Catholicism or Papalism?

The great stir surrounding the death of Pope John Paul II, or even more, the great amount of commentary from pundits and experts of all sorts, makes one wonder: what is the soul of Catholicism? What is it that really makes Christianity "catholic" at its core? Or on the other hand, what makes Catholics different from others who call themselves "Christian"?

For many, the answer seems obvious: it is the belief that Jesus Christ made St. Peter head of his church in his place, and that the Pope, as the successor of St. Peter, is, as they say, "the Vicar of Christ".

It may surprise one to find out that this has not always been the case. True, we find that early on the Church of Rome, the place where Peter is said to have been martyred in 64AD, was generally considered to stand in a special place of eminence in respect to the rest of the churches in the Christian world, and that its bishop held a certain prerogatives and responsibilities. But the idea that the bishop of Rome should be considered the "universal pastor" whose decisions could override the consensus of the rest of the church was relatively new, defined only in 1870, and even then not accepted without protest. Similarly, the idea that bishops must be appointed by the pope is a recent innovation.

How did all this come about? In some aspects, it was due to political factors, both the result of the growing power of churchmen in the West after Constantine moved the imperial capitol east to Byzantium in 320AD, followed by Charlemagne’s decision, in his efforts to create a new "Holy Roman Empire" with the help of Pope Stephen in 800, to suppress what was left of the other ancient rites in Western Christendom in favor of the Roman model of Christianity. This move, in turn, set the stage for the thousand year old split between the highly centralized Catholic Church and the more diversified and autonomus regional churches that make up Eastern Orthodoxy. It also largely produced the conditions which, along with the rise of the various European nation-states, led to the rise of multitude of separate Protestant Reformation churches.

In the face of all this divisiveness, what then does it mean to be "Catholic"? Back in the fifth-century, St. Cyril, the bishop of Jerusalem, wrote that "The Church is Catholic (kata/kath + holos in Greek, i.e., pertaining to the whole) because it teaches all of Christ’s doctrines to all the peoples of the earth, forgives all sins, and fosters all varieties of holiness."

That the late Pope John Paul II, with his emphasis on outreach to all humanity as well as other Christians, strove mightily to promote this "Catholic" vision of Christianity, is beyond question. But to the extent that the papal office itself is misconstrued as being the heart or soul of Catholicism rather than its servant, we are in danger of distorting the meaning of what it is to be truly Catholic.

R W Kropf 4/4/05 papalism.doc 05-04-04.html