms of expression have to present “the Gospel message in its unchanging meaning” (Ut unum sint 19). Is this an immutable meaning? This is a serious contradiction if, as is correct, we call sense “meaning” (sense is always partial, cultural, historical) as expressed in a word or in all words. Immutable – does immutability exist? Is “God” himself immutable in the sense we give to this term? – in any case, what is immutable “should rather be the “reference”, the “unknown and inexpressible sense” to which all words “relate” and which always transcends them. The meaning is what the word says; the reference is what the word really means and never quite manages to express. The reference is “truth”, the inexpressible Mystery which no human words can express.

And this is where we take on the decisive weakness of the Encyclical on communion. It assumes that immutable meaning can identify with truth itself, which is immutable, and which the bishop of Rome, and only bishop of Rome, has the power to fully express. The old formula, which churches fully complied with throughout the first millennium, said that “the Church of Rome presides in charity”; Ut unum sint goes much further than that, and states that Peter’s successor “presides in truth and love” (Ut unum sint 97). Hence this is where the linguistic formula defined ex cathedra is identified together with the inexpressible Mystery. St. Thomas Aquinus would have been shocked to read this.

I conclude this section, as in previous sections, formulating objections or matters of substance for which no answer is offered, and which will have no answer until an in-depth inversion, a radical paradigm shift is carried out: Where does the bishop of Rome get his ministry to be the “perpetual and visible principle and foundation of unity” (Ut unum sint 88), and the “the visible sign and guarantor of unity” (Ut unum sint 88)? How did he acquire the power and authority to carry out such a ministry? “By ordination”, it will likely be said. Just as “God entrusted in Christ” all power, so Christ entrusted it to his apostles with Peter as their leader and Peter, in turn, to his successor through the sacred laying on of hands, and so on all the way to the Bishop of Rome in the present.

The Encyclical maintains the traditional pyramidal hierarchical paradigm intact. Sacred power comes from above and is transmitted by hierarchical succession. That paradigm background –which is typical both of the first and the second millennia-, is what constitutes the papacy -and more so, it constitutes the whole ministerial system and the Catholic and Christian institutional model in its anachronistic and unsustainable entirety-. It is not a matter of applying certain accommodations and updates to the manner in which the ministry is exercised but to conceive it following another radically different model. Is such a paradigm shift envisioned?

5. Let us imagine thet pope Francis

Three and a half years ago a bishop “from far away” was elected pope, an Argentine Jesuit, who wished to be called Francis, who walks with a different bearing, speaks with another grace and freshness, and spreads a message to today’s world with very different accents to those the last two popes had habituated us to hearing.

He is certainly in the right direction with his freshness and Franciscan freedom, his invitation to be an ” outwardly Church”, in a pilgrim exodus, on the path to liberation, “a Church that finds new ways”, “a poor Church, for and from the poor”, an “aid station” for anybody that is hurt to go to and not a religious, doctrinal or moral customs post for anyone (“who am I to judge?”). He has denounced the “killer economy” and has called for a “revolution of tenderness” and a “brave cultural revolution” at the same time; with his name Francis, with his natural manner, his warm words, his intelligent and kindly smile; with his renunciation to the Vatican Palace, to protocol and pageantry, and with his intentional self-denomination as “bishop of Rome” and his statement that “a definite word on all matters affecting the Church and the world should not be expected from the papal magisterium” and that “it is not appropriate for the Pope to replace to the local episcopates in the discernment of all the problems that arise in their territories” (Evangelii Gaudium16).

But as yet, no reform of the papal ministry and of all ministries, of the old paradigm that sustains them has crystalized. We do not know where it will go. Nor do we know whether he will really want to move far beyond a reform of the Curia and its functioning, to reach an effective and radical reform of the “Petrine ministry”, until it illuminates another papacy in keeping with today’s democratic society and with the Church we dream of, which is both prophetic and a companion. And in case he wanted to reach that necessary goal, we do not know if the powers and the fears, the unconfessed interests, the hidden conspiracies, and the resistance fronts will allow him to do such things.

I dream that one day, during his daily Eucharist in the chapel of Santa Marta, after having proclaimed the Gospel of the sending of the twelve apostles (Mathew 10: 5-13), Pope Francis will rise and say:

“May peace be with you, sisters and brothers of the Catholic Church and of all the Churches! Jesus sent us to proclaim peace and to heal, as pilgrims of the world, without saddlebags or purses or canes. He called on us to be a Church of sisters and brothers, to be a sister and companion Church of all the poor and hurt people we find in our paths.

I am but the youngest of your brethren, but the grace of chance wanted me here, as bishop of Rome and as Pope, laden with excessive robes and powers. Now the time has come to make a big, risky and quiet decision. The Spirit of Jesus, Mary of Magdala and Simon Peter, Francis and Clare of Assisi inspire us. Let us be simple and brave, let us take a step that we should have taken centuries ago.

The time has come to let go of the historical burden that keeps us from being itinerant disciples of Jesus, and from being dreamers and subversive prophets like he was. I no longer wish to speak to you as an infallible character invested with sacred powers, which are spurious human creations. Take my words as you see fit. I propose that together, and in peace, we reinvent or reverse all the structures that make it impossible for the Church to be poor, free and sisterly, without forgetting the past or tying ourselves to it, without binding us even to our sacred Scriptures, but allowing ourselves to be inspired and driven by them. The time has come for the Church to be entirely democratic, to separate powers and to be governed by a system that is more representative of the will of the people than the existing democratic systems, which have become hostages of the financial system.

