Ruminations on the Bishop of Rome’s Resignation

The last  pope to resign was in 1415, little over a century before the start of the Reformation. For us Americans who now think from cyber moment to cyber moment the talk of centuries sounds equivalent to geologic time and we just go, wow. I do. It is mighty impressive to think that in the West, this is longest enduring institutional succession…from Peter…well…for almost 2,000 years.   Nevertheless, for 6 centuries plus, the pope has died in office. Just think back to John Paul the II’s last days…as with many a pontiff, the shuffling crowds in St. Peter’s Square, in all kinds of weather, looking up worriedly, lovingly, at the papal apartments as the stricken “successor to Peter” laid in extremis, waiting for his inevitable death.  This Bishop of Rome has not allowed that to happen…so modern/post-modern?  Equivalent to that would be Queen Elizabeth II after her diamond jubilee declaring at Buckingham:  “Oh that’s quite enough, I’m going off to Balmoral, with my corgis and Charles can take over. Keep on watching Downtown Abbey. Let’s go Philip.” No, “The Queen is dead, long live the King”.  Even as an American, I would feel cheated. Now we have a new show to watch:  the papal enclave. Already the media is lining up the candidates with all their credentials, e.g., a polyglot, an evangelist, a citizen of the 3rd world, winsome (in order to “win some” as one ELCA bishop told us) etc.    The pope resignee is also a cardinal:  will he vote? But eventually, with a new pope installed, Joseph Ratzinger will die the death of Old Adam and so will come the spectacle of the new Bishop of Rome presiding at the burial of his predecessor. It will be a media event.

A few years back the current Bishop of Rome said Mass at Nat Stadium in DC on a Sunday afternoon and one network broadcast it. Maybe it wasn’t the football season. I tried to watch it and stay awake, but my Sunday afternoon after Liturgy nap got me.  When I awoke, the Mass was ending.  I personally love it when Mass, Holy Communion, Gottesdienst, is on TV.  Take away all the staging and media hype of a papal mass, it is the simple meal of His Body and Blood, which has undone more than one empire of man in the preaching of Law and Gospel. Better that any day than Joel Osteen grinning and preening on TV.  At the end, the camera had a close-up as the Holy Father, eyes closed, I guess in prayer.  All of a sudden, he opened his eyes, started grinning and waving and everyone at the stadium started applauding and cheering. He came down from the Altar got into the pope mobile to do a couple of victory laps around the stadium to the adoring crowds…grinning, maybe not preening, but certainly the center of attention,  Jesus was in the back seat as the attention switched from Jesus to His servant of the servants of Christ on earth.  However, he likes a little bit of preening: he sure likes hats:


This has all the marks of a human institution, not one of divine right. The adoring interfaith crowds love it.

In The History of the Orthodox Church by Bishop Kallistos (Ware), the Bishop’s narrative of the Schism of 1054 is the Orthodox understanding of the papal office.  After reading that chapter, I had to reread The Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope.  From Bishop Kallistos’ history:

“The Orthodox attitude to the Papacy is admirably expressed by a twelfth-century writer, Nicetas, Archbishop of Nicomedia:

‘…. (The Roman Church) has separated herself from us by her own deeds, when through pride she assumed a monarchy, which does not belong to her office… How shall we accept decrees from her that have been issued without consulting us and even without our knowledge? If the Roman Pontiff, seated on the lofty throne of his glory, wishes to thunder at us and, so to speak, hurl his mandates at us from on high, and if he wishes to judge us and even to rule us and our Churches, not by taking counsel with us but at his own arbitrary pleasure, what kind of brotherhood, or even what kind of parenthood can this be? We should be the slaves, not the sons, of such a Church, and the Roman See would not be the pious mother of sons but a hard and imperious mistress of slaves.’

This is as critical and correct as the Confessions. The Bishop of Rome stated flatly in 1054 to the Bishop of Constantinople: filioque or you are excommunicate.  The problem was not finally the filioque but supremacy. The Roman bishop had decided a doctrine as supreme over all the other bishops.  The Confessions are clear:  the pope does not define nor declare doctrine but doctrine is decided Scripture…alone.   “Ex cathedra” means he decides doctrine “infallibly”.  The last time a Bishop of Rome did so was on 1 November, 1950, when Pope Pius XII declared that the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary was a dogma of the Roman Church.  Quite an assumption as it is not in Scripture. The papal office as supreme exhibits our frailties and foibles at their worst.

