A Response: The Pope is Our Sign of Unity

Recently Julie Byrne, Hartman Chair of Catholic Studies at Hofstra University, commanded the front-and-center headline panel on CNN’s website with her article “There’s more to the Catholic Church than the pope.

Byrne argues that in spite of all of the media attention that hovers around Rome (especially since Benedict XVI’s announcement) the Pope isn’t all that important for Catholicism, because his “influence…makes up an infinitesimal fraction of the opinions and activities of Catholics.”  Consequently, “the most important thing about Catholicism is the 1 billion who claim it as their faith.”

She goes on to point out that at Vatican II (WARNING:  We have to talk about Vatican II) the bishops called for the increased role of the lay faithful in the Church, yet “popes kept expanding their authority.”  And that, “Benedict XVI endorsed that council but read tradition to support papal sovereignty. If popular opinion overwhelmingly associates Catholicism with the papacy, that’s partly because effective Vatican theologizing made it so.”

Let’s sum this up so far:

  • There is more to the Church than the Pope, because his influence is quite minimal.
  • Therefore, majority rules, and the most important thing about the Church is everyone other than the Pope.
  • While Vatican II called for an increased role of the lay faithful, the Popes have continued to expand their power with smooth theology.

For Byrne, it appears that central to Catholicism is a power struggle.  Does majority rule, or the Pope rule?

It seems to me that in order to refute Byrne’s claims, one has to address Vatican II and what it really said about the Pope.

Let’s make an initial note that really the most important thing about the Church is Christ – encountering Him and proclaiming Him to the nations (see Ad Gentes 1).  So Byrne is right, in a sense.  It’s really not all about the Pope.

The Church is fundamentally about Christ, her founder and head.

But…Christ did establish a Church and he did place Peter in charge. So…

We must address the papacy.

Byrne implies that Vatican II really said something different about papal sovereignty than the tradition, and that papal theologizing has been the cause of an increase in papal power.  In fact, Vatican II does nothing of the sort.  People often get hung up on Vatican II as if it were a clear departure from what had come before – something entirely other.  As if the Church evolved into a different species.  Ratzinger calls this a “hermeneutic of rupture,” spawning out of a rather secularized “spirit of Vatican II.”  While Vatican II did mark a “bringing up-to-date” of the Church so that it could better spread the Word of God with the modern world, proponents of the “spirit of Vatican II,” as is clearly driving the end of Byrne’s article, has been all to quick to open wide the doors to the world with no principles of discernment.  Thus the Church is now being effectively damaged and divided from the inside.

Instead of a “hermeneutic of rupture,” we are better off looking at Vatican II as it is, namely, a development of the tradition that actually says nothing wildly different about the papacy and the Church that what was said in the previous 20 centuries. (Ratzinger calls his the “hermeneutic of continuity.”)

What is a Pope?  

This is really the question, right?

“The Lord made Simon alone, whom he named Peter, the ‘rock of his Church.’ He gave him the keys of his Church and instituted him shepherd of the whole flock” (CCC 880).  The Pope is the one with the keys, the sign of authority, to the kingdom – the kingdom of Christ, the Church.

Vatican II is quite clear about exercise of Papal authority:

“The college or body of bishops has no authority unless it is understood together with the Roman Pontiff, the successor of Peter as its head. The pope’s power of primacy over all, both pastors and faithful, remains whole and intact. In virtue of his office, that is as Vicar of Christ and pastor of the whole Church, the Roman Pontiff has full, supreme and universal power over the Church. And he is always free to exercise this power” (Lumen Gentium 22).



While Vatican II certainly did stress the necessary role of the lay faithful in the mission of the Church, the Council Fathers took nothing away from the papacy that had to be craftily recreated by the popes that followed the Council.


Continuing on, LG notes that the Pope holds an indispensable position as the “perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful” (LG 23).  The full import of this line from LG comes into striking relief in light of Byrne’s comments about the “movement” of “vernacular religion,” which lacks unity and wallows in the secularized muck of modernity.

In the universal Church (thus taking into account the customs and cultures of its members) there must be a “perpetual and visible source and foundation” of unity that is as strong as the totality and universality of the Church.  This is the Pope.  Thus, for as great as Vatican II was in recalling St. Paul’s bodily analogies of the Church – “As all the members of the human body, though they are many, form one body, so also are the faithful in Christ.  Also, in the building up of Christ’s Body various members and functions have their part to play” (LG 7) – the body is dead without its head.

Here’s a silly analogy:

Consider the football team in which the coach is the GM and the head coach.  He literally creates the whole team and gets all the parts of the organism in place.  But on the field, during the game, who holds the offense (this is an offensive analogy…okay?!) together?  The quarterback.  The quarterback always turns to the coach for direction, then brings the words of the coach to the members of the offense.  He is the driving force, the organizing force, the unifying force.

Could you imagine a football team without a quarterback?  Not really.

Could you imagine a football team that doesn’t listen to the quarterback and disregards the coach?  Yep.

Well, you can see where this analogy is going:  Christ is the coach, and the Pope is his representative on the field who holds the offense (Church – bishops, priests, religious, and lay faithful) together.  And, we can even see from this analogy the sad state of affairs that results when the body of the offense disregards its commander-and-chief.  One can even question if there is an offense at all.

