Moments following his election as Pope, Cardinal Bergoglio, now, Francis I eschewed the custom of going up to a high platform and sitting on a white throne.  Instead, he stood on the floor and greeted his brothers, one by one.  We already know he hopped on the bus instead of taking a triumphal ride in the Pope-mobile.  And the name Francis, he said, came to him when his friend said “remember the poor” – it’s also a name which speaks of purity, simplicity, and a man of the people.  Just yesterday, in his first Sunday as Pontiff (17 March), Francis gave his security detail a headache when he wandered out in public, shaking hands, exchanging hugs and pats on the back, not only before but after saying mass at St. Anna’s Church.

outside St. Anna’s Gate on Sunday, 17 March 2013

Image consultants call this very good “buzz.”  The secular media – which, let’s be honest, simply does not understand religion – calls Francis “spontaneous” and “a Pope of the people” and then, in the very same breath, says something about how conservative he is and that little is going to change in the Roman hierarchy.

The press he’s getting is obscuring the point.  Most likely, Francis is not doing what he’s doing for good popularity ratings nor does he see any contradiction between his theology and taking a stroll on the street corner to kiss babies near St. Anna’s gate.  This is not about publicity.  Neither is this is not about conservative versus liberal.

This is about the Roman Church and indeed the rest of Christianity coming into its own, bringing to fruit the ideas shared a half-century ago.  From 1962 to 1965, the Second Vatican Council was an opportunity, in the words of Pope John XVIII, to open the windows of the church and let in some fresh air.  It purported to carry on the essential teaching of the Councils of Trent (Catholicism’s 16th century conservative reaction to the Protestant Reformation) and Vatican I (the church’s 19th century engagement of the modern world which resulted in a decidedly more monarchical papacy), yet Vatican II also articulated a hope, as John XVIII said, for a “new enthusiasm, a new joy and serenity of mind…; that this certain and immutable doctrine be…reformulated in contemporary terms.”

Francis, I think, is trying to move our attention to Vatican II’s teaching about power and authority in the church, expressed in the Council’s 1964 document Lumen Gentium.  Specifically, Francis’ early actions suggest he might be preparing to turn the church for the first time into a body in which real power is claimed and authority is shared.  Vatican II did a new thing in trying to balance monarchical authority and conciliar decision making, and Francis is the first Pontiff who grew up with that approach.  Interestingly, in 1964 Francis was still Jorge Mario Bergoglio; he was not yet ordained and was teaching high school literature in Argentina.  It would be another five years before he became Fr. Bergoglio, SJ.  In that same year Francis’ predecessor, Benedict XVI, was Josef Ratzinger – a well-respected professor, priest and theological consultant at the Second Vatican Council.  Francis lives and breathes the spirit of Vatican II in a way his predecessor simply could not.

Lumen Gentium is characteristic of conciliar thinking: it tries to straddle the line, draw continuity between what was and what should be.  In its third chapter, “On the Hierarchical Structure of the Church and in particular on the Episcopate,” it both affirms the real power of the papacy and (re)introduces concepts and practices of shared authority.  “[F]ollowing closely in the footsteps of the First Vatican Council,” in its words, Lumen Gentium acknowledges a monarchical papacy – not wanting to go against Vatican I:  “The pope’s power of primacy over all … 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.” (L.G. 3.22) That said, it also tries to enrich papal dominance by reprising the Catholic conciliar tradition:

“…the Roman Pontiff, the successor of Peter, and the bishops, the successors of the apostles, are joined together. Indeed, the very ancient practice whereby bishops duly established in all parts of the world were in communion with one another and with the Bishop of Rome in a bond of unity, charity and peace, and also the councils assembled together, in which more profound issues were settled in common, the opinion of the many having been prudently considered, both of these factors are already an indication of the collegiate character and aspect of the episcopal order; and the ecumenical councils held in the course of centuries are also manifest proof of that same character.” (L.G. 3.22)

In case you thought this was about American checks-and-balances — checking unbridled monarchy by instituting shared decision making – the next line is a quick rebuke: “…But 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 same journalists and media types who are trying to figure out Francis’ odd behavior would also call this strange.  In fact, Vatican II so confuses secular political thinking that hardly anyone these days is talking about it.  No one, that is, except the man in white.  This is deep in Francis’ heart and it’s certainly influencing his behavior.  Francis – along with many faithful Catholics, Roman and otherwise – sees no contradiction between claiming real power and sharing authority.  Lumen Gentium describes it in richly spiritual terms, seeing this “collegial union” as an invitation to practice more deeply what it means to be the Body of Christ on earth, expressing in our very existence “the bond of peace, love and unity.” (L.G. 3.23)