Someone said on TV that after the February 28th, the pope would go back to being Joseph Ratzinger.  Just a priest.  Hmmm…just a priest. He has always been “just a priest”, just a pastor, just a bishop.  Beloved in the Lord, isn’t that enough and always has been and we pray that it will be enough?  For your pastor as well? But we want a “superstar” who’s charisma would charm the socks off the devil himself…but it won’t. Jesus fought the devil. He did not charm him. Now I have thought that “Mark Schroeder Ministries” has a lovely ring to it and I would have a ring as well to kiss. My opinion is that Father Joseph is a knowledgeable, doctrinal, scholarly and caring priest who believes in Jesus, as did his predecessor, Fr. Karol.  Satis est, it is enough.  I just pray it would be for us all in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.  Roman Catholic Biblical scholar, Raymond Brown hoped that one day a new pope would not choose a new name but keep his name given at Baptism.  That would be a start.

The papal office, as all things,  has to do with the 1st Commandment and the temptation of idolatry in our media, self-image, PR driven world as we see when Bishop of Rome goes on the road. The Old Adamic yearning for the immediate  contact of  the all-attractive one, for a pope, a president,  a politician or a “star”, is the opening of many an anti-Christ. Our Lord knew that temptation in the flesh.  Here are all the kingdoms of the world.  He relied only on the Word of His Father.

It could be that the papacy, as human institution, has been used by the Lord for His purposes in our time, as in the collapse of the Soviet Empire; and I think the Bishop of Rome has kept the Roman Church from sliding off into the abyss of post-modernism. Yet, it is  a clay vessel of a human invention.  Now the divine office of pastor and bishop is not, yet all who are so called to be pastor and bishops are clay vessels, as it is written “…to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” (2 Corinthians 4: 7).

I close with a quote from Life Together by Pr. Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Dobberstein translation).  In Bonhoeffer’s day, the mass media was radio and the cinema.  It was used effectively to enthrall the masses.  This fleshly lust for the person is even more dangerous when we apply it to the Church because then the kingdoms are fused. His caution is ecumenical and catholic. The emphases are my own.

The Ministry of Authority

“Whosoever will be great among you, shall be your minister” (Mark 10:43). Jesus made authority in the fellowship dependent upon brotherly service. Genuine spiritual authority is to be found only where the ministry of hearing, helping, bearing, and proclaiming is carried out. Every cult of personality that emphasizes the distinguished qualities, virtues, and talents of another person, even though these be of an altogether spiritual nature, is worldly and has no place in the Christian community; indeed, it poisons the Christian community. The desire we so often hear expressed today for “episcopal figures,” “priestly men,” “authoritative personalities” springs frequently enough from a spiritually sick need for the admiration of men, for the establishment of visible human authority, because the genuine authority of service appears to be so unimpressive. There is nothing that so sharply contradicts such a desire as the New Testament itself in its description of a bishop (I Tim. 3:1 ff.).One finds there nothing whatsoever with respect to worldly charm and the brilliant attributes of a spiritual personality. The bishop is the simple, faithful man, sound in faith and life, who rightly discharges his duties to the Church. His authority lies in the exercise of his ministry. In the man himself there is nothing to admire.

Ultimately, this hankering for false authority has at its root a desire to re-establish some sort of immediacy, a dependence upon human beings in the Church. Genuine authority knows that all immediacy is especially baneful in matters of authority. Genuine authority realizes that it can exist only in the service of Him who alone has authority. Genuine authority knows that it is bound in the strictest sense by the saying of Jesus: “One is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren” (Matt. 23:8). The Church does not need brilliant personalities but faithful servants of Jesus and the brethren. Not in the former but in the latter is the lack. The Church will place its confidence only in the simple servant of the Word of Jesus Christ because it knows that then it will be guided, not according to human wisdom and human conceit, but by the Word of the Good Shepherd.

The question of trust, which is so closely related to that of authority, is determined by the faithfulness with which a man serves Jesus Christ, never by the extraordinary talents which he possesses. Pastoral authority can be attained only by the servant of Jesus who seeks no power of his own, who himself is a brother among brothers submitted to the authority of the Word.

Almighty and most merciful God and Father, through Your only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ, You have established Your Church to be a temple and dwelling place of the Holy Spirit. We give thanks that You continue to provide shepherds to feed and serve Your flock in which the Holy Spirit has made them overseers. We humbly implore You ever to strengthen the labors of Your ministers, that through their ministry of Word and Sacrament Your people may increase in Your knowledge and service and grow up into Him who is the head, even Jesus Christ, to whom, with You and the Holy Spirit, be all glory now and forever. (from Lutheran Service Book:  Agenda, Ordination)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.