In similar fashion, Byrne’s theological ponderings disintegrate by the end of the article, and completely betray her position.  Instead of seeing the “more to the Church,” one sees no Church at all.  This is symptomatic of “vernacular religion” that seeks its own interests (relativism) and prefers posh and pop and majority rules over Truth.  Of course this self-seeking religion would split from that which would challenge, and result in an amorphous and vapid “flow” in search of itself.  Far from talking about the “more to the Church,” Byrne illustrates an exit strategy from it.

…and there has always been an exit strategy, and there have always been false positions that lead the faithful away.  This sad fact, however, takes nothing away from the work that God, for whom “nothing is impossible,” has done for His Church and with His Church throughout the ages and continues to do in our own.  Pope Benedict, our Holy Father, expressed his faith with regard to this very topic yesterday, saying, “I always knew that the Lord is in the boat, and I always knew that the boat of the Church is not mine, not ours, but it is His. And He will not let her sink, it is He who leads it, certainly also through the men he has chosen, because so He has willed it. This was and is a certainty, that nothing can obscure. And that is why today my heart is filled with gratitude to God because He has never left me or the Church without His consolation, His light, His love.”

Christ established his Church on Peter, the “Rock,” and it still remains true today that through Peter’s testimony and in following him, one encounters Christ.




My Journey with the Pope

I had just finished another mediocre cafeteria meal when I stopped by a television in the student center.  On the screen was a smokestack and a few wisps of white smoke.  I vaguely recalled that this was some sort of signal (however meager compared to the bat signal) that a new pope had been elected.

I waited there, and others slowly joined me.

And when most of them walked away despondent, I knew something substantial had just happened.

This was nearly 8 years ago.  I was fresh off my re-version to the faith, a kid who paid little attention to religion class during years of Catholic school (and honestly, nobody did), who didn’t really understand why anyone would want to go to see an old man moved about Toronto in an odd motorized vehicle, and who made fun of anyone who outwardly displayed any sort of religious sentiment.

Then, that freshman year of college, I encountered Christ, or better said, finally allowed Christ, the Truth, in to my life.

That Spring, I was also fresh off of realizing that the Church wasn’t this fluffy little thing on a felt banner – go figure.  In fact, it is comprised of human beings who could be quite divisive, and often were.  There was this stuff called conservative Catholicism and other stuff known as liberal or even “liberation theology.”  It was all quite new to me.  What I did know is that my fundamentals of religious studies class was anti-Catholic, and that I sensed that notion all around.

And I hated it.

So I loved this new Pope who was called the Vatican Watchdog, and who cracked down on heretics with the full weight of the Church’s doctrine.  I especially loved this new Pope because he made my religious studies teacher squirm and the campus ministry department freak out – as “he wasn’t into liberation theology.”

At that time, I didn’t realize the danger (and error) of the polarized p

olitical tension within the Church (liberal vs. conservative).  I also didn’t really know this Ratzinger guy, just what the media was saying about him.  And, I didn’t understand the fullness and beauty of Vatican II – I just despised its “spirit.”

I was all about a crusade…a personal attempt to identify and crush the liberal agenda in the Church.  And, I had a new Pope who would lead the way.

This way of thinking about the Church could only last so long, because human ambition runs dry when lacking communion with Christ and the will of God.

This is exactly what the Pope taught me.

As I spent more and more time reading his stuff, I discovered a man with a profound intellect, and insatiable desire for the truth, and a deep love for the Church and her teachings (i.e. age old orthodoxy as opposed to vapid and fleeting ideology).  In short, I discovered a man who was far more in love with Christ than he was a ruthless watchdog who gave heretics the boot.  In fact, it was his love of Christ whom he encountered in the Church that gave him the strength and courage to be able to confront the modern mentality, the dictatorship of relativism, and the secular ideology within the Church, in order to bring the fullness Gospel to the modern world so desperately in need.

I saw the Pope as less of a commander-and-chief, and more a true father in the faith.

He led me with his gestures, his ecumenical presence, his courage, and his patience.  He led me because he encountered Christ and he testified to that Fact before the world.  And, he leads me now in one of the most profound acts of humility I have ever witnessed:

“After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry. I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering. However, in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the bark of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me. For this reason, and well aware of the seriousness of this act, with full freedom I declare that I renounce the ministry of Bishop of Rome, Successor of Saint Peter, entrusted to me by the Cardinals on 19 April 2005, in such a way, that as from 28 February 2013, at 20:00 hours.”

Though filled with a certain sadness upon hearing this news yesterday, I was more than awestruck at the courage this man has in recognizing his capacity and in following God’s will.  In our utilitarian culture, how often do we see this type of humility?

This single action, this final gesture, recapitulates this entire journey that I have had with the Pope:  he is a man of tremendous courage, and remarkable humility.  His concern is not about taking out a political enemy, but bowing before and abiding in the Truth that encounters us and sets us free.  His concern is not with lofty ideology or staunch moralism, but “the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”

This image hangs in my office.  Reminds me of the beauty (and pain - due to selfishness) of being kissed by love and truth.

This image hangs in my office. Reminds me of the beauty (and pain – due to selfishness) of being kissed by love and truth.