A highly vaulted Roman Curia, along with a Pope seen as ruler of the rulers of the earth, is what has gotten the church in great trouble.  That kind of thinking trickles down into very dangerous behavior.  For this reason, the butler who stole papal documents is a criminal but, to many, a hero.  To his credit, I suspect Benedict XVI tried to bring about the reforms that young Ratzinger described, but there is a world of difference between understanding something, envisioning something and having it as part of your world entire.  Part of me wonders if Benedict resigned because he knew that the reforms he dreamed of could only come about from the heart of one who embodied those ideals, one who grew up in that church, one who was younger than he.

But this is not only a message for and about the Roman church.  Similar to the ecumenical awakening which followed Vatican II, this is an opportunity for Catholics to lead the rest of Christianity.  Specifically, this is an opportunity to model for all Christians a church in which real power is claimed and authority is shared, a church in which there is no apparent contradiction between the two.

1928 – 1996

Many of us know all too well the dangers of monarchical leadership.  But what we also need to appreciate are the limitations of conciliar thinking, at least as a singly dominant organizational theory.  Power is still there; it’s always been there, it always will be.  Desperately needed in more conciliar churches, then, are leaders who have enough self-confidence to be honest about what power is and how they’re using it or striving not to use it.  One of the most dangerous things is eschewed power — which can become, in truth, a wide opening in which one may act as if consensus guides the process while, behind the scenes and because of power’s implicit yet subtle presence, effectuate its use in passive-aggressive ways which make the body ill.

This is our danger as Episcopalians.  We’ve confused shared decision making and consensus discernment with an utter abandonment of power, leaving power, then, in those dark corners from which no good can emerge and much bad still does.

There’s a story many Chicagoans know and treasure about the late Cardinal Bernardin — even I know and love it, and I’ve never been Roman Catholic.  In 1982, introducing himself to the priests of his new archdiocese, he said “I am your brother, Joseph.”  A clear departure from the style of his predecessors, Bernardin’s words were like a lightning bolt to that assembly and were quickly reported to the city and nation and world.  His biographer, Tim Unsworth, says “Bernardin set an entirely new style, one marked more by gentle leadership than feudal authority.”  As Bernardin showed us, there is no contradiction between claiming and using real power and sharing authority in the councils of the church.  Erring on one side or the other, I’d say, is where danger lurks.  Perhaps in Francis, then, we have an opportunity to get honest about call and responsibility, about owning and sharing — all of which are essential parts of maintaining those bonds of “peace, love and unity.”


  1. Thank you for a fine essay – one could link this all the way back to Augustine of Hippo: “with you I am a Christian, for you I am bishop” – not either/or – and not to be confused with American democracy (which I think is part of the episcopalian problem – more cultural politics than ecclesial polity

  2. Very compelling article, Greg. Very good insight with, “Part of me wonders if Benedict resigned because he knew that the reforms he dreamed of could only come about from the heart of one who embodied those ideals, one who grew up in that church, one who was younger than he.”

    You also bring up some very interesting points about power. When I hear the word “power” brought up in the context of what people do, I freak out. I’ve been trained to think power = bad. I try to stay away from power for fear of it driving my ego through the roof. So it catches my interest to hear you speak of power as something to consider in the church.

    This does calm me down: “Desperately needed in more conciliar churches, then, are leaders who have enough self-confidence to be honest about what power is and how they’re using it or striving not to use it.”

    Although, snap. It would be really hard for a church to have a leader that claims to have the almighty authority of Christ with “supreme and universal power over the Church.” That statement right there is a bit like power gone out of whack. We believe in Jesus Christ, not the human pope. To believe in the pope is a misplacement of faith which results in immense misplacement of power in the pope.

    Yeah, I would love to have the pope acknowledge the Catholic church’s conciliar thinking and what that means. But first it acknowledge what it means to be sinners and how no governing body can be perfect. All humans are sinners, thus all governing bodies are sinful.

    I really like how you wrote this article and would like to hear more of your thoughts of power in the Church.

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