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The Pope: first among equals

Last month saw the 50th anniversary of an important date in the life of the Roman Catholic Church: the calling of an ecumenical council on 25 January 1959 by Pope John XXIII — Vatican II.

Vatican II was convened over four sessions between 13 October 1962 and 8 December 1965. It had profound affects on the communal life of Roman Catholicism. One of the better known reforms of the council was its reform of liturgical practice. Latin Mass became no longer the norm. Catholic Masses now use the language and style of the culture they are in.

Vatican II saw the formal Roman recognition of other Christian churches. There was a new openness to validity of other religions. There was a renewed emphasis on the role of scripture in the life of Roman Catholics.

The development of science and technology, the growth of democracy, social justice, and the integral role of a person's conscience were all affirmed.

Vatican II asked that the Roman Church be seen as a whole people of God living together within the modern world. Roman Catholicism was no longer to be seen as a kind of God ordained hierarchical super church set apart from the rest. Pastoral leadership was to be servant leadership.

All Catholics, regardless of their roles and position within the church shared equally here and now in the divine life of God. This was, in effect, an attempt to renew the ecclesiology of the Church.

In short, during Vatican II the pastoral leadership of the church, its Pope and bishops, attempted to bring Roman Catholicism into the 20th century. Gone was the extreme reaction to the Protestant Reformation. Gone was the extreme reaction to the emergence of political democracies and modern secularism.

However, 50 years after the announcement of Vatican II, questions continue to be asked about the nature of contemporary pastoral leadership in the church itself. Is the present pastoral leadership faithful to the vision of servant leadership portrayed by Jesus and reaffirmed by Vatican II? Is the present relationship between the bishops and the Pope an adequate reflection of the style of relationship enjoyed by the first apostles?

Before Vatican II there was Vatican I (1869–1870). This council wrestled with the ideas of papal primacy and infallibility. These ideas had been developing in the many years leading up to the council itself.

In the end, after much controversial debate, Vatican I produced a view of the Papacy as having an 'absolute fullness' of authority over all Catholicism. This fullness of authority was deemed inherent to the position of Pope itself. It was not shared by the bishops and the Pope.

This reality of a Supreme Pontiff survived Vatican II. Many at the council believed however, that if the renewal of church life was to be meaningful, then the absolute authority given to the position of Pope at Vatican I needed to change. It has been reported by those at the council that this was a majority opinion. Many bishops at Vatican II wanted the emphasis changed from Pope as Supreme Pontiff to Pope as First Among Equals.

There are still many Catholics today who struggle with the authoritative emphasis placed on the position of Pope. First Among Equals, they say, preserves the pre-eminent position that the Pope, by virtue of being the bishop of Rome and the successor of Peter, has.

Traditionally, when the early bishops of Christianity could not decide among themselves in matters of faith and morals, they would look to the bishop of Rome for guidance. An important part of the Roman bishop's role was to be the voice of unity and conciliation, a facilitating leadership for all the bishops.

The reality of Supreme Pontiff means, however, that the authority that all the bishop's share has been placed into the hands of one bishop — the Pope, the bishop of Rome. If the Christian God is communal, it is argued, why can't this be reflected in a collegial style of leadership shared equally amongst all the bishops?

Why did the notion of Supreme Pontiff survive Vatican II? Many Catholics today say it survived because this is the way God wanted it. Others say it survived because a number of events conspired for it to happen. The curia (in essence the public service of the Vatican) came out the better in their attempts to keep full authority with the Pope and away from the bishops. The death of Pope John XXIII after the first session assisted their cause.

John XXIII was largely the energy behind the council within the Vatican itself. Catholics around the world continue to wonder what pastoral leadership in the church today would look like if he had lived.

Andrew McAlister works as a Community Support Worker for people with acquired brain injury. With degrees in the social sciences and theology, as well as a grad dip in counselling, he plans to go back to study this year to feed his interests in theology and spirituality.

Topic tags: andrew mcalister, pope john xxiii, supreme pontiff, first among equals, roman catholicism


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