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.