And I wish to start with the papacy, just like John Paul I dreamed, just like John Paul II asked in a long-forgotten sentence in an Encyclical, just like Benedict XVI demanded when he was a simple theologian. I think that the dogmas of the primacy of jurisdiction and of papal infallibility, defined by the First Vatican Council, no longer have any meaning today, and that we should not waste ourselves in subtle disquisitions to make them say the opposite of what they say in everybody’s ears; I think that it is not even necessary to repeal them solemnly, but to recognize them simply as the linguistic schemes and human productions of other times that they are and which are now useless, and to set them aside with all simplicity like we do with images and ideas which, in any case, have stopped being useful. And move on.

And to continue along a new path, I wish to resign and I resign from all the titles and attributes that the dream of greatness has imputed to the bishop of Rome: Supreme Pontiff, Vicar of Christ, Successor of Peter, Holy Father, Pope. I wish to divest myself from all the ceremonies and tinsels of the Vatican, which are poor human remains of history, of our institutional history, which so often has little or no evangelical con-tent. And by no means do I wish to be the president of a state with the whole state apparatus of nuncios and ambassadors and power relations.

I don’t want anybody to be a bishop by designation of the bishop of Rome, and I want every bishop, man or woman, to be no more than the representative of his or her Christian community, and that he or she should be chosen in a way that we should all concretize and articulate together, for a reasonable period of time. I want the bishop or bishop of Rome to be, like the bishop of any other diocese, elected by the Christian men and women of Rome, and he or she should no longer have any power over the other bishops of the Church which we call Catholic, and much less so over the other Churches that we term “separated sisters” and that we should just simply call “sisters”.

I want us all to take a big step forward on the path to ecumenism, a path we have been struggling in for a century now. It is a small and easy step. Suffice it for all the Churches, beginning with the “Catholic Church”, to recognize each other as true Churches of Jesus, without requiring us to change our particularities, so that we may recognize ourselves in deep spiritual and evangelical communion even though we are very different in our doctrines and institutions. And let us pray every day to request, to encourage, and to welcome among ourselves, the highest unity in the greatest diversity. And that, from a mutual fraternal and sororal recognition, the Churches create new structures of “communion”, of representation and coordination that they deem to be convenient.

And that is all, sisters, brothers. Let us all return to Jesus. Let us start again. In the name of Jesus. Amen”.


1 Speech to the Secretariat for the promotion of the unity of Christians (27 April 1967, AAS 59 (1967)

2 Its minutes have been compiled in Il Primato del successore di Pietro. Atti del Simposio Teologico (1996), Città del Vaticano 1998.

3 Published in the Council’s official bulletin: Service d’Information – Information Service, 2002/I-II, 29-42.

4 W. Kasper, Caminos de unidad. Perspectivas para el ecumenismo, Cristiandad, Madrid 2008, p. 198.

5 Juan María Laboa states on the matter: “Apart from the sentence in the Encyclical, Rome has not taken any steps in that direction nor has the matter been proposed again” (“El papado entre el medioevo y la actualidad”, in Diego Tolsada [coord.], El papado en la Iglesia y en el mundo de hoy, PPC, Madrid 2014, p. 102).

6 Cf. S. Acerbi, El papado en la Antigüedad, Ediciones del Orto, Madrid 2000; J. Guyon, “Roma christiana, Roma aeterna. El lugar alcanzado por la Iglesia de Roma durante la Antigüedad tardía”, in A. Corbin (dir.), Historia del cristianismo, Ariel, Barcelona 2007, pp. 61-64; J. Gnilka, Pedro y Roma, Herder, Barcelona 2003; E. Hoornaert , “¿Cómo entender el Papado? Algunos apuntes de orden histórico”, en Relat 429 (; J.M. Tillard, El obispo de Roma. Estudio sobre el papado, Sal Terrae, Santander 1986; K. Schatz, El primado del papa. Su historia desde los orígenes hasta nuestros días, Sal Terrae, Santander 1996. Fernando Rivas offers us a good synthesis on the primacy of Rome in the first centuries in “El primado de Roma en la Antigüedad”, in Diego Tolsada [coord.], El papado en la Iglesia y en el mundo de hoy, o.c., pp. 41-64.

7 The term “pope” initially designated people held in high esteem or authority in general, and was used in particular to designate certain monks; as from the 3rd century it was applied to bishops in general; the first to use it to designate the bishop of Rome was Siricius (384-399), and the first to claim exclusivity in the denomination is Gregory VII (1073-1085).

8 F. Rivas, “El primado de Roma en la Antigüedad” (The primacy of Rome in Antiquity), l.c., p. 61. “If somebody had asked a Christian towards 100, 200 or even 300 A.D. if the bishop of Rome was the supreme head of all Christians, if there was a bishop above all other bishops who had the last Word in matters that affected the Church as a whole, his answer would doubtlessly been negative” (K. Schatz, quoted by M. Kehl, La Iglesia. Eclesiología católica, Sígueme, Salamanca 1996, p. 318).

9 There is a good synthesis thereof in Severiano Blanco, “Fundamentos bíblicos del ministe-rio de Pedro”, en D. Tolsada (dir.), El papado en la Iglesia y en el mundo de hoy, o.c., pp. 9-40.

10 Thus G. Theissen A. Merz, El Jesús histórico, Sígueme, Salamanca 1999, p. 548.

11 Cf., por ejemplo, S. Blanco, “Al principio era la diversidad. De las múltiples comunidades cristianas a la Gran Iglesia”, en Studium Legionense 45 (2004), pp. 225-259.

12 “Legitimate diversity is in no way opposed to the Church’s unity”, as is stated in Ut unum sint no. 50, but it is significant that no reference is made to the following paragraph from Unitatis Redintegratio: “the heritage handed down by the apostles was received with differences of form and manner, so that from the earliest times of the Church it was explained variously in different places, owing to diversities of genius and conditions of life”. (Unitatis Redintegratio 14).

(Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians – VOICES 2017/1, p. 239-254)

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